Meditation Space: Boulder, CO

 

by Margo Shean

 

As I go to open my mom’s fridge, which happens to be one of my happy places, I notice the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center brochure stuck to the door.  The brochure is full of exciting things sure to fill the dreams of any Dharma Bum.

After a few months of readjusting to the world from living at Karmê Chöling for three years, I am becoming more and more involved in the center here in Boulder.  The town where I grew up and knew so well is slowly becoming a whole new world. 

I have the perfect job for my transition — working on a lovely farm.  My boss, Peter Volz, happened to direct my Shambhala Training Level 4 in Boulder many years ago.  A good friend of mine, Jill, also a Shambhala Buddhist, works on the farm.

While picking cherry tomatoes, Jill and I discussed our “Happy Places”. You know these places? The places where you’re at your best, fully accepted for who you are?  Sometimes these places just delight our sense pleasures: the sampling of products and well-crafted cheeses can really boost your confidence. Delighting in the sense pleasures is perfect at organic grocery stores, which happen to be Jill’s most “Happy Place”.  I would also put organic grocery stores on this list, along with any place I can eat ice cream, most movie theaters, my dad’s backyard, my mom’s fridge, the Main Shrine room at Karmê Chöling, steam rooms, Chautaqua park, Eldorado Springs pool, and I believe even the farm I’m working on would qualify as one of my “Happy Places”.

During a group practice session at the Shambhala Center, one of many group practice opportunities in Boulder, I sit on my meditation cushion and begin contemplating my “Happy Places”.  What does this really mean as a practitioner?  Isn’t every place a sacred place?  Isn’t every situation just what I need – perfect in and of itself?  Doesn’t every instance in my life bring me closer to waking up and seeing the world as it really is?  Maybe every place is my “Happy Place”.  I realize that I’m able to blame a total stranger on the road for something that may or may not have been his fault. I realize, like most people, even us practitioners (or maybe especially practitioners) need love, support, comfort and kindness in order to feel protected enough to handle difficult situations.

Sitting on my zafu, my awareness rudely interrupts one of my fantasy “Happy Places”, and I notice the tag on the meditation cushion in front of me which says “Samadhi Cushions, Barnet Vermont”.  I am instantly reminded of my old home, Karmê Chöling, another happy place where my experience was truly invaluable.

My memory turns to appreciation, which always brings me back to where I am in the moment. I notice all the kind faces in the meditation room and all the people I’ve become so close with here after only a short time.

The large center in the middle of downtown Boulder has a deep history, mixed with a young exuberance, and I find the most common ground here is profound kindness.  According to the brochure, there is something happening every night of the week, even if that means sitting down on Gomdens with your friends without moving or talking.  It seems that everywhere you go in this town you’re bound to run into someone connected with Shambhala. The city is full of original Trungpa Rinpoche students, who I think of as pioneers of Buddhism in the West.  There are also Dharma Brats – or as a friend is calling us, Dharma Heirs – who are dedicated students of the Sakyong.  And finally, there are new practitioners, Naropa students, and a large community of people interested in meditation, health, and well-being as a whole.

Then it strikes me: My most happy place is the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center.  Here, the receptionist often sings to me when I walk in the door, and the Director remembers my name out of hundreds of members – there are over 200 meditation instructors here.  There are very senior teachers and practitioners as well as brand new people with fresh minds.  But most of all, this meditation center is a community of people who accept you for who you are.  Ahhhh, this is my “Happy Place”, and I don’t even have to share my bathroom like I did at Karmê Chöling.  I can finally brush my teeth in peace, and still enjoy the company of my beloved Sangha – a Dharma Bum’s dream and a sun seeker’s paradise.

Contemplating the first noble truth is always important in a place like this, but then again, our minds create suffering wherever we go, and we could all use a little sunshine to help us along the way. What a wonderful place to be, I think to myself. Finally, with only five minutes left in the session, I label it all thinking…and then I breathe.

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.

 

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?

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.

The Cool Kids

Being Cool
Being Cool

Recently the New York Times published an op-ed piece on a conference for Social and Affective Neuroscientists (or “Neuros”) which took place in New York this past week. According to David Brooks, the writer, “the leading figures at this conference were in their 30’s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20’s.” And all of them, he pointed out, were “young, hip and attractive.”

Mr. Brooks went on to write, “many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds.” At the same time, another study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair,” for example, “it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” As the article points out, to live with a view or idea is not an option, it’s what’s happening. And it’s happening very fast.

