Meditation Space: Boulder, CO

 

by Margo Shean

 

As I go to open my mom’s fridge, which happens to be one of my happy places, I notice the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center brochure stuck to the door.  The brochure is full of exciting things sure to fill the dreams of any Dharma Bum.

After a few months of readjusting to the world from living at Karmê Chöling for three years, I am becoming more and more involved in the center here in Boulder.  The town where I grew up and knew so well is slowly becoming a whole new world. 

I have the perfect job for my transition — working on a lovely farm.  My boss, Peter Volz, happened to direct my Shambhala Training Level 4 in Boulder many years ago.  A good friend of mine, Jill, also a Shambhala Buddhist, works on the farm.

While picking cherry tomatoes, Jill and I discussed our “Happy Places”. You know these places? The places where you’re at your best, fully accepted for who you are?  Sometimes these places just delight our sense pleasures: the sampling of products and well-crafted cheeses can really boost your confidence. Delighting in the sense pleasures is perfect at organic grocery stores, which happen to be Jill’s most “Happy Place”.  I would also put organic grocery stores on this list, along with any place I can eat ice cream, most movie theaters, my dad’s backyard, my mom’s fridge, the Main Shrine room at Karmê Chöling, steam rooms, Chautaqua park, Eldorado Springs pool, and I believe even the farm I’m working on would qualify as one of my “Happy Places”.

During a group practice session at the Shambhala Center, one of many group practice opportunities in Boulder, I sit on my meditation cushion and begin contemplating my “Happy Places”.  What does this really mean as a practitioner?  Isn’t every place a sacred place?  Isn’t every situation just what I need – perfect in and of itself?  Doesn’t every instance in my life bring me closer to waking up and seeing the world as it really is?  Maybe every place is my “Happy Place”.  I realize that I’m able to blame a total stranger on the road for something that may or may not have been his fault. I realize, like most people, even us practitioners (or maybe especially practitioners) need love, support, comfort and kindness in order to feel protected enough to handle difficult situations.

Sitting on my zafu, my awareness rudely interrupts one of my fantasy “Happy Places”, and I notice the tag on the meditation cushion in front of me which says “Samadhi Cushions, Barnet Vermont”.  I am instantly reminded of my old home, Karmê Chöling, another happy place where my experience was truly invaluable.

My memory turns to appreciation, which always brings me back to where I am in the moment. I notice all the kind faces in the meditation room and all the people I’ve become so close with here after only a short time.

The large center in the middle of downtown Boulder has a deep history, mixed with a young exuberance, and I find the most common ground here is profound kindness.  According to the brochure, there is something happening every night of the week, even if that means sitting down on Gomdens with your friends without moving or talking.  It seems that everywhere you go in this town you’re bound to run into someone connected with Shambhala. The city is full of original Trungpa Rinpoche students, who I think of as pioneers of Buddhism in the West.  There are also Dharma Brats – or as a friend is calling us, Dharma Heirs – who are dedicated students of the Sakyong.  And finally, there are new practitioners, Naropa students, and a large community of people interested in meditation, health, and well-being as a whole.

Then it strikes me: My most happy place is the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center.  Here, the receptionist often sings to me when I walk in the door, and the Director remembers my name out of hundreds of members – there are over 200 meditation instructors here.  There are very senior teachers and practitioners as well as brand new people with fresh minds.  But most of all, this meditation center is a community of people who accept you for who you are.  Ahhhh, this is my “Happy Place”, and I don’t even have to share my bathroom like I did at Karmê Chöling.  I can finally brush my teeth in peace, and still enjoy the company of my beloved Sangha – a Dharma Bum’s dream and a sun seeker’s paradise.

Contemplating the first noble truth is always important in a place like this, but then again, our minds create suffering wherever we go, and we could all use a little sunshine to help us along the way. What a wonderful place to be, I think to myself. Finally, with only five minutes left in the session, I label it all thinking…and then I breathe.

Meditation Space: New York City


by David Allen McKeel

 

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

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

“And what do you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

The Donald: You have tomato sauce on your shirt.

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

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

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

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

Presumably to check his email.

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

 

 

(c) 2011, David Allen McKeel

“iZafu” drawing by Jack Niland

Meditation Space: Boston, MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orderly Chaos was written by Frank Ryan

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


Meditation Space: A House?

freeclipartvwbus-croppedLet’s face it. A house is not Zen.

