Meditation: Waiting to Connect

Meditation Posture

Meditation CircleIt was 1975. My Buddhist meditation teacher was coming to NYC. I wanted to see him. I also wanted my Aunt and Uncle, who lived near my boarding school in rural PA, to be able to appreciate him as well. Besides, I didn’t really know the city and could use some help getting there. A high school senior, I had been practicing on my meditation cushion for several years. Aunt and Uncle were skeptical. This was before the Dalia Lama, before karma was in Merriam Webster’s. If Buddhism wasn’t a cult, it was certainly foreign. Tibet was unknown. They found a babysitter, and we drove into New York City from suburban New Jersey.

The talk was in a spacious church. We arrived on time. There was plenty of room. Curiously, well after the starting time, people were still wandering in. At some point, the place was full and a bit noisy. The hall echoed as hip 20- and 30-something’s exchanged greetings and chatted.

How long did it take Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche to arrive? An hour? An hour and a half? Long enough for the lively chatter to be replaced with a subdued tension and the occasional grumble of irritation. My Aunt was no exception. She had found a sitter for her teenage children, had talked my Uncle into driving us, and now we were waiting. And waiting. Waiting for a person who was alleged to have answers, to have wisdom. No announcements were made to explain the delay. Frozen in the face of family turmoil, my stomach tightened, bracing for whatever happened next.

While her anger was never directed at me, in those days my Aunt had a temper. Arouse her wrath at your own risk. She was charming and smart, but if she was mad, she was not to be trifled with. After an uncomfortable hour in the pew, my Uncle suggested we leave. No, my Aunt was firm. We would stay. My own parents having separated many years earlier, my Aunt and Uncle were like a second father and mother to me. They were paying for prep school. Their home was my home.

My dad was in Texas, my mom in Boston, my younger brother in Colorado: life was already in pieces. Would anything ever connect? Not tonight. Hopes for a good impression had evaporated. My Aunt and Uncle were Christians, but not strictly. Having confronted the hypocrisy of church elders as a teenager, my Uncle, a budding artist, could wax cynical on all things pious. My Aunt remained open to the Protestant faith of her parents. Neither one was closed-minded.

Finally, just as people had started to leave, there was a shuffle on the stage and Trungpa sat down in the chair that had been waiting for him. He didn’t apologize for keeping us. If he even noticed the room’s irritation, it was hard to say. For half an hour or so, Trungpa spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice. I have no recollection of what he said.

As Trungpa spoke, my Aunt’s irritation seemed to grow. After hearing the questions from the audience that somehow overlooked his lateness, she turned to me. “How can he tell people to trust their own intelligence and keep them waiting for an hour and a half?” she asked, an edge of exasperation in her voice.

Knowing there was no answer, I mumbled something. Before I knew it, my Aunt was out of her seat and had approached the front of the room. Trungpa was still in his chair, sharing hellos with well-wishers at the foot of the dais. I followed along anxiously. Nicely turned out in a knit suit, her purse clutched under one arm, my Aunt put the same question to Trungpa. There was urgency in her voice.

My teacher leaned down, a smile brightening his face. “Well,” he said slowly, articulating each word, “It depends.” Incredulous, my Aunt reformulated her challenge. Again leaning towards her, Trungpa offered an explanation, “I didn’t want to jump the gun,” he said, seemingly delighted at having found the phrase that captured the moment. As if losing interest, Trungpa casually looked to the next person who was waiting to talk to him.

In my mind’s eye, there, in front of the stage, is where the top of my Aunt’s head kind of blew off. The conversation was over. We left the church and rode home. It was awkward. My Aunt and Uncle never asked to see Trungpa again. When they referred to him, in lieu of the honorific Rinpoche, they would call him ricochet.

Undeterred by this setback, after high school I moved to the meditation center Trungpa had founded in Northern Vermont. Two years later, I was off to college. Before I left, I shared with Rinpoche that the (one) school which accepted me had a program in Buddhist Studies. There was a very long pause. “I think you should study business,” he replied, without explanation.

