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.

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.

Ringing in New Y(ears)

Just a random sample of comments I’ve received recently and over the years. 

 

“Where have you been, in La La land?” My friend Donna marveling at my fatigue with the stress of daily scheduling and meal preparation in a house with a teenager.

 

“It doesn’t read like something from someone who writes for a living.” My friend Sal after previewing a blog post (that never got posted).

 

“I live here too you know!” My wife, asking me why my trousers were on the chair in the bedroom when I already had on a pair.

 

“Everything is going to be alright.” A Tibetan doctor I saw for a flare up of dermatitis.

 

“Do you think about sex a lot?” A Chinese doctor with his fingers on my pulse, interpreted by his wife. (I was seeing him for dermatitis.)

 

“I’m sure you’re really busy.” A meditation student who asked me to call him. (I haven’t yet.)

 

“You forgot something.” My granddaughter referring to a trip I took to the bathroom.

 

“The idea is to finish one thing before you go on to another.” My first boss, critiquing my work habits.

 

“That sounds neurotic.” A student commenting on my livelihood strategy of taking work that scared me.

 

Meditation is very important.” Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the first time I met him (when I was 17).

 

“Don’t move that with your foot. Use your hands.” My wife, upset at my habit of adjusting meditation cushions with my feet before I sat down.

 

“I think you should study business.” Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, after I told him that my future college had a Buddhist studies program.

 

“I wanted to study music, but I had a tin ear.” My college calculus professor in response to my poor performance in his class. (I dropped it.)

 

“All you’re doing is pressing buttons.” My mathematician father, after I explained how happy I was to master my programmable calculator.

 

“First the glucose burns up, then the fat.” My friend Arthur, as I tried to keep up with him in a recent ice skate around Harvey’s Lake.

 

“You’re basically hiding out.” Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche commenting on my life here in Vermont.

 

“I thought Buddhism was about beyond hope and fear.” My friend Sal responding to some thoughts I had about regret and redemption.

 

“There is still time!” Two staff members at the residential meditation center Karmê Chöling (separately) after I said I thought I would make it to Shambhala Day, the lunar New Year.

 

Thank you everyone. I very much appreciate your feedback and look forward to another year of it!

 

 


What Goes Around…

IMG_0086

Congratulations everyone. According to the lunar calendar, it is the beginning of a New Year. The fact that the earth turns and winds up where it left off is somehow reassuring. The fact that we have lived to see it is cause for celebration and reflection. The year was a journey. Where did it take us? Older now, our time and how we spend it can only be more important.

In Shambhala, to mark the start of the annual lunar cycle, we distribute a little soft cover calendar called a Practice Book. It is offered to anyone who shows up at a Shambhala Center during the celebration of what we call Shambhala Day. This year Shambhala Day initiates the year of the Iron Hare. It will be celebrated on Saturday, March 5th, 2011.

When Practice Books were first introduced in our community many years ago, I remember being less than thrilled. I can be lazy and forgetful. Why should I remember what happened yesterday, or even this morning? Why keep track of missed chances for meditation, especially when there are seemingly infinite moments to make up those missed sessions? Anyhow, it cramped my style. Sure, obstacles arise between me and my meditation cushion. Is struggling with discipline a failing? Is meditation something I “should” do, rather than something I want to do, when I want to do it?

Many Shambhala Days have gone by. Older, I recognize a reluctance to relax with the moment I’m experiencing now as the driver creating obstacles to sitting practice. I also might remember that there are only so many moments left. Discounting the one moment I have doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than feeling bad about my confusion, whenever it occurs, I make a point of slowing down, relaxing and appreciating my experience as it is: what I see, touch, hear, taste or smell and think—this very moment. After all, it is my present experience itself that I will work with on the meditation cushion, whenever I get there.

What has happened and what is happening now do give real hints as to how we will decide and experience what happens next. Reviewing past entries in my Practice Journal, patterns are revealed. I think to myself, “my goodness, I knew that month was busy, but no time to sit down for 10 days?” Another month, I see that Wednesdays, (the gap day between Monday and Friday perhaps?) show up as the day I finally find a moment to sit on my cushion in a given week.

