BARRY GRAHAM, author of books including THE BOOK OF MAN (an American Library Association best book of the year), THE WRONG THING (finalist for SPINETINGLER MAGAZINE best novel of the year), WHEN IT ALL COMES DOWN TO DUST (a MYSTERY PEOPLE best book of the year) and KILL YOUR SELF: LIFE AFTER EGO, an Amazon Kindle bestseller in the Zen category.

Pico Iyer thinks meditation is a gated community. He’s wrong.

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I like much of Pico Iyer’s writing, but, as this article reminds me, he regards contemplative practice as the domain of the 1%. Like another elitist/classist, Thich Nhat Hanh, he either assumes that everyone has the money and leisure to attend retreats, or else he is only interested in addressing those who do.

In saying that in response to emotional hurt we should go to a “retreat house,” Iyer seems to forget that for most people a day of devastating sadness or grief has something in common with most other days—work that must be done, bills that must be paid, children to be taken care of, the everyday struggle to survive.

What Iyer calls “the emergency room for the soul” must be found where we are, not in some distant, silent location. (I’m skeptical of his claims about silence, anyway; in silent retreats, I’ve experienced neither silence nor retreat, but found that the mind produces the loudest noise.) Stillness is something that must be found in movement, silence in noise, peace in anger, calm in stress. 

I had a Zen student who lived in poverty in a big city. He had no car, and his job was a 90-minute bus ride from where he lived. He told me he didn’t have time to sit in meditation for very long in the mornings and evenings—he just had time to eat and get enough sleep. I told him that the bus, where he spent a total of three hours a day, was his zendo, the place where he could practice, could sit still and pay attention, could notice his breathing or sit with a koan.

Almost anyplace in any city can be your zendo. Meditation is not a vacation, it’s work. And it’s a matter of life and death, not a hobby for rich people.

Zen and The Wire

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In the great TV series The Wire, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin has a habit of randomly asking his police officers: “Where are you right now?” When he asks, he expects them to be able to give their precise location - the street corner or address, the floor of the building, the compass direction they’re facing. 

It’s a good question for the Zen practitioner, especially if applied to more than geographic location.

Where are you? Who are you? What makes it “here”? What makes it “you”?

A note on what is

Image: Ryan McGuire

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I read accounts of people meditating who notice a bird, butterfly, moth, or other pleasant creature (not a rat or cockroach) and decide that it’s a deceased loved one visiting in another form. This kind of magical thinking seems to me to deny the suchness of both the dead person and the living creature. When we project a personal, self-centered story onto life as it is, we miss the birdness of the bird, bird-nature, butterfly-nature, moth-nature, the Buddha nature of what is.