The Nature of Community

pixicup[1]Ubiquity, Invisibility

We might think of community as something external to our life, something extra. We have our car, our home, our job, and then we have our neighbors, our coworkers: our community. But community is not just the people who live next door or who work in the same office, it is also the people who pave our roads, who work at the power plant, who grow the lettuce we eat and truck it to the store. Community is every connection we have with the world around us that sustains our way of life.

In our society, these connections can be hard to discern. The people upon whom we rely for our standard of living are often invisible, sometimes living thousands of miles away. In many ways, this complexity of connections that gives rise to our life, the geographical extent of our ‘community’, speaks to a profoundly developed civilization. The physical separation of our being with these others, however, can also lead to a feeling of isolation, of alienation.

The extent of our exchange with others is often reduced to a simple abstraction, a dollar, something that is increasingly not even encountered in a physical form. This feeling of isolation is a delusion, we simply could not exist without a multitude of connections, but it is a powerful one. In this place confusion takes root, and we can lose our understanding of what reality is. We can think the world is against us, or indifferent towards us, even while we ourselves are part of it. It is similar to a meditation practitioner who might see all his flaws more clearly through his practice but fail to recognize the brilliance of mind within which these flaws are illuminated. We miss the forest for the trees; without communal support, we would be unable to ponder the perceived absence of that support.

Evolution

For life, community is the soul of prosperity. Living systems with low species diversity and sparse populations are in precarious positions in terms of survival, particularly if environmental conditions change. It is those systems with the greatest diversity and fecundity, the largest communities, which are the strongest and most robust. Humanity itself has only survived and prospered through the development of social networks, allowing for the sharing of resources, technologies, and the specialization of tasks. Today, more and more studies are linking individual happiness, longevity, and well-being to developed social networks, to community.

Community-on-the-pathIn the Buddhist context, this could all speak to the precious nature of the third jewel, the sangha. In the context of modern society, it could also speak towards the key to a more humane, sustainable future. Recently, I listened to Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speak of the descent of America into an oligarchy, a country controlled by a few billionaire families who are rigging ‘the game’ for their own benefit, at the expense of the rest of us. “Is there any hope?” he asked the listening audience. It seems to me that the hope lies in the further development of social networks, both in person and electronically. If we can communicate and work with one another, if we can build communal trust, we can begin to transcend a culture where all exchange is centralized and monetary. We can begin to create a new sort of social order echoing an older, ancestral one, one of cooperation and more direct trade.

One of the bases of physics, the law of entropy, colloquially states that things fall towards disorder. In living systems, however, we often see things tending towards symbiosis, or, in a sense, to greater order. In the end, the development of strong, diverse communities is what allows for the greatest security for all individuals. It might not allow for the greatest number of one particular species at one particular time, but it can mean a longer survival period for that species, overall. Such a species, built for the long-run, will cultivate diversity, build cooperative relationships with its neighbors and, in time, may even come to be indistinguishable from them. Mitochondria, the organelles that today produce the energy to power most of our cells, were probably initially parasites. Lichen are really the fusion of an algae and a fungus, two organisms that have joined to the point where they are considered one and cannot survive independently.

Compassion

We are all walking the road of life together. If we join hands or, perhaps more accurately, if we recognize that our hands are already joined, it is likely that we will go forth with more clarity, greater joy, and a better chance for humanity’s long-term survival. Our community is really our world, we ourselves are little more than a series of relationships, inseparable from our neighbor on his lawnmower, from the fox in the hedge, or from the trees that stand by, stretching their limbs up into the sky.

At its inception, society is the interaction between two people. In its most basic form, it is birth. We might grow up to have painful interactions, to experience trauma and difficulty, but our lives began with someone else saving us, again and again. Our lives began with compassion. In this sense, compassion is the heart of community; it is the fabric of the interconnecting thread.

A Waste of Time

tinisThe $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.

“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”

We’re in a boardroom on the 35th floor. Tall windows face the East River, which, on this spring day, is shrouded in low clouds. The topic of our meeting is a staple in the world of finance: litigation, specifically, a lawsuit stuck in New York’s civil courts. I’m a trustee. The trust is the plaintiff. As an accountant and a Buddhist meditation teacher, I’m also a novelty. The attorney hired to fight our case is, apparently, trying to break the ice.

