“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Day One: Why 108 Days?

The moment one commits oneself, then, Providence moves, too.  All sorts of things occur to help one that would not have otherwise occurred.  A whole stream of events issues from that decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.  Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.  Begin it now!
                                                                                                            Johann Goethe 1749-1832

This June when I returned home to Canton, New York from six months of teaching and traveling in France and India, I was more than ready to get settled in again.  I was eager to spend a lot of time with my husband and our beloved dog, Zoe, both of whom I had missed like mad, but especially Zoe, because Kerry and I spoke almost every day, and we saw each other twice, but the dog did not believe in Skype.  When she heard my voice on the computer, I guess she thought I was on TV, and since we three don’t really like TV I was, for her, just some random, out-of-time voice to tune out.  Perhaps hearing me just confused her and reminded her of our separation.  I can’t speak for her, but for me, being away from my dog made me ache.  I mean this literally: my heart hurt.  And for Zoe, only direct physical contact matters.  I suppose that’s true with most animals, although I have a colleague who swears her bunny’s ears perk up when she speaks to him on videophone. 

What I was looking for when I came home was the same thing I look for when I travel: moments when I am fully present, a quality of mindfulness in which I am happy to be where I am and can invest in this place and this chunk of time, however briefly, with my full powers of alertness and concentration.  The main character in my novel-in-progress (who happens to be a travel writer who spends a lot of time in France) calls these moments “concrete markers of stop-time radiance,” which for me, because I’m a writer who reads for imagery, usually live on in pictures like the snapshots in a travel photo album:  the pink stone street beneath my chair at the outdoor café in Cassis where I covered my sweater with croissant crumbs while I watched motorcycle mamas cheek-kiss before they ordered their daily espressos; the collie tied to a bench who pulled the rope tautly toward the square as she waited for her human companion, who happened to be a fragrant clochard, a street person, who was off buying cheese at the public market; the elephant led on a chain by a man in a dhoti in Kerala who swatted flies with her tail; Tibetan Buddhist monks in wine and saffron-colored robes playing badminton under a pine tree filled with spying monkeys in a walled stucco courtyard, outside of which cows lounged on broken concrete grazing on garbage; a group of women keeping purdah in Rajasthan singing a song of welcome to my students and me from beneath their orange veils.

So how, at home, if you don’t live in a place where partaking in daily joie de vivre rituals in zinc cafés are the civil religion, or where monks and elephants and cows and monkeys bed down beside each other in a landscape redolent of incense and garbage, can you find those moments of stop-time radiance?  Could I invest each day of my life in Canton, New York with the same powers of alertness I brought to my days in France and India?

What I was after, I guess, is what we call the sacredness of everyday life—what Scott Russell Sanders calls “the force of spirit.”  In his moving title essay in a collection by this title, Sanders drives with his wife to visit her father, who is dying, and notices everything out the window through their not-sublime but no less beloved Indiana landscape: fields of corn, cloud formations, a brilliant sky.  And he feels his love for his family and for the landscape where they make their lives with a force of nature that is not unlike that magnetic pull that leads geese in formation across the sky or a sudden wind that reveals the underside of leaves.

That’s what life fully lived is like for me: it pulses with energy.  And in that time and place love is a power akin to the magnetic forces at play in the natural world.  A place where every instant, no matter how seemingly ordinary, can be very moving.  Where magic gets mixed up with the mundane.  Or, as we say about good short stories, where the ordinary becomes strange and the strange becomes ordinary. 

But you have to feel those moments in the present tense.  I have a memoirist’s tendency toward nostalgia: the past glimmers with a dark radiance it didn’t always have at the time.  And, sadly, I have spent much of my life planning/planning/planning: living for a mythical future that, when it arrived, failed to deliver its promise because I was still planning for something still further out, out of reach.

A life fully lived is the life I’ve always imagined I would be enjoying if I weren’t so darn busy. I don’t think a good life is a life chock-full of events.  It’s more about slowing down a little and noticing what’s right around you in the picture you would take if you were taking one.

