Practice Makes Perfect

Not too long ago, the New Yorker magazine reported on a study of successful start-up companies. What makes some new ventures take off, they asked, while others never seem to get anywhere? We could ask the same question of spiritual practitioners. Like entrepreneurs looking for a market, seekers seek to understand what the world is asking of them, and how by uncovering their own potential, they can offer something of themselves. Something that will meet a real need in their community, in their world.

Karmê Chöling is a residential retreat center just down the road from Samadhi Cushions. Last month, on a mostly sunny afternoon, Acharya John Rockwell presided over a humble graduation ceremony for Mukpo Institute. (Mukpo is Sakyong Mipham’s family name.) As part of this program, four students had joined the residential community for 3 months of intensive meditation practice and contemplative study. Their coursework included a month of sitting and walking meditation, much of it in silence. There were also classes in Qigong, Dharma Arts, the Way of Shambhala and more.

As part of the ceremony, graduates were asked to share their experience of the past three months. While the tone was often lighthearted, there was no doubt that these students, who bonded deeply as a result of practicing together, had done something meaningful. Their remarks, surprisingly articulate, were also heartfelt.

One student explained how in his 20’s, he had read a lot of books on meditation. During this period of study—over 10 years—he never actually sat on a meditation cushion. Without the discipline of facing himself in meditation, he said laughing, old habits prevailed, nothing changed in his life.  As a collector of many ideas, rather than a practitioner of one, the personal journey of meditation he read about remained a concept. In this retreat, concept had become reality. As a next step, he was planning to undertake a training that would enable him to introduce others to basics of meditation practice.

Another student made a similar observation. In the years leading up to this retreat, she had practiced on weekends and occasionally during the week. This introduction to meditation was a very important time, but it was only the beginning. In her view, the difference in the past three months (a difference that brought a profound sense of healing) was the commitment needed to meet the challenges of daily and often extended periods of meditation.

“Actually doing” mindfulness practice, she said—not just talking or thinking about it—was the basis for a new sense of wholeness and confidence. In the course of the three months, there had been a real shift in how this student experienced herself. She now felt ready to move into the next phase of her life: returning to a hometown and family left behind many years before.

In embarking on a journey of transformation, these students had taken a step beyond habitual patterns, concepts and comfort zones. As it turns out, according to the New Yorker piece, they also did something successful entrepreneurs do: having established some confidence in the legitimacy of their idea, they moved on to the next step—prototyping, trying out, testing what they thought they knew.

And the entrepreneurs who got nowhere? They remained stuck in the conceptual phase. In short, without actually trying it, they did something they had already done, reviewing and perfecting their idea. According to the experience of the Mukpo Institute Students, when spiritual seekers don’t embody what they hope to be through a contemplative discipline, there is very little real opportunity for success (or for that matter failure, which may be just as or even more important.) Nothing ventured, as they say, nothing gained.

Experienced and new meditators face the same challenges when it comes to “actually doing” meditation. But experienced practitioners know something that new meditators don’t: there is no perfect time and there is no perfect way to begin the practice of meditation. And, if you want to see what it is you have to offer the world (and what the world is offering you), a contemplative discipline that exposes you to yourself and the world, is essential for success.

In sitting meditation – learning to be, appreciating our experience as it is – we prototype, we imitate an enlightened person. But an awakened heart with a deep appreciation of others and ourselves is our nature, is who we are. (This insight begins too as an idea, an inkling.) By mimicking who we already are, we venture with real potential for success. Congratulations to the graduates of Mukpo Institute!

Editor’s Note: If you are looking for the right way to begin your practice, good luck. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa (uttered long before a shoe company co-opted them): Just do it.

 

The Greatest Teacher

It’s been a month of hard lessons.

We all long to tell the truth, to share what we know. But how? Sometimes really telling the truth requires a turn of phrase, similes, metaphors—a story.

My story begins like this: its been a month of hard lessons.

The hard part? A clot of blood in the lungs was hard, and painful and scary. Painful and scary is a blood clot story with a happy ending.

How is my wife doing? She is doing quite well, thank you. She feels pretty much “back to normal.” Yesterday morning she told our Granddaughter that those skinny jeans were just too tight and she had better change them “Now!” All this at 6AM in a countdown for a school bus. I took it as a good sign.

What’s next? More blood thinner, more tests.

Me? How am I? I don’t know. I’m rattled. The kind of rattled you get when you’re in your car alone, trailing an ambulance down the interstate at 3AM, wondering.

The kind of rattled you get when you are calling a stepdaughter on another continent—from a hospital cafeteria.

