The Nature of Community

pixicup[1]Ubiquity, Invisibility

We might think of community as something external to our life, something extra. We have our car, our home, our job, and then we have our neighbors, our coworkers: our community. But community is not just the people who live next door or who work in the same office, it is also the people who pave our roads, who work at the power plant, who grow the lettuce we eat and truck it to the store. Community is every connection we have with the world around us that sustains our way of life.

In our society, these connections can be hard to discern. The people upon whom we rely for our standard of living are often invisible, sometimes living thousands of miles away. In many ways, this complexity of connections that gives rise to our life, the geographical extent of our ‘community’, speaks to a profoundly developed civilization. The physical separation of our being with these others, however, can also lead to a feeling of isolation, of alienation.

The extent of our exchange with others is often reduced to a simple abstraction, a dollar, something that is increasingly not even encountered in a physical form. This feeling of isolation is a delusion, we simply could not exist without a multitude of connections, but it is a powerful one. In this place confusion takes root, and we can lose our understanding of what reality is. We can think the world is against us, or indifferent towards us, even while we ourselves are part of it. It is similar to a meditation practitioner who might see all his flaws more clearly through his practice but fail to recognize the brilliance of mind within which these flaws are illuminated. We miss the forest for the trees; without communal support, we would be unable to ponder the perceived absence of that support.

Evolution

For life, community is the soul of prosperity. Living systems with low species diversity and sparse populations are in precarious positions in terms of survival, particularly if environmental conditions change. It is those systems with the greatest diversity and fecundity, the largest communities, which are the strongest and most robust. Humanity itself has only survived and prospered through the development of social networks, allowing for the sharing of resources, technologies, and the specialization of tasks. Today, more and more studies are linking individual happiness, longevity, and well-being to developed social networks, to community.

Community-on-the-pathIn the Buddhist context, this could all speak to the precious nature of the third jewel, the sangha. In the context of modern society, it could also speak towards the key to a more humane, sustainable future. Recently, I listened to Vermont’s U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speak of the descent of America into an oligarchy, a country controlled by a few billionaire families who are rigging ‘the game’ for their own benefit, at the expense of the rest of us. “Is there any hope?” he asked the listening audience. It seems to me that the hope lies in the further development of social networks, both in person and electronically. If we can communicate and work with one another, if we can build communal trust, we can begin to transcend a culture where all exchange is centralized and monetary. We can begin to create a new sort of social order echoing an older, ancestral one, one of cooperation and more direct trade.

One of the bases of physics, the law of entropy, colloquially states that things fall towards disorder. In living systems, however, we often see things tending towards symbiosis, or, in a sense, to greater order. In the end, the development of strong, diverse communities is what allows for the greatest security for all individuals. It might not allow for the greatest number of one particular species at one particular time, but it can mean a longer survival period for that species, overall. Such a species, built for the long-run, will cultivate diversity, build cooperative relationships with its neighbors and, in time, may even come to be indistinguishable from them. Mitochondria, the organelles that today produce the energy to power most of our cells, were probably initially parasites. Lichen are really the fusion of an algae and a fungus, two organisms that have joined to the point where they are considered one and cannot survive independently.

Compassion

We are all walking the road of life together. If we join hands or, perhaps more accurately, if we recognize that our hands are already joined, it is likely that we will go forth with more clarity, greater joy, and a better chance for humanity’s long-term survival. Our community is really our world, we ourselves are little more than a series of relationships, inseparable from our neighbor on his lawnmower, from the fox in the hedge, or from the trees that stand by, stretching their limbs up into the sky.

At its inception, society is the interaction between two people. In its most basic form, it is birth. We might grow up to have painful interactions, to experience trauma and difficulty, but our lives began with someone else saving us, again and again. Our lives began with compassion. In this sense, compassion is the heart of community; it is the fabric of the interconnecting thread.

Meditation: 10 Reasons NOT to Do It

These days, everyone’s talking about the reasons to practice mindfulness. What about the reasons that make meditating a bad idea? Below, from my own experience, are 10 reasons NOT to practice sitting meditation:

1. You Can’t Afford To. You’ve been too moving fast, working too hard, talking, texting, worrying. You’ve even “lost it” a few times. (not pretty!) Slow down now and that stuff will catch up with you.

2. Later Is Big, Now Is Small. Meditation is in the moment. But you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. The moment is a squeeze play. It’s only now–which never ends. Why downsize? Think bigger. There’s no time for now.

