Coffee to Compost

The eye altering, alters all. -- William Blake
The eye altering, alters all. -- William Blake

Last Saturday morning was busy with a long list of errands. First stop was the Farmer’s Market to visit a booth selling compost supplies. We needed a new filter for the compost bucket that sits on the kitchen counter.

As I drove to St. Johnsbury along the empty interstate, I remembered something my friend Mary Anne had mentioned to me recently.  “It seems like the farmer’s market has really grown,” she was saying, “there are more booths, new sights and smells, fresh coffee, food cooking…”

The simplicity of Mary Anne’s comment must have stayed with me. Pulling into the parking lot, I had to reflect that with my list of “to do’s” and the focus on my errand, there was a good chance that once I made it to the market, I wouldn’t notice any of the new booths or smell the coffee brewing.

To be honest, a visit to the farmer’s market makes me anxious. Samadhi Cushions is in a neighborhood of small towns. The likelihood of seeing someone you know at the market is high. In these situations, unless it is a good friend, I’m generally at a loss for words. How will I gracefully initiate, develop and wind-up one of these encounters, I always wonder? On top of that, my errand lists never includes unscheduled conversation with acquaintances, adding time pressure to the anxiety of chance encounters.

The Point of Practice
“Isn’t this is what your meditation practice is supposed to help you with – smelling the coffee at the farmer’s market?” Had my (on again off again, it must be said) sitting meditation practice somehow disconnected itself from the day to day? Having embarked on the journey of meditation, had I concluded that meditation was somehow more meaningful than the mundane details of life? It’s ironic of course. The point of mindfulness meditation is to be mindful of what’s happening. As a general rule, the senses (smell and the other four) are what’s happening, along with our mental commentary and subconscious gossip, of course. Getting out of the car, I resolved to smell the coffee Mary Anne had talked about.

If from time to time, your meditation practice encourages a retreat from the world of the senses, then you may, like me, find yourself rushing through the slices of life that occur between meditation sessions. The pretext — maybe these details are insignificant to the grand scheme of things. Of course, half of life is only the sum total of many sensory details. Ignoring them is a likely indication that we are alienated from our own ordinary experience. Since the philosophy of meditation teaches us about the primacy of mind, we find ourselves wary of the senses and their messages for us.

Culture Sense
In traditional Buddhist literature, sense experience is referred to as a “realm.” In effect, fully explored, each sense (seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching, feeling) is understood as its own world. In today’s speed driven culture, we seem to have lost much of our connection with the depth and magic of our basic sense experience.

Traditionally, it was the role of culture to teach how to engage and appreciate sense experience. In France, my wife’s country of origin, teenagers are encouraged to have opinions about the quality of wine and character of cheese. In a simple stroll through our nearby forests, old-time Vermonters can tell you so much about its history, flora and fauna. These are refinements to the senses taught to us by our parents and grandparents.  The sense experience is refined by paying attention to the details of what we experience.

A Matter of Relationship
To pay attention, you need to hear from someone that sense experience is trust-worthy, meaningful and merits appreciation. This doesn’t seem to be a big spiritual question; it is simply a matter of connecting with one’s experience of life. Wisdom comes later. It is insight or penetration into the depth of that experience. Without the experience, however, the question of wisdom is moot.

I appreciated Mary Anne’s remark because it reminded me that there is merit in meeting one’s experience directly. Our basic experience is good –smells can be appreciated, we can marvel at sights and sounds. When you really experience senses directly, it is always new and surprising. This is a subtle point. The experience of the senses can’t be explained mechanistically. How we relate (with appreciation or distrust, for example) changes our experience of the senses. Also, there is no viable argument that puts sense objects as somehow there for us. The smell of coffee may be enjoyed, that of compost less so.  It seems more accurate to say that our sense experiences and us are there for each other. It is a matter of relationship. Also, how we “see” things, experience them, seems to be largely a matter of habit.

