Michael Greenleaf is an Acharya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. He also volunteers his time at the non profit Samadhi Cushions, working on marketing and internet issues. Michael is a member of the core faculty for Mukpo Institute, a residential program of meditation practice and study at the retreat center Karme Choling in Northern Vermont. Michael writes to share and loves to hear from his readers, appreciating every comment that is posted in response to his blog.
How to meditate? Different traditions answer that question differently. In Buddhist mindfulness, you start by focusing your attention on the breath. The Buddha himself gave instruction on this breath meditation in the Anapanasatti Sutra.
According to this Sutra, or discourse by the Buddha, there are steps along the path of mindfulness. The way to begin, however, is to be aware of the breath−or more precisely−the sensation of the body breathing. Meditation Practice could start in many ways, but we are already in the habit of relating to our body (and happily, we are breathing). So the breath is a natural and familiar focus for gathering the mind.
In the sutra, even before the Buddha gives instructions on how to meditate, he gives advice on preparing to practice. In other words, even in beginning meditation, there is a way to begin.
These days, everyone’s talking about the reasons to practice mindfulness. What about the reasons that make meditating a bad idea? Below, from my own experience, are 10 reasons NOT to practice sitting meditation:
The $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.
“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”
“Oh, I know, Uncle Seward, there is one other thing…”
We were finishing a late breakfast in the Gallery, the small, upholstered room at the Hotel Carlyle, on Manhattan’s upper east side. We were the only ones there. A successful artist and heir of a wealthy family, Uncle Seward calls the hotel home when he’s in the city, which he was this weekend. Ordering his eggs, he also ordered a rye whiskey on the rocks.
Continued from Part I: The next day our van and driver met us at our hotel in Old Havana to take us to the south side. On the way there was the usual stream of vintage American cars from the 1950’s. (Their original motors long gone, these cars were now powered by engines from Hyundai and Mercedes.) The traffic included noisy diesel trucks, and along the shoulder of the busy boulevard, the occasional donkey pulling a wooden wagon full of people and goods. Near our (relatively) posh hotel in Old Havana, animal powered carriages ferried only tourists.
After a 20-minute ride, we turned down a dusty neighborhood street with chunks of pavement missing. Ernesto asked a neighbor and then a passerby for directions. After a couple more turns, the van pulled up in front of small iron gate in the middle of a nondescript cement wall. Our driver, impassive until now, looked concerned. He let Ernesto know that he would stay with the van.
Stepping Through a Gate
Led by Jeanine, we piled out and walked through the narrow opening, the gate creaking behind us. To our astonishment, beyond the wall was a small leafy Zen style garden and pool. Various bonsai were on display. There was a feeling of calm and tranquility. Ernesto surveyed the scene in disbelief.
The Sensei, smiling, was standing in the garden in front of the entrance to the dojo. Serene, with a modest air about him, he was average height, but broad, dressed casually in an open shirt and jeans. “Sensei’s chest is a brick wall,” I thought, reflecting on a sense of immovability. A couple of his students in their late teens or early twenties looked on with curiosity.
We were led inside the dojo, a simple concrete room with a big mat secured by wire hooks into a cement floor. On the walls hung Japanese calligraphy, pictures of Japanese lineage figures, and wooden practice swords. High, unprotected openings in the cement let the light in.
The Story of a Dojo
“This house used to be abandoned,” the Sensei began explaining in Spanish. Ernesto, useless as a guide, slipped into the role of translator. “We asked for permission from the city to make it a dojo. I wanted to offer the kids in the neighborhood something. In this dojo we don’t teach sports martial arts, we teach mind martial arts — the way of Bushido. We want the young people to learn humility, honesty, courage, and decency. From the perspective of our tradition, the true Way has nothing to do with arrogance or egotism.”
As he spoke, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Jeanine was beaming. This distinction between “sport training” and “mind training” was familiar to us from the late Shibata Sensei, who taught Kyudo, or Japanese Archery, to the Shambhala community.
