Giving and Knowing

IMG_0277

Generosity is our genes. The word comes from the root genus, meaning of good or noble birth. Noble, in turn, comes from the root gnosis—to know. Generosity speaks to the natural expression of an inherent goodness in human beings that both knows, and by its expression, is known.

This past summer, my wife and I hosted Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his family at our home in Vermont. The Sakyong (a Tibetan title meaning ‘Earth Protector’) is leading back-to-back retreats at Karmê Chöling, the meditation center in Barnet.

For the month-long visit, Jeanine and I move next door, into a small home about 100 feet from our house. We call this place the “cozy cottage” and it suits me just fine. For one thing, there is no cable TV. For another, the phone is relatively quiet, not really the case at the “big house.”

Many people tell us how generous we are to offer our home to the teacher. Perhaps they’re right, but to tell the truth, I don’t find anything special about it. It just feels like the right thing to do. Also, as I mentioned, the cottage has its own charm. Aside from the moving, cleaning and rearranging, the hardships are minimal.

If I was cynical, I might wonder about my own motivation. Does a large well-appointed home suggest importance or self-importance? Is the intent in offering to let go, or to reap higher rewards in the form of attention, praise and the regard of others? Perhaps we give when we fail to appreciate what we have, in the same way that someone might offer food they came by easily but don’t really have a taste for.

We might also offer because we cannot, out of guilt or for other reasons, relax with our own abundance. In this case, giving is unburdening, a kind of distraction from our own resourcefulness. Shifting responsibility to something or someone who can carry the weight.

With these questions unresolved, my wife and I rouse ourselves to face the reality of moving. There is always a moment in the move that hurts. (Doesn’t moving rank just under dying as a stressor?)  This is the moment when the idea of offering and letting go (which for me has always had a reassuringly spiritual appeal) meets the actuality of doing it.

Typically, a disagreement marks the moment. Madame (as she is known by many) asks me to help her “dress up” the garage. We will need the space, she says knowingly. The garage is big and very dusty. My heart sinks and I balk. “Why?” I ask exasperated, as if the rational for this little project will conflict with a logical underpinning for the whole effort. Struggling with the rightness of my wife’s suggestion, the distinction between offering and abandoning becomes painfully clear. It is the beginning of a journey I take every time we vacate the house for our teacher.

After all the moving, cleaning and preparing there is a date. On such and such a day the teacher will arrive. By that time we are out, really gone from the house. Anything we need from the big house, we have it. This deadline creates a bit of stress. You can’t really move your stuff when you feel like it, my wife explains patiently one morning—why don’t you do it today?

This time, because of a renovation earlier in the year, and because the Sakyong’s family was joining him, there are extra details. The process of leaving and setting up the house took longer than usual. The last 3 weeks before the arrival were particularly intense. Days began early with phone calls and emails, ending late with the preparation of a new punch list for the next day. During this time, we were supported by the efforts of a stellar group from the meditation center’s summer volunteer program.

For these three weeks, feeling the fatigue and the time crunch, I didn’t make it to my meditation cushion. Unaccustomed to a physical schedule of “doing,” without time for contemplation, I found myself losing balance, subject to mood swings and strong emotions. At some point it dawned on me that the day would go better if, for a few moments each day, I just sat still to see how I was feeling.

Early in the morning, the sun shines in the east windows of the cozy cottage. Sitting quietly on the couch, sipping tea, I enjoy the moment before emails and phone calls. Inspiration as well as doubt and even depression rise and fall in my mind. I acknowledge whatever the thoughts are—neither congratulating nor condemning them. By giving these thoughts and emotions a moment of appreciation, their colorful roots are exposed. It is a naked moment with myself.

Just by relaxing for this few minutes, taking the time to acknowledge my internal landscape, the long days went better. There was more flow, appreciation, and wonder. In the same way that I wasn’t able to hold on to my house, I discovered, the thoughts and emotions that colored this effort also couldn’t be grasped. In fact, in giving it away (or at least lending it), the house seemed to expand in all directions (certainly in the cleaning this is true!) As we closed in on moving out, the house took on a life and dignity of its own.

