Dear High School Senior

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

Dear Graduate,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Sleep with a Stranger

It was late. Before collapsing into bed, would the grandparents have time to talk, to communicate openly as husband and wife, even for a moment?

“There was a great piece in the New Yorker on Camus and Sartre,” I volunteered, hoping to catch my wife’s attention with an article I had read recently. (Jeanine happens to be French.)

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she answered incredulously “Do I hear a shower?” She lowered her head to listen. Down the hall, there was the unmistakable sound of running water, our granddaughter in her bath.

Our teenage granddaughter lives with us. She has a head of long, cascading brown hair. Getting it dry after a shower is one my wife’s perennial concerns. “Can you believe it?” she asked rhetorically, exasperation in her voice, “taking a shower at this hour?”

I paused before answering. “I’m sure there are larger issues,” I said finally, in imagined solidarity with my existential friends.

“What do you mean?” Jeanine demanded, irritation in her voice.

This evening, I had hoped to share my admiration for Camus.  As a man, he combined altruism and elegance. His writing, especially his journalism, while incisive, struck a poignant tone.

Where was my sense of engagement, my wife demanded? Was I ready to ignore the implications of everything? How about a teenager with a contagious cold or a mysterious, bedroom-based, unstoppable eco-culture created by moisture, coconut conditioner and a cotton pillowcase, could I ignore those too? No mention of Camus. Perhaps I had missed the point of the existentialists, I wondered.

Maybe it’s a French thing, but if my wife senses that her husband is attempting to hover above the day-to-day details that should concern him, she will energetically challenge his lofty position. Think “la revolution” and “la justice.”

“I better hear the hair dryer,” Jeanine muttered, listening for the next revelation from down the hall.

Feeling alone on the edge of the bed, I was left to contemplate my own existence. Earlier in the day, I had been a meditation teacher at the local retreat center. Who was I now? In the morning, our granddaughter would be driven to High School. That’s who I was; I thought bitterly to myself, I was the driver. The hair needs to be dry, it needs to be brushed, and in the morning, it will need to be driven to school.

Existential pleasantries are not for drivers.  Drivers just need to be ready to drive. From down the hall, came the sound of an electric hair dryer revving up.

Relieved that granddaughter had done the right thing, my mind wandered to that day’s meetings at the meditation center. “She called you a special teacher,” a colleague shared in a confidential tone. We were meeting about a visiting student who needed instruction in meditation, as well as help with her posture on the meditation cushion.

The student had seen me at the center earlier in the week. Apparently she wanted the insights that a “special teacher” could share. I liked her already, but to meet, I would have to make time out of a busy schedule. “Sure, I’ll see her.” My colleague, whose job was finding meditation teachers for visiting students, seemed very pleased.

Next, there was an invitation to a staff discussion. A restless visitor was having trouble keeping the discipline at the center. I didn’t know the student. Still, it seemed important to the staff that I was there. A decision was about to be made. I thought, “you’re a special teacher, you should have something wise to say.” Nothing came. My gaze wandered out the window to a view of the forest behind the meditation hall. I wondered why I was there.

Later, over lunch, I shared advice with a residential student on his upcoming solitary retreat. As we spoke, I was haunted. A special teacher would be more meditative, less quick to agree, at least not talk with his mouth full. At the end of our meeting, with some formality, the student thanked me for my time and wisdom. There was something about the tone of his ‘thank you.’

“I wonder if he heard a word I said,” I remember thinking to myself.

At the retreat center too, I now realized, my identity had been unclear. Was the pain of my irrelevance at home somehow related to my struggle to embody importance earlier in the day? Before lunch, by some accounts, I was a special Buddhist teacher. By bedtime, I was the lowly driver of a teenager. “Praise and blame,” I thought to myself. “This is what the Buddhist tradition means by worldly things.”

Outside the window by the bed, the lake loons were calling in the darkness. Down the hall, the hair dryer stalled and then stopped. I mulled over my shifting status. I was both a special teacher and a teenager’s driver. I was also a husband. If I was all three, who was I really? As my head sank into the pillow, I felt sad. Who was I really? I didn’t know.

My wife’s irritation seemed to linger. This evening, the hair had enjoyed unearned privileges. The husband had not engaged. Jeanine turned off the light, but not before sharing something else about my ability to ignore–to miss the truth behind the appearance. I don’t remember her comment (honestly!), but it was a pointed remark and it made me laugh.

Suddenly and unexpectedly Jeanine laughed too. We kissed and said goodnight. Outside, the lake loon called again. In the darkness, I might have smiled. I had hoped for a moment with my wife and it had arrived. There was openness and communication, there was also tenderness, in a poignant, existential, French kind of way.

