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.
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.”
It 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.
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.
How do we know when we are practicing well? What does it mean to be human? Maybe these are the same question.
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.
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.
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.
On cold and rainy afternoon in West Barnet recently, I caught up with the Me Who Loathes Me. We shared a cup of tea and watched the clouds moving across the sky.
Me: So, when was it we last got together?
MLM: Yeah, not so long ago—at the funeral service for Paul, a fellow practitioner of mindfulness.
Me: Yes, Paul, what a wonderful man!
MLM: Yeah, if anyone ever put your schtick in stark contrast, it was Paul. He understood goodness, something that still eludes you. What do you actually do on your meditation cushion anyway? I mean, that fact that you, a meditation teacher, telling students that sitting practice is making friends with themselves, and you don’t actually like yourself! Well, it’s a crushing irony, wouldn’t you say?
Me: Hmm, right. Anyhow, so what brought you to the funeral?
MLM: Well, you know, to paraphrase Trungpa Rinpoche, it’s not that we’re such f*ck-ups, it’s that we want to keep our issues bottled up as a family heirloom. I’m always lurking around. Nothing like death to release what’s under the floorboards.
Me: Sorry MLM, but before we go further, I have to confess something. I can’t figure out why I keep inviting you back. It’s never fun. I mean I do invite you back, don’t I?
MLM: Oh definitely, you’re quite the host. Why, what’s wrong with my company?
Me: Well, to be critiqued (and harshly!) for every move, every flicker of thought, especially for failure on the path of practice, to be convinced that others disregard you as much as you disregard yourself, so that the only solution is to throw yourself down a deep hole where the sun never shines, to be denied the chance to enjoy even the simplest pleasure, or for that matter to properly remember and appreciate someone who is gone — it’s quite the assault. It’s negative and hurtful, evil really.
MLM: If you only ascribe evil motivations to hurtful actions you will never understand them. I’d be careful with that.
Me: So why do I invite you back—I mean, over and over?!
MLM: Well everybody needs love. You especially seem to crave attention. I’m company.
Me: Love? How can you say that?!
MLM: It’s simple really. To denigrate something, you have to appreciate it. You have to care. Remember, after denial, anger is the second of the 5 stages of grieving. We met last at a funeral, right? Death is change. Everything is changing. Who can blame anyone for being pissed off? Anyhow, aggression is attention, and attention is what you’re all about.
Me: But it’s so painful! Why would I invite this aggression on myself? It’s such a relief when you’re gone!
MLM: Who knows? Maybe it’s a kind of love that you know, a love you understand. It puts you at the center, so it’s familiar and comforting.
Me: I don’t even want to think about that.
MLM: Well, you might have to think about it. But you don’t have to dwell on it. There are always reasons, but then the reasons have reasons. To get back to why I keep coming back, let me ask you a question: how do you feel when I’m gone?
Me: Great! Relief, really.
MLM: After I’ve exposed and attacked your many, we could even say innumerable, failings, are you sorry I left?
Me: No, not at all!
MLM: OK, I have another more important question: once I’m gone, are you sorry I visited in the first place?
Me: I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that.
MLM: I thought so. I come back because, for some reason, you don’t regret that I came in the first place. Not wanting to be like everyone else, you are proud to put up with your own self-ravaging. After my visit, you’ve earned the T-Shirt that says, “I survived MLM”—a T-shirt that only you can wear. It’s lame, but for a little while your black hole of insecurity has been filled up. It’s one way of being useful, an original meaning of the word proud, by the way.
Me: OK, as sad as that sounds, there may be some truth to it. It certainly is reassuring to emerge from your embrace. But there has to be a deeper reason for all this fuss. It feels like a distraction.
MLM: Hmm, how intuitive of you, unusual. Sure, when you invite me it’s because you’re hiding, you’re afraid.
Me: What am I hiding from? Is there some deep dark secret that I’m trying to keep from seeing?
MLM: Well, what’s secret to you is there is no deep dark secret.
Me: So what I am afraid of? Just how bad I really am?
MLM: No, no, no! That’s not what scares you. You’re always so hard on yourself. That’s my job! You are afraid, that’s true. But what really terrifies you is how good you are.
Me: How good I am?
MLM: Yes, you’re not just OK, or alright, or a little bit good. You are basically good, breathtakingly fundamentally innocent–and deep down you know this and you know that everyone else is too.
Me: But why should I be afraid of being good?
MLM: Because you’re used to something else, that’s all.
Me: What could I be so used to that it blinds me to understanding myself?
MLM: That’s simple: hanging on to me.
In a flash the Me Who Loathes Me was gone. Without his company, I felt lonely and a little sad. Outside, the rain, by virtue of the wind, was splattering the window. The clouds overhead were moving north, as if toward evening. There was still tea in the cup. It was cool by now, but I took the last few sips.
Editor’s Note: This conversation brings to mind words from a poem by the 19th century wandering yogi Patrul Rinpoche: “Don’t be hard on yourself, even if you can’t practice the Dharma.” For more from the Shambhala tradition on the possibility that you and everyone you know, society itself, is basically good, see Sakyong Mipham’s The Supreme Thought.