Like any activity, giving creates its own momentum. When we give, the world shifts and how we see the world changes. Staring at the contents of my sock drawer that will go to the basement, the question “is it for me or against me?” doesn’t really apply. For or against? Perhaps it is both—or neither. Who knows? More to the point—who cares?!

At the bottom of a sock drawer, humor dawns and the mind grows lighter. I begin to wonder, is my persistent and solemn search for satisfaction and security purely an invention? An imagined drama unfolding in a world full of things that, in truth, can neither be grasped nor given away. And, if what I want is imagined, where does that leave me?

These questions and insights encourage both appreciation and letting go. They are generous. Maybe, as our teachers have been telling us for centuries, the ground of giving—generosity—isn’t something we do, but something we know—our birthright as nobly born human beings.

 

 

A Waste of Time

tinisThe $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.

“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”

Continue reading “A Waste of Time”

The True Refuge

The Path of Meditation

According to my meditation teacher, to practice meditation is to be vulnerable, requiring the discipline of simplifying and slowing down. This journey takes intelligence and a willingness to acknowledge our connection to others. Sitting on our meditation cushion, we are exposed. Our willingness to be exposed is an expression of strength.

Of course security is important and meditation requires relaxation. But if we are left alone for a minute, and we give our discursiveness a rest, inevitably we begin to feel. To feel what we are feeling is to be human. To be human is to be vulnerable.

But now what? What next? Where do we go? Where is our refuge? Upon what can we rely?

It’s ironic, but some of us, even those of us practicing meditation, have forgotten that vulnerability is our natural state. Often unconsciously, we work to solve the dilemma of our thin skin by aspiring not to feel.

Co-opted by fear, our meditative discipline becomes a drug designed to enhance only the good and reduce or eliminate the trauma of living. As social scientists have come to recognize, in suppressing what is difficult in being human, we also lose what is sublime. Pursuing what is comfortable and protected, we find ourselves more dead than alive.

Unable to be simple, we need a story. We find protection in the righteousness of our discipline, or in a superior view, or maybe we embrace a spiritual path that sanctifies our togetherness. Aspiring to a higher and less vulnerable self, we confront the world with a knowing smile. With pride we offer to tidy up a mess of our own invention. As Bono sang, we are ready “to play Jesus, to the lepers in our head.”

Even if we don’t bother with elevating our self-esteem at the expense of others, our imagined insulation from the world permits a subtle nihilism. We allow ourselves the hypocrisy of pretending that our actions haven’t hurt others and that the hurts we have suffered are somehow behind us. The only way to maintain this self-deception is by moving along to the next thing. When it comes to what is real, and what is now, we demure. That is for another time, we tell ourselves, embracing small talk or the news of the day.

Absorbed in the drama of our security, we forget that what’s above us isn’t a roof. It’s the sky. Space that goes up effectively forever. We acknowledge the living earth only when it comforts or glorifies our existence. For the most part, we treat the planet as a corridor leading to our next destination. But this ‘corridor’ is spinning and careening through space. We, the inhabitants are also in transition, with no idea when our number is up. Being vulnerable makes sense. It is the way things are.

Instinctively, we know all this and our refuges are almost a reflex. Because the shelters we seek are reflections of our own insecurity, sooner or later they let us down. When our contract with the ‘other’ eventually falls through, we are left tilting at windmills, placing blame, and critiquing the demise of a world we ourselves had invented. A world built around imaginary contracts written to ensure that we would never be exposed.

Since we are involved in a pattern that betrays us, no matter how glorious or gloomy our circumstance, subtly we hold on to a sense of injury. Each day we  wake up with the feeling that we have been wronged and that life going forward needs to make it up to us, or at the very least, leave us alone. Our patterns reflect this complaint. They are circular, and having played one out without satisfaction, we are compelled in the moment to start again. Vulnerability is this fresh start. But now what? Where do we go? What is the true refuge, the one that won’t disappoint, the direction that doesn’t lead us in a circle? For a refuge to be real, it has to be true to who we are.

