Meditation Space: White River Junction

White River JCT train yard

When I lived at the meditation center, I liked to visit this cute little Vermont town.  Having lived in cities all my life, I would strain to imagine what it was like to live, day in and day out, in White River Junction.   After dropping someone off at the train station here, I would kick around in the railroad yard in a wistful, longing way.  It hardly seemed possible to actually live in such a place, unless one were either financially independent or willing to live very simply… but ten years and several twists and turns later, here I am, living near White River Junction and frequenting the Shambhala Meditation Center that happens to be located right next to that old train station.

White River Junction: A meeting of the White River and the Connecticut River; a meeting of Interstates 89 and 91; a meeting of trains and buses; a meeting of old and new, rich and poor, nature and artifice; a meeting of me and my mind; a meeting of me and other humans who are meeting their minds.White River JCT Shambhala Center

The meeting of my mind starts the moment I step into the White River Shambhala Center.   Before I can even name what I’m sensing, I’m softened by the earthy red of the hallway walls, the rich warmth of the big wood bench, the flash of flowers in the alcove, and the awkward but direct smile of the person in a blue blazer who is stationed near the door.  Whatever I was worrying about – and there’s always something – instantly falls away.  I’m here, but what’s next?  I’ve come a little late, so I need to sit on a meditation cushion in the hallway until the gatekeeper lets me in.  It’s an awkward few moments, and I see that I have the courage to bear them.  I notice that rushing up those stairs affected my heart rate, and I can feel it slowly settling down.  After a few minutes, I’m ushered into the meditation hall.

I furtively look around to see who else is there.  A few people I recognize, a few I don’t.  The person sitting in front of us by the gong looks back at me, and then her eyes return to their place about four feet in front of her.  I do the same with my eyes.  I start to feel my body on the cushion.  I remember the meditation instruction I’ve been given about posture, breath, and thoughts.  This is starting to feel good.  I’m doing it – I’m meditating!  No matter how many times I’ve brought myself to this place, there is always a feeling that I’ve never done it before – never been here, exactly, before.  Just as I’m starting to get lost in the self-congratulations, there is the sound of a coupling of train cars outside the building, and I really wake up!

White River JCT train yardSometimes on the meditation cushion, the meeting of one’s mind can feel just like that – like two boxcars colliding; other times, it’s more like the meeting of a tributary and a major river, or a merging of traffic on a highway, or a joining of old and new, rich and poor, nature and artifice.  It’s best to just stay curious, as they say, and to relax in the knowledge that, as they also say, it’s all good.  Who is this “they” anyhow?

When I’m on the meditation cushion, I’m also meeting the minds of the many who have gone before me.  Meditation practice is a raw and lonely experience – there’s no one looking, really, which means that there’s no one to blame or to praise for your experience, particularly.  But there is a vast world of beings past and present who have done or who are doing what you are doing right now, and you meet their minds the minute you decide to try to meet your own.  So it’s not entirely lonely, but still, it’s your experience and yours alone.

The person sitting in front rings the gong three times, and a train hoots as if to confirm that the sitting session is over.  Someone tells us about upcoming classes and events at the Center, and then we are strangely free to get up from our cushions.  I’ve been anticipating this moment for much of the sitting session, but now that it’s here I’m a tiny bit sad that my time with myself is over.  We have been invited to stay for cheese and crackers, and I find that, even though I’m usually shy – plus I have lots of other things to do – I do want to linger a moment with the others who have spent their last hour on a cushion in this space.   I’m feeling oddly celebratory.

White River JCT Shambhala CenterThus the meeting of me and others in my community who are committed to meeting their minds.  When we step out of the meditation hall and into the community room, I can feel that my session hasn’t really ended.  There are just more sights, sounds, thoughts, and so on to attend to and let go of.  Some of them are quite beautiful, or tasty, or interesting.  Others make me uncomfortable.  For a while I can remember to meet them all with equanimity.   It is as if my time on the meditation cushion has given me some kind of “equanimity momentum,” and I now get to coast for a while with others who are similarly relaxed.  I recall the Shambhala phrases “ordinary magic” and “enlightened society,” and I wonder if this is it!

