Ringing in New Y(ears)

Just a random sample of comments I’ve received recently and over the years. 

 

“Where have you been, in La La land?” My friend Donna marveling at my fatigue with the stress of daily scheduling and meal preparation in a house with a teenager.

 

“It doesn’t read like something from someone who writes for a living.” My friend Sal after previewing a blog post (that never got posted).

 

“I live here too you know!” My wife, asking me why my trousers were on the chair in the bedroom when I already had on a pair.

 

“Everything is going to be alright.” A Tibetan doctor I saw for a flare up of dermatitis.

 

“Do you think about sex a lot?” A Chinese doctor with his fingers on my pulse, interpreted by his wife. (I was seeing him for dermatitis.)

 

“I’m sure you’re really busy.” A meditation student who asked me to call him. (I haven’t yet.)

 

“You forgot something.” My granddaughter referring to a trip I took to the bathroom.

 

“The idea is to finish one thing before you go on to another.” My first boss, critiquing my work habits.

 

“That sounds neurotic.” A student commenting on my livelihood strategy of taking work that scared me.

 

Meditation is very important.” Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the first time I met him (when I was 17).

 

“Don’t move that with your foot. Use your hands.” My wife, upset at my habit of adjusting meditation cushions with my feet before I sat down.

 

“I think you should study business.” Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, after I told him that my future college had a Buddhist studies program.

 

“I wanted to study music, but I had a tin ear.” My college calculus professor in response to my poor performance in his class. (I dropped it.)

 

“All you’re doing is pressing buttons.” My mathematician father, after I explained how happy I was to master my programmable calculator.

 

“First the glucose burns up, then the fat.” My friend Arthur, as I tried to keep up with him in a recent ice skate around Harvey’s Lake.

 

“You’re basically hiding out.” Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche commenting on my life here in Vermont.

 

“I thought Buddhism was about beyond hope and fear.” My friend Sal responding to some thoughts I had about regret and redemption.

 

“There is still time!” Two staff members at the residential meditation center Karmê Chöling (separately) after I said I thought I would make it to Shambhala Day, the lunar New Year.

 

Thank you everyone. I very much appreciate your feedback and look forward to another year of it!

 

 


Meditation Space: Austin, TX

Sunday sitting practice at Austin Shambhala Meditation Center comes together regularly based on the generosity and inspiration of individuals committed to developing bravery and gentleness through mindfulness-awareness meditation. On the path of meditation practice, one develops positive qualities by fully inhabiting one’s own life, and therefore supporting one’s community.

The format of a three-hour Sunday meditation session is firmly but gently prescribed: the staff arrive early and open the center, meditation cushions are set out or straightened up into a comfortable but orderly staggered grid pattern, and finally, the staff makes offerings of water, light, and pleasantly-scented incense to the shrine.

These simple and standard logistical facts of a regular Sunday meditation session are juxtaposed against the fertile possibilities that anyone could show up at any given time during the session to join in and that anything might come up for an individual practitioner during any given meditation session. The precise form of sitting practice combined with a space that can accommodate the openness of the human situation generates a powerful creative friction that characterizes and enriches meditation practice in an urban environment.

Sunday sitting proceeds into the morning: beginning with voluntary, intention-orienting chants, and continuing with sitting meditation divided by short walking sessions. Throughout the morning, some newly-arriving meditators join the group and others bow out. Generally, by the end of the morning, the shrine room is filled with over 25 practitioners surfing (or sometimes doggy paddling, or other times wiping out) on the tides of meditative mindfulness-awareness.

Meditation instruction is freely offered at the Austin Center about an hour before sitting concludes. A rotating staff of meditation instructors offers first-time instruction to anyone who walks through the door looking slightly dazed. Common reasons folks come to our center to receive meditation instruction include: curiosity about Buddhism, curiosity about meditation practice, seeking to gather material for a religious studies course, or sometimes, just being an inquisitive neighbor.

Around noon, the morning sit formally closes with chants of dedication—wishing that any openness of mind we experienced during our meditation session be of benefit to ourselves and others. Initial meditation instruction concludes around noon with the session. Introductory literature packets are distributed to new meditators, containing meditation tips, information on upcoming classes, and a list of related books for those intellectually inclined. New meditators are then invited to share a tea snack with the rest of the community.

Tea snack is where first-time meditators get to know the Austin Shambhala community. Tea snack is also an opportunity for our community to practice being together. This is where our mindfulness and awareness gets off the cushion and rises to a verbal, interactive level.

An aside about meditation practice in general: One popular misconception about meditation practice is that the quality of one’s practice is negatively affected by how much thinking arises during a practice session. This idea would imply that the eventual goal of meditation is to enter a void, thoughtless state. However, that is not the point of meditation.

