What to Do?

Lately, I’ve scrapped a few blog posts. There was one I wrote for the holidays on forgiveness–but it’s just not the right time. In another attempt I tried to follow the threads of grief and loss to some universal wisdom addressing the tragic shootings in Newtown. I couldn’t figure out how to end the post. For what it’s worth, if you are looking for leadership in this sad time, I thought our President’s remarks at the memorial service for the victims were on the dot.

“What can we Do?” is the question the day. This is the “Do” with a capital “D”—not the small “d” that dominates our day-to-day life. Some of you (I think of activists and inspired Bodhisattvas) may be familiar the sense of urgency that this kind of tragedy inspires. Not liking drama, being wary of pretension, and generally weak-kneed, I shy away from the big “D.”

The answers to the question vary. Seeking a sense of security, many will purchase their own gun. Why, they reason, should I be left defenseless—like the victims in the shooting? Some will be inspired to limit the spread of automatic weapons, weapons that transform a shooter into an army. That wasn’t, they argue, the intent of the Second Amendment. The President’s initiative will also look at the treatment of mental illness as part of an action assessment. The shooter was deranged. Was society aware?

The local high school here in Vermont will send cards and other expressions of care to the school in Newtown. In an eloquent letter, the headmaster wrote the parents (and grandparents) quoting scripture. To paraphrase: when we are afflicted, God shares his love with us so that we may share it with others when they too face trial.  (2 Corinthians 1:4).

I once heard Bernie Glassman Roshi give a talk at the New York Shambhala Center. Someone asked him where he got the inspiration for the socially engaged Buddhism that he practices. “It’s simple,” he said. “At some point you can’t take it anymore. You have to do something.”  My big “D”? For me, it isn’t “Doing”. It’s  “Distraction.” By not paying attention, you wake up to a world of your own enabling and wonder how you got there. This too is a question with many answers. For me, I get there by ignoring, losing myself in a world of doing with a small “d’.

Meditation is unusual. It is an act of “being” that combines the vast and the precise, the visionary and the mundane, the mind and the body, the big “D” and the little one. It introduces us to a deeper nature, one within and without. Because it joins the little ‘d’ of action with the bid ‘D’ of human awareness, it helps to overcome the mindlessness that lies at the heart of our incomprehension and our acting out. With the exception of getting a gun (the weak knees could be a problem), I support the efforts and initiatives of others. What I “can’t take anymore” is my own distraction. Distraction, the realm of busyness and forgetting, invites me to ignore my own wounded heart and the hearts of others. To overcome this, I will have to wake up. To wake up, I practice meditation. That’s what I can (D)do.

Editor’s Note: One of Acharya Greenleaf’s scrapped blogs had the title Dark Currents. Because it was too beautiful to pass up, the photo for that post is used here. The photographer, Steve Mancinelli, is our capable patent attorney (yes, Samadhi Cushions does own the name Gomden. It is the trademark for the meditation cushion that is ideal for simple cross-legged sitting). For more amazing images visit Steve’s website: penumbralight.com.

Hope for the Holidays

During the holidays, it’s inspiring to remember our lineage forebears. One of my favorite stories features a moment between the meditation masters Chögyam Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi, two of my heroes. When this encounter begins,  Trungpa is drunk and Roshi is angry. They loved each other.

Their story isn’t a holiday story, but it could be. It gives me hope. I suppose you could take it another way.

As a WASP, angry is binary, it’s a switch. For my people, you’re “fine,” “fine,” “fine,” and then, after a few glasses of fine Bordeaux, “Your mother and I have decided to leave you out of our estate planning.” By this time your cat may already be poisoned and buried in the basement.

Speaking of angry, these days I’m moody. Why? Perhaps the holidays. Maybe because I’ve been sitting on my meditation cushion not even intensely, but regularly. Things are coming up. Sorry if you are new to meditation and no one warned you about a dark side. We’ve got stuff in the basement. It keeps trying to make it to the light of day. I was trained not to let it.