Joining us at the conference table is a tax accountant. He’s known me longer and ignores the remark. These two professionals are from an older generation. Having taken up Buddhism before it was trendy, I’m familiar with the cynicism embedded in the attorney’s “gentle ribbing”, but there is something new.

Not so long ago, “to retreat” was more than getting away. Misguided or not, there was at least rigor beyond the familiar and comfortable. Instead, I’m learning, to retreat now means to indulge in a spiritualist, new-age self-pampering. In the 40 years since I began meditation practice, marketing departments have been waging war.  “Retreat” and even “meditation” are now prisoners of promoters for luxury spas.

Why am I surprised? Once the purview of visionaries like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, these days the word “Zen” is used to sell everything from cookies to skateboards. (Just a guess. Sure enough, Google it.) Eastern Spirituality is positioning that shapes a brand. It signals tranquilitythe kind enjoyed with a green tea in one hand and a Bombay martini in the other.

The monster of materialism swallows language and tradition, digesting them and spitting them back out as something it can love. Behind the transformation of the words is a myth enshrining the culture of productivity and busyness. (The kind of myth that lets a spa swallow a Buddhist retreat center.) In this myth, to slow down and be quiet is to perfect the art of escape.

As Frank Bruni observes in a recent Times op-ed, the person who insists on retreating “attracts a derogatory vocabulary: loner, loafer, recluse, aloof, eccentric, withdrawn.” To retreat is antisocial and escapist. Or, put another way, a big waste of time.

Time away is time off. Meditators on retreat are spa-goers who invoke the dream of distance from society and work. In the euphoria induced by green tea in the morning and martinis in the afternoon, looking within, contemplatives see what they want to see.

Ironically, at the retreats I attend, nothing is further from the truth. The practice of being is challenging, takes guts, and is hard work. In stillness feelings are uncovered, insights born, and connectivity is cultivated. Meditation, the word, may have been coopted. But for those who take it up, mindfulness, (and under this rubric let’s include quiet time and solitude), is a way into the challenges of life, not away from them.

Adulthood begins by asking “What to do?”, but the more mature question is “How to do it?” As a partner or parent, we’ve committed to a relationship—but how to cultivate that? We have work or a career—how do we pursue it? As a member of a community, or society—how do we participate?

These questions require self-reflection and self-knowledge. For that, quiet and stillness are essential. (By some measure, meditation is simply a technique that addresses how to be alone with ourselves.) Meeting the moment that is now, we discover not only something about how we are, but also who we are.

Like the spa-goer, the meditator wants something. But in the culture of retreat, without the help of green tea or a massage therapist, we find the person who can give us what we want. How? By slowing them down and inviting them into the moment. Is a retreat time well spent? For the answer, find the person who wants to know.

Like any discipline, what comes out of meditation practice depends upon what goes in. According to the author Susan Cain (her book “Quiet” is mentioned in Mr. Bruni’s op-ed), much research connects quiet and solitude with creativity and productivity. We worry that our time will be wasted, but is the question really our own? Or is it the product of a culture busy turning a native and contented curiosity into an efficiency-obsessed, future-oriented race for something more?

My two colleagues are expensive company. The clock is ticking. The attorney’s invitation to retreat hangs in the air without a reply. “You wouldn’t last a day,” I think to myself as the conversation shifts to New York’s Civil Courts. Budget cuts and understaffing mean justice delayed. Our court date has again been moved back. Cynicism and skepticism should abound—unless of course you’re being paid by the hour.

As the professionals weigh in on contingencies and probabilities, I can’t help but wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Author’s Note: Some astute readers have suggested that my bias (evidenced by the assertion that the litigator “wouldn’t last a day”) is more of a problem than any alleged distortions by the forces of materialism. These readers have a point. The thought is obviously defensive and says more about me than about the attorney. There might be a presumption that I look down on him. To be clear, I like him and respect him. I tell the story to share. Perhaps it’s a lesson. The next time your path is misrepresented, do better than I could. Make an effort! Set the record straight.

Warriorship in Cuba: Part II

Jose Marti
The oft quoted Jose Marti

Continued from Part I: The next day our van and driver met us at our hotel in Old Havana to take us to the south side. On the way there was the usual stream of vintage American cars from the 1950’s. (Their original motors long gone, these cars were now powered by engines from Hyundai and Mercedes.) The traffic included noisy diesel trucks, and along the shoulder of the busy boulevard, the occasional donkey pulling a wooden wagon full of people and goods.  Near our (relatively) posh hotel in Old Havana, animal powered carriages ferried only tourists.

