Appreciation Agenda

Appreciation Agenda

Appreciation Agenda“Oh, I know, Uncle Seward, there is one other thing…”

We were finishing a late breakfast in the Gallery, the small, upholstered room at the Hotel Carlyle, on Manhattan’s upper east side. We were the only ones there. A successful artist and heir of a wealthy family, Uncle Seward calls the hotel home when he’s in the city, which he was this weekend. Ordering his eggs, he also ordered a rye whiskey on the rocks.

“…There was something else I wanted to tell you, to share with you…”

The hesitation in my voice surprised me. Uncle Seward has a nonprofit that supports the arts. With my background in accounting, many years ago he asked me to join his board. While still busy and vital, at 83 he is now interested in a transfer of responsibility to his son John, my younger cousin. I’ve been helping them facilitate this generational shift. Our meeting, over breakfast, was about to end.

“I’m all ears,” Uncle Seward replied with his usual mixture of openness, restlessness and readiness to engage.

My Uncle and I aren’t related by blood, but after my parents divorced, he and my Aunt were a reference point of stability. They’ve been like second parents to my younger brother and me.

“It’s not about the foundation, it’s something else…”

The ‘something else’ was the result of another conversation a month earlier, back home in Vermont. The poet and teacher Frank Ryan and I were in the kitchen, finishing lunch. We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s met my family. Frank was listening to me describe the evolving nature of work with my cousin and uncle.

“So, I wonder…” he interjected, sharing something that seemed to have been on his mind. “Your uncle has meant so much to you over the years, have you ever told him how much you appreciate him?”

“Well, sort of. Yes, hmm, kind of, all the time—I DO appreciate him,” I replied defensively. With his endless projects, my uncle has managed to keep me pretty busy in support of his nonprofit work. Wasn’t the willingness to be busy evidence enough of appreciation?

“Yeah, yeah,” Frank continued, “I know you appreciate him, but in my experience it’s important to tell people.” He paused for impact. I knew he had lost loved ones–unexpectedly. His words carried weight, which is why, perhaps, they returned to me now. That and the fact that I enjoy my uncle’s company and was looking for a way to extend our time together.

The waiter, in a white coat, like a chef’s uniform, brought the bill. Soon, a lunchtime clientele would be arriving. Through a marble hallway, light from a hazy fall afternoon filtered in from the street. The room, all reds and browns, seemed to brighten.

“OK, not about the foundation,” my uncle was asking, “what else? How’s the Buddhist business?”

Wary of religion, over the years, Uncle Seward has grown to appreciate the impact of meditation on my life and outlook. Mindfulness practice, while waking me up to his shortcomings, has also helped me to understand and appreciate him. His childhood was one of privilege, it was also wracked with loneliness and trauma. Only later in life did my Uncle find a sense of worth. He grew, but never lost his soft spot, his ability to be touched.

Uncle Seward is my example of what it means to be magnanimous, to be expansive. He taught me that giving, like taking, could be a habit. Yes, wealth is about power. But power comes from knowing and being yourself. When you know yourself, you can afford to be vulnerable, to listen, to be hurt. Lacking embarrassment, Uncle Seward celebrates life with humor and style. He isn’t flashy, but he’s always been an artful and original dresser. At 80 he is somehow even more stylish. As a youngster, I tried to emulate his elegance. There was no doubt about my appreciation. I just had to find my words.

“I wanted to tell you…” I stopped. A sudden tightness in my throat had made it impossible to swallow. My stomach was warm and tense. Breathing was difficult. Trying to speak, nothing came. I literally couldn’t get a word out of my mouth.

After what seemed like an eternity I tried again, “I wanted to t-t-tell you…” My eyes started to tear up. “Sorry” I stammered, unable to finish. Embarrassed by this unexpected overwhelm of emotion, I hung my head, biting my lip.

“Michael, I’m so sorry, what’s the matter? Is everything OK?”

“Yes, yes, OK…” was all I could get out.

Placing his hand on my arm, Uncle Seward patted it tenderly. True to his generous nature, he waited quietly, giving me time to collect myself.