A lot goes on at a Shambhala Center.  The offerings – and the opportunities to offer oneself – are incredibly diverse, and they seem to never cease.  At the heart of all this activity, though, are the small and brief meetings that take place moment by moment.  May they be gentle meetings, and may they cause all beings to flourish!

 

Dear High School Senior

Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980
Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980
Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980

Dear Graduate,

What is your dream job? To teach meditation? I understand. That’s what I do. It’s a dream job. But I didn’t start there. I started in Accounting. If Accounting can lead to meditation, it can lead to anything. Congratulations on your diploma. Now you will need a job. My advice for college: study Accounting.

Seriously! OK, I understand. You are young. You want to live your dream. But if you want to dream, you need to sleep. To sleep, you can’t be hungry. To eat, you need a job. It’s a cliché—but if you want a dream job, be a genius. Or, if the genetics haven’t lined up, do what no one else wants to do. Esteemed Senior, I don’t have to tell you, Accounting is way deep into that last category.

Sure, start with Liberal Arts, if you have to. But ask yourself, has understanding post-modernism ever helped anyone? [Dear educated reader, a short comment explaining post-modernism is entirely welcome.] Me, I gave up on the Arts, at least in school. Why? Maybe my world lit professor. He accused me of plagiarism. He thought his class was worth plagiarizing for. On what planet?

Before college I told my Buddhist teacher that I planned to study Buddhism. Instead, he suggested I study business. Now that I know more about Buddhism (and more about myself), I don’t think I was smart enough to study it. My meditation teacher was a wise man.

Then there were the job postings. I graduated in a recession. There weren’t many jobs, but there were jobs in Accounting. And they paid. That settled it. If you’re going to get accused of plagiarism, might as well get a job out of it. I gave up the job of homework for the job of finding a job. Dear Senior, I don’t want to go lowbrow on you, but aren’t you tired of homework?

Where is the meaning, you ask? Accounting has meaning in spades. There is no meaning beyond differences. To know something is to compare it to something else. Differences are made when you add and subtract. Like quantum mechanics, Debits and Credits have to balance, somewhere.

If that is all too much to take in, I understand. Accounting is deep. Debits in the left column, credits in the right. That’s all you need to remember. Graduate, there is a point to life. For accountants, it happens to be a decimal point. We even have our own magazine. It’s called The CPA Journal. It’s not just boring; it’s a vast wasteland. You will need a sense of adventure.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not enough to be bored. You have to be learning. If you’re like me, you will have a lot to learn. If you aren’t learning, you aren’t paying attention. If you’re not paying attention, you’re not working. Terror gets your attention. If you count boredom as terrifying, Accounting has terror in spades. Accounting will get your attention.

Dear Graduate, I see your eyes have glazed over. If you only want to dream, maybe sleep is what you’re really after. Is your dream of success all about you? What about that cute number on the other side of the column? Sure, you’re number one, but where is the romance in that? There are other numbers who could use your help.

Accountants are here to help. Meaningful work is helpful work. Sure, occasionally we overcharge. If the Tax Code was on your Kindle, you’d overcharge too. Accountants are different. We are all about your money. We only overcharge with your permission. That’s helpful.

How long before you can have a real job? A job you love? I’m not sure. According to the philosopher Alain de Botton, the idea of fulfilling work is a modern invention. It was born in the 1800’s, around the same time as the notion that you could be happy in marriage. We can cover relationships later. They start out as dreams too. I’m old, but let me share: sooner or later, love is work.

I got out of accounting after 12 years. Twelve years of boredom, terror, paying the bills and…Well, that was about it. Why did I leave? I have to thank my last boss. He was a chain-smoker; I loved him. I loved him because he was real. His desk didn’t have a computer; it had an ashtray. He consolidated 50 companies using pencil, paper, and an adding machine. (OK, this is ancient history. But back then, real men smoked and knew how to use a pencil.)

My boss would blow smoke rings where they don’t belong, but he never BS’d you and you couldn’t BS him. He was my hero. One morning, I was sitting in his office. The sun was lighting up the curtains behind his desk. He was floating ideas for my next job at this multi-national corporation. I was nodding, but he could tell I wasn’t interested.