In response, Jeanine shared our appreciation for Shibata Sensei and the love and respect Shambhala’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa had for him as well as the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. Chiming in, I added that our own teacher, Sakyong Mipham, was a student of Shibata Sensei himself, and that in Shambhala we practiced not only Kyudo, but also Ikebana or the Way of Flowers, and Cha-Do or the Way of Tea. At the center of our discipline, I added, was Zazen, or sitting meditation. You could feel Sensei listening as our words were translated.
In his hands, the Sensei was holding a book. In response, he held it up. “Cuban scholars have made connections between the philosophy of the Cuban poet/revolutionary Jose Marti [the ‘apostle’ of an independent Cuba–ed.] and the code of Bushido,” he explained earnestly. “Marti’s dedication to others is what I want to teach the young people here.” It was clear that the Sensei traced his lineage both to Jose Marti, as well as to the Japanese immigrants who had brought martial arts to Cuba.
Time for an Offering
As it came time to leave, I overhead my wife asking herself, “what can we offer?” Suddenly, “I know! I know!” From her purse Jeanine pulled out a small red booklet entitled The Six Ways of Ruling. “Michael, you should give him this.”
Cueing Ernesto that a presentation was coming, I held up the booklet toward Sensei in a gesture of offering. “In the Shambhala tradition,” I began, “the practitioner is understood to possess inherent dignity, like a king or queen. There is a Way of uncovering this dignity which we call the Path of Warriorship.”
“Warriorship in this case is not about waging war, but about rulership, riding the energy of life. The practitioner of this path embraces rulership out of dedication to others. The six ways of ruling are: benevolent, true, genuine, fearless, artful and rejoicing.” I named each quality, pausing to give Ernesto a chance to find the correct word in Spanish, adding as I went, a short explanation for each one.
Hearing the 6 Ways of Ruling, the Sensei was smiling broadly. In this moment we realized our kinship. As I presented the booklet, Jeanine apologized for its worn corners.
“The fact that it’s worn means it has your soul in it—making it an even more significant gift,” the Sensei replied with feeling. As we were leaving, Jeanine asked if there was something the dojo could use from Samadhi Store, pointing out that we carry temple gongs and other products from Japan.
“The thing we could use the most is for you to return and visit us again,” said the Sensei with warmth and sincerity. We said our goodbyes, pledging a return visit. On our way out, Jeanine made an offering of pesos to the upkeep of the dojo, bowing as she placed an envelope on the alter. The iron gate clanking behind us, we were greeted by our van and driver, who looked both happy to see us and ready to be moving on.
In Havana we never had a kosher meal or visited a synagogue. The Buddhist Meditation center did indeed appear not to exist. But by following instincts, at the end of a broken and dusty street on the south side of town, we discovered a Sensei practicing and teaching the path of warriorship. This chance encounter was also one of the ways we met the requirements of our license to visit Cuba.
“So, today you will enjoy a kosher lunch, followed by a trip to the synagogue…” our guide looked at us blankly, waiting for a reaction.
Jeanine Greenleaf, the President of Samadhi Cushions and I, her husband, were in Cuba, traveling under the auspices of Shambhala. Our granddaughter Camille, a high school senior with four years of Spanish, would serve as a translator.
Jeanine’s daughter Isabelle and our younger granddaughter Sophie would join us from France. As French citizens, they didn’t need a special purpose to visit Cuba, but they were open to the requirements of our fact-finding journey to the communist country.
“A kosher meal and a trip to the synagogue?” Jeanine asked quizzically. Our van had just pulled up to the restaurant; presumably the kosher meal preparations were already underway.
“Yes, that’s what’s on the itinerary.” Said Ernesto, again without expression.
The day before, at the charter desk in Miami, our boarding passes for the hour-long flight to Havana had been stamped “Documents in Order”. Our General License—the one that allowed us to travel to Cuba legally—identified our purpose for the trip. The letter from the secretary of our organization stated that we would be exploring how Buddhism could impact the historically Catholic population.
Evidently, the tour company providing the van and guide had misread our letter. It turns out there is a small Jewish community in Havana. Jeanine smiled. “No, not Jewish—Buddhist. We are Buddhists in the Shambhala Tradition. So we don’t require a kosher meal or a trip to the synagogue. While that might be interesting, isn’t the goal of our trip. Rather than a synagogue, we need to visit a meditation center—a Buddhist meditation center.”
