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How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly.”

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic manifesto for the spirit of sauntering, before proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” A century and a half later, Rebecca Solnit picked up the subject in her ambulatory classic: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Perched partway in time between Thoreau and Solnit, Thomas Bernhard twined these sentiments in his exquisite meditation on walking, thinking, and the paradox of self-reflection: “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking.”

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

But what if the peripatetic body could be an instrument not of moving the mind but of stilling the mind in order to apprehend reality, internal and external, more clearly? What if walking could be not a crusade but a consecration?

That, of course, is what Eastern traditions have been doing for millennia. How to do it — how to master the ancient art of walking meditation and incorporate it into a modern life, into your regular rhythm of being — is what the great Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein details in a portion of her funny, poignant, wholly revelatory 1996 field guide to mindfulness practice, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There (public library).

Sylvia Boorstein

Boorstein — who arrived at Buddhism through the portal of political activism in the 1960s and went on to help pioneer the ancient Eastern tradition as a spiritual and psychotherapeutic practice in the West, and whose teachings have transformed my own life — outlines the basic mental and material framework of walking meditation:

Pick a place to walk back and forth that is private and uncomplicated — one where the walking path can be ten to twenty feet long. If you walk outdoors, find a secluded spot so that you won’t feel self-conscious. If you walk indoors, find a furniture-free section of your room or an empty hallway. Then you can devote all your attention to the feelings in your feet as you walk.

Keep in mind that this is attentiveness practice and tranquillity practice, not specialty walking practice. You don’t need to walk in any unusual way. No special balance is needed, no special gracefulness. This is just plain walking. Perhaps at a slower pace than normal, but otherwise, quite ordinary.

Begin your period of practice by standing still for a few moments at one end of your walking path. Close your eyes. Feel your whole body standing. Some people start by focusing their attention on the top of the head, then move their attention along the body through the head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, and end by feeling the sensations of the feet connecting with the earth. Allow your attention to rest on the sensations in the soles of the feet. This is likely to be the feeling of pressure on the feet and perhaps a sense of “soft” or “hard,” depending on where you are standing.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

From this mental launchpad commences the actual movement, the intention of which Boorstein takes care to protect from the momentum of our everyday biped habits:

Begin to walk forward. Keep your eyes open so that you stay balanced. I often begin with a normal strolling pace and expect that the limited scope of the walk, and its repetitious regularity, will naturally ease my body into a slower pace. Slowing down happens all by itself. I think it happens because the mind, with less stimuli to process, shifts into a lower gear. Probably the greed impulse, ever on the lookout for something novel to play with, surrenders when it realizes you’re serious about not going anywhere.

When you walk at a strolling pace, the view is panoramic and descriptive. When your walking slows, the view is more localized and subjective. If we could see running readouts, like subtitles, of the mental notes that accompany walking, they might look like this:

Strolling pace: “Step . . . step . . . step . . . step . . .

arms moving . . . head moving . . . smiling . . . looking . . .

stopping . . . turning . . . bird chirping . . .

stepping . . . stepping . . . wondering what time it is . . .

thinking this is boring . . . stepping . . . stepping . . .

swinging arms . . . feeling warm . . .

feeling cool . . . I’m glad I’m in the shade . . .

deciding to stay in the shade . . . smiling . . . stepping . . .”

Slower pace: “Pressure on feet . . . pressure . . . pressure disappearing . . .

pressure reappearing . . . pressure shifting . . .

lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . .

Hey! Now I’ve got it! Now I’m finally present!. . .

Whoops, I’ve been distracted . . . Start again . . .

Pressure on feet . . . pressure shifting . . . lightness . . .

heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . .

hearing . . . warm . . . cool . . .”

“Go out and walk. It is the glory of life.” Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Boorstein adds an essential disclaimer — a disclaimer and an assurance, necessary for us human animals so conditioned by modern life to overdo, so anxious to overachieve:

Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly. The speed-limit guide for mindful walking is to select the speed at which you are most likely to maintain attention. Shift up or down as necessary.