As the years past and my meditation practice deepened, my Aunt and Uncle began to voice respect for the tradition I had embraced. Chogyam Trunpa died. I became a student of his son, Sakyong Mipham. They were especially pleased when the Sakyong named me Acharya, or senior teacher.

Tonight, almost 40 years later, we will try again. My wife and I will travel with my Aunt and Uncle to see Sakyong Mipham give a talk and sign books in New York City. My Aunt, once a housewife, is now a producer of cabaret. She has been reading the Sakyong’s latest book and “really getting a lot out of it.” My Uncle, an established sculptor and patron of the arts, is interested in doing a statue of Milarepa, one of the patron saints of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to being a Buddhist teacher, I am a CPA. My Uncle is over 80, so we may not stay for the book signing.

And yes, I think we all are a bit anxious. As my Aunt shared with me approvingly on the phone the other day, she expects Sakyong Mipham to be on time.

A Secret Shared

Quick Roasted Brussels sprouts

Tonight I have to be at the meditation center. Our little study group, all long-time practitioners of Buddhist meditation, will meet at 5:30. With our teacher’s blessing, 8-10 of us are reading and discussing sacred “terma,” or “hidden treasure” texts from the Shambhala tradition.

The road to this study group was long. Many years of dedicated meditation practice, contemplation, retreats, and funds were required. Perhaps this is why we are so few.

Students of meditation, we are also school teachers, engineers, bookkeepers, artists, Internet geeks, business executives, nurses, parents, and grandparents. The two texts under study highlight different views on the path of meditation and realization. Outside of our little group, we don’t refer to these texts by name or otherwise.

Last week, this most sacred of sacred, most inner of inner, contemplations began with Brussels sprouts. Roasted actually, with olive oil, and a dash of lemon. Catherine, following a simple recipe from Donna, brought these intriguingly named vegetables to share in our potluck. (Yes, the original sprout might have been cultivated in Belgium). It is not in my nature to appreciate Brussels sprouts. But these were lauded as exceptional and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the one I ate.

As we snack, we talk–current events, both local and global, inspiring or entertaining books, our own news, or news of others. The conversation, superficial or personal, is often animated–all of this without a PDA or a glass of wine. I know what you’re thinking: we must be old. Well, perhaps. We do all seem to be over 40. But our schedules are full. Savoring our exchange together, we are ageless.

If communication isn’t moderated, one might wonder, how it is that members of a group don’t all talk at once? What accounts for the smooth flow of speaking and listening that includes everyone in the group? According to social scientists, the answer is eye contact. And how often do we simply look at a face—and not because we’re waiting for change, or thinking about a kiss, or trying to manage the impression we hope to make?

Faces tell a story. The thoughts we’ve entertained over the years shape the way we hold our jaw, furrow our brows, manage our hair, and shift our gaze. Enjoying Brussels sprouts and Vermont cheddar (my contribution), we read the stories that life has written in the eyes, laugh lines, and crow’s feet on each other’s faces. And we listen–appreciating what is said, and what is unsaid.

I’m not sure why, but this social time is remarkable. Maybe it is the power of the meditation center, a neutral but uplifted space where one is somehow both a host and a guest—and neither. Certainly relaxation is encouraged when food is shared.  Perhaps our mutual intention puts us at ease. We all profess an interest in being less confused, more awake to life and more capable of being helpful. Certainly, we would acknowledge the benefits of slowing down in meditation and finding the space for contemplation.

Having snacked, chatted, listened and looked at each other, we clean up and head into the meditation room to find a seat, taking our sacred and secret texts with us. We arrange ourselves in a circle. Energized from our time together, there is a sense of relaxation and even celebration. Each class seems to begin with the same fresh discovery: we can connect, know and understand each other. None of us is so different from the other.

Sitting on my meditation cushion today, I am emotional. This small group of people has shared so much: years of study and practice, campaigns to establish and host spaces for others to learn meditation, and now the study of advanced and esoteric teachings on the nature of reality. But our spiritual accomplishment manifests very simply and humbly: we can be together, eat and talk. We have learned how to appreciate, respect and maybe even love each other.

