What Happens When We’re Not Busy?
When we remove all the commotion, author and researcher Bethany Saltman writes, we are left with a new practice: grappling with our own minds. What happens without distraction? What comes from stillness? From silence? If we are able to ask these questions and confront the feelings that arise, we are given an opportunity to know what it means to be present.
Saltman has some training in this: She lived in a Zen monastery for two years. This time did not teach her how to be chill. It taught her how to live in a pressure cooker. And now she’s teaching us.
For more from Saltman, read her newly published, debut book, Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment. It’s a memoir hinging on science, biography, psychology, and spiritual practice. In it, Saltman takes us on an emotional ride through her reckoning with her past and her family’s future, while sharing tools that we can all use to better understand our life histories and relationships.
Born in the Morning: We’re All in the Moment Now
The alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. I get up and walk to the bathroom, where I brush my teeth and put on yesterday’s workout clothes because I never actually exercised in them. My husband gets up, too, but we move together in silence. I go to the small altar in our room and sit straight-backed on my meditation cushion in the darkness lit by a candle, the sweet pine incense rising up in a rope of grey smoke. I connect to my breath for thirty minutes, coming into my body—my tight chest, my racing thoughts, my dread gathering, then releasing, like rain. By the end of my meditation, a bird chirps. Maybe my husband sits beside me, or maybe he goes downstairs, where he’ll work out before he starts seeing his psychotherapy clients over Zoom in the guest room, face after face before a backdrop of rooms upon rooms.
I go downstairs, where I wipe down all the doorknobs with bleach. I disinfect our phones that lie together in the corner, charging. A year ago, our daughter was woefully phoneless. Today I tend to her technology as though it is her young body, a live thing, and it’s my divine obligation to keep it functioning. And clean. All over the house are her handwritten signs reminding the three of us to: Wash your hands! And: Don’t touch your face!! Though we haven’t left the house in days, I still seek the virus on the banister, on the floor, in the skin of a grape, in order to kill it.
My husband and I met in a Zen monastery over twenty years ago and lived together there for two years. These weeks of staying home with our fourteen-year-old daughter have reminded me of those monastery days. It’s the simplicity, the starkness, the way my nervous system feels—simultaneously relieved of the burden of busyness and excruciatingly sensitive to the minute machinations of my mind.
When the twelfth-century Japanese Zen teacher Eihei Dogen was asked what happens when we die, he replied, “Born in the morning, die at night.”
The endless cycle of birth and death is closer than we think.
After a week of social distancing, I confessed to a friend that this stay-at-home business really suited us. She laughed and said she and her husband and two daughters felt the same way.
“Less fracas,” she said, and we both laughed.
As with life in the monastic cloister, there are no big, clunky transitions in this new world of ours. Instead, our movements are in minutiae. There’s no more going to work, no scrambling to be on time, no lunch-making in the morning or wrangling with backpacks and athletic bags, no coming home all cozy after a drink with girlfriends only to be met by an ice cream dish in the sink, an insult to my perfectionism.
Today, the interruptions of my mind are on a different scale, at the same time larger and more intimate. One friend has to say goodbye to her dying mother over FaceTime. Another friend has to caretake her husband after his affair. Another is at home monitoring her fever after returning from Spain. My daughter and I spend an afternoon delivering food to people in their homes. We call strangers and tell them we’re on our way, then drop plastic bags of food on their doorstep. We were told there’d be masks, but there aren’t, so we meet the world, face-to-face.
This week, I’m too scared to go out because things feel so much worse in New York, and my husband has asthma, so I sign up for some virtual volunteering. Today I won’t go far. After I wake our daughter at 7:30, she’ll eat her cereal as her math class begins. I’ll walk to my office off the kitchen and listen in as her teacher asks the kids how they’re doing. They’ll say, “Tired” or “Okay.” Then he’ll ask them all what they miss, and they’ll say things like “My friends,” or “Going out to eat.” I’ll sit in front of my computer and begin my work of the day, keeping an eye on the numbers as they rise, the red circle around New York, my home for most of the last thirty years, getting bigger and redder.
I find comfort in all this stillness, but sorrow in what the quiet reveals.
While “Zen” has become shorthand for being “chill” or “transcendent,” for those living in a Zen training environment, the words most often used are more like “pressure cooker.” My husband and I lived in a cabin heated by a woodstove, rose in silence at 3:30 a.m., walked down the moonlit stone steps to the main building, where we joined forty or so other residents for morning meditation, then liturgy. Depending on the season, sometimes the silence was lifted for a chatty informal breakfast together in the dining hall. Other times, we moved into other areas of training: body practice, academic study, art, a highly ritualized silent meal. We worked all day long—cleaning toilets, getting the place ready for weekend retreatants. We ate lunch and dinner, cleaned up, then ended the day together in silence. The pace and the constant togetherness often felt grueling. In the monastery, every moment of every day is lived according to the monastic schedule—at least in form, on the outside. How we manage within those constraints is where the practice comes in.
When confronted with rules, limits, boundaries, and hard lines, do we rage, fall asleep, disassociate, blame? Cry? Scream? Give up? Bang on our pans at 7 p.m.? All perfect responses. But then what do we do when the anger subsides, our tears dry up, and it’s 7:05 p.m. and we’re still quarantined and afraid, or sick, and alone?
The Buddha said, “Better to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.”
Austerity is difficult enough when we sign up for it. But it can feel brutal for those of us living together like “rocks in a bag, polishing each other,” which is how monastic residents are often described. What do we do when everything we use to distract ourselves from the fact of our impermanence is taken from us? Not because we signed up for a Zen retreat but because of war or disease?
For a culture endlessly intrigued by mindfulness and by the allure of being truly present, this is our moment. For once, there’s nowhere else to be.
Bethany Saltman is an author, an award-winning editor, and a researcher. Her work can be seen in magazines including The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Atlantic, and Parents. Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment, published in April 2020, is her first book.
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