Volunteers

220px-Pansy_Viola_x_wittrockiana_Red_Cultivar_Flower_2000pxThis spring, will a flower emerge in the same unlikely spot? Blooming alone in a bed of stones next to the front door, last year the colorful Pansy surprised us. Pansies are biennials. In their first season, they grow green; in their second they flower, seed and perish.

“Volunteers,” David calls them, referring to the flower’s ability to extend itself to another bloom. David is helping Jeanine and me with some spring-cleaning around the yard. He moves slowly, but with the confidence of someone who knows what the earth is up to. These days, the earth is up to a lot.

The devastating tornadoes in the Southern US are a reminder that this planet, while it gives so much, can also sweep it all away. Residents who survived the storms in Alabama were struck by how quickly the devastation was wrought. In one screaming minute, their house, neighborhood, and many of their neighbors, were gone.

We think of time as something natural, but for most of us, our schedule, while more or less in accord with the rhythms of the earth, is also something made up.  (It is helpful to remember this when there is ‘no time’ for sitting meditation, not to speak of simply slowing down to appreciate this fleeting moment.)

The fragility of our schedule is exposed when the earth follows its own. In an earthquake or windstorm, time stops. Mother Nature moves the elements in ways we have trouble imagining. In that moment, how we imagine ourself and others also changes. In the communities of the South hit hard by the storm, the helping energy and efforts of volunteers—anyone who survived, from children and college students to senior citizens—is making news.

Our imagined independence from each other is a dream that points to how connected we all are. Troubling one another as we do, how could we and our lonely planet be otherwise? Unexpected moments beyond time can surprise and challenge us. But if we look, even in the midst of the seemingly secure and routine, we can find these moments in the changing hours of the day.

As I write from Vermont, storm clouds are again gathering over the northern half of the state.  Lake Champlain, the lake that separates Vermont and New York, is well above flood stage—in fact, it’s at its highest level in over 100 years. In the approach of evening, whether wet or dry, all of us will look for shelter, finding it in a house or apartment, in a room bathed in lamplight or dressed in the light and shadows from a flickering screen.

Now that spring has arrived and the snow is gone, the little stand of woods that is the backyard of our house is more accessible. But after nightfall, I wouldn’t get very far. For one thing the ground is uneven. There are brambles, fallen branches and tree stumps. For another, there are, according to my wife, bears—just waiting for a mindless husband to find himself the main course at the dinner hour. If I wandered out there in the dark, I have no doubt that the moments would grow longer, or if my wife is right, fewer and shorter.

Glued to our laptops, we may find ourselves longing to forget the fragile position we occupy on the planet. No contract binds the earth to meeting our demands for food or shelter, not to speak of the isolating comfort of web surfing. Ironically, it is in chasing this cherished comfort and isolation that so much suffering and anxiety is generated. The more comfort and isolation we enjoy, the more time we imagine ourselves to have, the more unsettling the challenges of simply living.

Pointedly, when disaster strikes, we are all suddenly closer and the welfare of others arises as the only concern worth concerning about. How exactly we connect may not be clear. When and where we find each other may seem accidental. But in the unlikely here and now we share we each other on this earth, we bloom, we surprise, we volunteer. It’s natural.

Editor’s Note: Our hearts go out to those who have suffered during the terrible storms in the Southern US. If you or someone you know lost a meditation cushion, bench or other supplies supporting your meditation practice, please share your story by replying below. If you prefer, our President, Jeanine Greenleaf invites you to reach her at jeanine@samadhistore.com.  Samadhi Cushions would like to help you replace what is replaceable.

When Suitcases Fly

IMG_0184As if by magic, the suitcase was flying through the air. Well, in my defense, it wasn’t a suitcase really, more of a carry-on bag. But it was definitely airborne. It flew through the open door, crossing the threshold of our house well off the ground and landing with a thud that startled our granddaughter who had just entered the mudroom.

Later, I would defend myself, saying that at least I didn’t throw the thing at anyone. It landed safely. No one was hurt. Suffice to say, none of these explanations meant much to my wife. A few steps behind me, she had recognized rage in the way the bag left my hand.

Ironically, (and painfully) this Sunday evening I was on my way home from a cheerful and pleasant weekend of teaching on Shamatha or Calm Abiding meditation. During the weekend, I had been the picture of calmness. After all, that was the subject matter. Walk the talk as they say.