A couple had sat down facing us in one of the upholstered couches nearby. They studied the menu. I felt exposed and self-conscious. After a long silence, and with great effort, “Uncle Seward, I don’t know…I don’t know if you know how much I appreciate you.” Tears were running down my cheeks.

“Well, I appreciate YOU,” my Uncle responded with urgency, perhaps to give me the chance to find my breath. “You and your brother came into my life before I had my own children. In relating to you both, I learned something. Along with the romantic love I found with your Aunt, I realized that I could love and care for others, that I could be a decent person. When I was younger, I had doubted this.”

His words acknowledged our bond, formed a long time ago. We had taken this journey of life together. I was moved, but couldn’t respond. He put his hand back on my arm, patting it quietly. The waiter collected the bill with my uncle’s signature. It was time to go. Getting up to say goodbye, Uncle Seward reached out to hug me. “You know,” he said, “I’m so glad we had this meeting today.”

“Me too.”

Still tongue-tied, I left the hotel and walked outside into a mild fall afternoon. Turning south toward the subway, I looked around. Above the tops of the brick and stone buildings, behind a haze of cloud cover, there was sunshine.The sidewalks, shops, and pedestrians on Madison Avenue were somehow transformed, as if everything were made of light. My chest felt warm and soft.

I headed down the steps to the subway, and made a mental note to myself.

“Next time you see Mr. Ryan, it would be important to tell him how much you appreciate him.”

Seven Reasons to Tell the Truth

True

I have two teenage granddaughters. Recently, one of them found herself in trouble. Then she lied about it. Her trouble deepened. Fully acknowledging the mysteries of transitioning to adulthood, as well as the hypocrisy of those who claim to utter only the truth, I nevertheless felt moved to put in a plug for things as they are.

There is much that could be said, but no time to say it. For all of us, choices between the truth and something else are being made everyday. “Life will go better for you if you tell the truth,” I say to my granddaughter with urgency, knowing full well that dictums from an old man might not be enough.

Inspired by the wisdom and example of my meditation teachers, and to combat the notion that the truth, like a lie, could possibly be avoided, I offer here seven reasons to tell the truth.

1. The truth can help. To quote Will Rogers, “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” Lies require more lies, more digging. You may not want anyone to know you’re in a hole, but it’s hard to overcome in private what you deny in public. To climb out of a pit, you have to admit you’re in one. If a part of you is sunk, a part of you isn’t. That’s the part that can quit digging. If you’re down, telling the truth is like asking for help, when you do, options present themselves.

2. The truth plugs you in. The ‘well-connected’ aren’t diminished by being part of something. When you understand the ways in which we all connect, you aren’t afraid to share your thoughts and feelings with others. If you don’t share, you unplug from the community around you.  Sharing brings trust. Trust brings communication and exchange. Exchange makes the world go around.

3. The truth is a lesson. Our mistakes teach us. How else are you supposed to learn? If you are afraid to admit mistakes, you have failed to recognize their value. Not that you have to wear every failing on your sleeve. But by admitting the truth, you will begin to know the reasons for the choices you’ve made. When you understand what drives you, you will see how decent and good you really are. That is a lesson worth learning.

4. The truth moves you. The truth may not be what you think it is. When you share your story, it is the story of the moment. Once you tell it, truth turns a page. Lies might have been true once, but things change. Today’s truth might be hard, but if you can’t tell it, you have no way to get to tomorrow’s. Without the truth, you are stuck. You have nowhere to go.

5. The truth is worth sharing. It doesn’t just belong to you. If it did, it would be your truth, in the same way that your car is your car. Who cares about your car? The whole truth, like the earth or the sky, is something we share. It is a conversation, maybe funny or sad, sometimes both. It can be simple and may not be personal. Lies are only yours, a complication. When you try to share them, no one wants to hear.

6. Talking straight means you care. When you care about someone, you make an effort. Willing to be yourself, you show others that it’s OK for them to be who they are, to say what they feel, to relax. They might not go for the idea right away, but they will appreciate and remember you for it. Telling the truth is hard work. When you care about people, you can work hard for them.