I never really wanted a house. It was my wife’s idea.

My ideal scenario was to live in a van. There are many advantages to a van. Maybe it’s a guy thing.

For one, who ever heard of painting a van? I mean the inside. This just wouldn’t come up. There is something beautiful about steel, whatever color it’s painted.

Second, keeping the van clean would be easy. Cleaning my house is like cleaning the Potala Palace in Lhasa. There are more rooms than I care to count. Once I vacuumed the whole house. It was summertime. I had to be treated for heat exhaustion. I won’t do that again.

Actually, I don’t really think you can keep a van all that clean. The effort would be in conflict with the van’s nature. It is important to respect the nature of things. Anyhow, cleaning wouldn’t really come up. That would be fine by me. I mean, cleaning something changes it. Have you noticed? Why do we want to change things? Isn’t our practice to accept things the way they are?

Householders have the “house” and the “holders”. The “house” is a shelter from the elements. But having survived, you still need to survive your survival, if you know what I mean. Escape is the only way. At night in a house, I feel alone and vulnerable. I have the cable bills to prove it. But come on, the way to escape is to move. Just one word here: wheels.

As for “holders,” in my tradition we are learning to let go. Not to hold on. If you have a house, you are in charge of your house. Let’s face it; whatever happens in the house, you are responsible. Do you know what that word means, really? If you did, you wouldn’t want to be it. It’s related to the word oblige, which is related to the word bound. Basically, a house is a prison — with windows and a chimney.

Responsible people have to account for their actions. You can’t “account” while you’re moving. Particularly if you’re moving fast. You do what you do and you move on. People aren’t responsible when they’re moving. How could they be? My van is about freedom. You can’t drive if you’re studying the rear view mirror. People miss the point sometimes. We get lost. We don’t always do as we should. But how can you be lost when you’re not there? Two words: floor it.

Houses wear out. They are constant work. Something is always breaking down, requiring attention. That kind of commitment to a “thing” isn’t in keeping with the meditative lifestyle. We need to let go of things. For instance, I let go of my old tube TV. It was huge and it meant a lot to me. But it had to be done. Now I have a beautiful flat screen TV. It’s just not the same.

When a house wears out, it is very hard to trade it in. With my van, I would just drive it to the dealer and drive out with another. I actually think a van is “greener” than a house. So don’t fault me for trading it in. Not to mention the boost to Detroit, which could use a little boost.

Houses have windows. I wouldn’t have any windows on my van. At least not in back. Talk about privacy. Bedding down for the night, even I wouldn’t know where I was. Vans are romantic; they’re cozy, if you get my drift. I think that “desirability factor” is one of the reasons my wife was against it.

Windows allow light in the morning. That can be inconvenient. In a van, this wouldn’t be a problem. Speaking of windows, from my house you can see houses next door. Neighbors. The word says it all. Sometimes they phone me. Like when I’m yelling. I know it’s them from the caller ID. I don’t answer. But I do lower my voice.

Do you know how hard it is to yell when you have to keep your voice lowered? Believe me, there is almost no satisfaction there. You have to hiss, really, to make your point. Which is demeaning.

In my van, I wouldn’t have neighbors. Not permanent ones anyway. Just for the half hour or so it took them to shop for groceries. Living at the grocery store. Well, I mean, in the parking lot. Talk about convenience! And no neighbors. The problem with neighbors – sooner or later they need something. Neighbors are basically guests who haven’t moved in yet. No guests, no neighbors. That’s called simplicity. It’s part of my practice.

One thing about a van, there isn’t room for artwork and potted plants. They’re not practical. Nothing can hang on the walls of a van. I don’t even think they’re called walls. They’re called sides. Who ever heard of hanging a picture on a “side”? It just isn’t going to happen. This would save a lot of time.

It would take too long to hang a picture on the inside of my van. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about appreciation. Do you realize how much time in a house is wasted on appreciating things? Art on the wall, the smell of food on the stove, flowering plants. With my wife, every day is plant appreciation day.

I mean, how long can you stare at a plant? By the way, one thing I’ve noticed, if you stare long enough, the plant starts to stare back. Just try it. That’s the flaw in appreciation. You think those things are there for you. But if you really pay attention, it starts to feel like you are there for them. I mean, who wants to be there for a plant? Just creeps me out.