3. The Best For Last. Meditation is about waking up the best in you. One day, the world will require your best, but today? Look around. Why waste your gifts on what isn’t working? You can do better.

4. You’re Smarter Than That. To sit and meditate you’ve got to believe. In something—or nothing—you just have to care. Caring is hard work. It’s overrated. It’s commitment. Don’t tie yourself down. Work smart, not hard.

5. It’s Not Cool Anymore. Meditation practice is like breathing, everyone’s doing it. Even doctors recommend making time for contemplation. Sure, it’s a human thing, but let’s face it, you’ve never been a joiner.

6. It Doesn’t Pay. When dinner’s made, you eat. When work’s done, you get paid. When you travel, you get a T-shirt. When you play the lottery, you can win. When you meditate, you breathe and…be? Where is the payoff in that?

7. TV. Walking Dead, Downton, Louis CK, Nashville (for the music), Cosmos (for thinking). TV has never been better. Who wants to sit through your show? The main character’s a mystery. Talk about zombies! Where’s the development? That pilot’s headed for cancellation. Fire the writer!

8. Meditation Is Lonely. You might be sitting in a group at a meditation center, but meditate and you’re pretty much on your own. Breathing, thinking, feeling, being (what is that?). Are there even words for this stuff? Sure, everyone alive goes through it. Why should you?

9. You Can’t ‘Work It’. History can be rewritten. The future can be imagined. The present? What’s the angle? Who controls the narrative? Do you want to leave your story to someone you don’t know?

10. Multi-Tasking. We all have to be somewhere. Who says the mind needs to be there too? How is that freedom? Besides, you have other things to think about—like your blog post and your sitting practice. Where’s the mind if it’s not about to be somewhere else?

Author’s Note: Sure, sometimes formal sitting meditation isn’t practical. But other times we just aren’t in the mood. We have a reason for the things we do. Sometimes our “reasons” aren’t reasonable. As my teacher Sakyong Mipham points out, whether we sit or not, our mind is always holding on to something. That makes us all meditators. How can we pretend not to care who we are? Have you hugged your mind today?

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?”

We’re in a boardroom on the 35th floor. Tall windows face the East River, which, on this spring day, is shrouded in low clouds. The topic of our meeting is a staple in the world of finance: litigation, specifically, a lawsuit stuck in New York’s civil courts. I’m a trustee. The trust is the plaintiff. As an accountant and a Buddhist meditation teacher, I’m also a novelty. The attorney hired to fight our case is, apparently, trying to break the ice.

Joining us at the conference table is a tax accountant. He’s known me longer and ignores the remark. These two professionals are from an older generation. Having taken up Buddhism before it was trendy, I’m familiar with the cynicism embedded in the attorney’s “gentle ribbing”, but there is something new.

Not so long ago, “to retreat” was more than getting away. Misguided or not, there was at least rigor beyond the familiar and comfortable. Instead, I’m learning, to retreat now means to indulge in a spiritualist, new-age self-pampering. In the 40 years since I began meditation practice, marketing departments have been waging war.  “Retreat” and even “meditation” are now prisoners of promoters for luxury spas.

Why am I surprised? Once the purview of visionaries like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, these days the word “Zen” is used to sell everything from cookies to skateboards. (Just a guess. Sure enough, Google it.) Eastern Spirituality is positioning that shapes a brand. It signals tranquilitythe kind enjoyed with a green tea in one hand and a Bombay martini in the other.

The monster of materialism swallows language and tradition, digesting them and spitting them back out as something it can love. Behind the transformation of the words is a myth enshrining the culture of productivity and busyness. (The kind of myth that lets a spa swallow a Buddhist retreat center.) In this myth, to slow down and be quiet is to perfect the art of escape.

As Frank Bruni observes in a recent Times op-ed, the person who insists on retreating “attracts a derogatory vocabulary: loner, loafer, recluse, aloof, eccentric, withdrawn.” To retreat is antisocial and escapist. Or, put another way, a big waste of time.

Time away is time off. Meditators on retreat are spa-goers who invoke the dream of distance from society and work. In the euphoria induced by green tea in the morning and martinis in the afternoon, looking within, contemplatives see what they want to see.

Ironically, at the retreats I attend, nothing is further from the truth. The practice of being is challenging, takes guts, and is hard work. In stillness feelings are uncovered, insights born, and connectivity is cultivated. Meditation, the word, may have been coopted. But for those who take it up, mindfulness, (and under this rubric let’s include quiet time and solitude), is a way into the challenges of life, not away from them.