One of the points of meditation practice is learning how to set priorities. When we practice gently placing our mind on an object of our choosing, that becomes a priority for our attention. When other requests for our attention arise—in the form of urgent or whimsical, electric or dull thoughts, we acknowledge these requests and gently return to the higher-priority object of our attention.

In the Shambhala tradition, the breath is used as a basic object of attention—it is a natural part of us that is right there all the time and does not cost anything to enjoy. When thoughts arise during our practice, it is ok—they are just not the priority for what we are doing at that particular moment.

In a similar way, we can engage in community practice by choosing genuine, kind, and wholesome interaction as our object of attention. When thoughts or insecurities or doubts about ourselves or others come up, that is not regarded as a bad thing, or a thing to be avoided. It is just not the focus or priority of our practice.

Much as there is no need to indulge in utopian (or dystopian) visions about someday achieving a perfect individual meditation session, we neither hope for perfect community relations nor fear they will never arise. In this way, our community practice is focused on the present and available goodness and openness generated from actual human interaction.

Gradually, in the same way that we develop kindness toward ourselves and a stability of mind in our individual practice, we can also develop kindness toward others and a stability of shared intent through community practice.

During our Sunday tea snack, we have the opportunity to explore community practice both by seeing with fresh eyes and ears how we relate with others and by finding what dignity can arise from our genuine rapport. As the tea snack gathering begins to diminish, we feel our social bonds renewed, taking perceived successes and failures, misses and connections, on or off the cushion, out into a broader world.

Without warning, we may find ourselves stopped briefly outside the Center door, noticing how radiant the afternoon sunlight looks, or catching a floral scent of particular pungency in the air. That moment of space and clarity to experience just how vibrant our sense perceptions can be is wonderful feedback that we are fully here, inhabiting our lives—holding the crisp, ephemeral moment joined with the residual hum of enjoying good and virtuous human community.

The Mind of Love

The Mind of Love

The Mind of Love

On Valentine’s day, we think of those we love. In the meditative tradition, we practice arousing the mind of love–a mind that wishes happiness for others.  In his A Little Book of Love, the teacher Moh Hardin writes, “the practice of wishing happiness to others is so simple that it is easy to overlook its profundity.”

On our meditation cushion, once our mind has settled a little bit, we can turn it to the practice of contemplation. In the case of breath meditation, instead of the sensation of breathing, the contemplation becomes the object of your meditative awareness.

From Mr. Hardin’s chapter entitled The Power of a Wish, here are the seven steps in the contemplation called Rousing the Awakened Mind of Love.

1.    We can start with ourselves. We can wish for our own happiness. We can make a gesture of friendship to ourself. Contemplate your own happiness for a minute. What is happiness?

2.    Think of someone you love, then think of a time your loved one was happy and how his or her happiness made you feel. Let your mind stay with that feeling for a moment.

3.    Take that feeling of love and expand to include your family and friends.

4.    Imagine expanding this love to include the people you pass on the street, the people you stand with in a checkout line, anywhere and everywhere…they are the people who live in your town or neighborhood. Rouse the aspiration that they could enjoy happiness today. Expand your love to them.

5.    Expand this feeling of love to someone you consider an enemy. Rouse the wish that your enemy be happy. This step is generally the most challenging.

6.    Dissolve the boundaries by contemplating everyone you have thought of thus far…

7.    Expand your love to all beings on earth. Cultivate your love by wishing that they all enjoy happiness.

When you are finished, let your mind relax and rest in the present moment with the breath.

Simple, yet profound. Thank you Mr. Hardin. For the complete instructions, see A Little Book of Love.

A Little Book of Love, by Moh Hardin, ©2011 by Moh Hardin. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA.

Editor’s Note: Cheerful Valentine’s Day from everyone here at Samadhi Cushions. Not sure if your loved one wants you? Contemplate staying or going with  The Clash.  

Meditation Space: Boulder, CO

 

by Margo Shean

 

As I go to open my mom’s fridge, which happens to be one of my happy places, I notice the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center brochure stuck to the door.  The brochure is full of exciting things sure to fill the dreams of any Dharma Bum.

After a few months of readjusting to the world from living at Karmê Chöling for three years, I am becoming more and more involved in the center here in Boulder.  The town where I grew up and knew so well is slowly becoming a whole new world. 

I have the perfect job for my transition — working on a lovely farm.  My boss, Peter Volz, happened to direct my Shambhala Training Level 4 in Boulder many years ago.  A good friend of mine, Jill, also a Shambhala Buddhist, works on the farm.

