Image: © Donna McMaster/wordle.net
Image: © Donna McMaster/wordle.net

MY LIFE IS FULL of meditation: I gassho before I eat. I turn the shower to “cold” before I get out. I visually check the state of the tide in our bay every morning en route to our local coffee shop. I do the New York Times crossword over coffee. My pal Mike and I play pool at our neighborhood bar Monday nights. I take my kayak out on Humboldt Bay several times a week. I usually check the stars (or, more likely, the overcast sky) from the darkness of our hot tub before going to bed. These are my rituals.

Meditation? What’s all that got to do with meditation? Well, it depends how you define it. Strictly speaking, and in the Soto Zen tradition in which I practice, meditation is sitting quietly on a zafu, eyes half-open, mindfully paying attention to my breathing. It starts with a bell ringing and ends with a bell ringing. Kinhin—walking meditation—is an extension of shikantaza, “just sitting.”

That’s what I think of as “formal” meditation, 30 minutes or so a day. Then there are the myriad openings for informal meditation, like those I’ve mentioned above. Pool? Crosswords? Tides? Oh sure, and much more: the daily—hourly, even—opportunities to be mindful, to stop and pay attention, to take a breath of gratitude, to appreciate the Ultimate Fact of Life: I’m here!

For the first two thousand years of its existence, Buddhism was mostly confined to monasteries with strict rules, timetables, and hierarchies. In contrast, Zen in America today finds the majority of its followers in the lay world, where most of us have families, jobs, and homes. Our zendos are places to visit, perhaps daily, but more likely once or twice a week: refuges, perhaps, from the “real world” of money and responsibility.

Along with the “layification” of Zen has come a sharp distinction, for most of us, between meditation and the rest of life. While the monks of old lived and breathed, day in day out, year in year out, in an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation— their entire lives were one unbroken meditation!—we modern practitioners stop what we’re doing when we sit and restart our everyday lives when the bell signals that time’s up. The result of this is an apparent dichotomy: either I’m meditating (on my zafu, often in the zendo, sometimes at home), or I’m not meditating (the rest of the time).

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