Having been apart for over a week, my wife and I had many things to discuss on the ride home. I found all of the topics  stressful. As each one surfaced, I felt the weekend’s equanimity slipping away, replaced by anxiety. Every situation discussed seemed to hold limitless potential for suffering.

The contrast between the cool of the weekend and the heat of household issues was stark. Like a happy kid with a bag of cookies that had developed a hole in the bottom, I panicked. On heels of panic came rage. Rage was fuel for the flying suitcase.

“And you were teaching Calm Abiding?” my wife asked incredulously. “It doesn’t seem to have helped very much!” she added dismissively.  By now my meditative composure was gone. Other than to apologize, there was nothing I could say.

So, you might be wondering. Was I, the esteemed teacher, able to admit to myself that my Calm Abiding practice was a sham, the pretense of teaching it a charade and in general the whole exercise of a meditation weekend a deceptive waste of time—both for me as well as my hapless victims at the meditation center?

Well, yes and no. One thing about meditation practice, it is challenging. And as my friend David Schneider put it to me recently, the path of meditation includes, well, a feeling of failing. The moment of now is slippery. Our patterns are deep. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi—“a good meditator is not a good meditator.” Just like anything you do, if you think you are doing it right, well, you think you are doing it right. You are one step further away from actually doing it.

But still, I enjoyed real equanimity during the weekend. This calm filled a deep hunger in me and I cherished it. But it all vanished in the blink of a suitcase. Were my practice and path completely off-track? According to the meditative tradition, the answer to this last question is “No.”

In fact, the phenomena of flipping out when something or someone gets in your face and “just ruins” your meditative equipoise is one of the hallmarks of Shamatha or Calm Abiding meditation. Rather than being a failure, it displays one of the classic symptoms of a meditation practice focused only on the “chill factor.”

The Dalai Lama tells a traditional story to illustrate this point. A yogi (or yogini) is sitting perfectly in meditation posture. So perfect in fact that they remain motionless on their eco-friendly hemp zafu pillow for weeks and weeks. So blissful the meditation and so long the session, their hair grows several feet and begins to cascade around them. Taking advantage of the hospitable situation, a family of mice finds the hair and begins to set up house. Eventually, a warren of nesting vermin surrounds the practitioner.

At some point, all of this home building pries the meditator from the calm of equanimity. Their first experience is fear. Where they end and the mouse housing begins is unclear. Once the shock of this home invasion wears off, they are pissed—pissed that their blissful session had to end, pissed that it ended in such ignominy. In a flash of anger, their hard won meditative composure is gone.

According to the Buddhist tradition, cultivating mind’s inherently peaceful nature has a point beyond peace itself. The composure gained is used to practice contemplation or insight—investigating and understanding the truth. If we are honest, however, we have to admit that when it comes to insight, sometimes we just aren’t in the mood.

How we frame our meditation practice will determine what it will offer us. In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham encourages contemplation practice as a way of “turning the mind” developed in Shamatha from its focus on “me and my meditation” to the deeper questions of what is true about the nature of experience—ours and everyone’s. Wisely, Sakyong Mipham also encourages us to look honestly at our motivation for meditation practice.

Without the willingness to allow for insight in meditation, every circumstance, even a simple conversation, can present itself as a challenge to our composure.  We may begin to feel betrayed by life, reacting as if there were no alternative other than to fight to defend the dignity of our spiritual achievements.

If you lose your temper after a session or retreat, don’t be discouraged. You are in the great tradition of those who have explored the path of meditation. In “losing it,” your own restless intelligence may be telling you that, in facing life’s challenges, it is time to look more deeply, to go beyond the chill factor. Topics for exploration might include the impermanence of calm abiding and the workability of nesting mice. Cultivating honest insight into the truth of experience, perhaps we can offer each other something more than smooth sailing (and the occasional flying suitcase.)

Editor’s Note: Dear Michael, the newer carry-ons have wheels and can roll. This might satisfy your aspirations as a baggage handler while keeping suitcases somewhere closer to the ground (where they belong). Being pissed off and calmly abiding have something in common: they both involve the mind holding (in the case of anger, maybe more like biting) onto something. Contemplating emptiness, practitioners expose the mutually dependent nature of this relationship between subject and object, between baggage handler and the baggage—whatever it might be.

What Goes Around…

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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?

A Cool Encounter

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“Look at you two with the signs on your jackets. You look funny.”