While picking cherry tomatoes, Jill and I discussed our “Happy Places”. You know these places? The places where you’re at your best, fully accepted for who you are?  Sometimes these places just delight our sense pleasures: the sampling of products and well-crafted cheeses can really boost your confidence. Delighting in the sense pleasures is perfect at organic grocery stores, which happen to be Jill’s most “Happy Place”.  I would also put organic grocery stores on this list, along with any place I can eat ice cream, most movie theaters, my dad’s backyard, my mom’s fridge, the Main Shrine room at Karmê Chöling, steam rooms, Chautaqua park, Eldorado Springs pool, and I believe even the farm I’m working on would qualify as one of my “Happy Places”.

During a group practice session at the Shambhala Center, one of many group practice opportunities in Boulder, I sit on my meditation cushion and begin contemplating my “Happy Places”.  What does this really mean as a practitioner?  Isn’t every place a sacred place?  Isn’t every situation just what I need – perfect in and of itself?  Doesn’t every instance in my life bring me closer to waking up and seeing the world as it really is?  Maybe every place is my “Happy Place”.  I realize that I’m able to blame a total stranger on the road for something that may or may not have been his fault. I realize, like most people, even us practitioners (or maybe especially practitioners) need love, support, comfort and kindness in order to feel protected enough to handle difficult situations.

Sitting on my zafu, my awareness rudely interrupts one of my fantasy “Happy Places”, and I notice the tag on the meditation cushion in front of me which says “Samadhi Cushions, Barnet Vermont”.  I am instantly reminded of my old home, Karmê Chöling, another happy place where my experience was truly invaluable.

My memory turns to appreciation, which always brings me back to where I am in the moment. I notice all the kind faces in the meditation room and all the people I’ve become so close with here after only a short time.

The large center in the middle of downtown Boulder has a deep history, mixed with a young exuberance, and I find the most common ground here is profound kindness.  According to the brochure, there is something happening every night of the week, even if that means sitting down on Gomdens with your friends without moving or talking.  It seems that everywhere you go in this town you’re bound to run into someone connected with Shambhala. The city is full of original Trungpa Rinpoche students, who I think of as pioneers of Buddhism in the West.  There are also Dharma Brats – or as a friend is calling us, Dharma Heirs – who are dedicated students of the Sakyong.  And finally, there are new practitioners, Naropa students, and a large community of people interested in meditation, health, and well-being as a whole.

Then it strikes me: My most happy place is the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center.  Here, the receptionist often sings to me when I walk in the door, and the Director remembers my name out of hundreds of members – there are over 200 meditation instructors here.  There are very senior teachers and practitioners as well as brand new people with fresh minds.  But most of all, this meditation center is a community of people who accept you for who you are.  Ahhhh, this is my “Happy Place”, and I don’t even have to share my bathroom like I did at Karmê Chöling.  I can finally brush my teeth in peace, and still enjoy the company of my beloved Sangha – a Dharma Bum’s dream and a sun seeker’s paradise.

Contemplating the first noble truth is always important in a place like this, but then again, our minds create suffering wherever we go, and we could all use a little sunshine to help us along the way. What a wonderful place to be, I think to myself. Finally, with only five minutes left in the session, I label it all thinking…and then I breathe.

Meditation Space: New York City


by David Allen McKeel

 

I live in New York City and I work at a meditation center.

By the way, this is a great conversation starter at parties.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m the Director of Practice & Education at a meditation center.”

“Really. Is that a thing? …Can you get me tickets?”

People may not know exactly what my job is all about, but they know there’s potentially something hip about it. Meditation is, after all, “a thing”. You can just picture your favorite model on your favorite magazine cover, sitting on a zafu (a kind of meditation cushion) with the caption “Meet Attractive Singles… The Spiritual Way!”

When I tell people what I do, sometimes they look at me expectantly, hungrily, as if at any moment I’m going to drop some profound nugget of wisdom. This makes me nervous. I get to thinking there’s a sauce stain on my shirt I didn’t catch.

Sometimes I’m the one making too much eye contact. Not because I’m fascinated with what the other person is saying; I just zone out sometimes. Then I realize I’m staring. Then I start looking for an excuse to casually break the eye contact without clueing them in to the fact that I’m desperately self-conscious: “Hey, you’re wearing shoes! Nice… Are those Bruno Maglis?”

New Yorkers in general are always looking for more subtle and sophisticated ways to avoid eye contact. Especially on the subway. iPhones, iPads – these are your go-to instruments. Before Steve Jobs died I had high hopes Apple would devel op an iZafu: a sleek, sophisticated, high-tech-information-portal-meditation-seat. Open-minded creative types would camp out in front of the Apple Store on the eve of its release (salmon swim upstream to mate; we wait on line at the Apple Store). Soon you wouldn’t be caught dead on the subway without the new iZafu 5. “You mean I can meditate, tweet, AND download the new Radiohead album? I’m in!”