7. The truth loves life. The smell of garlic, the taste of ice cream, the cut of a well-made dress, the smile from a sweetheart.  No one lies about the things they really love. To embrace even a small lie is to turn away from appreciating this one moment that is being alive. Life is big and rich. Lying makes it smaller and poorer. To love your life is to tell the truth about it.

Postscript: I end this blog post with less certainty than I began. While convinced that the truth is the “way to go,” I am wary of clinging to principle. In my own experience, the truth is “what works.” How? By waking us up. The truth helps us see ourselves and let’s others see us. In short, by invoking the heart in both the speaker and listener, the truth invites the warmth of awareness. Why can’t the truth be avoided? Well, it can. But sooner or later, as the saying goes, truth will out. How come? Maybe because somehow, somewhere, for some reason, the truth is something all of us already know.

 

A Secret Shared

Tonight I have to be at the meditation center. Our little study group, all long-time practitioners of Buddhist meditation, will meet at 5:30. With our teacher’s blessing, 8-10 of us are reading and discussing sacred “terma,” or “hidden treasure” texts from the Shambhala tradition.

The road to this study group was long. Many years of dedicated meditation practice, contemplation, retreats, and funds were required. Perhaps this is why we are so few.

Students of meditation, we are also school teachers, engineers, bookkeepers, artists, Internet geeks, business executives, nurses, parents, and grandparents. The two texts under study highlight different views on the path of meditation and realization. Outside of our little group, we don’t refer to these texts by name or otherwise.

Last week, this most sacred of sacred, most inner of inner, contemplations began with Brussels sprouts. Roasted actually, with olive oil, and a dash of lemon. Catherine, following a simple recipe from Donna, brought these intriguingly named vegetables to share in our potluck. (Yes, the original sprout might have been cultivated in Belgium). It is not in my nature to appreciate Brussels sprouts. But these were lauded as exceptional and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the one I ate.

As we snack, we talk–current events, both local and global, inspiring or entertaining books, our own news, or news of others. The conversation, superficial or personal, is often animated–all of this without a PDA or a glass of wine. I know what you’re thinking: we must be old. Well, perhaps. We do all seem to be over 40. But our schedules are full. Savoring our exchange together, we are ageless.

If communication isn’t moderated, one might wonder, how it is that members of a group don’t all talk at once? What accounts for the smooth flow of speaking and listening that includes everyone in the group? According to social scientists, the answer is eye contact. And how often do we simply look at a face—and not because we’re waiting for change, or thinking about a kiss, or trying to manage the impression we hope to make?

Faces tell a story. The thoughts we’ve entertained over the years shape the way we hold our jaw, furrow our brows, manage our hair, and shift our gaze. Enjoying Brussels sprouts and Vermont cheddar (my contribution), we read the stories that life has written in the eyes, laugh lines, and crow’s feet on each other’s faces. And we listen–appreciating what is said, and what is unsaid.

I’m not sure why, but this social time is remarkable. Maybe it is the power of the meditation center, a neutral but uplifted space where one is somehow both a host and a guest—and neither. Certainly relaxation is encouraged when food is shared.  Perhaps our mutual intention puts us at ease. We all profess an interest in being less confused, more awake to life and more capable of being helpful. Certainly, we would acknowledge the benefits of slowing down in meditation and finding the space for contemplation.

Having snacked, chatted, listened and looked at each other, we clean up and head into the meditation room to find a seat, taking our sacred and secret texts with us. We arrange ourselves in a circle. Energized from our time together, there is a sense of relaxation and even celebration. Each class seems to begin with the same fresh discovery: we can connect, know and understand each other. None of us is so different from the other.

Sitting on my meditation cushion today, I am emotional. This small group of people has shared so much: years of study and practice, campaigns to establish and host spaces for others to learn meditation, and now the study of advanced and esoteric teachings on the nature of reality. But our spiritual accomplishment manifests very simply and humbly: we can be together, eat and talk. We have learned how to appreciate, respect and maybe even love each other.

Opening our texts, there is a silent acknowledgement. Whatever we may uncover in our study of the profound and sacred, it will arise out of what is shared—our humanness. And these insights, however subtle or surprising, will be accessible to everyone, anywhere, at any time—like the secret of a good Brussels sprout.

