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

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.) According the psychologist, it is in this exchange 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 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 own tensions, is itself making room for others. In the politics of successful relationship, we are all statesmen and stateswomen.

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

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

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

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

 

What to Do?

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.

Dear High School Senior

Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980
Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980
Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980

Dear Graduate,

What is your dream job? To teach meditation? I understand. That’s what I do. It’s a dream job. But I didn’t start there. I started in Accounting. If Accounting can lead to meditation, it can lead to anything. Congratulations on your diploma. Now you will need a job. My advice for college: study Accounting.

Seriously! OK, I understand. You are young. You want to live your dream. But if you want to dream, you need to sleep. To sleep, you can’t be hungry. To eat, you need a job. It’s a cliché—but if you want a dream job, be a genius. Or, if the genetics haven’t lined up, do what no one else wants to do. Esteemed Senior, I don’t have to tell you, Accounting is way deep into that last category.

Sure, start with Liberal Arts, if you have to. But ask yourself, has understanding post-modernism ever helped anyone? [Dear educated reader, a short comment explaining post-modernism is entirely welcome.] Me, I gave up on the Arts, at least in school. Why? Maybe my world lit professor. He accused me of plagiarism. He thought his class was worth plagiarizing for. On what planet?

Before college I told my Buddhist teacher that I planned to study Buddhism. Instead, he suggested I study business. Now that I know more about Buddhism (and more about myself), I don’t think I was smart enough to study it. My meditation teacher was a wise man.

Then there were the job postings. I graduated in a recession. There weren’t many jobs, but there were jobs in Accounting. And they paid. That settled it. If you’re going to get accused of plagiarism, might as well get a job out of it. I gave up the job of homework for the job of finding a job. Dear Senior, I don’t want to go lowbrow on you, but aren’t you tired of homework?

Where is the meaning, you ask? Accounting has meaning in spades. There is no meaning beyond differences. To know something is to compare it to something else. Differences are made when you add and subtract. Like quantum mechanics, Debits and Credits have to balance, somewhere.

If that is all too much to take in, I understand. Accounting is deep. Debits in the left column, credits in the right. That’s all you need to remember. Graduate, there is a point to life. For accountants, it happens to be a decimal point. We even have our own magazine. It’s called The CPA Journal. It’s not just boring; it’s a vast wasteland. You will need a sense of adventure.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not enough to be bored. You have to be learning. If you’re like me, you will have a lot to learn. If you aren’t learning, you aren’t paying attention. If you’re not paying attention, you’re not working. Terror gets your attention. If you count boredom as terrifying, Accounting has terror in spades. Accounting will get your attention.

Dear Graduate, I see your eyes have glazed over. If you only want to dream, maybe sleep is what you’re really after. Is your dream of success all about you? What about that cute number on the other side of the column? Sure, you’re number one, but where is the romance in that? There are other numbers who could use your help.

Accountants are here to help. Meaningful work is helpful work. Sure, occasionally we overcharge. If the Tax Code was on your Kindle, you’d overcharge too. Accountants are different. We are all about your money. We only overcharge with your permission. That’s helpful.

How long before you can have a real job? A job you love? I’m not sure. According to the philosopher Alain de Botton, the idea of fulfilling work is a modern invention. It was born in the 1800’s, around the same time as the notion that you could be happy in marriage. We can cover relationships later. They start out as dreams too. I’m old, but let me share: sooner or later, love is work.

I got out of accounting after 12 years. Twelve years of boredom, terror, paying the bills and…Well, that was about it. Why did I leave? I have to thank my last boss. He was a chain-smoker; I loved him. I loved him because he was real. His desk didn’t have a computer; it had an ashtray. He consolidated 50 companies using pencil, paper, and an adding machine. (OK, this is ancient history. But back then, real men smoked and knew how to use a pencil.)

My boss would blow smoke rings where they don’t belong, but he never BS’d you and you couldn’t BS him. He was my hero. One morning, I was sitting in his office. The sun was lighting up the curtains behind his desk. He was floating ideas for my next job at this multi-national corporation. I was nodding, but he could tell I wasn’t interested.

“I love making money,” he said, changing the subject after a pause. It was the answer to a question. A question I hadn’t asked. I knew he wasn’t talking about making money for himself. His work had made a lot of shareholders wealthy (it was a public company). He was talking about being helpful.

He stared past me at the wall of his office. He had a way of looking at you like you weren’t there. After another long pull on his cigarette, he finished his thought.  “You have to love what you do.” In that moment, in his office, in suburban New Jersey, realization dawned. Paying attention, being helpful, loving what you do–they could all be the same thing. My training with this hero was over. It was time to move on.