But I digress.

Celebrities also make me self-conscious. I’m not one of them, so their constant judgment is palpable. I mean they terrify me. And because we’re in New York City, I’m convinced that at any moment Lady Gaga will walk into our meditation center. Or Matt Lauer will find us after a Google search following an intense argument with his wife. The UN was in session last week. What am I supposed to do if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strolls into the place, looking for a way to cope with his public speaking anxiety? How would you deal with a room full of delegates walking out on you? I’m just saying… this is the kind of pressure that drove me into meditation.

Me: This way to the shrine room Mr. Trump. You’ll want to take off those Bruno Maglis.

The Donald: You have tomato sauce on your shirt.

A couple of weeks ago the building management notified us that the water would be shut off for a day while they made some necessary repairs. This happened to coincide with the first day of one of our introductory weekend meditation programs. It’s an interesting exercise, explaining to a group of new meditation students how they have to go to the bathroom without flushing. It’s also a good metaphor for meditation practice. Instead of flushing away what we habitually wish to avoid… well… you get the picture.

We were a little concerned people would revolt, but luckily New Yorkers are adept at going with the flow. My theory: New Yorkers are natural meditators. Wall Street traders hover over the Bloomberg ticker all day. You can’t walk out your front door without tripping over a yoga studio. And therapy is our ultimate contemplation-of-self. Everyone I meet is either rushing to therapy, irritated because they just came from therapy, or asking if I know a good therapist.

By the way, if you know a good therapist my email address is at the end of this blog post.

One last story: I was sitting on the ground at Madison Square Park, talking to one of my meditation buddies. We were on a lunch break during a weekend practice program and it was one of those magnificent days – bright blue sky, soft breeze, perfect temperature. I was depressed. I must’ve closed my eyes for a minute because the next thing I remember is a little boy, maybe five years old, standing in front of me looking right into my eyes. I was too startled to be self-conscious and I didn’t know how to avoid what was happening, so I just locked eyes with him. It could’ve been seven seconds or it could’ve been all day. And maybe he said something (“Mister, you’ve got applesauce on your shirt”). But what I mainly remember is feeling amazed this was happening… and surprised at how opened up and empty I felt after he walked away.

Presumably to check his email.

Thus I have heard: In a city of eight million wandering glances a little eye contact goes a long way.

 

 

(c) 2011, David Allen McKeel

“iZafu” drawing by Jack Niland

Meditation Space: Boston, MA

In Pamplona it’s the running the bulls. During Holi in Mathura it’s an explosion of colored powders. And at the Boston Shambhala Center it’s the stacking of the meditation cushion known as the Gomden.  Each of these traditions has its own flavor, developing slowly over time.

In 1981 the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the “Gomden,” a firm, foam core, meditation seat.  Not only did this enrich the experience of the meditator, but it made possible “the stacking of the Gomdens.”

Uniform size and stability of the Gomden means they can be stacked with geometric precision.  They can be stacked two Gomdens high along the entire length of a wall.  Six year old children particularly favor this configuration.  They can form higher columns reaching just beneath the window sills.  I have even seen intricate Rubik patterns emerging.

In our Boston Meditation Center, one makes the simple request, “could you please help stack the Gomdens” and the magic unfolds.  Whim and fancy of the first few people depositing the foam seats and mats establishes the pattern, an entire process accompanied by playfulness and the afterglow of a group meditation session.

My first encounter with this nascent tradition occurred some time ago, when I attended a refuge vow ceremony in Boulder, Colorado conducted by the Vidyadhara.  (The refuge vow ceremony is how a buddhist becomes a buddhist.) Three of us drove in from Chicago and were struck by the level of organization in Boulder and the crisp formality of the ceremony itself.  We were told that everyone would have a brief meeting with this remarkable teacher whom we had never met in person but whose books convinced us beyond a doubt that compassionate enlightenment was alive and well.  Ushered into a room for two minutes of awkward conversation you left thinking that anyone with such complete insight into your basic goodness truly deserved the title Rinpoche, or “precious one.”

Following the interviews we were schooled, in numbing detail, on the logistics for the upcoming ceremony.  Seated helter-skelter amid the fields, the devotees and monks of old listened to the words of the Buddha, but that was not the Boulder plan.  Specific rows at the front of the shrine hall were designated for those taking the vow, and each Zabuton and Zafu was alphabetically assigned.  It was a delicate operation.  (The Zafu is from Zen and was the meditation seat used by Shambhala in the early days.)

Calligraphies were created for each name and would be stacked on a table next to the Vidyadhara.  Once the ceremony was underway he would simply reach down for the next sheet, and you had better be lined up in the right order.