After a 20-minute ride, we turned down a dusty neighborhood street with chunks of pavement missing. Ernesto asked a neighbor and then a passerby for directions. After a couple more turns, the van pulled up in front of small iron gate in the middle of a nondescript cement wall. Our driver, impassive until now, looked concerned. He let Ernesto know that he would stay with the van.

Stepping Through a Gate

Led by Jeanine, we piled out and walked through the narrow opening, the gate creaking behind us. To our astonishment, beyond the wall was a small leafy Zen style garden and pool. Various bonsai were on display. There was a feeling of calm and tranquility. Ernesto surveyed the scene in disbelief.

The Sensei, smiling, was standing in the garden in front of the entrance to the dojo. Serene, with a modest air about him, he was average height, but broad, dressed casually in an open shirt and jeans. “Sensei’s chest is a brick wall,” I thought, reflecting on a sense of immovability. A couple of his students in their late teens or early twenties looked on with curiosity.

We were led inside the dojo, a simple concrete room with a big mat secured by wire hooks into a cement floor. On the walls hung Japanese calligraphy, pictures of Japanese lineage figures, and wooden practice swords. High, unprotected openings in the cement let the light in.

The Story of a Dojo

“This house used to be abandoned,” the Sensei began explaining in Spanish. Ernesto, useless as a guide, slipped into the role of translator. “We asked for permission from the city to make it a dojo. I wanted to offer the kids in the neighborhood something. In this dojo we don’t teach sports martial arts, we teach mind martial arts — the way of Bushido. We want the young people to learn humility, honesty, courage, and decency. From the perspective of our tradition, the true Way has nothing to do with arrogance or egotism.”

sensei garden
The Blogger and Sensei in the Garden

As he spoke, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Jeanine was beaming. This distinction between “sport training” and “mind training” was familiar to us from the late Shibata Sensei, who taught Kyudo, or Japanese Archery, to the Shambhala community.

In response, Jeanine shared our appreciation for Shibata Sensei and the love and respect Shambhala’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa had for him as well as the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. Chiming in, I added that our own teacher, Sakyong Mipham, was a student of Shibata Sensei himself, and that in Shambhala we practiced not only Kyudo, but also Ikebana or the Way of Flowers, and Cha-Do or the Way of Tea. At the center of our discipline, I added, was Zazen, or sitting meditation. You could feel Sensei listening as our words were translated.

In his hands, the Sensei was holding a book.  In response, he held it up. “Cuban scholars have made connections between the philosophy of the Cuban poet/revolutionary Jose Marti [the ‘apostle’ of an independent Cuba–ed.] and the code of Bushido,” he explained earnestly.  “Marti’s dedication to others is what I want to teach the young people here.” It was clear that the Sensei traced his lineage both to Jose Marti, as well as to the Japanese immigrants who had brought martial arts to Cuba.

Time for an Offering

As it came time to leave, I overhead my wife asking herself, “what can we offer?” Suddenly, “I know! I know!” From her purse Jeanine pulled out a small red booklet entitled The Six Ways of Ruling. “Michael, you should give him this.”

Cueing Ernesto that a presentation was coming, I held up the booklet toward Sensei in a gesture of offering. “In the Shambhala tradition,” I began, “the practitioner is understood to possess inherent dignity, like a king or queen. There is a Way of uncovering this dignity which we call the Path of Warriorship.”

“Warriorship in this case is not about waging war, but about rulership, riding the energy of life. The practitioner of this path embraces rulership out of dedication to others. The six ways of ruling are: benevolent, true, genuine, fearless, artful and rejoicing.” I named each quality, pausing to give Ernesto a chance to find the correct word in Spanish, adding as I went, a short explanation for each one.

Hearing the 6 Ways of Ruling, the Sensei was smiling broadly. In this moment we realized our kinship. As I presented the booklet, Jeanine apologized for its worn corners.

“The fact that it’s worn means it has your soul in it—making it an even more significant gift,” the Sensei replied with feeling. As we were leaving, Jeanine asked if there was something the dojo could use from Samadhi Store, pointing out that we carry temple gongs and other products from Japan.

Photo Op with Sensei
Group Photo in the Dojo, Sensei on the left

“The thing we could use the most is for you to return and visit us again,” said the Sensei with warmth and sincerity. We said our goodbyes, pledging a return visit. On our way out, Jeanine made an offering of pesos to the upkeep of the dojo, bowing as she placed an envelope on the alter. The iron gate clanking behind us, we were greeted by our van and driver, who looked both happy to see us and ready to be moving on.

