Giving and Knowing

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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.

 

 

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.

 

For Men Only: A Valentine

Be Here Heart

Dear hombre, how can you be in relationship if you don’t know, well–how to be?  Whether you are strutting in your Cole Haans  or clumping around in Carhartts, stress leaves you hard to find and blinds you to beauty in the moment.

Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress—in other words, meditation supports relationship success. Here are five ways:

1)    Take-Home Pay In tuning you up, we can’t ignore the green. Your ability to provide is a turn on. But if you take work home in the form of worry, that’s unpaid overtime. By allowing you to trust yourself as you are now, mindfulness meditation gives worry a rest. When work stays at work, your pay rate jumps. A would-be partner wants to know that you value your time. How else can you value theirs?

2)    Yes Captain! Meditation lowers bad testosterone, you know, the kind that has you doing 60 in a School Zone and fondling the remote when a partner wants to share. OK, maybe studies are still looking for the bad testosterone, but how many times have you blown by signals a mate was trying to send? In meditation, the now is enjoyed. Rushing to be somewhere you’re not loses its appeal. Slowing down, you are longer driven; you are the driver. That makes you the pilot of your own ship. Pilots are sexy.

3)    Cleaning Up It doesn’t take a neuro-scientist to understand that meditation makes a better brain. Regular mindfulness practice reveals a bigger and brighter world. Your brain notices—and comes along for the ride. Every man-cave looks bigger and better without the clutter. Mindfulness meditation is mental hygiene. Promising partners will require hygiene before neurons are allowed to transmit.

4)    New Tricks No offense, but the boredom of old dogs is contagious. Ignoring the fluidity of life, habits bring tension rather than the safety they promise. Sure it’s a guy thing, but why double down on a lack of imagination? By training you to say “yes” to what is new, meditation opens the door to adventure in the moment. Appreciating your friend in a fresh way, you can start over. Starting over is new romance.

5)    Being There Are you married to your PDA? Who wants a three way with a digital device? Learning to “be” in meditation reveals a space that longs to be shared. You don’t just need a network to plug in, you are the network. You would demand it from an Adroid, what about your connectivity? A heads up (if you can manage it), your iPhone will never cook you eggs at midnight or smile at your dimples.

It’s best to learn meditation from someone trained in teaching a basic technique. Search on “mindfulness meditation” to find qualified instruction where you live. The next step: to support your practice, make a space for meditation in the man cave. Your meditation cushion (or bench) is a conversation piece that suggests there is more (or less!) to you than meets the eye.

Of course, to put your feet up with the one you love requires something your partner won’t be able to resist: Real Estate. You might not have the coolest crib, but in mindfulness you will discover something essential for meeting and hosting your Valentine: Space.

Editor’s Note: Cole Haans? I don’t think you could find a pair within 100 miles of northern Vermont where we at Samadhi Cushions live and make the Zafus and Zabutons we are famous for. Not sure how to explain the vibe here in Acharya Greenleaf’s post. Was that a copy of Men’s Health Magazine I saw peeking out of his bag of Dharma Books?

Cliff Dwellers

Red Brain, Blue Brain

I promise, this blog is not about the fiscal cliff, slope or whatever it was. Not really. But I have to wonder, how it is we are all going to find reason in our relations with each other. By all accounts, the President made offers that should have enticed Republicans long before the deadline. “Why,” some wondered, couldn’t the holdouts in the House of Representatives just “listen to reason.”

In a book reviewed by the Times last spring, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an answer. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt asserts that human beings (politicians presumably among them) don’t make decisions based on reason. Our decisions come from how we feel. As humans we are intuitive and emotional. Logic and reasons come later as a way to support the value-based decisions we have already made. [Note to the blog: I only read the Times review, I didn’t actually read the book. I will leave that to the scholars, those in the profession, and the rest of you who have no trouble understanding why a thesis that takes 300 pages can’t be said in 10. If some of you find irony in this, you are my kind of reader!]

At any rate, the psychologist writes that Republicans (as a rule) feel deeply about faith, patriotism, valor, chastity and law and order. Democrats, on the other hand, are mainly moved by the challenge of defending those who can’t defend themselves. In both cases, the parties have very human aspirations for society. Haidt calls these moral values. The word moral has the weight of judgment, but the root is related to the simple idea of manners, or the appropriate behavior for citizens of a society.

