I Can Practice Zen Meditation – They Call It “Practice” for a Reason

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

The Japanese garden outside sojiji.

Recently I had the fortune to visit Soji-ji, the Head Monastery for the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhist Monks and experience Zen Meditation.  Called Zazen in Japanese, this ancient art is about much more than sitting still; it incorporates awareness of the inner and outer world of each person who practices the art.

Our group had arranged for a special lesson and tour in English, and we were met by two Monk trainees, one who spoke mostly Japanese and the other who translated to us.

Zazen has many small rituals associated with it and it is indeed the small rituals that are repeated over and over again that make the entire form come alive as an art and practice.  For

The meditation room - the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

The meditation room – the monks eat, sleep, pray, meditate and live here.

example, we had to fold our hands for walking down the long corridors of the monastery in a particular position – left hand in a fist facing sideways, with the thumb tucked in, and the right hand covering the left.  The monks held their elbows out, and the Westerners tried to follow suit, but often let their elbows drop toward their sides.

Once we entered one of the small meditation rooms, called Sodo, we had to be silent.  Each person stood in front of one pillow, called a Zafu.  The Zafu sat precisely in the center of one tatami mat on a raised platform.  What I didn’t know at the time was that I was sitting in a place of many purposed.  There is a wooden edging around the tatami, about 6 inches wide, and that’s where the monks eat.  They sleep on that tatami mat.  They do their

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

The Hall of Shining Lights where special ceremonies take place.

meditation on that tatami mat.  They keep their personal items in two drawers against the wall on that tatami mat.  Everything they own, use or need is in that space – the space of one tatami mat, which is a standard measure in Japan, usually around 1.8 meters x .9 meters (6 feet by 1 foot, approximately). It brings a whole new meaning to simplicity and paring down a life.

Our practice began with turning the Zafu so the words stitched on it faced the

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

This is one of many long hallways. The monks in training clean the floors by hand without chemicals twice daily as part of their ritual.

wall.  Then we bowed to the wall, we bowed to the outside, and then, without putting our feet (remember, you’re barefoot for EVERYTHING in Japan) on the wooden edging, we had to get our bottoms on the Zafu and fold our legs.  No easy feat.  We were taught to fold our legs in a few ways while sitting on the Zafu.  Those wearing a skirt were recommended to sit on their knees, the Zafu placed discreetly under them for a minimum of comfort of those knees.

We then had to turn clockwise to face the wall, keeping the Zafu under us.  We had to fold our hands so the left hand sat in the right hand, thumbs lightly touching, forming a small oval. The monks said a few words about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth – very very deeply. We were told to sway slightly to find our center of gravity, then make ourselves still. The gong rang three times and that was it – we were meditating.

My first thought was on the fact that my foot was asleep and felt like a small elephant attached to my ankle.  But recently I had been told that I use my shoulders to breathe instead of my stomach, and I concentrated on making my stomach go in and out.

zen kitchen god

Originally from India, this is the Kitchen God, Daikoku Sonten, who is the first to welcome visitors to the monastery.

There was one bit of flagellation in which I did not participate.  The monk called it a hand of Buddha, and there is one monk assigned to walk up and down the row with a stick, tapping and then making a smack on the shoulder of any person who is falling asleep or otherwise not fully engaged.  One can ask for the hand of Buddha to strike by folding ones hands as if in prayer for a moment, if feeling unengaged, and the person next to me did it twice, causing me to jump with the loud smacking sound.  She said it did not hurt, but I didn’t feel the need to ask for this practice.

Within 15 minutes the gong sounded again and we were done with the first round.  We were told to get up very slowly, and we practiced a bit of walking Zazen, hands folded in walking position, walking in a small square taking only half-steps.  We did that for a moment, then followed the whole procedure a second time for a second round of regular Zazen.

The second time was easier – and shorter – than the first.  My feet stayed firmly awake and my mind stayed fully on the breath.

The monks took us on a full tour after the Zazen practice (pictures abound).  There are so many more things to the monastery – the beautiful rooms of the head abbot, the house of Buddha, which we could not enter, and the gongs sounding for the ceremony of bells that we got to witness for just a moment after being told we were very lucky at that moment – most people don’t get to see it.  We just glimpsed it and got a feel of the heavy ritual that imbues Buddhist worship.  I really feel that we saw a lot, but still just touched the tip of the iceberg of what actually goes on and what there is to see.

Here’s what I learned: the whole rigmarole of getting ready for the practice, from folding the hands to enter the room, to making sure the stitching of the Zafu is in the right direction, is part of the practice, and forces one to begin the process of emptying the mind.  If you are focused on very small details, there’s

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

The main building and entry point of the monastery, Koshakudai. It is build completely of Japanese Cyprus wood.

no room for other thoughts.  Action begets thought.  It’s not about completely emptying the mind; it’s about complete awareness of the mind.  An entering thought should be examined before it’s abandoned.  Concentrate on that throbbing foot.  Thinking about nothing else might make the pain ease.  Then pick another part of the body on which to concentrate.  Relax that part of the body.  Really feel it. Get into it.  Whether it’s your pinky toe or your left hip, actually feeling your body will lead to understanding it.