Adulthood begins by asking “What to do?”, but the more mature question is “How to do it?” As a partner or parent, we’ve committed to a relationship—but how to cultivate that? We have work or a career—how do we pursue it? As a member of a community, or society—how do we participate?

These questions require self-reflection and self-knowledge. For that, quiet and stillness are essential. (By some measure, meditation is simply a technique that addresses how to be alone with ourselves.) Meeting the moment that is now, we discover not only something about how we are, but also who we are.

Like the spa-goer, the meditator wants something. But in the culture of retreat, without the help of green tea or a massage therapist, we find the person who can give us what we want. How? By slowing them down and inviting them into the moment. Is a retreat time well spent? For the answer, find the person who wants to know.

Like any discipline, what comes out of meditation practice depends upon what goes in. According to the author Susan Cain (her book “Quiet” is mentioned in Mr. Bruni’s op-ed), much research connects quiet and solitude with creativity and productivity. We worry that our time will be wasted, but is the question really our own? Or is it the product of a culture busy turning a native and contented curiosity into an efficiency-obsessed, future-oriented race for something more?

My two colleagues are expensive company. The clock is ticking. The attorney’s invitation to retreat hangs in the air without a reply. “You wouldn’t last a day,” I think to myself as the conversation shifts to New York’s Civil Courts. Budget cuts and understaffing mean justice delayed. Our court date has again been moved back. Cynicism and skepticism should abound—unless of course you’re being paid by the hour.

As the professionals weigh in on contingencies and probabilities, I can’t help but wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Author’s Note: Some astute readers have suggested that my bias (evidenced by the assertion that the litigator “wouldn’t last a day”) is more of a problem than any alleged distortions by the forces of materialism. These readers have a point. The thought is obviously defensive and says more about me than about the attorney. There might be a presumption that I look down on him. To be clear, I like him and respect him. I tell the story to share. Perhaps it’s a lesson. The next time your path is misrepresented, do better than I could. Make an effort! Set the record straight.

Appreciation Agenda

Appreciation Agenda

Appreciation Agenda“Oh, I know, Uncle Seward, there is one other thing…”

We were finishing a late breakfast in the Gallery, the small, upholstered room at the Hotel Carlyle, on Manhattan’s upper east side. We were the only ones there. A successful artist and heir of a wealthy family, Uncle Seward calls the hotel home when he’s in the city, which he was this weekend. Ordering his eggs, he also ordered a rye whiskey on the rocks.

“…There was something else I wanted to tell you, to share with you…”

The hesitation in my voice surprised me. Uncle Seward has a nonprofit that supports the arts. With my background in accounting, many years ago he asked me to join his board. While still busy and vital, at 83 he is now interested in a transfer of responsibility to his son John, my younger cousin. I’ve been helping them facilitate this generational shift. Our meeting, over breakfast, was about to end.

“I’m all ears,” Uncle Seward replied with his usual mixture of openness, restlessness and readiness to engage.

My Uncle and I aren’t related by blood, but after my parents divorced, he and my Aunt were a reference point of stability. They’ve been like second parents to my younger brother and me.

“It’s not about the foundation, it’s something else…”

The ‘something else’ was the result of another conversation a month earlier, back home in Vermont. The poet and teacher Frank Ryan and I were in the kitchen, finishing lunch. We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s met my family. Frank was listening to me describe the evolving nature of work with my cousin and uncle.

“So, I wonder…” he interjected, sharing something that seemed to have been on his mind. “Your uncle has meant so much to you over the years, have you ever told him how much you appreciate him?”

“Well, sort of. Yes, hmm, kind of, all the time—I DO appreciate him,” I replied defensively. With his endless projects, my uncle has managed to keep me pretty busy in support of his nonprofit work. Wasn’t the willingness to be busy evidence enough of appreciation?

“Yeah, yeah,” Frank continued, “I know you appreciate him, but in my experience it’s important to tell people.” He paused for impact. I knew he had lost loved ones–unexpectedly. His words carried weight, which is why, perhaps, they returned to me now. That and the fact that I enjoy my uncle’s company and was looking for a way to extend our time together.

The waiter, in a white coat, like a chef’s uniform, brought the bill. Soon, a lunchtime clientele would be arriving. Through a marble hallway, light from a hazy fall afternoon filtered in from the street. The room, all reds and browns, seemed to brighten.

“OK, not about the foundation,” my uncle was asking, “what else? How’s the Buddhist business?”

