Some possible benefits to doing zazen…

A mourning dove, taking a break.

A mourning dove, taking a break.

Back when I first started going to the zendo, I had a funny experience.

I got to the zendo a bit early, as usual, settled onto a cushion and began zazen. I sat for maybe fifteen minutes before the opening bell rang, and we got up to do the first round of kinhin, or walking meditation. We walk in kind of a long, skinny oval, threading our way through the ground floor of a building that’s about as narrow as a New York building can be.

As I came around the curve on one end, I noticed that Roshi was there, walking at the end of the line, a few people behind me. I hadn’t noticed him, and it sort of shocked me, to see him all of a sudden like that; I knew who he was, but I had never seen him in person before. And then I noticed that, upon seeing him, I felt guilty. Immediately I understood that I felt guilty because I had been thinking about something unrelated to zazen, something having to do with work, probably, thinking very hard about it and not really meditating at all. And then I realized that I had been unconsciously assuming that being a Zen master conferred some kind of psychic power, and that he was reading my mind at that very moment.

I laughed at myself, and reassured myself that practicing Zen doesn’t somehow give you ESP.

But you know, I’m not so sure. I often have the feeling, while listening to Roshi give a talk (called a teisho), that he’s reading my mind and speaking directly to me. This must be a skill developed by long practice at being a teacher, and also that direct mind-to-mind communication that is the heart of Zen. But often, it seems like it’s more than that.

One day last spring, as I walked down to the zendo for a teisho, I was thinking about mourning doves. There’s a pair that lives on my block, and sometimes they sit on my fire escape, to taunt my cats, I think. That week, they were back from wherever they spend their winters. I love mourning doves. They’re the pigeon-shaped birds that are a lovely sort of clay color, much shyer than pigeons, and they have a distinctive call that I remember from earliest childhood. I was seriously giving these birds a lot of thought, as I walked. Then I arrived at the zendo, and got into my robes, and we did zazen, and then kinhin, and then settled down at last for teisho. And the very first thing Roshi mentioned, after he read the text at the beginning, was that they had all noticed, up at the monastery upstate, that the mourning doves were back, and how glad they were, because that meant spring. And one part of me was completely unsurprised, in fact knew that that would be the first thing he talked about. And another part of my mind was just a bit boggled.

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(Press play to hear what a mourning dove sounds like.)

I suppose it’s not that remarkable that two people would be thinking about the same species of bird, in the springtime. But this sort of coincidence happens all the time. Someone at the zendo told a story recently, in which Roshi had talked about how even the placement of the stamp on a letter was important, and then the next day someone arrived at the monastery for a long study period, and mentioned that they knew this monastery was the place where they wanted to study because of how carefully the stamp was placed on the letter they’d received in response to their inquiry.

I’m not saying anyone’s psychic. I’m just sayin’.

Often, now, at the bookstore where I work, if I’m not trying to do this, I know what book someone’s looking for before they ask for it. I don’t mean just the obvious ones, the people who just got finished watching Oprah and want whatever book she was featuring that day. I mean more obscure titles. I don’t think I’m reading their minds; I think my mind has stilled enough that I’m more observant now than I’ve ever been before. I’m paying attention even when I don’t realize it. A couple came up to the desk the other day, and I was looking up “Bartleby the Scrivener” for them before they even spoke to me. I swear I hadn’t heard any of their conversation, but I must have been listening to them unconsciously, and remembered what they were talking about. Not only am I more able now to notice what I’m thinking; now I’m noticing what other people are thinking.

I promise to use my powers only for good.

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