“Ah,” said Ernesto dispassionately. He looked up to think while scratching a day old growth of a beard. “That could be hard, I don’t think there is one.” Ernesto was a smart, urbane, educated, well-read and articulate young man of 30, with excellent English, French and Italian. As an employee of the tour company, he was also a government worker. The government owns all of the tour companies in Cuba.
“Let me make some phone calls, I will find out,“ he offered hopefully. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh fish at the restaurant, which was half-independent and half government-owned, not an atypical arrangement in the communist country. After lunch, Ernesto informed us that there was a group practicing “Vi-Vi-pa…” I finished the word for him, “Vipashyana?”
“Yes, that’s it. They meet every other Sunday in Havana. But they are not meeting this Sunday.” (In the intervening Sunday, the one upcoming, the venue hosted a yoga group.) Vipashyana would have to wait.
After lunch we stopped by a community arts center in the neighborhood. Once inside, Jeanine struck up a conversation with one of the artists whose work was on display. Camille assisted in translation. Jeanine explained our quest to visit the apparently non-existent Buddhist Meditation center in Cuba.
“Well, I’m a member of a Dojo. My son goes too. You should visit and meet the Sensei. Come tomorrow.” The painter, a lively gentleman with bright blue eyes, wrote out his cell number and handed it with some explanation to Ernesto.
Back in the van, Ernesto looked anxious. The “Dojo” (pronounced “doyo”) was on the south side of Havana in a poor neighborhood. “The Sen-sei?” He asked, pronouncing the word for the first time. “I’m not sure if we can go there.” (Later we found out that our guide was required to report and explain all tour changes to his supervisor.)
“We are going there,” Jeanine declared, ignoring Ernesto’s hesitation. Jeanine had a good feeling about the painter, who was warm and open. “The Sensei saved my life,” he had shared, hinting at story that would go untold.
I have two teenage granddaughters. Recently, one of them found herself in trouble. Then she lied about it. Her trouble deepened. Fully acknowledging the mysteries of transitioning to adulthood, as well as the hypocrisy of those who claim to utter only the truth, I nevertheless felt moved to put in a plug for things as they are.
There is much that could be said, but no time to say it. For all of us, choices between the truth and something else are being made everyday. “Life will go better for you if you tell the truth,” I say to my granddaughter with urgency, knowing full well that dictums from an old man might not be enough.
Inspired by the wisdom and example of my meditationteachers, and to combat the notion that the truth, like a lie, could possibly be avoided, I offer here seven reasons to tell the truth.
1. The truth can help. To quote Will Rogers, “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” Lies require more lies, more digging. You may not want anyone to know you’re in a hole, but it’s hard to overcome in private what you deny in public. To climb out of a pit, you have to admit you’re in one. If a part of you is sunk, a part of you isn’t. That’s the part that can quit digging. If you’re down, telling the truth is like asking for help, when you do, options present themselves.
2. The truth plugs you in. The ‘well-connected’ aren’t diminished by being part of something. When you understand the ways in which we all connect, you aren’t afraid to share your thoughts and feelings with others. If you don’t share, you unplug from the community around you. Sharing brings trust. Trust brings communication and exchange. Exchange makes the world go around.
3. The truth is a lesson. Our mistakes teach us. How else are you supposed to learn? If you are afraid to admit mistakes, you have failed to recognize their value. Not that you have to wear every failing on your sleeve. But by admitting the truth, you will begin to know the reasons for the choices you’ve made. When you understand what drives you, you will see how decent and good you really are. That is a lesson worth learning.
4. The truth moves you. The truth may not be what you think it is. When you share your story, it is the story of the moment. Once you tell it, truth turns a page. Lies might have been true once, but things change. Today’s truth might be hard, but if you can’t tell it, you have no way to get to tomorrow’s. Without the truth, you are stuck. You have nowhere to go.
5. The truth is worth sharing. It doesn’t just belong to you. If it did, it would be your truth, in the same way that your car is your car. Who cares about your car? The whole truth, like the earth or the sky, is something we share. It is a conversation, maybe funny or sad, sometimes both. It can be simple and may not be personal. Lies are only yours, a complication. When you try to share them, no one wants to hear.