Following the ceremony there was a request for volunteers.  The dozens of Zabutons and Zafus blanketing the expanse of the pinewood floor had to be taken up and stacked.  Once I volunteered that fateful day in Boulder, the hallowed silence, modulated movement, and hushed solemnity disappeared in an instant. A motto of “easier to throw than walk over” soon emerged.  I was assigned as a “catcher” along one of the walls and soon whirling zafus filled the air, vying with the best of all frisbee tournaments.  They were quickly shaped into reasonably neat mounds adjacent to rising columns of stacked zabutons. Suddenly realization dawned!  I had taken refuge in a tradition that delighted in orderly chaos.

Orderly Chaos was written by Frank Ryan

Frank Ryan and his wife Susan live in Newton, Massachusetts.  A senior teacher at the Shambhala Center of Boston, Frank never tires of the play between the extraordinary vision of Shambhala and the pulsing immediacy of everyday life.


Giving and Knowing

Generosity is our genes. The word comes from the root genus, meaning of good or noble birth. Noble, in turn, comes from the root gnosis—to know. Generosity speaks to the natural expression of an inherent goodness in human beings that both knows, and by its expression, is known.

This past summer, my wife and I hosted Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his family at our home in Vermont. The Sakyong (a Tibetan title meaning ‘Earth Protector’) is leading back-to-back retreats at Karmê Chöling, the meditation center in Barnet.

For the month-long visit, Jeanine and I move next door, into a small home about 100 feet from our house. We call this place the “cozy cottage” and it suits me just fine. For one thing, there is no cable TV. For another, the phone is relatively quiet, not really the case at the “big house.”

Many people tell us how generous we are to offer our home to the teacher. Perhaps they’re right, but to tell the truth, I don’t find anything special about it. It just feels like the right thing to do. Also, as I mentioned, the cottage has its own charm. Aside from the moving, cleaning and rearranging, the hardships are minimal.

If I was cynical, I might wonder about my own motivation. Does a large well-appointed home suggest importance or self-importance? Is the intent in offering to let go, or to reap higher rewards in the form of attention, praise and the regard of others? Perhaps we give when we fail to appreciate what we have, in the same way that someone might offer food they came by easily but don’t really have a taste for.

We might also offer because we cannot, out of guilt or for other reasons, relax with our own abundance. In this case, giving is unburdening, a kind of distraction from our own resourcefulness. Shifting responsibility to something or someone who can carry the weight.

With these questions unresolved, my wife and I rouse ourselves to face the reality of moving. There is always a moment in the move that hurts. (Doesn’t moving rank just under dying as a stressor?)  This is the moment when the idea of offering and letting go (which for me has always had a reassuringly spiritual appeal) meets the actuality of doing it.

Typically, a disagreement marks the moment. Madame (as she is known by many) asks me to help her “dress up” the garage. We will need the space, she says knowingly. The garage is big and very dusty. My heart sinks and I balk. “Why?” I ask exasperated, as if the rational for this little project will conflict with a logical underpinning for the whole effort. Struggling with the rightness of my wife’s suggestion, the distinction between offering and abandoning becomes painfully clear. It is the beginning of a journey I take every time we vacate the house for our teacher.

After all the moving, cleaning and preparing there is a date. On such and such a day the teacher will arrive. By that time we are out, really gone from the house. Anything we need from the big house, we have it. This deadline creates a bit of stress. You can’t really move your stuff when you feel like it, my wife explains patiently one morning—why don’t you do it today?

This time, because of a renovation earlier in the year, and because the Sakyong’s family was joining him, there are extra details. The process of leaving and setting up the house took longer than usual. The last 3 weeks before the arrival were particularly intense. Days began early with phone calls and emails, ending late with the preparation of a new punch list for the next day. During this time, we were supported by the efforts of a stellar group from the meditation center’s summer volunteer program.

For these three weeks, feeling the fatigue and the time crunch, I didn’t make it to my meditation cushion. Unaccustomed to a physical schedule of “doing,” without time for contemplation, I found myself losing balance, subject to mood swings and strong emotions. At some point it dawned on me that the day would go better if, for a few moments each day, I just sat still to see how I was feeling.

Early in the morning, the sun shines in the east windows of the cozy cottage. Sitting quietly on the couch, sipping tea, I enjoy the moment before emails and phone calls. Inspiration as well as doubt and even depression rise and fall in my mind. I acknowledge whatever the thoughts are—neither congratulating nor condemning them. By giving these thoughts and emotions a moment of appreciation, their colorful roots are exposed. It is a naked moment with myself.

Just by relaxing for this few minutes, taking the time to acknowledge my internal landscape, the long days went better. There was more flow, appreciation, and wonder. In the same way that I wasn’t able to hold on to my house, I discovered, the thoughts and emotions that colored this effort also couldn’t be grasped. In fact, in giving it away (or at least lending it), the house seemed to expand in all directions (certainly in the cleaning this is true!) As we closed in on moving out, the house took on a life and dignity of its own.

