A Waste of Time

tinisThe $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.

“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”

We’re in a boardroom on the 35th floor. Tall windows face the East River, which, on this spring day, is shrouded in low clouds. The topic of our meeting is a staple in the world of finance: litigation, specifically, a lawsuit stuck in New York’s civil courts. I’m a trustee. The trust is the plaintiff. As an accountant and a Buddhist meditation teacher, I’m also a novelty. The attorney hired to fight our case is, apparently, trying to break the ice.

Joining us at the conference table is a tax accountant. He’s known me longer and ignores the remark. These two professionals are from an older generation. Having taken up Buddhism before it was trendy, I’m familiar with the cynicism embedded in the attorney’s “gentle ribbing”, but there is something new.

Not so long ago, “to retreat” was more than getting away. Misguided or not, there was at least rigor beyond the familiar and comfortable. Instead, I’m learning, to retreat now means to indulge in a spiritualist, new-age self-pampering. In the 40 years since I began meditation practice, marketing departments have been waging war.  “Retreat” and even “meditation” are now prisoners of promoters for luxury spas.

Why am I surprised? Once the purview of visionaries like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, these days the word “Zen” is used to sell everything from cookies to skateboards. (Just a guess. Sure enough, Google it.) Eastern Spirituality is positioning that shapes a brand. It signals tranquilitythe kind enjoyed with a green tea in one hand and a Bombay martini in the other.

The monster of materialism swallows language and tradition, digesting them and spitting them back out as something it can love. Behind the transformation of the words is a myth enshrining the culture of productivity and busyness. (The kind of myth that lets a spa swallow a Buddhist retreat center.) In this myth, to slow down and be quiet is to perfect the art of escape.

As Frank Bruni observes in a recent Times op-ed, the person who insists on retreating “attracts a derogatory vocabulary: loner, loafer, recluse, aloof, eccentric, withdrawn.” To retreat is antisocial and escapist. Or, put another way, a big waste of time.

Time away is time off. Meditators on retreat are spa-goers who invoke the dream of distance from society and work. In the euphoria induced by green tea in the morning and martinis in the afternoon, looking within, contemplatives see what they want to see.

Ironically, at the retreats I attend, nothing is further from the truth. The practice of being is challenging, takes guts, and is hard work. In stillness feelings are uncovered, insights born, and connectivity is cultivated. Meditation, the word, may have been coopted. But for those who take it up, mindfulness, (and under this rubric let’s include quiet time and solitude), is a way into the challenges of life, not away from them.

Adulthood begins by asking “What to do?”, but the more mature question is “How to do it?” As a partner or parent, we’ve committed to a relationship—but how to cultivate that? We have work or a career—how do we pursue it? As a member of a community, or society—how do we participate?

These questions require self-reflection and self-knowledge. For that, quiet and stillness are essential. (By some measure, meditation is simply a technique that addresses how to be alone with ourselves.) Meeting the moment that is now, we discover not only something about how we are, but also who we are.

Like the spa-goer, the meditator wants something. But in the culture of retreat, without the help of green tea or a massage therapist, we find the person who can give us what we want. How? By slowing them down and inviting them into the moment. Is a retreat time well spent? For the answer, find the person who wants to know.

Like any discipline, what comes out of meditation practice depends upon what goes in. According to the author Susan Cain (her book “Quiet” is mentioned in Mr. Bruni’s op-ed), much research connects quiet and solitude with creativity and productivity. We worry that our time will be wasted, but is the question really our own? Or is it the product of a culture busy turning a native and contented curiosity into an efficiency-obsessed, future-oriented race for something more?

My two colleagues are expensive company. The clock is ticking. The attorney’s invitation to retreat hangs in the air without a reply. “You wouldn’t last a day,” I think to myself as the conversation shifts to New York’s Civil Courts. Budget cuts and understaffing mean justice delayed. Our court date has again been moved back. Cynicism and skepticism should abound—unless of course you’re being paid by the hour.

