Ringing in New Y(ears)

Just a random sample of comments I’ve received recently and over the years. 

 

“Where have you been, in La La land?” My friend Donna marveling at my fatigue with the stress of daily scheduling and meal preparation in a house with a teenager.

 

“It doesn’t read like something from someone who writes for a living.” My friend Sal after previewing a blog post (that never got posted).

 

“I live here too you know!” My wife, asking me why my trousers were on the chair in the bedroom when I already had on a pair.

 

“Everything is going to be alright.” A Tibetan doctor I saw for a flare up of dermatitis.

 

“Do you think about sex a lot?” A Chinese doctor with his fingers on my pulse, interpreted by his wife. (I was seeing him for dermatitis.)

 

“I’m sure you’re really busy.” A meditation student who asked me to call him. (I haven’t yet.)

 

“You forgot something.” My granddaughter referring to a trip I took to the bathroom.

 

“The idea is to finish one thing before you go on to another.” My first boss, critiquing my work habits.

 

“That sounds neurotic.” A student commenting on my livelihood strategy of taking work that scared me.

 

Meditation is very important.” Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the first time I met him (when I was 17).

 

“Don’t move that with your foot. Use your hands.” My wife, upset at my habit of adjusting meditation cushions with my feet before I sat down.

 

“I think you should study business.” Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, after I told him that my future college had a Buddhist studies program.

 

“I wanted to study music, but I had a tin ear.” My college calculus professor in response to my poor performance in his class. (I dropped it.)

 

“All you’re doing is pressing buttons.” My mathematician father, after I explained how happy I was to master my programmable calculator.

 

“First the glucose burns up, then the fat.” My friend Arthur, as I tried to keep up with him in a recent ice skate around Harvey’s Lake.

 

“You’re basically hiding out.” Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche commenting on my life here in Vermont.

 

“I thought Buddhism was about beyond hope and fear.” My friend Sal responding to some thoughts I had about regret and redemption.

 

“There is still time!” Two staff members at the residential meditation center Karmê Chöling (separately) after I said I thought I would make it to Shambhala Day, the lunar New Year.

 

Thank you everyone. I very much appreciate your feedback and look forward to another year of it!

 

 


The Mind of Love

The Mind of Love

The Mind of Love

On Valentine’s day, we think of those we love. In the meditative tradition, we practice arousing the mind of love–a mind that wishes happiness for others.  In his A Little Book of Love, the teacher Moh Hardin writes, “the practice of wishing happiness to others is so simple that it is easy to overlook its profundity.”

On our meditation cushion, once our mind has settled a little bit, we can turn it to the practice of contemplation. In the case of breath meditation, instead of the sensation of breathing, the contemplation becomes the object of your meditative awareness.

From Mr. Hardin’s chapter entitled The Power of a Wish, here are the seven steps in the contemplation called Rousing the Awakened Mind of Love.

1.    We can start with ourselves. We can wish for our own happiness. We can make a gesture of friendship to ourself. Contemplate your own happiness for a minute. What is happiness?

2.    Think of someone you love, then think of a time your loved one was happy and how his or her happiness made you feel. Let your mind stay with that feeling for a moment.

3.    Take that feeling of love and expand to include your family and friends.

4.    Imagine expanding this love to include the people you pass on the street, the people you stand with in a checkout line, anywhere and everywhere…they are the people who live in your town or neighborhood. Rouse the aspiration that they could enjoy happiness today. Expand your love to them.

5.    Expand this feeling of love to someone you consider an enemy. Rouse the wish that your enemy be happy. This step is generally the most challenging.

6.    Dissolve the boundaries by contemplating everyone you have thought of thus far…

7.    Expand your love to all beings on earth. Cultivate your love by wishing that they all enjoy happiness.

When you are finished, let your mind relax and rest in the present moment with the breath.

Simple, yet profound. Thank you Mr. Hardin. For the complete instructions, see A Little Book of Love.

A Little Book of Love, by Moh Hardin, ©2011 by Moh Hardin. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA.

Editor’s Note: Cheerful Valentine’s Day from everyone here at Samadhi Cushions. Not sure if your loved one wants you? Contemplate staying or going with  The Clash.  

Dinner on Me

IMG_0778“Maybe it’s because you were such a sore loser!”

My father’s tone was buoyant. He wasn’t whispering. After a sip of wine he can be buoyant, and as he ages he is more buoyant around his kids. My wife Jeanine and I were there, but this holiday dinner was special. His daughter, my (much) younger sister Maron, was visiting from California with her boyfriend Justin. There were six of us at the table, including my step-mom. Dinner, at a local Thai restaurant in St. Johnsbury Vermont, had just been served.

