The True Refuge

According to my meditation teacher, to practice meditation is to be vulnerable, requiring the discipline of simplifying and slowing down. This journey takes intelligence and a willingness to acknowledge our connection to others. Sitting on our meditation cushion, we are exposed. Our willingness to be exposed is an expression of strength.

Of course security is important and meditation requires relaxation. But if we are left alone for a minute, and we give our discursiveness a rest, inevitably we begin to feel. To feel what we are feeling is to be human. To be human is to be vulnerable.

But now what? What next? Where do we go? Where is our refuge? Upon what can we rely?

It’s ironic, but some of us, even those of us practicing meditation, have forgotten that vulnerability is our natural state. Often unconsciously, we work to solve the dilemma of our thin skin by aspiring not to feel.

Co-opted by fear, our meditative discipline becomes a drug designed to enhance only the good and reduce or eliminate the trauma of living. As social scientists have come to recognize, in suppressing what is difficult in being human, we also lose what is sublime. Pursuing what is comfortable and protected, we find ourselves more dead than alive.

Unable to be simple, we need a story. We find protection in the righteousness of our discipline, or in a superior view, or maybe we embrace a spiritual path that sanctifies our togetherness. Aspiring to a higher and less vulnerable self, we confront the world with a knowing smile. With pride we offer to tidy up a mess of our own invention. As Bono sang, we are ready “to play Jesus, to the lepers in our head.”

Even if we don’t bother with elevating our self-esteem at the expense of others, our imagined insulation from the world permits a subtle nihilism. We allow ourselves the hypocrisy of pretending that our actions haven’t hurt others and that the hurts we have suffered are somehow behind us. The only way to maintain this self-deception is by moving along to the next thing. When it comes to what is real, and what is now, we demure. That is for another time, we tell ourselves, embracing small talk or the news of the day.

Absorbed in the drama of our security, we forget that what’s above us isn’t a roof. It’s the sky. Space that goes up effectively forever. We acknowledge the living earth only when it comforts or glorifies our existence. For the most part, we treat the planet as a corridor leading to our next destination. But this ‘corridor’ is spinning and careening through space. We, the inhabitants are also in transition, with no idea when our number is up. Being vulnerable makes sense. It is the way things are.

Instinctively, we know all this and our refuges are almost a reflex. Because the shelters we seek are reflections of our own insecurity, sooner or later they let us down. When our contract with the ‘other’ eventually falls through, we are left tilting at windmills, placing blame, and critiquing the demise of a world we ourselves had invented. A world built around imaginary contracts written to ensure that we would never be exposed.

Since we are involved in a pattern that betrays us, no matter how glorious or gloomy our circumstance, subtly we hold on to a sense of injury. Each day we  wake up with the feeling that we have been wronged and that life going forward needs to make it up to us, or at the very least, leave us alone. Our patterns reflect this complaint. They are circular, and having played one out without satisfaction, we are compelled in the moment to start again. Vulnerability is this fresh start. But now what? Where do we go? What is the true refuge, the one that won’t disappoint, the direction that doesn’t lead us in a circle? For a refuge to be real, it has to be true to who we are.

Meditation brings focus, centering and a measure of relaxation. But once this natural health has been experienced, our practice is a chance to feel. In spite of our humanity, we don’t always have the nerve or motivation to take this chance. Why should we? Because by slowing down, feeling and being, we can know and understand our hearts. Connecting to ourselves, our connection to others is revealed. Naturally, we discover that we care. When we discover caring, the one true refuge is available.

This true refuge is native and easy and it is a decision made after careful consideration of the alternatives. It is personal, manifesting differently because we are all different. Whatever the expression, it is the one way to connect with the world that brings peace. Because it has to start somewhere, it could begin with admitting that there is nothing wrong with who we are. It might mean extending ourselves or practicing forgiveness . Because it is both natural and imposed, sometimes it means “YES!” and sometimes “NO!” It is the path that will never disappoint or mislead. It is the only way forward, the only way to grow.

The one true refuge? Kindness–to oneself and all beings.

Editor’s Note: An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama how he got over the desecration of his country by the Chinese. He look puzzled: “I didn’t,” he replied. When Mr. Greenleaf was asked about this post, he shared that it was written “at a difficult time, after my favorite refuge had let me down—in what I imagined to be a big way.”  For more on the power of vulnerability, see the Ted Talk by Brene Brown.

 

Remembering My Self

April 1st Barnet, Vermont We remember here Acharya Michael Greenleaf, a senior teacher in Shambhala and a co-founder of the wildly successful Mukpo Institute.

