In what feels like a lifetime ago, I studied as a lay monk at a Zen center in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The path of a lay monk requires a higher level of commitment to practice at the center and at home: basically more sitting, more chanting. As a bonus, I got to wear a nifty light-blue robe, which still hangs in my closet next to my ōryōki set, ceremonial bowls used for taking liturgical meals in the zendo. The bowls are wrapped in a matching cloth napkin painstakingly folded to resemble a lotus flower. The irony that my ego drove me to sign up for a more arduous path escaped me at the time — an inauspicious beginning.
My teacher recognized my attraction to the robe and other monastic trappings and counseled me to beware the “stink of Zen.” Undeterred by his wisdom, I continued my bullish pursuit of the perfect home altar, the best incense to burn, the buckwheat-hull-stuffed cushion, and just the right chime, all of which I was sure would carry me to the seat of the ancients in search of higher ground. The retailers who market to folks like me had to be pleased. In addition to sore knees, those days brought equally powerful moments of bliss and trepidation. I came to realize that my time on the cushion was the easy part. The remaining waking hours, by my estimation fourteen thousand breaths, is where the real work begins.
“Every Breath You Take,” the hit song by the Police, topped the charts for eight weeks in 1983, my senior year in college. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t doing a lot of meditating that year. The title came to feel like an admonishment, and it haunted me with a vengeance during my immersion in the Catskills. The simple idea of sustaining my focus, attention, and commitment at all times was daunting, to say the least, particularly amid our society’s constant seduction to do just the opposite. Over time, however, I recognized examples of it everywhere, notably outside of the zendo: with a child, a spouse, a lover, a friend, a parent, a pet, a place — even a magazine.
My time on the cushion was the easy part. The remaining waking hours . . . is where the real work begins.
In January The Sun will enter its fiftieth year of publication. It’s a time to celebrate, but also to pause with gratitude for the sustained care, focus, and attention brought to bear by many toward an independent, ad-free, reader-supported magazine. I’m reminded of the chant before each meal at the zendo that began, “Ten thousand labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” This is the 564th issue of The Sun. That represents an extraordinary amount of time reading prospective pieces, poring over edits, searching for the perfect photographs, and always trying to deliver the best issue possible. Most important, it represents the time our readers have given to The Sun every year since 1974. Without that, The Sun would have ceased long ago. We are profoundly grateful.
We are grateful you’ve engaged with the writers who have borne witness to the full measure of our human experience, beauty and pain alike — with interviews, stories, essays, and poems that remind us we’re not alone as we walk our path. We are grateful to be able to bring you photographs that depict tender moments of human connection and exhilarating natural beauty — images that carry the words further. We are grateful to be able to give the magazine to those on the far reaches of society: the marginalized, the imprisoned, the impoverished. We are grateful to be able to put the magazine in the hands of teachers working with aspiring young writers and photographers. We are grateful to publish many of you in Readers Write. We are grateful for the opportunity to keep trying to make the magazine better.
If you value what we hope our pages bring to you, please consider making a donation and becoming A Friend of The Sun. Your gift allows us to continue producing a magazine free from distraction: without ads that implore you to buy this or that. Your gift enables us to publish writing and photography that embrace those moments of exquisite beauty and joy alongside those of difficulty and sorrow. Each is necessary to fully experience the other.
I still carry those days at the monastery with me (minus the accessories, fortunately). I’m still confronted with moments of bliss and trepidation. And I still struggle to embrace both, greeting them as my partners in one very long dance — a dance that unfolds each month in the pages of The Sun.
P.S. You can become A Friend of The Sun by mailing your donation in the envelope provided. You can also donate online at thesunmagazine.org/donatenow. Your gift is tax-deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.