6. Talking straight means you care. When you care about someone, you make an effort. Willing to be yourself, you show others that it’s OK for them to be who they are, to say what they feel, to relax. They might not go for the idea right away, but they will appreciate and remember you for it. Telling the truth is hard work. When you care about people, you can work hard for them.
7. The truth loves life. The smell of garlic, the taste of ice cream, the cut of a well-made dress, the smile from a sweetheart. No one lies about the things they really love. To embrace even a small lie is to turn away from appreciating this one moment that is being alive. Life is big and rich. Lying makes it smaller and poorer. To love your life is to tell the truth about it.
Postscript: I end this blog post with less certainty than I began. While convinced that the truth is the “way to go,” I am wary of clinging to principle. In my own experience, the truth is “what works.” How? By waking us up. The truth helps us see ourselves and let’s others see us. In short, by invoking the heart in both the speaker and listener, the truth invites the warmth of awareness. Why can’t the truth be avoided? Well, it can. But sooner or later, as the saying goes, truth will out. How come? Maybe because somehow, somewhere, for some reason, the truth is something all of us already know.
Nat King Cole’s 1943 breakaway hit Straighten Up and Fly Right is based upon a folk tale his preacher father liked to tell. In the story, a buzzard offers to take fellow animals for a ride, only to toss them to their death once airborne. The buzzard then dines on the carrion. After watching his jungle friends take the ride and bite the dust, a monkey hops on. Hip to the buzzard’s plan, the monkey employs his tail to choke the buzzard before the scavenger can do him in. In the song, it is the monkey who is admonishing the buzzard to “straighten up and fly right.”
While the crooner’s (catchy!) song reminds us about the perils of “riding” others, the question of who is in charge, of who is riding, and who is being ridden, is applicable to the relationship with our own mind and body. There is a kind of anxiousness, a choke-hold even, around our mental and physical responses to the ride that is life. Ironically, while modern culture embraces discursiveness and a casual posture as evidencing freedom, these both can reflect the weight of subjugation, of “being ridden”.
In his classic sculpture, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker appears crushed by the thoughts he shoulders. His fist supports the chin of his over-cluttered head, lest it drag the rest of him to the ground. My teenage granddaughter, now obsessed with her weight and enlivened by cravings, bends over her plate of pasta primavera without looking up. Clutching his iPhone, her trendy friend is hunched over the device like a mystic caught in prayer. My action-oriented buddy leans forward as he walks, as if angling toward his responsibilities will help him meet them a little sooner. Over 55 now, with faltering eyesight and (blessed/cursed) with a portable laptop, I too am starting to hunch even as I type.
Meditation practice is about letting the body and mind enjoy freedom from the tyranny of thought. The upright posture of meditation reflects the courage of a person willing to engage this vista. In meditation, the erect spine straightens the channels that link the body’s chakras or energy centers. This allows for the ‘yoga’ or ‘union’ of an unburdened mind and body. The result is a discovery of a natural clarity–leading to insight.
Interestingly, the physicality of merely sitting upright can be a challenge. Between meditation sessions, if your thoughts (or your linguini) have literally managed to bend you to them, your next practice session will bear the impact of this training. It’s axiomatic that posture effects physiology. There is something healthy about sitting up straight. An MD quoted on the website sponsored by Oprah says what your Mom may have already intuited when she told you to straighten up: “Poor posture actually accelerates the aging process, it lowers lung capacity, interferes with digestion, and puts abnormal pressure on the spine.”
Meditation practice begins with paying attention to one’s own mind and body. This is like the instruction on the airplane that has you donning your own oxygen mask before working to help others with theirs. Although it is not always obvious, our willingness to face our own experience is powerful and has a impact on those around us. As meditation masters have pointed out, a lot of the power of practice comes from sitting up straight and simply being aware as we inhabit space. In a word, posture is power.
This fact is borne out in studies by Harvard psychology professor, Amy Cuddy. In her TED talk featured on NPR, Professor Cuddy reported on the phenomena of “Power Poses”. Her study revealed that, “open, expansive, space-occupying” postures lead to measurable changes in hormone levels, self-confidence, how others see you, and predictably, performance.