“I love making money,” he said, changing the subject after a pause. It was the answer to a question. A question I hadn’t asked. I knew he wasn’t talking about making money for himself. His work had made a lot of shareholders wealthy (it was a public company). He was talking about being helpful.

He stared past me at the wall of his office. He had a way of looking at you like you weren’t there. After another long pull on his cigarette, he finished his thought.  “You have to love what you do.” In that moment, in his office, in suburban New Jersey, realization dawned. Paying attention, being helpful, loving what you do–they could all be the same thing. My training with this hero was over. It was time to move on.

Dear senior, thank you for your attention. Don’t worry too much about your career. All you need to get started is a job that pays bills and makes you to pay attention. Now you know what that job is. When you pay attention you will help somebody. If you help someone, you will find yourself. When you find yourself, you will recognize your dream. In your dream, you won’t be alone. You will be on the left, but others will be on the right. It will be a meaningful dream.

Editor’s Note: Not sure you will be able to pay attention when nothing is happening? Time on a meditation cushion can help you train your mind to do just that.

How to Ask Your Teacher a Question

"The Teacher Listens"

You are attending a meditation class online or a weekend program in your city. Or perhaps you have taken off from work to sit on your zafu cushion for a week retreat at a residential meditation center. The teachings have focused on meditation in everyday life, and now you have a question.

For a moment you hesitate. The last time you asked a teacher a question was in your college algebra class. Somehow this feels different.  For one, you feel a real solidarity with others in your class who are exploring the path of meditation. Some of them may be shy, but you can imagine your classmates benefiting from the answer you’re seeking.

You also wonder if there is an unspoken protocol for questions in the spiritual arena. A rebel at heart, you may be inspired to upset this protocol. On the other hand, you may worry that the question you ask will trouble a certain true believer, a fellow meditator who never seems puzzled by what they hear in the class.

Lastly, as time is limited (even in meditation classes!) you wonder if your query will displace another person’s more pressing and meaningful question. Meditation practice has sensitized you to the preciousness of time and you would regret wasting it for anyone (especially the teacher!). The following guidelines are offered to help you ask a question that moves your class, and your understanding, toward the truth:

 

1.    Keep your Dignity   Remember, having a teacher isn’t just a license for confusion, it’s also a license to wake up. How you ask your question is important. We all have a colorful case history, but your question happens now. Appreciate the moment you and your teacher will share together.

 

2.    Know your Motivation: tell the truth  Rather than revealing anything, sometimes questions keep us from the answers we need. Do you know what are you asking, really? Why ask now? To tell the truth doesn’t mean you have  something to confess. The truth is subtle, it has parts. There is your question, what you are questioning, and the question-er—you. Let your question reveal these three.

 

3.     Give up Complaint  Being unhappy or critical is real, but it may not prove anything. Frustration is a good beginning for a question, but not necessarily a good end. How does your question make you feel and why? Questions are harder when we resent the question itself or are afraid of the answer. No need to over-think it, but if you know how you feel and why, your question can have humor.  If you can’t find the humor, sit with the question for a minute. You may find another question behind it.

 

4.      Know the Answer   A wise teacher once asked, “If you don’t know the answer, how can you ask the question?” The question comes from your heart. Give your heart a chance to answer it. Knowing your answer will give your question depth and energy. Questions aren’t just the teacher’s challenge. Let your question be an offering. If you can share your question and the knowledge of your own heart, your teacher will be inspired to share theirs.

 

5.     Can You Listen?  Sometimes your teacher will speak to your question. Sometimes they will speak directly to you—the person behind the question. Inevitably, your teacher will share their vision. The point isn’t that’s it’s theirs, the point is what this vision inspires in you. The braver your question, the more your teacher will be able to share. Ask for clarification if you need to, but hear how their answer feels.

 

From listening to your heart and words of your teacher, and by spending time on your meditation cushion, you discover that questions contain their own questions, as well as their own answers. Since ultimately the world is our teacher, let this conversation with our teacher celebrate our mutual bravery expressed in the art of contemplating the questions (and answers) we share!