Like any activity, giving creates its own momentum. When we give, the world shifts and how we see the world changes. Staring at the contents of my sock drawer that will go to the basement, the question “is it for me or against me?” doesn’t really apply. For or against? Perhaps it is both—or neither. Who knows? More to the point—who cares?!

At the bottom of a sock drawer, humor dawns and the mind grows lighter. I begin to wonder, is my persistent and solemn search for satisfaction and security purely an invention? An imagined drama unfolding in a world full of things that, in truth, can neither be grasped nor given away. And, if what I want is imagined, where does that leave me?

These questions and insights encourage both appreciation and letting go. They are generous. Maybe, as our teachers have been telling us for centuries, the ground of giving—generosity—isn’t something we do, but something we know—our birthright as nobly born human beings.

 

 

Holding and Letting Go

More often than not, it seems, death epitomizes life. This was the case with the passing of my grandmother. Our matriarch, she had held the family together with a balance of judgment and acceptance; eventually she supported my interest in meditation, but not at first.

Still in my teens, I had been living at a meditation center for about a year when I paid a visit to my grandparents in Philadelphia. “Have you ever wondered if they’re putting something in the food?” Grammy asked. No doubt, she and granddaddy had discussed this likelihood in private, but it was her job to raise the question.

“What would ‘they’ put in the food?” I asked. “And why?” Some discussion followed. Salt Peter, I think, was mentioned, its use suggesting challenges sometimes associated with religious training. The question “Why?” was different.

“To keep the people there,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if in training each day on our meditation cushion to let thoughts go, the inmates would, once we came to our senses, leave at the first opportunity. “I work in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure there is nothing added to the food,” I said, trying to reassure her.

When they were younger, as was common in that era, my handsome and modest grandparents sought community and salvation as members of a church. I once found a strongly worded pledge of fidelity to their Christian faith. The pastor’s counter signature was at the bottom of the card. The wording of this commitment, signed before their son and daughters were born, was evangelical.

Later in life, church going was no longer at the center of my grandparents’ existence. Was it a change of heart or simply a relocation that compelled them to let go of this association? Also, how would a conservative church square with the social success and worldly sophistication demonstrated by their successful son and elegant adult daughters? In any case, a growing family was their new community.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother changed. After a year of near reclusively and grief, she emerged open and light-hearted, engaging her world with a new clear-eyed acceptance. “Make friends with yourself and your world,” my meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, encouraged his students at the time. Our world, he pointed out, began with our home, our family.

Grammy and I came to appreciate each other more. She even visited the once suspect meditation center. The solitary retreat cabins on the property meant something to her. “It shows who is in charge,” she said once, after I had let go of my schedule and spent a few weeks alone in one of these cabins.

Near the end of her life, a bible was never far from my grandmother’s bedside. Even so, with me, she was happy to read and discuss Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I had given her a copy of this slim volume, and it too was always nearby, complete with underscores, asterisks and question marks. Her remarks on the book reflected an inquisitive, questioning mind. As a mother and wife she was serious, some said severe. As a grandmother, she laughed more, often at herself.

Around the holidays, Grammy cherished (and compelled) family gatherings, especially if we were all there. On this, the last evening of a long life, most of us were there, gathered on chairs around the hospital bed. In a coma from a brain hemorrhage, Grammy’s final moments had lasted much longer than the doctors predicted. Her two weeks in the hospital had helped prepare us for her departure. We were also tired.

Earlier in the day, a nurse had said “soon.” Would my mom, on her way from the suburbs, make it in time? Suddenly, in a raincoat and stylish scarf, my mother appeared in the hospital room. As if on cue, within minutes, surrounded by her two daughters, son, son-in law, me, my wife, and my two younger cousins—Grammy breathed her last breath.

The room was quiet. Oddly, Grammy’s warm presence was felt even more strongly. It was as if now she was fully free to share the space with the family she loved so well. One of us let the hospital staff know that she had died and asked for time with the body. We all took our turn kissing her, stroking her forehead, saying our goodbyes.

Slim and stylish in a tweed sport coat, colorful shirt and matching tie, the last to pay respects was her son, my Uncle Ralph. As we all had done, he leaned over to give his mother’s body a final kiss and embrace. From that effort, involuntarily, my Uncle passed gas. Given the silence in the room, there was no mistaking the emission. It was a clear, soft, sustained utterance, with a distinct range of notes bridging musically together.

At that very moment, a thought possessed me. A thought that just stayed there, refusing to go, waiting for its import to be fully appreciated.  It was a pronouncement, a banner pulled by an airplane through the clear blue sky of my mind. The banner read:

“I know they talk about death as a letting go, but I think they had something else in mind.”