The kind of rattled you get when your “love” of 35 years threatens to vanish one ordinary Wednesday evening.

Near the end of his life, Suzuki Roshi yelled at his students. “Death is the Greatest Teacher,” he said, banging his staff on the floor.

I’m a wimp. Insecure with a thin skin. If death is teaching, you can find me at the back of the class fiddling with my iPod. But death, like life, is hard to ignore. A few lessons got through:

Trust your instincts. If you have a “funny feeling” – as a patient or a caregiver  respect it. Don’t ignore it. Life is a funny feeling. Your intuitions may be all you have.

Panicking doesn’t help. Move fast when you need to, otherwise slow down and appreciate what you’re doing. Don’t be hard on yourself. Amazingly, suffering (yours or hers) isn’t personal. Sure you’re afraid, but the uncertainty you are facing now was always there.  Don’t turn away. Be brave. It’s OK to cry.

Remember your meditation practice. If your mind is like a wild horse, follow Sakyong Mipham’s instructions. Lasso it and bring it back to the present. You know you can. In a crisis, “just being” is your meditation. It meets a definition of prayer: “The thing you do when there is nothing else you can do.” (Garrison Keillor).

Nothing to do but have to do something? Wherever you are, do tonglen (sending and taking) practice. Take in suffering on your in breath, give out any composure you have on the out breath. You are not alone in your pain. Others (too many to count) are going through this very thing, right now. Sending and taking will help you, maybe them too. Pema Chödrön can remind you how to do this.

 

Let help and support come. Ask for it when you need it. But don’t expect it. Some will “say what they truly feel in a clear expression” (Emily Post). Others can’t. You might be angry. Remember a definition of aggression from Chögyam Trungpa: demanding sympathy.

 

Say “Yes” to your new life. It never was “old,” you’re just noticing how new it always was. Now, on top of the fridge, instead of a bowl of fruit there is a box of syringes. Let it be there.

 

Question everything. Use the Internet. Educate yourself. Knowing a little more, you suffer a little less.

 

There is a realm too exhausting to describe. It’s called the Tired Realm. In this realm doing anything is hard. Sitting on your meditation cushion? Too late, should have done that earlier. When you can, leave this realm by the door marked “REST.”

 

Yes, you were wrong about so much. You thought that everything cared, that even the night sky at 3 am was somehow on your side. Did you want to think that forever? Feeling “wrong” now only points to your investment in feeling “right.” That must have been satisfying, in an exhausting kind of way. Why not relax?

 

If someone is in pain, ask them how they are doing and where it hurts, but not every 10 seconds. Let them share what they want to share. What you hear may end your future. If your future was in the habit of being your present, that may seem to go too. You will find it again.

 

 

My wife’s pulmonary embolism occurred on Wednesday evening, May 4th. (And yes, she is really much better.) Sorry if this a bit of a downer.

We Buddhists get a bad rap for dwelling on life’s shortcoming and these days I do find myself a little sober. But aren’t all good students a little sober? Note: I also hear the birds of spring in a new way and notice details long overlooked.

What is life then, if it’s not what we thought it was?

My grandmother once marveled at how quickly her 90 plus years had gone by. “Like the wink of an eye?” I asked.

“Exactly!” she replied, satisfied with the turn of phrase that might begin (or endwould it matter?) her story.

A story that could be true.

Editor’s Note: “As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space, an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning, view all created things like this.” Lord Buddha, The Diamond Sutra

When Suitcases Fly

IMG_0184As if by magic, the suitcase was flying through the air. Well, in my defense, it wasn’t a suitcase really, more of a carry-on bag. But it was definitely airborne. It flew through the open door, crossing the threshold of our house well off the ground and landing with a thud that startled our granddaughter who had just entered the mudroom.

Later, I would defend myself, saying that at least I didn’t throw the thing at anyone. It landed safely. No one was hurt. Suffice to say, none of these explanations meant much to my wife. A few steps behind me, she had recognized rage in the way the bag left my hand.

Ironically, (and painfully) this Sunday evening I was on my way home from a cheerful and pleasant weekend of teaching on Shamatha or Calm Abiding meditation. During the weekend, I had been the picture of calmness. After all, that was the subject matter. Walk the talk as they say.

Having been apart for over a week, my wife and I had many things to discuss on the ride home. I found all of the topics  stressful. As each one surfaced, I felt the weekend’s equanimity slipping away, replaced by anxiety. Every situation discussed seemed to hold limitless potential for suffering.

The contrast between the cool of the weekend and the heat of household issues was stark. Like a happy kid with a bag of cookies that had developed a hole in the bottom, I panicked. On heels of panic came rage. Rage was fuel for the flying suitcase.