The Ground of Meditation
As for meditation practice, it is paying attention to the details of experience, before judgment. For another thing, you have to do it. Talking alone doesn’t help. Since we are in the habit of overlooking the details, consistent meditation is needed to develop the strength of habit to pay attention.

Beyond that, when you sit down on your Zafu (or Meditation Bench) and Zabuton Mat, the first step is just to relax.  Feel the weight of your body on the meditation cushion. Acknowledge your meditation room by noticing it. Is it cluttered? Clean? What are the colors and textures? Hear the sounds, both near and distant. Feel the sensation of the body as it breaths. The ground of taming the mind in meditation is a willingness, courage really, to be with our experience as it is  — now. This experience includes the five senses. Initially, it is by making friends with the basic constituents of experience that the practice of meditation begins to develop and deepen.

Market Shifts
In slowing down, the meditator begins to appreciate that everything — senses, thoughts, feelings, are continually shifting. They are all fluid and fleeting. In a way, there really is no such thing as a “farmer’s market” – just a wave of smells, sounds, sensations, at a time and place. All of which we label with the thought “market” – which is associated with other thoughts, like the memories of chance encounters. Captured by these thoughts, we find ourselves anticipating life – instead of living it. Unable to relax with ourselves, we are unclear about the details, unsure about life and its messages.

At the same time, from the perspective of meditation, it is because things don’t really hold together that they can appear to our senses in infinite detail, color and variety. Meditation does bring some distance from the “idea” of a farmer’s market, but this distance is based on appreciation of the details of the market, rather than anxious or happy preoccupations that result from our momentary capture by thoughts.

Not Sure
Once I got there, as Mary Anne predicted, the market was buzzing. The morning sun was out after many days of rain. There was warm breeze. There did seem to be a few more stalls than before. I ran in to a couple of acquaintances. It wasn’t so hard really. Some smiles, handshakes and shared appreciation for the day. We all seemed perfectly happy to see each other.

Driving home (without a filter for the compost bucket – “try online”), I felt grateful to Mary Anne and her simple observation.  Then I remembered. Had I smelled coffee? I wasn’t sure.

Editor’s Note:  Mr. Greenleaf has mentioned a Zafu and Zabuton as well as a bench for meditation. Our most popular meditation bench is the kneeling bench. Of course, you can also practice meditation in a chair (see the article on meditation posture). Burning incense and sounding gongs bring basic sense experience into the practice of meditation, leaving us ready to wake up and smell the coffee.

It’s About You

Editors Note: A key aspect of a successful meditation practice is a view or orientation. To this end, some study of meditation is important. At Samadhi Cushions, we recommend books and media from fellow practitioners of meditation as an essential companion to the actual practice of sitting on your meditation cushion or kneeling bench.

Chapter 14 in Sakyong Mipham’s book Ruling Your World is called The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others. It is a thoughtful contemplation on the personal transition toward serving others. In any event, without consistently refreshing one’s understanding, meditation can go astray, as Michael seems to demonstrate in his post.

Is that you in the mirror?
Is that you in the mirror?

It’s Not About Me

As  you’ll see, this is not really about me.  It’s about you.  I have something to share with you.  But we have to start with me.  It will be clear why. Why me? Well, for one thing, I’ve been thinking about me  —  I mean a lot.  And I think this thinking has paid off.  Finally! It’s good to think about yourself.  I mean it takes courage.  It takes letting go.  I don’t know if you know, but it’s a tricky subject – oneself.

I mean, if you look in the mirror, is that you in the mirror? Well, obviously not.  It’s just a reflection. But what if you don’t like what you see? Now you’re on to something. That’s where my meditation comes in. I get to work on what I don’t like about myself.  Anyhow, to do this, what I’ve discovered is that I need encouragement – a lot of it really. I wanted to share that with you.  I thought it would be important for you to know about me.