Aside from the question of how we should behave with each other, how do we behave? If it depends upon how we feel, then in the realm of I and other, “the other” is an emotionally charged phenomenon. To paraphrase the Buddhist Teacher Chögyam Trungpa, when there is a knock on the door, we have either a bottle of cabernet or a semi-automatic ready and waiting. This insight is supported by neuroscience.  Before the ears have heard and the eyes have moved, rather than reacting, the brain has anticipated the next sense encounter.

If we don’t notice that our feelings are pre-programmed and that the decisions we’ve made have been “spun”, when does real communication happen? Without feeling a shared a humanity, we find ourselves alienated, hostage to principle. Entrenched in our own views, we and the politicians who represent us are freed from the burden of exchange that characterizes society (the root of the word means partner or comrade).

Of course to have a partner is to be two, not one. Who is a partner? Someone who  listens. Listening changes minds, if only a little. (According to Haidt, 2 minutes of contemplation around a considered argument is all it takes.) It is in this exchange, according to the psychologist, that true reason is born. Expounding well-rehearsed opinions may be satisfying, but a reasonable (you could say sane) society is built on something as simple as a conversation.

Of course conversations are everywhere. No one needs a psychologist to tell them that listening changes things. Experience tells us that merely acknowledging our partner’s or family member’s contrary opinion results in a changed atmosphere, if not a consensus. Only highlighting differences, however, “we” becomes “us and them.” Estrangement and separation follow.

Awareness, the kind cultivated on your meditation bench through mindfulness and contemplation, is helpful here. In the discipline of undistracted time alone, our own humanity is harder to avoid. Confronted with feeling, the endless chatter of “reasons” is revealed as an overlay, a justification. We begin to sense subtleties. To paraphrase Trungpa again, in exposing our internal drama, good things appear as bad, and bad things appear as good. Making room for our own tensions, is itself making room for others’. In the politics of successful relationship, we are all statesmen and stateswomen.

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

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

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

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

 

What to Do?

Esopus Creek, Steve Mancinelli

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.

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!

Holding and Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What Goes Around…

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Congratulations everyone. According to the lunar calendar, it is the beginning of a New Year. The fact that the earth turns and winds up where it left off is somehow reassuring. The fact that we have lived to see it is cause for celebration and reflection. The year was a journey. Where did it take us? Older now, our time and how we spend it can only be more important.

In Shambhala, to mark the start of the annual lunar cycle, we distribute a little soft cover calendar called a Practice Book. It is offered to anyone who shows up at a Shambhala Center during the celebration of what we call Shambhala Day. This year Shambhala Day initiates the year of the Iron Hare. It will be celebrated on Saturday, March 5th, 2011.

When Practice Books were first introduced in our community many years ago, I remember being less than thrilled. I can be lazy and forgetful. Why should I remember what happened yesterday, or even this morning? Why keep track of missed chances for meditation, especially when there are seemingly infinite moments to make up those missed sessions? Anyhow, it cramped my style. Sure, obstacles arise between me and my meditation cushion. Is struggling with discipline a failing? Is meditation something I “should” do, rather than something I want to do, when I want to do it?

Many Shambhala Days have gone by. Older, I recognize a reluctance to relax with the moment I’m experiencing now as the driver creating obstacles to sitting practice. I also might remember that there are only so many moments left. Discounting the one moment I have doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than feeling bad about my confusion, whenever it occurs, I make a point of slowing down, relaxing and appreciating my experience as it is: what I see, touch, hear, taste or smell and think—this very moment. After all, it is my present experience itself that I will work with on the meditation cushion, whenever I get there.

What has happened and what is happening now do give real hints as to how we will decide and experience what happens next. Reviewing past entries in my Practice Journal, patterns are revealed. I think to myself, “my goodness, I knew that month was busy, but no time to sit down for 10 days?” Another month, I see that Wednesdays, (the gap day between Monday and Friday perhaps?) show up as the day I finally find a moment to sit on my cushion in a given week.

