The Science (and not) of Meditation

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There are many good reasons to meditate, some empirical, some personal.

Science
Scientific studies confirm: Meditation Helps. These studies track the impact of meditation on physical health and psychological distress. Because they use the scientific method and focus on empirical findings, they’re something (just about) everyone can agree on. This is one of the wonderful things about science.

The scientific benefits of meditation are increasingly well-documented. Here are a few of the headlines—the most striking benefits, from the most credible sources:

Not science: the subjective benefits of meditation
Many of the benefits of meditation reside in the world of individual, subjective experience, which is harder to measure and categorize than the largely physical health outcomes listed above. The slow psychological changes that meditation can bring—”I don’t fly off the handle so easily,” “I’m quicker to notice and empathize with others’ pain,” “I feel ‘wiser’ and better attuned to reality,” ”I’m not so hard on myself”—are what makes meditation so special, and much more than another tool in the health-care arsenal.

Sort of science: tracking the subjective benefits of meditation
Whether or not they are verified by science, subjective experiences can be credible and intelligible to us, the people having them. Recording, tracking, and reviewing your own experiences is “sort of science.” As you practice meditation, look carefully at your psychological state and see how it changes over time. Try to understand how the whole thing works. Just like a scientist, except that your experience is measured personally, rather than empirically.

As you take and retake your own “meditation portrait,” a picture will develop of the ebbs and flows in your life, and meditation’s influence on them. If you collect enough convincing data this way, you might even tell some scientists—but in the meantime, you will notice the gradual but profound changes meditation can bring.

 

For Men Only: A Valentine

Be Here Heart

Dear hombre, how can you be in relationship if you don’t know, well–how to be?  Whether you are strutting in your Cole Haans  or clumping around in Carhartts, stress leaves you hard to find and blinds you to beauty in the moment.

Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress—in other words, meditation supports relationship success. Here are five ways:

1)    Take-Home Pay In tuning you up, we can’t ignore the green. Your ability to provide is a turn on. But if you take work home in the form of worry, that’s unpaid overtime. By allowing you to trust yourself as you are now, mindfulness meditation gives worry a rest. When work stays at work, your pay rate jumps. A would-be partner wants to know that you value your time. How else can you value theirs?

2)    Yes Captain! Meditation lowers bad testosterone, you know, the kind that has you doing 60 in a School Zone and fondling the remote when a partner wants to share. OK, maybe studies are still looking for the bad testosterone, but how many times have you blown by signals a mate was trying to send? In meditation, the now is enjoyed. Rushing to be somewhere you’re not loses its appeal. Slowing down, you are longer driven; you are the driver. That makes you the pilot of your own ship. Pilots are sexy.

3)    Cleaning Up It doesn’t take a neuro-scientist to understand that meditation makes a better brain. Regular mindfulness practice reveals a bigger and brighter world. Your brain notices—and comes along for the ride. Every man-cave looks bigger and better without the clutter. Mindfulness meditation is mental hygiene. Promising partners will require hygiene before neurons are allowed to transmit.

4)    New Tricks No offense, but the boredom of old dogs is contagious. Ignoring the fluidity of life, habits bring tension rather than the safety they promise. Sure it’s a guy thing, but why double down on a lack of imagination? By training you to say “yes” to what is new, meditation opens the door to adventure in the moment. Appreciating your friend in a fresh way, you can start over. Starting over is new romance.

5)    Being There Are you married to your PDA? Who wants a three way with a digital device? Learning to “be” in meditation reveals a space that longs to be shared. You don’t just need a network to plug in, you are the network. You would demand it from an Adroid, what about your connectivity? A heads up (if you can manage it), your iPhone will never cook you eggs at midnight or smile at your dimples.

It’s best to learn meditation from someone trained in teaching a basic technique. Search on “mindfulness meditation” to find qualified instruction where you live. The next step: to support your practice, make a space for meditation in the man cave. Your meditation cushion (or bench) is a conversation piece that suggests there is more (or less!) to you than meets the eye.

Of course, to put your feet up with the one you love requires something your partner won’t be able to resist: Real Estate. You might not have the coolest crib, but in mindfulness you will discover something essential for meeting and hosting your Valentine: Space.

Editor’s Note: Cole Haans? I don’t think you could find a pair within 100 miles of northern Vermont where we at Samadhi Cushions live and make the Zafus and Zabutons we are famous for. Not sure how to explain the vibe here in Acharya Greenleaf’s post. Was that a copy of Men’s Health Magazine I saw peeking out of his bag of Dharma Books?