It’s not perfect, that’s why it’s called practice.  Your mind wanders; your attention deviates.  That’s why it’s called practice – because improvement of mind, body and spirit comes only through practice.



Writing, Editing and um… Cleaning Up The Mess.

clock“There’s a blog post in there somewhere,” said my writing partner, A, after a lengthy and funny conversation about time management, drafting and editing.

Of course she’s right; she’s always right.

The whole discussion started because we both receive the daily email from a group of female writers called “The Girlfriends Book Club.” Some of the entries are truly great –ranging from tips on publication, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, and various other topics including the work/family balance thing.  And then some of the posts are mediocre. But I’m always glad I get them and have the choice to read and learn, or to press the delete button.

The post that really struck A and me was by a woman named Maria Geraci, who discussed her “Secret Time Management Weapon.”  Well what woman wouldn’t want to know about a weapon for managing time??  Geraci, like most writers, has a “day job” – one that she loves. She says that writing completes her as a person, but nursing is part of who she is.  She is lucky to be able to juggle both careers, and she doesn’t take that for granted.  The big piece of advice Geraci offers is that there is value in the fifteen-minute pocket of time.  If you have 15-minutes, she says, you can write one sentence or maybe edit two. Even that little bit counts as progress. It’s all how you take advantage of the increments of time you’re given.

Much of what A and I do with and for each other follows this principle.  With writing, there are no bosses to answer to – no one cares if we spend one hour or one minute on the writing. So we hold each other accountable. Weekly, we each set goals and check in with each other pretty much every day to see if we’ve met the goals or not.  There’s accountability to each other which makes goal setting worthwhile, but we don’t have penalties for each other if goals aren’t met.  Both of us are able to follow this system because one personality trait that we share is how hard we are on ourselves.  Not meeting the goal of the day causes both of us to engage in more self-flagellation than we could ever envision inflicting on each other.

Time management is something A and I also discuss ad nauseum because I am a teacher in my “other” life and she is very active in Japanese/English translation, as well as journalism and other writing-related pursuits, including a recently debuted text book.  We both have kids. So our time is precious and valuable to us and our families.

What was funny about the conversation however, is the different tack we take for writing.  A is a wonderful writer, but she is also a crackerjack editor.  She can labor over a sentence until its perfect, with the result being these beautiful sentences that flow magically into each other to weave a story or article.  I, on the other hand, can spew out 1000 words in an hour without blinking – sometimes more, but when the story is done, so am I.  I don’t mean to denigrate my own writing or anything, but let’s face it: editing and revising are not my strong suits.  I would rather write a great story and hate taking the time to really refine it for the public.  A would like to refine and refine and refine – though she has great ideas, getting them out of her head isn’t always so simple for her.

What that means for time management is that she needs to spend her chunks of time committed to initial writing and I need to schedule dedicated time for editing and revising.  A different type of time management for both of us.

“Yeah,” says A, “Maybe we should pair up.  You puke out the mass and I clean up the mess!”

And this is why I love her.

Fifteen minute chunks of time.  We’re trying it – without the blowing of chunks, of course.  But hey, if you can’t have fun when you’re writing and holding each other accountable, then what’s the point??

These days in the expat community…

My friend has this theory that all expats in Tokyo who were here for the events of March 11, 2011, have some sort of latent Post-traumatic-stress-disorder.  At first I pooh-poohed her idea, but as time as marched on toward the end of the school year for expat kids, I’m embracing it more and more.

Perhaps I say this every year, but this year seems particularly difficult as far as the number of  families that are planning to leave at the end of the school year in June.  In the past two weeks, I have been to a million lunches where it becomes a “last time” sort of sayonara visit together, and I have a lot more to go in the next four weeks until we go.  I’m sure there are official numbers of the shrinkage of the expat community – and I’ve heard numbers up to 20% – but I see anecdotal evidence of it every day.  This is the first full year after the earthquake, and there’s still seismic activity in the expat community, brought on by the economic situation that was exacerbated by the events of 3/11.