In my family,“what happens at dinner stays at dinner” is our motto. What happens at dinner? Someone you love steers you to a seat near a corner of the table. They sit next to you. They wait until the food is served. When they speak, they will be looking away from the Turkey. In short, they separate you from the pack. Then they let you have it. Word choice is considered. This where their graduate education really pays off. They speak quietly, like they’re reading from an op-ed piece or a movie review by Anthony Lane. Their controlled tone signals you that they have officially lost their mind and are ready to take it to next level.

The next level is a raised voice. You both know this will never happen, but the threat is key. WASPs are cold blooded, so no histrionics. In, France, my wife’s country, what they call a “discussion” would register chez moi as a nuclear event. An unspoken rule for the civilized WASPs: no collateral damage. Those people could still be useful. How do I know all this? It’s learned. Are there ways to avoid getting taken out? You have to read the signs.

The time my late Aunt tried on the nightgown was a sign. She was living alone at the time. She had traveled a long way to my cousin’s house for Christmas Dinner. There was wine. I had given her a nightgown for winter. It was warm, but in retrospect, a bit simple. She tried it on in my cousin’s living room just before the meal. No, not like that. She just pulled it on over her sweater and everything else. Still, that was a sign. I missed it. Before I knew it, she had cornered me near the end of a festive holiday table.

My Aunt, an otherwise wonderful, artful, thoughtful woman, had a switch. The WASP switch. “Don’t do what again Aunty?” I leaned in, trying to strike a brave note. Her tone was quiet. Her eyes were glowing. The smell of turkey was replaced by the smell of death. Dinner was just getting started. I was doomed.

“Don’t you EVER give me a present like that again! Even my cleaning lady gives me better presents than the junk you give me. Why do you even BOTHER?! Why?!” In my defense, my Aunt’s cleaning lady Jessica was a Jehovah’s Witness and a candidate for sainthood.  The holidays are about gratitude. Between grapplings with her wine glass, my Aunt elaborated on the gift from Jessica. One thing became clear, she was grateful for her cleaning lady.

Bolting from the table was my only option for escape. That would have created a scene. The rule against collateral damage applies to the victim as well as the perpetrator. Witnesses? Only my cousin, a perceptive soul who happened to be sitting across from us, noticed what was going down. Her face registered horror and fascination. Like someone watching a documentary on baby seals. It gave me solace.

When I look back now, I realize the stress my Aunt was under and I appreciate why she did what she did. My lack of insight into her situation was part of the reason. For a while, I couldn’t forgive her. Why? Because I couldn’t understand her. Because I didn’t understand myself. In the basement, it takes time for your eyes to adjust.

Trungpa and Roshi? The story ends with Trungpa teaching Roshi’s Zen students in a talk entitled “The Open Way” and Roshi calling Trungpa a bodhisattva.

Like I said, these days I’ve been moody, even angry. My temper comes suddenly. “Out of nowhere!” as my wife puts it. As if a switch had been thrown, or a basement door had swung open. I guess it’s a lineage thing. It’s hard way to begin a moment, but it’s real. Being real, it has the potential to end well.  In a strange way, it gives me hope. Hope for the holidays.

Meditation Posture: Beginner’s Guide

Meditation Circle

Beginning meditators should know that an upright Meditation Posture allows you to relax and breath freely. The best meditation cushion choices for the beginner in meditation are actually simple. It all comes down to a question of height and flexibility.  What, for you, is the right distance between your bottom and the floor?  The Goal: you are high enough off the meditation mat so your thighs angle downward from your hips. When they do, your back can be straight without straining.

A Cloud Bench is like a meditation chair, just lower. The rectangular firm foam block in a beautiful fabric cover known as the Gomden meditation cushion is high enough to support a simple cross-legged posture. The Zafu cushion from Zen works when you are comfortable with your knees flat on the meditation mat. And yes, there is another option here. Kapok stuffing for the Zafu starts firm, but will break in over time. Buckwheat hulls are even firmer than kapok, but can be shaped immediately to fit your needs.

OK, there’s a another twist, if your hips or knees just don’t like it when your legs are crossed, then consider a kneeling meditation bench from the Zen tradition. New this year is the Kneeling Meditation Bench Plus, for the bigger, taller practitioner of meditation.