The In-Group

As a newly-minted teenager, I ran with the cool kids. I knew who “we” were and who wasn’t “us.”  I knew who was “in” and who was “out.”  I assumed great things from “our” crowd and nothing from the “uncool” whom I ignored (or worse).  In its rigid application of exclusion, and its focus on territory (school was assumed to be “ours”), being cool was a kind of warfare.  Cool was to be joined; uncool, suppressed. To maintain my outlook and compelling view of the world, I had plenty of evidence – subjective and objective. One year later, a move and a new school would prove me (at least the cool me) irrelevant.

School Spirit?

For the first year of high school, my parents’ divorce meant my brother and I moved from Massachusetts to Texas.  Uptight by southern standards of sociability, insecure in the face of so much change (how did high school football, of all things, get so important?), in high school I found myself instantly on the outside of whatever was cool.  I couldn’t even tell who the cool kids were supposed to be.  “You really don’t have school spirit, do you?” a pretty brunette pronounced after understanding that I wouldn’t be attending the pep rally before the football game (not to speak of the game).  I had to admit that whatever school spirit was, I didn’t have it.

Who’s Cool Now?

A few years later, in the middle of my senior year, I visited my old school back east. The band of cool kids was gone.  One kicked out, one transferred, the others relaxed into non-distinction.  Two of the most uncool kids from middle school days were on their way to Harvard. Their futures were promising, those of the former cool gang, unclear.

In the language of meditation, my “view” was changing.  According to the tradition of meditation practice, your view (basically what you think and how you understand life) will determine where meditation practice takes you. From one angle, meditation practice is simply about embodying an understanding of life – deepening our ability to be the person our meditative insight has revealed to us to be.

Who’s That in the Mirror?

Because sitting meditation slows us down and allows mind’s natural intelligence to develop, meditation is often called a mirror.  One of the first things we notice when we take up meditation is our view – the thoughts and underlying emotions that create and color our world.  Learning simply how to be, in a genuine way, reveals the glossed fiction of our self-image.  Gradually it dawns on us that whoever we really are, we are definitely not who we thought we were.  At the same time, our convenient and habitual approach to others is exposed.  In the space of meditative awareness, we notice tiny little flickering thoughts, continually evaluating others.

Though the process is more sophisticated than in high school, we are continually sizing people up.  Are they worthy of us, or do they somehow occupy another status, one we cannot reach?  To our astonishment (and some horror), we begin to recognize the birth of instinctive and instant likes and dislikes – based on the thinnest of fleeting perceptions.  Looking closely, we wonder, are these prejudices borne fresh from the encounter with others or do they govern encounters from the beginning (or before)?

Not Exactly…

Faced with this raging specter of snap judgments and hidden discursiveness, we begin to question our view.  For one thing, it becomes clear that the way we think migrates into how we are in the world, what we do.  If world we inhabit is different than the one we tell ourselves we are living, what are we living? To paraphrase the great 19th Century Tibetan Scholar-Practitioner Mipham, we realize that “Whatever we think it is – it’s not exactly like that.”

Meditative traditions emphasize training in the view – that is, studying how reality is – because that is what we do anyway, at least our own version of it.  In this case, study as support for meditation is not so much learning a new dogma or answer for the meaning of life, but shining a light on the views we do hold  (cherish even) without knowing we have them.

The School of Life

The culture of meditation is based on the notion that we can continue to grow up.  That the mind and the way it thinks and feels can develop.  Most of us have moved on from the views we developed in high school.  For me, these views were dispersed by another emerging reality.  I didn’t need to be talked out of a view of myself among the cool ones; when its irrelevance was exposed, this idea vanished like fog in sunlight.

As I get older, I find it harder to expose habitual thinking for what it is. Truths somehow get more penetrating, but I’ve gotten better at hiding from them.  It takes work to expose the self-limiting thoughts that put me and others “in” or “out.” As per the Neuros, it takes a “strategy”.  To grow these days, I often have to admit adolescence all over again. This includes the challenge of being willing to question, in a fresh way, who and how I am in the world.

How Cool is Peace?