In Havana we never had a kosher meal or visited a synagogue. The Buddhist Meditation center did indeed appear not to exist. But by following instincts, at the end of a broken and dusty street on the south side of town, we discovered a Sensei practicing and teaching the path of warriorship.  This chance encounter was also one of the ways we met the requirements of our license to visit Cuba.

Warriorship in Cuba: Part I

Cuba Warriors, Part I
Arrival in Havana–Fidel Photo Op

“So, today you will enjoy a kosher lunch, followed by a trip to the synagogue…” our guide looked at us blankly, waiting for a reaction.

Jeanine Greenleaf, the President of Samadhi Cushions and I, her husband, were in Cuba, traveling under the auspices of Shambhala. Our granddaughter Camille, a high school senior with four years of Spanish, would serve as a translator.

Jeanine’s daughter Isabelle and our younger granddaughter Sophie would join us from France. As French citizens, they didn’t need a special purpose to visit Cuba, but they were open to the requirements of our fact-finding journey to the communist country.

“A kosher meal and a trip to the synagogue?” Jeanine asked quizzically. Our van had just pulled up to the restaurant; presumably the kosher meal preparations were already underway.

“Yes, that’s what’s on the itinerary.” Said Ernesto, again without expression.

The day before, at the charter desk in Miami, our boarding passes for the hour-long flight to Havana had been stamped “Documents in Order”. Our General License—the one that allowed us to travel to Cuba legally—identified our purpose for the trip. The letter from the secretary of our organization stated that we would be exploring how Buddhism could impact the historically Catholic population.

Evidently, the tour company providing the van and guide had misread our letter. It turns out there is a small Jewish community in Havana. Jeanine smiled. “No, not Jewish—Buddhist. We are Buddhists in the Shambhala Tradition. So we don’t require a kosher meal or a trip to the synagogue. While that might be interesting, isn’t the goal of our trip. Rather than a synagogue, we need to visit a meditation center—a Buddhist meditation center.”

“Ah,” said Ernesto dispassionately. He looked up to think while scratching a day old growth of a beard. “That could be hard, I don’t think there is one.” Ernesto was a smart, urbane, educated, well-read and articulate young man of 30, with excellent English, French and Italian. As an employee of the tour company, he was also a government worker. The government owns all of the tour companies in Cuba.

“Let me make some phone calls, I will find out,“ he offered hopefully. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh fish at the restaurant, which was half-independent and half government-owned, not an atypical arrangement in the communist country. After lunch, Ernesto informed us that there was a group practicing “Vi-Vi-pa…” I finished the word for him, “Vipashyana?”

“Yes, that’s it. They meet every other Sunday in Havana. But they are not meeting this Sunday.” (In the intervening Sunday, the one upcoming, the venue hosted a yoga group.) Vipashyana would have to wait.

Jeanine meets an artist

After lunch we stopped by a community arts center in the neighborhood. Once inside, Jeanine struck up a conversation with one of the artists whose work was on display. Camille assisted in translation. Jeanine explained our quest to visit the apparently non-existent Buddhist Meditation center in Cuba.

“Well, I’m a member of a Dojo. My son goes too. You should visit and meet the Sensei. Come tomorrow.” The painter, a lively gentleman with bright blue eyes, wrote out his cell number and handed it with some explanation to Ernesto.

Back in the van, Ernesto looked anxious.  The “Dojo” (pronounced “doyo”) was on the south side of Havana in a poor neighborhood. “The Sen-sei?” He asked, pronouncing the word for the first time. “I’m not sure if we can go there.” (Later we found out that our guide was required to report and explain all tour changes to his supervisor.)

“We are going there,” Jeanine declared, ignoring Ernesto’s hesitation. Jeanine had a good feeling about the painter, who was warm and open. “The Sensei saved my life,” he had shared, hinting at story that would go untold.

Continued in Part II

Meditation Practice:10 Red Flags

Meditation Warning SignsSome “Red Flags” that might mean it’s time to  look deeper into your discipline of meditation:

1.  Sitting on your meditation cushion, you give yourself only one option: feeling good. As for the other stuff—more or less your life—you take the attitude that it’s somehow all behind you.