Transfixed, I didn’t dare examine how others were coping with the interruption. Perhaps everyone appreciated the gravity of the scene, remaining unaffected by this musical coda marking the end of Grammy’s life. I lowered my head, attempting to conceal a wild grin now playing uncontrollably on my face. From the corner of my eye, I saw my Uncle straighten, recover from the embrace and hesitate as he assessed the impropriety. “Sorry,” he said awkwardly, making his way back to his chair.

On my left, my cousin was shaking his head, which I now noticed was also lowered. “No, no,” he demurred solemnly, “It was a gift.”

Here my memory falters. The next thing I knew we were, all of us, laughing loudly, tears in our eyes, bent over, holding our sides. We couldn’t seem to stop. In the small room with a single bed, the sounds of hilarity echoed off the walls, no doubt audible at the nurses’ station just outside the open door. What must the nurses be thinking? How could this situation ever be explained? Questions that only provoked more convulsions.

These were the last moments shared with my grandmother. Nothing more was said. What was there to say? Eventually, each of us recovered our composure and the laughter subsided. Quietly, even meekly, we filed out of the hospital and into a mild fall evening. A soft rain gave the streetlights a wet intensity. It was a sad day and a happy one too. We had joined the one who held us together for final celebration, and in that moment, we had let her go.

Editor’s Note: What more is there to say?

Practice Makes Perfect

Not too long ago, the New Yorker magazine reported on a study of successful start-up companies. What makes some new ventures take off, they asked, while others never seem to get anywhere? We could ask the same question of spiritual practitioners. Like entrepreneurs looking for a market, seekers seek to understand what the world is asking of them, and how by uncovering their own potential, they can offer something of themselves. Something that will meet a real need in their community, in their world.

Karmê Chöling is a residential retreat center just down the road from Samadhi Cushions. Last month, on a mostly sunny afternoon, Acharya John Rockwell presided over a humble graduation ceremony for Mukpo Institute. (Mukpo is Sakyong Mipham’s family name.) As part of this program, four students had joined the residential community for 3 months of intensive meditation practice and contemplative study. Their coursework included a month of sitting and walking meditation, much of it in silence. There were also classes in Qigong, Dharma Arts, the Way of Shambhala and more.

As part of the ceremony, graduates were asked to share their experience of the past three months. While the tone was often lighthearted, there was no doubt that these students, who bonded deeply as a result of practicing together, had done something meaningful. Their remarks, surprisingly articulate, were also heartfelt.

One student explained how in his 20’s, he had read a lot of books on meditation. During this period of study—over 10 years—he never actually sat on a meditation cushion. Without the discipline of facing himself in meditation, he said laughing, old habits prevailed, nothing changed in his life.  As a collector of many ideas, rather than a practitioner of one, the personal journey of meditation he read about remained a concept. In this retreat, concept had become reality. As a next step, he was planning to undertake a training that would enable him to introduce others to basics of meditation practice.

Another student made a similar observation. In the years leading up to this retreat, she had practiced on weekends and occasionally during the week. This introduction to meditation was a very important time, but it was only the beginning. In her view, the difference in the past three months (a difference that brought a profound sense of healing) was the commitment needed to meet the challenges of daily and often extended periods of meditation.

“Actually doing” mindfulness practice, she said—not just talking or thinking about it—was the basis for a new sense of wholeness and confidence. In the course of the three months, there had been a real shift in how this student experienced herself. She now felt ready to move into the next phase of her life: returning to a hometown and family left behind many years before.

In embarking on a journey of transformation, these students had taken a step beyond habitual patterns, concepts and comfort zones. As it turns out, according to the New Yorker piece, they also did something successful entrepreneurs do: having established some confidence in the legitimacy of their idea, they moved on to the next step—prototyping, trying out, testing what they thought they knew.

And the entrepreneurs who got nowhere? They remained stuck in the conceptual phase. In short, without actually trying it, they did something they had already done, reviewing and perfecting their idea. According to the experience of the Mukpo Institute Students, when spiritual seekers don’t embody what they hope to be through a contemplative discipline, there is very little real opportunity for success (or for that matter failure, which may be just as or even more important.) Nothing ventured, as they say, nothing gained.

Experienced and new meditators face the same challenges when it comes to “actually doing” meditation. But experienced practitioners know something that new meditators don’t: there is no perfect time and there is no perfect way to begin the practice of meditation. And, if you want to see what it is you have to offer the world (and what the world is offering you), a contemplative discipline that exposes you to yourself and the world, is essential for success.