Aware, with Borges, that time is the substance we are made of, Boorstein ends with a similar antidote to our temporal anxiety:

Start with thirty minutes… Set the timer and begin… As you walk note how many times the impulse to check the time arises. Don’t do it. Just walk. This way, in addition to composure and attentiveness, you get to practice renunciation, a fundamental factor in awakening.

Complement with The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame’s century-old meditation on walking as creative fuel and Lauren Elkin’s marvelous modern-day manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to do hugging meditation and savor Sylvia Boorstein’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s splendid ode to silence.

BP

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

A rhapsody of wonder between the scale of atoms and the scale of minds.

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

When the sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) enrolled in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary — America’s first institution of higher education for women, the “castle of science” where she composed her exquisite forgotten herbarium at the intersection of science and poetry around the time the sole surviving photograph of her was taken — her immersion in language, mathematics, and astronomy began giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood. How she must have marveled at equations that could describe the splendor of galaxies. She would die before the discovery of the electron, but how staggered her pliant young mind must have been to learn that scientists had just proven the existence of atoms — those then-smallest conceivable constituents of matter first imagined by the ancient Greeks two and a half millennia earlier.

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, ca. 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Under the shimmering starscape of this new universe of knowledge, she found herself having “no interest in the all-important subject” of “becom[ing] a Christian.” Soon, she would write in her ravishing love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” The school’s founder and first principal, who divided her pupils into three categories along the spectrum of salvation — the saved; those for whom there was hope; and the “no-hopers” — placed Emily in the third. At the end of her first term, on the day of the Sabbath, she was among seventeen students — “the impenitent,” as the principal called them — who couldn’t readily proclaim that “they would serve the Lord” but instead “felt an uncommon anxiety to decide.” The following day, Emily reported the docility she’d observed, writing to a friend at home with removed reproof: “There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety.” She was far more interested in the arc of knowledge as science was just beginning to bend its gaze past the horizon of old certitudes. What lay there would come to animate a great many of her spare, stunning poems — poems that illuminate the eternal, the elemental, the inevitable through the pinhole of the surprising.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

A century before the advent of particle physics and its deliciously disorienting revelation that we are mostly restlessness and empty space, Dickinson pondered the strangeness of a world so seemingly solid and stable yet governed by such imperceptible precariousness in one of her greatest masterworks at that rare precipice of the surprising and the inevitable. Appearing in Figuring as a bridge figure between the visionary poet and the visionary physicist Lise Meitner — whose groundbreaking unraveling of one of nature’s deepest mysteries was hijacked in the making of the atomic bomb despite Meitner’s refusal to work on the project — Dickinson’s poem was animated into new life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by one of the great poetic voices and deepest seers of our own time: Patti Smith.

Like all of Dickinson’s work, this poem was composed untitled and is numbered 600 in her astounding body of work comprising nearly 2,000 known poems — scholars assign these numbers based on where they are best able to place each poem in the chronology of her life — but it was given a title by the poet’s early posthumous editors, who, in an effort to standardize her poetry into more marketable literature, also took the liberty of razing it of her singular punctuation and capitalization, so deliberate and inseparable from her subtleties of meaning; it took a century to reinstate Dickinson’s artistic intent and embrace her courage of breaking with convention in an unexampled way that atomized the matter of language into entirely new structures of meaning.

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an Atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —

The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?

Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

Patti Smith as a child. (Photographs courtesy of Patti Smith.)

For other highlights of The Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of science through poetry, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory and trouble generations of children into contemplating the cosmic perspective — savor Pioneer Works Director of Sciences and poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of the stunning “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronaut Leland Melvin’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, then revisit Patti Smith’s uncommonly poetic meditation on dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of life.

BP

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a ‘function’ of society.”

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb meditation on Shakespeare. “Art must be life — it must belong to everybody,” Marina Abramović insisted in her artist life manifesto. Since long before Abramović, since long before Baldwin, since long before Shakespeare, the Igbo culture of Nigeria has embodied and enacted the notion that there is poetry — there is art and artistry — in the lives of the people, the ordinary people, unleashed into communal belonging through their ritual of mbari — the ceremonial celebration of the creative spirit, dedicated to the Earth goddess Ala.

