ASH WEDNESDAY, ZAZEN, AND DOGS
On Sunday mornings, my partner Mick and I usually go for a morning walk, then practice zazen before we make coffee and crack open the Sunday paper. Truffles, our mini dachshund, doesn’t always want to go on walks anymore, so we have started taking her out for a tiny stroll on the street in front of our house when we come back from our own walk. We hope to re-ignite her appetite for being outside. She’s getting old, slowing down. This year, she seems to have lost some of her cold tolerance, so winter walking just isn’t her favorite thing.
This past Sunday, Mick and I took our walk in too-warm-for-a-Minnesota-February sunshine, then got Truffles outside for all of about five minutes before she let us know she preferred being back indoors. Imagine Fred Flintstone putting his feet down to stop his prehistoric car and you'll understand what Truffles does with her little feet.
In we came. As Mick and I headed to our zafus to sit, Truffles trotted along behind us. I could hear her scratching and snuffling as I settled on my cushion. Mick and I had just begun meditating when Truffles sneezed in a perfect “ah-choo” noise - as if someone actually said “ah” then “choo”, both syllables clearly pronounced - and we got the giggles. It was the funniest dog noise we’d ever hear her make.
Once we got ourselves to stop laughing, we continued sitting. As I was trying to move my mind to a calm state, I realized I was so happy after laughing at Truffles that it didn’t matter if I maintained any calm at all. There was joy to be had. And maybe joy and calm can sometimes be the same thing because of how laughter drives all other thoughts out of the way. It puts you right there in that moment.
Thank you, Truffles. If any creature should understand being in the moment, it’s a dog.
Meditation has become an important part of our lives over the past six months. We started sitting when we visited Tassajara last August, and now we try to sit a couple of times a week. Zazen has become one of the ways we take care of ourselves, right along with those daily walks. We’ve tapped into something that suits us, that fills a need for something more spiritual without returning to traditions that we’ve left behind.
Today, on Ash Wednesday, I am thinking about how I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, how Ash Wednesday was a holy day to contemplate the idea that we came from dust and we’ll return to that state after we die. That’s not a particularly comforting thought, but it does intersect with the idea of impermanence that we’ve talked about more often lately. My childhood teachings were often based on the fear of what would happen if I failed. The Zen Buddhist ideas I appreciate now come from a calm place where practice is encouraged and there is no need for fear of failure. That calm spreads into other parts of my day after I meditate. The ongoing practice of keeping myself in the present moment spills over into how much time I spend on social media (it’s much less these days) or worrying about the distant future.
All of this practice is placing its soft touch on how I work. Writing about what’s in front of me has often been the way I create poems, rather than working with abstract, mystical ideas, even though the every day things can get me to those abstract places. As I write new pieces for One Minnesota Writer or for Gyroscope Review, I’m coming at those pieces from a less frazzled place than in past years. I come from a solid, seated position, hands in my lap, no worry about anything turning to dust.
And sometimes I giggle.
Change is good. Calm is healing. Impermanence is a fact. This is what I’m going to keep my head as we move forward through this time of Lent for some, election year madness for some, worry over the state of things for some.
Give yourself a moment to just be still. Then find something that makes you laugh.