Giving and Knowing

Generosity is our genes. The word comes from the root genus, meaning of good or noble birth. Noble, in turn, comes from the root gnosis—to know. Generosity speaks to the natural expression of an inherent goodness in human beings that both knows, and by its expression, is known.

This past summer, my wife and I hosted Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his family at our home in Vermont. The Sakyong (a Tibetan title meaning ‘Earth Protector’) is leading back-to-back retreats at Karmê Chöling, the meditation center in Barnet.

For the month-long visit, Jeanine and I move next door, into a small home about 100 feet from our house. We call this place the “cozy cottage” and it suits me just fine. For one thing, there is no cable TV. For another, the phone is relatively quiet, not really the case at the “big house.”

Many people tell us how generous we are to offer our home to the teacher. Perhaps they’re right, but to tell the truth, I don’t find anything special about it. It just feels like the right thing to do. Also, as I mentioned, the cottage has its own charm. Aside from the moving, cleaning and rearranging, the hardships are minimal.

If I was cynical, I might wonder about my own motivation. Does a large well-appointed home suggest importance or self-importance? Is the intent in offering to let go, or to reap higher rewards in the form of attention, praise and the regard of others? Perhaps we give when we fail to appreciate what we have, in the same way that someone might offer food they came by easily but don’t really have a taste for.

We might also offer because we cannot, out of guilt or for other reasons, relax with our own abundance. In this case, giving is unburdening, a kind of distraction from our own resourcefulness. Shifting responsibility to something or someone who can carry the weight.

With these questions unresolved, my wife and I rouse ourselves to face the reality of moving. There is always a moment in the move that hurts. (Doesn’t moving rank just under dying as a stressor?)  This is the moment when the idea of offering and letting go (which for me has always had a reassuringly spiritual appeal) meets the actuality of doing it.

Typically, a disagreement marks the moment. Madame (as she is known by many) asks me to help her “dress up” the garage. We will need the space, she says knowingly. The garage is big and very dusty. My heart sinks and I balk. “Why?” I ask exasperated, as if the rational for this little project will conflict with a logical underpinning for the whole effort. Struggling with the rightness of my wife’s suggestion, the distinction between offering and abandoning becomes painfully clear. It is the beginning of a journey I take every time we vacate the house for our teacher.

After all the moving, cleaning and preparing there is a date. On such and such a day the teacher will arrive. By that time we are out, really gone from the house. Anything we need from the big house, we have it. This deadline creates a bit of stress. You can’t really move your stuff when you feel like it, my wife explains patiently one morning—why don’t you do it today?

This time, because of a renovation earlier in the year, and because the Sakyong’s family was joining him, there are extra details. The process of leaving and setting up the house took longer than usual. The last 3 weeks before the arrival were particularly intense. Days began early with phone calls and emails, ending late with the preparation of a new punch list for the next day. During this time, we were supported by the efforts of a stellar group from the meditation center’s summer volunteer program.

For these three weeks, feeling the fatigue and the time crunch, I didn’t make it to my meditation cushion. Unaccustomed to a physical schedule of “doing,” without time for contemplation, I found myself losing balance, subject to mood swings and strong emotions. At some point it dawned on me that the day would go better if, for a few moments each day, I just sat still to see how I was feeling.

Early in the morning, the sun shines in the east windows of the cozy cottage. Sitting quietly on the couch, sipping tea, I enjoy the moment before emails and phone calls. Inspiration as well as doubt and even depression rise and fall in my mind. I acknowledge whatever the thoughts are—neither congratulating nor condemning them. By giving these thoughts and emotions a moment of appreciation, their colorful roots are exposed. It is a naked moment with myself.

Just by relaxing for this few minutes, taking the time to acknowledge my internal landscape, the long days went better. There was more flow, appreciation, and wonder. In the same way that I wasn’t able to hold on to my house, I discovered, the thoughts and emotions that colored this effort also couldn’t be grasped. In fact, in giving it away (or at least lending it), the house seemed to expand in all directions (certainly in the cleaning this is true!) As we closed in on moving out, the house took on a life and dignity of its own.

Like any activity, giving creates its own momentum. When we give, the world shifts and how we see the world changes. Staring at the contents of my sock drawer that will go to the basement, the question “is it for me or against me?” doesn’t really apply. For or against? Perhaps it is both—or neither. Who knows? More to the point—who cares?!