As the professionals weigh in on contingencies and probabilities, I can’t help but wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Author’s Note: Some astute readers have suggested that my bias (evidenced by the assertion that the litigator “wouldn’t last a day”) is more of a problem than any alleged distortions by the forces of materialism. These readers have a point. The thought is obviously defensive and says more about me than about the attorney. There might be a presumption that I look down on him. To be clear, I like him and respect him. I tell the story to share. Perhaps it’s a lesson. The next time your path is misrepresented, do better than I could. Make an effort! Set the record straight.

Meditation Practice:10 Red Flags

Meditation Warning SignsSome “Red Flags” that might mean it’s time to  look deeper into your discipline of meditation:

1.  Sitting on your meditation cushion, you give yourself only one option: feeling good. As for the other stuff—more or less your life—you take the attitude that it’s somehow all behind you.

2.  In any given session, the number of times your mind meets the now corresponds with the number of times your smart phone vibrates.

3.  Your meditation is anxious. After all, it’s about time you were a better person.

4. Having decided that you are fine just as you were, you meditate like a zombie chillaxing.

5.  You understand your discipline to be a solitary endeavor. As for joining in group meditation, you’d rather visit a bus station after midnight.

6. At the meditation center, you’re a stickler for decorum, nickname: “Miss Manners.” Troubled by your indecorus posture adjustments at home, your practice partner knows you by another nickname: “Scratch n’ Sniff.”

7. Relying on “intuition” to guide your meditation, the sessions are getting shorter and shorter.

8. You see your practice as communion—what you call “deep listening.” Concerned about your dwindling social skills, your partner wonders if the issue is hearing loss.

9. A mindfulness session MUST include ginger tea, your favorite sweatpants, and the mala blessed by a Lama whose name you can’t remember. Lacking any one of these, you are lost.

10. The less you actually meditate, the more you are moved to share your alleged insights in a blog post.

Dear fellow practitioner, I like to write what I know.

When meditation is our own private affair, we overlook interdependence and lose touch with the source of our inspiration. When our practice is only social, we have trouble resting with aloneness, the source of our insight.

Elevating our discipline to something special and separate, we disconnect from the ordinary magic of life, and make meditation harder than it is. What if to meditate was to be human? What if practice was less about adopting a lifestyle, and more about showing up for life?
Without the pretense of a drama that limits meditation to “self-help,” our practice becomes a journey of discovery, or to put it more bluntly—unmasking. Letting ourselves be—even for a moment—is the practice of meditation. It happens now.  Why not consider that an invitation?

How do we know when we are practicing well? What does it mean to be human? Maybe these are the same question.

The True Refuge

According to my meditation teacher, to practice meditation is to be vulnerable, requiring the discipline of simplifying and slowing down. This journey takes intelligence and a willingness to acknowledge our connection to others. Sitting on our meditation cushion, we are exposed. Our willingness to be exposed is an expression of strength.

Of course security is important and meditation requires relaxation. But if we are left alone for a minute, and we give our discursiveness a rest, inevitably we begin to feel. To feel what we are feeling is to be human. To be human is to be vulnerable.

But now what? What next? Where do we go? Where is our refuge? Upon what can we rely?

It’s ironic, but some of us, even those of us practicing meditation, have forgotten that vulnerability is our natural state. Often unconsciously, we work to solve the dilemma of our thin skin by aspiring not to feel.

Co-opted by fear, our meditative discipline becomes a drug designed to enhance only the good and reduce or eliminate the trauma of living. As social scientists have come to recognize, in suppressing what is difficult in being human, we also lose what is sublime. Pursuing what is comfortable and protected, we find ourselves more dead than alive.