In sitting meditation – learning to be, appreciating our experience as it is – we prototype, we imitate an enlightened person. But an awakened heart with a deep appreciation of others and ourselves is our nature, is who we are. (This insight begins too as an idea, an inkling.) By mimicking who we already are, we venture with real potential for success. Congratulations to the graduates of Mukpo Institute!

Editor’s Note: If you are looking for the right way to begin your practice, good luck. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa (uttered long before a shoe company co-opted them): Just do it.

 

The Greatest Teacher

It’s been a month of hard lessons.

We all long to tell the truth, to share what we know. But how? Sometimes really telling the truth requires a turn of phrase, similes, metaphors—a story.

My story begins like this: its been a month of hard lessons.

The hard part? A clot of blood in the lungs was hard, and painful and scary. Painful and scary is a blood clot story with a happy ending.

How is my wife doing? She is doing quite well, thank you. She feels pretty much “back to normal.” Yesterday morning she told our Granddaughter that those skinny jeans were just too tight and she had better change them “Now!” All this at 6AM in a countdown for a school bus. I took it as a good sign.

What’s next? More blood thinner, more tests.

Me? How am I? I don’t know. I’m rattled. The kind of rattled you get when you’re in your car alone, trailing an ambulance down the interstate at 3AM, wondering.

The kind of rattled you get when you are calling a stepdaughter on another continent—from a hospital cafeteria.

The kind of rattled you get when your “love” of 35 years threatens to vanish one ordinary Wednesday evening.

Near the end of his life, Suzuki Roshi yelled at his students. “Death is the Greatest Teacher,” he said, banging his staff on the floor.

I’m a wimp. Insecure with a thin skin. If death is teaching, you can find me at the back of the class fiddling with my iPod. But death, like life, is hard to ignore. A few lessons got through:

Trust your instincts. If you have a “funny feeling” – as a patient or a caregiver  respect it. Don’t ignore it. Life is a funny feeling. Your intuitions may be all you have.

Panicking doesn’t help. Move fast when you need to, otherwise slow down and appreciate what you’re doing. Don’t be hard on yourself. Amazingly, suffering (yours or hers) isn’t personal. Sure you’re afraid, but the uncertainty you are facing now was always there.  Don’t turn away. Be brave. It’s OK to cry.

Remember your meditation practice. If your mind is like a wild horse, follow Sakyong Mipham’s instructions. Lasso it and bring it back to the present. You know you can. In a crisis, “just being” is your meditation. It meets a definition of prayer: “The thing you do when there is nothing else you can do.” (Garrison Keillor).

Nothing to do but have to do something? Wherever you are, do tonglen (sending and taking) practice. Take in suffering on your in breath, give out any composure you have on the out breath. You are not alone in your pain. Others (too many to count) are going through this very thing, right now. Sending and taking will help you, maybe them too. Pema Chödrön can remind you how to do this.

 

Let help and support come. Ask for it when you need it. But don’t expect it. Some will “say what they truly feel in a clear expression” (Emily Post). Others can’t. You might be angry. Remember a definition of aggression from Chögyam Trungpa: demanding sympathy.

 

Say “Yes” to your new life. It never was “old,” you’re just noticing how new it always was. Now, on top of the fridge, instead of a bowl of fruit there is a box of syringes. Let it be there.

 

Question everything. Use the Internet. Educate yourself. Knowing a little more, you suffer a little less.

 

There is a realm too exhausting to describe. It’s called the Tired Realm. In this realm doing anything is hard. Sitting on your meditation cushion? Too late, should have done that earlier. When you can, leave this realm by the door marked “REST.”

 

Yes, you were wrong about so much. You thought that everything cared, that even the night sky at 3 am was somehow on your side. Did you want to think that forever? Feeling “wrong” now only points to your investment in feeling “right.” That must have been satisfying, in an exhausting kind of way. Why not relax?

 

If someone is in pain, ask them how they are doing and where it hurts, but not every 10 seconds. Let them share what they want to share. What you hear may end your future. If your future was in the habit of being your present, that may seem to go too. You will find it again.

 

 

My wife’s pulmonary embolism occurred on Wednesday evening, May 4th. (And yes, she is really much better.) Sorry if this a bit of a downer.

We Buddhists get a bad rap for dwelling on life’s shortcoming and these days I do find myself a little sober. But aren’t all good students a little sober? Note: I also hear the birds of spring in a new way and notice details long overlooked.

What is life then, if it’s not what we thought it was?

My grandmother once marveled at how quickly her 90 plus years had gone by. “Like the wink of an eye?” I asked.

“Exactly!” she replied, satisfied with the turn of phrase that might begin (or endwould it matter?) her story.

A story that could be true.

Editor’s Note: “As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space, an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning, view all created things like this.” Lord Buddha, The Diamond Sutra