Dear senior, thank you for your attention. Don’t worry too much about your career. All you need to get started is a job that pays bills and makes you to pay attention. Now you know what that job is. When you pay attention you will help somebody. If you help someone, you will find yourself. When you find yourself, you will recognize your dream. In your dream, you won’t be alone. You will be on the left, but others will be on the right. It will be a meaningful dream.

Editor’s Note: Not sure you will be able to pay attention when nothing is happening? Time on a meditation cushion can help you train your mind to do just that.

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.

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.

 

Volunteers

220px-Pansy_Viola_x_wittrockiana_Red_Cultivar_Flower_2000pxThis spring, will a flower emerge in the same unlikely spot? Blooming alone in a bed of stones next to the front door, last year the colorful Pansy surprised us. Pansies are biennials. In their first season, they grow green; in their second they flower, seed and perish.

“Volunteers,” David calls them, referring to the flower’s ability to extend itself to another bloom. David is helping Jeanine and me with some spring-cleaning around the yard. He moves slowly, but with the confidence of someone who knows what the earth is up to. These days, the earth is up to a lot.

The devastating tornadoes in the Southern US are a reminder that this planet, while it gives so much, can also sweep it all away. Residents who survived the storms in Alabama were struck by how quickly the devastation was wrought. In one screaming minute, their house, neighborhood, and many of their neighbors, were gone.

We think of time as something natural, but for most of us, our schedule, while more or less in accord with the rhythms of the earth, is also something made up.  (It is helpful to remember this when there is ‘no time’ for sitting meditation, not to speak of simply slowing down to appreciate this fleeting moment.)

The fragility of our schedule is exposed when the earth follows its own. In an earthquake or windstorm, time stops. Mother Nature moves the elements in ways we have trouble imagining. In that moment, how we imagine ourself and others also changes. In the communities of the South hit hard by the storm, the helping energy and efforts of volunteers—anyone who survived, from children and college students to senior citizens—is making news.

Our imagined independence from each other is a dream that points to how connected we all are. Troubling one another as we do, how could we and our lonely planet be otherwise? Unexpected moments beyond time can surprise and challenge us. But if we look, even in the midst of the seemingly secure and routine, we can find these moments in the changing hours of the day.

As I write from Vermont, storm clouds are again gathering over the northern half of the state.  Lake Champlain, the lake that separates Vermont and New York, is well above flood stage—in fact, it’s at its highest level in over 100 years. In the approach of evening, whether wet or dry, all of us will look for shelter, finding it in a house or apartment, in a room bathed in lamplight or dressed in the light and shadows from a flickering screen.

Now that spring has arrived and the snow is gone, the little stand of woods that is the backyard of our house is more accessible. But after nightfall, I wouldn’t get very far. For one thing the ground is uneven. There are brambles, fallen branches and tree stumps. For another, there are, according to my wife, bears—just waiting for a mindless husband to find himself the main course at the dinner hour. If I wandered out there in the dark, I have no doubt that the moments would grow longer, or if my wife is right, fewer and shorter.

Glued to our laptops, we may find ourselves longing to forget the fragile position we occupy on the planet. No contract binds the earth to meeting our demands for food or shelter, not to speak of the isolating comfort of web surfing. Ironically, it is in chasing this cherished comfort and isolation that so much suffering and anxiety is generated. The more comfort and isolation we enjoy, the more time we imagine ourselves to have, the more unsettling the challenges of simply living.

Pointedly, when disaster strikes, we are all suddenly closer and the welfare of others arises as the only concern worth concerning about. How exactly we connect may not be clear. When and where we find each other may seem accidental. But in the unlikely here and now we share we each other on this earth, we bloom, we surprise, we volunteer. It’s natural.

Editor’s Note: Our hearts go out to those who have suffered during the terrible storms in the Southern US. If you or someone you know lost a meditation cushion, bench or other supplies supporting your meditation practice, please share your story by replying below. If you prefer, our President, Jeanine Greenleaf invites you to reach her at jeanine@samadhistore.com.  Samadhi Cushions would like to help you replace what is replaceable.

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.

Dinner on Me

IMG_0778“Maybe it’s because you were such a sore loser!”

My father’s tone was buoyant. He wasn’t whispering. After a sip of wine he can be buoyant, and as he ages he is more buoyant around his kids. My wife Jeanine and I were there, but this holiday dinner was special. His daughter, my (much) younger sister Maron, was visiting from California with her boyfriend Justin. There were six of us at the table, including my step-mom. Dinner, at a local Thai restaurant in St. Johnsbury Vermont, had just been served.