Unable to be simple, we need a story. We find protection in the righteousness of our discipline, or in a superior view, or maybe we embrace a spiritual path that sanctifies our togetherness. Aspiring to a higher and less vulnerable self, we confront the world with a knowing smile. With pride we offer to tidy up a mess of our own invention. As Bono sang, we are ready “to play Jesus, to the lepers in our head.”

Even if we don’t bother with elevating our self-esteem at the expense of others, our imagined insulation from the world permits a subtle nihilism. We allow ourselves the hypocrisy of pretending that our actions haven’t hurt others and that the hurts we have suffered are somehow behind us. The only way to maintain this self-deception is by moving along to the next thing. When it comes to what is real, and what is now, we demure. That is for another time, we tell ourselves, embracing small talk or the news of the day.

Absorbed in the drama of our security, we forget that what’s above us isn’t a roof. It’s the sky. Space that goes up effectively forever. We acknowledge the living earth only when it comforts or glorifies our existence. For the most part, we treat the planet as a corridor leading to our next destination. But this ‘corridor’ is spinning and careening through space. We, the inhabitants are also in transition, with no idea when our number is up. Being vulnerable makes sense. It is the way things are.

Instinctively, we know all this and our refuges are almost a reflex. Because the shelters we seek are reflections of our own insecurity, sooner or later they let us down. When our contract with the ‘other’ eventually falls through, we are left tilting at windmills, placing blame, and critiquing the demise of a world we ourselves had invented. A world built around imaginary contracts written to ensure that we would never be exposed.

Since we are involved in a pattern that betrays us, no matter how glorious or gloomy our circumstance, subtly we hold on to a sense of injury. Each day we  wake up with the feeling that we have been wronged and that life going forward needs to make it up to us, or at the very least, leave us alone. Our patterns reflect this complaint. They are circular, and having played one out without satisfaction, we are compelled in the moment to start again. Vulnerability is this fresh start. But now what? Where do we go? What is the true refuge, the one that won’t disappoint, the direction that doesn’t lead us in a circle? For a refuge to be real, it has to be true to who we are.

Meditation brings focus, centering and a measure of relaxation. But once this natural health has been experienced, our practice is a chance to feel. In spite of our humanity, we don’t always have the nerve or motivation to take this chance. Why should we? Because by slowing down, feeling and being, we can know and understand our hearts. Connecting to ourselves, our connection to others is revealed. Naturally, we discover that we care. When we discover caring, the one true refuge is available.

This true refuge is native and easy and it is a decision made after careful consideration of the alternatives. It is personal, manifesting differently because we are all different. Whatever the expression, it is the one way to connect with the world that brings peace. Because it has to start somewhere, it could begin with admitting that there is nothing wrong with who we are. It might mean extending ourselves or practicing forgiveness . Because it is both natural and imposed, sometimes it means “YES!” and sometimes “NO!” It is the path that will never disappoint or mislead. It is the only way forward, the only way to grow.

The one true refuge? Kindness–to oneself and all beings.

Editor’s Note: An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama how he got over the desecration of his country by the Chinese. He look puzzled: “I didn’t,” he replied. When Mr. Greenleaf was asked about this post, he shared that it was written “at a difficult time, after my favorite refuge had let me down—in what I imagined to be a big way.”  For more on the power of vulnerability, see the Ted Talk by Brene Brown.

 

The Contentment Test

This year, the Christian tradition of Lent falls during the weeks before and after the first day of spring. Lent is a time associated with purification and renunciation. While Buddhism is no stranger to these practices, one of the words for renunciation in Tibetan can also be translated as “contentment”. (The word is chok-she, which literally means “to know enough, to know what is enough”.) Rather than self-sacrifice or a lowering of expectation, contentment refers to waking up from the confusion of continuous want; appreciating the richness of experience in each moment.

To say what might be obvious, this moment, in this life, is the only one we have. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves planning in vain for another moment, another now. Not only an expression of our wish to grow and learn, sitting on our meditation cushion is also taking the time to find, or more accurately express, contentment in our own experience as it is now. (Notably: the word contentment includes “content”, which when the accent is on the first syllable, refers to the ability to hold).

