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 :-).

Salt Minding

IMG_14311-225x300A Study

The other day, I had a chat with my friend Amos, a doctor. He told me about a study looking at salt in the diet. Excess sodium in our food has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease among other debilitations.

Habitually reaching for the saltshaker, or for potato chips instead of carrots, we make a potentially life changing, if not life-threatening decision.

In the practice of mindfulness meditation we settle our mind by bringing our awareness to the cycle of breathing. Being with ourselves, we arrive face to face with the habits that drive us. Some we acknowledge as our own, some routines seem borrowed from elsewhere, from parents or perhaps colleagues.

The first stage of sitting meditation practice is an almost scientific inquiry. What have we been doing? What have we been thinking, feeling? How are our feelings habitually experienced, expressed? Like the salt in a saltshaker, how do our thoughts get out, onto and then into our life?

Flavor’s Provenance

One day the chill in the air heralding the fall season suggests new beginnings, the next day the thought of summer ending leaves us cold. Does life have a taste of its own, before our reaction to it? What is that taste? How does life taste—now?

Habitually, we might feel the temperature, think about it, reach for a sweater, think again, comment on the chill, move, feel something else and think again. All of this happens seamlessly, almost unconsciously. There is a sense that we need to manage our experience, like a smoky campfire threatening to go out.

Settled on our meditation cushion, we notice this mental busyness, this speed and momentum. The pace of life has shaken up our thoughts and feelings. But what about the impact our thoughts and feelings have on the world as we experience it? Which came first—the world or our feeling about it?

What’s On the Menu?

Like habitually following thoughts, meditation is something we do. It is proactive; it is engaged. When the mind wanders from the sensation of breathing, we gently bring it back. When a thought happens (“peanut butter—salted”) and the body starts to move (toward the fridge), we let go of the thought, gently coming back to the sensation of our body breathing. A familiar thought might trigger a familiar emotion and a pattern is revealed.

In the process of slowing down in meditation, natural clarity dawns. Initially in sitting practice, we might be startled by the sheer volume, intensity and speed of our thoughts. Up until now, we had associated intensity with our experience of life’s ongoing challenges. Quietly alone on our meditation cushion, a question emerges: how much of life’s flavor comes from our thoughts and feelings about it? The idea of ourselves as a free and distant agent, managing and sampling life’s menu, is exposed as a myth. We also begin to notice a kind of continuity to our experience—whether salty or sweet.

Chef’s Surprise

In the openness allowed by sitting meditation, we discover a white-knuckle grip on the handlebars of life. There is tension, tightness, as we move from moment to moment. Every experience is judged as helpful, challenging or irrelevant. Saddled with the imposition of our commentary “this is good” or “needs work,” we are left with a sense of struggle and anxiety–as if the job each moment was to consume our experience, correcting the seasoning as we go.

Unaware of the intensity of this struggle, our own energy returns to confront us as a challenge. Preoccupied with our agenda, we miss life’s messages–subtle shifts in flavor are overlooked. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, life serves up a surprise.

All of sudden, an acquaintance is seductive; the presumed answer we were waiting for never arrives, shocking us; others’ mistakes besiege us or life works only to undermine a sense of ease. We may find ourselves inexplicably alone and underappreciated.

Clearly, things happen in life that can’t be anticipated. In the dramas initiated by our habitual patterns however, we quickly find our own feelings and reactions at center stage. Having ignored our friend, why our how he or she became so beguiling remains a mystery. Our reaction to the sudden attractiveness is what stuns us, leaving us dazed and confused. We feel helpless in the face of our own feelings and impulses which we witness as private, overwhelming, inevitable and out of our control. There is a sense of familiarity, we have been through this all before, we’re just not sure where or when.

Looking for the Shaker

In sitting meditation we make time to slow down and examine the recurring habits that color our relationship with ourselves and our world. Seeing our thoughts clearly for the first time, we also see the subtle actions that follow from our thoughts and how they flavor and vivify life. The security of the status quo is challenged; nothing is “just who we are.” Everything we do is a decision, every thought we follow an action, a shake of the shaker.