In addition to daily sessions, group retreats are noted. There is freedom in retreat, but it is a freedom that comes from relaxing without recourse to any other moment. While the intensity of a retreat schedule can be challenging at times, retreats offer clarity in which to take an unvarnished look at experience, mind and life. This year, the retreats I did felt good and real—without much drama.

Of course, I do have dramas and these are documented in my practice book as well. Sometimes a thought won’t leave me alone. Upon reflection, it isn’t the same thought that returns over and over, but what the thought is thinking about presents itself as solid and continuous. This last is something that can’t be said about real things, which seem always to be winding up or winding down.

The pages of a Practice Book are small, so if you’re recording dramas it helps to be pithy. Last December, instead of meditation sessions, some days note the brand names of cars. December 30th shows “Buick,” the 31st shows “Toyota.” I am fixed on the idea of a new car. It’s a long story, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that the reason I’m looking for a different car is mostly because I can. With this freedom, I am free to imagine that the right car will actually take me to a new place in my life, somewhere other than the place I am now. This drama returns over and over.

When this Car-ma hits me, I might dream of models and options, or maybe think of financing, then Quantitative Easing, the Fed’s policy of buying back Treasury Securities; which could drive inflation, which might spike interest rates, suggesting time to borrow, especially if you can lock in a low rate on your new vehicle. Where were we? Oh, yes, Practice Books.

Year after year, thoughts grab the wheel of something they have only imagined. Slowing down and just being in sitting meditation, we see that restless thoughts don’t grab the thing itself—only the idea of the thing. My dream car will never arrive; as a result, it will never take me anywhere.

Needless to say, we have to think about our life and consider the decisions we face. Thoughts aren’t just taxi rides to nowhere. They can wake us up. But to recover from sickness we need to appreciate our underlying health. In the same way, successfully imagining a future moment depends upon seeing the power and potential in the moment we have now. Restless recurring thoughts, however—whether positive or negative—are fixed upon something that doesn’t exist—a moment divorced from this one. They mesmerize us with the promise of a rescue or the threat of a kidnapping. We follow these thoughts, fully expecting to wind up somewhere very different than where we are.

Chasing or chased, whether a dream or a nightmare, thoughts of another moment eventually abandon us in the same place—by the side of a lonely highway, in the dark, in our underwear, disoriented and robbed of our time. Year after year, again and again, wearing out the tread on our tires, they drag us along for a ride to nowhere.

Looking at my  obsession even more closely, there is a deeper truth. It is not so much that I am addicted to the thought of a new car. If you look for them, you can’t even find the thoughts you’re supposed to be attached to. Really, my attachment is to attachment itself. In the language of meditation—a habitual pattern. It goes around.

Sitting in meditation is a journey, but a straightforward one. Meditation works is because it doesn’t have to address new cars or whatever the recurring drama. These preoccupations reflect habits. They pretend to be connected to something, but they are not. Going around and around, like a dog biting its own tail, my desire connects only with itself.

Gently bringing our attention back again and again to the sensation of the breath, we discover a straight path in this present moment, and we do the work of being it (not driving it!) one moment at a time. This journey takes place now. But our past was now once, and the future will be our now someday. Reviewing the entries in our Practice Journal, we review the past and acknowledge the future. The culture of meditation doesn’t discount the importance of the past or future. How could it? Nowness connects them.

If you are like me, you remember well the little work you’ve done and have forgotten all of the work you’ve managed to avoid. My Practice Book tells me when I have been working with my experience in the direct way that is sitting meditation and when, in contrast, my thoughts have been driving me—usually in circles.

Things that go around and around can make ruts.  The circle your car will make is called a turning radius, a specification that tells you, once you’ve set out, how far you go before returning to the same place. Even if we are lost, there is something reassuring about returning to a familiar spot. Of course, it isn’t that nothing has changed—now there is a little less gas in our tank.

Wishing you a very Happy, New and straightforward Year.

Editor’s Note:  Practice Books are available here at Samadhi Store. The page for each month is headed up with a quote about the path of meditation from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Lunar phases, Buddhist holidays and other traditional days of practice and celebration are also noted. BTW, isn’t an Iron Hare what goes around and around the track at a dog race?