This year, the Christian tradition of Lent falls during the weeks before and after the first day of spring. Lent is a time associated with purification and renunciation. While Buddhism is no stranger to these practices, one of the words for renunciation in Tibetan can also be translated as “contentment”. (The word is chok-she, which literally means “to know enough, to know what is enough”.) Rather than self-sacrifice or a lowering of expectation, contentment refers to waking up from the confusion of continuous want; appreciating the richness of experience in each moment.
To say what might be obvious, this moment, in this life, is the only one we have. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves planning in vain for another moment, another now. Not only an expression of our wish to grow and learn, sitting on our meditation cushion is also taking the time to find, or more accurately express, contentment in our own experience as it is now. (Notably: the word contentment includes “content”, which when the accent is on the first syllable, refers to the ability to hold).
Contentment is curious. Take The Contentment Test below to discover more.
1. When you have screwed up again, you should:
A: Buck up and try harder.
B: Confront the jerks who let you down.
C: Take a long hard look at your own failings.
2. When others have failed, it makes sense to:
A: Show how they set their sights too high.
B: Explore the details of the screwed-up.
C: Look for ways to help them move forward.
D: Remind them they’ve done this before.
3. Someone who questions the virtue of continuous entertainment:
A: Hasn’t seen ‘Dancing with the Stars’
B: Sees life as a chain of small but meaningful decisions.
C: Is afraid of the rituals that make us a society.
D: Has questionable social skills.
4. When you’ve realized who you are, you should:
A: Try to find yourself.
B. Share colorful stories highlighting your outstanding qualities.
C. Be patient until others reach your level.
D: Share your insights with those who need them most.
5. The best way to get things done is to:
A: Slow down.
B: Waste less time (with questions like these).
C: Champion productivity.
D: Fake it ’till you make it.
6. Complete the refrain: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…”
A: Sh*t Happens.
B: Is a wonderful view.
C: Lunch is ready.
D: Credit cards have lower rates.
7. Complete the following: “Life has meaning when…”
A: I’m doing what I want.
B: I’m not stuck with someone else’s job.
C: Stupid questions are avoided.
D: I know what I’m doing and why.
8. Finish the statement: “Success is…”
A: Having more (not less).
B: Being willing to win.
C: Nothing to worry about.
D: One million hits on YouTube.
9. It’s important to tell the truth because:
A: There’s nothing to hide.
B. It might just work.
B: Unable to recall at this time.
C: No one’s really listening.
10. When you meet another person, best to:
A: Judge them fairly.
B: Keep a safe distance.
C: Baffle (if you can’t dazzle).
This test was inspired by the teachings on the Dignity of the Tiger, from the books Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Ruling Your World. I answered my test like this: D, C, B, A, A, B, D, C, A, D—a result I was satisfied with. Since I wrote the test, it wasn’t so hard. How did you do? How would you compose your own test? This spring, wishing you contentment in the ever-changing nature of the moment.
Scientific studies confirm: Meditation Helps. These studies track the impact of meditation on physical health and psychological distress. Because they use the scientific method and focus on empirical findings, they’re something (just about) everyone can agree on. This is one of the wonderful things about science.
The scientific benefits of meditation are increasingly well-documented. Here are a few of the headlines—the most striking benefits, from the most credible sources:
- Cuts cardiac patients’ heart attack and stroke risk nearly in half (by 47%) over five years (American Psychological Association, 2011)
- Reliably reduces reported psychological distress by 35% on average (UMass Medical School; Journal of Instructional Psychology, 2011)
- Leads to an average 28% savings on physician fees over five years among high-cost patients (American Journal of Health Promotion, 2011)
- Reshapes the brain: strengthens parts involved in emotion regulation, compassion, introspection; quiets parts involved in anxiety and stress (Harvard Medical School/Mass. General Hospital, 2011)
- Leads to clinically important reductions in depression and anxiety in patients with over a dozen mood disorders and chronic illnesses (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010)
- Treats insomnia as effectively as a prescription sedative (University of Minnesota, 2011)
- Leads to clinically significant (5 mm Hg on average) reductions in blood pressure (Medical College of Wisconsin, 2009)
Not science: the subjective benefits of meditation
Many of the benefits of meditation reside in the world of individual, subjective experience, which is harder to measure and categorize than the largely physical health outcomes listed above. The slow psychological changes that meditation can bring—”I don’t fly off the handle so easily,” “I’m quicker to notice and empathize with others’ pain,” “I feel ‘wiser’ and better attuned to reality,” ”I’m not so hard on myself”—are what makes meditation so special, and much more than another tool in the health-care arsenal.
Sort of science: tracking the subjective benefits of meditation
Whether or not they are verified by science, subjective experiences can be credible and intelligible to us, the people having them. Recording, tracking, and reviewing your own experiences is “sort of science.” As you practice meditation, look carefully at your psychological state and see how it changes over time. Try to understand how the whole thing works. Just like a scientist, except that your experience is measured personally, rather than empirically.
As you take and retake your own “meditation portrait,” a picture will develop of the ebbs and flows in your life, and meditation’s influence on them. If you collect enough convincing data this way, you might even tell some scientists—but in the meantime, you will notice the gradual but profound changes meditation can bring.