Wary of religion, over the years, Uncle Seward has grown to appreciate the impact of meditation on my life and outlook. Mindfulness practice, while waking me up to his shortcomings, has also helped me to understand and appreciate him. His childhood was one of privilege, it was also wracked with loneliness and trauma. Only later in life did my Uncle find a sense of worth. He grew, but never lost his soft spot, his ability to be touched.

Uncle Seward is my example of what it means to be magnanimous, to be expansive. He taught me that giving, like taking, could be a habit. Yes, wealth is about power. But power comes from knowing and being yourself. When you know yourself, you can afford to be vulnerable, to listen, to be hurt. Lacking embarrassment, Uncle Seward celebrates life with humor and style. He isn’t flashy, but he’s always been an artful and original dresser. At 80 he is somehow even more stylish. As a youngster, I tried to emulate his elegance. There was no doubt about my appreciation. I just had to find my words.

“I wanted to tell you…” I stopped. A sudden tightness in my throat had made it impossible to swallow. My stomach was warm and tense. Breathing was difficult. Trying to speak, nothing came. I literally couldn’t get a word out of my mouth.

After what seemed like an eternity I tried again, “I wanted to t-t-tell you…” My eyes started to tear up. “Sorry” I stammered, unable to finish. Embarrassed by this unexpected overwhelm of emotion, I hung my head, biting my lip.

“Michael, I’m so sorry, what’s the matter? Is everything OK?”

“Yes, yes, OK…” was all I could get out.

Placing his hand on my arm, Uncle Seward patted it tenderly. True to his generous nature, he waited quietly, giving me time to collect myself.

A couple had sat down facing us in one of the upholstered couches nearby. They studied the menu. I felt exposed and self-conscious. After a long silence, and with great effort, “Uncle Seward, I don’t know…I don’t know if you know how much I appreciate you.” Tears were running down my cheeks.

“Well, I appreciate YOU,” my Uncle responded with urgency, perhaps to give me the chance to find my breath. “You and your brother came into my life before I had my own children. In relating to you both, I learned something. Along with the romantic love I found with your Aunt, I realized that I could love and care for others, that I could be a decent person. When I was younger, I had doubted this.”

His words acknowledged our bond, formed a long time ago. We had taken this journey of life together. I was moved, but couldn’t respond. He put his hand back on my arm, patting it quietly. The waiter collected the bill with my uncle’s signature. It was time to go. Getting up to say goodbye, Uncle Seward reached out to hug me. “You know,” he said, “I’m so glad we had this meeting today.”

“Me too.”

Still tongue-tied, I left the hotel and walked outside into a mild fall afternoon. Turning south toward the subway, I looked around. Above the tops of the brick and stone buildings, behind a haze of cloud cover, there was sunshine.The sidewalks, shops, and pedestrians on Madison Avenue were somehow transformed, as if everything were made of light. My chest felt warm and soft.

I headed down the steps to the subway, and made a mental note to myself.

“Next time you see Mr. Ryan, it would be important to tell him how much you appreciate him.”

Mom, Buddha and Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole’s 1943 breakaway hit Straighten Up and Fly Right is based upon a folk tale his preacher father liked to tell. In the story, a buzzard offers to take fellow animals for a ride, only to toss them to their death once airborne. The buzzard then dines on the carrion. After watching his jungle friends take the ride and bite the dust, a monkey hops on. Hip to the buzzard’s plan, the monkey employs his tail to choke the buzzard before the scavenger can do him in. In the song, it is the monkey who is admonishing the buzzard to “straighten up and fly right.”

While the crooner’s (catchy!) song reminds us about the perils of “riding” others, the question of who is in charge, of who is riding, and who is being ridden, is applicable to the relationship with our own mind and body. There is a kind of anxiousness, a choke-hold even, around our mental and physical responses to the ride that is life.  Ironically, while modern culture embraces discursiveness and a casual posture as evidencing freedom, these both can reflect the weight of subjugation, of “being ridden”.

In his classic sculpture, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker appears crushed by the thoughts he shoulders. His fist supports the chin of his over-cluttered head, lest it drag the rest of him to the ground. My teenage granddaughter, now obsessed with her weight and enlivened by cravings, bends over her plate of pasta primavera without looking up. Clutching his iPhone, her trendy friend is hunched over the device like a mystic caught in prayer. My action-oriented buddy leans forward as he walks, as if angling toward his responsibilities will help him meet them a little sooner. Over 55 now, with faltering eyesight and (blessed/cursed) with a portable laptop, I too am starting to hunch even as I type.