In addition to daily sessions, group retreats are noted. There is freedom in retreat, but it is a freedom that comes from relaxing without recourse to any other moment. While the intensity of a retreat schedule can be challenging at times, retreats offer clarity in which to take an unvarnished look at experience, mind and life. This year, the retreats I did felt good and real—without much drama.

Of course, I do have dramas and these are documented in my practice book as well. Sometimes a thought won’t leave me alone. Upon reflection, it isn’t the same thought that returns over and over, but what the thought is thinking about presents itself as solid and continuous. This last is something that can’t be said about real things, which seem always to be winding up or winding down.

The pages of a Practice Book are small, so if you’re recording dramas it helps to be pithy. Last December, instead of meditation sessions, some days note the brand names of cars. December 30th shows “Buick,” the 31st shows “Toyota.” I am fixed on the idea of a new car. It’s a long story, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that the reason I’m looking for a different car is mostly because I can. With this freedom, I am free to imagine that the right car will actually take me to a new place in my life, somewhere other than the place I am now. This drama returns over and over.

When this Car-ma hits me, I might dream of models and options, or maybe think of financing, then Quantitative Easing, the Fed’s policy of buying back Treasury Securities; which could drive inflation, which might spike interest rates, suggesting time to borrow, especially if you can lock in a low rate on your new vehicle. Where were we? Oh, yes, Practice Books.

Year after year, thoughts grab the wheel of something they have only imagined. Slowing down and just being in sitting meditation, we see that restless thoughts don’t grab the thing itself—only the idea of the thing. My dream car will never arrive; as a result, it will never take me anywhere.

Needless to say, we have to think about our life and consider the decisions we face. Thoughts aren’t just taxi rides to nowhere. They can wake us up. But to recover from sickness we need to appreciate our underlying health. In the same way, successfully imagining a future moment depends upon seeing the power and potential in the moment we have now. Restless recurring thoughts, however—whether positive or negative—are fixed upon something that doesn’t exist—a moment divorced from this one. They mesmerize us with the promise of a rescue or the threat of a kidnapping. We follow these thoughts, fully expecting to wind up somewhere very different than where we are.

Chasing or chased, whether a dream or a nightmare, thoughts of another moment eventually abandon us in the same place—by the side of a lonely highway, in the dark, in our underwear, disoriented and robbed of our time. Year after year, again and again, wearing out the tread on our tires, they drag us along for a ride to nowhere.

Looking at my  obsession even more closely, there is a deeper truth. It is not so much that I am addicted to the thought of a new car. If you look for them, you can’t even find the thoughts you’re supposed to be attached to. Really, my attachment is to attachment itself. In the language of meditation—a habitual pattern. It goes around.

Sitting in meditation is a journey, but a straightforward one. Meditation works is because it doesn’t have to address new cars or whatever the recurring drama. These preoccupations reflect habits. They pretend to be connected to something, but they are not. Going around and around, like a dog biting its own tail, my desire connects only with itself.

Gently bringing our attention back again and again to the sensation of the breath, we discover a straight path in this present moment, and we do the work of being it (not driving it!) one moment at a time. This journey takes place now. But our past was now once, and the future will be our now someday. Reviewing the entries in our Practice Journal, we review the past and acknowledge the future. The culture of meditation doesn’t discount the importance of the past or future. How could it? Nowness connects them.

If you are like me, you remember well the little work you’ve done and have forgotten all of the work you’ve managed to avoid. My Practice Book tells me when I have been working with my experience in the direct way that is sitting meditation and when, in contrast, my thoughts have been driving me—usually in circles.

Things that go around and around can make ruts.  The circle your car will make is called a turning radius, a specification that tells you, once you’ve set out, how far you go before returning to the same place. Even if we are lost, there is something reassuring about returning to a familiar spot. Of course, it isn’t that nothing has changed—now there is a little less gas in our tank.

Wishing you a very Happy, New and straightforward Year.

Editor’s Note:  Practice Books are available here at Samadhi Store. The page for each month is headed up with a quote about the path of meditation from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Lunar phases, Buddhist holidays and other traditional days of practice and celebration are also noted. BTW, isn’t an Iron Hare what goes around and around the track at a dog race?

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.