What Goes Around…

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Congratulations everyone. According to the lunar calendar, it is the beginning of a New Year. The fact that the earth turns and winds up where it left off is somehow reassuring. The fact that we have lived to see it is cause for celebration and reflection. The year was a journey. Where did it take us? Older now, our time and how we spend it can only be more important.

In Shambhala, to mark the start of the annual lunar cycle, we distribute a little soft cover calendar called a Practice Book. It is offered to anyone who shows up at a Shambhala Center during the celebration of what we call Shambhala Day. This year Shambhala Day initiates the year of the Iron Hare. It will be celebrated on Saturday, March 5th, 2011.

When Practice Books were first introduced in our community many years ago, I remember being less than thrilled. I can be lazy and forgetful. Why should I remember what happened yesterday, or even this morning? Why keep track of missed chances for meditation, especially when there are seemingly infinite moments to make up those missed sessions? Anyhow, it cramped my style. Sure, obstacles arise between me and my meditation cushion. Is struggling with discipline a failing? Is meditation something I “should” do, rather than something I want to do, when I want to do it?

Many Shambhala Days have gone by. Older, I recognize a reluctance to relax with the moment I’m experiencing now as the driver creating obstacles to sitting practice. I also might remember that there are only so many moments left. Discounting the one moment I have doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than feeling bad about my confusion, whenever it occurs, I make a point of slowing down, relaxing and appreciating my experience as it is: what I see, touch, hear, taste or smell and think—this very moment. After all, it is my present experience itself that I will work with on the meditation cushion, whenever I get there.

What has happened and what is happening now do give real hints as to how we will decide and experience what happens next. Reviewing past entries in my Practice Journal, patterns are revealed. I think to myself, “my goodness, I knew that month was busy, but no time to sit down for 10 days?” Another month, I see that Wednesdays, (the gap day between Monday and Friday perhaps?) show up as the day I finally find a moment to sit on my cushion in a given week.

In addition to daily sessions, group retreats are noted. There is freedom in retreat, but it is a freedom that comes from relaxing without recourse to any other moment. While the intensity of a retreat schedule can be challenging at times, retreats offer clarity in which to take an unvarnished look at experience, mind and life. This year, the retreats I did felt good and real—without much drama.

Of course, I do have dramas and these are documented in my practice book as well. Sometimes a thought won’t leave me alone. Upon reflection, it isn’t the same thought that returns over and over, but what the thought is thinking about presents itself as solid and continuous. This last is something that can’t be said about real things, which seem always to be winding up or winding down.

The pages of a Practice Book are small, so if you’re recording dramas it helps to be pithy. Last December, instead of meditation sessions, some days note the brand names of cars. December 30th shows “Buick,” the 31st shows “Toyota.” I am fixed on the idea of a new car. It’s a long story, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that the reason I’m looking for a different car is mostly because I can. With this freedom, I am free to imagine that the right car will actually take me to a new place in my life, somewhere other than the place I am now. This drama returns over and over.

When this Car-ma hits me, I might dream of models and options, or maybe think of financing, then Quantitative Easing, the Fed’s policy of buying back Treasury Securities; which could drive inflation, which might spike interest rates, suggesting time to borrow, especially if you can lock in a low rate on your new vehicle. Where were we? Oh, yes, Practice Books.

Year after year, thoughts grab the wheel of something they have only imagined. Slowing down and just being in sitting meditation, we see that restless thoughts don’t grab the thing itself—only the idea of the thing. My dream car will never arrive; as a result, it will never take me anywhere.

Needless to say, we have to think about our life and consider the decisions we face. Thoughts aren’t just taxi rides to nowhere. They can wake us up. But to recover from sickness we need to appreciate our underlying health. In the same way, successfully imagining a future moment depends upon seeing the power and potential in the moment we have now. Restless recurring thoughts, however—whether positive or negative—are fixed upon something that doesn’t exist—a moment divorced from this one. They mesmerize us with the promise of a rescue or the threat of a kidnapping. We follow these thoughts, fully expecting to wind up somewhere very different than where we are.