Meditation practice is about letting the body and mind enjoy freedom from the tyranny of thought. The upright posture of meditation reflects the courage of a person willing to engage this vista. In meditation, the erect spine straightens the channels that link the body’s chakras or energy centers. This allows for the ‘yoga’ or ‘union’ of an unburdened mind and body. The result is a discovery of a natural clarity–leading to insight.

Interestingly, the physicality of merely sitting upright can be a challenge. Between meditation sessions, if your thoughts (or your linguini) have literally managed to bend you to them, your next practice session will bear the impact of this training. It’s axiomatic that posture effects physiology. There is something healthy about sitting up straight. An MD quoted on the website sponsored by Oprah says what your Mom may have already intuited when she told you to straighten up: “Poor posture actually accelerates the aging process, it lowers lung capacity, interferes with digestion, and puts abnormal pressure on the spine.”

Meditation practice begins with paying attention to one’s own mind and body. This is like the instruction on the airplane that has you donning your own oxygen mask before working to help others with theirs. Although it is not always obvious, our willingness to face our own experience is powerful and has a impact on those around us. As meditation masters have pointed out, a lot of the power of practice comes from sitting up straight and simply being aware as we inhabit space. In a word, posture is power.

This fact is borne out in studies by Harvard psychology professor, Amy Cuddy. In her TED talk featured on NPR, Professor Cuddy reported on the phenomena of “Power Poses”. Her study revealed that, “open, expansive, space-occupying” postures lead to measurable changes in hormone levels, self-confidence, how others see you, and predictably, performance.

Can we pause here to let our posture be open and expansive? Your head can float up as if pulled by a string, gently tuck in your chin. Relax your jaw. Pull your shoulders back a bit and let your torso expand. There, you are now in the posture of meditation. All you have to do next is find your spot and take your seat.  Meditation per se is a formality.

In Tibetan, one of the words for meditation translates as “bringing into reality.” Buddha and Mom understood something. Whether you are a yogi or a stockbroker, what you do with your mind and body in each moment will define your reality and the life you live. By that measure, everything is meditation. Every moment is an opportunity to practice straightening up. Whether we are in the meditation hall or at Starbucks, we don’t have to ridden by thoughts any more than we are required to ride them.

Wherever you are, when you feel your mind and body being pushed or pulled down by the invisible currents of thoughts that would ride or be ridden, gently upright yourself. Breathe and appreciate the space of the moment. And then what? Straightening up, you may discover a new strength and clarity. You may find in the expanse of that moment that there is freedom, and in that freedom there is more room to move, or as Nat King Cole would have put it–to “fly right.”

 

 

Meditation: Waiting to Connect

Meditation Circle

Meditation CircleIt was 1975. My Buddhist meditation teacher was coming to NYC. I wanted to see him. I also wanted my Aunt and Uncle, who lived near my boarding school in rural PA, to be able to appreciate him as well. Besides, I didn’t really know the city and could use some help getting there. A high school senior, I had been practicing on my meditation cushion for several years. Aunt and Uncle were skeptical. This was before the Dalia Lama, before karma was in Merriam Webster’s. If Buddhism wasn’t a cult, it was certainly foreign. Tibet was unknown. They found a babysitter, and we drove into New York City from suburban New Jersey.

The talk was in a spacious church. We arrived on time. There was plenty of room. Curiously, well after the starting time, people were still wandering in. At some point, the place was full and a bit noisy. The hall echoed as hip 20- and 30-something’s exchanged greetings and chatted.

How long did it take Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche to arrive? An hour? An hour and a half? Long enough for the lively chatter to be replaced with a subdued tension and the occasional grumble of irritation. My Aunt was no exception. She had found a sitter for her teenage children, had talked my Uncle into driving us, and now we were waiting. And waiting. Waiting for a person who was alleged to have answers, to have wisdom. No announcements were made to explain the delay. Frozen in the face of family turmoil, my stomach tightened, bracing for whatever happened next.

While her anger was never directed at me, in those days my Aunt had a temper. Arouse her wrath at your own risk. She was charming and smart, but if she was mad, she was not to be trifled with. After an uncomfortable hour in the pew, my Uncle suggested we leave. No, my Aunt was firm. We would stay. My own parents having separated many years earlier, my Aunt and Uncle were like a second father and mother to me. They were paying for prep school. Their home was my home.