“And you were teaching Calm Abiding?” my wife asked incredulously. “It doesn’t seem to have helped very much!” she added dismissively.  By now my meditative composure was gone. Other than to apologize, there was nothing I could say.

So, you might be wondering. Was I, the esteemed teacher, able to admit to myself that my Calm Abiding practice was a sham, the pretense of teaching it a charade and in general the whole exercise of a meditation weekend a deceptive waste of time—both for me as well as my hapless victims at the meditation center?

Well, yes and no. One thing about meditation practice, it is challenging. And as my friend David Schneider put it to me recently, the path of meditation includes, well, a feeling of failing. The moment of now is slippery. Our patterns are deep. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi—“a good meditator is not a good meditator.” Just like anything you do, if you think you are doing it right, well, you think you are doing it right. You are one step further away from actually doing it.

But still, I enjoyed real equanimity during the weekend. This calm filled a deep hunger in me and I cherished it. But it all vanished in the blink of a suitcase. Were my practice and path completely off-track? According to the meditative tradition, the answer to this last question is “No.”

In fact, the phenomena of flipping out when something or someone gets in your face and “just ruins” your meditative equipoise is one of the hallmarks of Shamatha or Calm Abiding meditation. Rather than being a failure, it displays one of the classic symptoms of a meditation practice focused only on the “chill factor.”

The Dalai Lama tells a traditional story to illustrate this point. A yogi (or yogini) is sitting perfectly in meditation posture. So perfect in fact that they remain motionless on their eco-friendly hemp zafu pillow for weeks and weeks. So blissful the meditation and so long the session, their hair grows several feet and begins to cascade around them. Taking advantage of the hospitable situation, a family of mice finds the hair and begins to set up house. Eventually, a warren of nesting vermin surrounds the practitioner.

At some point, all of this home building pries the meditator from the calm of equanimity. Their first experience is fear. Where they end and the mouse housing begins is unclear. Once the shock of this home invasion wears off, they are pissed—pissed that their blissful session had to end, pissed that it ended in such ignominy. In a flash of anger, their hard won meditative composure is gone.

According to the Buddhist tradition, cultivating mind’s inherently peaceful nature has a point beyond peace itself. The composure gained is used to practice contemplation or insight—investigating and understanding the truth. If we are honest, however, we have to admit that when it comes to insight, sometimes we just aren’t in the mood.

How we frame our meditation practice will determine what it will offer us. In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham encourages contemplation practice as a way of “turning the mind” developed in Shamatha from its focus on “me and my meditation” to the deeper questions of what is true about the nature of experience—ours and everyone’s. Wisely, Sakyong Mipham also encourages us to look honestly at our motivation for meditation practice.

Without the willingness to allow for insight in meditation, every circumstance, even a simple conversation, can present itself as a challenge to our composure.  We may begin to feel betrayed by life, reacting as if there were no alternative other than to fight to defend the dignity of our spiritual achievements.

If you lose your temper after a session or retreat, don’t be discouraged. You are in the great tradition of those who have explored the path of meditation. In “losing it,” your own restless intelligence may be telling you that, in facing life’s challenges, it is time to look more deeply, to go beyond the chill factor. Topics for exploration might include the impermanence of calm abiding and the workability of nesting mice. Cultivating honest insight into the truth of experience, perhaps we can offer each other something more than smooth sailing (and the occasional flying suitcase.)

Editor’s Note: Dear Michael, the newer carry-ons have wheels and can roll. This might satisfy your aspirations as a baggage handler while keeping suitcases somewhere closer to the ground (where they belong). Being pissed off and calmly abiding have something in common: they both involve the mind holding (in the case of anger, maybe more like biting) onto something. Contemplating emptiness, practitioners expose the mutually dependent nature of this relationship between subject and object, between baggage handler and the baggage—whatever it might be.

Starting Over

It’s been too long since we took the time

No-one’s to blame, I know time flies so quickly

But when I see you darling

It’s like we both are falling in love again

It’ll be just like starting over, starting over

—John Lennon (Starting Over)

The initial love affair with our sitting meditation practice is over. We can’t remember anymore why we do it. We began our practice with high hopes and enthusiasm. We imagined what life would be like with the “new” mind that our meditative discipline would bring us. But nothing has panned out in the way we wanted. The results of our practice, if we have any, are lost as soon as we leave the meditation cushion. While restless and longing for a change, we feel frozen and wary of false starts. Stuck, we lose heart.