And please, do consider a Zabuton Mat.  This is the mat that goes on the floor under the meditation cushions described above. Depending on how you sit, it will cushion your knees, ankles or both. You will save when you buy your Zabuton Mat in our Meditation Cushion or Meditation Bench Sets (Gomden, Zafu, Kneeling Meditation Bench or Cloud Bench). Note: our Deluxe Cushion Sets (Gomden and Zafu) include a firm Cotton Support Cushion. This cushion is available to give you additional height in your meditation posture.

If you still think choices are a good thing, then you may be happy to consider that all of our cushions are now available in a range of Eco friendly fabrics. We said this was simple. It is, really. Remember, the question is: how high do you need to be for your knees to rest comfortably below your thighs? Once you answer that, you will be in a position to make the right choice.

If you want see what we are talking about, check out our videos. Still not sure? Call us (M-F, 800-331-7751) to talk to someone who has sat on all the cushions and benches we (make and) sell. Or if you prefer, send an email to info@samadhicushions.com. Put Cushion Question in the subject line.

Thank you for visiting our site. Since 1976, Samadhi Cushions has been genuinely interested in helping people find the best sitting meditation solution.

Buddhist Global Relief Announces Annual Walk to Feed the Hungry

Buddhist Global Relief

Sparta, NJ, August 29, 2012 — Buddhist Global Relief announced today the cities and venues for its 2012 “Walk to Feed the Hungry” fundraising events. This is the third year in which Buddhist Global Relief will be holding a walk to raise funds for its programs that provide relief to communities around the world afflicted by chronic hunger and malnutrition. The Walk to Feed the Hungry began in 2010 in South Orange, New Jersey, and expanded to three cities in 2011. In the first two years, over $120,000 were raised to support BGR’s humanitarian efforts. This year, the walk events are expanding internationally with the first ever walk being held in the UK.

All the walk events in 2012 will take place in the months of September and October. They will be held in the follow cities: Yorkshire, UK (September 29), Seattle, WA (October 6), Ann Arbor, MI (October 13), Chicago, IL (October 13), New York, NY (October 13), San Francisco, CA (October 13), Willington, CT (October 13), San Jose, CA (October 14), Los Angeles, CA (October 20), and Escondido, CA (October 25). Walks will be led by local organizers and are of varying distances and may include dharma talks and a picnic lunch. The New York, Los Angeles, and Escondido walks will be led by the chairperson of BGR, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. In addition, a benefit jazz concert will be held in New York City on Wednesday, September 12th.

“We are very excited that our walk events have grown in scope and reach,” said Kim Behan, BGR’s Executive Director. “Walking in solidarity has a long history of uniting people and sparking social change. We are overjoyed at bringing together people from different backgrounds and focusing on what unites us on this path of service.”

More information is available at Buddhist Global Relief’s website, www.buddhistglobalrelief.org. This links to the BGR First Giving website, allowing interested participants to find out details about each event, register to walk, fundraise, or simply donate. Parties interested in hosting their own event and donating the proceeds can send an email to info@buddhistglobalrelief.org or phone at 888-852-7579.

About Buddhist Global Relief

Buddhist Global Relief is a registered non-profit with 501(c)(3) status. Founded in 2008 by the American Buddhist scholar-monk Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi and his students, BGR is dedicated to alleviating chronic hunger and malnutrition around the world. To date, BGR has supported over 50 projects in hunger relief, education, and sustainable agriculture in Asia, Africa, Haiti, and the United States. For more information, please visit www.buddhistglobalrelief.org.

Media Contact

Kim Behan Executive Director
kbehan@buddhistglobalrelief.org

Meditation Space: NERCF

It is Friday afternoon.  I am sitting in a visitation room in the Northeastern Regional Correctional Facility, one of two buildings in St. Johnsbury that are the Northeast Correctional Complex.  The other building is a work camp, with much looser security.  This is a medium security facility.  Entry and exit is by a series of doors around a central common area.  Into or out of that area, only one door is opened at a time.  You wait to get in, and you wait to get out.  It is affectionately called the Bricks.