Chasing or chased, whether a dream or a nightmare, thoughts of another moment eventually abandon us in the same place—by the side of a lonely highway, in the dark, in our underwear, disoriented and robbed of our time. Year after year, again and again, wearing out the tread on our tires, they drag us along for a ride to nowhere.

Looking at my  obsession even more closely, there is a deeper truth. It is not so much that I am addicted to the thought of a new car. If you look for them, you can’t even find the thoughts you’re supposed to be attached to. Really, my attachment is to attachment itself. In the language of meditation—a habitual pattern. It goes around.

Sitting in meditation is a journey, but a straightforward one. Meditation works is because it doesn’t have to address new cars or whatever the recurring drama. These preoccupations reflect habits. They pretend to be connected to something, but they are not. Going around and around, like a dog biting its own tail, my desire connects only with itself.

Gently bringing our attention back again and again to the sensation of the breath, we discover a straight path in this present moment, and we do the work of being it (not driving it!) one moment at a time. This journey takes place now. But our past was now once, and the future will be our now someday. Reviewing the entries in our Practice Journal, we review the past and acknowledge the future. The culture of meditation doesn’t discount the importance of the past or future. How could it? Nowness connects them.

If you are like me, you remember well the little work you’ve done and have forgotten all of the work you’ve managed to avoid. My Practice Book tells me when I have been working with my experience in the direct way that is sitting meditation and when, in contrast, my thoughts have been driving me—usually in circles.

Things that go around and around can make ruts.  The circle your car will make is called a turning radius, a specification that tells you, once you’ve set out, how far you go before returning to the same place. Even if we are lost, there is something reassuring about returning to a familiar spot. Of course, it isn’t that nothing has changed—now there is a little less gas in our tank.

Wishing you a very Happy, New and straightforward Year.

Editor’s Note:  Practice Books are available here at Samadhi Store. The page for each month is headed up with a quote about the path of meditation from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Lunar phases, Buddhist holidays and other traditional days of practice and celebration are also noted. BTW, isn’t an Iron Hare what goes around and around the track at a dog race?

Dinner on Me

IMG_0778“Maybe it’s because you were such a sore loser!”

My father’s tone was buoyant. He wasn’t whispering. After a sip of wine he can be buoyant, and as he ages he is more buoyant around his kids. My wife Jeanine and I were there, but this holiday dinner was special. His daughter, my (much) younger sister Maron, was visiting from California with her boyfriend Justin. There were six of us at the table, including my step-mom. Dinner, at a local Thai restaurant in St. Johnsbury Vermont, had just been served.

Both Justin and Maron are PhD candidates at Stanford with promising careers ahead of them. As the oldest brother who didn’t see them much, I wanted to build on what I hoped were earlier positive impressions. Justin knew me as an Acharya, a teacher of meditation in the Shambhala tradition. Was that a career, I found myself wondering?

Outside, the white snow was blowing sideways through the light of a streetlamp, a typical December evening in Vermont. Oh, and yes, my father was talking to (and about) me. Jeanine and I had been discussing how our granddaughters, ages 14 and 12, were getting along.  “How did you and Tony get along?” my sister Maron had asked about my brother and me.

“Well, basically we fought until we were in our mid-teens. Then we kind of patched things up.” Fighting is just what teen siblings do, my response implied. Pops (what I call my Dad sometimes) was inspired to fill in the gaps.

“When you lost a game with your brother,” Pops paused for effect,  “you were such a sore loser!” I couldn’t tell if Pop’s voice was getting louder or it just sounded louder in the intimate confines of the restaurant. Was I imagining, or was Justin, who knew me as the Buddhist Teacher (read: non-violent) older brother, looking confused or even concerned?

Perhaps to speak up for his absent son (Tony and his wife couldn’t make it that night) Pops continued. “If you lost, you would just destroy the game, whatever it was.”

“Older brother’s prerogative,” I said flatly, hoping to deflect attention from the graphic image of my teen-self shredding game equipment, my younger brother helpless as an object of youthful enjoyment was eviscerated before his eyes.