Losing the composure we sought from meditation upsets us. We are also upset about being upset. In the beginning, we enjoyed the discipline of mindfulness. Now, it is a struggle. Subtly, we blame ourselves or the people around us. Something has been taken from us and we are bitter. We wonder about the legitimacy of the tradition in which we have trained.

In the beginning, meditation made us “different.” Through it, we managed to associate ourselves with a profound philosophy and inspiring teachers. Naturally, our expectations were high. At the same time, we saw our practice as something separate, prescriptive and foreign. Gripped by disappointment, our meditative discipline now appears as an imposition—somebody else’s out-of-date idea.

Giving up on finding the state of mind meditation should have brought us, we are desperate for distraction. The radio is on, a magazine article is half-read and our laptop is open to YouTube. On top of this, we are vaguely worried about tomorrow. Trapped and completely preoccupied, we press on in the painful effort to lose ourselves. We are worse off than before we began our sitting practice!Winnie_the_Pooh_meditation

Ironically, the unhappy preoccupation with distraction reveals something: meditation is not about right or wrong, mental improvement, or fixing the moment in which we find ourselves. It is a matter of balance. Obviously, life is struggle. But how we face the challenges that life offers is the question. Sometimes we need to act. Sometimes we need to slow down and just be. Staying with restlessness in sitting meditation, we take the time to see and meet ourselves in the moment—without improving on it.

There are many wise words when it comes to re-inspiring your meditation practice. At the end of the day, only one plan is surefire: Just Do It. The very moment you wonder if you can face yourself on your meditation cushion is the moment you realize you can. In reality, there is no other moment. Still you might tell yourself, “I’m hopeless. I used to know what sitting practice was about, now I’m not sure. What’s the point of working with my mind if my sessions are so discursive?”

Well, Time Out. There is no way to pick up your practice at the last best place you left off. The reason for this is simple. The last best place you left off and the place you hope to be are thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is about letting go of thoughts, especially thoughts of what was or might be. And another thing, if you are very aware of your own discursiveness in meditation, how is that a “bad” session? Do the math!

To be fair, because we are so easily discouraged, traditions tell encouraging stories of enlightenment and the progressive stages of meditation. These stories might be understood as promising a bright future for our practice. At the same time, whole-hearted meditation has no future. The good news is that the teachings on meditation point to the nature of our mind as it is now.

To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, encouragement is like medicine. In the beginning we need it, but at some point we have to relax, let go and trust ourselves. Because traditions offer support and encouragement, we might think that the teachers and teaching have made our state of mind their business. No authentic tradition would attempt such a thing. Your state of mind is your business. At some point, we take responsibility for our own state of mind. Mindfulness practice is the lonely discipline of doing just that.

Beginning a session of meditation, you bring along your experience and understanding. At the same time, each session begins fresh. Sakyong Mipham compares the journey of getting to your meditation pillow with getting undressed for bed. When we make the effort to sit down and practice mindfulness, we meet ourselves in a direct and naked way. This is both friendly and practical. Real relationships require an open, direct and fresh approach.  Is turning our back on openness toward ourselves even an option?

Alone in sitting practice after being away, we are afraid.  Maybe we will see just how little we know, just how vulnerable and lost we really are. Taking responsibility for our state of mind includes a willingness to be lost, but to not panic about it. Whether we think we are lost or not, we can continue to train and work with our mind, coming back to mindfulness of the sensation of breathing again and again. Because we are willing to return to the person we are, we can return to the breath in a gentle, light-handed way. We don’t have to struggle to change our experience of ourselves.

Interestingly, meeting our mind in the moment, letting go of how we imagine our meditation should be or should have been, we are training in kindness, training in love–for ourselves. Being with yourself as you are is the discipline of sitting meditation. It is something you can only start fresh, something just like starting over.

Editor’s Note: In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron highlights forgiving (both oneself and others) as a key to a fresh start. Forgive us Michael, but your discipline of sitting meditation is kind to your colleagues here at Samadhi Cushions as well. Please keep it up!

What Goes Around…

IMG_0086

Congratulations everyone. According to the lunar calendar, it is the beginning of a New Year. The fact that the earth turns and winds up where it left off is somehow reassuring. The fact that we have lived to see it is cause for celebration and reflection. The year was a journey. Where did it take us? Older now, our time and how we spend it can only be more important.

In Shambhala, to mark the start of the annual lunar cycle, we distribute a little soft cover calendar called a Practice Book. It is offered to anyone who shows up at a Shambhala Center during the celebration of what we call Shambhala Day. This year Shambhala Day initiates the year of the Iron Hare. It will be celebrated on Saturday, March 5th, 2011.