The Art of Listening

Excuse me, I haven’t finished.  So, where was I? Oh yes, I have a lot to offer, a lot going for me, which is obvious, but I wanted to say it. It’s important to love oneself. This is something that meditation teaches you. I have so much I could give. I see people,  successful people, and they seem happy. Why? I say to myself. Because they are giving. They have found a way to give and it makes them happy.

And then I think, what is keeping me from giving, keeping me from realizing my potential?  What I realized is that I wasn’t thinking of myself. An example? Well, you, I mean I guess, us, for example. When I looked at it, I realized that I was always listening to you. Why? Well, I think it was because you were always talking, but I’m not sure. In any case, that’s the wrong place to start, don’t you think? I should start by listening to me. You, of all people, should be able to understand that.

The Irony

People talk because they want something. Have you noticed? They want to be heard. Are you listening? People take energy, and that was another thing I realized, I need to watch my energy. I can’t be giving, giving, giving all the time. It’s not good for me.

The irony is that people think it’s about them. Which of course it’s not. But how can you tell them? Because of that internal focus, there is so much that people don’t see. Like what? Like the work I’m doing on myself, for example. It’s hard work and no one notices.  As a result, they miss what I have to offer. Which is a lot. You know, you might be one of those people.

Meditation Space

What I’ve learned through my work is that to give and be happy you need to be in the right space – a helpful space. My meditation is a big part of that. I work hard at it, like I said. Mind you, I still have thoughts and some feelings that keep coming back. Which drives me crazy. Why? Because they hurt. They are painful. It’s not the “me” I want to be. But with effort you can control those feelings. Gradually, I think, I’m becoming calmer and much clearer. I see what I need for myself, for example. I could never see that before.

What does meditation do? My meditation gives me space. When I sit on my meditation cushion I feel good. But, to be honest, and that’s something meditation is helping me with – being honest – anyhow to be honest, I need support. How? Well, when I see you after my meditation, you don’t look happy. And this bothers me. Why can’t you be happy? Just once! When you’re not happy it ruins it for me. It really does.

The Secret of Happiness

But there, we got off the topic. But not really, that was the other thing I wanted to say.

What I mean to say is, I love you, and I care for you. I do. But I’m worried. I’m worried about you, about how you relate. For one thing, I don’t know how to say this any other way – and don’t take it personally – but you are a bit self-involved. Being like that is going to lead to unhappiness. That’s what meditation teaches you.

There, I said it. Like I said, my meditation practice has given me the courage to tell the truth, to actually say what I think and feel. I can’t tell you, this is so liberating for me. I don’t actually feel like the same person. I’m a new person, in a way. And I’ve realized that it’s not really about me. It’s about you.

Being Helpful

And I would like to help you. I really feel I can. I want to help you change. It will be hard, it will take work, but I think if we do it together, we can accomplish it.  Yes, I told you, I do love you. But I know you could be better, you could be more you. How? Well for one thing, you could be more helpful. Think of others. Like me.

Cheerful New Year

Shrine Room Ikebana
Shrine Room Ikebana

Last Wednesday the 25th of February was a new moon day. It was also the day that the Samadhi Cushions staff celebrated the lunar New Year. Losar in Tibetan, this is called Shambhala Day in our community and it is how we mark the beginning of New Year.

For some of us, the day included practice of Sakyong Mipham’s Birthday Sadhana – a beautiful contemplation on the preciousness and fragility of this life as well as the meaningfulness of our actions and their effects.

We celebrated the day at Karmê Chöling, the affiliated retreat center nearby. The highlight of the day was a festive lunch offered by the retreat center for staff and visitors. The retreat center was in full splendor with a beautiful shrine, fresh Ikebana, as well as the annual reading of I-Ching. The day was capped with a “Shambhala Ball.” Which included a procession of some of the community leadership. Upon entrance to the ball, each leader was asked a question related to meditation practice – with the rest of the community looking and listening attentively.