My wife, Jeanine, was referring to the logos on our fleece jackets, the ones worn by our oldest granddaughter, Camille and me. Camille is 14 and a freshman in high school.

“Baba,” (what the grandkids call their grandmother, they call me Michael) “the North Face logo is cool.”

Something about the casual way Camille tosses off this last remark moves me to challenge her. “Are you saying that wearing this logo makes the two of us cool?”

“Yes. Well it helps. In your case, I’m not so sure,” she responds coolly.

“You know,” I philosophize,  “there is only one way to be cool, that’s to be cooler than someone else. If you’re not cooler than someone, there is no meaning to the word cool.”

“Huh?” Camille looks up from her laptop, “I literally have no idea what you are talking about,” she answers, her incomprehension mixed with disinterest.  “In school there are the cool and the uncool. The uncool are annoying. Believe me, you know them when you see them.”

Wielding the sword of wisdom, I counter, “In the meditative tradition, if someone really gets to you—positively or negatively—it suggests a connection. Deep down, you are seeing yourself in the message that they represent.”

“Not even possible.”

“But those annoying nerds end up creating Facebook and driving a Lamborghini,” I say defensively. “Won’t they be cool at some point?”

“I don’t think you get it. Being cool is about making a statement—now.”

“But who decides what is ‘cool’? Not the uncool. That means the cool kids themselves decided they were cool. Isn’t that a little circular?” As I say this, I realize that the uncool might just have a hand in establishing coolness. I soldier on. “If everyone wants to be cool, how are the cool and the uncool so different?”

“The ones who aren’t cool are the wannabes,” says Camille, without looking up from her laptop.

“Who are the wannabes?”

“The nerds and the annoying ones. The one’s who think they’re cool but they’re not.”

“So how do you know if you’re cool?”

“You’re not a nerd and you’re not annoying. Some people are annoying,” she replies, a hint of fatigue in her voice.

“Camille,” I answer, making the topic personal, “I was cool once. It was long time ago, but I was.” As I say this, I can’t tell if I’m asserting something or simply fishing for a fresh assessment of my coolness.

At this point my granddaughter grows quiet. I had hoped at least to provoke some mercy for the poignancy of coolness lost, but Camille’s silence suggests that the conversation may be over. Seeing my inability to follow the logic of coolness, had she concluded that in some way we didn’t deserve each other? Not only that but, as an adult having asserted my own coolness—even in a bygone era—was I reaching?

In this awkward moment, I remembered the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of cyclic existence or Samsara. At the top of the food chain—in the misery that is the cycle of death and rebirth—is the realm of the gods, the cool ones. The gods enjoy a self-absorption based on nowness, which may just be a synonym for coolness. Because of their almost meditative composure, the gods are not easily challenged or swayed.

Just below the gods in the wheel of life we find an annoying bunch—the jealous gods—or, as Sakyong Mipham calls them—the wannabe gods. The wannabes are always reaching, always trying to copy the gods. They might, for example, try wearing the same brands the gods wear (although the wannabes never quite look as good).

These would-be occupants of the god realm challenge the gods, but their encounters always end in a defeat of one kind or another. Other than remarking on their unfortunate status as annoying and pointless, the gods just can’t be bothered with the wannabes, who they pity for failing to understand their place. While the realms of existence can last a long time, they are always temporary. They are real, but they are also the byproduct of the confusion and struggle engendered by the sense of our own separateness.

In the case of the jealous gods this fascination leads to a competitive struggle. The wannabes are always trying to one-up. They fight the cool ones, wishing to bring down, or at least rattle their composure.  Driven by jealousy, the minds of the wannabes are troubled. As a result, the calm enjoyment of the gods always eludes them. In the wheel of life, the refined pleasure-seeking of the god realm is at the top of the cycle. At the bottom are the hellish states created by the power of (our own) aggression. All of the realms, whether pleasurable or painful, reflect the confusion borne of ego—the idea of a self somehow separate and independent of the world (or realm) that it inhabits.

Having reflected, after some time, Camille weighs in. She speaks deliberately, with a playful smile—both friendly and indulgent. It is clear she means to wrap up the conversation.

“Michael, it won’t help you to talk to me—a cool person. You need to be talking to an uncool person. If you do that, you just may have a clearer understanding.”