When Practice Books were first introduced in our community many years ago, I remember being less than thrilled. I can be lazy and forgetful. Why should I remember what happened yesterday, or even this morning? Why keep track of missed chances for meditation, especially when there are seemingly infinite moments to make up those missed sessions? Anyhow, it cramped my style. Sure, obstacles arise between me and my meditation cushion. Is struggling with discipline a failing? Is meditation something I “should” do, rather than something I want to do, when I want to do it?

Many Shambhala Days have gone by. Older, I recognize a reluctance to relax with the moment I’m experiencing now as the driver creating obstacles to sitting practice. I also might remember that there are only so many moments left. Discounting the one moment I have doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than feeling bad about my confusion, whenever it occurs, I make a point of slowing down, relaxing and appreciating my experience as it is: what I see, touch, hear, taste or smell and think—this very moment. After all, it is my present experience itself that I will work with on the meditation cushion, whenever I get there.

What has happened and what is happening now do give real hints as to how we will decide and experience what happens next. Reviewing past entries in my Practice Journal, patterns are revealed. I think to myself, “my goodness, I knew that month was busy, but no time to sit down for 10 days?” Another month, I see that Wednesdays, (the gap day between Monday and Friday perhaps?) show up as the day I finally find a moment to sit on my cushion in a given week.

In addition to daily sessions, group retreats are noted. There is freedom in retreat, but it is a freedom that comes from relaxing without recourse to any other moment. While the intensity of a retreat schedule can be challenging at times, retreats offer clarity in which to take an unvarnished look at experience, mind and life. This year, the retreats I did felt good and real—without much drama.

Of course, I do have dramas and these are documented in my practice book as well. Sometimes a thought won’t leave me alone. Upon reflection, it isn’t the same thought that returns over and over, but what the thought is thinking about presents itself as solid and continuous. This last is something that can’t be said about real things, which seem always to be winding up or winding down.

The pages of a Practice Book are small, so if you’re recording dramas it helps to be pithy. Last December, instead of meditation sessions, some days note the brand names of cars. December 30th shows “Buick,” the 31st shows “Toyota.” I am fixed on the idea of a new car. It’s a long story, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that the reason I’m looking for a different car is mostly because I can. With this freedom, I am free to imagine that the right car will actually take me to a new place in my life, somewhere other than the place I am now. This drama returns over and over.

When this Car-ma hits me, I might dream of models and options, or maybe think of financing, then Quantitative Easing, the Fed’s policy of buying back Treasury Securities; which could drive inflation, which might spike interest rates, suggesting time to borrow, especially if you can lock in a low rate on your new vehicle. Where were we? Oh, yes, Practice Books.

Year after year, thoughts grab the wheel of something they have only imagined. Slowing down and just being in sitting meditation, we see that restless thoughts don’t grab the thing itself—only the idea of the thing. My dream car will never arrive; as a result, it will never take me anywhere.

Needless to say, we have to think about our life and consider the decisions we face. Thoughts aren’t just taxi rides to nowhere. They can wake us up. But to recover from sickness we need to appreciate our underlying health. In the same way, successfully imagining a future moment depends upon seeing the power and potential in the moment we have now. Restless recurring thoughts, however—whether positive or negative—are fixed upon something that doesn’t exist—a moment divorced from this one. They mesmerize us with the promise of a rescue or the threat of a kidnapping. We follow these thoughts, fully expecting to wind up somewhere very different than where we are.

Chasing or chased, whether a dream or a nightmare, thoughts of another moment eventually abandon us in the same place—by the side of a lonely highway, in the dark, in our underwear, disoriented and robbed of our time. Year after year, again and again, wearing out the tread on our tires, they drag us along for a ride to nowhere.

Looking at my  obsession even more closely, there is a deeper truth. It is not so much that I am addicted to the thought of a new car. If you look for them, you can’t even find the thoughts you’re supposed to be attached to. Really, my attachment is to attachment itself. In the language of meditation—a habitual pattern. It goes around.

Sitting in meditation is a journey, but a straightforward one. Meditation works is because it doesn’t have to address new cars or whatever the recurring drama. These preoccupations reflect habits. They pretend to be connected to something, but they are not. Going around and around, like a dog biting its own tail, my desire connects only with itself.

Gently bringing our attention back again and again to the sensation of the breath, we discover a straight path in this present moment, and we do the work of being it (not driving it!) one moment at a time. This journey takes place now. But our past was now once, and the future will be our now someday. Reviewing the entries in our Practice Journal, we review the past and acknowledge the future. The culture of meditation doesn’t discount the importance of the past or future. How could it? Nowness connects them.