Letter to Seniors: 7 Ways You Can Help

Editor’s Note: In this blog post, Michael Greenleaf imagines a letter from a member of the younger generation to those of us who are older. The tone suggests that age brings more responsibility not less, that to grow old is to grow up, and that these times carry with them some urgency. The qualities demanded in the blog are consistent with practice on the meditation cushion. In meditation we allow ourselves to slow down. Willing to expose our true nature to ourselves, genuineness, intelligence and caring for others are naturally cultivated.  An Author’s Note follows the blog.

Dear Seniors, In these uncertain times, we look to our elders for wisdom and understanding. While we know it’s not intended, sometimes you freak us out. We need you not to do that. Also, before you go, the world could use some care and attention. Here are 7 small ways you can be a big help:

1. Smile and Nod: For one thing, smiling is healthy. For another, a frown on an aging face resembles the onset of rigor mortis. Could it be time to lighten up? You have had your whole life to practice a greeting. If you can’t meet someone’s gaze and smile, what hope is there for the rest of us? When you stroll past us like we’re not here, we have to wonder if you’re all there.

2. Slow Down: Later, you say? No time, you say? Maybe you missed the memo: later is now. Where do you think you are going exactly? And in such a hurry? I’m sorry; bustling kids with a bright future are kind of cute. Do you equate rushing with being alive? When you rush, it doesn’t look like you’re going places; it looks like you’re running away.

3. Transcend High School: Dear future graduate of the School of Life, the people you will leave behind are all afraid of each other. Just look at gun sales. We may be full of youth, but we have trouble talking to friends, let alone enemies. Sometime before ‘graduation,’ it could help if you got to know someone outside your circle. We are all in transition. Yours is winding down. Can you risk something? From where we sit, it looks like you have less to lose. Think of the graduation ceremony. Since when can you have too many friends?

4. Dress Nicely: We like it when you dress up. It’s something we’re not even sure how to do. Ladies, please, nothing too tight, remember your circulation. Gentlemen, you need to shave (or trim) the beard. Every day. Otherwise you look dangerous. Sweatpants? OK if you’re working out (do you still call it that?) Seeing you in your sweats at the drugstore, however, we have to wonder what you wear at home. If you don’t respect your aging body, it just makes it that much harder for the rest of us.

5. Listen: It’s true, the young have trouble with commitment, except to our iPhones. A lot of us live in our hoody and seek out only people we know. And when we do communicate, we mumble in a hurry, and wtf, say and write things we need you not to understand. But we want you to listen. Why you? Well for one thing, no one else is. For another, we have to know that you care, that you are used to thinking about us. If you haven’t thought about our future, who has?

6. Share Your Vision: Yes, you can share! But do we always have to talk about how great it was back then, about the crowds at Wal-Mart, or your latest accomplishment, or telemarketers? We do care about those things, but feel free to share some perspective on how we can save humankind and why we should try. Tell us about the world and its enduring beauty. If you don’t see it, it might mean we’re all going blind.

7. Be Kind: While an angry young person might be a work in progress; an angry old person is a natural disaster. Being mean, you look like the rest of us, which is to say, like you never grew up. Kind is from the word kin—for family. It’s scary when you’re pissed, and it upsets the children. Sure, once you were a tiger. No offense, but it’s time to be a kitty cat.

Author’s Note: This past weekend my wife and I attended a function for a local charity. Held at a (relatively) posh venue, eighty of us, mostly retired people, enjoyed food and drink, presentations, and a nice view of the Green Mountains. We knew only a few attendees, but were nevertheless surprised how rare it was for any of the other guests to meet our gaze, never mind strike up a conversation.

Part of this may be the culture of Northeastern Vermont, where, unless your grandfather (and everyone in your family since) was born here, you are a newcomer. The whole affair was poignant: uptight older people embracing a cause of the heart, but unable or unwilling to share their own. If you can’t relax, how can you share? Accustomed as we are to hanging out with our Buddhist community and fellow practitioners of mindfulness meditation, my wife and I had to wonder if we were the problem. When anxiety rules, it’s hard to say where it begins.