In my experience, the discipline of regular meditation practice  (and attending meditation retreats)  is a strategy that works.  With the intention and courage to face ourselves, we give flickering thoughts room.  When these thoughts gang up on us, we neither join them nor suppress them.  Done properly, meditation is the experience of sharing the same boat with everyone.   In the space of meditation, thoughts of who’s in or out no longer make sense.  To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when you sit on your Zafu, everyone sits with you.  To practice mindfulness is to practice community, inclusion.  Because our practice moves us beyond limiting ideas about ourselves and others, it is the practice of peace.  How cool is that?

Editor’s Note: Karme Choling, just down the road from Samadhi Cushions, offers a week-long Simplicity retreat for those interested in exploring group meditation. Gaylon Ferguson‘s Natural Wakefulness brilliantly hosts explorations of view.  Sakyong Mipham‘s Turning the Mind into an Ally is a primer for learning the basics and subtleties of mindfulness practice.

Maybe You’d Better Sit Down

What goes around...
What goes around...

Scientists in Germany reported Thursday that the often-described sense of lost-hiker déjà vu, of having inadvertently backtracked while wandering in the woods — is real. “People really do walk in circles,” said Jan L. Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen.  – The New York Times, August 2009

The path of meditation shines a light on habitual patterns that keep us lost, both to ourselves and the world we inhabit. For meditation to move forward, however, orientation is essential. As the article from the Times on lost hikers aptly demonstrates, orientation isn’t optional. We always have one. The question is: where is it taking us? Summarized notes and quotes from the Times’ article in italics:

As long as the sun or moon was out, volunteers were able to walk (more or less) in a straight line. But on cloudy days or dark nights, they would loop back on themselves, often several times.

Find a meditation teacher. Read a book that speaks to you. Find friends who are interested in meditation. Teachers and companions on the path are the sun and moon that meditators use to orient themselves.  They can help you find and adjust your direction. Like any discipline, meditation practice needs view or vision. Teachers and companions on the path of meditation can provide essential guidance.

Information sources in the brain are relative  — “they don’t tell you when you are moving in the same direction as an hour ago.” When it comes to being lost — “you cannot trust your own senses at all.” What sets experienced hikers apart? They are “more aware” of what has happened.

The desire to be somewhere else makes it very hard to see where you are and where you’ve been. Looking back on difficult periods in our life, we find that in many ways, our sense of being lost was partly self-imposed and self-perpetuating.

Of course, inasmuch as none of us really know where we are going, being lost is part of the creative process of living. Meditation supports an honest assessment of our situation as human beings. It is practicing acceptance — a first step toward understanding where we are now. Understanding where we are — and have been — is key to changing direction.

“One way to walk straight is to set your sights on a nearby tree, walk to it, find another tree in the same direction, and move to that”. In other words, proceed in steps or stages.

Don’t look for great and immediate staggering results from sitting on your meditation cushion. Set reasonable and thoughtful goals for yourself – and meet them. Authentic meditative traditions have a culture that embody this skillful means. As per Tibet’s greatest yogi/saint Milarepa — “Hasten slowly, and you will soon arrive.”

Without orientation, “little errors will compound themselves” and “when the errors start to build in one direction, the hiker often ends up going around in circles.”

We get frustrated or hurt by life, and then we get upset about being upset. Compounding habits seem to address our pain, but they only perpetuate it. At some point we have to relax and give ourselves a break. Be firm with yourself when you have to be, but there is never a good reason to be harsh or dogmatic. Be your own friend.

There is one sure way to avoid going around in circles:

“Your job as the lost person is to sit down.”

There are unexpected twists and turns to life, and long paths that seem to stretch out in front of us forever. Even so, it is a beautiful journey. When we meet it fully, we discover what it means to be human. Losing our way is an expression of losing a connection with our own heart. Often, even if it doesn’t feel right, we find reasons why we have to keep moving.

Sitting down, paying attention to the sensation of breathing, we can appreciate ourselves, relaxing the habitual patterns that cover our heart and obscure our vision.  Looking back on our restlessness, we realize there was a level of frustration, fear or even anger, behind our agitation. When you don’t really know why you’re moving or where you’re heading, find a meditation seat (and space for meditation) where you can be comfortable and sit down!

Editor’s Note: In Tibetan, the word for life as we know it is korwa – which means wheel. A traditional analogy for a live lived without understanding: a bee buzzing around in a jar. At the same time, movement is natural and necessary. And after all, it is possible to hide in stillness as well as activity. In either case, as Michael points out, the question is where are we trying go? For students of meditation, studying a meditation primer for even a few minutes a day can be enormously helpful on the journey.