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.

 

Remembering My Self

April 1st Barnet, Vermont We remember here Acharya Michael Greenleaf, a senior teacher in Shambhala and a co-founder of the wildly successful Mukpo Institute.

The Acharya’s road to revered ‘would-be Master’ was not easy or anticipated. As a boy, he mercilessly harassed his one sibling, a younger brother. Both smarter and more sensitive than Michael, Tony suffered this abuse with dignity. Later, Michael would take credit for “introducing my brother to the Buddhist path of patience and loving kindness.”

By the age of 13, a growing intuition told Michael that his destiny lay in rock stardom. By the end of his teens Michael shared 2 traits with the rock and roll legends he worshiped: self-absorption (born of mind-altering drugs) and permanent hearing loss.

In college, Mr. Greenleaf’s World Literature professor accused him of plagiarism.  Michael’s paper reported on the story of a teenager in rural Africa. Apparently his observations mirrored scholarship at the time. Mr. Greenleaf, who would forever deny the charge, credited his grasp of ‘primitive’ culture from “having attended High School in Texas.” The next semester, Michael changed his major to Accounting.

Graduating during the recession of 1982, Michael struggled to find a job in his chosen profession. After pounding the pavement, Michael received an offer to join the CPA firm of Shepard, Schwartz and Harris. New to the rough and tumble of business, loud noises and surprises at the office could startle the rookie. “If the client shouted, or if the partner forcefully passed gas, I was in danger of wetting my pants,” he shared, while reminiscing about his start in accounting.

“I had only one friend at the firm, a benevolent CPA named Eli,” he continued. “During the audits we’d debate the existence of God. In Eli’s mind, God’s handiwork was obvious every time he found parking downtown, which he managed do quite frequently. I expressed what I thought was a healthy scepticism. Taking me aside one day, Eli looked me in the eye and very gently suggested it was time for me to find my ‘own people’.”

In 1986 Michael left the CPA profession to join a biotech start-up. Committed to the development of novel anti-cancer compounds, the enterprise had only to “go public” to make its shareholder/employees millionaires overnight. Two years later the promise faded. During in vivo testing, the leading compound wiped out an entire floor of laboratory mice. In spite of this experience, Acharya Greenleaf remained charmed by the prospect of having money without actually doing anything to earn it.

In Chicago, after tasting her coq au vin — a chicken stew, Michael married Jeanine, a woman of French descent. For the Acharya, this blessed union initiated a process of steady weight gain, a marked improvement in wardrobe coordination as well as the development of habits associated with basic personal hygiene. This also began a life-long discipline of “exchanging self for in-laws” which Michael practiced until the end.

Seeking a profession where failure was less measurable, and wanting to “share some good news for a change,” in his 40’s Michael left accounting and turned his attention to the realm of the spirit. Addressing meditation students who questioned his status as a spiritual guide, Michael defended his business background.  “Accounting helped me prepare for the the contemplative life,” he told them, “I learned how to find meaning where there really isn’t any.”

After years of diligent meditation, Michael grew disillusioned with the pace of the path, and started to resent the work required for spiritual progress. A fellow traveler at the time related what, to many in his community, was already evident, “Michael seemed happy with the attention and status of being a teacher, but it was clear that his interest in meditation and service to others was more or less replaced by an obsession with fine dining and luxury automobiles.”

Around this time, Mr. Greenleaf became a step-grandfather, a status he called “rock bottom in the family system.“ Later, when his teenage granddaughter moved into the quiet household Michael shared with his wife, the new relationship renewed the Acharya’s longing for solitary retreat. “When all you can hear is split ends and skinny jeans, you know there has to be something more,” he explained to the retreat master.

Near the end, at the request of his teacher, Michael taught on the practice of generosity—“a demanding topic that took a lot out of me,” he said in an interview. Those who experienced Michael in his later years saw a new sense of calm and contentment. At the memorial service, his wife Jeanine shared a portrait that had many in attendance nodding their heads. “As long as he was well-fed and could drive his beloved automobile, Michael was a pretty happy person.”