In any event, most of the advice aimed at seniors these days is about how they can continue to behave like the rest of us. In this blog post, I share some (OK, occasionally cheeky) alternative suggestions from the perspective of a later generation. The presumption is that with their life experience, seniors should know better. Of course, since life is uncertain, and the time any of us have left is unknown, we are all ‘seniors’ of a stripe. Reflecting upon our shared fate and the fleeting nature of existence, one can’t help but feel that at some point, small talk and small thinking just won’t do. The world needs our help. We need to encourage each other.  If you are offended by my helpful hints, so am I. According to the AARP, I’ve been a senior for the past 5 years.

 

Cliff Dwellers

I promise, this blog is not about the fiscal cliff, slope or whatever it was. Not really. But I have to wonder, how it is we are all going to find reason in our relations with each other. By all accounts, the President made offers that should have enticed Republicans long before the deadline. “Why,” some wondered, couldn’t the holdouts in the House of Representatives just “listen to reason.”

In a book reviewed by the Times last spring, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an answer. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt asserts that human beings (politicians presumably among them) don’t make decisions based on reason. Our decisions come from how we feel. As humans we are intuitive and emotional. Logic and reasons come later as a way to support the value-based decisions we have already made. [Note to the blog: I only read the Times review, I didn’t actually read the book. I will leave that to the scholars, those in the profession, and the rest of you who have no trouble understanding why a thesis that takes 300 pages can’t be said in 10. If some of you find irony in this, you are my kind of reader!]

At any rate, the psychologist writes that Republicans (as a rule) feel deeply about faith, patriotism, valor, chastity and law and order. Democrats, on the other hand, are mainly moved by the challenge of defending those who can’t defend themselves. In both cases, the parties have very human aspirations for society. Haidt calls these moral values. The word moral has the weight of judgment, but the root is related to the simple idea of manners, or the appropriate behavior for citizens of a society.

Aside from the question of how we should behave with each other, how do we behave? If it depends upon how we feel, then in the realm of I and other, “the other” is an emotionally charged phenomenon. To paraphrase the Buddhist Teacher Chögyam Trungpa, when there is a knock on the door, we have either a bottle of cabernet or a semi-automatic ready and waiting. This insight is supported by neuroscience.  Before the ears have heard and the eyes have moved, rather than reacting, the brain has anticipated the next sense encounter.

If we don’t notice that our feelings are pre-programmed and that the decisions we’ve made have been “spun”, when does real communication happen? Without feeling a shared a humanity, we find ourselves alienated, hostage to principle. Entrenched in our own views, we and the politicians who represent us are freed from the burden of exchange that characterizes society (the root of the word means partner or comrade).

Of course to have a partner is to be two, not one. Who is a partner? Someone who  listens. Listening changes minds, if only a little. (According to Haidt, 2 minutes of contemplation around a considered argument is all it takes.) According the psychologist, it is in this exchange that true reason is born. Expounding well-rehearsed opinions may be satisfying, but a reasonable (you could say sane) society is built on something as simple as a conversation.

Of course conversations are everywhere. No one needs a psychologist to tell them that listening changes things. Experience tells us that merely acknowledging our partner’s or family member’s contrary opinion results in a changed atmosphere, if not a consensus. Only highlighting differences, however, “we” becomes “us and them.” Estrangement and separation follow.

Awareness, the kind cultivated on your meditation bench through mindfulness and contemplation, is helpful here. In the discipline of undistracted time alone, our humanity is harder to avoid. Confronted with feeling, the endless chatter of “reasons” is revealed as an overlay, a justification. We begin to sense subtleties. To paraphrase Trungpa again, in exposing our internal drama, good things appear as bad, and bad things appear as good. Making room for own tensions, is itself making room for others. In the politics of successful relationship, we are all statesmen and stateswomen.

Today, emphasizing how we don’t agree is politics. Listening to another’s opinion (without haranguing them) is to surrender identity and the safety of principled alienation. Whether seduced by the prospect of political gain or the drama of the angry hero, some of our leaders embrace “opting out” of the society they would lead. The myth of opting out is sacred to a culture built on individualism and choice. Sooner or later evidence of connection (say a bill from the IRS or an unplanned romance) will end this dream.

