The Contentment Test

Take the 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.

Holding and Letting Go

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More often than not, it seems, death epitomizes life. This was the case with the passing of my grandmother. Our matriarch, she had held the family together with a balance of judgment and acceptance; eventually she supported my interest in meditation, but not at first.

Still in my teens, I had been living at a meditation center for about a year when I paid a visit to my grandparents in Philadelphia. “Have you ever wondered if they’re putting something in the food?” Grammy asked. No doubt, she and granddaddy had discussed this likelihood in private, but it was her job to raise the question.

“What would ‘they’ put in the food?” I asked. “And why?” Some discussion followed. Salt Peter, I think, was mentioned, its use suggesting challenges sometimes associated with religious training. The question “Why?” was different.

“To keep the people there,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if in training each day on our meditation cushion to let thoughts go, the inmates would, once we came to our senses, leave at the first opportunity. “I work in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure there is nothing added to the food,” I said, trying to reassure her.

When they were younger, as was common in that era, my handsome and modest grandparents sought community and salvation as members of a church. I once found a strongly worded pledge of fidelity to their Christian faith. The pastor’s counter signature was at the bottom of the card. The wording of this commitment, signed before their son and daughters were born, was evangelical.

Later in life, church going was no longer at the center of my grandparents’ existence. Was it a change of heart or simply a relocation that compelled them to let go of this association? Also, how would a conservative church square with the social success and worldly sophistication demonstrated by their successful son and elegant adult daughters? In any case, a growing family was their new community.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother changed. After a year of near reclusively and grief, she emerged open and light-hearted, engaging her world with a new clear-eyed acceptance. “Make friends with yourself and your world,” my meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, encouraged his students at the time. Our world, he pointed out, began with our home, our family.

Grammy and I came to appreciate each other more. She even visited the once suspect meditation center. The solitary retreat cabins on the property meant something to her. “It shows who is in charge,” she said once, after I had let go of my schedule and spent a few weeks alone in one of these cabins.

Near the end of her life, a bible was never far from my grandmother’s bedside. Even so, with me, she was happy to read and discuss Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I had given her a copy of this slim volume, and it too was always nearby, complete with underscores, asterisks and question marks. Her remarks on the book reflected an inquisitive, questioning mind. As a mother and wife she was serious, some said severe. As a grandmother, she laughed more, often at herself.

Around the holidays, Grammy cherished (and compelled) family gatherings, especially if we were all there. On this, the last evening of a long life, most of us were there, gathered on chairs around the hospital bed. In a coma from a brain hemorrhage, Grammy’s final moments had lasted much longer than the doctors predicted. Her two weeks in the hospital had helped prepare us for her departure. We were also tired.

Earlier in the day, a nurse had said “soon.” Would my mom, on her way from the suburbs, make it in time? Suddenly, in a raincoat and stylish scarf, my mother appeared in the hospital room. As if on cue, within minutes, surrounded by her two daughters, son, son-in law, me, my wife, and my two younger cousins—Grammy breathed her last breath.

The room was quiet. Oddly, Grammy’s warm presence was felt even more strongly. It was as if now she was fully free to share the space with the family she loved so well. One of us let the hospital staff know that she had died and asked for time with the body. We all took our turn kissing her, stroking her forehead, saying our goodbyes.

Slim and stylish in a tweed sport coat, colorful shirt and matching tie, the last to pay respects was her son, my Uncle Ralph. As we all had done, he leaned over to give his mother’s body a final kiss and embrace. From that effort, involuntarily, my Uncle passed gas. Given the silence in the room, there was no mistaking the emission. It was a clear, soft, sustained utterance, with a distinct range of notes bridging musically together.

At that very moment, a thought possessed me. A thought that just stayed there, refusing to go, waiting for its import to be fully appreciated.  It was a pronouncement, a banner pulled by an airplane through the clear blue sky of my mind. The banner read:

“I know they talk about death as a letting go, but I think they had something else in mind.”

Transfixed, I didn’t dare examine how others were coping with the interruption. Perhaps everyone appreciated the gravity of the scene, remaining unaffected by this musical coda marking the end of Grammy’s life. I lowered my head, attempting to conceal a wild grin now playing uncontrollably on my face. From the corner of my eye, I saw my Uncle straighten, recover from the embrace and hesitate as he assessed the impropriety. “Sorry,” he said awkwardly, making his way back to his chair.

On my left, my cousin was shaking his head, which I now noticed was also lowered. “No, no,” he demurred solemnly, “It was a gift.”

Here my memory falters. The next thing I knew we were, all of us, laughing loudly, tears in our eyes, bent over, holding our sides. We couldn’t seem to stop. In the small room with a single bed, the sounds of hilarity echoed off the walls, no doubt audible at the nurses’ station just outside the open door. What must the nurses be thinking? How could this situation ever be explained? Questions that only provoked more convulsions.