Contentment is curious. Take The Contentment Test below to discover more.

1. When you have screwed up again, you should:

A: Buck up and try harder.

B: Confront the jerks who let you down.

C: Take a long hard look at your own failings.

D: Smile.

2. When others have failed, it makes sense to:

A: Show how they set their sights too high.

B: Explore the details of the screwed-up.

C: Look for ways to help them move forward.

D: Remind them they’ve done this before.

3. Someone who questions the virtue of continuous entertainment:

A: Hasn’t seen ‘Dancing with the Stars’

B: Sees life as a chain of small but meaningful decisions.

C: Is afraid of the rituals that make us a society.

D: Has questionable social skills.

4. When you’ve realized who you are, you should:

A: Try to find yourself.

B. Share colorful stories highlighting your outstanding qualities.

C. Be patient until others reach your level.

D: Share your insights with those who need them most.

5. The best way to get things done is to:

A: Slow down.

B: Waste less time (with questions like these).

C: Champion productivity.

D: Fake it ’till you make it.

6. Complete the refrain: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…”

A: Sh*t Happens.

B: Is a wonderful view.

C: Lunch is ready.

D: Credit cards have lower rates.

7. Complete the following: “Life has meaning when…”

A: I’m doing what I want.

B: I’m not stuck with someone else’s job.

C: Stupid questions are avoided.

D: I know what I’m doing and why.

8. Finish the statement: “Success is…”

A: Having more (not less).

B: Being willing to win.

C: Nothing to worry about.

D: One million hits on YouTube.

9. It’s important to tell the truth because:

A: There’s nothing to hide.

B. It might just work.

B: Unable to recall at this time.

C: No one’s really listening.

10. When you meet another person, best to:

A: Judge them fairly.

B: Keep a safe distance.

C: Baffle (if you can’t dazzle).

D: Smile.

This test was inspired by the teachings on the Dignity of the Tiger, from the books Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Ruling Your World. I answered my test like this: D, C, B, A, A, B, D, C, A, D—a result I was satisfied with. Since I wrote the test, it wasn’t so hard. How did you do? How would you compose your own test? This spring, wishing you contentment in the ever-changing nature of the moment.

For Men Only: A Valentine

Dear hombre, how can you be in relationship if you don’t know, well–how to be?  Whether you are strutting in your Cole Haans  or clumping around in Carhartts, stress leaves you hard to find and blinds you to beauty in the moment.

Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress—in other words, meditation supports relationship success. Here are five ways:

1)    Take-Home Pay In tuning you up, we can’t ignore the green. Your ability to provide is a turn on. But if you take work home in the form of worry, that’s unpaid overtime. By allowing you to trust yourself as you are now, mindfulness meditation gives worry a rest. When work stays at work, your pay rate jumps. A would-be partner wants to know that you value your time. How else can you value theirs?

2)    Yes Captain! Meditation lowers bad testosterone, you know, the kind that has you doing 60 in a School Zone and fondling the remote when a partner wants to share. OK, maybe studies are still looking for the bad testosterone, but how many times have you blown by signals a mate was trying to send? In meditation, the now is enjoyed. Rushing to be somewhere you’re not loses its appeal. Slowing down, you are longer driven; you are the driver. That makes you the pilot of your own ship. Pilots are sexy.

3)    Cleaning Up It doesn’t take a neuro-scientist to understand that meditation makes a better brain. Regular mindfulness practice reveals a bigger and brighter world. Your brain notices—and comes along for the ride. Every man-cave looks bigger and better without the clutter. Mindfulness meditation is mental hygiene. Promising partners will require hygiene before neurons are allowed to transmit.