Pretending not to mind being waved-off like this, I wondered what might be revealed in the conversation Camille has suggested. Perhaps she was right; perhaps I wasn’t talking to the right person. Or more precisely, maybe I didn’t know who I was talking to. My earlier remark returns to haunt me:

“In the meditative tradition, when someone gets to you, deep down, you are seeing yourself in the message that they represent.”

After pondering for a moment, one thing was clear: not only had the Buddha’s wisdom shed light on my own experience, his portrayal of the realms of existence also anticipated the one realm baffling all of those destined to confront it: High School.

Editor’s Note: For an excellent description of this traditional topic within the study of karma—the Six Realms, see the ninth and tenth chapters of Chögyam Trungpa’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. In the Human Realm, where we are, the coolness (of the very pleasurable god realm) and the heat (of the hell-like existence created by anger) are moderated. As a result, human beings are said to be especially suited to the journey that reveals the true nature of the highs and lows of life and relationships. This journey is what the practice of sitting meditation (on a meditation cushion or bench) is all about.

zafu rescue

zafu in the closet

I was visiting my mother recently in the house where I was raised and where the family has lived since 1958.  While I was browsing the web on the laptop she keeps in the kitchen, she saw the Samadhi Cushions website and asked me what it was.   Then she told me there was an old meditation cushion in an upstairs closet.  Turned out to be a zafu that she gave me for Christmas back in 1982 or so.

Zafu meditation cushion - carrying strap.

My name is written on a label that was added to the carrying strap, so I must have needed it at a group meditation retreat.   Maybe this was the Shambhala Buddhist Seminary which was held in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, 1982 to 1984,  in an old ocean liner of a hotel built before the Civil War when the area served as a summer retreat for President Buchanan.

On the underside of the carrying strap is a Samadhi Cushions label featuring Karmê Chöling’s name and phone number — which indicates the venerableness of the cushion, since the the cushion workshop hasn’t been at Karmê Chöling since 1996, when it moved to its current location in the village of Barnet and acquired its own phone number and street address.

zafu-label-2I have it from Sumner (the Manager at Samadhi Store) that the retail store followed the workshop to Barnet village zafu-home.shrineabout a year later, when Karmê Chöling’s old barn (Samadhi Cushion’s former home) was moved and transformed into the Pavilion practice space at Karmê Chöling — no one is exactly sure how this happened, but the Pavilion is nothing like the barn. It is a wonderful place to practice (or dance or drum or conference).

Anyway, my old cushion looked pretty lonely up in that closet, with its only company some tacky kids’ encyclopedias and an old US flag.  So, I brought it back to Vermont and put in my meditation room where it’s been getting along famously with my zabuton and gomden. Be nice if I could wash it — too bad it doesn’t have a removable cover.

Although it has flattened somewhat over the years, my zafu still provides a nice height when combined with a support cushion. If you’ve got an old zafu, chances are it has a little more life in it, a little more to give. Don’t let it languish. Rescue it.

The Pavilion, Karme Choling

The Pavilion at Karmê Chöling.

The Cool Kids

Being Cool
Being Cool

Recently the New York Times published an op-ed piece on a conference for Social and Affective Neuroscientists (or “Neuros”) which took place in New York this past week. According to David Brooks, the writer, “the leading figures at this conference were in their 30’s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20’s.” And all of them, he pointed out, were “young, hip and attractive.”

Mr. Brooks went on to write, “many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds.” At the same time, another study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair,” for example, “it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” As the article points out, to live with a view or idea is not an option, it’s what’s happening. And it’s happening very fast.

The In-Group

As a newly-minted teenager, I ran with the cool kids. I knew who “we” were and who wasn’t “us.”  I knew who was “in” and who was “out.”  I assumed great things from “our” crowd and nothing from the “uncool” whom I ignored (or worse).  In its rigid application of exclusion, and its focus on territory (school was assumed to be “ours”), being cool was a kind of warfare.  Cool was to be joined; uncool, suppressed. To maintain my outlook and compelling view of the world, I had plenty of evidence – subjective and objective. One year later, a move and a new school would prove me (at least the cool me) irrelevant.

School Spirit?

For the first year of high school, my parents’ divorce meant my brother and I moved from Massachusetts to Texas.  Uptight by southern standards of sociability, insecure in the face of so much change (how did high school football, of all things, get so important?), in high school I found myself instantly on the outside of whatever was cool.  I couldn’t even tell who the cool kids were supposed to be.  “You really don’t have school spirit, do you?” a pretty brunette pronounced after understanding that I wouldn’t be attending the pep rally before the football game (not to speak of the game).  I had to admit that whatever school spirit was, I didn’t have it.

