To Sleep with a Stranger

It was late. Before collapsing into bed, would the grandparents have time to talk, to communicate openly as husband and wife, even for a moment?

“There was a great piece in the New Yorker on Camus and Sartre,” I volunteered, hoping to catch my wife’s attention with an article I had read recently. (Jeanine happens to be French.)

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she answered incredulously “Do I hear a shower?” She lowered her head to listen. Down the hall, there was the unmistakable sound of running water, our granddaughter in her bath.

Our teenage granddaughter lives with us. She has a head of long, cascading brown hair. Getting it dry after a shower is one my wife’s perennial concerns. “Can you believe it?” she asked rhetorically, exasperation in her voice, “taking a shower at this hour?”

I paused before answering. “I’m sure there are larger issues,” I said finally, in imagined solidarity with my existential friends.

“What do you mean?” Jeanine demanded, irritation in her voice.

This evening, I had hoped to share my admiration for Camus.  As a man, he combined altruism and elegance. His writing, especially his journalism, while incisive, struck a poignant tone.

Where was my sense of engagement, my wife demanded? Was I ready to ignore the implications of everything? How about a teenager with a contagious cold or a mysterious, bedroom-based, unstoppable eco-culture created by moisture, coconut conditioner and a cotton pillowcase, could I ignore those too? No mention of Camus. Perhaps I had missed the point of the existentialists, I wondered.

Maybe it’s a French thing, but if my wife senses that her husband is attempting to hover above the day-to-day details that should concern him, she will energetically challenge his lofty position. Think “la revolution” and “la justice.”

“I better hear the hair dryer,” Jeanine muttered, listening for the next revelation from down the hall.

Feeling alone on the edge of the bed, I was left to contemplate my own existence. Earlier in the day, I had been a meditation teacher at the local retreat center. Who was I now? In the morning, our granddaughter would be driven to High School. That’s who I was; I thought bitterly to myself, I was the driver. The hair needs to be dry, it needs to be brushed, and in the morning, it will need to be driven to school.

Existential pleasantries are not for drivers.  Drivers just need to be ready to drive. From down the hall, came the sound of an electric hair dryer revving up.

Relieved that granddaughter had done the right thing, my mind wandered to that day’s meetings at the meditation center. “She called you a special teacher,” a colleague shared in a confidential tone. We were meeting about a visiting student who needed instruction in meditation, as well as help with her posture on the meditation cushion.

The student had seen me at the center earlier in the week. Apparently she wanted the insights that a “special teacher” could share. I liked her already, but to meet, I would have to make time out of a busy schedule. “Sure, I’ll see her.” My colleague, whose job was finding meditation teachers for visiting students, seemed very pleased.

Next, there was an invitation to a staff discussion. A restless visitor was having trouble keeping the discipline at the center. I didn’t know the student. Still, it seemed important to the staff that I was there. A decision was about to be made. I thought, “you’re a special teacher, you should have something wise to say.” Nothing came. My gaze wandered out the window to a view of the forest behind the meditation hall. I wondered why I was there.

Later, over lunch, I shared advice with a residential student on his upcoming solitary retreat. As we spoke, I was haunted. A special teacher would be more meditative, less quick to agree, at least not talk with his mouth full. At the end of our meeting, with some formality, the student thanked me for my time and wisdom. There was something about the tone of his ‘thank you.’

“I wonder if he heard a word I said,” I remember thinking to myself.

At the retreat center too, I now realized, my identity had been unclear. Was the pain of my irrelevance at home somehow related to my struggle to embody importance earlier in the day? Before lunch, by some accounts, I was a special Buddhist teacher. By bedtime, I was the lowly driver of a teenager. “Praise and blame,” I thought to myself. “This is what the Buddhist tradition means by worldly things.”

Outside the window by the bed, the lake loons were calling in the darkness. Down the hall, the hair dryer stalled and then stopped. I mulled over my shifting status. I was both a special teacher and a teenager’s driver. I was also a husband. If I was all three, who was I really? As my head sank into the pillow, I felt sad. Who was I really? I didn’t know.

My wife’s irritation seemed to linger. This evening, the hair had enjoyed unearned privileges. The husband had not engaged. Jeanine turned off the light, but not before sharing something else about my ability to ignore–to miss the truth behind the appearance. I don’t remember her comment (honestly!), but it was a pointed remark and it made me laugh.

Suddenly and unexpectedly Jeanine laughed too. We kissed and said goodnight. Outside, the lake loon called again. In the darkness, I might have smiled. I had hoped for a moment with my wife and it had arrived. There was openness and communication, there was also tenderness, in a poignant, existential, French kind of way.

Ringing in New Y(ears)

CIMG0278

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 :-).