If thoughts are a reaction to an external reality, how do we understand upheavals experienced when we are alone with nothing but our own thoughts reacting to themselves? If we can conjure reality and suffer or enjoy it by ourselves, when does our conjuring end and “real reality” begin?

Meditation is radical. It sets in motion an inquiry that has no immediate answer. Where does our experience come from? What part is from “us” —what part from “them”? Experience recognizes the poles of  “me” and “my world.” Our attention is always moving. Sometimes we are concerned with the “me” part, sometimes with the “my world” part. But who exactly makes that journey between these two?

Life has a taste, only we can say if it’s sweet or salty. How did it get that way? Who holds the saltshaker that seasons our life? Who selects the quality of the seasoning? What tastes are we after and why?

Seeing the Hole

It is common for practitioners of meditation to report on how helpful the practice is to their life and work. With mindfulness, what challenged us before now comes easily. Our workday flows. Efficiency and effectiveness are increased. We feel less stressed. We are present for others, including of course, those we care about.

This is logical, empirical. Once upon a time a reaction made sense, it was in response to the reality of the situation at hand. But how could that response be accurate today, the 100th time we enact it? Once perhaps our body craved salt and we added it to an otherwise bland dish. But today we forget to taste our food before we salt it. We prefer the security of a false understanding—that we already know what our experience has served up and what is needed to make it right. In contrast, living moment by moment, we admit what we don’t know. Life presents itself as something larger that the world dictated by our appetites.

Oh, and the outcome of the study? According to my friend Amos, the key factor influencing the amount of salt in our diet wasn’t found to be knowledge of the risks, geographic region, or demographics. They all came in second. The number one factor: the size of the holes in our saltshaker.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noticed that Michael’s blogs often revolve around food? He should probably check out this book on Mindful Eating.  Anyhow, the next thing you know they’ll be saying you can cut calories by eating on smaller dishes (actually it may help.) Each day we enact rituals. What we actually do and how we do it turns out to make a difference. Meditation invites a look at our home and the ordinary articles of life. You’ll sit when you get home. How will you do it? A meditation cushion (or a meditation bench) invites you to sit with dignity. Have you hugged your Zafu today?


Meditation Space: Yours, That Is

The Main Shrine Room at Karme Choling

The Zen Novice finished his first meal at the monastery. Anxious to begin his journey to enlightenment he asked his Master “Now What?” The Master replied, “Now wash your bowl.”

—-Zen Parable

Michael, Can We Talk?

Michael, my dear, we have to talk. No, I didn’t say “Tawk” I said “Talk.” Seriously, have you noticed something? It’s getting crowded around here. It’s like you’re running out of room. It almost feels cramped. Why is that? I think you know.

The last time you sat down to practice mindfulness meditation, before you settled onto  your meditation cushion, you left kind of a mess. Your practice space was dusty and cluttered with books and papers. Your shoes were left higgly-piggly by the door. There was a half-finished cup of tea and a half-finished water glass on the kitchen counter. They had been there for some time.  Your coat was thrown on the couch, an old newspaper, half-read, on the table.

Never mind that these things are destined to confront your wife, who as we know prefers it tidy. I got the impression that you were in a hurry to meditate. I thought meditation was about slowing down, being where you are. How can you be in a hurry to be where you are, I ask?

Oneness

I know, in your tradition, there is talk of “emptiness” and even “oneness.” In your rush, maybe you understood this to suggest an experience that transcends the mundane. But doesn’t oneness mean that you and your world are connected? Speaking practically, what is there to be “one” with? If it’s your experience as it is, moment-to-moment, that experience has to include your stuff, which as I said, is everywhere.

When people think of a meditator, they think of precision, simplicity, and tidiness. This could be a kind of affectation. Don’t worry; you’re not suffering from it! But seriously, we’re not talking about fake, self-conscious solemnity as you sip your tea and wash your cup.

Mind and Matter

Paying attention to the environment around you reflects a meditator’s understanding. If mind and matter are connected somehow, and changing mind can change how we experience matter, changing matter should also have an impact on mind. Isn’t that the point of art? Why not art in everyday life?

OK, maybe your Mom hesitated to tell you to clean your room. Maybe she didn’t want to upset you. But if you are going to pretend to study the nature of reality, how things are, then you might as well begin by relating to reality, at least the one in front of you.

