A New Way to See Ourselves and Our Culture: Fall, and A New School Year, A New Possibility

How do we meet a new season? How do we get our children or ourselves ready for a new school year, or for any moment? Especially this moment. Our world today faces so many threats. It’s changing at a rate none of us can keep pace with. So, besides keeping informed of news and the health of our planet and democracy, what more can we do?


It’s almost the end of August. When I was working, and the end of August was upon me, and night was settling around me⎼ I’d sit on my porch and just listen to crickets and other end of summer sounds. I’d often feel that somehow the summer had passed too quickly and wonder if I was ready for the new semester. And I promised myself I would not waste these last moments. I would make sure I missed none of it. By sitting there with the crickets, letting their song settle inside me, somehow, I felt more prepared for what lay ahead. If I could sit with this moment, I could sit or race with another.


And I’m doing just that even now. It’s 11 years since I retired from teaching secondary school, and I still feel this tension in my belly every year at this time, this dread mixed with excitement. There’s an extra chill in the air today, an extra gentle movement in the leaves, trees, and bushes. Even the sound of cars passing on the road has an unusual quality to it. The colors are sharp. My face, shoulders, and belly quivers. My jaw, the back of my mouth, is tense until I notice a cardinal calling very faintly in an apple tree. Then I relax. And I so love the soft touch of the wind and how it wakes trees and leaves into speech.


We can do all we can to keep informed about the news, but even more we have to stay in touch with our own changes, our inner state, and to those closest to us. And with this powerful strength, we can do so much good.


A Basic Practice:

This is one thing we can do. We can stand or sit still, in a safe place; a place we can remain calm and attentive for a few minutes. And take a breath. We might notice if we will: Are we comfortable where we are, with the weight of our body evenly distributed? How does it feel to simply be right here? Do we want to let our eyes rest and take in what’s around us? Or close them partly or fully?


If we open our mouth or take a breath through our nose, we might notice the taste of the air, how it feels on our tongue? Maybe notice what it is we hear right now? What sounds? What stands out or calls to us? Or what is it we see? What colors? And maybe, where on our body do we respond to these sounds or sights or tastes? In our shoulders, belly, back, legs? How deep is the response? Or maybe, what is the quality of feeling, sharp, heavy, light, like a cloud or a wind? Strong or mild?


If there’s a wind, do we feel the pressure of it on our skin? On our hands? On our belly? Do we hear any bird calls or car sounds only with our ears, or also our face, our toes?


And maybe, if we want, we can notice any thoughts that arise in this moment? How do we feel right now, about a new day, or a new school year? And then we can let the thought go and return to the sound or feel of the wind. The sense of being right here, now, present. The sense that this, this moment⎼ this, I can do.


I was reading a short article in the Fall, 2023 Tricycle by Venerable Jissai Prince-Cherry, about a classic on meditation practice, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, by the Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki. I first read it probably 50 years ago. It is a beloved book of several friends and two of my most respected teachers. Suzuki speaks to us in a manner that makes ignored aspects and possibilities in our lives and values obvious to us. It reveals the intimate reality of our experience. And it gifts us, and our culture, with a new way to see ourselves….


*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

Orienting Ourselves

Every morning when I wake up, I resurrect the world. I check the time, look out the window, remember my schedule. When at home, I especially check up on those I love. I look over to see if my wife is next to me. I look for each of my three cats and worry if one is missing. They have a cat window and go in and out at will. I think of my Dad and other family members. This is, of course, what caring and love entails. But love, especially when it leads to marriage or an ongoing relationship, is much more than the emotion of love. It is part of my identity. It is a way of saying ‘yes’ to the world. So every morning, to orient myself, I check on those I love.


If I don’t find one of our cats, I think of him or her as lost, missing. Lost is an awful place to be. It is a black hole in my consciousness that disorients me. Being lost, or not knowing what has happened, makes my day difficult. I try to fill in the hole with conjectures but can’t quite make any conjecture stick.


We create this disorientation or sense of something missing in many ways. It is one primary way we torment ourselves. I formulate a goal and create a sense of something missing until the goal is achieved. I see something I want and feel the lack of it until I get it. I have a discussion with someone and don’t say all that was in my heart to say, and feel what was unsaid as a missed opportunity or a lie. I have an idea of how my class will go; I have my lesson plan. But if it doesn’t go as I wanted it to or how I thought it should, I feel bad afterwards, or that I am just not as good a teacher as I should be. And then there are the ways other people/institutions treat me or I interpret how they treat me. These lacks are disorienting and knock us off-center.


It is easy to lose sight of how we each orient ourselves. A few years ago, I was on my first visit to Turkey. It was a tour, and we were in a new place every second or third day. I woke up one morning with a sense of panic. I didn’t know where I was. The smells were confusing, and the curtains opposite the bed were clearly not from my home. We think we wake up and are just there, wherever there is, and don’t realize what goes into being there, or here.


In Buddhism, this sense of lack is likened to thirst. When we’re thirsty we feel the pain of missing fluid and nutrients. Our body needs nourishing. But how do we think about our thirst or what story do we tell ourselves about how to fill or end it?


We often try to fill this lack and orient ourselves with beliefs, ideas, identities of all kinds, often stories and images of who we are as somehow separate from the rest of the world. A story can fit elements of the world into a narrative in order to make sense of it all. Space and time are how we lift the story of our self from the pages of memory, emotion and intellect into the three (plus) dimensional world we live. The world is whole and complete. But the story is never complete, and can’t be completed. Reality always far exceeds our ability to imagine, explain, or write about it. To expect any story to fully capture or complete us is doomed to fail, is doomed to add to our sense of thirst, confusion, or of something lacking in us and/or the world.


We might never be able to totally free ourselves from narrating our lives. But since this story making is near the heart of our world, when we slow down our thoughts and aren’t judgmental, we can be aware of what we do and how we do it. We can step out of any particular story of lack but not the reality of how stories are created. Zen teacher Albert Low said: “When we awaken, we do not awaken from the dream; we awaken to the dream.” We can realize ourselves as the story-maker, not just the story; or more accurately, as the act of creating, as well as the creation, a moment when the world speaks, not a separate self. When that happens, we are more clearly oriented and the story that is written is likely a good one, and a loving one.