Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Getting Mindful

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Getting Mindful


It’s everywhere these days, mindful this and mindful that. This is what happens to so many useful concepts– they get appropriated and become corny as hell. Mindful cooking/sewing/parenting/gardening/trumpet playing.
And yet. The concept of mindfulness is real and it is helpful.
Meditation has saved my sanity for decades. I began sitting (what those in the know call meditating, in case you were wondering) when I was 19, a student in the Creative Writing Department of University of British Columbia. I’d moved into the Vancouver Zen Centre after getting to know a man who meditated and after reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. We at the Centre meditated every morning before breakfast in the spartan zendo, gongs ringing, the click-clack of a baton hitting the wooden fish as we chanted Japanese sutras. You couldn’t move when your feet fell asleep in half-lotus nor could you cough or sneeze or sigh. Zen is a strict discipline, which was its great appeal when I was young. The rest of life was chaotic, but meditation was a constant. It was while living in the Zen centre that I received the phone call that began my publishing career: Roy Lowther, poet and publisher of Pegasus magazine had seen some of my work in the Creative Writing department’s worksheets – could he publish a few in Pegasus?
You bet!
Soon after, he was arrested for murdering his wife, poet Pat Lowther, who was teaching poetry in our department at the university.

Somewhere along the line I lost Zen practice– I stopped wanting to toe the line, to be obedient, to endure acute physical discomfort.

A few years ago I found myself visiting Spirit Rock, the Vipassana retreat centre in Marin County, California. Immediately I felt myself passing judgement: all those middle aged women sitting on chairs – way too comfortable. A few were sprawled on the floor, heads resting on pillows, half asleep. For Pete’s sake –where’s the rigor? Half a dozen hardy souls sat cross-legged on zafu cushions up front, near the teacher.

I soon discovered that Vipassana (or ‘Insight’ meditation or ‘mindfulness practice’) was a kinder mode of meditation, suited to Westerners. When our feet fell asleep, we could stretch and move them about. No one would hiss, or clobber you with the kyosaku stick if you made a noise. Thirsty? Sip from your thermos of green tea. Have to pee? Tip- toe out of the room if the need is great. None of this was permitted at the Zen Centre. I grew to like this gentler mode and the dharma talks spoken by regular looking people dressed in pants and sweaters. No black robes. No shaved heads. There was even laughter, and plenty of it. Peering outside the windows of the retreat centre I could see a wild turkey waddle by. This was meditation that wasn’t separate from Life.

Of course the act of sitting quietly for forty minutes was just as hard; the mind is the mind. Thoughts swim through like so many fish, flashing their scales. “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” – to quote the great master, Dr. Seuss.

I’ve taken to using meditation as a transition from the spin of daily life to writing mode. I’m not seeking Nirvana or tremendous insights: I’ll settle for a quiet(er) mind, the calm after the storm, sifting through some of the repetitive brain crud to a deeper place.

A fine teacher is Tara Brach:

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland is the author of A Certain Mr. Takahashi, The Instructor and Exile. Her most recent novel is The Blue Guitar. She lives in Toronto.

Go to Ann Ireland’s Author Page