4)    New Tricks No offense, but the boredom of old dogs is contagious. Ignoring the fluidity of life, habits bring tension rather than the safety they promise. Sure it’s a guy thing, but why double down on a lack of imagination? By training you to say “yes” to what is new, meditation opens the door to adventure in the moment. Appreciating your friend in a fresh way, you can start over. Starting over is new romance.

5)    Being There Are you married to your PDA? Who wants a three way with a digital device? Learning to “be” in meditation reveals a space that longs to be shared. You don’t just need a network to plug in, you are the network. You would demand it from an Adroid, what about your connectivity? A heads up (if you can manage it), your iPhone will never cook you eggs at midnight or smile at your dimples.

It’s best to learn meditation from someone trained in teaching a basic technique. Search on “mindfulness meditation” to find qualified instruction where you live. The next step: to support your practice, make a space for meditation in the man cave. Your meditation cushion (or bench) is a conversation piece that suggests there is more (or less!) to you than meets the eye.

Of course, to put your feet up with the one you love requires something your partner won’t be able to resist: Real Estate. You might not have the coolest crib, but in mindfulness you will discover something essential for meeting and hosting your Valentine: Space.

Editor’s Note: Cole Haans? I don’t think you could find a pair within 100 miles of northern Vermont where we at Samadhi Cushions live and make the Zafus and Zabutons we are famous for. Not sure how to explain the vibe here in Acharya Greenleaf’s post. Was that a copy of Men’s Health Magazine I saw peeking out of his bag of Dharma Books?

What to Do?

Lately, I’ve scrapped a few blog posts. There was one I wrote for the holidays on forgiveness–but it’s just not the right time. In another attempt I tried to follow the threads of grief and loss to some universal wisdom addressing the tragic shootings in Newtown. I couldn’t figure out how to end the post. For what it’s worth, if you are looking for leadership in this sad time, I thought our President’s remarks at the memorial service for the victims were on the dot.

“What can we Do?” is the question the day. This is the “Do” with a capital “D”—not the small “d” that dominates our day-to-day life. Some of you (I think of activists and inspired Bodhisattvas) may be familiar the sense of urgency that this kind of tragedy inspires. Not liking drama, being wary of pretension, and generally weak-kneed, I shy away from the big “D.”

The answers to the question vary. Seeking a sense of security, many will purchase their own gun. Why, they reason, should I be left defenseless—like the victims in the shooting? Some will be inspired to limit the spread of automatic weapons, weapons that transform a shooter into an army. That wasn’t, they argue, the intent of the Second Amendment. The President’s initiative will also look at the treatment of mental illness as part of an action assessment. The shooter was deranged. Was society aware?

The local high school here in Vermont will send cards and other expressions of care to the school in Newtown. In an eloquent letter, the headmaster wrote the parents (and grandparents) quoting scripture. To paraphrase: when we are afflicted, God shares his love with us so that we may share it with others when they too face trial.  (2 Corinthians 1:4).

I once heard Bernie Glassman Roshi give a talk at the New York Shambhala Center. Someone asked him where he got the inspiration for the socially engaged Buddhism that he practices. “It’s simple,” he said. “At some point you can’t take it anymore. You have to do something.”  My big “D”? For me, it isn’t “Doing”. It’s  “Distraction.” By not paying attention, you wake up to a world of your own enabling and wonder how you got there. This too is a question with many answers. For me, I get there by ignoring, losing myself in a world of doing with a small “d’.

Meditation is unusual. It is an act of “being” that combines the vast and the precise, the visionary and the mundane, the mind and the body, the big “D” and the little one. It introduces us to a deeper nature, one within and without. Because it joins the little ‘d’ of action with the bid ‘D’ of human awareness, it helps to overcome the mindlessness that lies at the heart of our incomprehension and our acting out. With the exception of getting a gun (the weak knees could be a problem), I support the efforts and initiatives of others. What I “can’t take anymore” is my own distraction. Distraction, the realm of busyness and forgetting, invites me to ignore my own wounded heart and the hearts of others. To overcome this, I will have to wake up. To wake up, I practice meditation. That’s what I can (D)do.