Opening our texts, there is a silent acknowledgement. Whatever we may uncover in our study of the profound and sacred, it will arise out of what is shared—our humanness. And these insights, however subtle or surprising, will be accessible to everyone, anywhere, at any time—like the secret of a good Brussels sprout.

Letter to Seniors: 7 Ways You Can Help

Editor’s Note: In this blog post, Michael Greenleaf imagines a letter from a member of the younger generation to those of us who are older. The tone suggests that age brings more responsibility not less, that to grow old is to grow up, and that these times carry with them some urgency. The qualities demanded in the blog are consistent with practice on the meditation cushion. In meditation we allow ourselves to slow down. Willing to expose our true nature to ourselves, genuineness, intelligence and caring for others are naturally cultivated.  An Author’s Note follows the blog.

Dear Seniors, In these uncertain times, we look to our elders for wisdom and understanding. While we know it’s not intended, sometimes you freak us out. We need you not to do that. Also, before you go, the world could use some care and attention. Here are 7 small ways you can be a big help:

1. Smile and Nod: For one thing, smiling is healthy. For another, a frown on an aging face resembles the onset of rigor mortis. Could it be time to lighten up? You have had your whole life to practice a greeting. If you can’t meet someone’s gaze and smile, what hope is there for the rest of us? When you stroll past us like we’re not here, we have to wonder if you’re all there.

2. Slow Down: Later, you say? No time, you say? Maybe you missed the memo: later is now. Where do you think you are going exactly? And in such a hurry? I’m sorry; bustling kids with a bright future are kind of cute. Do you equate rushing with being alive? When you rush, it doesn’t look like you’re going places; it looks like you’re running away.

3. Transcend High School: Dear future graduate of the School of Life, the people you will leave behind are all afraid of each other. Just look at gun sales. We may be full of youth, but we have trouble talking to friends, let alone enemies. Sometime before ‘graduation,’ it could help if you got to know someone outside your circle. We are all in transition. Yours is winding down. Can you risk something? From where we sit, it looks like you have less to lose. Think of the graduation ceremony. Since when can you have too many friends?

4. Dress Nicely: We like it when you dress up. It’s something we’re not even sure how to do. Ladies, please, nothing too tight, remember your circulation. Gentlemen, you need to shave (or trim) the beard. Every day. Otherwise you look dangerous. Sweatpants? OK if you’re working out (do you still call it that?) Seeing you in your sweats at the drugstore, however, we have to wonder what you wear at home. If you don’t respect your aging body, it just makes it that much harder for the rest of us.

5. Listen: It’s true, the young have trouble with commitment, except to our iPhones. A lot of us live in our hoody and seek out only people we know. And when we do communicate, we mumble in a hurry, and wtf, say and write things we need you not to understand. But we want you to listen. Why you? Well for one thing, no one else is. For another, we have to know that you care, that you are used to thinking about us. If you haven’t thought about our future, who has?

6. Share Your Vision: Yes, you can share! But do we always have to talk about how great it was back then, about the crowds at Wal-Mart, or your latest accomplishment, or telemarketers? We do care about those things, but feel free to share some perspective on how we can save humankind and why we should try. Tell us about the world and its enduring beauty. If you don’t see it, it might mean we’re all going blind.

7. Be Kind: While an angry young person might be a work in progress; an angry old person is a natural disaster. Being mean, you look like the rest of us, which is to say, like you never grew up. Kind is from the word kin—for family. It’s scary when you’re pissed, and it upsets the children. Sure, once you were a tiger. No offense, but it’s time to be a kitty cat.

Author’s Note: This past weekend my wife and I attended a function for a local charity. Held at a (relatively) posh venue, eighty of us, mostly retired people, enjoyed food and drink, presentations, and a nice view of the Green Mountains. We knew only a few attendees, but were nevertheless surprised how rare it was for any of the other guests to meet our gaze, never mind strike up a conversation.