2.  In any given session, the number of times your mind meets the now corresponds with the number of times your smart phone vibrates.

3.  Your meditation is anxious. After all, it’s about time you were a better person.

4. Having decided that you are fine just as you were, you meditate like a zombie chillaxing.

5.  You understand your discipline to be a solitary endeavor. As for joining in group meditation, you’d rather visit a bus station after midnight.

6. At the meditation center, you’re a stickler for decorum, nickname: “Miss Manners.” Troubled by your indecorus posture adjustments at home, your practice partner knows you by another nickname: “Scratch n’ Sniff.”

7. Relying on “intuition” to guide your meditation, the sessions are getting shorter and shorter.

8. You see your practice as communion—what you call “deep listening.” Concerned about your dwindling social skills, your partner wonders if the issue is hearing loss.

9. A mindfulness session MUST include ginger tea, your favorite sweatpants, and the mala blessed by a Lama whose name you can’t remember. Lacking any one of these, you are lost.

10. The less you actually meditate, the more you are moved to share your alleged insights in a blog post.

Dear fellow practitioner, I like to write what I know.

When meditation is our own private affair, we overlook interdependence and lose touch with the source of our inspiration. When our practice is only social, we have trouble resting with aloneness, the source of our insight.

Elevating our discipline to something special and separate, we disconnect from the ordinary magic of life, and make meditation harder than it is. What if to meditate was to be human? What if practice was less about adopting a lifestyle, and more about showing up for life?
Without the pretense of a drama that limits meditation to “self-help,” our practice becomes a journey of discovery, or to put it more bluntly—unmasking. Letting ourselves be—even for a moment—is the practice of meditation. It happens now.  Why not consider that an invitation?

How do we know when we are practicing well? What does it mean to be human? Maybe these are the same question.

A Secret Shared

Tonight I have to be at the meditation center. Our little study group, all long-time practitioners of Buddhist meditation, will meet at 5:30. With our teacher’s blessing, 8-10 of us are reading and discussing sacred “terma,” or “hidden treasure” texts from the Shambhala tradition.

The road to this study group was long. Many years of dedicated meditation practice, contemplation, retreats, and funds were required. Perhaps this is why we are so few.

Students of meditation, we are also school teachers, engineers, bookkeepers, artists, Internet geeks, business executives, nurses, parents, and grandparents. The two texts under study highlight different views on the path of meditation and realization. Outside of our little group, we don’t refer to these texts by name or otherwise.

Last week, this most sacred of sacred, most inner of inner, contemplations began with Brussels sprouts. Roasted actually, with olive oil, and a dash of lemon. Catherine, following a simple recipe from Donna, brought these intriguingly named vegetables to share in our potluck. (Yes, the original sprout might have been cultivated in Belgium). It is not in my nature to appreciate Brussels sprouts. But these were lauded as exceptional and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the one I ate.

As we snack, we talk–current events, both local and global, inspiring or entertaining books, our own news, or news of others. The conversation, superficial or personal, is often animated–all of this without a PDA or a glass of wine. I know what you’re thinking: we must be old. Well, perhaps. We do all seem to be over 40. But our schedules are full. Savoring our exchange together, we are ageless.

If communication isn’t moderated, one might wonder, how it is that members of a group don’t all talk at once? What accounts for the smooth flow of speaking and listening that includes everyone in the group? According to social scientists, the answer is eye contact. And how often do we simply look at a face—and not because we’re waiting for change, or thinking about a kiss, or trying to manage the impression we hope to make?

Faces tell a story. The thoughts we’ve entertained over the years shape the way we hold our jaw, furrow our brows, manage our hair, and shift our gaze. Enjoying Brussels sprouts and Vermont cheddar (my contribution), we read the stories that life has written in the eyes, laugh lines, and crow’s feet on each other’s faces. And we listen–appreciating what is said, and what is unsaid.

I’m not sure why, but this social time is remarkable. Maybe it is the power of the meditation center, a neutral but uplifted space where one is somehow both a host and a guest—and neither. Certainly relaxation is encouraged when food is shared.  Perhaps our mutual intention puts us at ease. We all profess an interest in being less confused, more awake to life and more capable of being helpful. Certainly, we would acknowledge the benefits of slowing down in meditation and finding the space for contemplation.

Having snacked, chatted, listened and looked at each other, we clean up and head into the meditation room to find a seat, taking our sacred and secret texts with us. We arrange ourselves in a circle. Energized from our time together, there is a sense of relaxation and even celebration. Each class seems to begin with the same fresh discovery: we can connect, know and understand each other. None of us is so different from the other.