Meditation brings focus, centering and a measure of relaxation. But once this natural health has been experienced, our practice is a chance to feel. In spite of our humanity, we don’t always have the nerve or motivation to take this chance. Why should we? Because by slowing down, feeling and being, we can know and understand our hearts. Connecting to ourselves, our connection to others is revealed. Naturally, we discover that we care. When we discover caring, the one true refuge is available.

This true refuge is native and easy and it is a decision made after careful consideration of the alternatives. It is personal, manifesting differently because we are all different. Whatever the expression, it is the one way to connect with the world that brings peace. Because it has to start somewhere, it could begin with admitting that there is nothing wrong with who we are. It might mean extending ourselves or practicing forgiveness . Because it is both natural and imposed, sometimes it means “YES!” and sometimes “NO!” It is the path that will never disappoint or mislead. It is the only way forward, the only way to grow.

The one true refuge? Kindness–to oneself and all beings.

Editor’s Note: An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama how he got over the desecration of his country by the Chinese. He look puzzled: “I didn’t,” he replied. When Mr. Greenleaf was asked about this post, he shared that it was written “at a difficult time, after my favorite refuge had let me down—in what I imagined to be a big way.”  For more on the power of vulnerability, see the Ted Talk by Brene Brown.

 

Me Who Loathes Me: The Interview

ekajati_NEW

On cold and rainy afternoon in West Barnet recently, I caught up with the Me Who Loathes Me. We shared a cup of tea and watched the clouds moving across the sky.

Me: So, when was it we last got together?

MLM: Yeah, not so long ago—at the funeral service for Paul, a fellow practitioner of mindfulness.

Me: Yes, Paul, what a wonderful man!

MLM: Yeah, if anyone ever put your schtick in stark contrast, it was Paul. He understood goodness, something that still eludes you. What do you actually do on your meditation cushion anyway? I mean, that fact that you, a meditation teacher, telling students that sitting practice is making friends with themselves, and you don’t actually like yourself! Well, it’s a crushing irony, wouldn’t you say?

Me: Hmm, right. Anyhow, so what brought you to the funeral?

MLM: Well, you know, to paraphrase Trungpa Rinpoche, it’s not that we’re such f*ck-ups, it’s that we want to keep our issues bottled up as a family heirloom. I’m always lurking around. Nothing like death to release what’s under the floorboards.

Me: Sorry MLM, but before we go further, I have to confess something. I can’t figure out why I keep inviting you back. It’s never fun. I mean I do invite you back, don’t I?

MLM: Oh definitely, you’re quite the host. Why, what’s wrong with my company?

Me: Well, to be critiqued (and harshly!) for every move, every flicker of thought, especially for failure on the path of practice, to be convinced that others disregard you as much as you disregard yourself, so that the only solution is to throw yourself down a deep hole where the sun never shines, to be denied the chance to enjoy even the simplest pleasure, or for that matter to properly remember and appreciate someone who is gone — it’s quite the assault. It’s negative and hurtful, evil really.

MLM: If you only ascribe evil motivations to hurtful actions you will never understand them. I’d be careful with that.

Me: So why do I invite you back—I mean, over and over?!

MLM: Well everybody needs love. You especially seem to crave attention. I’m company.

Me: Love? How can you say that?!

MLM: It’s simple really. To denigrate something, you have to appreciate it. You have to care. Remember, after denial, anger is the second of the 5 stages of grieving. We met last at a funeral, right? Death is change. Everything is changing. Who can blame anyone for being pissed off? Anyhow, aggression is attention, and attention is what you’re all about.

Me: But it’s so painful! Why would I invite this aggression on myself? It’s such a relief when you’re gone!

MLM: Who knows? Maybe it’s a kind of love that you know, a love you understand. It puts you at the center, so it’s familiar and comforting.

Me: I don’t even want to think about that.