The other thing about a van: no furniture. Either you are driving, going where you need to go, or you are sleeping. I would have a really nice mattress in the back. I mean, I’m a gentleman. Why do we need anything else really? No tables, no chairs. Let’s face it. A chair is really just a poor excuse for a couch, and a couch wants to be a bed when it grows up.

Have you sat in a chair lately? Basically, you have two painful choices. You can lean back in the chair, which is like lying down halfway. How helpful is that? Or you can sit up straight and face the universe on your own. Who in their right mind would do that? Chairs with wheels, now those I can deal with. A van is a chair with wheels and a gas pedal. I miss my van.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the chair. Well, you can sit up and be still. There is a little problem with being still. I think you know what I’m driving at. The problem with being still? You are not moving. I don’t need to tell you what kind of people don’t move. These aren’t my favorite kind of people. Why would I want to imitate them?

Believe me, you will never distinguish yourself by sitting still. You’ll never get anywhere. In my van, I go places. I make “miles per hour.” I cover territory. My progress can be measured. No movement, no way to measure. If something can’t be measured, it’s either too big or too small. Either way, where’s the point? If you’re not progressing, where are you? You do the math.

Not that I would have to be on the go all the time. When I would drive, I would drive. When I would sleep, I would sleep. It would be Zen.

Editor’s Note: It’s important to have a spot in your living space where you are still and quiet. It is the basis for a sane household, which is your responsibility. Sitting still in meditation on your meditation cushion or bench connects you with space. Space connects you with everything and everyone. Recently, a scientist in the Times pointed out that space isn’t really far away. Just a one-hour drive, if your van can drive straight up. I think Michael might have missed the turn.

Meditation Space: Yours, That Is

The Main Shrine Room at Karme Choling

The Zen Novice finished his first meal at the monastery. Anxious to begin his journey to enlightenment he asked his Master “Now What?” The Master replied, “Now wash your bowl.”

—-Zen Parable

Michael, Can We Talk?

Michael, my dear, we have to talk. No, I didn’t say “Tawk” I said “Talk.” Seriously, have you noticed something? It’s getting crowded around here. It’s like you’re running out of room. It almost feels cramped. Why is that? I think you know.

The last time you sat down to practice mindfulness meditation, before you settled onto  your meditation cushion, you left kind of a mess. Your practice space was dusty and cluttered with books and papers. Your shoes were left higgly-piggly by the door. There was a half-finished cup of tea and a half-finished water glass on the kitchen counter. They had been there for some time.  Your coat was thrown on the couch, an old newspaper, half-read, on the table.

Never mind that these things are destined to confront your wife, who as we know prefers it tidy. I got the impression that you were in a hurry to meditate. I thought meditation was about slowing down, being where you are. How can you be in a hurry to be where you are, I ask?

Oneness

I know, in your tradition, there is talk of “emptiness” and even “oneness.” In your rush, maybe you understood this to suggest an experience that transcends the mundane. But doesn’t oneness mean that you and your world are connected? Speaking practically, what is there to be “one” with? If it’s your experience as it is, moment-to-moment, that experience has to include your stuff, which as I said, is everywhere.

When people think of a meditator, they think of precision, simplicity, and tidiness. This could be a kind of affectation. Don’t worry; you’re not suffering from it! But seriously, we’re not talking about fake, self-conscious solemnity as you sip your tea and wash your cup.

Mind and Matter

Paying attention to the environment around you reflects a meditator’s understanding. If mind and matter are connected somehow, and changing mind can change how we experience matter, changing matter should also have an impact on mind. Isn’t that the point of art? Why not art in everyday life?

OK, maybe your Mom hesitated to tell you to clean your room. Maybe she didn’t want to upset you. But if you are going to pretend to study the nature of reality, how things are, then you might as well begin by relating to reality, at least the one in front of you.

Considering Others

If you leave your stuff around, sooner or later, someone is going to have to pick up after you. The problem with leaving a mess is that it considers others, but in a funny way. I don’t know how to break it to you, but cleaning up after you may not be the world’s most noble profession. I ask you, can washing your teacup be the best use of someone’s time?

What’s that, you “don’t need a lecture right now”? You’re “already struggling to love yourself.” “Why the negative tone”, you ask? Michael dear, have you seen the detritus you’ve left in your wake? Everywhere you go, there is a little piece of you left behind — a coffee cup, a tissue, a blanket, a half-read piece of mail, you and I both know this is just the beginning of the list.

