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.

 

How to Ask Your Teacher a Question

"The Teacher Listens"

You are attending a meditation class online or a weekend program in your city. Or perhaps you have taken off from work to sit on your zafu cushion for a week retreat at a residential meditation center. The teachings have focused on meditation in everyday life, and now you have a question.

For a moment you hesitate. The last time you asked a teacher a question was in your college algebra class. Somehow this feels different.  For one, you feel a real solidarity with others in your class who are exploring the path of meditation. Some of them may be shy, but you can imagine your classmates benefiting from the answer you’re seeking.

You also wonder if there is an unspoken protocol for questions in the spiritual arena. A rebel at heart, you may be inspired to upset this protocol. On the other hand, you may worry that the question you ask will trouble a certain true believer, a fellow meditator who never seems puzzled by what they hear in the class.

Lastly, as time is limited (even in meditation classes!) you wonder if your query will displace another person’s more pressing and meaningful question. Meditation practice has sensitized you to the preciousness of time and you would regret wasting it for anyone (especially the teacher!). The following guidelines are offered to help you ask a question that moves your class, and your understanding, toward the truth:

 

1.    Keep your Dignity   Remember, having a teacher isn’t just a license for confusion, it’s also a license to wake up. How you ask your question is important. We all have a colorful case history, but your question happens now. Appreciate the moment you and your teacher will share together.

 

2.    Know your Motivation: tell the truth  Rather than revealing anything, sometimes questions keep us from the answers we need. Do you know what are you asking, really? Why ask now? To tell the truth doesn’t mean you have  something to confess. The truth is subtle, it has parts. There is your question, what you are questioning, and the question-er—you. Let your question reveal these three.

 

3.     Give up Complaint  Being unhappy or critical is real, but it may not prove anything. Frustration is a good beginning for a question, but not necessarily a good end. How does your question make you feel and why? Questions are harder when we resent the question itself or are afraid of the answer. No need to over-think it, but if you know how you feel and why, your question can have humor.  If you can’t find the humor, sit with the question for a minute. You may find another question behind it.

 

4.      Know the Answer   A wise teacher once asked, “If you don’t know the answer, how can you ask the question?” The question comes from your heart. Give your heart a chance to answer it. Knowing your answer will give your question depth and energy. Questions aren’t just the teacher’s challenge. Let your question be an offering. If you can share your question and the knowledge of your own heart, your teacher will be inspired to share theirs.

 

5.     Can You Listen?  Sometimes your teacher will speak to your question. Sometimes they will speak directly to you—the person behind the question. Inevitably, your teacher will share their vision. The point isn’t that’s it’s theirs, the point is what this vision inspires in you. The braver your question, the more your teacher will be able to share. Ask for clarification if you need to, but hear how their answer feels.

 

From listening to your heart and words of your teacher, and by spending time on your meditation cushion, you discover that questions contain their own questions, as well as their own answers. Since ultimately the world is our teacher, let this conversation with our teacher celebrate our mutual bravery expressed in the art of contemplating the questions (and answers) we share!

Meditation Space: Chicago, IL

Meditation in Chicago

I’m Gina Caruso and belong to the Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago, which is housed in a vintage estate along Sheridan Road not too far from Lake Michigan. Chicago is known as “the City in the Garden,” or Urbs in Horto. Gardening, it turns out, cultivates more than the plants around our building; it’s a magnetizing force that attracts people to the Shambhala Center.

Most summers I would garden in the front of the building and several people would stop and ask me about meditation. Inevitably they would ask what we do, or mention how they walk past the Center and always wanted to stop in. People have a natural curiosity and motivation to find ways to work with what arises in their lives. Sometimes it just takes that simple human connection to help them explore the Shambhala Center. It becomes less a building on the corner and more of a place to explore their humanness. I’d be surprised and heartened by people’s immediate candor once they knew what we do: I’d hear stories of stress at work, challenges caring for aging parents, and the general release of what’s on their mind.

Along the Shambhala Buddhist path, there have been many teachers who plowed the hard ground before us and allowed Shambhala teachings about Basic Goodness and kindness to grow. I can’t help but be reminded of this as I turn over the ground to Black-eyed Susans, sharing with passers-by how meditation can help them in their daily lives.

When I welcome newcomers to the Center, I offer them different ways of doing sitting practice, such as the traditional cushions – zafu, zabuton and gomden – but also using a stool or just a chair. It’s helpful to let people know they have options for meditating so they can stay engaged with the practice.

The Chicago Shambhala Center – like many other Shambhala centers – has a great balance of fluidity and structure. Fluidity in that someone can come and go as they please without expectations, and structure in that if someone wants to relate more deeply to building community and to their practice, we have forms and structure to support that. It’s inspiring to know people from the first day they come in for meditation instruction, to coordinating events, taking Buddhist refuge vows, and becoming an integral part of the community.

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and we’re branching out into satellite centers south and west in the City. Not only can people take meditation classes convenient to where they live, but they will have the main center on the north side for larger programs. Also, we are pretty close to Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin so our sense of a “center” is really more regional.

I remember my first time going to the Shambhala Center and how instantly I felt at home. Looking back, I think it had to do with the people there feeling at home at the Center, and I wanted to know and experience what it felt like to be a part of that community.

Twelve years later, as Chair of the Governing Council at the Center at a time when the world has so many challenges and as people have a real desire to feel a sense of belonging, that sense of community is even more needed.

It’s helpful to ask ourselves “What will support awake mind and benefit society in this moment?” And asking others what they do to support awake mind, especially in the container of a Shambhala Center, makes the journey that much more workable and inspired, much like how amazing it is when those Black-Eyed Susans come up every year.