Editor’s Note: One of Acharya Greenleaf’s scrapped blogs had the title Dark Currents. Because it was too beautiful to pass up, the photo for that post is used here. The photographer, Steve Mancinelli, is our capable patent attorney (yes, Samadhi Cushions does own the name Gomden. It is the trademark for the meditation cushion that is ideal for simple cross-legged sitting). For more amazing images visit Steve’s website: penumbralight.com.

Dear High School Senior

Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980
Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980
Pencil Sharpener Circa 1980

Dear Graduate,

What is your dream job? To teach meditation? I understand. That’s what I do. It’s a dream job. But I didn’t start there. I started in Accounting. If Accounting can lead to meditation, it can lead to anything. Congratulations on your diploma. Now you will need a job. My advice for college: study Accounting.

Seriously! OK, I understand. You are young. You want to live your dream. But if you want to dream, you need to sleep. To sleep, you can’t be hungry. To eat, you need a job. It’s a cliché—but if you want a dream job, be a genius. Or, if the genetics haven’t lined up, do what no one else wants to do. Esteemed Senior, I don’t have to tell you, Accounting is way deep into that last category.

Sure, start with Liberal Arts, if you have to. But ask yourself, has understanding post-modernism ever helped anyone? [Dear educated reader, a short comment explaining post-modernism is entirely welcome.] Me, I gave up on the Arts, at least in school. Why? Maybe my world lit professor. He accused me of plagiarism. He thought his class was worth plagiarizing for. On what planet?

Before college I told my Buddhist teacher that I planned to study Buddhism. Instead, he suggested I study business. Now that I know more about Buddhism (and more about myself), I don’t think I was smart enough to study it. My meditation teacher was a wise man.

Then there were the job postings. I graduated in a recession. There weren’t many jobs, but there were jobs in Accounting. And they paid. That settled it. If you’re going to get accused of plagiarism, might as well get a job out of it. I gave up the job of homework for the job of finding a job. Dear Senior, I don’t want to go lowbrow on you, but aren’t you tired of homework?

Where is the meaning, you ask? Accounting has meaning in spades. There is no meaning beyond differences. To know something is to compare it to something else. Differences are made when you add and subtract. Like quantum mechanics, Debits and Credits have to balance, somewhere.

If that is all too much to take in, I understand. Accounting is deep. Debits in the left column, credits in the right. That’s all you need to remember. Graduate, there is a point to life. For accountants, it happens to be a decimal point. We even have our own magazine. It’s called The CPA Journal. It’s not just boring; it’s a vast wasteland. You will need a sense of adventure.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not enough to be bored. You have to be learning. If you’re like me, you will have a lot to learn. If you aren’t learning, you aren’t paying attention. If you’re not paying attention, you’re not working. Terror gets your attention. If you count boredom as terrifying, Accounting has terror in spades. Accounting will get your attention.

Dear Graduate, I see your eyes have glazed over. If you only want to dream, maybe sleep is what you’re really after. Is your dream of success all about you? What about that cute number on the other side of the column? Sure, you’re number one, but where is the romance in that? There are other numbers who could use your help.

Accountants are here to help. Meaningful work is helpful work. Sure, occasionally we overcharge. If the Tax Code was on your Kindle, you’d overcharge too. Accountants are different. We are all about your money. We only overcharge with your permission. That’s helpful.

How long before you can have a real job? A job you love? I’m not sure. According to the philosopher Alain de Botton, the idea of fulfilling work is a modern invention. It was born in the 1800’s, around the same time as the notion that you could be happy in marriage. We can cover relationships later. They start out as dreams too. I’m old, but let me share: sooner or later, love is work.