My dad was in Texas, my mom in Boston, my younger brother in Colorado: life was already in pieces. Would anything ever connect? Not tonight. Hopes for a good impression had evaporated. My Aunt and Uncle were Christians, but not strictly. Having confronted the hypocrisy of church elders as a teenager, my Uncle, a budding artist, could wax cynical on all things pious. My Aunt remained open to the Protestant faith of her parents. Neither one was closed-minded.

Finally, just as people had started to leave, there was a shuffle on the stage and Trungpa sat down in the chair that had been waiting for him. He didn’t apologize for keeping us. If he even noticed the room’s irritation, it was hard to say. For half an hour or so, Trungpa spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice. I have no recollection of what he said.

As Trungpa spoke, my Aunt’s irritation seemed to grow. After hearing the questions from the audience that somehow overlooked his lateness, she turned to me. “How can he tell people to trust their own intelligence and keep them waiting for an hour and a half?” she asked, an edge of exasperation in her voice.

Knowing there was no answer, I mumbled something. Before I knew it, my Aunt was out of her seat and had approached the front of the room. Trungpa was still in his chair, sharing hellos with well-wishers at the foot of the dais. I followed along anxiously. Nicely turned out in a knit suit, her purse clutched under one arm, my Aunt put the same question to Trungpa. There was urgency in her voice.

My teacher leaned down, a smile brightening his face. “Well,” he said slowly, articulating each word, “It depends.” Incredulous, my Aunt reformulated her challenge. Again leaning towards her, Trungpa offered an explanation, “I didn’t want to jump the gun,” he said, seemingly delighted at having found the phrase that captured the moment. As if losing interest, Trungpa casually looked to the next person who was waiting to talk to him.

In my mind’s eye, there, in front of the stage, is where the top of my Aunt’s head kind of blew off. The conversation was over. We left the church and rode home. It was awkward. My Aunt and Uncle never asked to see Trungpa again. When they referred to him, in lieu of the honorific Rinpoche, they would call him ricochet.

Undeterred by this setback, after high school I moved to the meditation center Trungpa had founded in Northern Vermont. Two years later, I was off to college. Before I left, I shared with Rinpoche that the (one) school which accepted me had a program in Buddhist Studies. There was a very long pause. “I think you should study business,” he replied, without explanation.

As the years past and my meditation practice deepened, my Aunt and Uncle began to voice respect for the tradition I had embraced. Chogyam Trunpa died. I became a student of his son, Sakyong Mipham. They were especially pleased when the Sakyong named me Acharya, or senior teacher.

Tonight, almost 40 years later, we will try again. My wife and I will travel with my Aunt and Uncle to see Sakyong Mipham give a talk and sign books in New York City. My Aunt, once a housewife, is now a producer of cabaret. She has been reading the Sakyong’s latest book and “really getting a lot out of it.” My Uncle, an established sculptor and patron of the arts, is interested in doing a statue of Milarepa, one of the patron saints of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to being a Buddhist teacher, I am a CPA. My Uncle is over 80, so we may not stay for the book signing.

And yes, I think we all are a bit anxious. As my Aunt shared with me approvingly on the phone the other day, she expects Sakyong Mipham to be on time.

Meditation Practice:10 Red Flags

Meditation Warning SignsSome “Red Flags” that might mean it’s time to  look deeper into your discipline of meditation:

1.  Sitting on your meditation cushion, you give yourself only one option: feeling good. As for the other stuff—more or less your life—you take the attitude that it’s somehow all behind you.

2.  In any given session, the number of times your mind meets the now corresponds with the number of times your smart phone vibrates.

3.  Your meditation is anxious. After all, it’s about time you were a better person.

4. Having decided that you are fine just as you were, you meditate like a zombie chillaxing.

5.  You understand your discipline to be a solitary endeavor. As for joining in group meditation, you’d rather visit a bus station after midnight.

6. At the meditation center, you’re a stickler for decorum, nickname: “Miss Manners.” Troubled by your indecorus posture adjustments at home, your practice partner knows you by another nickname: “Scratch n’ Sniff.”

7. Relying on “intuition” to guide your meditation, the sessions are getting shorter and shorter.

8. You see your practice as communion—what you call “deep listening.” Concerned about your dwindling social skills, your partner wonders if the issue is hearing loss.

9. A mindfulness session MUST include ginger tea, your favorite sweatpants, and the mala blessed by a Lama whose name you can’t remember. Lacking any one of these, you are lost.

