Meditation Space: New York City


by David Allen McKeel

 

I live in New York City and I work at a meditation center.

By the way, this is a great conversation starter at parties.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m the Director of Practice & Education at a meditation center.”

“Really. Is that a thing? …Can you get me tickets?”

People may not know exactly what my job is all about, but they know there’s potentially something hip about it. Meditation is, after all, “a thing”. You can just picture your favorite model on your favorite magazine cover, sitting on a zafu (a kind of meditation cushion) with the caption “Meet Attractive Singles… The Spiritual Way!”

When I tell people what I do, sometimes they look at me expectantly, hungrily, as if at any moment I’m going to drop some profound nugget of wisdom. This makes me nervous. I get to thinking there’s a sauce stain on my shirt I didn’t catch.

Sometimes I’m the one making too much eye contact. Not because I’m fascinated with what the other person is saying; I just zone out sometimes. Then I realize I’m staring. Then I start looking for an excuse to casually break the eye contact without clueing them in to the fact that I’m desperately self-conscious: “Hey, you’re wearing shoes! Nice… Are those Bruno Maglis?”

New Yorkers in general are always looking for more subtle and sophisticated ways to avoid eye contact. Especially on the subway. iPhones, iPads – these are your go-to instruments. Before Steve Jobs died I had high hopes Apple would devel op an iZafu: a sleek, sophisticated, high-tech-information-portal-meditation-seat. Open-minded creative types would camp out in front of the Apple Store on the eve of its release (salmon swim upstream to mate; we wait on line at the Apple Store). Soon you wouldn’t be caught dead on the subway without the new iZafu 5. “You mean I can meditate, tweet, AND download the new Radiohead album? I’m in!”

But I digress.

Celebrities also make me self-conscious. I’m not one of them, so their constant judgment is palpable. I mean they terrify me. And because we’re in New York City, I’m convinced that at any moment Lady Gaga will walk into our meditation center. Or Matt Lauer will find us after a Google search following an intense argument with his wife. The UN was in session last week. What am I supposed to do if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strolls into the place, looking for a way to cope with his public speaking anxiety? How would you deal with a room full of delegates walking out on you? I’m just saying… this is the kind of pressure that drove me into meditation.

Me: This way to the shrine room Mr. Trump. You’ll want to take off those Bruno Maglis.

The Donald: You have tomato sauce on your shirt.

A couple of weeks ago the building management notified us that the water would be shut off for a day while they made some necessary repairs. This happened to coincide with the first day of one of our introductory weekend meditation programs. It’s an interesting exercise, explaining to a group of new meditation students how they have to go to the bathroom without flushing. It’s also a good metaphor for meditation practice. Instead of flushing away what we habitually wish to avoid… well… you get the picture.

We were a little concerned people would revolt, but luckily New Yorkers are adept at going with the flow. My theory: New Yorkers are natural meditators. Wall Street traders hover over the Bloomberg ticker all day. You can’t walk out your front door without tripping over a yoga studio. And therapy is our ultimate contemplation-of-self. Everyone I meet is either rushing to therapy, irritated because they just came from therapy, or asking if I know a good therapist.

By the way, if you know a good therapist my email address is at the end of this blog post.

One last story: I was sitting on the ground at Madison Square Park, talking to one of my meditation buddies. We were on a lunch break during a weekend practice program and it was one of those magnificent days – bright blue sky, soft breeze, perfect temperature. I was depressed. I must’ve closed my eyes for a minute because the next thing I remember is a little boy, maybe five years old, standing in front of me looking right into my eyes. I was too startled to be self-conscious and I didn’t know how to avoid what was happening, so I just locked eyes with him. It could’ve been seven seconds or it could’ve been all day. And maybe he said something (“Mister, you’ve got applesauce on your shirt”). But what I mainly remember is feeling amazed this was happening… and surprised at how opened up and empty I felt after he walked away.

Presumably to check his email.

Thus I have heard: In a city of eight million wandering glances a little eye contact goes a long way.

 

 

(c) 2011, David Allen McKeel

“iZafu” drawing by Jack Niland

Meditation Space: Boston, MA

In Pamplona it’s the running the bulls. During Holi in Mathura it’s an explosion of colored powders. And at the Boston Shambhala Center it’s the stacking of the meditation cushion known as the Gomden.  Each of these traditions has its own flavor, developing slowly over time.

In 1981 the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the “Gomden,” a firm, foam core, meditation seat.  Not only did this enrich the experience of the meditator, but it made possible “the stacking of the Gomdens.”

Uniform size and stability of the Gomden means they can be stacked with geometric precision.  They can be stacked two Gomdens high along the entire length of a wall.  Six year old children particularly favor this configuration.  They can form higher columns reaching just beneath the window sills.  I have even seen intricate Rubik patterns emerging.

In our Boston Meditation Center, one makes the simple request, “could you please help stack the Gomdens” and the magic unfolds.  Whim and fancy of the first few people depositing the foam seats and mats establishes the pattern, an entire process accompanied by playfulness and the afterglow of a group meditation session.

My first encounter with this nascent tradition occurred some time ago, when I attended a refuge vow ceremony in Boulder, Colorado conducted by the Vidyadhara.  (The refuge vow ceremony is how a buddhist becomes a buddhist.) Three of us drove in from Chicago and were struck by the level of organization in Boulder and the crisp formality of the ceremony itself.  We were told that everyone would have a brief meeting with this remarkable teacher whom we had never met in person but whose books convinced us beyond a doubt that compassionate enlightenment was alive and well.  Ushered into a room for two minutes of awkward conversation you left thinking that anyone with such complete insight into your basic goodness truly deserved the title Rinpoche, or “precious one.”

Following the interviews we were schooled, in numbing detail, on the logistics for the upcoming ceremony.  Seated helter-skelter amid the fields, the devotees and monks of old listened to the words of the Buddha, but that was not the Boulder plan.  Specific rows at the front of the shrine hall were designated for those taking the vow, and each Zabuton and Zafu was alphabetically assigned.  It was a delicate operation.  (The Zafu is from Zen and was the meditation seat used by Shambhala in the early days.)

Calligraphies were created for each name and would be stacked on a table next to the Vidyadhara.  Once the ceremony was underway he would simply reach down for the next sheet, and you had better be lined up in the right order.

Following the ceremony there was a request for volunteers.  The dozens of Zabutons and Zafus blanketing the expanse of the pinewood floor had to be taken up and stacked.  Once I volunteered that fateful day in Boulder, the hallowed silence, modulated movement, and hushed solemnity disappeared in an instant. A motto of “easier to throw than walk over” soon emerged.  I was assigned as a “catcher” along one of the walls and soon whirling zafus filled the air, vying with the best of all frisbee tournaments.  They were quickly shaped into reasonably neat mounds adjacent to rising columns of stacked zabutons. Suddenly realization dawned!  I had taken refuge in a tradition that delighted in orderly chaos.

Orderly Chaos was written by Frank Ryan

Frank Ryan and his wife Susan live in Newton, Massachusetts.  A senior teacher at the Shambhala Center of Boston, Frank never tires of the play between the extraordinary vision of Shambhala and the pulsing immediacy of everyday life.


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.