The 10 days leading up to the lunar New Year are understood to be fraught with the possibility of the ripening of negative potential – both internally and environmentally. The distressing news on the economy in the last few weeks certainly hasn’t undermined this view. On this day we renew our aspiration to be of benefit to others and to relax the reflexes of self-concern. This seems especially difficult to do in these times, which challenge our presumptions of security and stability. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that somehow exerting ourselves on behalf of others – following the path of the Bodhisattva – is the only way forward both for us and our fellow citizens on earth. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama – if you want to be happy, think of others.

This year is the year of the Earth Ox and is said to signify new beginnings. Endurance, however will be necessary and steadiness is needed. Especially in this year, the choices we make will have a long-term impact. These choices should be good. To the extent that our actions reflect an understanding of underlying realities, they will yield positive results. This is a year to “go with the flow.”

In my experience, the best way to do that is grounded in the practice of meditation. Sitting on our meditation cushions and practicing mindfulness slows us down, allowing for the possibility of recognizing the flow while at the same time realizing that we have the personal strength and flexibility to let go when we need to. Happy and cheerful New Year. The very best of “the flow” to you in the year ahead.

Anywhere But Here

Sweat seems to have broken out on your upper lip, even though the late afternoon temperature is cool. You have a knot in your stomach and a searing pain in your left shoulder with no idea why. The polished wood floor seems to be moving up toward you, and the room, though large, feels small and cramped. You don’t remember the name of the person on your right, even though it seems you’ve been in the room with them forever. In any case, they haven’t moved in so long, you’re beginning to think they’re asleep — or worse. Crazy wild thoughts and emotions surge through your head and as they do, tears well up. Your hosts seemed nice enough at first, but now they appear menacing and militant. You’ve come to the conclusion that your survival depends on not moving or fidgeting at all, and in the back of your head a plan of escape is forming. Based on a simple deception, it will begin with the pretext of a trip to the bathroom and end — with any luck — at your abandoned car in a parking lot at dusk. If the plan works, you should be able to escape without detection.

A recurring dream about being kidnapped by drug lords? A never-ending holiday meal at your in-laws?

No. Welcome to Day Three of your first mindfulness meditation retreat. You have 7 days to go and you are beginning to realize something you didn’t really know before — meditation takes guts. At the same time, a question is beginning to dawn. Either intensive meditation practice is a recipe for insanity, or — and this is even more disturbing — your thoughts are in the habit of strutting around in your head like inmates at a madhouse. Apparently, it is only your frenetic habits and schedule that has kept you unaware of the state of things.

This last question begins to sow a seed of doubt. You had always treated your experience more or less objectively. You are here, your experience is there. Good happens, bad happens. You react accordingly. Day three raises the question: What if things don’t work like that?

Day Three is full of physical pain, mental suffering, and bewilderment — and a hint of terror. Your experience, however, comes directly up against a dawning realization: in the midst of the personal drama – NOTHING IS HAPPENING. You are sitting up straight in a quiet room on a meditation cushion. You can feel your breath going in and out. A gong rings now and then to signal walking meditation, mealtime or bedtime. By most measures, the retreat center feels secure and inviting. Only the sense of quiet, the many hours of sitting still, and the absence of familiar distractions and preoccupations are foreign.

Maybe I’ve exaggerated a bit, but this scenario represents a crucial moment in the life of a meditator. Eventually, the obvious benefits of regular meditation, both mental and physical, may draw you to explore intensive practice. It is in the intensity of retreat that habitual patterns of thinking and feeling are fully exposed. These insights aren’t exclusive to the practice of meditation. Endeavors that intensely engage our body and mind make us to notice how we get in the way of our own aspirations.

The mirror on our experience in a mindfulness retreat, however, reflects not only dysfunctional aspects of our relationship with our experience and ourselves, it also highlights the inspirations behind our never-ending strategies for coping with this confusion. Without familiar distractions and comforts, what we notice is a sense of speed. We are always pushing. Always reaching for a solution, a fix. While clearly helpful, short daily or occasional meditation practice can sometimes suffer from this habit of always attempting to patch over — fix-up — our experience in some way.