Both Justin and Maron are PhD candidates at Stanford with promising careers ahead of them. As the oldest brother who didn’t see them much, I wanted to build on what I hoped were earlier positive impressions. Justin knew me as an Acharya, a teacher of meditation in the Shambhala tradition. Was that a career, I found myself wondering?

Outside, the white snow was blowing sideways through the light of a streetlamp, a typical December evening in Vermont. Oh, and yes, my father was talking to (and about) me. Jeanine and I had been discussing how our granddaughters, ages 14 and 12, were getting along.  “How did you and Tony get along?” my sister Maron had asked about my brother and me.

“Well, basically we fought until we were in our mid-teens. Then we kind of patched things up.” Fighting is just what teen siblings do, my response implied. Pops (what I call my Dad sometimes) was inspired to fill in the gaps.

“When you lost a game with your brother,” Pops paused for effect,  “you were such a sore loser!” I couldn’t tell if Pop’s voice was getting louder or it just sounded louder in the intimate confines of the restaurant. Was I imagining, or was Justin, who knew me as the Buddhist Teacher (read: non-violent) older brother, looking confused or even concerned?

Perhaps to speak up for his absent son (Tony and his wife couldn’t make it that night) Pops continued. “If you lost, you would just destroy the game, whatever it was.”

“Older brother’s prerogative,” I said flatly, hoping to deflect attention from the graphic image of my teen-self shredding game equipment, my younger brother helpless as an object of youthful enjoyment was eviscerated before his eyes.

“I remember once, you boys got this gift in the mail. It was a big hockey board game that you played with little hockey players on the end of rods. After you lost a game, you just destroyed that thing. It had to be thrown out. Whenever you lost to Tony, it would just put you in a rage.” Pops never lost his cheerful tone. He seemed to be marveling at the memory.

“Well, that would have been less of an issue if Tony hadn’t beat me at everything,” I replied, trying to salvage this portrait with some sympathetic brush strokes. It was no defense, but it was also no exaggeration. In any one-on-one competition that required concentration and composure under pressure, my younger brother would best me. From tennis to chess, I could never touch him.  I presumed superiority over Tony, born a year later, shorter and skinnier. To be bankrupted by virtue of an unalterable scorecard was, well, (apparently) untenable.

As a teacher of meditation, or anyone working in the world, you need a back-story, a résumé, something to let you and everyone else understand who you are (and why anyone should pay attention to you). I began sitting practice when I was 15. My résumé featured this tender teen on a meditation cushion—the story of a gifted, precocious, even spiritual youngster—not the raging asshole now cheerfully identified between bites of curry.

Caught off guard by my Dad’s revelations, I wondered about my own official history. Had I begun to make the same assumptions about myself that I hoped others would make? To give a full accounting, would my back-story now have to figure in rehabilitation or even intervention?

And doesn’t the picture of someone who brings to the spiritual path a violent craving for superiority cast some doubt on the authenticity of his title and wisdom? How could I distance myself from youthful adventures when the genesis of my meditative discipline dates from the same era? Is a childhood fixation on winning really so different from the effort to maintain an elevated status in a so-called spiritual realm? Even as Pops waxed enthusiastic, wasn’t I worried about how my sister Maron and her boyfriend Justin would see me? Wasn’t I still, all these many years later, playing to win and afraid of losing?

At the restaurant, I looked for a skillful way to close the topic. “You know Pops, as a loving parent, this is the point where you wrap up by finding something positive to say about me as a young person.”

Maybe he had just taken a bite, but Pops didn’t immediately respond. Before the silence got awkward, Justin weighed in. Apparently, he was still listening. Just my luck to have a couple of scholars at the table, I thought to myself. “It sounds like you did a thorough job of destroying the game,” said Justin respectfully, looking me in the eye as he spoke.

“Well, it’s true. When you destroyed that hockey game, you did a very thorough job,” said Pops, reinspired. “That thing took up so much space. I was happy to see it go.”

“That’s it?” I feigned exasperation (or was I feigning?) No longer interested in the past, Pops had turned his full attention to the coconut curry. My positive qualities as a youth would go unexplored.

Perhaps to head-off another uncomfortable silence, my wife Jeanine spoke up. “No wonder you have such a self-esteem problem!” she exclaimed, focusing on what was now an apparently obvious personality defect. It wasn’t clear if Jeanine meant to comment on my troubled past or on the apparent enthusiasm evidenced by my Dad as he exposed, once and for all, my status as the older brother from hell. Never mind that this was the first I’d heard of my “self-esteem problem.” When my WASP family gets together, Jeanine, who is French, struggles to participate in our mysterious ways. I pretended not to hear her.