Expanding Your Universe

Leaving your stuff everywhere is like hanging a “this is my space” sign everywhere. It is the expanding universe theory, except that YOU are the universe. You are expanding. The result is smaller and smaller spaces for other people to fit themselves into. It is the phenomenon of overpopulation of one.

But you say, “look at my responsibilities, there isn’t time for every tea cup. If I go there, I’ll never look up, I’ll never have time to do the important things I need to do!” Which urgent project is this? What’s that? “Helping others–for example”?

Making Space

Now let me get this straight, you are saving the world and the first step on that journey is to leave something for someone else to clean up. OK, it’s possible, very possible that leaving a mess is the beginning of a very meaningful and successful effort to help others. It is also, however, suggestive of a different kind of journey. One that has you at the center, and others on the edge — with a trash can in their hand.

Of course, there is a whole other way to include people in your world. You could welcome them into a space that allows them to relax. A place that gives them room to relax. If space is a commodity (since you treat it that way), why not offer it? Why not make room? If you give them room, maybe others can learn to help themselves. That would be one less person who needs your help. Maybe they in turn can help others, even you. Wouldn’t that be in the interest of your expanding universe?

A Souvenir of Mind

The other thing about the half finished cup of tea you left on the counter for three days – I know it meant something to you. Why else would you leave it there?

I’ll tell you what it meant. It was a heart-warming reminder of you. It isn’t really a cup of tea. It’s a souvenir of your mind. In fact, it’s a thought. A big thought, a little one, a half-finished one. You and your thought got attached or it scared you. That’s why it’s still there. You don’t really want to say goodbye to your thought. If you do, you’d be lonely. You want a long goodbye, a three-day goodbye.

Finding Yourself

Thoughts keep you company. They remind you you’re here. If there weren’t thoughts for a minute, how would you locate yourself?  You’d be lost. That would be space. In space no one can hear you scream, they say. In this case, the teacup will hear you. Your 3-day old teacup is a little shrine. In your quiet way, you worship it.

In fact, the stuff you leave around helps you find yourself. When someone calls you and asks, “Where are you?” you can just say, “Oh, I’m about a foot from the laundry pile.” There, question answered. No need to account for yourself further.

Thoughts of course, come and go. They may return, but they are always interrupted, and there are gaps between them. Are you afraid of that space between thoughts? Maybe that’s why you are always rushing, leaving half-finished stuff everywhere as landmarks.

Letting Go

I have news for you. There is no way to go back. There is no way to return to the tea you enjoyed three days ago. No way to have exactly the thought you thought you had. It is all gone. Like writing on water as they say. Wouldn’t it be more elegant if the water were clean?

Michael, it would be good to finish one thing properly. Even a cup of tea. It’s modest, but it would bode well for the people you’re supposed to look after. Sometimes cleaning up gets a bad rap. It’s OCD; it’s what maids do; it involves touching unclean things; it’s holding on to formality. Those are all excuses. Cleaning up is doing one thing at a time. It takes courage. Cleaning up is letting go.

Now What?

“OK,” you say, “I’ve cleaned up a bit. It looks nicer. It feels a bit better. To be honest though, kind of liked it the old way. It was more relaxed. This feels a bit oppressive, sort of puritan or something. And anyway, now what?”

“Now what?” did you say? This is a very good question. Why don’t you just relax with this question? Making the space tidy allows for this question. When the space is a mess, there is no room for “Now”. It is as if Now were looking for somewhere to land and couldn’t find it. The space was too crowded.

This “Now” is your “Now.” When you left stuff everywhere you crowded out others, but you also crowded out your “Now”. You thought you were expanding, relaxing, but really, there was no more room for your experience. It was getting squeezed out. To be “one with everything” there has to be space. There has to be Now. Now that you’ve tidied up a bit, there is room. “Room for what?” You ask? Room for everything.

Editor’s Note: Dear Reader, don’t be alarmed. Anyone who knows Mr. Greenleaf well knows that he talks to himself. Sometimes I overhear voices coming from his office here at Samadhi Cushions and peek in (yes, it’s a little cluttered in there) just to see who he’s with. More often then not, he’s alone. It used to make me sad, now I’m used to it. Remember, there is a way for your meditation cushions not to be a living record of every substance they’ve ever encountered. The Deluxe Zafu and Deluxe Zabuton come with washable cushion covers.

Yes…also, sometimes Mr. Greenleaf writes his own “editor’s note” — Ed.