Author’s Note: Yes, I’m still here. Lately I’ve been saddened by death, including, since I wrote this, the passing of Roger Ebert. Mr. Ebert lived in Chicago–where I started my accounting career. More and more these days, I know the names of the movers and shakers who have died. Their ages are also closer and closer to my own. The standard obituary is all about accomplishments–feathers in the cap as it were. The problem: when you look for the “self” underneath all the feathers,  you can’t find it. All you get is feathers. Which is sad–or funny, depending upon how you see it. Reflecting on this, I decided to write my own obituary. What I wrote is basically true, which is kind of funny. And sad.

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.

What to Do?

Lately, I’ve scrapped a few blog posts. There was one I wrote for the holidays on forgiveness–but it’s just not the right time. In another attempt I tried to follow the threads of grief and loss to some universal wisdom addressing the tragic shootings in Newtown. I couldn’t figure out how to end the post. For what it’s worth, if you are looking for leadership in this sad time, I thought our President’s remarks at the memorial service for the victims were on the dot.

“What can we Do?” is the question the day. This is the “Do” with a capital “D”—not the small “d” that dominates our day-to-day life. Some of you (I think of activists and inspired Bodhisattvas) may be familiar the sense of urgency that this kind of tragedy inspires. Not liking drama, being wary of pretension, and generally weak-kneed, I shy away from the big “D.”

The answers to the question vary. Seeking a sense of security, many will purchase their own gun. Why, they reason, should I be left defenseless—like the victims in the shooting? Some will be inspired to limit the spread of automatic weapons, weapons that transform a shooter into an army. That wasn’t, they argue, the intent of the Second Amendment. The President’s initiative will also look at the treatment of mental illness as part of an action assessment. The shooter was deranged. Was society aware?

The local high school here in Vermont will send cards and other expressions of care to the school in Newtown. In an eloquent letter, the headmaster wrote the parents (and grandparents) quoting scripture. To paraphrase: when we are afflicted, God shares his love with us so that we may share it with others when they too face trial.  (2 Corinthians 1:4).

I once heard Bernie Glassman Roshi give a talk at the New York Shambhala Center. Someone asked him where he got the inspiration for the socially engaged Buddhism that he practices. “It’s simple,” he said. “At some point you can’t take it anymore. You have to do something.”  My big “D”? For me, it isn’t “Doing”. It’s  “Distraction.” By not paying attention, you wake up to a world of your own enabling and wonder how you got there. This too is a question with many answers. For me, I get there by ignoring, losing myself in a world of doing with a small “d’.

Meditation is unusual. It is an act of “being” that combines the vast and the precise, the visionary and the mundane, the mind and the body, the big “D” and the little one. It introduces us to a deeper nature, one within and without. Because it joins the little ‘d’ of action with the bid ‘D’ of human awareness, it helps to overcome the mindlessness that lies at the heart of our incomprehension and our acting out. With the exception of getting a gun (the weak knees could be a problem), I support the efforts and initiatives of others. What I “can’t take anymore” is my own distraction. Distraction, the realm of busyness and forgetting, invites me to ignore my own wounded heart and the hearts of others. To overcome this, I will have to wake up. To wake up, I practice meditation. That’s what I can (D)do.

Editor’s Note: One of Acharya Greenleaf’s scrapped blogs had the title Dark Currents. Because it was too beautiful to pass up, the photo for that post is used here. The photographer, Steve Mancinelli, is our capable patent attorney (yes, Samadhi Cushions does own the name Gomden. It is the trademark for the meditation cushion that is ideal for simple cross-legged sitting). For more amazing images visit Steve’s website: penumbralight.com.

Hope for the Holidays

During the holidays, it’s inspiring to remember our lineage forebears. One of my favorite stories features a moment between the meditation masters Chögyam Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi, two of my heroes. When this encounter begins,  Trungpa is drunk and Roshi is angry. They loved each other.