You see, my other problem is that I’m, well, kind of a space case.  The absent-minded professor type who loses her keys and gets locked out of her office on the day she has 12 back-to-back student conferences planned.  Our garage door is dented because of the time I was in such a rush to get to campus that I drove into it before I’d remembered to, er, open it.  That battered-up thing is a daily reminder for me to be present, to slow down and breathe.  Once, about 15 years ago, I was in such a hurry to get to an appointment that I put my purse on my car while I fumbled through it to find my keys, then left the thing on the hood and drove off.  When I realized my mistake and drove back to our street, two people, both of them strangers to each other, had become a team trying to retrieve all the things of mine that had scattered to the wind: credit cards, lipsticks, hairbrush, mints, journal.  That anecdote also says something about the kindness of my neighbors in our small town—but that’s a story for another time.

These days, these middle-aged person-who-is-not-in-a-hurry-to-be-officially-old days, I’m not nearly as frantic as I was as a young, angsty English professor, but I still have to remind myself all the time to slow down and breathe, to be present.  I don’t thrive on speed; I’m not one of those people who was designed for the 21st century and its pace.  I’m a letter-writer, ambler, bicyclist—the kind with a basket you could put a dog in, and no gears.  I didn’t learn to drive until I was 33 years old and I think I was the last person in North America to buy a cell phone.  I use the Internet every day but I’m happiest when I take a break from it and just talk to the people I need to talk to face to face.  The rapid pace in which we lead our lives feels like a kind of violence to me, and multi-tasking, which I can manage adequately on certain days (you know, the laundry goes in while the soup pot simmers and you answer e-mails from students and friends while planning when to work out and when to work on the book and when to grade the papers and when to walk the dog and when to make that trip to Potsdam for dog food and co-op bread) is something I will do because I must, but in my ideal world, I would do one thing at a time, enjoy it, commit to it fully, and do it well. (Okay, maybe the pot could be on the stove the whole time.)

For years I’ve had a sporadic meditation practice that helps me concentrate on what I need to concentrate.  It calms my mind, helps me feel my body rooted to the chair, and slows my nervous system down enough to get me through the day without drama.  But when I came back from my travels, I wanted to deepen my practice.

I have to do it every day, I told myself.  That voice came in sure and clear and loud—as certain as anything I’ve ever known in my life.  But wait, my inner skeptic balked.  Let’s be realistic here: I don’t do anything every day except eat and sleep and walk the dog, and sometimes I skip the sleeping part.  I’m a rebel who rebels against her own regimes.  Put me on a diet and I will break it by week 3.  Put me on a too-strict exercise routine and I’ll find 108 reasons not to go to the gym.  I’m someone who loves self-invention and self-remodeling schemes, who really wants to be good, but has the spirit of an anarchist.

So then I heard this idea from my friends Cathy and Jenny about “The 108 days.”  They are both people who are drawn to Buddhism and they had taught together (I stole the Goethe quote from them) and had challenged their students to commit to creating an art project that they would work on for a few minutes every single day.  Their handout of instructions was titled “Being In the Present: A Daily Practice on Mindfulness.” 
These wise women wrote:

You can work on it for as long or as little as you would like each day, but it needs to be a daily practice.  . . . During this time, we will discuss what it means to have a daily practice, and what it means to be “in the present moment.” 

When you choose an activity, keep it simple—something you can do easily and at a moment’s notice.  Don’t choose something that requires an elaborate set-up or traveling to a distant building.  It may even be something you do while you listen to music, or while you hang out with friends.  Notice your level of engagement with the project when you’re doing it alone, or when you’re with others.

Cathy and Jenny only required that the students work every day at something—knitting, making a collage, writing a story—for a month.  Hey, they’re students.  But the duo explained to me that the real deal is to do something for 108 straight days, which is a number sacred to Buddhists.

And I listened to them and I said, Hey, c’est moi.  I’m doing this.  I’m going to meditate for 108 days straight for at least 10 minutes, and write in my journal for at least 10 minutes about my life in the present tense.  I can go much longer for each activity if I want to, but the 10-10 minimum is a must.

And so I did it.  Squirrelly, fidgety, excessively future-oriented, monkey-mind me got my ass on the chair every day for 108 days to meditate and then write a few pages by hand in my composition books.  Even when it meant going out there to my writing/yoga/meditation studio (to be discussed) at 5:30 AM.

