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.

Meditation: Your Cup of Tea?

img_00191Sometimes, the formal practice of sitting meditation feels like a stretch.  What does sitting quietly, upright on our meditation cushion, have to do with, well, anything, we ask ourselves? Life is moving fast. It seems to require speed and efficiency. Meditation practice is about slowing down. Aren’t these two heading in opposite directions? We feel trapped in a choice of our own making — life and living it — and our discipline of meditation, which doesn’t relate.

There is the vague sense that the regular practice of meditation had been important to us, but the benefits of practice, if there ever were any, have become distant memories. Now, with fatigue in the face of our daily schedule, or excitement in the face of opportunities arising — meditation doesn’t look practical.

Even if we wanted to sit still for a while in our meditation room or spot, we wonder if we could. Sitting still seems either too exertive — it makes more sense to use the little time we have to just lie down and rest — or we are just too hassled by the pressures of our schedule, which while partially self-imposed, seems to have taken on a life and momentum of its own.

There is a hint of pride. We feel inspired or at least obligated to meet the challenges of our life and hopeful that we could rise to the occasion. Sitting down on our meditation cushion on the other hand, could be messy. We’re pretty sure that whatever the practice of meditation is supposed to be, we wouldn’t be doing it well. Who wants to do something that’s meant to be helpful and uplifting and be bad at it? Why impose that humiliation on ourselves?

Out of guilt or nostalgia, we might dust off a book on how to meditate by one of our favorite teachers. But the words don’t make sense in the way they once did. If we are honest with ourselves, we admit that beyond losing interest, there is the sense that our heads are full enough. Adding new ideas, however sublime, to the mix isn’t going to help. There just isn’t room.

We begin to think that the practice of meditation, perhaps even spirituality altogether, is for those who see things that aren’t really there — a matter of talking oneself into something other than life as it is — a kind of wishful thinking. We’ve heard about meditation as a path or “Way,” but if there is a way forward, we don’t see it.

This is a place all meditators have been. And let’s not mince words, maybe it really is time for you and your meditation practice — at least the one you think you had — to part company.  The discipline of meditation is a relationship. It takes work. Like any relationship, much depends on what you think you want out of it, and how you plan to go about getting it.

In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham describes meditation practice in terms of concentric circles – the innermost circle being the practice of peaceful abiding, or the mind at ease in its own stability and strength.  Each circle in the concentric circles approaching the center is a step to uncovering this inherent quality of mind.

At the outermost circle, Sakyong Mipham makes an interesting observation. He points out that while formal meditation practice is focusing the mind on an object or sensation (like the sensation of breathing, for example), we are always holding the mind to something — a thought, a wish, an intention or irritation.

Of course, without the influence of a meditative discipline, we generally experience this holding on in a scattered or fixated way. But the point is taken. We are always meditating. It is just a matter of how. Sakyong Mipham has a word for the outermost circle of meditation: he calls it Life.

It turns out that formal meditation isn’t doing something different from what we do anyway.  Because it involves slowing down, however, it is a way to see what we do when we engage the world. Sometimes of course, we don’t want to see. We sense that if we saw the truth of our relationship with life, we couldn’t handle it. Or, even if we could handle it, now is somehow not the time.

We cannot escape meditation. Or to put it another way, we cannot escape our own intelligence, our own awareness. Looking away, avoiding, is seeing. As Pema Chödrön once put it, there is wisdom in going beyond any effort to escape the sharp edges of life.

Because stability and clarity are inherent qualities of mind, meditation practice is simply a way of slowing down and allowing these natural qualities to manifest. Sakyong Mipham’s point is that, in this effort,  “Life” and the way we live it, plays a role.

When the formal practice of meditation seems ambitious or impractical, he suggests, sit down at the kitchen table. Look out the window. Go for a walk.  In short, be friendly to yourself. If your schedule doesn’t permit extending hospitality to yourself, who is it for? Who’s in charge? Who sets the tone?

If you take the time and give some room for mind’s natural balance and intelligence to reassert itself, you can be there fully for a proper cup of tea. Enjoying a cup of tea with yourself, you may be inspired to explore and deepen the relationship. Formal practice no longer looks meaningless or threatening, it is simply a logical next step.

It’s About You

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

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

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

It’s Not About Me

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

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

The Art of Listening

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

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

The Irony

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

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

Meditation Space

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

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

The Secret of Happiness

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

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

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

Being Helpful

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

A Time for Healing (Meditation)

Things have been weighing on my mind.

I sit on a few nonprofit boards. The continuing decline in stock markets has left these institutions possibly imperiled.  At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I had a mole removed.  An hour drive through blowing snow to a visit with the dermatologist scheduled two months earlier.  During the drive, a cell phone call from a patron to invite me to assume temporary Board Chair responsibilities for a struggling arts organization.  More time will be needed.  Outcomes uncertain. The phone call makes me remember long-scheduled commitments to teach meditation looming ahead on my schedule.  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 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.

Abandoned Paper Bag
Abandoned Paper Bag

“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.

Impermanence, or College Students Are Getting Younger

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.)

Before
Before

After
After

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