In Zen practice, meditation periods are timed by the burning of incense. When the joss stick has burned completely to ash, the meditation is finished. In my own small practice that I’ve kept faithful to for over 45 years, I still burn incense like this every morning.
But not now. The Air Quality Index in San Francisco is 177, a number too high for any kind of outdoor activity and marked “Unhealthy.” The blazing California fires are far away, but one week later, their effect is still being felt and no end in sight. So it doesn’t feel like a good idea to burn incense indoors.
Between the hurricanes and the fires and the epidemic of mass shootings and new levels of corruption, shamelessness, purposeful ignorance in Washington, it indeed is starting to feel like the end of days. Suddenly, the disasters don’t seem like newspaper items far away, but are knocking on everyone’s door. At the recent Orff Conference, one of my Level Training students was from Thousand Oaks and was frantically checking back home to see if his family was okay. The Director of the Orff Association had been evacuated earlier this Fall from her North Carolina home for some three weeks. I was getting reports that flights might not be landing in San Francisco because of the fires and came home to the 6th day of poor air, kids at school kept indoors and me, too.
Still we wake up and get the day ready—what else to do? But it feels like the world is burning around us and it is we that have brought things to this pass. And still do—every day, we keep manufacturing, buying and discarding those plastic water bottles and straws, we drive when we could be busing, biking, walking, we consume unnecessary things in large quantities , we elect people who deny climate change who then appoint people to dismantle regulations.
The Buddhists hold that the world is aflame with impermanence, that all is burning around and within us and that our own extravagant desires are a kind of forest fire of human faculties. (See Buddha’s Fire Sermon for more about this.) Now we have made that all concrete and are breathing the consequences of our carelessness. Much of Buddhist meditation is about following the breath, but now the very act of breathing is making us smoky.
I don’t like reading things like I’m writing here that send me down the rabbit hole of despair. With the recent mid-terms, it’s a time of renewed hope that there still is time to turn around our transgressions against self and nature. But that bright light of faith that we’ll get through this is obscured right now—literally—by the hazy air around us.
That’s something to meditate on. Without incense, of course.