I got out of accounting after 12 years. Twelve years of boredom, terror, paying the bills and…Well, that was about it. Why did I leave? I have to thank my last boss. He was a chain-smoker; I loved him. I loved him because he was real. His desk didn’t have a computer; it had an ashtray. He consolidated 50 companies using pencil, paper, and an adding machine. (OK, this is ancient history. But back then, real men smoked and knew how to use a pencil.)

My boss would blow smoke rings where they don’t belong, but he never BS’d you and you couldn’t BS him. He was my hero. One morning, I was sitting in his office. The sun was lighting up the curtains behind his desk. He was floating ideas for my next job at this multi-national corporation. I was nodding, but he could tell I wasn’t interested.

“I love making money,” he said, changing the subject after a pause. It was the answer to a question. A question I hadn’t asked. I knew he wasn’t talking about making money for himself. His work had made a lot of shareholders wealthy (it was a public company). He was talking about being helpful.

He stared past me at the wall of his office. He had a way of looking at you like you weren’t there. After another long pull on his cigarette, he finished his thought.  “You have to love what you do.” In that moment, in his office, in suburban New Jersey, realization dawned. Paying attention, being helpful, loving what you do–they could all be the same thing. My training with this hero was over. It was time to move on.

Dear senior, thank you for your attention. Don’t worry too much about your career. All you need to get started is a job that pays bills and makes you to pay attention. Now you know what that job is. When you pay attention you will help somebody. If you help someone, you will find yourself. When you find yourself, you will recognize your dream. In your dream, you won’t be alone. You will be on the left, but others will be on the right. It will be a meaningful dream.

Editor’s Note: Not sure you will be able to pay attention when nothing is happening? Time on a meditation cushion can help you train your mind to do just that.

How to Ask Your Teacher a Question

"The Teacher Listens"

You are attending a meditation class online or a weekend program in your city. Or perhaps you have taken off from work to sit on your zafu cushion for a week retreat at a residential meditation center. The teachings have focused on meditation in everyday life, and now you have a question.

For a moment you hesitate. The last time you asked a teacher a question was in your college algebra class. Somehow this feels different.  For one, you feel a real solidarity with others in your class who are exploring the path of meditation. Some of them may be shy, but you can imagine your classmates benefiting from the answer you’re seeking.

You also wonder if there is an unspoken protocol for questions in the spiritual arena. A rebel at heart, you may be inspired to upset this protocol. On the other hand, you may worry that the question you ask will trouble a certain true believer, a fellow meditator who never seems puzzled by what they hear in the class.

Lastly, as time is limited (even in meditation classes!) you wonder if your query will displace another person’s more pressing and meaningful question. Meditation practice has sensitized you to the preciousness of time and you would regret wasting it for anyone (especially the teacher!). The following guidelines are offered to help you ask a question that moves your class, and your understanding, toward the truth:

 

1.    Keep your Dignity   Remember, having a teacher isn’t just a license for confusion, it’s also a license to wake up. How you ask your question is important. We all have a colorful case history, but your question happens now. Appreciate the moment you and your teacher will share together.

 

2.    Know your Motivation: tell the truth  Rather than revealing anything, sometimes questions keep us from the answers we need. Do you know what are you asking, really? Why ask now? To tell the truth doesn’t mean you have  something to confess. The truth is subtle, it has parts. There is your question, what you are questioning, and the question-er—you. Let your question reveal these three.

 

3.     Give up Complaint  Being unhappy or critical is real, but it may not prove anything. Frustration is a good beginning for a question, but not necessarily a good end. How does your question make you feel and why? Questions are harder when we resent the question itself or are afraid of the answer. No need to over-think it, but if you know how you feel and why, your question can have humor.  If you can’t find the humor, sit with the question for a minute. You may find another question behind it.

 

4.      Know the Answer   A wise teacher once asked, “If you don’t know the answer, how can you ask the question?” The question comes from your heart. Give your heart a chance to answer it. Knowing your answer will give your question depth and energy. Questions aren’t just the teacher’s challenge. Let your question be an offering. If you can share your question and the knowledge of your own heart, your teacher will be inspired to share theirs.