Their story isn’t a holiday story, but it could be. It gives me hope. I suppose you could take it another way.

As a WASP, angry is binary, it’s a switch. For my people, you’re “fine,” “fine,” “fine,” and then, after a few glasses of fine Bordeaux, “Your mother and I have decided to leave you out of our estate planning.” By this time your cat may already be poisoned and buried in the basement.

Speaking of angry, these days I’m moody. Why? Perhaps the holidays. Maybe because I’ve been sitting on my meditation cushion not even intensely, but regularly. Things are coming up. Sorry if you are new to meditation and no one warned you about a dark side. We’ve got stuff in the basement. It keeps trying to make it to the light of day. I was trained not to let it.

In my family,“what happens at dinner stays at dinner” is our motto. What happens at dinner? Someone you love steers you to a seat near a corner of the table. They sit next to you. They wait until the food is served. When they speak, they will be looking away from the Turkey. In short, they separate you from the pack. Then they let you have it. Word choice is considered. This where their graduate education really pays off. They speak quietly, like they’re reading from an op-ed piece or a movie review by Anthony Lane. Their controlled tone signals you that they have officially lost their mind and are ready to take it to next level.

The next level is a raised voice. You both know this will never happen, but the threat is key. WASPs are cold blooded, so no histrionics. In, France, my wife’s country, what they call a “discussion” would register chez moi as a nuclear event. An unspoken rule for the civilized WASPs: no collateral damage. Those people could still be useful. How do I know all this? It’s learned. Are there ways to avoid getting taken out? You have to read the signs.

The time my late Aunt tried on the nightgown was a sign. She was living alone at the time. She had traveled a long way to my cousin’s house for Christmas Dinner. There was wine. I had given her a nightgown for winter. It was warm, but in retrospect, a bit simple. She tried it on in my cousin’s living room just before the meal. No, not like that. She just pulled it on over her sweater and everything else. Still, that was a sign. I missed it. Before I knew it, she had cornered me near the end of a festive holiday table.

My Aunt, an otherwise wonderful, artful, thoughtful woman, had a switch. The WASP switch. “Don’t do what again Aunty?” I leaned in, trying to strike a brave note. Her tone was quiet. Her eyes were glowing. The smell of turkey was replaced by the smell of death. Dinner was just getting started. I was doomed.

“Don’t you EVER give me a present like that again! Even my cleaning lady gives me better presents than the junk you give me. Why do you even BOTHER?! Why?!” In my defense, my Aunt’s cleaning lady Jessica was a Jehovah’s Witness and a candidate for sainthood.  The holidays are about gratitude. Between grapplings with her wine glass, my Aunt elaborated on the gift from Jessica. One thing became clear, she was grateful for her cleaning lady.

Bolting from the table was my only option for escape. That would have created a scene. The rule against collateral damage applies to the victim as well as the perpetrator. Witnesses? Only my cousin, a perceptive soul who happened to be sitting across from us, noticed what was going down. Her face registered horror and fascination. Like someone watching a documentary on baby seals. It gave me solace.

When I look back now, I realize the stress my Aunt was under and I appreciate why she did what she did. My lack of insight into her situation was part of the reason. For a while, I couldn’t forgive her. Why? Because I couldn’t understand her. Because I didn’t understand myself. In the basement, it takes time for your eyes to adjust.

Trungpa and Roshi? The story ends with Trungpa teaching Roshi’s Zen students in a talk entitled “The Open Way” and Roshi calling Trungpa a bodhisattva.

Like I said, these days I’ve been moody, even angry. My temper comes suddenly. “Out of nowhere!” as my wife puts it. As if a switch had been thrown, or a basement door had swung open. I guess it’s a lineage thing. It’s hard way to begin a moment, but it’s real. Being real, it has the potential to end well.  In a strange way, it gives me hope. Hope for the holidays.