If you are like me, you remember well the little work you’ve done and have forgotten all of the work you’ve managed to avoid. My Practice Book tells me when I have been working with my experience in the direct way that is sitting meditation and when, in contrast, my thoughts have been driving me—usually in circles.

Things that go around and around can make ruts.  The circle your car will make is called a turning radius, a specification that tells you, once you’ve set out, how far you go before returning to the same place. Even if we are lost, there is something reassuring about returning to a familiar spot. Of course, it isn’t that nothing has changed—now there is a little less gas in our tank.

Wishing you a very Happy, New and straightforward Year.

Editor’s Note:  Practice Books are available here at Samadhi Store. The page for each month is headed up with a quote about the path of meditation from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Lunar phases, Buddhist holidays and other traditional days of practice and celebration are also noted. BTW, isn’t an Iron Hare what goes around and around the track at a dog race?

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 :-).

Salt Minding

IMG_14311-225x300A Study

The other day, I had a chat with my friend Amos, a doctor. He told me about a study looking at salt in the diet. Excess sodium in our food has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease among other debilitations.

Habitually reaching for the saltshaker, or for potato chips instead of carrots, we make a potentially life changing, if not life-threatening decision.

In the practice of mindfulness meditation we settle our mind by bringing our awareness to the cycle of breathing. Being with ourselves, we arrive face to face with the habits that drive us. Some we acknowledge as our own, some routines seem borrowed from elsewhere, from parents or perhaps colleagues.

The first stage of sitting meditation practice is an almost scientific inquiry. What have we been doing? What have we been thinking, feeling? How are our feelings habitually experienced, expressed? Like the salt in a saltshaker, how do our thoughts get out, onto and then into our life?

Flavor’s Provenance

One day the chill in the air heralding the fall season suggests new beginnings, the next day the thought of summer ending leaves us cold. Does life have a taste of its own, before our reaction to it? What is that taste? How does life taste—now?

Habitually, we might feel the temperature, think about it, reach for a sweater, think again, comment on the chill, move, feel something else and think again. All of this happens seamlessly, almost unconsciously. There is a sense that we need to manage our experience, like a smoky campfire threatening to go out.

Settled on our meditation cushion, we notice this mental busyness, this speed and momentum. The pace of life has shaken up our thoughts and feelings. But what about the impact our thoughts and feelings have on the world as we experience it? Which came first—the world or our feeling about it?

What’s On the Menu?

Like habitually following thoughts, meditation is something we do. It is proactive; it is engaged. When the mind wanders from the sensation of breathing, we gently bring it back. When a thought happens (“peanut butter—salted”) and the body starts to move (toward the fridge), we let go of the thought, gently coming back to the sensation of our body breathing. A familiar thought might trigger a familiar emotion and a pattern is revealed.

In the process of slowing down in meditation, natural clarity dawns. Initially in sitting practice, we might be startled by the sheer volume, intensity and speed of our thoughts. Up until now, we had associated intensity with our experience of life’s ongoing challenges. Quietly alone on our meditation cushion, a question emerges: how much of life’s flavor comes from our thoughts and feelings about it? The idea of ourselves as a free and distant agent, managing and sampling life’s menu, is exposed as a myth. We also begin to notice a kind of continuity to our experience—whether salty or sweet.

Chef’s Surprise

In the openness allowed by sitting meditation, we discover a white-knuckle grip on the handlebars of life. There is tension, tightness, as we move from moment to moment. Every experience is judged as helpful, challenging or irrelevant. Saddled with the imposition of our commentary “this is good” or “needs work,” we are left with a sense of struggle and anxiety–as if the job each moment was to consume our experience, correcting the seasoning as we go.

Unaware of the intensity of this struggle, our own energy returns to confront us as a challenge. Preoccupied with our agenda, we miss life’s messages–subtle shifts in flavor are overlooked. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, life serves up a surprise.

All of sudden, an acquaintance is seductive; the presumed answer we were waiting for never arrives, shocking us; others’ mistakes besiege us or life works only to undermine a sense of ease. We may find ourselves inexplicably alone and underappreciated.

Clearly, things happen in life that can’t be anticipated. In the dramas initiated by our habitual patterns however, we quickly find our own feelings and reactions at center stage. Having ignored our friend, why our how he or she became so beguiling remains a mystery. Our reaction to the sudden attractiveness is what stuns us, leaving us dazed and confused. We feel helpless in the face of our own feelings and impulses which we witness as private, overwhelming, inevitable and out of our control. There is a sense of familiarity, we have been through this all before, we’re just not sure where or when.