Considering Others

If you leave your stuff around, sooner or later, someone is going to have to pick up after you. The problem with leaving a mess is that it considers others, but in a funny way. I don’t know how to break it to you, but cleaning up after you may not be the world’s most noble profession. I ask you, can washing your teacup be the best use of someone’s time?

What’s that, you “don’t need a lecture right now”? You’re “already struggling to love yourself.” “Why the negative tone”, you ask? Michael dear, have you seen the detritus you’ve left in your wake? Everywhere you go, there is a little piece of you left behind — a coffee cup, a tissue, a blanket, a half-read piece of mail, you and I both know this is just the beginning of the list.

Expanding Your Universe

Leaving your stuff everywhere is like hanging a “this is my space” sign everywhere. It is the expanding universe theory, except that YOU are the universe. You are expanding. The result is smaller and smaller spaces for other people to fit themselves into. It is the phenomenon of overpopulation of one.

But you say, “look at my responsibilities, there isn’t time for every tea cup. If I go there, I’ll never look up, I’ll never have time to do the important things I need to do!” Which urgent project is this? What’s that? “Helping others–for example”?

Making Space

Now let me get this straight, you are saving the world and the first step on that journey is to leave something for someone else to clean up. OK, it’s possible, very possible that leaving a mess is the beginning of a very meaningful and successful effort to help others. It is also, however, suggestive of a different kind of journey. One that has you at the center, and others on the edge — with a trash can in their hand.

Of course, there is a whole other way to include people in your world. You could welcome them into a space that allows them to relax. A place that gives them room to relax. If space is a commodity (since you treat it that way), why not offer it? Why not make room? If you give them room, maybe others can learn to help themselves. That would be one less person who needs your help. Maybe they in turn can help others, even you. Wouldn’t that be in the interest of your expanding universe?

A Souvenir of Mind

The other thing about the half finished cup of tea you left on the counter for three days – I know it meant something to you. Why else would you leave it there?

I’ll tell you what it meant. It was a heart-warming reminder of you. It isn’t really a cup of tea. It’s a souvenir of your mind. In fact, it’s a thought. A big thought, a little one, a half-finished one. You and your thought got attached or it scared you. That’s why it’s still there. You don’t really want to say goodbye to your thought. If you do, you’d be lonely. You want a long goodbye, a three-day goodbye.

Finding Yourself

Thoughts keep you company. They remind you you’re here. If there weren’t thoughts for a minute, how would you locate yourself?  You’d be lost. That would be space. In space no one can hear you scream, they say. In this case, the teacup will hear you. Your 3-day old teacup is a little shrine. In your quiet way, you worship it.

In fact, the stuff you leave around helps you find yourself. When someone calls you and asks, “Where are you?” you can just say, “Oh, I’m about a foot from the laundry pile.” There, question answered. No need to account for yourself further.

Thoughts of course, come and go. They may return, but they are always interrupted, and there are gaps between them. Are you afraid of that space between thoughts? Maybe that’s why you are always rushing, leaving half-finished stuff everywhere as landmarks.

Letting Go

I have news for you. There is no way to go back. There is no way to return to the tea you enjoyed three days ago. No way to have exactly the thought you thought you had. It is all gone. Like writing on water as they say. Wouldn’t it be more elegant if the water were clean?

Michael, it would be good to finish one thing properly. Even a cup of tea. It’s modest, but it would bode well for the people you’re supposed to look after. Sometimes cleaning up gets a bad rap. It’s OCD; it’s what maids do; it involves touching unclean things; it’s holding on to formality. Those are all excuses. Cleaning up is doing one thing at a time. It takes courage. Cleaning up is letting go.

Now What?

“OK,” you say, “I’ve cleaned up a bit. It looks nicer. It feels a bit better. To be honest though, kind of liked it the old way. It was more relaxed. This feels a bit oppressive, sort of puritan or something. And anyway, now what?”

“Now what?” did you say? This is a very good question. Why don’t you just relax with this question? Making the space tidy allows for this question. When the space is a mess, there is no room for “Now”. It is as if Now were looking for somewhere to land and couldn’t find it. The space was too crowded.