These were the last moments shared with my grandmother. Nothing more was said. What was there to say? Eventually, each of us recovered our composure and the laughter subsided. Quietly, even meekly, we filed out of the hospital and into a mild fall evening. A soft rain gave the streetlights a wet intensity. It was a sad day and a happy one too. We had joined the one who held us together for final celebration, and in that moment, we had let her go.

Editor’s Note: What more is there to say?

The Greatest Teacher

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It’s been a month of hard lessons.

We all long to tell the truth, to share what we know. But how? Sometimes really telling the truth requires a turn of phrase, similes, metaphors—a story.

My story begins like this: its been a month of hard lessons.

The hard part? A clot of blood in the lungs was hard, and painful and scary. Painful and scary is a blood clot story with a happy ending.

How is my wife doing? She is doing quite well, thank you. She feels pretty much “back to normal.” Yesterday morning she told our Granddaughter that those skinny jeans were just too tight and she had better change them “Now!” All this at 6AM in a countdown for a school bus. I took it as a good sign.

What’s next? More blood thinner, more tests.

Me? How am I? I don’t know. I’m rattled. The kind of rattled you get when you’re in your car alone, trailing an ambulance down the interstate at 3AM, wondering.

The kind of rattled you get when you are calling a stepdaughter on another continent—from a hospital cafeteria.

The kind of rattled you get when your “love” of 35 years threatens to vanish one ordinary Wednesday evening.

Near the end of his life, Suzuki Roshi yelled at his students. “Death is the Greatest Teacher,” he said, banging his staff on the floor.

I’m a wimp. Insecure with a thin skin. If death is teaching, you can find me at the back of the class fiddling with my iPod. But death, like life, is hard to ignore. A few lessons got through:

Trust your instincts. If you have a “funny feeling” – as a patient or a caregiver  respect it. Don’t ignore it. Life is a funny feeling. Your intuitions may be all you have.

Panicking doesn’t help. Move fast when you need to, otherwise slow down and appreciate what you’re doing. Don’t be hard on yourself. Amazingly, suffering (yours or hers) isn’t personal. Sure you’re afraid, but the uncertainty you are facing now was always there.  Don’t turn away. Be brave. It’s OK to cry.

Remember your meditation practice. If your mind is like a wild horse, follow Sakyong Mipham’s instructions. Lasso it and bring it back to the present. You know you can. In a crisis, “just being” is your meditation. It meets a definition of prayer: “The thing you do when there is nothing else you can do.” (Garrison Keillor).

Nothing to do but have to do something? Wherever you are, do tonglen (sending and taking) practice. Take in suffering on your in breath, give out any composure you have on the out breath. You are not alone in your pain. Others (too many to count) are going through this very thing, right now. Sending and taking will help you, maybe them too. Pema Chödrön can remind you how to do this.

 

Let help and support come. Ask for it when you need it. But don’t expect it. Some will “say what they truly feel in a clear expression” (Emily Post). Others can’t. You might be angry. Remember a definition of aggression from Chögyam Trungpa: demanding sympathy.

 

Say “Yes” to your new life. It never was “old,” you’re just noticing how new it always was. Now, on top of the fridge, instead of a bowl of fruit there is a box of syringes. Let it be there.

 

Question everything. Use the Internet. Educate yourself. Knowing a little more, you suffer a little less.

 

There is a realm too exhausting to describe. It’s called the Tired Realm. In this realm doing anything is hard. Sitting on your meditation cushion? Too late, should have done that earlier. When you can, leave this realm by the door marked “REST.”

 

Yes, you were wrong about so much. You thought that everything cared, that even the night sky at 3 am was somehow on your side. Did you want to think that forever? Feeling “wrong” now only points to your investment in feeling “right.” That must have been satisfying, in an exhausting kind of way. Why not relax?

 

If someone is in pain, ask them how they are doing and where it hurts, but not every 10 seconds. Let them share what they want to share. What you hear may end your future. If your future was in the habit of being your present, that may seem to go too. You will find it again.

 

 

My wife’s pulmonary embolism occurred on Wednesday evening, May 4th. (And yes, she is really much better.) Sorry if this a bit of a downer.

We Buddhists get a bad rap for dwelling on life’s shortcoming and these days I do find myself a little sober. But aren’t all good students a little sober? Note: I also hear the birds of spring in a new way and notice details long overlooked.

What is life then, if it’s not what we thought it was?

My grandmother once marveled at how quickly her 90 plus years had gone by. “Like the wink of an eye?” I asked.

“Exactly!” she replied, satisfied with the turn of phrase that might begin (or endwould it matter?) her story.

A story that could be true.

Editor’s Note: “As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space, an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning, view all created things like this.” Lord Buddha, The Diamond Sutra

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

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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.