Meditation–It’s Science!

Pop's Pentagram on Pale Green

We report here on several groundbreaking new scientific studies with impressive results for those practicing mindfulness meditation.

First, scientists have discovered that regular meditation sessions can help couples get along. In one experiment, self-avowed “difficult” spouses were asked to practice once a day on their meditation cushion. After three months, over 60% of their suffering partners found the new meditator “more bearable.”

“Sure he’s less moody” confided a relieved wife, “but when my husband is meditating, the TV is off, he’s not making a mess and he’s not bothering me. This is really working for both of us.” An unexpected outcome: having had “some time to think about it,” 40% of the troubled spouses concluded that “the difficult one” in the relationship was actually the non-meditating member.

In another study, teens practicing mindfulness showed a dramatic change in speech patterns. 75% of subjects studied were able to finish sentences they themselves had started in a way understandable by a member of the older generation. “The declarative sentence is back!” one researcher gushed.

“I’m cold.”  “It’s pretty outside.”   “You look nice.”  These were just a few of the sentences completed by teens in the study.  “For some of these kids, it is the first time they have committed to a sentence—seeing it through to the end,” boasted the researcher. “There is a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” he added. The teens engaged in mindfulness were also 50% more likely to be “where you last saw them,” compared with teens in the control group. Teen video gamers, however, still outpaced meditators in this last statistic.

In another revelation, it turns out that awareness activates the “brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices.” [The brain–Ed.] A study in Florida looked at retirees over 80 practicing daily breath awareness. Seniors sitting in meditation posture once a day showed a “startled clarity” as well as a “heightened sense of irony.” “Meditation gives these seniors the space to consider the alternatives. Just being where you are can lead to changed assessments,” remarked the lead researcher. “Some of the subjects were genuinely surprised to discover they were still breathing,” he added.

In a Great Britain study of career-minded twenty-somethings, 50% of the very busy respondents were less likely to lose their iPhone in a pub’s toilet if they had a daily meditation practice. Subjects (some for the first time ever) were able to leave their iPhones behind while visiting the loo, accounting for the drop in, well, drop-ins.

“These people are chronic multitaskers.  For many it was the first time they had ever focused on just doing one thing and doing it well,” commented the lead researcher. Respondents also reported a new sense of “inner peace” as well as the end of embarrassing images emailed accidentally from the WC.

Lastly, a groundbreaking investigation looked at creating a “meditative space” for toddlers. In a simple room, 3-5 year-olds were invited to play quietly without additional stimulation from adults, electronic media or educational toys. To the amazement of researchers, one 3-year-old named Lucy played with a piece of crumpled graph paper for over 45 minutes, before turning her attention to a strand in the carpet.

“It was as if she was seeing things in her world that we can only imagine,” recalled the researcher, who labeled the experiment “cutting edge.” The mother of another child, a 4-year-old, reported that after a 20 minute brush with simplicity in “the quiet room” her toddler no longer insisted on trying to hold both his “juicy-juicy” and his “crookie” [juice and cookie–Ed.] in just one hand. (An iPhone belonging to his Mom could be found in the other, the researcher noted.)

“We haven’t quite worked out the iPhone and visits to the potty,” reported the Mom, “but at least he seems to have a firm grip on the thing.”

Editor’s Note: Dear reader, here soon we will post a blog with links to some additional (and possibly more authoritative) studies. The art for the blog is by Acharya Greenleaf’s dad, Newcomb Greenleaf, who is exploring Japanese Temple Geometry.

 

 

 

 

Cliff Dwellers

Red Brain, Blue Brain

I promise, this blog is not about the fiscal cliff, slope or whatever it was. Not really. But I have to wonder, how it is we are all going to find reason in our relations with each other. By all accounts, the President made offers that should have enticed Republicans long before the deadline. “Why,” some wondered, couldn’t the holdouts in the House of Representatives just “listen to reason.”

In a book reviewed by the Times last spring, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an answer. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt asserts that human beings (politicians presumably among them) don’t make decisions based on reason. Our decisions come from how we feel. As humans we are intuitive and emotional. Logic and reasons come later as a way to support the value-based decisions we have already made. [Note to the blog: I only read the Times review, I didn’t actually read the book. I will leave that to the scholars, those in the profession, and the rest of you who have no trouble understanding why a thesis that takes 300 pages can’t be said in 10. If some of you find irony in this, you are my kind of reader!]