This “Now” is your “Now.” When you left stuff everywhere you crowded out others, but you also crowded out your “Now”. You thought you were expanding, relaxing, but really, there was no more room for your experience. It was getting squeezed out. To be “one with everything” there has to be space. There has to be Now. Now that you’ve tidied up a bit, there is room. “Room for what?” You ask? Room for everything.

Editor’s Note: Dear Reader, don’t be alarmed. Anyone who knows Mr. Greenleaf well knows that he talks to himself. Sometimes I overhear voices coming from his office here at Samadhi Cushions and peek in (yes, it’s a little cluttered in there) just to see who he’s with. More often then not, he’s alone. It used to make me sad, now I’m used to it. Remember, there is a way for your meditation cushions not to be a living record of every substance they’ve ever encountered. The Deluxe Zafu and Deluxe Zabuton come with washable cushion covers.

Yes…also, sometimes Mr. Greenleaf writes his own “editor’s note” — Ed.

The Cool Kids

Being Cool
Being Cool

Recently the New York Times published an op-ed piece on a conference for Social and Affective Neuroscientists (or “Neuros”) which took place in New York this past week. According to David Brooks, the writer, “the leading figures at this conference were in their 30’s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20’s.” And all of them, he pointed out, were “young, hip and attractive.”

Mr. Brooks went on to write, “many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds.” At the same time, another study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair,” for example, “it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” As the article points out, to live with a view or idea is not an option, it’s what’s happening. And it’s happening very fast.

The In-Group

As a newly-minted teenager, I ran with the cool kids. I knew who “we” were and who wasn’t “us.”  I knew who was “in” and who was “out.”  I assumed great things from “our” crowd and nothing from the “uncool” whom I ignored (or worse).  In its rigid application of exclusion, and its focus on territory (school was assumed to be “ours”), being cool was a kind of warfare.  Cool was to be joined; uncool, suppressed. To maintain my outlook and compelling view of the world, I had plenty of evidence – subjective and objective. One year later, a move and a new school would prove me (at least the cool me) irrelevant.

School Spirit?

For the first year of high school, my parents’ divorce meant my brother and I moved from Massachusetts to Texas.  Uptight by southern standards of sociability, insecure in the face of so much change (how did high school football, of all things, get so important?), in high school I found myself instantly on the outside of whatever was cool.  I couldn’t even tell who the cool kids were supposed to be.  “You really don’t have school spirit, do you?” a pretty brunette pronounced after understanding that I wouldn’t be attending the pep rally before the football game (not to speak of the game).  I had to admit that whatever school spirit was, I didn’t have it.

Who’s Cool Now?

A few years later, in the middle of my senior year, I visited my old school back east. The band of cool kids was gone.  One kicked out, one transferred, the others relaxed into non-distinction.  Two of the most uncool kids from middle school days were on their way to Harvard. Their futures were promising, those of the former cool gang, unclear.

In the language of meditation, my “view” was changing.  According to the tradition of meditation practice, your view (basically what you think and how you understand life) will determine where meditation practice takes you. From one angle, meditation practice is simply about embodying an understanding of life – deepening our ability to be the person our meditative insight has revealed to us to be.

Who’s That in the Mirror?

Because sitting meditation slows us down and allows mind’s natural intelligence to develop, meditation is often called a mirror.  One of the first things we notice when we take up meditation is our view – the thoughts and underlying emotions that create and color our world.  Learning simply how to be, in a genuine way, reveals the glossed fiction of our self-image.  Gradually it dawns on us that whoever we really are, we are definitely not who we thought we were.  At the same time, our convenient and habitual approach to others is exposed.  In the space of meditative awareness, we notice tiny little flickering thoughts, continually evaluating others.

Though the process is more sophisticated than in high school, we are continually sizing people up.  Are they worthy of us, or do they somehow occupy another status, one we cannot reach?  To our astonishment (and some horror), we begin to recognize the birth of instinctive and instant likes and dislikes – based on the thinnest of fleeting perceptions.  Looking closely, we wonder, are these prejudices borne fresh from the encounter with others or do they govern encounters from the beginning (or before)?