Looking for the Shaker

In sitting meditation we make time to slow down and examine the recurring habits that color our relationship with ourselves and our world. Seeing our thoughts clearly for the first time, we also see the subtle actions that follow from our thoughts and how they flavor and vivify life. The security of the status quo is challenged; nothing is “just who we are.” Everything we do is a decision, every thought we follow an action, a shake of the shaker.

If thoughts are a reaction to an external reality, how do we understand upheavals experienced when we are alone with nothing but our own thoughts reacting to themselves? If we can conjure reality and suffer or enjoy it by ourselves, when does our conjuring end and “real reality” begin?

Meditation is radical. It sets in motion an inquiry that has no immediate answer. Where does our experience come from? What part is from “us” —what part from “them”? Experience recognizes the poles of  “me” and “my world.” Our attention is always moving. Sometimes we are concerned with the “me” part, sometimes with the “my world” part. But who exactly makes that journey between these two?

Life has a taste, only we can say if it’s sweet or salty. How did it get that way? Who holds the saltshaker that seasons our life? Who selects the quality of the seasoning? What tastes are we after and why?

Seeing the Hole

It is common for practitioners of meditation to report on how helpful the practice is to their life and work. With mindfulness, what challenged us before now comes easily. Our workday flows. Efficiency and effectiveness are increased. We feel less stressed. We are present for others, including of course, those we care about.

This is logical, empirical. Once upon a time a reaction made sense, it was in response to the reality of the situation at hand. But how could that response be accurate today, the 100th time we enact it? Once perhaps our body craved salt and we added it to an otherwise bland dish. But today we forget to taste our food before we salt it. We prefer the security of a false understanding—that we already know what our experience has served up and what is needed to make it right. In contrast, living moment by moment, we admit what we don’t know. Life presents itself as something larger that the world dictated by our appetites.

Oh, and the outcome of the study? According to my friend Amos, the key factor influencing the amount of salt in our diet wasn’t found to be knowledge of the risks, geographic region, or demographics. They all came in second. The number one factor: the size of the holes in our saltshaker.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noticed that Michael’s blogs often revolve around food? He should probably check out this book on Mindful Eating.  Anyhow, the next thing you know they’ll be saying you can cut calories by eating on smaller dishes (actually it may help.) Each day we enact rituals. What we actually do and how we do it turns out to make a difference. Meditation invites a look at our home and the ordinary articles of life. You’ll sit when you get home. How will you do it? A meditation cushion (or a meditation bench) invites you to sit with dignity. Have you hugged your Zafu today?


My Avoiding Sitting Meditation Journal

IMG_0018Tuesday: I’m too tired. I really am. Yes, I got plenty of sleep. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps a bug, perhaps allergies, low blood sugar or something more serious. Need protein. Need to conserve my energy. Meditation means sitting up, unkind at this point.

Friday PM: New Yorker Magazine. Spent 1½ hours learning about the drug trade. Addiction is so terrible, a destructive thing pretending to be good for us. I have compassion for those people, I really do. New restaurant in mid-town. Read too late, no time to sit.

Saturday Morning: Sensitive to signs from the world, read the signs today. The signs said “not a meditation day today.”  New sign at Anthony’s Diner, Ham and Eggs–$5.99.

Sunday: Sitting Meditation is something I should do, like eat less carbs. Where is the time? Maybe I should look at my schedule. Everyone should be as open about the things they should do.

Later on Sunday: Some people need meditation. I say let them meditate. They’re better for it, so who’s to argue? Keeps them off the street. Will call B. after his retreat. Treat him to lunch.

Thursday: Had a thought today: I’m not the same person when I’m hungry. This really stuck with me. Feels good to have a thought that really sticks around. I mean this is a realization. Finally. Doubt my practice can handle this new focus.

Saturday: first the garbage. Then called the plumber (toilet stopped up, embarrassing).  Ordered a new cookbook from Amazon (sorry Samadhi Store). Should really do some dishes. Noon already! Starved. Huevos Rancheros.

Saturday Afternoon: Pissed off. No one offers what is needed. No one knows how to nurture. Everyone withholds. Too upsetting. It’s all I can do not to throw this old cookbook out the window. Sitting? You’d have to tie me down.

Sunday: Moody again. Way too moody. Low blood sugar or something my wife said. Or something she didn’t say, I can’t remember. Where is the support? Lost my appetite. Can’t sit on an empty stomach.

Monday: Must prioritize. Work comes first. Money is a necessity, meditation a luxury. Need to put food on the table. Into simplicity. Not into sitting around on cushions, a luxury.

Tuesday: Up early. Got too simple, no milk for tea. A bad sign. Painful. Can’t sit when I’m like this.