Who’s Cool Now?

A few years later, in the middle of my senior year, I visited my old school back east. The band of cool kids was gone.  One kicked out, one transferred, the others relaxed into non-distinction.  Two of the most uncool kids from middle school days were on their way to Harvard. Their futures were promising, those of the former cool gang, unclear.

In the language of meditation, my “view” was changing.  According to the tradition of meditation practice, your view (basically what you think and how you understand life) will determine where meditation practice takes you. From one angle, meditation practice is simply about embodying an understanding of life – deepening our ability to be the person our meditative insight has revealed to us to be.

Who’s That in the Mirror?

Because sitting meditation slows us down and allows mind’s natural intelligence to develop, meditation is often called a mirror.  One of the first things we notice when we take up meditation is our view – the thoughts and underlying emotions that create and color our world.  Learning simply how to be, in a genuine way, reveals the glossed fiction of our self-image.  Gradually it dawns on us that whoever we really are, we are definitely not who we thought we were.  At the same time, our convenient and habitual approach to others is exposed.  In the space of meditative awareness, we notice tiny little flickering thoughts, continually evaluating others.

Though the process is more sophisticated than in high school, we are continually sizing people up.  Are they worthy of us, or do they somehow occupy another status, one we cannot reach?  To our astonishment (and some horror), we begin to recognize the birth of instinctive and instant likes and dislikes – based on the thinnest of fleeting perceptions.  Looking closely, we wonder, are these prejudices borne fresh from the encounter with others or do they govern encounters from the beginning (or before)?

Not Exactly…

Faced with this raging specter of snap judgments and hidden discursiveness, we begin to question our view.  For one thing, it becomes clear that the way we think migrates into how we are in the world, what we do.  If world we inhabit is different than the one we tell ourselves we are living, what are we living? To paraphrase the great 19th Century Tibetan Scholar-Practitioner Mipham, we realize that “Whatever we think it is – it’s not exactly like that.”

Meditative traditions emphasize training in the view – that is, studying how reality is – because that is what we do anyway, at least our own version of it.  In this case, study as support for meditation is not so much learning a new dogma or answer for the meaning of life, but shining a light on the views we do hold  (cherish even) without knowing we have them.

The School of Life

The culture of meditation is based on the notion that we can continue to grow up.  That the mind and the way it thinks and feels can develop.  Most of us have moved on from the views we developed in high school.  For me, these views were dispersed by another emerging reality.  I didn’t need to be talked out of a view of myself among the cool ones; when its irrelevance was exposed, this idea vanished like fog in sunlight.

As I get older, I find it harder to expose habitual thinking for what it is. Truths somehow get more penetrating, but I’ve gotten better at hiding from them.  It takes work to expose the self-limiting thoughts that put me and others “in” or “out.” As per the Neuros, it takes a “strategy”.  To grow these days, I often have to admit adolescence all over again. This includes the challenge of being willing to question, in a fresh way, who and how I am in the world.

How Cool is Peace?

In my experience, the discipline of regular meditation practice  (and attending meditation retreats)  is a strategy that works.  With the intention and courage to face ourselves, we give flickering thoughts room.  When these thoughts gang up on us, we neither join them nor suppress them.  Done properly, meditation is the experience of sharing the same boat with everyone.   In the space of meditation, thoughts of who’s in or out no longer make sense.  To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when you sit on your Zafu, everyone sits with you.  To practice mindfulness is to practice community, inclusion.  Because our practice moves us beyond limiting ideas about ourselves and others, it is the practice of peace.  How cool is that?

Editor’s Note: Karme Choling, just down the road from Samadhi Cushions, offers a week-long Simplicity retreat for those interested in exploring group meditation. Gaylon Ferguson‘s Natural Wakefulness brilliantly hosts explorations of view.  Sakyong Mipham‘s Turning the Mind into an Ally is a primer for learning the basics and subtleties of mindfulness practice.

It’s About You

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

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

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

It’s Not About Me

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

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

The Art of Listening

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

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

The Irony

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

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

Meditation Space

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

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

The Secret of Happiness

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

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

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

Being Helpful

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

A Time for Healing (Meditation)

Things have been weighing on my mind.