Dinner on Me

IMG_0778“Maybe it’s because you were such a sore loser!”

My father’s tone was buoyant. He wasn’t whispering. After a sip of wine he can be buoyant, and as he ages he is more buoyant around his kids. My wife Jeanine and I were there, but this holiday dinner was special. His daughter, my (much) younger sister Maron, was visiting from California with her boyfriend Justin. There were six of us at the table, including my step-mom. Dinner, at a local Thai restaurant in St. Johnsbury Vermont, had just been served.

Both Justin and Maron are PhD candidates at Stanford with promising careers ahead of them. As the oldest brother who didn’t see them much, I wanted to build on what I hoped were earlier positive impressions. Justin knew me as an Acharya, a teacher of meditation in the Shambhala tradition. Was that a career, I found myself wondering?

Outside, the white snow was blowing sideways through the light of a streetlamp, a typical December evening in Vermont. Oh, and yes, my father was talking to (and about) me. Jeanine and I had been discussing how our granddaughters, ages 14 and 12, were getting along.  “How did you and Tony get along?” my sister Maron had asked about my brother and me.

“Well, basically we fought until we were in our mid-teens. Then we kind of patched things up.” Fighting is just what teen siblings do, my response implied. Pops (what I call my Dad sometimes) was inspired to fill in the gaps.

“When you lost a game with your brother,” Pops paused for effect,  “you were such a sore loser!” I couldn’t tell if Pop’s voice was getting louder or it just sounded louder in the intimate confines of the restaurant. Was I imagining, or was Justin, who knew me as the Buddhist Teacher (read: non-violent) older brother, looking confused or even concerned?

Perhaps to speak up for his absent son (Tony and his wife couldn’t make it that night) Pops continued. “If you lost, you would just destroy the game, whatever it was.”

“Older brother’s prerogative,” I said flatly, hoping to deflect attention from the graphic image of my teen-self shredding game equipment, my younger brother helpless as an object of youthful enjoyment was eviscerated before his eyes.

“I remember once, you boys got this gift in the mail. It was a big hockey board game that you played with little hockey players on the end of rods. After you lost a game, you just destroyed that thing. It had to be thrown out. Whenever you lost to Tony, it would just put you in a rage.” Pops never lost his cheerful tone. He seemed to be marveling at the memory.

“Well, that would have been less of an issue if Tony hadn’t beat me at everything,” I replied, trying to salvage this portrait with some sympathetic brush strokes. It was no defense, but it was also no exaggeration. In any one-on-one competition that required concentration and composure under pressure, my younger brother would best me. From tennis to chess, I could never touch him.  I presumed superiority over Tony, born a year later, shorter and skinnier. To be bankrupted by virtue of an unalterable scorecard was, well, (apparently) untenable.

As a teacher of meditation, or anyone working in the world, you need a back-story, a résumé, something to let you and everyone else understand who you are (and why anyone should pay attention to you). I began sitting practice when I was 15. My résumé featured this tender teen on a meditation cushion—the story of a gifted, precocious, even spiritual youngster—not the raging asshole now cheerfully identified between bites of curry.

Caught off guard by my Dad’s revelations, I wondered about my own official history. Had I begun to make the same assumptions about myself that I hoped others would make? To give a full accounting, would my back-story now have to figure in rehabilitation or even intervention?

And doesn’t the picture of someone who brings to the spiritual path a violent craving for superiority cast some doubt on the authenticity of his title and wisdom? How could I distance myself from youthful adventures when the genesis of my meditative discipline dates from the same era? Is a childhood fixation on winning really so different from the effort to maintain an elevated status in a so-called spiritual realm? Even as Pops waxed enthusiastic, wasn’t I worried about how my sister Maron and her boyfriend Justin would see me? Wasn’t I still, all these many years later, playing to win and afraid of losing?

At the restaurant, I looked for a skillful way to close the topic. “You know Pops, as a loving parent, this is the point where you wrap up by finding something positive to say about me as a young person.”

Maybe he had just taken a bite, but Pops didn’t immediately respond. Before the silence got awkward, Justin weighed in. Apparently, he was still listening. Just my luck to have a couple of scholars at the table, I thought to myself. “It sounds like you did a thorough job of destroying the game,” said Justin respectfully, looking me in the eye as he spoke.