According to my friend’s theory, there are 3 types of expats in Tokyo post 3/11.  There are those who dig in their heels, insist that this is their home and they aren’ t leaving.  I admire these people a lot – especially those who do not have one partner who is Asian. They know Japan and they are certain of what is right for them.  And then there are the people who are leaving because of the economy, the job situation, whatever – they’re going.  At least we don’t hear too many people saying that they’re leaving because of radiation fears anymore – or earthquake fears, but that’s another story altogether – we all live with that threat every day, even the Japanese.  But we have to face the reality, as expats, that sometimes the feasibility of living here, which was once so great, is becoming less so.  The exchange rate is down – the yen is too strong – and Tokyo was an expensive city in which to live even before factoring in the exchange rate issues.  The people who work here have to work ridiculous hours because that’s what Japanese business demands, and family life suffers.  And let’s face it, if an employee is unwilling to work the insane 50-60+ hours per week, the firm can find someone who will.  Easily.   So there’s a group that is just throwing in the towel and going home. (Forgive me, dear readers, if you don’t fall into this category if you’re leaving – I’m generalizing to make a point)

Of course then there’s the third group, who says they have no idea when they’re leaving here, but it could be any day or it could be never.  These are the people who are scared.  They live in limbo and they’re watching their friends be decisive and leaving.  It’s a tough space in which to exist, and I fall into this camp.  My husband’s job is great and the kids’ schools are fantastic.  My husband works long hours, and weekends, but that would be happening wherever we are in the world – he’s an attorney. It’s expensive here, I have no idea how long we’ll stay, and some of  my closest friends are leaving.  I can’t help but sit here and wonder: do they know something I don’t?

I do not want to make it sound like I’m sitting around being upset or anything.  I am fine and going about business as usual.  I love living in Tokyo as much as I always have and there are no plans for us to go anywhere as of now.  I have also spent a fair amount of time connecting with friends who ARE staying, and reminding myself that I will indeed have a lovely life to which to return in August.  I am so lucky to know the women that I do, who make my life richer every day.  It’s just that August this year will be different.  It’s always different, but it will be differently different.  Japan and the expat community living in Japan have a lot of work to do to get into the state of New Normal that is coming down the pike.  Uncertainty is never attractive.  But if we can all keep our spirits up, and be aware of our latent PTSD, I think there can be wonderful opportunities afoot as well.  We just have to keep our eyes wide open and jump in with both feet.  No amount of whining is going to make it better or different so my plan is to just embrace it as best I can.  Your support is appreciated.

2012 – Here We Go!

Many bloggers post their New Year resolutions, but I am not going to.  I really only have one goal for the most part and that is: setting realistic expectations.

So much of stress is derived from what we expect from ourselves.  Time and time again it has been proven that women, in particular, are prone to beating themselves up over a job done less than perfectly.  Working moms, of which I am one, feel guilty about so many issues and we forget to have a sense of balance in our lives.  My children are fine; they are no worse for the wear with me working.  So I sometimes forget to remind my daughter to bring her tennis shoes to school on days when she has tennis lessons – she’s 9; shouldn’t she be remembering too?  So in our home, we’re all going to try to take responsibility for each other and for ourselves, and help each other out.  The kids are old enough to understand the concept of taking responsibility and also for looking out for each others’ interests.  While we reconnected in Hawaii, we talked a lot about it.  We are not going to take on projects that cannot be successfully completed within the time-frame, and if one of us has a particularly big project going on, then the rest of us can support the one.  Again, at ages 9 and 12, the kids understand the concepts, and were able to give examples, like a big test or class project, during which they would need extra support from their parents.  My husband has a few business trips coming up this winter and the kids will have to step up helping in the house while he’s away.  I have grading periods during which my husband and the kids will rally around me the same way. Letting go of having clean rooms might be a little harder for me, but I promised to try in the spirit of realistic expectations.

So this year is all about realism, keeping things together, and figuring out ways to keep the stress level down.  It’s also about support and staying connected with the four people who live under this roof.  Bring it on, 2012!

Time Management

Since starting back with teaching this fall, and the kids in two new schools, I’ve had to get used to a few new schedules.  I teach at the high school every day in the mornings and then also Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at Temple University.  After 4pm I like to block off for kid-stuff – shuttling them around and generally being with them.  Sometimes I have that time for myself  if the kids are busy, but generally my days are pretty scheduled.

I start each day around 5:30 with a run or a yoga session, so I’m in bed by 10:30 at the latest.

Here’s the interesting part: my writing efficiency has improved markedly.

Last year I used to regularly have three or four hours at a stretch in which I could write some fiction or other things.  Those long blocks of uninterrupted time are a thing of the past.  Now, if I find myself with a spare ninety minutes, I feel grateful.  And whereas in the past I would fritter away half the spare time on email, or facebook or some useless game, I can now be productive for almost all of those gifted ninety minutes.  My thought process is that I can never tell when I’ll get that time again – I had better use it while I have it.

Am I working hard? Absolutely.  But I’m happier than I’ve been in quite a while, and I also feel so much more productive in almost every area of my life than I used to when I didn’t work outside the home.