Can we pause here to let our posture be open and expansive? Your head can float up as if pulled by a string, gently tuck in your chin. Relax your jaw. Pull your shoulders back a bit and let your torso expand. There, you are now in the posture of meditation. All you have to do next is find your spot and take your seat. Meditation per se is a formality.
In Tibetan, one of the words for meditation translates as “bringing into reality.” Buddha and Mom understood something. Whether you are a yogi or a stockbroker, what you do with your mind and body in each moment will define your reality and the life you live. By that measure, everything is meditation. Every moment is an opportunity to practice straightening up. Whether we are in the meditation hall or at Starbucks, we don’t have to ridden by thoughts any more than we are required to ride them.
Wherever you are, when you feel your mind and body being pushed or pulled down by the invisible currents of thoughts that would ride or be ridden, gently upright yourself. Breathe and appreciate the space of the moment. And then what? Straightening up, you may discover a new strength and clarity. You may find in the expanse of that moment that there is freedom, and in that freedom there is more room to move, or as Nat King Cole would have put it–to “fly right.”
It was 1975. My Buddhist meditation teacher was coming to NYC. I wanted to see him. I also wanted my Aunt and Uncle, who lived near my boarding school in rural PA, to be able to appreciate him as well. Besides, I didn’t really know the city and could use some help getting there. A high school senior, I had been practicing on my meditation cushion for several years. Aunt and Uncle were skeptical. This was before the Dalia Lama, before karma was in Merriam Webster’s. If Buddhism wasn’t a cult, it was certainly foreign. Tibet was unknown. They found a babysitter, and we drove into New York City from suburban New Jersey.
The talk was in a spacious church. We arrived on time. There was plenty of room. Curiously, well after the starting time, people were still wandering in. At some point, the place was full and a bit noisy. The hall echoed as hip 20- and 30-something’s exchanged greetings and chatted.
How long did it take Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche to arrive? An hour? An hour and a half? Long enough for the lively chatter to be replaced with a subdued tension and the occasional grumble of irritation. My Aunt was no exception. She had found a sitter for her teenage children, had talked my Uncle into driving us, and now we were waiting. And waiting. Waiting for a person who was alleged to have answers, to have wisdom. No announcements were made to explain the delay. Frozen in the face of family turmoil, my stomach tightened, bracing for whatever happened next.
While her anger was never directed at me, in those days my Aunt had a temper. Arouse her wrath at your own risk. She was charming and smart, but if she was mad, she was not to be trifled with. After an uncomfortable hour in the pew, my Uncle suggested we leave. No, my Aunt was firm. We would stay. My own parents having separated many years earlier, my Aunt and Uncle were like a second father and mother to me. They were paying for prep school. Their home was my home.
My dad was in Texas, my mom in Boston, my younger brother in Colorado: life was already in pieces. Would anything ever connect? Not tonight. Hopes for a good impression had evaporated. My Aunt and Uncle were Christians, but not strictly. Having confronted the hypocrisy of church elders as a teenager, my Uncle, a budding artist, could wax cynical on all things pious. My Aunt remained open to the Protestant faith of her parents. Neither one was closed-minded.
Finally, just as people had started to leave, there was a shuffle on the stage and Trungpa sat down in the chair that had been waiting for him. He didn’t apologize for keeping us. If he even noticed the room’s irritation, it was hard to say. For half an hour or so, Trungpa spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice. I have no recollection of what he said.
As Trungpa spoke, my Aunt’s irritation seemed to grow. After hearing the questions from the audience that somehow overlooked his lateness, she turned to me. “How can he tell people to trust their own intelligence and keep them waiting for an hour and a half?” she asked, an edge of exasperation in her voice.
Knowing there was no answer, I mumbled something. Before I knew it, my Aunt was out of her seat and had approached the front of the room. Trungpa was still in his chair, sharing hellos with well-wishers at the foot of the dais. I followed along anxiously. Nicely turned out in a knit suit, her purse clutched under one arm, my Aunt put the same question to Trungpa. There was urgency in her voice.