At the bottom of a sock drawer, humor dawns and the mind grows lighter. I begin to wonder, is my persistent and solemn search for satisfaction and security purely an invention? An imagined drama unfolding in a world full of things that, in truth, can neither be grasped nor given away. And, if what I want is imagined, where does that leave me?

These questions and insights encourage both appreciation and letting go. They are generous. Maybe, as our teachers have been telling us for centuries, the ground of giving—generosity—isn’t something we do, but something we know—our birthright as nobly born human beings.

 

 

The Greatest Teacher

It’s been a month of hard lessons.

We all long to tell the truth, to share what we know. But how? Sometimes really telling the truth requires a turn of phrase, similes, metaphors—a story.

My story begins like this: its been a month of hard lessons.

The hard part? A clot of blood in the lungs was hard, and painful and scary. Painful and scary is a blood clot story with a happy ending.

How is my wife doing? She is doing quite well, thank you. She feels pretty much “back to normal.” Yesterday morning she told our Granddaughter that those skinny jeans were just too tight and she had better change them “Now!” All this at 6AM in a countdown for a school bus. I took it as a good sign.

What’s next? More blood thinner, more tests.

Me? How am I? I don’t know. I’m rattled. The kind of rattled you get when you’re in your car alone, trailing an ambulance down the interstate at 3AM, wondering.

The kind of rattled you get when you are calling a stepdaughter on another continent—from a hospital cafeteria.

The kind of rattled you get when your “love” of 35 years threatens to vanish one ordinary Wednesday evening.

Near the end of his life, Suzuki Roshi yelled at his students. “Death is the Greatest Teacher,” he said, banging his staff on the floor.

I’m a wimp. Insecure with a thin skin. If death is teaching, you can find me at the back of the class fiddling with my iPod. But death, like life, is hard to ignore. A few lessons got through:

Trust your instincts. If you have a “funny feeling” – as a patient or a caregiver  respect it. Don’t ignore it. Life is a funny feeling. Your intuitions may be all you have.

Panicking doesn’t help. Move fast when you need to, otherwise slow down and appreciate what you’re doing. Don’t be hard on yourself. Amazingly, suffering (yours or hers) isn’t personal. Sure you’re afraid, but the uncertainty you are facing now was always there.  Don’t turn away. Be brave. It’s OK to cry.

Remember your meditation practice. If your mind is like a wild horse, follow Sakyong Mipham’s instructions. Lasso it and bring it back to the present. You know you can. In a crisis, “just being” is your meditation. It meets a definition of prayer: “The thing you do when there is nothing else you can do.” (Garrison Keillor).

Nothing to do but have to do something? Wherever you are, do tonglen (sending and taking) practice. Take in suffering on your in breath, give out any composure you have on the out breath. You are not alone in your pain. Others (too many to count) are going through this very thing, right now. Sending and taking will help you, maybe them too. Pema Chödrön can remind you how to do this.

 

Let help and support come. Ask for it when you need it. But don’t expect it. Some will “say what they truly feel in a clear expression” (Emily Post). Others can’t. You might be angry. Remember a definition of aggression from Chögyam Trungpa: demanding sympathy.

 

Say “Yes” to your new life. It never was “old,” you’re just noticing how new it always was. Now, on top of the fridge, instead of a bowl of fruit there is a box of syringes. Let it be there.

 

Question everything. Use the Internet. Educate yourself. Knowing a little more, you suffer a little less.

 

There is a realm too exhausting to describe. It’s called the Tired Realm. In this realm doing anything is hard. Sitting on your meditation cushion? Too late, should have done that earlier. When you can, leave this realm by the door marked “REST.”

 

Yes, you were wrong about so much. You thought that everything cared, that even the night sky at 3 am was somehow on your side. Did you want to think that forever? Feeling “wrong” now only points to your investment in feeling “right.” That must have been satisfying, in an exhausting kind of way. Why not relax?

 

If someone is in pain, ask them how they are doing and where it hurts, but not every 10 seconds. Let them share what they want to share. What you hear may end your future. If your future was in the habit of being your present, that may seem to go too. You will find it again.

 

 

My wife’s pulmonary embolism occurred on Wednesday evening, May 4th. (And yes, she is really much better.) Sorry if this a bit of a downer.

We Buddhists get a bad rap for dwelling on life’s shortcoming and these days I do find myself a little sober. But aren’t all good students a little sober? Note: I also hear the birds of spring in a new way and notice details long overlooked.

What is life then, if it’s not what we thought it was?

My grandmother once marveled at how quickly her 90 plus years had gone by. “Like the wink of an eye?” I asked.