Part of this may be the culture of Northeastern Vermont, where, unless your grandfather (and everyone in your family since) was born here, you are a newcomer. The whole affair was poignant: uptight older people embracing a cause of the heart, but unable or unwilling to share their own. If you can’t relax, how can you share? Accustomed as we are to hanging out with our Buddhist community and fellow practitioners of mindfulness meditation, my wife and I had to wonder if we were the problem. When anxiety rules, it’s hard to say where it begins.

In any event, most of the advice aimed at seniors these days is about how they can continue to behave like the rest of us. In this blog post, I share some (OK, occasionally cheeky) alternative suggestions from the perspective of a later generation. The presumption is that with their life experience, seniors should know better. Of course, since life is uncertain, and the time any of us have left is unknown, we are all ‘seniors’ of a stripe. Reflecting upon our shared fate and the fleeting nature of existence, one can’t help but feel that at some point, small talk and small thinking just won’t do. The world needs our help. We need to encourage each other.  If you are offended by my helpful hints, so am I. According to the AARP, I’ve been a senior for the past 5 years.

 

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?

 

7 Reasons for Community

virtuous community

In our Meditation Space category we feature stories from people sitting on meditation cushions and practicing community. In case you imagined that having a community was optional, here are 7 benefits of community life that suggest otherwise:

 

1. Calming Consumerism. With the vagaries of real relationships, our community is never the “best” one. These days, everyone wants the best for “me.” But community isn’t a “me,” it’s a “we.” In community we’ll have friends, friends who don’t agree, and friends who don’t agree and need help. Always wanting the best for ourselves makes life a competition or a shopping trip. A life that culminates in shopping might not be meaningful. To give, to share, is to find meaning. Aren’t you tired of shopping, even for agreeable friends?

 

2. Seeing Yourself. In community there are the “good” ones and the ones whom, for whatever reason, you can’t abide. There are also those who live in your blind spot.  You don’t notice them and they can’t figure out what planet you are on. Exploring community is an exploration of you. What you love in others, you can see in yourself. What you can’t abide, is a mirror reflecting back too brightly. And the ones you never see? You tell me.

 

3. Leading and Being Led. We’re rough on our leaders. Perceiving a fault, we give up on them. In the meantime, we follow our impulses as if they were kings. Leadership isn’t just an idea, it’s a necessity. The reality of leaders means you have to find your own place. And yes, you might not be #1. If you don’t know how to give feedback and support to your leaders, you don’t know how to make a society. If you don’t know that, where do you live?

 

4. Rubber Meeting Road. These days, everybody talks a good game. A trendy men’s magazine in a doctor’s waiting room has advice about meditation, acceptance, emotions—you name it. But if all you do is read, sit alone on your zafu cushion and chat up self-help with a friend over calamari, you might imagine that something more has happened. It’s a good start, but trust me, your journey has only just begun. Join other volunteers in one effort and you’ll be amazed. There is (a lot) more work (for you) to do.

 

5. True Romance. Connecting eye to eye with a larger world, our hearts (and trustworthiness) are revealed. In community we open our hearts and let down our guard. In the relationships of community others can find us. Romance isn’t just about seduction and “getting lucky,” romance has to be earned. In community, romance is earned.

 

6. Inspiring Change. Meditation is featured in the popular press, but why? If meditation is part of your plan to finally “get it together,” you’ll need help. But to celebrate (the word root means to gather in a group), there has to be a shared reason. I’m sorry, but if your only community is a bunch of guys hoping to lower their resting heart rate, how is that helping? Find a community with a vision that reflects the goodness of human society and you will grow. You just can’t do it alone.

 

7. Learning to say goodbye (and hello). Life is change. While we imagine something else, life slips away. Of course if you keep moving and talking, you might never notice that Mary is gone and that John just arrived. Spend all your time building sand castles and you’ll be surprised by a wave. Community teaches us the ebb and the flow, how to laugh and how to cry—how to be human. Can you afford not to be who you are?

 

Editor’s Note: Mr. Greenleaf joined his meditation community when he was in high school. Some of us gave up on community in high school. Most of us have grown up since since then. Can’t community grow up too?