On retreat, the push behind these efforts to manage experience is exposed and exhausted. We consider for the first time that we could just be, simply, nakedly — without the promise of a “next thing.”  We find ourselves suspended in space. It is scary, but at the same time, strangely familiar. As we slow down, our senses are sharpened and details reveal themselves. Thoughts buzz, but plainly out of step with the simplicity of experience; they lose their power over us. We notice our reaction to situations, but it is becoming harder to say which came first — our experience or how we feel about it.  We begin to see that our habit of constant movement toward or away from situations and experience doesn’t help. We become inspired to sit still.

Looking at the thought of escape on Day Three inspires a frank conversation with ourselves:

“OK, we get to the car, then what?”

“We ride.”

“Where do we go?”

“Well, for starters a burger would be nice. You need protein.”

“A hamburger?! After all we’ve been through together, all you can think about is a hamburger?!”

“Well, I’m not really into tofu. Anyway, I said for starters.”

“And after the protein?”

“We ride.”

“Where?”

“You need rest. You haven’t been sleeping well. Somewhere where you can rest. You should sleep.”

“Sleep? I’ve been getting plenty of sleep. And all I’ve been doing is sitting here. Where – where do you want to go?”

“Doesn’t matter really. Anywhere.”

“Anywhere?”

“Anywhere but here.”

This last admission makes you sit up on your Zafu cushion with a start. “Anywhere but here?” Something about the tone of the voice. This is how you’ve been talking to yourself? For how long? You become curious, suspicious even. Who are you, really? What are you about? Hamburgers? You readjust your posture and settle onto your meditation cushion, resolving not to move.

Strangely, the pain in your shoulder has vanished. You feel relaxed and good. The colors and shapes in the meditation room have become clear and bright. The timekeeper’s face seems soft and kind, no longer menacing. Outside, a light snow has begun to fall. Through the window, you can see the late afternoon sunlight catching the tops of the branches on bare trees, giving them a pinkish glow. In the distance, a swath of whitish blue sky is visible, the edge of a cloud bank lit by evening sun.

Suddenly, the beauty of it all takes your breath away. Next to you, the head of the unmoving person has begun to nod. You hear the unmistakable sound of a gentle snore. They’re not dead; you think to yourself, they’re just asleep. From the kitchen comes the smell of dinner and your stomach grumbles. You’re hungry. The smell is familiar, miso soup — most likely with tofu. You smile.  For the first time, in a long time, you’re not going anywhere — and it’s fine.

You’re just here.  Welcome.

Editor’s note:

At Samadhi Cushions, we emphasize that meditation should be comfortable. We make and sell meditation cushions and benches with dedication to the idea that the posture of meditation doesn’t have to be torture.  To be honest, our inspiration goes deeper. Yes, we do want you to be comfortable. Yes, please do choose your favorite color so it matches the decor in your meditation space. Yes, please learn the basics of Calm Abiding Meditation in a regular meditation practice at home. This is how most of us begin and a proper beginning is important. At the same time, we understand comfort in its original meaning — to give strength. We make cushions so they will support you at critical moments — like late afternoon on Day Three of your first meditation retreat.

Memo to Self: Please Find the Time to Meditate

Why, Self, am I writing to you? Well, for one thing, you’ve been a busy lately. I’ve had trouble getting your attention. Sometimes you can get someone’s attention with a memo, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Anyhow, why do I suggest that you find the time to meditate?

For one thing, the last time you invested some of your precious time in mindfulness meditation, the results were good. You slowed down a bit, you were actually able to listen to people when they spoke to you, and you were happier and less impatient. You’re better able to realize that rushing things doesn’t help. Everything has its time. You were able to begin appreciate your life, moment by moment.

The Past and the Future

When you sat in meditation, you spent less energy worrying about the future and fretting about the past. There is something funny about the past and future, I don’t know how to break this to you, but they don’t exist. They were and will be, but they’re not.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the future and also mull over your decisions in the past. It’s just that it would be good to be able to distinguish the past and future from what is happening now. When you get really speedy — and you can, especially when you haven’t sat on your zafu and zabuton in a while – you tend to lose this distinction. Mostly I see you leaning in to the future, as if by rushing into it you could manage it better.