“Exactly!” she replied, satisfied with the turn of phrase that might begin (or endwould it matter?) her story.

A story that could be true.

Editor’s Note: “As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space, an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning, view all created things like this.” Lord Buddha, The Diamond Sutra

It’s About You

Editors Note: A key aspect of a successful meditation practice is a view or orientation. To this end, some study of meditation is important. At Samadhi Cushions, we recommend books and media from fellow practitioners of meditation as an essential companion to the actual practice of sitting on your meditation cushion or kneeling bench.

Chapter 14 in Sakyong Mipham’s book Ruling Your World is called The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others. It is a thoughtful contemplation on the personal transition toward serving others. In any event, without consistently refreshing one’s understanding, meditation can go astray, as Michael seems to demonstrate in his post.

Is that you in the mirror?
Is that you in the mirror?

It’s Not About Me

As  you’ll see, this is not really about me.  It’s about you.  I have something to share with you.  But we have to start with me.  It will be clear why. Why me? Well, for one thing, I’ve been thinking about me  —  I mean a lot.  And I think this thinking has paid off.  Finally! It’s good to think about yourself.  I mean it takes courage.  It takes letting go.  I don’t know if you know, but it’s a tricky subject – oneself.

I mean, if you look in the mirror, is that you in the mirror? Well, obviously not.  It’s just a reflection. But what if you don’t like what you see? Now you’re on to something. That’s where my meditation comes in. I get to work on what I don’t like about myself.  Anyhow, to do this, what I’ve discovered is that I need encouragement – a lot of it really. I wanted to share that with you.  I thought it would be important for you to know about me.

The Art of Listening

Excuse me, I haven’t finished.  So, where was I? Oh yes, I have a lot to offer, a lot going for me, which is obvious, but I wanted to say it. It’s important to love oneself. This is something that meditation teaches you. I have so much I could give. I see people,  successful people, and they seem happy. Why? I say to myself. Because they are giving. They have found a way to give and it makes them happy.

And then I think, what is keeping me from giving, keeping me from realizing my potential?  What I realized is that I wasn’t thinking of myself. An example? Well, you, I mean I guess, us, for example. When I looked at it, I realized that I was always listening to you. Why? Well, I think it was because you were always talking, but I’m not sure. In any case, that’s the wrong place to start, don’t you think? I should start by listening to me. You, of all people, should be able to understand that.

The Irony

People talk because they want something. Have you noticed? They want to be heard. Are you listening? People take energy, and that was another thing I realized, I need to watch my energy. I can’t be giving, giving, giving all the time. It’s not good for me.

The irony is that people think it’s about them. Which of course it’s not. But how can you tell them? Because of that internal focus, there is so much that people don’t see. Like what? Like the work I’m doing on myself, for example. It’s hard work and no one notices.  As a result, they miss what I have to offer. Which is a lot. You know, you might be one of those people.

Meditation Space

What I’ve learned through my work is that to give and be happy you need to be in the right space – a helpful space. My meditation is a big part of that. I work hard at it, like I said. Mind you, I still have thoughts and some feelings that keep coming back. Which drives me crazy. Why? Because they hurt. They are painful. It’s not the “me” I want to be. But with effort you can control those feelings. Gradually, I think, I’m becoming calmer and much clearer. I see what I need for myself, for example. I could never see that before.

What does meditation do? My meditation gives me space. When I sit on my meditation cushion I feel good. But, to be honest, and that’s something meditation is helping me with – being honest – anyhow to be honest, I need support. How? Well, when I see you after my meditation, you don’t look happy. And this bothers me. Why can’t you be happy? Just once! When you’re not happy it ruins it for me. It really does.

The Secret of Happiness

But there, we got off the topic. But not really, that was the other thing I wanted to say.

What I mean to say is, I love you, and I care for you. I do. But I’m worried. I’m worried about you, about how you relate. For one thing, I don’t know how to say this any other way – and don’t take it personally – but you are a bit self-involved. Being like that is going to lead to unhappiness. That’s what meditation teaches you.

There, I said it. Like I said, my meditation practice has given me the courage to tell the truth, to actually say what I think and feel. I can’t tell you, this is so liberating for me. I don’t actually feel like the same person. I’m a new person, in a way. And I’ve realized that it’s not really about me. It’s about you.

Being Helpful

And I would like to help you. I really feel I can. I want to help you change. It will be hard, it will take work, but I think if we do it together, we can accomplish it.  Yes, I told you, I do love you. But I know you could be better, you could be more you. How? Well for one thing, you could be more helpful. Think of others. Like me.