Saturday: Ducked out the door as  my teacher passed through the hallway at Karmê Chöling today. What a relief! Not ready to account for my sitting practice. Not really looking my best either. Missed the tea snack.

Sunday Paper. World going to hell in a hand basket.  “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” (B. Dylan) Not going to live a lie—pretending to be someone I’m not: a western knock off of an eastern tradition—a taco sushi. No appetite for practice.

Sunday Morning: Need to blog. Need to think of others. Been too focused on me lately. Have I grown in my practice? Speaking of growth, checked myself on the scale: news not good.

Sunday PM: Meditation is like following a recipe. Without the right ingredients, it just won’t work. For instance, you have to like yourself. How can you like yourself if you don’t? Today I don’t like myself.

Monday: Up Early Again. Beautiful morning. Humidity gone. Sunshine. Good mood. Just said “No” to meditation. Felt good. Liberating. I’m OK. Is there something I lack? Maybe. Ham and Eggs anyone?

Editor’s Note: Thoughts are like food. Meditation is the discipline of diet, where you can learn to let go of the habit to have and to hold (and to chew and swallow.) Your meditation cushion should be comfortable, but sitting meditation won’t always be eggs over easy. It takes guts, but not the kind that Michael’s apparently working on. Maybe he should check out our selection of  vegetarian cookbooks.

Ten Ways to Support Your Meditation Practice

1. Lighten Up. Meditation is making roomlighten-up to be kind to yourself (and by extension to others).  Sure, in this economy it’s good to have extra work, but being hard on yourself is a job you can afford to quit.  Just “let it be” a little.  It’s simple: breathe, look, listen.  It’s a long story.  Let it go.

2. Tell the Truth.  In sitting meditation you face facts (other things too).  Scheming doesn’t help; you’re only fooling yourself.  Choose your words, but say how you feel.  Don’t defend your point of view, just express it.

3. Sweat the Details.  Meditation is paying attention.  Life is only moment by moment.  Breath by breath. If you are sensitive to the details of life, they become sensitive to you.  Tidy up.  Dress nicely.  Speak well.  Keep your dignity. When you are here, you find what you need.

4. Give (Intelligently). If there’s a knock at the door, open it. Given enough? More could be needed.  Offer what you have, not what you don’t.  When you give, life gets easier.  Life is giving. Meditation moves with the flow of life.  Sooner or later, this body of yours will be somebody’s breakfast.  Don’t expect anything.

5. Prioritize.  You do already, just do it consciously.  Look back.  Look ahead.  How have you spent the last five years, the last five minutes?  How do you want to spend the next five (if you have them)? Time is ticking, acknowledge it.  Understand time.  Hint: meditation happens now.

6. Simplify.  Say “no” to the next bright idea, the next invitation.  In sitting meditation, we let thoughts come, then we let them go.  If you’re not the President, why do you need his schedule?  Make time for rest, for work and relationships, but learn to say “no thank you.”  An open morning or weekend isn’t a failure, it’s an accomplishment.

7. Find Company.  Meditation is making friends with yourself.  It matters who you hang with.  A date with Tony Soprano could be interesting, but it might not end well.  Choose the examples in your life.  Emulate who you admire.  Study the words of wise people.  We all have grudges, but they make poor friends.  Don’t let them drive the bus.

8. Suffer (a bit). Life hurts and is a mess.  You can change it, but you can’t fix it.  Don’t be afraid to feel your own heart.  Don’t be afraid to lose.  Recognize pride.  Don’t be a stranger to yourself.  You will be hurt; it’s not a punishment.  It means you’re human.  Meditation doesn’t fix suffering, it explores it.

9. Get Physical.  You need a body to practice meditation.  Have a physical discipline that gets you outdoors.  Breathe, see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.  Garden, run, do Tai Chi.  Sweat.  Relax and enjoy your world.  Don’t push your body like a mule.  Eat well, enjoy your bath and your bed.

10. Make Room.  Create a time and a place for meditation.  Leave your meditation cushion (or bench or chair) where you can see them.  Let them talk to you.  Your home is your castle: arrange your kingdom.  Be your own monarch.

Editor’s Note: And then do it. As Michael’s list suggests, meditation isn’t the “icing on the cake”.  Meditation is the cake. It’s at the center of a culture that supports a meaningful life.  Since we all have a mind, meditation is also what we do anyway. (If you wonder where your mind is, it’s where you last left it.)

If you need meditation instruction, get it. If you need a meditation cushion, find it.  Don’t wait for everything to be “right” before you sit down to practice, it never will be.