I am a volunteer at the Complex, but have worked mostly at the work camp.  A group of us from the St. Johnsbury Shambhala Center have been trained as volunteers and we had a program where we could escort inmates from the work camp to our center to sit or for classes. That program was discontinued two years ago when there was a change of administration at the correctional center.  We offered sitting sessions at the camp for a while, but couldn’t get a good time slot when there was a room available.  No one came and the program disappeared.

Last week, Chris, the director of volunteers emailed me and told me of an inmate who claimed to be a Buddhist.  The inmate was requesting Buddhist artifacts and objects including deity pictures, a prayer wheel, rune cards, four kinds of tea, and a mala.  He made his requests as part of his freedom of religion rights.  Chris wanted to know: did you need these things to practice Buddhism?  I told him that except for the rune cards, all of these things might be used in Buddhist practice at different times.  I offered to visit, and he agreed to set it up.

The inmate, Robert, was not housed at the work camp.  He was in “restrictive housing” at the Bricks, solitary confinement.  I could see him, but not without a glass barrier between us.  We had originally arranged the meeting for yesterday, but Chris wrote:

“It seems that we have an inmate that is currently living in the visiting room (he is on a status that makes it so he is unable to have access to a bathroom, as we think he has drugs in a body cavity). I am not sure if he is going to be removed from that cell by this afternoon, is there any way we might be able to reschedule you for tomorrow afternoon? I just don’t want you to show up and be turned away in the event that he is still in the dry cell.”

So here I wait today, wondering what had transpired in that room the day before, thinking about the incredible variety of situations in which people find themselves.

The visitation area is two rooms divided by thick paned, double glazed windows.  There are two stalls on each side, facing one another.  In the middle of the glass of each stall is a round metal device to speak through.  My room is painted puss green, with light puss green accents.  The other room is the same green with white accents, better lit and slightly more cheerful I think.  There is a solid panel on my left that provides privacy from the adjacent stall, but no such panel on the inmate side.  Scratched crudely in the glass on the other side is a large F**K, readable backwards.  The chairs are heavy plastic.  There are no meditation cushions.

After a few minutes Robert is escorted in.  He is about 6’3” with a head shaved about two weeks ago and two days growth of beard.  I can tell immediately that he has more energy than he needs.  We introduce ourselves and begin chatting.  He interrupts me often.  He is a student of the late Lama Yeshe, he says, and he presses pages of his book up against the glass for me to see.  He never met Lama Yeshe, but he has this book.  He wants me to know how dedicated he is to the deepest Buddhist practices and that he needs these accoutrements, mostly a mala, to allow him to chant his mantra, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.”  “Just like Tina Turner” he says, and although I have never been especially impressed by that particular celebrity endorsement, when I needed to spell the mantra, I Googled “Buddhist mantra Tina Turner.”  I tell him that in our tradition, we sit silent mediation for quite a while before we ever use a mala.  He is unconvinced.  “Who is going to supply the mala?” I ask.  “They are about $50.”  He is less unconvinced.

He is disappointed.  He says he had been expecting a monk, and I am clearly not a monk.  He brags about his wife.  I can relate to that, I sometimes brag about my wife as well.  He says she is a mystic and has wisdom that you can’t even find in books.  But, when I ask him whether she can send him a mala, he has only a weak excuse why she cannot.  These situations have many layers.

“Robert, have you ever had meditation instruction?” I ask.

“No.”

Would you like me to give you meditation instruction?

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s start with the posture….”  When I tell him to relax, he looks at me and a big smile spreads across his face as if he is wondering how I could have known he had a hard time relaxing.  We sit for about ten minutes.  It seems good, but I usually have good meditation in places like the prison.  When I ask him what he thought of the practice he complains about distractions: jingling keys, telephones, voices.  He wants his mantra back.  I tell him: “Ten minutes a day, try it.”  He still wants his mantra back.  I tell him again: “Ten minutes a day, try it.”

He has a court date on Monday for sentencing and it is unlikely that he will be returned to the St. Johnsbury facility.  If he is, I promise him that I will be back to see him again.  When I ask why he is there, he tells me he is a “street pharmacist.”  When I ask why he is in solitary, he tells me that when his rights are violated, he just won’t stand for it.

“I am not like everyone else.” He says.