At any rate, the psychologist writes that Republicans (as a rule) feel deeply about faith, patriotism, valor, chastity and law and order. Democrats, on the other hand, are mainly moved by the challenge of defending those who can’t defend themselves. In both cases, the parties have very human aspirations for society. Haidt calls these moral values. The word moral has the weight of judgment, but the root is related to the simple idea of manners, or the appropriate behavior for citizens of a society.

Aside from the question of how we should behave with each other, how do we behave? If it depends upon how we feel, then in the realm of I and other, “the other” is an emotionally charged phenomenon. To paraphrase the Buddhist Teacher Chögyam Trungpa, when there is a knock on the door, we have either a bottle of cabernet or a semi-automatic ready and waiting. This insight is supported by neuroscience.  Before the ears have heard and the eyes have moved, rather than reacting, the brain has anticipated the next sense encounter.

If we don’t notice that our feelings are pre-programmed and that the decisions we’ve made have been “spun”, when does real communication happen? Without feeling a shared a humanity, we find ourselves alienated, hostage to principle. Entrenched in our own views, we and the politicians who represent us are freed from the burden of exchange that characterizes society (the root of the word means partner or comrade).

Of course to have a partner is to be two, not one. Who is a partner? Someone who  listens. Listening changes minds, if only a little. (According to Haidt, 2 minutes of contemplation around a considered argument is all it takes.) It is in this exchange, according to the psychologist, that true reason is born. Expounding well-rehearsed opinions may be satisfying, but a reasonable (you could say sane) society is built on something as simple as a conversation.

Of course conversations are everywhere. No one needs a psychologist to tell them that listening changes things. Experience tells us that merely acknowledging our partner’s or family member’s contrary opinion results in a changed atmosphere, if not a consensus. Only highlighting differences, however, “we” becomes “us and them.” Estrangement and separation follow.

Awareness, the kind cultivated on your meditation bench through mindfulness and contemplation, is helpful here. In the discipline of undistracted time alone, our own humanity is harder to avoid. Confronted with feeling, the endless chatter of “reasons” is revealed as an overlay, a justification. We begin to sense subtleties. To paraphrase Trungpa again, in exposing our internal drama, good things appear as bad, and bad things appear as good. Making room for our own tensions, is itself making room for others’. In the politics of successful relationship, we are all statesmen and stateswomen.

Today, emphasizing how we don’t agree is politics. Listening to another’s opinion (without haranguing them) is to surrender identity and the safety of principled alienation. Whether seduced by the prospect of political gain or the drama of the angry hero, some of our leaders embrace “opting out” of the society they would lead. The myth of opting out is sacred to a culture built on individualism and choice. Sooner or later evidence of connection (say a bill from the IRS or an unplanned romance) will end this dream.

Society is a living thing, constantly evolving and changing. It is natural for schisms to arise and resolve themselves. Maintaining a split, however, requires separation. It’s been noted that most of our Representatives and their families don’t live in Washington DC anymore. Perhaps they don’t want to make the sacrifices made by their predecessors. Perhaps their constituents see a move out as a move up–and are ready to reject their leaders for any sign of “elitism.” In any event, if our politicians and their families don’t meet outside of formal functions, they don’t have to learn how to be together, not to speak of listening to each other. Tellingly, the Senate deal that pulled us back from the edge was between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, politicians on either side of the aisle who happen to be friends.

Continually enacting separateness is the ritual of those whose attention is one place and whose home is another. This may be the norm, but is it politics? The word comes from the Greek for citizen—of a polis—a city. Opinions that would lead us beyond city limits are a deception. Maybe it sounds naive, but could we, as well as our leaders, be better listeners? Able to hear the human feelings behind the arguments (our own and others) that continue to vex us? Perhaps then reason can arise, moving us past differences to a place we can share with friends in society, a place somewhere far from a cliff.

Editor’s Note: The teacher Sakyong Mipham has asked his students this question: how we can ask our leaders to do what we ourselves wouldn’t consider? When we opt out of the community meeting at our Meeting House or Meditation Center, aren’t we reenacting the politics of Washington? If sitting in meditation is opening to a conversation with ourselves, shouldn’t it lead to conversations with others who hold values different than our own?

 

What to Do?

Esopus Creek, Steve Mancinelli

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

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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.

Buddhist Global Relief Announces Annual Walk to Feed the Hungry

WalkToFeedTheHungry

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

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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.