“I remember once, you boys got this gift in the mail. It was a big hockey board game that you played with little hockey players on the end of rods. After you lost a game, you just destroyed that thing. It had to be thrown out. Whenever you lost to Tony, it would just put you in a rage.” Pops never lost his cheerful tone. He seemed to be marveling at the memory.

“Well, that would have been less of an issue if Tony hadn’t beat me at everything,” I replied, trying to salvage this portrait with some sympathetic brush strokes. It was no defense, but it was also no exaggeration. In any one-on-one competition that required concentration and composure under pressure, my younger brother would best me. From tennis to chess, I could never touch him.  I presumed superiority over Tony, born a year later, shorter and skinnier. To be bankrupted by virtue of an unalterable scorecard was, well, (apparently) untenable.

As a teacher of meditation, or anyone working in the world, you need a back-story, a résumé, something to let you and everyone else understand who you are (and why anyone should pay attention to you). I began sitting practice when I was 15. My résumé featured this tender teen on a meditation cushion—the story of a gifted, precocious, even spiritual youngster—not the raging asshole now cheerfully identified between bites of curry.

Caught off guard by my Dad’s revelations, I wondered about my own official history. Had I begun to make the same assumptions about myself that I hoped others would make? To give a full accounting, would my back-story now have to figure in rehabilitation or even intervention?

And doesn’t the picture of someone who brings to the spiritual path a violent craving for superiority cast some doubt on the authenticity of his title and wisdom? How could I distance myself from youthful adventures when the genesis of my meditative discipline dates from the same era? Is a childhood fixation on winning really so different from the effort to maintain an elevated status in a so-called spiritual realm? Even as Pops waxed enthusiastic, wasn’t I worried about how my sister Maron and her boyfriend Justin would see me? Wasn’t I still, all these many years later, playing to win and afraid of losing?

At the restaurant, I looked for a skillful way to close the topic. “You know Pops, as a loving parent, this is the point where you wrap up by finding something positive to say about me as a young person.”

Maybe he had just taken a bite, but Pops didn’t immediately respond. Before the silence got awkward, Justin weighed in. Apparently, he was still listening. Just my luck to have a couple of scholars at the table, I thought to myself. “It sounds like you did a thorough job of destroying the game,” said Justin respectfully, looking me in the eye as he spoke.

“Well, it’s true. When you destroyed that hockey game, you did a very thorough job,” said Pops, reinspired. “That thing took up so much space. I was happy to see it go.”

“That’s it?” I feigned exasperation (or was I feigning?) No longer interested in the past, Pops had turned his full attention to the coconut curry. My positive qualities as a youth would go unexplored.

Perhaps to head-off another uncomfortable silence, my wife Jeanine spoke up. “No wonder you have such a self-esteem problem!” she exclaimed, focusing on what was now an apparently obvious personality defect. It wasn’t clear if Jeanine meant to comment on my troubled past or on the apparent enthusiasm evidenced by my Dad as he exposed, once and for all, my status as the older brother from hell. Never mind that this was the first I’d heard of my “self-esteem problem.” When my WASP family gets together, Jeanine, who is French, struggles to participate in our mysterious ways. I pretended not to hear her.

Artfully, though I’m sure she knew the answer already, my sister Maron asked her boyfriend Justin how he got along with his brothers and sisters. I waited hopefully for a sordid tale that would shift everyone’s attention from my history. If he had brained an annoying sister with her hair dryer, for example, this would have been an excellent time to share that story. Unfortunately, compared to my past, Justin’s disputes with his sisters seemed, well, normal.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that. Expose your past and you expose your present. Outside the darkness around the streetlight was deeper. The snow was still blowing, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I felt the quiet you feel when you discover you’re not quite the person you want to be—and everybody knows it.

The evening ended with cheer and warmth and without revisiting the conversation. Before it was over, I did something I’m often moved to do when dining out with my family. I paid for dinner.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noted that, more often than not, Michael’s dramas feature food? Of course that might be understandable around the holidays. What he has failed to mention here is that Kham’s, the local Thai restaurant, is really good. Even visitors from the big city tell us that. And not to diminish in any way Michael’s generosity toward his family, Kham’s is pretty easy on the pocketbook too.