If there is a next time, I may talk with him about the all inclusive first noble truth.

 

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!

To Sleep with a Stranger

It was late. Before collapsing into bed, would the grandparents have time to talk, to communicate openly as husband and wife, even for a moment?

“There was a great piece in the New Yorker on Camus and Sartre,” I volunteered, hoping to catch my wife’s attention with an article I had read recently. (Jeanine happens to be French.)

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she answered incredulously “Do I hear a shower?” She lowered her head to listen. Down the hall, there was the unmistakable sound of running water, our granddaughter in her bath.

Our teenage granddaughter lives with us. She has a head of long, cascading brown hair. Getting it dry after a shower is one my wife’s perennial concerns. “Can you believe it?” she asked rhetorically, exasperation in her voice, “taking a shower at this hour?”

I paused before answering. “I’m sure there are larger issues,” I said finally, in imagined solidarity with my existential friends.

“What do you mean?” Jeanine demanded, irritation in her voice.

This evening, I had hoped to share my admiration for Camus.  As a man, he combined altruism and elegance. His writing, especially his journalism, while incisive, struck a poignant tone.

Where was my sense of engagement, my wife demanded? Was I ready to ignore the implications of everything? How about a teenager with a contagious cold or a mysterious, bedroom-based, unstoppable eco-culture created by moisture, coconut conditioner and a cotton pillowcase, could I ignore those too? No mention of Camus. Perhaps I had missed the point of the existentialists, I wondered.

Maybe it’s a French thing, but if my wife senses that her husband is attempting to hover above the day-to-day details that should concern him, she will energetically challenge his lofty position. Think “la revolution” and “la justice.”

“I better hear the hair dryer,” Jeanine muttered, listening for the next revelation from down the hall.

Feeling alone on the edge of the bed, I was left to contemplate my own existence. Earlier in the day, I had been a meditation teacher at the local retreat center. Who was I now? In the morning, our granddaughter would be driven to High School. That’s who I was; I thought bitterly to myself, I was the driver. The hair needs to be dry, it needs to be brushed, and in the morning, it will need to be driven to school.

Existential pleasantries are not for drivers.  Drivers just need to be ready to drive. From down the hall, came the sound of an electric hair dryer revving up.

Relieved that granddaughter had done the right thing, my mind wandered to that day’s meetings at the meditation center. “She called you a special teacher,” a colleague shared in a confidential tone. We were meeting about a visiting student who needed instruction in meditation, as well as help with her posture on the meditation cushion.

The student had seen me at the center earlier in the week. Apparently she wanted the insights that a “special teacher” could share. I liked her already, but to meet, I would have to make time out of a busy schedule. “Sure, I’ll see her.” My colleague, whose job was finding meditation teachers for visiting students, seemed very pleased.

Next, there was an invitation to a staff discussion. A restless visitor was having trouble keeping the discipline at the center. I didn’t know the student. Still, it seemed important to the staff that I was there. A decision was about to be made. I thought, “you’re a special teacher, you should have something wise to say.” Nothing came. My gaze wandered out the window to a view of the forest behind the meditation hall. I wondered why I was there.

Later, over lunch, I shared advice with a residential student on his upcoming solitary retreat. As we spoke, I was haunted. A special teacher would be more meditative, less quick to agree, at least not talk with his mouth full. At the end of our meeting, with some formality, the student thanked me for my time and wisdom. There was something about the tone of his ‘thank you.’

“I wonder if he heard a word I said,” I remember thinking to myself.

At the retreat center too, I now realized, my identity had been unclear. Was the pain of my irrelevance at home somehow related to my struggle to embody importance earlier in the day? Before lunch, by some accounts, I was a special Buddhist teacher. By bedtime, I was the lowly driver of a teenager. “Praise and blame,” I thought to myself. “This is what the Buddhist tradition means by worldly things.”

Outside the window by the bed, the lake loons were calling in the darkness. Down the hall, the hair dryer stalled and then stopped. I mulled over my shifting status. I was both a special teacher and a teenager’s driver. I was also a husband. If I was all three, who was I really? As my head sank into the pillow, I felt sad. Who was I really? I didn’t know.

