As all of look forward to celebrating Earth Day, I have another question: is the planet earth “a thing”? If our earth got lost and we had to track it down in another galaxy, how would you know you had found it?
Perhaps you would need to visit your old neighborhood to see if your house or apartment was still there. But your neighborhood is something that sits on the earth, right?
At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I had a mole removed. A visit with the dermatologist scheduled two months earlier. The arrival of a long-scheduled event makes me remember long-scheduled commitments to teach meditation looming ahead. I had yet to prepare for these.
In the examination room, stripped down to my underwear and socks. The doctor asked me if I thought meditation could be “healing.”
Here it is, my big chance to influence Western Medicine. “Yes,” I answered, intoning with talk of body, mind, and breath. Key, I added, was intellectual understanding or “view” for successful meditation practice. All of this while the doctor scanned my exposed skin with what looked like a fancy magnifying glass. Somewhere in the middle of my pitch, I lost him. Running behind schedule with his patients. Limited time for chitchat, I guess.
He stopped his scanning at a mole on my back.
“Whoa. OK, this one’s gotta go.”
“Oh, really. When should we do this?” I asked, imagining a time down the road when the thought of this procedure would fit in comfortably with all of the worries pressing in on my schedule.
“If it’s OK with you – Now.”
I sputtered something about my immediate plans for the day and then came up with the real question – “Will it hurt?”
“Just a pinch.”
Some more reassurances and a needle prick later there was casual talk about the doctor’s upcoming trip to San Francisco, future emails and phone calls that would come with “results”. Eavesdropping, I thought he was speaking to the nurse until it dawned on me that he was talking to me — referring to the erstwhile piece of me that needed to be tested for cancer. Six days later and a few fitful nights and anxious dreams, the still sore, quarter-sized crater in my back is looking like it just might heal and I haven’t heard anything from the good doctor.
“You are so lazy!” my wife, Jeanine exclaims in exasperation on Saturday – referring to a paper shopping bag emptied of its contents but left to languish for an hour on the floor of the kitchen. I couldn’t disagree. Heightened anxiety distracts me. If left to fester, immobilization is the result. OK, so call this existential crisis “laziness”. I didn’t have the energy to split hairs. In any event, to be sure, more than my usual share of household ineffectiveness had characterized the past week.
During this week my customary morning meditation practice has also faltered. Sure, meditation practice is healing. But probably not if you don’t do it. Last night having exhausted all distractions, I finally talked myself onto the Zafu and Zabuton in our meditation room. While sitting and paying attention to my breath, I faced my anxiety. A jumble of thoughts and emotions pressed on my mind and future. Behind all of them lingered a heightened sense of mortality. My practice was pinching.
Slowly, coming back to mindfulness of my breath, I stopped fighting. The anxiety relaxed into a sense of sadness and loneliness. Was my suffering brave, a profound and timely confrontation with impermanence? Or was it the worry-prone machinations of a comfort-obsessed coward? No way to know. Sitting on my meditation cushion, late on Saturday night, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The sad lonely feeling was a relief. My mind was settling. A week of dithering about, trying to postpone this meeting with myself, was over.
Saturday night I slept well. Sunday morning, for the first time all week, my physician-mind woke me up with a prescription for “healing” meditation.
“Oh really,” my anxious-mind replied. “When would you like to do this?”
“If it’s OK with you”, my physician-mind replied, “Now.”
Editor’s Note: In diagnosing suffering, its cause and remedy, the person known as the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician.” For inspired and thoughtful texts on healing meditation see Tulku Thondup’s Healing Power of Mind and Boundless Healing. For the tradition’s take on what the “physician-mind” might look like, see the Medicine or Healing Buddha.
I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University. This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college. However, photos recently posted to Facebook show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now. Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them. I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do. (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)
There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it. Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me. And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind. But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living. People who were younger than me. A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41. Can you see where I’m going with this?
Of course, whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence, thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon. But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long. People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming, experiences. I can’t take them with me either. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever. Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary, is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously. If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.
So the question (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy? Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not. But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment. Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”
Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu…
The $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?”
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.
This year, the Christian tradition of Lent falls during the weeks before and after the first day of spring. Lent is a time associated with purification and renunciation. While Buddhism is no stranger to these practices, one of the words for renunciation in Tibetan can also be translated as “contentment”. (The word is chok-she, which literally means “to know enough, to know what is enough”.) Rather than self-sacrifice or a lowering of expectation, contentment refers to waking up from the confusion of continuous want; appreciating the richness of experience in each moment.
To say what might be obvious, this moment, in this life, is the only one we have. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves planning in vain for another moment, another now. Not only an expression of our wish to grow and learn, sitting on our meditation cushion is also taking the time to find, or more accurately express, contentment in our own experience as it is now. (Notably: the word contentment includes “content”, which when the accent is on the first syllable, refers to the ability to hold).
Contentment is curious. Take The Contentment Test below to discover more.
1. When you have screwed up again, you should:
A: Buck up and try harder.
B: Confront the jerks who let you down.
C: Take a long hard look at your own failings.
2. When others have failed, it makes sense to:
A: Show how they set their sights too high.
B: Explore the details of the screwed-up.
C: Look for ways to help them move forward.
D: Remind them they’ve done this before.
3. Someone who questions the virtue of continuous entertainment:
A: Hasn’t seen ‘Dancing with the Stars’
B: Sees life as a chain of small but meaningful decisions.
C: Is afraid of the rituals that make us a society.
D: Has questionable social skills.
4. When you’ve realized who you are, you should:
A: Try to find yourself.
B. Share colorful stories highlighting your outstanding qualities.
C. Be patient until others reach your level.
D: Share your insights with those who need them most.
5. The best way to get things done is to:
A: Slow down.
B: Waste less time (with questions like these).
C: Champion productivity.
D: Fake it ’till you make it.
6. Complete the refrain: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…”
A: Sh*t Happens.
B: Is a wonderful view.
C: Lunch is ready.
D: Credit cards have lower rates.
7. Complete the following: “Life has meaning when…”
A: I’m doing what I want.
B: I’m not stuck with someone else’s job.
C: Stupid questions are avoided.
D: I know what I’m doing and why.
8. Finish the statement: “Success is…”
A: Having more (not less).
B: Being willing to win.
C: Nothing to worry about.
D: One million hits on YouTube.
9. It’s important to tell the truth because:
A: There’s nothing to hide.
B. It might just work.
B: Unable to recall at this time.
C: No one’s really listening.
10. When you meet another person, best to:
A: Judge them fairly.
B: Keep a safe distance.
C: Baffle (if you can’t dazzle).
This test was inspired by the teachings on the Dignity of the Tiger, from the books Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Ruling Your World. I answered my test like this: D, C, B, A, A, B, D, C, A, D—a result I was satisfied with. Since I wrote the test, it wasn’t so hard. How did you do? How would you compose your own test? This spring, wishing you contentment in the ever-changing nature of the moment.
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?
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.
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.