 

5.     Can You Listen?  Sometimes your teacher will speak to your question. Sometimes they will speak directly to you—the person behind the question. Inevitably, your teacher will share their vision. The point isn’t that’s it’s theirs, the point is what this vision inspires in you. The braver your question, the more your teacher will be able to share. Ask for clarification if you need to, but hear how their answer feels.

 

From listening to your heart and words of your teacher, and by spending time on your meditation cushion, you discover that questions contain their own questions, as well as their own answers. Since ultimately the world is our teacher, let this conversation with our teacher celebrate our mutual bravery expressed in the art of contemplating the questions (and answers) we share!

Meditation Space: Boston, MA

In Pamplona it’s the running the bulls. During Holi in Mathura it’s an explosion of colored powders. And at the Boston Shambhala Center it’s the stacking of the meditation cushion known as the Gomden.  Each of these traditions has its own flavor, developing slowly over time.

In 1981 the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced the “Gomden,” a firm, foam core, meditation seat.  Not only did this enrich the experience of the meditator, but it made possible “the stacking of the Gomdens.”

Uniform size and stability of the Gomden means they can be stacked with geometric precision.  They can be stacked two Gomdens high along the entire length of a wall.  Six year old children particularly favor this configuration.  They can form higher columns reaching just beneath the window sills.  I have even seen intricate Rubik patterns emerging.

In our Boston Meditation Center, one makes the simple request, “could you please help stack the Gomdens” and the magic unfolds.  Whim and fancy of the first few people depositing the foam seats and mats establishes the pattern, an entire process accompanied by playfulness and the afterglow of a group meditation session.

My first encounter with this nascent tradition occurred some time ago, when I attended a refuge vow ceremony in Boulder, Colorado conducted by the Vidyadhara.  (The refuge vow ceremony is how a buddhist becomes a buddhist.) Three of us drove in from Chicago and were struck by the level of organization in Boulder and the crisp formality of the ceremony itself.  We were told that everyone would have a brief meeting with this remarkable teacher whom we had never met in person but whose books convinced us beyond a doubt that compassionate enlightenment was alive and well.  Ushered into a room for two minutes of awkward conversation you left thinking that anyone with such complete insight into your basic goodness truly deserved the title Rinpoche, or “precious one.”

Following the interviews we were schooled, in numbing detail, on the logistics for the upcoming ceremony.  Seated helter-skelter amid the fields, the devotees and monks of old listened to the words of the Buddha, but that was not the Boulder plan.  Specific rows at the front of the shrine hall were designated for those taking the vow, and each Zabuton and Zafu was alphabetically assigned.  It was a delicate operation.  (The Zafu is from Zen and was the meditation seat used by Shambhala in the early days.)

Calligraphies were created for each name and would be stacked on a table next to the Vidyadhara.  Once the ceremony was underway he would simply reach down for the next sheet, and you had better be lined up in the right order.

Following the ceremony there was a request for volunteers.  The dozens of Zabutons and Zafus blanketing the expanse of the pinewood floor had to be taken up and stacked.  Once I volunteered that fateful day in Boulder, the hallowed silence, modulated movement, and hushed solemnity disappeared in an instant. A motto of “easier to throw than walk over” soon emerged.  I was assigned as a “catcher” along one of the walls and soon whirling zafus filled the air, vying with the best of all frisbee tournaments.  They were quickly shaped into reasonably neat mounds adjacent to rising columns of stacked zabutons. Suddenly realization dawned!  I had taken refuge in a tradition that delighted in orderly chaos.

Orderly Chaos was written by Frank Ryan

Frank Ryan and his wife Susan live in Newton, Massachusetts.  A senior teacher at the Shambhala Center of Boston, Frank never tires of the play between the extraordinary vision of Shambhala and the pulsing immediacy of everyday life.


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.