Both Justin and Maron are PhD candidates at Stanford with promising careers ahead of them. As the oldest brother who didn’t see them much, I wanted to build on what I hoped were earlier positive impressions. Justin knew me as an Acharya, a teacher of meditation in the Shambhala tradition. Was that a career, I found myself wondering?

Outside, the white snow was blowing sideways through the light of a streetlamp, a typical December evening in Vermont. Oh, and yes, my father was talking to (and about) me. Jeanine and I had been discussing how our granddaughters, ages 14 and 12, were getting along.  “How did you and Tony get along?” my sister Maron had asked about my brother and me.

“Well, basically we fought until we were in our mid-teens. Then we kind of patched things up.” Fighting is just what teen siblings do, my response implied. Pops (what I call my Dad sometimes) was inspired to fill in the gaps.

“When you lost a game with your brother,” Pops paused for effect,  “you were such a sore loser!” I couldn’t tell if Pop’s voice was getting louder or it just sounded louder in the intimate confines of the restaurant. Was I imagining, or was Justin, who knew me as the Buddhist Teacher (read: non-violent) older brother, looking confused or even concerned?

Perhaps to speak up for his absent son (Tony and his wife couldn’t make it that night) Pops continued. “If you lost, you would just destroy the game, whatever it was.”

“Older brother’s prerogative,” I said flatly, hoping to deflect attention from the graphic image of my teen-self shredding game equipment, my younger brother helpless as an object of youthful enjoyment was eviscerated before his eyes.

“I remember once, you boys got this gift in the mail. It was a big hockey board game that you played with little hockey players on the end of rods. After you lost a game, you just destroyed that thing. It had to be thrown out. Whenever you lost to Tony, it would just put you in a rage.” Pops never lost his cheerful tone. He seemed to be marveling at the memory.

“Well, that would have been less of an issue if Tony hadn’t beat me at everything,” I replied, trying to salvage this portrait with some sympathetic brush strokes. It was no defense, but it was also no exaggeration. In any one-on-one competition that required concentration and composure under pressure, my younger brother would best me. From tennis to chess, I could never touch him.  I presumed superiority over Tony, born a year later, shorter and skinnier. To be bankrupted by virtue of an unalterable scorecard was, well, (apparently) untenable.

As a teacher of meditation, or anyone working in the world, you need a back-story, a résumé, something to let you and everyone else understand who you are (and why anyone should pay attention to you). I began sitting practice when I was 15. My résumé featured this tender teen on a meditation cushion—the story of a gifted, precocious, even spiritual youngster—not the raging asshole now cheerfully identified between bites of curry.

Caught off guard by my Dad’s revelations, I wondered about my own official history. Had I begun to make the same assumptions about myself that I hoped others would make? To give a full accounting, would my back-story now have to figure in rehabilitation or even intervention?

And doesn’t the picture of someone who brings to the spiritual path a violent craving for superiority cast some doubt on the authenticity of his title and wisdom? How could I distance myself from youthful adventures when the genesis of my meditative discipline dates from the same era? Is a childhood fixation on winning really so different from the effort to maintain an elevated status in a so-called spiritual realm? Even as Pops waxed enthusiastic, wasn’t I worried about how my sister Maron and her boyfriend Justin would see me? Wasn’t I still, all these many years later, playing to win and afraid of losing?

At the restaurant, I looked for a skillful way to close the topic. “You know Pops, as a loving parent, this is the point where you wrap up by finding something positive to say about me as a young person.”

Maybe he had just taken a bite, but Pops didn’t immediately respond. Before the silence got awkward, Justin weighed in. Apparently, he was still listening. Just my luck to have a couple of scholars at the table, I thought to myself. “It sounds like you did a thorough job of destroying the game,” said Justin respectfully, looking me in the eye as he spoke.

“Well, it’s true. When you destroyed that hockey game, you did a very thorough job,” said Pops, reinspired. “That thing took up so much space. I was happy to see it go.”

“That’s it?” I feigned exasperation (or was I feigning?) No longer interested in the past, Pops had turned his full attention to the coconut curry. My positive qualities as a youth would go unexplored.