Sitting on my meditation cushion today, I am emotional. This small group of people has shared so much: years of study and practice, campaigns to establish and host spaces for others to learn meditation, and now the study of advanced and esoteric teachings on the nature of reality. But our spiritual accomplishment manifests very simply and humbly: we can be together, eat and talk. We have learned how to appreciate, respect and maybe even love each other.

Opening our texts, there is a silent acknowledgement. Whatever we may uncover in our study of the profound and sacred, it will arise out of what is shared—our humanness. And these insights, however subtle or surprising, will be accessible to everyone, anywhere, at any time—like the secret of a good Brussels sprout.

The True Refuge

According to my meditation teacher, to practice meditation is to be vulnerable, requiring the discipline of simplifying and slowing down. This journey takes intelligence and a willingness to acknowledge our connection to others. Sitting on our meditation cushion, we are exposed. Our willingness to be exposed is an expression of strength.

Of course security is important and meditation requires relaxation. But if we are left alone for a minute, and we give our discursiveness a rest, inevitably we begin to feel. To feel what we are feeling is to be human. To be human is to be vulnerable.

But now what? What next? Where do we go? Where is our refuge? Upon what can we rely?

It’s ironic, but some of us, even those of us practicing meditation, have forgotten that vulnerability is our natural state. Often unconsciously, we work to solve the dilemma of our thin skin by aspiring not to feel.

Co-opted by fear, our meditative discipline becomes a drug designed to enhance only the good and reduce or eliminate the trauma of living. As social scientists have come to recognize, in suppressing what is difficult in being human, we also lose what is sublime. Pursuing what is comfortable and protected, we find ourselves more dead than alive.

Unable to be simple, we need a story. We find protection in the righteousness of our discipline, or in a superior view, or maybe we embrace a spiritual path that sanctifies our togetherness. Aspiring to a higher and less vulnerable self, we confront the world with a knowing smile. With pride we offer to tidy up a mess of our own invention. As Bono sang, we are ready “to play Jesus, to the lepers in our head.”

Even if we don’t bother with elevating our self-esteem at the expense of others, our imagined insulation from the world permits a subtle nihilism. We allow ourselves the hypocrisy of pretending that our actions haven’t hurt others and that the hurts we have suffered are somehow behind us. The only way to maintain this self-deception is by moving along to the next thing. When it comes to what is real, and what is now, we demure. That is for another time, we tell ourselves, embracing small talk or the news of the day.

Absorbed in the drama of our security, we forget that what’s above us isn’t a roof. It’s the sky. Space that goes up effectively forever. We acknowledge the living earth only when it comforts or glorifies our existence. For the most part, we treat the planet as a corridor leading to our next destination. But this ‘corridor’ is spinning and careening through space. We, the inhabitants are also in transition, with no idea when our number is up. Being vulnerable makes sense. It is the way things are.

Instinctively, we know all this and our refuges are almost a reflex. Because the shelters we seek are reflections of our own insecurity, sooner or later they let us down. When our contract with the ‘other’ eventually falls through, we are left tilting at windmills, placing blame, and critiquing the demise of a world we ourselves had invented. A world built around imaginary contracts written to ensure that we would never be exposed.

Since we are involved in a pattern that betrays us, no matter how glorious or gloomy our circumstance, subtly we hold on to a sense of injury. Each day we  wake up with the feeling that we have been wronged and that life going forward needs to make it up to us, or at the very least, leave us alone. Our patterns reflect this complaint. They are circular, and having played one out without satisfaction, we are compelled in the moment to start again. Vulnerability is this fresh start. But now what? Where do we go? What is the true refuge, the one that won’t disappoint, the direction that doesn’t lead us in a circle? For a refuge to be real, it has to be true to who we are.

Meditation brings focus, centering and a measure of relaxation. But once this natural health has been experienced, our practice is a chance to feel. In spite of our humanity, we don’t always have the nerve or motivation to take this chance. Why should we? Because by slowing down, feeling and being, we can know and understand our hearts. Connecting to ourselves, our connection to others is revealed. Naturally, we discover that we care. When we discover caring, the one true refuge is available.