And some things happened that I’m going to write about in this blog. Most of the shifts were subtle.  But some of them—I hope—are the harbingers of positive, life-altering change.

I started in mid-August and finished a few days ago, on December 3.  In that time period my beloved dog, Zoe, was diagnosed with cancer (on day 14 of the 108 days), a friend of 20 years discovered she had a brain tumor (on day 108), a few people from my long-distant past came back into my life, and I taught three and a half courses at St. Lawrence University, and I’ve somehow managed to show up for all of these events, even the devastating moments of deep sorrow, with glimmers of equanimity and alertness.  And sometimes in these 108 days, despite living with my beloved dog’s mortality and the awareness of how fragile life is for all of us, I have felt a joy I’ve never known before.  Not for long periods of time.  Not dance-in-the-street joy.  Not Dionysian bliss.  But something like the pulse that thrums through your veins when you are living with your heart fully open.  Open in a way it hasn’t been before.  That’s the “love” in my subtitle, I guess—says the shy college professor who is also a little too in love with ideas, and with words.

And now I’m on Day One of another 108 days.  And instead of writing only in my journal about the process, I’m taking it to the streets.  Well, this blog.  It’s a bizarre thing for me to do.  I’m a very private person.  But somehow it feels right.

So why 108?

I’ve always known that 108 is a sacred number for Buddhists and that there are 108 beads on their wooden malas (the Buddhist rosary) and that if you go to a Buddhist temple you’ll be invited to twirl around 108 prayer wheels, but I’ve never known all the reasons why that number is so important.  Only that some kind of numerical system is at play here—picture Indian men in saffron-stained white dhotis and turbans fingering a wooden necklace that is half-abacus, half-mala—and that the numbers 1 0 and 8 add up to 9, the number of completion, and that these ancient Indian genius mathematicians thought that a number that took the powers of 1, 2, and 3 in sequence (1 to 1st power is 1, 2 squared is 4, 3 to the 3rd power is 27; multiple the three numbers and you get 108) had to be wow-level significant.

Today I read these cool facts:

Followers use 108 beads in their malas. They implement the following formula:
6 x 3 x 2 x3 = 108
6 senses [sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought]
3 aspects of time [past, present, future]
2 condition of heart [pure or impure]
3 possibilities of sentiment [like, dislike, indifference]

All Buddhists accept the Buddha Footprint with its 108 Auspicious Illustrations. These areas are considered to have been marked on the Buddha’s left foot when his body was discovered.

The Sanskrit alphabet has 54 letters, and each is feminine and masculine, so you double the 54 to get 108, and the wholeness of all language for all of existence (from an Indian-centric point of view!) is there for you to embrace.

In 2000, when I made my first trip to India (with six other women I teach with at St. Lawrence University), and this June, when I headed north with two of my students to do research for my travel memoir-in-progress, On Temple Road, at Macleod Ganj, the village in the Himalayas where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, I was very attracted to those 108 prayer wheels that circle the temple.  I twirled and twirled them until my fingers were calloused.  Back then I couldn’t say why.

Elizabeth Gilbert organizes her memoir about travels in Italy, France, and Indonesia, Eat, Pray, Love, into 108 short chapters and her explanation of why, in the introduction, is worth re-reading even if you have already read her book and scene the movie like I have.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, organizes a recent book, Comfortable with Uncertainty (which could easily be my blog’s subtitle as the uncertainties in my life start to mount up) into 108 teachings.

The list goes on and on and I hope readers will share their knowledge about the significance of 108.

And I dare you: commit to 108 days in a row of something good you want to bring into your life, something do-able.  And write in to this blog to tell the tale.

So today was my first day of this blog.  The second series of 108 days begins.  Tomorrow I will write about my meditation practice itself, and maybe a little more about what I learned in the first 108 days.  And I promise not to take up so much time here tomorrow.   Because part of my mission here is to find ways to stretch time—to make it last, not disappear in a blink.  So I’ll end with those lines from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” that some of us memorized in high school or college.  In my 108 days and this blog, “Winter With Zoe: 108 Meditations on Love, Dogs, and Mortality” I am hoping
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Namaste.  And good day, gentle readers.  Good day.

No comments:

Post a Comment