I sit on a few nonprofit boards. The continuing decline in stock markets has left these institutions possibly imperiled.  At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I had a mole removed.  An hour drive through blowing snow to a visit with the dermatologist scheduled two months earlier.  During the drive, a cell phone call from a patron to invite me to assume temporary Board Chair responsibilities for a struggling arts organization.  More time will be needed.  Outcomes uncertain. The phone call makes me remember long-scheduled commitments to teach meditation looming ahead on my schedule.  I had yet to prepare for these.

In the examination room, stripped down to my underwear and socks.  The doctor asked me if I thought meditation could be “healing.”

Here it is, my big chance to influence Western Medicine.  “Yes,”  I answered, intoning with talk of body, mind, and breath.  Key, I added, was intellectual understanding or “view” for successful meditation practice.  All of this while the doctor scanned my exposed skin with what looked like a fancy magnifying glass. Somewhere in the middle of my pitch, I lost him.  Running behind schedule with his patients.  Limited time for chitchat, I guess.

He stopped his scanning at a mole on my back.

“Whoa.  OK, this one’s gotta go.”

“Oh, really.  When should we do this?”  I asked, imagining a time down the road when the thought of this procedure would fit in comfortably with all of the worries pressing in on my schedule.

“If it’s OK with you – Now.”

I sputtered something about my immediate plans for the day and then came up with the real question – “Will it hurt?”

“Just a pinch.”

Some more reassurances and a needle prick later there was casual talk about the doctor’s upcoming trip to San Francisco, future emails and phone calls with “results”.  Eavesdropping, I thought he was speaking to the nurse until it dawned on me that he was talking to me — referring to the erstwhile piece of me that needed to be tested for cancer.  Six days later and a few fitful nights and anxious dreams, the still sore, quarter-sized crater in my back is looking like it just might heal and I haven’t heard anything from the good doctor.

Abandoned Paper Bag
Abandoned Paper Bag

“You are so lazy!” my wife, Jeanine exclaims in exasperation on Saturday – referring to a paper shopping bag emptied of its contents but left to languish for an hour on the floor of the kitchen. I couldn’t disagree. Heightened anxiety distracts me. If left to fester, immobilization is the result.  OK, so call this existential crisis “laziness”.  I didn’t have the energy to split hairs.  In any event, to be sure, more than my usual share of household ineffectiveness had characterized the past week.

During this week my customary morning meditation practice has also faltered.  Sure, meditation practice is healing.  But probably not if you don’t do it.  Last night having exhausted all distractions, I finally talked myself onto the Zafu and Zabuton in our meditation room.  While sitting and paying attention to my breath, I faced my anxiety.  A jumble of thoughts and emotions pressed on my mind and future.  Behind all of them lingered a heightened sense of mortality. My practice was pinching.

Slowly, coming back to mindfulness of my breath, I stopped fighting.  The anxiety relaxed into a sense of sadness and loneliness. Was my suffering brave, a profound and timely confrontation with impermanence?  Or was it the worry-prone machinations of a comfort-obsessed coward?  No way to know.  Sitting on my meditation cushion, late on Saturday night, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The sad lonely feeling was a relief.  My mind was settling.  A week of dithering about, trying to postpone this meeting with myself, was over.

Saturday night I slept well. Sunday morning, for the first time all week, my physician-mind woke me up with a prescription for “healing” meditation.

“Oh really,” my anxious-mind replied. “When would you like to do this?”

“If it’s OK with you”, my physician-mind replied, “Now.”

Editor’s Note: In diagnosing suffering, its cause and remedy, the person known as the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician.”  For inspired and thoughtful texts on healing meditation see Tulku Thondup’s Healing Power of Mind and Boundless Healing.  For the tradition’s take on what the “physician-mind”  might look like, see the Medicine or Healing Buddha.

Impermanence, or College Students Are Getting Younger

I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University.  This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college.    However, photos recently posted to Facebook  show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now.   Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them.  I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do.  (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)

Before
Before

After
After

There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it.  Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me.  And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind.  But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living.  People who were younger than me.  A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41.   Can you see where I’m going with this?

Of course,  whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence,  thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon.  But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long.  People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming,  experiences.  I can’t take them with me either.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever.   Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary,  is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously.  If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.

So the question  (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy?  Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not.  But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment.  Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”

Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu

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