Please don’t get me wrong: working is not the be-all and end-all for every woman out there, and I have my share of crappy days, but it really is good for me – the whole thing is improving my outlook on life.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to go make the most of my evening time – a small girl on my couch would like a snuggle.  I’m almost never to busy for that request.

Writing Derailed

As I struggle to get my ducks in a row vis a vis my life and my time, I realize that there are things that I’m not going to be able to stop, and not going to be able to ignore.  Chief among these is my commitment to my children.  My son Bailey is ten and my daughter Sydney is seven, and they are great kids.  (Will someone please remind me that I’ve said this when Sydney leaves the light on in the bathroom or Bailey forgets to bring his homework to school?)  On most days they’re easygoing and as they’re getting older, they’re less and less demanding.  Somehow when they were ages three and seven, I managed to write a dissertation, so writing now ought to be a piece of cake in comparison.

Yet somehow, it’s not.

When they were littler, I would put them to bed at 7 or 7:30pm and they would miraculously stay there all night, leaving me a few hours of writing time.  I had a doctoral committee breathing down my neck and strict deadlines to meet.  I slept between midnight and 7:00am and it was plenty.

Now that they’re getting older, they stay up later and need help with book reports, problem sheets and the like.  They need to be driven to activities, I have to concentrate when I eat meals with them, and there are endless social events surrounding their friends and their friends’ families.  Their school commands my time (in a loving and interested way) and I’ve been a room mother for two years now.

But the worst and most distracting part of parenting now happens in my brain.  I worry about Sydney’s ability to rattle off her times tables.  I worry about Bailey getting along with some of the kids in his class.  I think about the summer and the long break with our family back in the United States – it’s mostly just the kids and me for ten long weeks – my husband will join us for two and a half of it, but not much.  Thinking it through and planning for that time has taken a lot of my brain power lately.  These are serious issues that take up my time and my energy.  But more than my time, they take up my brain-space.

Today, there was just no room for writing or thinking.  None.

It doesn’t happen often, really.  It’s an occasional bout with life when life wins and knocks me for a loop.  Generally I can compartmentalize the issues so that they fade into the background when I’m writing – whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or academic.  But not every day.

Today I gave myself permission to take a long, hot bath with bath salts, followed by some reading.  This was after a one-hour talk with my mother and another one-hour talk with my best friend.  I was able to relax and clear my mind enough to get to some tasks that needed to get done for my charity work.  I got my son’s glasses repaired.  I wrote this blog posting.  Perhaps tonight when the kids go to bed (not ‘til around 9-ish) I will be able to do some editing on my novel.

The great thing about bad days is that they end.  I will go to bed tonight by 11pm and the day will come to a close.  Tomorrow is a fresh start.  Tomorrow, I will be able to shut off the telephone and concentrate on my writing.  Such is the life of a writer who’s a mother.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Time for Writing

Lately I am having an issue with time.  Okay, so it’s not lately.  It’s a normal state of affairs for me.  Last week, my good friend Trish Wooldridge wrote a great posting about the reality of time – keeping track of the things that take up her time.  It really got me to thinking.  I’m not too concerned about the hours I spend on the kids or daily life stuff right now, but I am concerned with the amount of outside activities that take up the time I am supposed to be writing.

I do a lot of volunteer work.  I am on the Executive Committee of the Jewish Community Center here in Tokyo.  I am on the AUW Japan Support Committee and I also do work with another charity called Friends of Child Protection.  This year I’ve been doing some work with the parents’ group of my kids’ school.  I’m the room-mom for my daughter’s class.  I sing in the synagogue choir. Are you wondering yet why I haven’t gotten around to editing my still-in-first-draft novels?

This has all come to my attention more recently as my son’s swim team season kicked into high gear and I have to participate in his carpool a few times a week also, adding to my already-full schedule.

I seem to have an inability to say no.

Well, the buck stops here.  I cannot continue at the pace of sleeping only six or fewer hours a night and still function.  I cannot let my novels fall by the wayside like they have in the past few months.  If I want to be a serious writer, I have to make a commitment to it and concentrate on it.  Writing has to be my full-time job.

For the past two years I have participated in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November.  It’s one of those contests that everyone who finishes, wins.  The objective is to kick start a novel – write 50,000 words in the month.  That’s right, 50,000 words.  I did it two years in a row by canceling the rest of my life.  I worked on the novel alone.  I left a lot of phone calls and emails unreturned, but my friends and family understood.  My husband took awesome care of our kids on the weekends so I could pump out 3,000 words a day.  Somehow I did it.

There is no way I’m going to exist like that on a regular basis – in a vacuum. But something’s gotta give.  My goal is to spend some time over the next week or so figuring out what exactly I am going to remove from my schedule.   Happiness does not equate to a full schedule. Happiness equates to spending time on the things that make me feel good about myself – including things that make me feel productive.

Stay tuned to see how it all works out.  And wish me luck; this is not an easy task.