Not Exactly…

Faced with this raging specter of snap judgments and hidden discursiveness, we begin to question our view.  For one thing, it becomes clear that the way we think migrates into how we are in the world, what we do.  If world we inhabit is different than the one we tell ourselves we are living, what are we living? To paraphrase the great 19th Century Tibetan Scholar-Practitioner Mipham, we realize that “Whatever we think it is – it’s not exactly like that.”

Meditative traditions emphasize training in the view – that is, studying how reality is – because that is what we do anyway, at least our own version of it.  In this case, study as support for meditation is not so much learning a new dogma or answer for the meaning of life, but shining a light on the views we do hold  (cherish even) without knowing we have them.

The School of Life

The culture of meditation is based on the notion that we can continue to grow up.  That the mind and the way it thinks and feels can develop.  Most of us have moved on from the views we developed in high school.  For me, these views were dispersed by another emerging reality.  I didn’t need to be talked out of a view of myself among the cool ones; when its irrelevance was exposed, this idea vanished like fog in sunlight.

As I get older, I find it harder to expose habitual thinking for what it is. Truths somehow get more penetrating, but I’ve gotten better at hiding from them.  It takes work to expose the self-limiting thoughts that put me and others “in” or “out.” As per the Neuros, it takes a “strategy”.  To grow these days, I often have to admit adolescence all over again. This includes the challenge of being willing to question, in a fresh way, who and how I am in the world.

How Cool is Peace?

In my experience, the discipline of regular meditation practice  (and attending meditation retreats)  is a strategy that works.  With the intention and courage to face ourselves, we give flickering thoughts room.  When these thoughts gang up on us, we neither join them nor suppress them.  Done properly, meditation is the experience of sharing the same boat with everyone.   In the space of meditation, thoughts of who’s in or out no longer make sense.  To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when you sit on your Zafu, everyone sits with you.  To practice mindfulness is to practice community, inclusion.  Because our practice moves us beyond limiting ideas about ourselves and others, it is the practice of peace.  How cool is that?

Editor’s Note: Karme Choling, just down the road from Samadhi Cushions, offers a week-long Simplicity retreat for those interested in exploring group meditation. Gaylon Ferguson‘s Natural Wakefulness brilliantly hosts explorations of view.  Sakyong Mipham‘s Turning the Mind into an Ally is a primer for learning the basics and subtleties of mindfulness practice.

Maybe You’d Better Sit Down

What goes around...
What goes around...

Scientists in Germany reported Thursday that the often-described sense of lost-hiker déjà vu, of having inadvertently backtracked while wandering in the woods — is real. “People really do walk in circles,” said Jan L. Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen.  – The New York Times, August 2009

The path of meditation shines a light on habitual patterns that keep us lost, both to ourselves and the world we inhabit. For meditation to move forward, however, orientation is essential. As the article from the Times on lost hikers aptly demonstrates, orientation isn’t optional. We always have one. The question is: where is it taking us? Summarized notes and quotes from the Times’ article in italics:

As long as the sun or moon was out, volunteers were able to walk (more or less) in a straight line. But on cloudy days or dark nights, they would loop back on themselves, often several times.

Find a meditation teacher. Read a book that speaks to you. Find friends who are interested in meditation. Teachers and companions on the path are the sun and moon that meditators use to orient themselves.  They can help you find and adjust your direction. Like any discipline, meditation practice needs view or vision. Teachers and companions on the path of meditation can provide essential guidance.

Information sources in the brain are relative  — “they don’t tell you when you are moving in the same direction as an hour ago.” When it comes to being lost — “you cannot trust your own senses at all.” What sets experienced hikers apart? They are “more aware” of what has happened.

The desire to be somewhere else makes it very hard to see where you are and where you’ve been. Looking back on difficult periods in our life, we find that in many ways, our sense of being lost was partly self-imposed and self-perpetuating.

Of course, inasmuch as none of us really know where we are going, being lost is part of the creative process of living. Meditation supports an honest assessment of our situation as human beings. It is practicing acceptance — a first step toward understanding where we are now. Understanding where we are — and have been — is key to changing direction.