The Acharya’s road to revered ‘would-be Master’ was not easy or anticipated. As a boy, he mercilessly harassed his one sibling, a younger brother. Both smarter and more sensitive than Michael, Tony suffered this abuse with dignity. Later, Michael would take credit for “introducing my brother to the Buddhist path of patience and loving kindness.”

By the age of 13, a growing intuition told Michael that his destiny lay in rock stardom. By the end of his teens Michael shared 2 traits with the rock and roll legends he worshiped: self-absorption (born of mind-altering drugs) and permanent hearing loss.

In college, Mr. Greenleaf’s World Literature professor accused him of plagiarism.  Michael’s paper reported on the story of a teenager in rural Africa. Apparently his observations mirrored scholarship at the time. Mr. Greenleaf, who would forever deny the charge, credited his grasp of ‘primitive’ culture from “having attended High School in Texas.” The next semester, Michael changed his major to Accounting.

Graduating during the recession of 1982, Michael struggled to find a job in his chosen profession. After pounding the pavement, Michael received an offer to join the CPA firm of Shepard, Schwartz and Harris. New to the rough and tumble of business, loud noises and surprises at the office could startle the rookie. “If the client shouted, or if the partner forcefully passed gas, I was in danger of wetting my pants,” he shared, while reminiscing about his start in accounting.

“I had only one friend at the firm, a benevolent CPA named Eli,” he continued. “During the audits we’d debate the existence of God. In Eli’s mind, God’s handiwork was obvious every time he found parking downtown, which he managed do quite frequently. I expressed what I thought was a healthy scepticism. Taking me aside one day, Eli looked me in the eye and very gently suggested it was time for me to find my ‘own people’.”

In 1986 Michael left the CPA profession to join a biotech start-up. Committed to the development of novel anti-cancer compounds, the enterprise had only to “go public” to make its shareholder/employees millionaires overnight. Two years later the promise faded. During in vivo testing, the leading compound wiped out an entire floor of laboratory mice. In spite of this experience, Acharya Greenleaf remained charmed by the prospect of having money without actually doing anything to earn it.

In Chicago, after tasting her coq au vin — a chicken stew, Michael married Jeanine, a woman of French descent. For the Acharya, this blessed union initiated a process of steady weight gain, a marked improvement in wardrobe coordination as well as the development of habits associated with basic personal hygiene. This also began a life-long discipline of “exchanging self for in-laws” which Michael practiced until the end.

Seeking a profession where failure was less measurable, and wanting to “share some good news for a change,” in his 40’s Michael left accounting and turned his attention to the realm of the spirit. Addressing meditation students who questioned his status as a spiritual guide, Michael defended his business background.  “Accounting helped me prepare for the the contemplative life,” he told them, “I learned how to find meaning where there really isn’t any.”

After years of diligent meditation, Michael grew disillusioned with the pace of the path, and started to resent the work required for spiritual progress. A fellow traveler at the time related what, to many in his community, was already evident, “Michael seemed happy with the attention and status of being a teacher, but it was clear that his interest in meditation and service to others was more or less replaced by an obsession with fine dining and luxury automobiles.”

Around this time, Mr. Greenleaf became a step-grandfather, a status he called “rock bottom in the family system.“ Later, when his teenage granddaughter moved into the quiet household Michael shared with his wife, the new relationship renewed the Acharya’s longing for solitary retreat. “When all you can hear is split ends and skinny jeans, you know there has to be something more,” he explained to the retreat master.

Near the end, at the request of his teacher, Michael taught on the practice of generosity—“a demanding topic that took a lot out of me,” he said in an interview. Those who experienced Michael in his later years saw a new sense of calm and contentment. At the memorial service, his wife Jeanine shared a portrait that had many in attendance nodding their heads. “As long as he was well-fed and could drive his beloved automobile, Michael was a pretty happy person.”

Author’s Note: Yes, I’m still here. Lately I’ve been saddened by death, including, since I wrote this, the passing of Roger Ebert. Mr. Ebert lived in Chicago–where I started my accounting career. More and more these days, I know the names of the movers and shakers who have died. Their ages are also closer and closer to my own. The standard obituary is all about accomplishments–feathers in the cap as it were. The problem: when you look for the “self” underneath all the feathers,  you can’t find it. All you get is feathers. Which is sad–or funny, depending upon how you see it. Reflecting on this, I decided to write my own obituary. What I wrote is basically true, which is kind of funny. And sad.

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.

 

What to Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation Space: NERCF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

Would you like me to give you meditation instruction?

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

When Suitcases Fly

IMG_0184As if by magic, the suitcase was flying through the air. Well, in my defense, it wasn’t a suitcase really, more of a carry-on bag. But it was definitely airborne. It flew through the open door, crossing the threshold of our house well off the ground and landing with a thud that startled our granddaughter who had just entered the mudroom.