My wife’s irritation seemed to linger. This evening, the hair had enjoyed unearned privileges. The husband had not engaged. Jeanine turned off the light, but not before sharing something else about my ability to ignore–to miss the truth behind the appearance. I don’t remember her comment (honestly!), but it was a pointed remark and it made me laugh.

Suddenly and unexpectedly Jeanine laughed too. We kissed and said goodnight. Outside, the lake loon called again. In the darkness, I might have smiled. I had hoped for a moment with my wife and it had arrived. There was openness and communication, there was also tenderness, in a poignant, existential, French kind of way.

Meditation Space: Los Angeles

Meditation Instruction, L.A. Sports Arena

CareNowLA - free Medical and Dental, Los Angeles Sports Arena

Greetings from Los Angeles – the land of swimming pools and movie stars! LA is a place of tremendous energy, speed, and creativity. It’s a place where the temperatures are sunny and pleasant, yet within the Hollywood community (where I work) the personalities which are celebrated often are not. It’s a place where even the most experienced practitioner can easily fall into outsized aggression (you sit through the mind-numbing traffic on the 405), and where in certain parts of the city the dream of finally being “discovered” is the subtle subtext to almost every line at the Coffee Bean. When visiting Shastri Ethan Nichtern recently gave a talk on the Westside of LA, he titled it appropriately, “Seeing Clearly in a City of Illusion”.

Yet, as is always true, with a bit of slowing down and a sense of space, you can begin to see the reality of the ground here. LA is full of amazing and wonderful people and we have a warm, tight-knit, and generous Shambhala community, many of whom work within the very entertainment industry that gives the city both its prevalence and speed. We have actors, writers, producers, musicians, film and media technicians of all kinds in our sangha, and for them the challenge can often be how to see basic goodness in an industry (and city) so often focused on power, celebrity and money. Yet within that dynamic there lies tremendous energy which can be ridden, and which I believe, helps fuel a tremendously active communications mandala here which is just bubbling with ideas.

One large aspect of the communication mandala for LA is outreach (the other being publicity) which is headed up by Kate Summers. Outreach has a whole lineup of programs it is attempting to roll out over the next few years – some simple, some outrageous – but one program in particular that Kate spearheaded last year stands out.

In October, SMCLA (Shambhala Meditation Center of Los Angeles) was a participant in CareNowLA, a free Medical and Dental clinic for under-served communities. Over 4 days, roughly 4500 people lacking health insurance showed up at the LA Sports Arena to see doctors, dentists, optometrists and other specialists, all of whom offered their services for free. As part of that, SMCLA was invited to have a booth where we could offer meditation instruction on the spot. So we did.

Over the course of the 4 days, a number of members from our sangha came down to staff the booth, and we estimate we gave meditation instruction to 250-300 people, most of whom had never received instruction before! For all who staffed the booth, it was a tremendously opening experience, a direct and raw connection with generosity and compassion, not only from us but in the energy and feedback we received from the people who came to our booth. Attendees were warm and wonderful and as we explained the programs our Center offered, many said they wanted to explore it further.

On Sunday evening, after we had wrapped up our booth at CareNowLA, a young man in his twenties showed up at our Westside Center for evening nyinthun. During a group discussion, he said he and his mother had no health insurance, had gone to CareNowLA for treatment, and had come by our booth for meditation instruction. As he explained further after the nyinthun, he had always wanted to learn to meditate and for the first time found a path he resonated with. His experience at CareNowLA had inspired him to come by our Sunday Sit, and he and his girlfriend were planning on starting to regularly attend our Young Adult Meditation Group.

Our entire sangha was moved by how taking a leap had such immediate and direct impact in the world. And our communications mandala, which saw how we could actually move into the world, continues to be inspired by the Sakyong’s tremendous Vision for Enlightened Society, especially as manifested in the Kalapa Acharya’s view that “Sitting is not enough.”

So please remember that amongst the flashing strobes and gossip driven celebrity worship, there are some in LA, just off camera, who understand the very same energy which drives the spectacle also fuels tremendous generosity and compassion. And that Basic Goodness exists, even (perhaps) on TMZ.