Perhaps to head-off another uncomfortable silence, my wife Jeanine spoke up. “No wonder you have such a self-esteem problem!” she exclaimed, focusing on what was now an apparently obvious personality defect. It wasn’t clear if Jeanine meant to comment on my troubled past or on the apparent enthusiasm evidenced by my Dad as he exposed, once and for all, my status as the older brother from hell. Never mind that this was the first I’d heard of my “self-esteem problem.” When my WASP family gets together, Jeanine, who is French, struggles to participate in our mysterious ways. I pretended not to hear her.

Artfully, though I’m sure she knew the answer already, my sister Maron asked her boyfriend Justin how he got along with his brothers and sisters. I waited hopefully for a sordid tale that would shift everyone’s attention from my history. If he had brained an annoying sister with her hair dryer, for example, this would have been an excellent time to share that story. Unfortunately, compared to my past, Justin’s disputes with his sisters seemed, well, normal.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that. Expose your past and you expose your present. Outside the darkness around the streetlight was deeper. The snow was still blowing, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I felt the quiet you feel when you discover you’re not quite the person you want to be—and everybody knows it.

The evening ended with cheer and warmth and without revisiting the conversation. Before it was over, I did something I’m often moved to do when dining out with my family. I paid for dinner.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noted that, more often than not, Michael’s dramas feature food? Of course that might be understandable around the holidays. What he has failed to mention here is that Kham’s, the local Thai restaurant, is really good. Even visitors from the big city tell us that. And not to diminish in any way Michael’s generosity toward his family, Kham’s is pretty easy on the pocketbook too.

Retreat Journal: Unemployed

IMG_0020According to the philosopher John Locke, we think we know what we need to know and we all think we’re right (credits to my 14-year-old granddaughter and her Humanities teachers). As a young person I knew that I was special and superior to others. According to the way I was raised, superiority was then to motivate altruistic behavior. Noblesse Oblige as it were. Good works expressed  ambition. Being good (or better), meant working to “do good” better. To do right was to be right.

A group meditation and study retreat is something good to do. But like rock climbing, you soon understand that in the face of a daily schedule that fully engages your body and mind, you have one option: to relax. Personal interactions also quickly reveal that the person on the meditation cushion next to you has a lot to offer. If you are proud like I am, you are surprised by the contribution your colleague makes to the collective wisdom of the group.

For those of us who thrive on being special and better, it is a humbling experience. Not only is our habit of overlooking others exposed; our whole orientation—the one that puts us at the center of universe, seeing others as so different from ourselves—is revealed as patently mistaken.

We are not so much smarter, we are not so much more sensitive and we are not so much more confused than everyone else. In my case, this everyone else has been 20 other people here in a retreat at Karmê Chöling. All of us are sitting quietly together, hearing Dharma teachings, discussing the subtleties of the teachings on insight and the vagaries of our own journey of meditation.

In practicing together, it is easy to see that we are very much alike. We all long for some peace of mind and an experience of freedom. Short of that, we wouldn’t mind suffering a bit less than we do—the sooner, the better.

This is confusing. How should we orient ourselves if others are, in some essential way, as “special” as we are? The first thing to do, of course, is to relax. Understanding ourselves, we understand others. Knowing ourselves, we know others. How we relate and communicate need not be confusing or mysterious. We have a place in this society of practitioners. It is neither higher nor lower than our colleagues. In a group retreat, we breathe the same air, share the same afternoon sun, meet the same evening sky. In short, we share the same planet, the one under our bottoms and our meditation cushions all day long, this planet Earth.

The feeling of a shared place and experience creates a new sense of responsibility. Our connection to the group depends upon relationship rather than status (whether we imagined it as high or low). This relationship in turn depends upon our insight into what if anything is needed by others. In a natural way, our insight into the needs of our society of meditators is connected to what we have to offer.

In the spirit of group meditation practice, we find ourselves moved to support others in any way we can. This may be a fleeting thought, but it comes naturally. It is as if we were all stripped down to our hearts and veins. All of a sudden there is a room full of exposed hearts. Instantly, there is the instinct to care.

Slowing down the spinning web of thinking that keeps us convinced of something that isn’t there, meditation reveals gaps in the illusion of our separateness and our superiority (or on a bad day our inferiority). Confronting the simple fact of our aching body and restless mind,  we are left exposed and tender. Our attachment to being “right,” to being different, is revealed as a defense mechanism, something frozen over something alive. This unraveling is a relief of course, since maintaining our sense of difference takes so much work. For many of us it is the work of a lifetime.

Not being separate is also a bit of a letdown. Losing faith in our view of separateness, we are newly unemployed. Not only are we not right, we are also out of a job, the familiar job of being ourselves—at least in the way we imagined it.