“One way to walk straight is to set your sights on a nearby tree, walk to it, find another tree in the same direction, and move to that”. In other words, proceed in steps or stages.

Don’t look for great and immediate staggering results from sitting on your meditation cushion. Set reasonable and thoughtful goals for yourself – and meet them. Authentic meditative traditions have a culture that embody this skillful means. As per Tibet’s greatest yogi/saint Milarepa — “Hasten slowly, and you will soon arrive.”

Without orientation, “little errors will compound themselves” and “when the errors start to build in one direction, the hiker often ends up going around in circles.”

We get frustrated or hurt by life, and then we get upset about being upset. Compounding habits seem to address our pain, but they only perpetuate it. At some point we have to relax and give ourselves a break. Be firm with yourself when you have to be, but there is never a good reason to be harsh or dogmatic. Be your own friend.

There is one sure way to avoid going around in circles:

“Your job as the lost person is to sit down.”

There are unexpected twists and turns to life, and long paths that seem to stretch out in front of us forever. Even so, it is a beautiful journey. When we meet it fully, we discover what it means to be human. Losing our way is an expression of losing a connection with our own heart. Often, even if it doesn’t feel right, we find reasons why we have to keep moving.

Sitting down, paying attention to the sensation of breathing, we can appreciate ourselves, relaxing the habitual patterns that cover our heart and obscure our vision.  Looking back on our restlessness, we realize there was a level of frustration, fear or even anger, behind our agitation. When you don’t really know why you’re moving or where you’re heading, find a meditation seat (and space for meditation) where you can be comfortable and sit down!

Editor’s Note: In Tibetan, the word for life as we know it is korwa – which means wheel. A traditional analogy for a live lived without understanding: a bee buzzing around in a jar. At the same time, movement is natural and necessary. And after all, it is possible to hide in stillness as well as activity. In either case, as Michael points out, the question is where are we trying go? For students of meditation, studying a meditation primer for even a few minutes a day can be enormously helpful on the journey.

Coffee to Compost

The eye altering, alters all. -- William Blake
The eye altering, alters all. -- William Blake

Last Saturday morning was busy with a long list of errands. First stop was the Farmer’s Market to visit a booth selling compost supplies. We needed a new filter for the compost bucket that sits on the kitchen counter.

As I drove to St. Johnsbury along the empty interstate, I remembered something my friend Mary Anne had mentioned to me recently.  “It seems like the farmer’s market has really grown,” she was saying, “there are more booths, new sights and smells, fresh coffee, food cooking…”

The simplicity of Mary Anne’s comment must have stayed with me. Pulling into the parking lot, I had to reflect that with my list of “to do’s” and the focus on my errand, there was a good chance that once I made it to the market, I wouldn’t notice any of the new booths or smell the coffee brewing.

To be honest, a visit to the farmer’s market makes me anxious. Samadhi Cushions is in a neighborhood of small towns. The likelihood of seeing someone you know at the market is high. In these situations, unless it is a good friend, I’m generally at a loss for words. How will I gracefully initiate, develop and wind-up one of these encounters, I always wonder? On top of that, my errand lists never includes unscheduled conversation with acquaintances, adding time pressure to the anxiety of chance encounters.

The Point of Practice
“Isn’t this is what your meditation practice is supposed to help you with – smelling the coffee at the farmer’s market?” Had my (on again off again, it must be said) sitting meditation practice somehow disconnected itself from the day to day? Having embarked on the journey of meditation, had I concluded that meditation was somehow more meaningful than the mundane details of life? It’s ironic of course. The point of mindfulness meditation is to be mindful of what’s happening. As a general rule, the senses (smell and the other four) are what’s happening, along with our mental commentary and subconscious gossip, of course. Getting out of the car, I resolved to smell the coffee Mary Anne had talked about.

If from time to time, your meditation practice encourages a retreat from the world of the senses, then you may, like me, find yourself rushing through the slices of life that occur between meditation sessions. The pretext — maybe these details are insignificant to the grand scheme of things. Of course, half of life is only the sum total of many sensory details. Ignoring them is a likely indication that we are alienated from our own ordinary experience. Since the philosophy of meditation teaches us about the primacy of mind, we find ourselves wary of the senses and their messages for us.