MLM: Well, you might have to think about it. But you don’t have to dwell on it. There are always reasons, but then the reasons have reasons. To get back to why I keep coming back, let me ask you a question: how do you feel when I’m gone?

Me: Great! Relief, really.

MLM: After I’ve exposed and attacked your many, we could even say innumerable, failings, are you sorry I left?

Me: No, not at all!

MLM: OK, I have another more important question: once I’m gone, are you sorry I visited in the first place?

Me: I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that.

MLM: I thought so. I come back because, for some reason, you don’t regret that I came in the first place. Not wanting to be like everyone else, you are proud to put up with your own self-ravaging. After my visit, you’ve earned the T-Shirt that says, “I survived MLM”—a T-shirt that only you can wear. It’s lame, but for a little while your black hole of insecurity has been filled up.  It’s one way of being useful, an original meaning of the word proud, by the way.

Me: OK, as sad as that sounds, there may be some truth to it. It certainly is reassuring to emerge from your embrace. But there has to be a deeper reason for all this fuss. It feels like a distraction.

MLM: Hmm, how intuitive of you, unusual. Sure, when you invite me it’s because you’re hiding, you’re afraid.

Me: What am I hiding from? Is there some deep dark secret that I’m trying to keep from seeing?

MLM: Well, what’s secret to you is there is no deep dark secret.

Me: So what I am afraid of? Just how bad I really am?

MLM: No, no, no! That’s not what scares you. You’re always so hard on yourself. That’s my job! You are afraid, that’s true. But what really terrifies you is how good you are.

Me: How good I am?

MLM: Yes, you’re not just OK, or alright, or a little bit good. You are basically good, breathtakingly fundamentally innocent–and deep down you know this and you know that everyone else is too.

Me: But why should I be afraid of being good?

MLM: Because you’re used to something else, that’s all.

Me: What could I be so used to that it blinds me to understanding myself?

MLM: That’s simple: hanging on to me.

In a flash the Me Who Loathes Me was gone. Without his company, I felt lonely and a little sad. Outside, the rain, by virtue of the wind, was splattering the window. The clouds overhead were moving north, as if toward evening. There was still tea in the cup. It was cool by now, but I took the last few sips.

Editor’s Note: This conversation brings to mind words from a poem by the 19th century wandering yogi Patrul Rinpoche: “Don’t be hard on yourself, even if you can’t practice the Dharma.” For more from the Shambhala tradition on the possibility that you and everyone you know, society itself, is basically good, see Sakyong Mipham’s The Supreme Thought.

The Science (and not) of Meditation

cloud_bench

There are many good reasons to meditate, some empirical, some personal.

Science
Scientific studies confirm: Meditation Helps. These studies track the impact of meditation on physical health and psychological distress. Because they use the scientific method and focus on empirical findings, they’re something (just about) everyone can agree on. This is one of the wonderful things about science.

The scientific benefits of meditation are increasingly well-documented. Here are a few of the headlines—the most striking benefits, from the most credible sources:

Not science: the subjective benefits of meditation
Many of the benefits of meditation reside in the world of individual, subjective experience, which is harder to measure and categorize than the largely physical health outcomes listed above. The slow psychological changes that meditation can bring—”I don’t fly off the handle so easily,” “I’m quicker to notice and empathize with others’ pain,” “I feel ‘wiser’ and better attuned to reality,” ”I’m not so hard on myself”—are what makes meditation so special, and much more than another tool in the health-care arsenal.

Sort of science: tracking the subjective benefits of meditation
Whether or not they are verified by science, subjective experiences can be credible and intelligible to us, the people having them. Recording, tracking, and reviewing your own experiences is “sort of science.” As you practice meditation, look carefully at your psychological state and see how it changes over time. Try to understand how the whole thing works. Just like a scientist, except that your experience is measured personally, rather than empirically.

As you take and retake your own “meditation portrait,” a picture will develop of the ebbs and flows in your life, and meditation’s influence on them. If you collect enough convincing data this way, you might even tell some scientists—but in the meantime, you will notice the gradual but profound changes meditation can bring.