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) explores what mbari can teach us about the crucial interleaving of art and society in a long-ago essay titled “Africa and Her Writers,” excerpted and discussed in Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature (public library) — Jonathan Cott’s collection of erudite, sensitive, soaring conversations with such titans of feeling in word and image as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Astrid Lindgren, originally published just before I was born (and reprinted in 2020 with a foreword I had the joy of writing).

Achebe writes of the mbari temple as a spare but striking structure that, despite its simplicity, often becomes “a miracle of artistic achievement — a breathtaking concourse of images in bright, primary colors,” sculpted from Ala’s own material — “simple molded earth.”

Figure of Ala in an mbari. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe describes its making and makers:

Every so many years Ala would instruct the community through her priest to prepare a festival of images in her honor. That night the priest would travel through the town, knocking on many doors to announce to the various household whom of their members Ala had chosen for the great work. These chosen men and women then moved into the seclusion in a forest clearing and, under the instruction and guidance of master artists and craftsmen, began to build a house of images. The work might take a year or even two, but as long as it lasted the workers were deemed to be hallowed and were protected from undue contact from, and distraction by, the larger community.

What emerges from this tradition is the bold, unfussy affirmation that art is not only a form of consciousness accessible to all but a form of citizenship — that the responsibility for its making, the right of its enjoyment, and the dialogue between the two are an essential and natural part of our civic conscience. Achebe writes:

The making of art is not the exclusive concern of a particular caste or secret society. Those young men and women whom the goddess chose for the re-enactment of creation were not “artists.” They were ordinary members of society. Next time around, the choice would fall on other people. Of course, mere nomination would not turn everyman into an artist — not even divine appointment could guarantee it. The discipline, instruction, and guidance of a master artist would be necessary. But not even a conjunction of those two conditions would insure infallibly the emergence of a new, exciting sculptor or painter. But mbari was not looking for that. It was looking for, and saying, something else: There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a “function” of society.

Mbari depicting a maternity clinic with three uniformed nurses attending to a woman in the act of giving birth. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe recognizes that while this notion may be a natural part of the “holistic concern” of traditional societies, it is “abominable heresy in the ears of mystique lovers” — the ego-pricked ears of those who exalt the artist as a special class of citizen, apart from and above the rest of society. With a wry wink, Achebe offers a necessary disclaimer “for their sake and their comfort.” Echoing Thoreau’s distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, he writes:

The idea of mbari does not deny the place or importance of the master with unusual talent and professional experience. Indeed it highlights such gift and competence by bringing them into play on the seminal potentialities of the community. Again, mbari does not deny the need for the creative artist to go apart from time to time so as to commune with himself, to look inwardly into his own soul. For when the festival is over, the villagers return to their normal lives again, and the master artists to their work and contemplation. But they can never after this experience, this creative communal enterprise, become strangers again to one another. And by logical and physical extension the greater community, which comes to the unveiling of the art and then receives is makers again into its normal life, becomes a beneficiary — indeed an active partaker — of this experience.

“Spirit worker” pounding clay from anthills for the apprentice artist to sculpt with. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Complement this slender portion of Cott’s wholly magnificent Pipers at the Gates of Dawn with Achebe on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches and his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin, then revisit Baldwin on what it means to be an artist and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

BP

A Cat: Leonard Michaels’s Playful and Poignant Meditations on the Enigma of Our Feline Companions and How They Reveal Us to Ourselves

“If you think long enough about what you see in a cat, you begin to suppose you will understand everything, but its eyes tell you there is nothing to understand, there is only life.”

A Cat: Leonard Michaels’s Playful and Poignant Meditations on the Enigma of Our Feline Companions and How They Reveal Us to Ourselves

“A cat must have three different names,” T.S. Eliot proclaimed in the iconic verses that became the basis of one of the longest-running and most beloved Broadway musicals of all time. “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better,” Caroline Paul wrote generations later in her gorgeous memoir of finding the meaning of life through a lost cat. Between our longing for love, our urge to name what we barely understand, and our yearning to know the ultimately unknowable lies the eternal allure of the cat as an intimately proximate but impenetrably distant human companion.