This true refuge is native and easy and it is a decision made after careful consideration of the alternatives. It is personal, manifesting differently because we are all different. Whatever the expression, it is the one way to connect with the world that brings peace. Because it has to start somewhere, it could begin with admitting that there is nothing wrong with who we are. It might mean extending ourselves or practicing forgiveness . Because it is both natural and imposed, sometimes it means “YES!” and sometimes “NO!” It is the path that will never disappoint or mislead. It is the only way forward, the only way to grow.

The one true refuge? Kindness–to oneself and all beings.

Editor’s Note: An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama how he got over the desecration of his country by the Chinese. He look puzzled: “I didn’t,” he replied. When Mr. Greenleaf was asked about this post, he shared that it was written “at a difficult time, after my favorite refuge had let me down—in what I imagined to be a big way.”  For more on the power of vulnerability, see the Ted Talk by Brene Brown.

 

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.

 

Me Who Loathes Me: The Interview

On cold and rainy afternoon in West Barnet recently, I caught up with the Me Who Loathes Me. We shared a cup of tea and watched the clouds moving across the sky.

Me: So, when was it we last got together?

MLM: Yeah, not so long ago—at the funeral service for Paul, a fellow practitioner of mindfulness.

Me: Yes, Paul, what a wonderful man!

MLM: Yeah, if anyone ever put your schtick in stark contrast, it was Paul. He understood goodness, something that still eludes you. What do you actually do on your meditation cushion anyway? I mean, that fact that you, a meditation teacher, telling students that sitting practice is making friends with themselves, and you don’t actually like yourself! Well, it’s a crushing irony, wouldn’t you say?

Me: Hmm, right. Anyhow, so what brought you to the funeral?

MLM: Well, you know, to paraphrase Trungpa Rinpoche, it’s not that we’re such f*ck-ups, it’s that we want to keep our issues bottled up as a family heirloom. I’m always lurking around. Nothing like death to release what’s under the floorboards.

Me: Sorry MLM, but before we go further, I have to confess something. I can’t figure out why I keep inviting you back. It’s never fun. I mean I do invite you back, don’t I?

MLM: Oh definitely, you’re quite the host. Why, what’s wrong with my company?

Me: Well, to be critiqued (and harshly!) for every move, every flicker of thought, especially for failure on the path of practice, to be convinced that others disregard you as much as you disregard yourself, so that the only solution is to throw yourself down a deep hole where the sun never shines, to be denied the chance to enjoy even the simplest pleasure, or for that matter to properly remember and appreciate someone who is gone — it’s quite the assault. It’s negative and hurtful, evil really.

MLM: If you only ascribe evil motivations to hurtful actions you will never understand them. I’d be careful with that.

Me: So why do I invite you back—I mean, over and over?!

MLM: Well everybody needs love. You especially seem to crave attention. I’m company.

Me: Love? How can you say that?!

MLM: It’s simple really. To denigrate something, you have to appreciate it. You have to care. Remember, after denial, anger is the second of the 5 stages of grieving. We met last at a funeral, right? Death is change. Everything is changing. Who can blame anyone for being pissed off? Anyhow, aggression is attention, and attention is what you’re all about.

Me: But it’s so painful! Why would I invite this aggression on myself? It’s such a relief when you’re gone!

MLM: Who knows? Maybe it’s a kind of love that you know, a love you understand. It puts you at the center, so it’s familiar and comforting.

Me: I don’t even want to think about that.

MLM: Well, you might have to think about it. But you don’t have to dwell on it. There are always reasons, but then the reasons have reasons. To get back to why I keep coming back, let me ask you a question: how do you feel when I’m gone?

Me: Great! Relief, really.

MLM: After I’ve exposed and attacked your many, we could even say innumerable, failings, are you sorry I left?

Me: No, not at all!

MLM: OK, I have another more important question: once I’m gone, are you sorry I visited in the first place?

Me: I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that.

MLM: I thought so. I come back because, for some reason, you don’t regret that I came in the first place. Not wanting to be like everyone else, you are proud to put up with your own self-ravaging. After my visit, you’ve earned the T-Shirt that says, “I survived MLM”—a T-shirt that only you can wear. It’s lame, but for a little while your black hole of insecurity has been filled up.  It’s one way of being useful, an original meaning of the word proud, by the way.

Me: OK, as sad as that sounds, there may be some truth to it. It certainly is reassuring to emerge from your embrace. But there has to be a deeper reason for all this fuss. It feels like a distraction.