Culture Sense
In traditional Buddhist literature, sense experience is referred to as a “realm.” In effect, fully explored, each sense (seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching, feeling) is understood as its own world. In today’s speed driven culture, we seem to have lost much of our connection with the depth and magic of our basic sense experience.

Traditionally, it was the role of culture to teach how to engage and appreciate sense experience. In France, my wife’s country of origin, teenagers are encouraged to have opinions about the quality of wine and character of cheese. In a simple stroll through our nearby forests, old-time Vermonters can tell you so much about its history, flora and fauna. These are refinements to the senses taught to us by our parents and grandparents.  The sense experience is refined by paying attention to the details of what we experience.

A Matter of Relationship
To pay attention, you need to hear from someone that sense experience is trust-worthy, meaningful and merits appreciation. This doesn’t seem to be a big spiritual question; it is simply a matter of connecting with one’s experience of life. Wisdom comes later. It is insight or penetration into the depth of that experience. Without the experience, however, the question of wisdom is moot.

I appreciated Mary Anne’s remark because it reminded me that there is merit in meeting one’s experience directly. Our basic experience is good –smells can be appreciated, we can marvel at sights and sounds. When you really experience senses directly, it is always new and surprising. This is a subtle point. The experience of the senses can’t be explained mechanistically. How we relate (with appreciation or distrust, for example) changes our experience of the senses. Also, there is no viable argument that puts sense objects as somehow there for us. The smell of coffee may be enjoyed, that of compost less so.  It seems more accurate to say that our sense experiences and us are there for each other. It is a matter of relationship. Also, how we “see” things, experience them, seems to be largely a matter of habit.

The Ground of Meditation
As for meditation practice, it is paying attention to the details of experience, before judgment. For another thing, you have to do it. Talking alone doesn’t help. Since we are in the habit of overlooking the details, consistent meditation is needed to develop the strength of habit to pay attention.

Beyond that, when you sit down on your Zafu (or Meditation Bench) and Zabuton Mat, the first step is just to relax.  Feel the weight of your body on the meditation cushion. Acknowledge your meditation room by noticing it. Is it cluttered? Clean? What are the colors and textures? Hear the sounds, both near and distant. Feel the sensation of the body as it breaths. The ground of taming the mind in meditation is a willingness, courage really, to be with our experience as it is  — now. This experience includes the five senses. Initially, it is by making friends with the basic constituents of experience that the practice of meditation begins to develop and deepen.

Market Shifts
In slowing down, the meditator begins to appreciate that everything — senses, thoughts, feelings, are continually shifting. They are all fluid and fleeting. In a way, there really is no such thing as a “farmer’s market” – just a wave of smells, sounds, sensations, at a time and place. All of which we label with the thought “market” – which is associated with other thoughts, like the memories of chance encounters. Captured by these thoughts, we find ourselves anticipating life – instead of living it. Unable to relax with ourselves, we are unclear about the details, unsure about life and its messages.

At the same time, from the perspective of meditation, it is because things don’t really hold together that they can appear to our senses in infinite detail, color and variety. Meditation does bring some distance from the “idea” of a farmer’s market, but this distance is based on appreciation of the details of the market, rather than anxious or happy preoccupations that result from our momentary capture by thoughts.

Not Sure
Once I got there, as Mary Anne predicted, the market was buzzing. The morning sun was out after many days of rain. There was warm breeze. There did seem to be a few more stalls than before. I ran in to a couple of acquaintances. It wasn’t so hard really. Some smiles, handshakes and shared appreciation for the day. We all seemed perfectly happy to see each other.

Driving home (without a filter for the compost bucket – “try online”), I felt grateful to Mary Anne and her simple observation.  Then I remembered. Had I smelled coffee? I wasn’t sure.

Editor’s Note:  Mr. Greenleaf has mentioned a Zafu and Zabuton as well as a bench for meditation. Our most popular meditation bench is the kneeling bench. Of course, you can also practice meditation in a chair (see the article on meditation posture). Burning incense and sounding gongs bring basic sense experience into the practice of meditation, leaving us ready to wake up and smell the coffee.