Artfully, though I’m sure she knew the answer already, my sister Maron asked her boyfriend Justin how he got along with his brothers and sisters. I waited hopefully for a sordid tale that would shift everyone’s attention from my history. If he had brained an annoying sister with her hair dryer, for example, this would have been an excellent time to share that story. Unfortunately, compared to my past, Justin’s disputes with his sisters seemed, well, normal.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that. Expose your past and you expose your present. Outside the darkness around the streetlight was deeper. The snow was still blowing, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I felt the quiet you feel when you discover you’re not quite the person you want to be—and everybody knows it.

The evening ended with cheer and warmth and without revisiting the conversation. Before it was over, I did something I’m often moved to do when dining out with my family. I paid for dinner.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noted that, more often than not, Michael’s dramas feature food? Of course that might be understandable around the holidays. What he has failed to mention here is that Kham’s, the local Thai restaurant, is really good. Even visitors from the big city tell us that. And not to diminish in any way Michael’s generosity toward his family, Kham’s is pretty easy on the pocketbook too.

Retreat Journal: Unemployed

IMG_0020According to the philosopher John Locke, we think we know what we need to know and we all think we’re right (credits to my 14-year-old granddaughter and her Humanities teachers). As a young person I knew that I was special and superior to others. According to the way I was raised, superiority was then to motivate altruistic behavior. Noblesse Oblige as it were. Good works expressed  ambition. Being good (or better), meant working to “do good” better. To do right was to be right.

A group meditation and study retreat is something good to do. But like rock climbing, you soon understand that in the face of a daily schedule that fully engages your body and mind, you have one option: to relax. Personal interactions also quickly reveal that the person on the meditation cushion next to you has a lot to offer. If you are proud like I am, you are surprised by the contribution your colleague makes to the collective wisdom of the group.

For those of us who thrive on being special and better, it is a humbling experience. Not only is our habit of overlooking others exposed; our whole orientation—the one that puts us at the center of universe, seeing others as so different from ourselves—is revealed as patently mistaken.

We are not so much smarter, we are not so much more sensitive and we are not so much more confused than everyone else. In my case, this everyone else has been 20 other people here in a retreat at Karmê Chöling. All of us are sitting quietly together, hearing Dharma teachings, discussing the subtleties of the teachings on insight and the vagaries of our own journey of meditation.

In practicing together, it is easy to see that we are very much alike. We all long for some peace of mind and an experience of freedom. Short of that, we wouldn’t mind suffering a bit less than we do—the sooner, the better.

This is confusing. How should we orient ourselves if others are, in some essential way, as “special” as we are? The first thing to do, of course, is to relax. Understanding ourselves, we understand others. Knowing ourselves, we know others. How we relate and communicate need not be confusing or mysterious. We have a place in this society of practitioners. It is neither higher nor lower than our colleagues. In a group retreat, we breathe the same air, share the same afternoon sun, meet the same evening sky. In short, we share the same planet, the one under our bottoms and our meditation cushions all day long, this planet Earth.

The feeling of a shared place and experience creates a new sense of responsibility. Our connection to the group depends upon relationship rather than status (whether we imagined it as high or low). This relationship in turn depends upon our insight into what if anything is needed by others. In a natural way, our insight into the needs of our society of meditators is connected to what we have to offer.

In the spirit of group meditation practice, we find ourselves moved to support others in any way we can. This may be a fleeting thought, but it comes naturally. It is as if we were all stripped down to our hearts and veins. All of a sudden there is a room full of exposed hearts. Instantly, there is the instinct to care.

Slowing down the spinning web of thinking that keeps us convinced of something that isn’t there, meditation reveals gaps in the illusion of our separateness and our superiority (or on a bad day our inferiority). Confronting the simple fact of our aching body and restless mind,  we are left exposed and tender. Our attachment to being “right,” to being different, is revealed as a defense mechanism, something frozen over something alive. This unraveling is a relief of course, since maintaining our sense of difference takes so much work. For many of us it is the work of a lifetime.

Not being separate is also a bit of a letdown. Losing faith in our view of separateness, we are newly unemployed. Not only are we not right, we are also out of a job, the familiar job of being ourselves—at least in the way we imagined it.

Editor’s Note: Michael is, let’s just say—more relaxed, after he’s been on a meditation retreat. We miss him (a little) when he’s away, but the change is noticeable, so it’s worth it. Of course if he’s really feeling under employed, there is some restocking to do in Samadhi Store. A shipment of incense just arrived :-).