“Well, it’s true. When you destroyed that hockey game, you did a very thorough job,” said Pops, reinspired. “That thing took up so much space. I was happy to see it go.”

“That’s it?” I feigned exasperation (or was I feigning?) No longer interested in the past, Pops had turned his full attention to the coconut curry. My positive qualities as a youth would go unexplored.

Perhaps to head-off another uncomfortable silence, my wife Jeanine spoke up. “No wonder you have such a self-esteem problem!” she exclaimed, focusing on what was now an apparently obvious personality defect. It wasn’t clear if Jeanine meant to comment on my troubled past or on the apparent enthusiasm evidenced by my Dad as he exposed, once and for all, my status as the older brother from hell. Never mind that this was the first I’d heard of my “self-esteem problem.” When my WASP family gets together, Jeanine, who is French, struggles to participate in our mysterious ways. I pretended not to hear her.

Artfully, though I’m sure she knew the answer already, my sister Maron asked her boyfriend Justin how he got along with his brothers and sisters. I waited hopefully for a sordid tale that would shift everyone’s attention from my history. If he had brained an annoying sister with her hair dryer, for example, this would have been an excellent time to share that story. Unfortunately, compared to my past, Justin’s disputes with his sisters seemed, well, normal.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that. Expose your past and you expose your present. Outside the darkness around the streetlight was deeper. The snow was still blowing, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I felt the quiet you feel when you discover you’re not quite the person you want to be—and everybody knows it.

The evening ended with cheer and warmth and without revisiting the conversation. Before it was over, I did something I’m often moved to do when dining out with my family. I paid for dinner.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noted that, more often than not, Michael’s dramas feature food? Of course that might be understandable around the holidays. What he has failed to mention here is that Kham’s, the local Thai restaurant, is really good. Even visitors from the big city tell us that. And not to diminish in any way Michael’s generosity toward his family, Kham’s is pretty easy on the pocketbook too.

Zafu Limerick

There Once Was a Man . . .

OK, so perhaps this isn’t the finest moment in my career as a booster of meditation. I just happen to have a soft spot for limericks. And as anyone who knows something about limericks  will attest, one limerick deserves, nay demands, another.

Dear Reader, the snow is about to fall in Vermont. Potentially stressful holidays loom. The economy is poised on the brink of something, but it’s hard to tell what. In these moments the mind turns to meditation. Ah well, yes very important. This time however, the mind turned to limericks.

Please Post

My request is simple: compose a (traditionally) five-line limerick using the word “zafu.” The word “zafu” can appear at the end of a rhyming line or in the body of the limerick. Comment on this blog post with your limerick and anything else you would like to share. If your limerick is “family friendly”, we will print it here. Traditionally limericks are opportunities to uncork profanity in unexpected ways. We respect this tradition but can only follow it up to a point. Apologies in advance; if you send us a really dirty limerick, the chances of publication are well…severely diminished.

The Word

In case you have stumbled upon this challenge based upon your love of limericks rather than your pursuit of the noble path of meditation, we might explain. “Zafu” is a Japanese word for a round pleated cushion used originally in the Zen tradition for the practice of Zazen or meditation. The practitioner sits on the cushion, traditionally with legs crossed in the lotus position on a Zabuton Mat.

Some of you might have endeavored the lotus posture in an earlier, more limber, era. Unless you are an adept, I suggest you refrain from trying it now (unless under supervision.) Speaking of limber, part of the challenge with using “Zafu” at the end of the limerick line is that limericks typically rely on anapestic phrasing. That is, a set of words or a word comprised of three syllables with the accent on the last syllable – like seventeen or well, yes, Nantucket. Attempting to use the two equally accented syllables of “Za-Fu” at the end of a line  raises challenges to this convention.

Out of Time

This is a blog about meditation. If would be great if your limerick somehow addressed the subject, but we won’t insist. While nonsense has its place, limericks reach their apogee when word play and word meaning support each other. According to Dictionary.com, the term limerick comes from a party game played (in Ireland or England) at the end of the 19th century. Participants would extemporize verse and their efforts would be followed by the chorus “Won’t you come up to Limerick”  — a town in the west of Ireland.