10. The less you actually meditate, the more you are moved to share your alleged insights in a blog post.

Dear fellow practitioner, I like to write what I know.

When meditation is our own private affair, we overlook interdependence and lose touch with the source of our inspiration. When our practice is only social, we have trouble resting with aloneness, the source of our insight.

Elevating our discipline to something special and separate, we disconnect from the ordinary magic of life, and make meditation harder than it is. What if to meditate was to be human? What if practice was less about adopting a lifestyle, and more about showing up for life?
Without the pretense of a drama that limits meditation to “self-help,” our practice becomes a journey of discovery, or to put it more bluntly—unmasking. Letting ourselves be—even for a moment—is the practice of meditation. It happens now.  Why not consider that an invitation?

How do we know when we are practicing well? What does it mean to be human? Maybe these are the same question.

A Secret Shared

Tonight I have to be at the meditation center. Our little study group, all long-time practitioners of Buddhist meditation, will meet at 5:30. With our teacher’s blessing, 8-10 of us are reading and discussing sacred “terma,” or “hidden treasure” texts from the Shambhala tradition.

The road to this study group was long. Many years of dedicated meditation practice, contemplation, retreats, and funds were required. Perhaps this is why we are so few.

Students of meditation, we are also school teachers, engineers, bookkeepers, artists, Internet geeks, business executives, nurses, parents, and grandparents. The two texts under study highlight different views on the path of meditation and realization. Outside of our little group, we don’t refer to these texts by name or otherwise.

Last week, this most sacred of sacred, most inner of inner, contemplations began with Brussels sprouts. Roasted actually, with olive oil, and a dash of lemon. Catherine, following a simple recipe from Donna, brought these intriguingly named vegetables to share in our potluck. (Yes, the original sprout might have been cultivated in Belgium). It is not in my nature to appreciate Brussels sprouts. But these were lauded as exceptional and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the one I ate.

As we snack, we talk–current events, both local and global, inspiring or entertaining books, our own news, or news of others. The conversation, superficial or personal, is often animated–all of this without a PDA or a glass of wine. I know what you’re thinking: we must be old. Well, perhaps. We do all seem to be over 40. But our schedules are full. Savoring our exchange together, we are ageless.

If communication isn’t moderated, one might wonder, how it is that members of a group don’t all talk at once? What accounts for the smooth flow of speaking and listening that includes everyone in the group? According to social scientists, the answer is eye contact. And how often do we simply look at a face—and not because we’re waiting for change, or thinking about a kiss, or trying to manage the impression we hope to make?

Faces tell a story. The thoughts we’ve entertained over the years shape the way we hold our jaw, furrow our brows, manage our hair, and shift our gaze. Enjoying Brussels sprouts and Vermont cheddar (my contribution), we read the stories that life has written in the eyes, laugh lines, and crow’s feet on each other’s faces. And we listen–appreciating what is said, and what is unsaid.

I’m not sure why, but this social time is remarkable. Maybe it is the power of the meditation center, a neutral but uplifted space where one is somehow both a host and a guest—and neither. Certainly relaxation is encouraged when food is shared.  Perhaps our mutual intention puts us at ease. We all profess an interest in being less confused, more awake to life and more capable of being helpful. Certainly, we would acknowledge the benefits of slowing down in meditation and finding the space for contemplation.

Having snacked, chatted, listened and looked at each other, we clean up and head into the meditation room to find a seat, taking our sacred and secret texts with us. We arrange ourselves in a circle. Energized from our time together, there is a sense of relaxation and even celebration. Each class seems to begin with the same fresh discovery: we can connect, know and understand each other. None of us is so different from the other.

Sitting on my meditation cushion today, I am emotional. This small group of people has shared so much: years of study and practice, campaigns to establish and host spaces for others to learn meditation, and now the study of advanced and esoteric teachings on the nature of reality. But our spiritual accomplishment manifests very simply and humbly: we can be together, eat and talk. We have learned how to appreciate, respect and maybe even love each other.

Opening our texts, there is a silent acknowledgement. Whatever we may uncover in our study of the profound and sacred, it will arise out of what is shared—our humanness. And these insights, however subtle or surprising, will be accessible to everyone, anywhere, at any time—like the secret of a good Brussels sprout.

The True Refuge

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.

 

Remembering My Self

April 1st Barnet, Vermont We remember here Acharya Michael Greenleaf, a senior teacher in Shambhala and a co-founder of the wildly successful Mukpo Institute.