Later, I would defend myself, saying that at least I didn’t throw the thing at anyone. It landed safely. No one was hurt. Suffice to say, none of these explanations meant much to my wife. A few steps behind me, she had recognized rage in the way the bag left my hand.

Ironically, (and painfully) this Sunday evening I was on my way home from a cheerful and pleasant weekend of teaching on Shamatha or Calm Abiding meditation. During the weekend, I had been the picture of calmness. After all, that was the subject matter. Walk the talk as they say.

Having been apart for over a week, my wife and I had many things to discuss on the ride home. I found all of the topics  stressful. As each one surfaced, I felt the weekend’s equanimity slipping away, replaced by anxiety. Every situation discussed seemed to hold limitless potential for suffering.

The contrast between the cool of the weekend and the heat of household issues was stark. Like a happy kid with a bag of cookies that had developed a hole in the bottom, I panicked. On heels of panic came rage. Rage was fuel for the flying suitcase.

“And you were teaching Calm Abiding?” my wife asked incredulously. “It doesn’t seem to have helped very much!” she added dismissively.  By now my meditative composure was gone. Other than to apologize, there was nothing I could say.

So, you might be wondering. Was I, the esteemed teacher, able to admit to myself that my Calm Abiding practice was a sham, the pretense of teaching it a charade and in general the whole exercise of a meditation weekend a deceptive waste of time—both for me as well as my hapless victims at the meditation center?

Well, yes and no. One thing about meditation practice, it is challenging. And as my friend David Schneider put it to me recently, the path of meditation includes, well, a feeling of failing. The moment of now is slippery. Our patterns are deep. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi—“a good meditator is not a good meditator.” Just like anything you do, if you think you are doing it right, well, you think you are doing it right. You are one step further away from actually doing it.

But still, I enjoyed real equanimity during the weekend. This calm filled a deep hunger in me and I cherished it. But it all vanished in the blink of a suitcase. Were my practice and path completely off-track? According to the meditative tradition, the answer to this last question is “No.”

In fact, the phenomena of flipping out when something or someone gets in your face and “just ruins” your meditative equipoise is one of the hallmarks of Shamatha or Calm Abiding meditation. Rather than being a failure, it displays one of the classic symptoms of a meditation practice focused only on the “chill factor.”

The Dalai Lama tells a traditional story to illustrate this point. A yogi (or yogini) is sitting perfectly in meditation posture. So perfect in fact that they remain motionless on their eco-friendly hemp zafu pillow for weeks and weeks. So blissful the meditation and so long the session, their hair grows several feet and begins to cascade around them. Taking advantage of the hospitable situation, a family of mice finds the hair and begins to set up house. Eventually, a warren of nesting vermin surrounds the practitioner.

At some point, all of this home building pries the meditator from the calm of equanimity. Their first experience is fear. Where they end and the mouse housing begins is unclear. Once the shock of this home invasion wears off, they are pissed—pissed that their blissful session had to end, pissed that it ended in such ignominy. In a flash of anger, their hard won meditative composure is gone.

According to the Buddhist tradition, cultivating mind’s inherently peaceful nature has a point beyond peace itself. The composure gained is used to practice contemplation or insight—investigating and understanding the truth. If we are honest, however, we have to admit that when it comes to insight, sometimes we just aren’t in the mood.

How we frame our meditation practice will determine what it will offer us. In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham encourages contemplation practice as a way of “turning the mind” developed in Shamatha from its focus on “me and my meditation” to the deeper questions of what is true about the nature of experience—ours and everyone’s. Wisely, Sakyong Mipham also encourages us to look honestly at our motivation for meditation practice.

Without the willingness to allow for insight in meditation, every circumstance, even a simple conversation, can present itself as a challenge to our composure.  We may begin to feel betrayed by life, reacting as if there were no alternative other than to fight to defend the dignity of our spiritual achievements.

If you lose your temper after a session or retreat, don’t be discouraged. You are in the great tradition of those who have explored the path of meditation. In “losing it,” your own restless intelligence may be telling you that, in facing life’s challenges, it is time to look more deeply, to go beyond the chill factor. Topics for exploration might include the impermanence of calm abiding and the workability of nesting mice. Cultivating honest insight into the truth of experience, perhaps we can offer each other something more than smooth sailing (and the occasional flying suitcase.)

Editor’s Note: Dear Michael, the newer carry-ons have wheels and can roll. This might satisfy your aspirations as a baggage handler while keeping suitcases somewhere closer to the ground (where they belong). Being pissed off and calmly abiding have something in common: they both involve the mind holding (in the case of anger, maybe more like biting) onto something. Contemplating emptiness, practitioners expose the mutually dependent nature of this relationship between subject and object, between baggage handler and the baggage—whatever it might be.