Why Worry?

Do you have to worry so much? Just sitting, paying attention to your body and the sensation of breathing, can help you let go of worry. Why don’t you sit on your cushion more? Just a little bit pays such big dividends. It’s kind of crazy not to do it.

And why are you rushing — by the way? Do you have a train to catch? Are you on the run from the law? Is there something you’re not telling me? You keep saying there is “no time.” There is something funny about this idea of “no time”. You always say that you’re working now to have time later, but when this time arrives later, half the time you have no idea what to do with it, and you wind up lost in meaningless distractions. Is that what you worked so hard for? Maybe you are so used to rushing that you forget how to relax when you actually can. Sometimes I think you worry too much about what other people think, and that makes you anxious. What have you got to prove?

Your Mantra

The other funny thing is that that your mantra of “no time” (at least you have a mantra!) has an underlying assumption – that there will be time later. Rushing through each moment is a good way to ensure that when this promise of future time comes – if it ever does (see future above) you’ll be so unfamiliar with the present moment, you won’t even recognize it. That’s the real meaning of “no time.”

One Thing at a Time

The other thing Meditation helps you relax is your nasty habit of trying to do two things at once. There is something funny about the present moment. There is only one of them. Of course these moments follow each other in quick succession, but – as we covered before – there is no way to stack them up or “maximize” your time. When you meditate, you realize better that there is only one moment and only one thing do to in that moment. That helps you keep some balance in your life.

Part of life is movement, and doing things. But there is a part that doesn’t move – ever. It can be scary to see this, but meditation gives you a safe place from which to witness and accept the subtleties of life. (If you need a hint, there is a connection between the fact that nothing happens and everything happens, more on that another time.)

Consumed by Time

Sometimes I think you have this idea that time is another thing for you to consume, like your supply of 100% cranberry juice that you’ve socked away in the pantry (how can you drink that stuff?!) and don’t like to share with anyone (not that anyone would want it). Anyhow, there is something silly about your approach to time. If someone puts you on hold for more than a minute, you’ll hold a grudge for life. Then you spend two hours in front of a Batman movie without enjoying it! I just don’t get this.

It’s All about You

That’s another thing meditation helps you relax — your obsession with yourself. Who died and made you center of the universe anyhow? I mean really. But seriously, you do get this oversized view of yourself sometimes. Where does that come from? I think that is part of the logic of rushing – if the boss wants something right away, I mean everyone has to jump, right? There is something funny about having an oversized view of yourself. For one thing, who is so special? You or the voice in your head who voted you #1. I know you can be down on yourself, too. But the same logic applies. Life would be a lot easier for you if you lightened up on your self, by the way.

Meditation helps you see

Meditation helps you see that the last thought you had about yourself and your requirements was just that – the last thought you had about yourself and your requirements. There are obvious reasons not to jump every time you have a thought. For one thing, you have a lot of thoughts, so it’s just not practical. For another thing, your thoughts are always changing. Chasing after thoughts is like putting the kids in charge, the result is chaos. Thoughts do grow up sometimes; those thoughts can be helpful. You’ll know when you meet a grown-up thought and not because they’re so serious!

A Little Sad

Sitting on your meditation pillow, slowing down in mindfulness brings the insight that everyone is going through exactly the same thing you are. You are really very much alike. Everyone is rushing from something, to something, trying to find something that the future will bring or outrun something that the past has delivered. Most of the time they look a little worried – definitely preoccupied. This makes me a little sad.

Listen Self, I don’t mean to overwhelm you — and thank you very much for your attention – but LIFE (in the form of a moment) is right in front of you waiting to be celebrated and appreciated (it’s the holidays after all!) What’s stopping you?

Don’t tell me you don’t have the time.

–Trinley Senge