The Acharya’s road to revered ‘would-be Master’ was not easy or anticipated. As a boy, he mercilessly harassed his one sibling, a younger brother. Both smarter and more sensitive than Michael, Tony suffered this abuse with dignity. Later, Michael would take credit for “introducing my brother to the Buddhist path of patience and loving kindness.”

By the age of 13, a growing intuition told Michael that his destiny lay in rock stardom. By the end of his teens Michael shared 2 traits with the rock and roll legends he worshiped: self-absorption (born of mind-altering drugs) and permanent hearing loss.

In college, Mr. Greenleaf’s World Literature professor accused him of plagiarism.  Michael’s paper reported on the story of a teenager in rural Africa. Apparently his observations mirrored scholarship at the time. Mr. Greenleaf, who would forever deny the charge, credited his grasp of ‘primitive’ culture from “having attended High School in Texas.” The next semester, Michael changed his major to Accounting.

Graduating during the recession of 1982, Michael struggled to find a job in his chosen profession. After pounding the pavement, Michael received an offer to join the CPA firm of Shepard, Schwartz and Harris. New to the rough and tumble of business, loud noises and surprises at the office could startle the rookie. “If the client shouted, or if the partner forcefully passed gas, I was in danger of wetting my pants,” he shared, while reminiscing about his start in accounting.

“I had only one friend at the firm, a benevolent CPA named Eli,” he continued. “During the audits we’d debate the existence of God. In Eli’s mind, God’s handiwork was obvious every time he found parking downtown, which he managed do quite frequently. I expressed what I thought was a healthy scepticism. Taking me aside one day, Eli looked me in the eye and very gently suggested it was time for me to find my ‘own people’.”

In 1986 Michael left the CPA profession to join a biotech start-up. Committed to the development of novel anti-cancer compounds, the enterprise had only to “go public” to make its shareholder/employees millionaires overnight. Two years later the promise faded. During in vivo testing, the leading compound wiped out an entire floor of laboratory mice. In spite of this experience, Acharya Greenleaf remained charmed by the prospect of having money without actually doing anything to earn it.

In Chicago, after tasting her coq au vin — a chicken stew, Michael married Jeanine, a woman of French descent. For the Acharya, this blessed union initiated a process of steady weight gain, a marked improvement in wardrobe coordination as well as the development of habits associated with basic personal hygiene. This also began a life-long discipline of “exchanging self for in-laws” which Michael practiced until the end.

Seeking a profession where failure was less measurable, and wanting to “share some good news for a change,” in his 40’s Michael left accounting and turned his attention to the realm of the spirit. Addressing meditation students who questioned his status as a spiritual guide, Michael defended his business background.  “Accounting helped me prepare for the the contemplative life,” he told them, “I learned how to find meaning where there really isn’t any.”

After years of diligent meditation, Michael grew disillusioned with the pace of the path, and started to resent the work required for spiritual progress. A fellow traveler at the time related what, to many in his community, was already evident, “Michael seemed happy with the attention and status of being a teacher, but it was clear that his interest in meditation and service to others was more or less replaced by an obsession with fine dining and luxury automobiles.”

Around this time, Mr. Greenleaf became a step-grandfather, a status he called “rock bottom in the family system.“ Later, when his teenage granddaughter moved into the quiet household Michael shared with his wife, the new relationship renewed the Acharya’s longing for solitary retreat. “When all you can hear is split ends and skinny jeans, you know there has to be something more,” he explained to the retreat master.

Near the end, at the request of his teacher, Michael taught on the practice of generosity—“a demanding topic that took a lot out of me,” he said in an interview. Those who experienced Michael in his later years saw a new sense of calm and contentment. At the memorial service, his wife Jeanine shared a portrait that had many in attendance nodding their heads. “As long as he was well-fed and could drive his beloved automobile, Michael was a pretty happy person.”

Author’s Note: Yes, I’m still here. Lately I’ve been saddened by death, including, since I wrote this, the passing of Roger Ebert. Mr. Ebert lived in Chicago–where I started my accounting career. More and more these days, I know the names of the movers and shakers who have died. Their ages are also closer and closer to my own. The standard obituary is all about accomplishments–feathers in the cap as it were. The problem: when you look for the “self” underneath all the feathers,  you can’t find it. All you get is feathers. Which is sad–or funny, depending upon how you see it. Reflecting on this, I decided to write my own obituary. What I wrote is basically true, which is kind of funny. And sad.