To extemporize means to recite spontaneously. How does one do this? The word’s roots here give a clue. Literally “ex-tempore” — is latin for outside of time. This time beyond time is the moment in which insights are born and also traditionally when true meditation is achieved. It may also be the only time when things happen. Speaking of out of time, when, you may ask, is there the time to compose this limerick? Commuting time, waiting in line, and while seeming to listen to someone complain are all great opportunities to turn your mind to the 5-lined monster.

A couple of limericks:

The Sound of One Cheek Sneaking

In Zazen, stuffed firm and sewn round,

A Zafu keeps your cheeks off the ground,

Not to be crass,

But if more than time you must pass,

Dense stuffing means no sound will be found.

(And a more solemn effort:)

The View of Meditation

From his black cotton buckwheat Zafu,

The Zen Master taught on the View,

He said, “Not as real as it seems,

Life’s like a Dream.

Zazen is no-thing to do.”

Editor’s Note: We have as yet no examples of the poetic tradition Mr. Greenleaf favors in our book inventory.  However, for other examples of poetic expressions of the spontaneous nature of insight see First Thought Best Thought by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,  Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan, The Spring of My Life by Issa, or Narrow Road to the Interior by Basho.  Patricia Donegan’s instructional book Haiku is aimed at young writers but is eminently useful to all who wish to try their hand at that form.



In New York With No Mobile

So, partly at Mr. Greenleaf’s urging (“you have to see the show at the Guggenheim”), and partly from Mitsu‘s invitation to her performance, and partly from the encouragement and offer of a place to stay from a college friend I’d not seen for … years, and partly from the desperate need for a vacation (having not been outside of Vermont and New Hampshire for I think nearly 3 years), I took a long weekend in New York City.  Living as I do in an area of Vermont with limited cell phone coverage, I have never been tempted to obtain such a device, which however seems eminently practical in the city.  Also, the folks I was staying with were moving, so I had no internet: computers had been dismantled in the old apartment, and not yet reassembled in the new one.  This disconnection from the electronic umbilical suggests I make comments about being in the present without distractions, but mostly it just meant that there were a couple of friends whom I might have connected with but didn’t due to missed communications.  I was in New York, after all, and had plenty of distractions.  Or, the present moments I found myself in were generally more than full of sensory stimuli, and the only time I noticed the lack of electronic distraction was over the morning coffee.

Now, the Guggenheim is not a place to go to escape the energy of the city.  The slope of the floor gives one the constant urge to move forward.  Other than the side galleries on each level, one is always in the one big booming room with all the other people and all the other artwork, and there are very few places to sit down.  One can never quite settle.   So it is a very New York kind of atmosphere in many ways.   The exhibit (which is only on until the 19th, so hurry up and get there) is an overview of American artists from 1860 to 1989 drawing inspiration from Asian art, culture and philosophy.  Which, as Buddhist Americans, is right up our alley.  Of course we know about the “Beat” writers and John Cage, but the scope and variety of this show are something else:  from Whistler and Mary Cassatt, mctl to Georgia O’Keefe, to abstract painters such as Mark Tobey and Franz Kline, to Cage and his circle, to the Beats,  to minimalists, to 80’s performance artists.   As a Buddhist American I sometimes feel like a cultural anomaly, but this exhibit shows Asian influence in American culture to be a perhaps often unobserved but powerful current.   John Cage and the Beats may have become somewhat canonical in American culture but they are sort of the fringe canon.  In connecting the somewhat disparate dots represented is this show there is a tangible sense of consistency and  continuity to Asian cultural influence in America and it gave me the sense of not being such a weirdo.   The surprising feeling of familiarity at seeing Jack Kerouac’s leather-bound collection of Buddhist texts, displayed open at the Heart Sutra, was quite sweet.