Editor’s Note: Michael is, let’s just say—more relaxed, after he’s been on a meditation retreat. We miss him (a little) when he’s away, but the change is noticeable, so it’s worth it. Of course if he’s really feeling under employed, there is some restocking to do in Samadhi Store. A shipment of incense just arrived :-).

Meditation: Learning to Stay (and Go)

This past Christmas Holiday, I was able to share a moment with my 10 year-old  granddaughter. In the car, during one of many excursions, we enjoyed a song from the 1980’s that I had heard many times and she was hearing maybe for the first time. It has a great beat and simple lyrics which makes it easy to sing along. It also increases the likelihood of the song getting stuck in my head, which it did long after the Holidays had passed.

As Valentine’s Day approached, this song came back to haunt me. On this day devoted to romance and relationship, some of us will be faced with exploring the boundaries of love  with those we care for.  Mixed and missed messages from our partners, friends and family may cause us to doubt the nature and tenure of our relationships and compel us to look for answers to our insecurities.

Experience in meditation can help us navigate the tumultuous waters of relating to loved ones, but it also teaches us that the first relationship we have to cultivate is the one with ourselves. Missing this last point seemed to characterize the lyrics from the song, Should I stay or should I go, from the British rockers – The Clash. The song I enjoyed in such a fresh new way with my granddaughter.


Darling you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

To be honest, there is something that makes the heart a little lonely in the process of meditation. We admit to ourselves that there are no answers from “others.” There are only our own answers. This is because the questions are our own.

Now I need to address the singer:

You may be looking for answers outside yourself. In meditation, we sit with ourselves and our questions. The question itself points toward its answer. When is the last time you actually sat with yourself? Something about the tone here suggests that its been a while.

If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’till the end of time

This request puts your partner in a difficult position. As a meditator, you may have transcended the concept of time, but a promise to be in the relationship until this illusory concept ends may still seem like an overly long commitment — even for your beloved. A meditator will give room for anything to arise in the relationship. As discussed earlier, the future may not include you. This is consistent with your study of impermanence.

Always tease, tease, tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees

The kneeling posture is traditionally the posture of supplication and respect. It is meant to be pleasing, so there is no reason why your beloved shouldn’t appreciate it. But be sure to kneel on a zabuton mat replacing your zafu with the kneeling bench if you plan to be in this posture for a long time. Clearly, you are no stranger to prayer – which is good – but being teased may be a message from the phenomenal world: lighten up! This light-hearted attitude is the essence of meditation and will serve you well when the final answer comes down. Note: it could also be that your partner is unkind.

One day is fine the next is black
So if you want me off your back


In meditation, we learn to accept the ebb and flow of life and to allow space between ourselves, our loved ones and, well — their backs.

Once again you are pushing a bit. Why are you on your beloved’s back? And if you are, meditation should help you be there in a caring, sensitive way – so they won’t want you off or maybe won’t even realize that you’re there. Seriously, it’s doubtful that honest and direct communication will take place from this position. Hint: you know you’re on your beloved’s back when you don’t bump into each other any more.

If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double

There is no escape from the troubles of life and relationship. Your song reflects this insight.  At least you are admitting that hanging around might be hard, but how do you know this? From your experience of the past?  In meditation we realize that things are neither as good or as bad as we think they are, and that while we are likely to repeat destructive patterns, the present  moment is always here and always fresh. We are never condemned to repeat the past. Don’t assume the worst. For that matter, there is no reason to assume anything.

This indecision’s bugging me
If you don’t want me set me free
Come on and let me know
Should I cool it or should I blow.


Let’s face it, inviting your beloved to tell you to “blow” isn’t the most romantic thing you ever did. Meditation makes us sensitive to the power of language. Your “edge” expressed here is no doubt beginning to trouble your beloved — serving to undermine your own case, so to speak. Meditation also helps us read signs from the world. Have you wondered why your loved one doesn’t answer you?

Come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go.

The discipline of meditation should help you to stay, as you may have heard. But what if your partner doesn’t want you to stay? How does meditation address that? The experienced meditator will be able to “sit” with the request to “go” and hear it clearly without overlaying their own confusion. Of course, at some point even the experienced meditator will have to go (if asked to do so).

If that is the case, there is no doubt that this shift, while hard, will be an opportunity for you. The fact of change means we can deepen the only truly lasting relationship we have — the one with ourselves. There is no question that, in the relationship we have with ourselves, we should stay, not go. This is the path of meditation. It takes heart.

Cheerful Valentine’s Day from the Staff at Samadhi Cushions