That paradoxical pull is what the great short story writer and novelist Leonard Michaels (January 2, 1933–May 10, 2003) explores in one of his least known, loveliest and quietest masterpieces, simply titled A Cat (public library) — a posy of prose poems, of miniature meditations playful and profound, on the imponderable nature of our feline companions, illustrated with consummately expressive line drawings by artist Frances Lerner and brought back to life a quarter century after its original publication with a new introduction by Sigrid Nunez.

Michaels writes:

A cat is content to be a cat.

[…]

Nothing is more at home in the world than a cat. Flowers, compared to a cat, seem too assertive, even vulgar — their peculiar colors, their showy shapes. Sprawled in sunlight, a cat dissolves, pours free of its shape, and becomes one with the ground. Sliding along your leg, it gives you a sense of fusion. A cat makes itself one with anything. It is at home in the world. A cat defines a home.

“There is no terror like that of being known,” Emerson wrote in his journal as he faced his inability to let himself be loved. This, perhaps, is why the knowing gaze of a cat’s enormous alien eyes so penetrates the human soul with a terrifying enchantment. Michaels writes:

Face-to-face with a cat, you see almost no mouth. Its expression is unforthcoming, uncommunicative. Eyes and ears. A tiny, cool, exquisite nose. Without much mouth, the face seems uninterested in eating, and the eyes seem large and salient, as though a cat wants only to observe, to know things. A cat’s whiskers, like exquisite antennae, read the airiest messages.

With great subtlety of insight, Michaels plays with our perennial tendency toward projection — on our lovers, on trees, on “our” cats (which are, in their essence, “not owned by anybody,” as Michaels reminds us):

You look at a cat, and it looks at you. You have the scary idea that a cat is a kind of person. You look more carefully and let the cat’s eyes tell you what it sees. It sees you are a kind of cat.

A cat always looks into your eyes, as if it knows that you see it with your eyes. As if it knows? What a mad idea. A cat doesn’t even know it has eyes, let alone know that it is seeing you with its eyes. And yet it knows, it knows.

There is, of course, the obligatory contrast between a cat and a dog, nowhere more pronounced than in the existential challenge of loneliness. Michaels writes:

When it comes to loneliness, a cat is excellent company. It is a lonely animal. It understands what you feel. A dog also understands, but it makes such a big deal of being there for you, bumping against you, flopping about your feet, licking your face. It keeps saying, “Here I am.” Your loneliness then seems lugubrious. A cat will just be, suffering with you in philosophical silence.

In one of the lushest passages in this tiny gem of a book, Michaels considers the cat’s tail as an appendage of consciousness — the alien, impenetrable consciousness that seems to fold universes of knowing into its modest cortex. Three years after Ursula K. Le Guin observed in her superb essay on beauty, mortality, and growing older that “cats know exactly where they begin and end” and that the tail is “a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship” with space and selfhood, Michaels writes:

The tail of a cat lashes, curls, and swishes slowly. It stands straight up. It vibrates. It blooms before battle and looks three times thicker. It is a flag of feelings — courage, shame, pleasure, fear. It can become the hook of a sickle, or a shepherd’s crook, or a rod, or a plume, or an S, and it can press down to seal a cat’s heinie. It is the poetry and prose of a cat. When a cat is thoughtful, the tail moves like a part of the mind. It is a moody river, a smokey flow. It is a sentence, the material shape of an idea. It is an announcement, a revelation, and an artistic gesture, beautiful even if only to express boredom.

Another passage emerges as a splendid missing verse from poet Mark Strand’s lyrical celebration of clouds:

A cat bunched up and sleepy is like a cumulous cloud. Stretched out on its side, flat along the ground, it is like a stratus cloud. Clouds piled up high are like a great council of cats in silent meditation.

The cat’s great gift, Michaels intimates, is not that of being our silent witness but of being our mirror, revealing us to ourselves in its nondisclosures, revealing the deepest truths in its withholdings:

If you think long enough about what you see in a cat, you begin to suppose you will understand everything, but its eyes tell you there is nothing to understand, there is only life.

Complement the slender and splendid A Cat with The White Cat and the Monk — a lovely ninth-century ode to the joy of companionable purposefulness, newly illustrated — and Muriel Spark on how a cat can boost your creativity, then revisit the lavish Big New Yorker Book of Cats.

BP

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