I particularly enjoyed Brice Marden’s mock-calligraphic paintings and I really want to know what kind of stylus Cage used in – I don’t know what verb to use – writing? penning? painting? inscribing? the manuscript score of his Water Music.  Both of these inspired me to break out the calligraphy supplies and do some sumi brush practice when I got home.  The room (off to the side, behind the elevator, in the “spine” of the building to the “ribs” of the circular ramp, but the vibrations bled out into the main gallery) containing an installation by LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela was another favorite: two tones, very harmonically close to each other, were generated and sustained, creating vibrational beats – anyone familiar with instruments slightly out of tune with each other knows what I mean – which changed depending on where one was standing in the room.  lmy Mobiles hanging from the ceiling with lights of various colors created a similar visual effect: depending on the light and one’s angle of view, the dangling letter e (and the shadow behind it) could change colors, could appear solid, or faint, or nearly invisible.   And it was nice to see some old friends, such as an animation by Harry Smith, who is probably best known as the compiler of the world’s most famous mix tape, the Anthology of American Folk Music, and who lived as “resident shaman” on the Naropa University campus when I was a student there.  Harry didn’t teach any classes as far as I know, he just provided an extraordinary and eccentric presence.  There are a gazillion artists represented in this show whom I’m not naming; the catalogue is a ginormous 400+ page coffee-table book.

The upward-spiral geography of the Guggenheim suggests a journey of some kind, and I reached the top with some kind of expectation of a beautiful and glorious fruition.  But the last room, past the workstation for Ann Hamilton’s installation where texts were being cut up and rebound and sent on runners and pulleys up and down the rotunda, was the documentary evidence of Teaching Hsieh’s 1980-81 yearlong performance.  Wearing an industrial-strength work uniform, he punched a timeclock and had a photo taken standing next to it once an hour on the hour for the entire year.   All the photos were printed and displayed on the wall, alongside all the timecards, and the photos were also projected from film, time-lapse style.  Which all gave a sense of the passage of time, but also of continuity, of dedication, concentration, devotion, discipline, and of work.  I was reminded of the way Cage abandoned the formal attire of the classical music world and adopted the blue jeans of ordinary laborers: when he spoke of the work of art, he meant work as a verb, not as a noun.  So there was my fruition: back to work, back to the path, back to restoring a dozen reel-to-reel tape players, back to the meditation cushion, continuing the daily practice of returning to awareness, again and again.

Cheerful New Year

Shrine Room Ikebana
Shrine Room Ikebana

Last Wednesday the 25th of February was a new moon day. It was also the day that the Samadhi Cushions staff celebrated the lunar New Year. Losar in Tibetan, this is called Shambhala Day in our community and it is how we mark the beginning of New Year.

For some of us, the day included practice of Sakyong Mipham’s Birthday Sadhana – a beautiful contemplation on the preciousness and fragility of this life as well as the meaningfulness of our actions and their effects.

We celebrated the day at Karmê Chöling, the affiliated retreat center nearby. The highlight of the day was a festive lunch offered by the retreat center for staff and visitors. The retreat center was in full splendor with a beautiful shrine, fresh Ikebana, as well as the annual reading of I-Ching. The day was capped with a “Shambhala Ball.” Which included a procession of some of the community leadership. Upon entrance to the ball, each leader was asked a question related to meditation practice – with the rest of the community looking and listening attentively.

The 10 days leading up to the lunar New Year are understood to be fraught with the possibility of the ripening of negative potential – both internally and environmentally. The distressing news on the economy in the last few weeks certainly hasn’t undermined this view. On this day we renew our aspiration to be of benefit to others and to relax the reflexes of self-concern. This seems especially difficult to do in these times, which challenge our presumptions of security and stability. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that somehow exerting ourselves on behalf of others – following the path of the Bodhisattva – is the only way forward both for us and our fellow citizens on earth. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama – if you want to be happy, think of others.

This year is the year of the Earth Ox and is said to signify new beginnings. Endurance, however will be necessary and steadiness is needed. Especially in this year, the choices we make will have a long-term impact. These choices should be good. To the extent that our actions reflect an understanding of underlying realities, they will yield positive results. This is a year to “go with the flow.”

In my experience, the best way to do that is grounded in the practice of meditation. Sitting on our meditation cushions and practicing mindfulness slows us down, allowing for the possibility of recognizing the flow while at the same time realizing that we have the personal strength and flexibility to let go when we need to. Happy and cheerful New Year. The very best of “the flow” to you in the year ahead.