MLM: Hmm, how intuitive of you, unusual. Sure, when you invite me it’s because you’re hiding, you’re afraid.

Me: What am I hiding from? Is there some deep dark secret that I’m trying to keep from seeing?

MLM: Well, what’s secret to you is there is no deep dark secret.

Me: So what I am afraid of? Just how bad I really am?

MLM: No, no, no! That’s not what scares you. You’re always so hard on yourself. That’s my job! You are afraid, that’s true. But what really terrifies you is how good you are.

Me: How good I am?

MLM: Yes, you’re not just OK, or alright, or a little bit good. You are basically good, breathtakingly fundamentally innocent–and deep down you know this and you know that everyone else is too.

Me: But why should I be afraid of being good?

MLM: Because you’re used to something else, that’s all.

Me: What could I be so used to that it blinds me to understanding myself?

MLM: That’s simple: hanging on to me.

In a flash the Me Who Loathes Me was gone. Without his company, I felt lonely and a little sad. Outside, the rain, by virtue of the wind, was splattering the window. The clouds overhead were moving north, as if toward evening. There was still tea in the cup. It was cool by now, but I took the last few sips.

Editor’s Note: This conversation brings to mind words from a poem by the 19th century wandering yogi Patrul Rinpoche: “Don’t be hard on yourself, even if you can’t practice the Dharma.” For more from the Shambhala tradition on the possibility that you and everyone you know, society itself, is basically good, see Sakyong Mipham’s The Supreme Thought.

The Contentment Test

This year, the Christian tradition of Lent falls during the weeks before and after the first day of spring. Lent is a time associated with purification and renunciation. While Buddhism is no stranger to these practices, one of the words for renunciation in Tibetan can also be translated as “contentment”. (The word is chok-she, which literally means “to know enough, to know what is enough”.) Rather than self-sacrifice or a lowering of expectation, contentment refers to waking up from the confusion of continuous want; appreciating the richness of experience in each moment.

To say what might be obvious, this moment, in this life, is the only one we have. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves planning in vain for another moment, another now. Not only an expression of our wish to grow and learn, sitting on our meditation cushion is also taking the time to find, or more accurately express, contentment in our own experience as it is now. (Notably: the word contentment includes “content”, which when the accent is on the first syllable, refers to the ability to hold).

Contentment is curious. Take The Contentment Test below to discover more.

1. When you have screwed up again, you should:

A: Buck up and try harder.

B: Confront the jerks who let you down.

C: Take a long hard look at your own failings.

D: Smile.

2. When others have failed, it makes sense to:

A: Show how they set their sights too high.

B: Explore the details of the screwed-up.

C: Look for ways to help them move forward.

D: Remind them they’ve done this before.

3. Someone who questions the virtue of continuous entertainment:

A: Hasn’t seen ‘Dancing with the Stars’

B: Sees life as a chain of small but meaningful decisions.

C: Is afraid of the rituals that make us a society.

D: Has questionable social skills.

4. When you’ve realized who you are, you should:

A: Try to find yourself.

B. Share colorful stories highlighting your outstanding qualities.

C. Be patient until others reach your level.

D: Share your insights with those who need them most.

5. The best way to get things done is to:

A: Slow down.

B: Waste less time (with questions like these).

C: Champion productivity.

D: Fake it ’till you make it.

6. Complete the refrain: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…”

A: Sh*t Happens.

B: Is a wonderful view.

C: Lunch is ready.

D: Credit cards have lower rates.

7. Complete the following: “Life has meaning when…”

A: I’m doing what I want.

B: I’m not stuck with someone else’s job.

C: Stupid questions are avoided.

D: I know what I’m doing and why.

8. Finish the statement: “Success is…”

A: Having more (not less).

B: Being willing to win.

C: Nothing to worry about.

D: One million hits on YouTube.

9. It’s important to tell the truth because:

A: There’s nothing to hide.

B. It might just work.

B: Unable to recall at this time.

C: No one’s really listening.

10. When you meet another person, best to:

A: Judge them fairly.

B: Keep a safe distance.

C: Baffle (if you can’t dazzle).

D: Smile.

This test was inspired by the teachings on the Dignity of the Tiger, from the books Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Ruling Your World. I answered my test like this: D, C, B, A, A, B, D, C, A, D—a result I was satisfied with. Since I wrote the test, it wasn’t so hard. How did you do? How would you compose your own test? This spring, wishing you contentment in the ever-changing nature of the moment.