My teacher leaned down, a smile brightening his face. “Well,” he said slowly, articulating each word, “It depends.” Incredulous, my Aunt reformulated her challenge. Again leaning towards her, Trungpa offered an explanation, “I didn’t want to jump the gun,” he said, seemingly delighted at having found the phrase that captured the moment. As if losing interest, Trungpa casually looked to the next person who was waiting to talk to him.
In my mind’s eye, there, in front of the stage, is where the top of my Aunt’s head kind of blew off. The conversation was over. We left the church and rode home. It was awkward. My Aunt and Uncle never asked to see Trungpa again. When they referred to him, in lieu of the honorific Rinpoche, they would call him ricochet.
Undeterred by this setback, after high school I moved to the meditation center Trungpa had founded in Northern Vermont. Two years later, I was off to college. Before I left, I shared with Rinpoche that the (one) school which accepted me had a program in Buddhist Studies. There was a very long pause. “I think you should study business,” he replied, without explanation.
As the years past and my meditation practice deepened, my Aunt and Uncle began to voice respect for the tradition I had embraced. Chogyam Trunpa died. I became a student of his son, Sakyong Mipham. They were especially pleased when the Sakyong named me Acharya, or senior teacher.
Tonight, almost 40 years later, we will try again. My wife and I will travel with my Aunt and Uncle to see Sakyong Mipham give a talk and sign books in New York City. My Aunt, once a housewife, is now a producer of cabaret. She has been reading the Sakyong’s latest book and “really getting a lot out of it.” My Uncle, an established sculptor and patron of the arts, is interested in doing a statue of Milarepa, one of the patron saints of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to being a Buddhist teacher, I am a CPA. My Uncle is over 80, so we may not stay for the book signing.
And yes, I think we all are a bit anxious. As my Aunt shared with me approvingly on the phone the other day, she expects Sakyong Mipham to be on time.
A while back in this blog we reported on a graduation ceremony of sorts for students in a residential program of meditation and study at Karmê Chöling here in Northern Vermont. The Buddhist Institute, which includes a month of meditation, runs in both the fall and spring semesters and is known as the Mukpo Institute–after the family name held by Chögyam Trungpa and his son and dharma heir, Sakyong Mipham.
While not monastic, this is a kind of ‘temple-stay’ at a Buddhist institution that goes beyond spiritual tourism. It represents a commitment to deepening one’s relationship to the path of meditation, contemplation and enlightened social engagement. Students are supported by the residential community at Karmê Chöling as well as meditation instructors and mentors from the Mukpo Faculty. The intensive schedule–which includes the option for a solitary cabin retreat–also makes time for simply enjoying the splendor of the natural world in the idyllic setting that is the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
This fall’s semester begins in a few weeks and I wanted to stop your mind by suggesting that perhaps YOU (whether young or old, experienced or novice) might consider joining in. The Institute’s semester will open on September 10th, with Shambhala Training Levels I-III taught by Mukpo Faculty Member, Shastri Bill Brauer and conclude in early December with a one day workshop on Work and Worth–taught by none other than yours truly.
In the interim, students will practice sitting meditation, study the path and view of meditation as presented in Shambhala, and participate in community life at the oldest residential Buddhist retreat center in North America. Through deepening one’s practice on the meditation cushion, and allowing time for contemplation and study, distractions are overcome and native intelligence is aroused. This accepting but critical attitude is encouraged toward the teachings presented, as well as toward oneself–the listener, the person who is there to learn.
The program is intimate, with a small group of students bonding with each other as well as engaging in work and community life at the retreat center. To date, over 50 students, both young and old, some at the start of their work life, others retired after an active career, some in the midst of a mid-life transition, have participated in this life-changing retreat. Could you be the next person to take this challenging but rewarding step? Could now be the time–for you or someone you know–to benefit from a change of pace as well as an immersion in the path of meditation?
Follow the link for some candid videos from graduates of the Institute. For for key information on this Buddhist Institute from Karmê Chöling’s website click here. Note that while the deadline for applications for this fall recently passed, my sense is that qualified applicants will still be considered. Note also that scholarship funds are available to help support student tuition.
“My experience at Karme Choling has spun me around 180 degrees. My life now has direction, meaning, and purpose. I met the most beautiful human beings I have ever been blessed to come across.”