Meditation: Learning to Stay (and Go)

This past Christmas Holiday, I was able to share a moment with my 10 year-old  granddaughter. In the car, during one of many excursions, we enjoyed a song from the 1980’s that I had heard many times and she was hearing maybe for the first time. It has a great beat and simple lyrics which makes it easy to sing along. It also increases the likelihood of the song getting stuck in my head, which it did long after the Holidays had passed.

As Valentine’s Day approached, this song came back to haunt me. On this day devoted to romance and relationship, some of us will be faced with exploring the boundaries of love  with those we care for.  Mixed and missed messages from our partners, friends and family may cause us to doubt the nature and tenure of our relationships and compel us to look for answers to our insecurities.

Experience in meditation can help us navigate the tumultuous waters of relating to loved ones, but it also teaches us that the first relationship we have to cultivate is the one with ourselves. Missing this last point seemed to characterize the lyrics from the song, Should I stay or should I go, from the British rockers – The Clash. The song I enjoyed in such a fresh new way with my granddaughter.


Darling you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

To be honest, there is something that makes the heart a little lonely in the process of meditation. We admit to ourselves that there are no answers from “others.” There are only our own answers. This is because the questions are our own.

Now I need to address the singer:

You may be looking for answers outside yourself. In meditation, we sit with ourselves and our questions. The question itself points toward its answer. When is the last time you actually sat with yourself? Something about the tone here suggests that its been a while.

If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’till the end of time

This request puts your partner in a difficult position. As a meditator, you may have transcended the concept of time, but a promise to be in the relationship until this illusory concept ends may still seem like an overly long commitment — even for your beloved. A meditator will give room for anything to arise in the relationship. As discussed earlier, the future may not include you. This is consistent with your study of impermanence.

Always tease, tease, tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees

The kneeling posture is traditionally the posture of supplication and respect. It is meant to be pleasing, so there is no reason why your beloved shouldn’t appreciate it. But be sure to kneel on a zabuton mat replacing your zafu with the kneeling bench if you plan to be in this posture for a long time. Clearly, you are no stranger to prayer – which is good – but being teased may be a message from the phenomenal world: lighten up! This light-hearted attitude is the essence of meditation and will serve you well when the final answer comes down. Note: it could also be that your partner is unkind.

One day is fine the next is black
So if you want me off your back


In meditation, we learn to accept the ebb and flow of life and to allow space between ourselves, our loved ones and, well — their backs.

Once again you are pushing a bit. Why are you on your beloved’s back? And if you are, meditation should help you be there in a caring, sensitive way – so they won’t want you off or maybe won’t even realize that you’re there. Seriously, it’s doubtful that honest and direct communication will take place from this position. Hint: you know you’re on your beloved’s back when you don’t bump into each other any more.

If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double

There is no escape from the troubles of life and relationship. Your song reflects this insight.  At least you are admitting that hanging around might be hard, but how do you know this? From your experience of the past?  In meditation we realize that things are neither as good or as bad as we think they are, and that while we are likely to repeat destructive patterns, the present  moment is always here and always fresh. We are never condemned to repeat the past. Don’t assume the worst. For that matter, there is no reason to assume anything.

This indecision’s bugging me
If you don’t want me set me free
Come on and let me know
Should I cool it or should I blow.


Let’s face it, inviting your beloved to tell you to “blow” isn’t the most romantic thing you ever did. Meditation makes us sensitive to the power of language. Your “edge” expressed here is no doubt beginning to trouble your beloved — serving to undermine your own case, so to speak. Meditation also helps us read signs from the world. Have you wondered why your loved one doesn’t answer you?

Come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go.

The discipline of meditation should help you to stay, as you may have heard. But what if your partner doesn’t want you to stay? How does meditation address that? The experienced meditator will be able to “sit” with the request to “go” and hear it clearly without overlaying their own confusion. Of course, at some point even the experienced meditator will have to go (if asked to do so).

If that is the case, there is no doubt that this shift, while hard, will be an opportunity for you. The fact of change means we can deepen the only truly lasting relationship we have — the one with ourselves. There is no question that, in the relationship we have with ourselves, we should stay, not go. This is the path of meditation. It takes heart.

Cheerful Valentine’s Day from the Staff at Samadhi Cushions