Society is a living thing, constantly evolving and changing. It is natural for schisms to arise and resolve themselves. Maintaining a split, however, requires separation. It’s been noted that most of our Representatives and their families don’t live in Washington DC anymore. Perhaps they don’t want to make the sacrifices made by their predecessors. Perhaps their constituents see a move out as a move up–and are ready to reject their leaders for any sign of “elitism.” In any event, if our politicians and their families don’t meet outside of formal functions, they don’t have to learn how to be together, not to speak of listening to each other. Tellingly, the Senate deal that pulled us back from the edge was between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, politicians on either side of the aisle who happen to be friends.

Continually enacting separateness is the ritual of those whose attention is one place and whose home is another. This may be the norm, but is it politics? The word comes from the Greek for citizen—of a polis—a city. Opinions that would lead us beyond city limits are a deception. Maybe it sounds naive, but could we, as well as our leaders, be better listeners? Able to hear the human feelings behind the arguments (our own and others) that continue to vex us? Perhaps then reason can arise, moving us past differences to a place we can share with friends in society, a place somewhere far from a cliff.

Editor’s Note: The teacher Sakyong Mipham has asked his students this question: how we can ask our leaders to do what we ourselves wouldn’t consider? When we opt out of the community meeting at our Meeting House or Meditation Center, aren’t we reenacting the politics of Washington? If sitting in meditation is opening to a conversation with ourselves, shouldn’t it lead to conversations with others who hold values different than our own?

 

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!

Ringing in New Y(ears)

Just a random sample of comments I’ve received recently and over the years. 

 

“Where have you been, in La La land?” My friend Donna marveling at my fatigue with the stress of daily scheduling and meal preparation in a house with a teenager.

 

“It doesn’t read like something from someone who writes for a living.” My friend Sal after previewing a blog post (that never got posted).

 

“I live here too you know!” My wife, asking me why my trousers were on the chair in the bedroom when I already had on a pair.

 

“Everything is going to be alright.” A Tibetan doctor I saw for a flare up of dermatitis.

 

“Do you think about sex a lot?” A Chinese doctor with his fingers on my pulse, interpreted by his wife. (I was seeing him for dermatitis.)

 

“I’m sure you’re really busy.” A meditation student who asked me to call him. (I haven’t yet.)

 

“You forgot something.” My granddaughter referring to a trip I took to the bathroom.

 

“The idea is to finish one thing before you go on to another.” My first boss, critiquing my work habits.

 

“That sounds neurotic.” A student commenting on my livelihood strategy of taking work that scared me.

 

Meditation is very important.” Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the first time I met him (when I was 17).

 

“Don’t move that with your foot. Use your hands.” My wife, upset at my habit of adjusting meditation cushions with my feet before I sat down.

 

“I think you should study business.” Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, after I told him that my future college had a Buddhist studies program.

 

“I wanted to study music, but I had a tin ear.” My college calculus professor in response to my poor performance in his class. (I dropped it.)

 

“All you’re doing is pressing buttons.” My mathematician father, after I explained how happy I was to master my programmable calculator.

 

“First the glucose burns up, then the fat.” My friend Arthur, as I tried to keep up with him in a recent ice skate around Harvey’s Lake.

 

“You’re basically hiding out.” Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche commenting on my life here in Vermont.

 

“I thought Buddhism was about beyond hope and fear.” My friend Sal responding to some thoughts I had about regret and redemption.

 

“There is still time!” Two staff members at the residential meditation center Karmê Chöling (separately) after I said I thought I would make it to Shambhala Day, the lunar New Year.

 

Thank you everyone. I very much appreciate your feedback and look forward to another year of it!

 

 


Meditation Space: Austin, TX

Sunday sitting practice at Austin Shambhala Meditation Center comes together regularly based on the generosity and inspiration of individuals committed to developing bravery and gentleness through mindfulness-awareness meditation. On the path of meditation practice, one develops positive qualities by fully inhabiting one’s own life, and therefore supporting one’s community.

The format of a three-hour Sunday meditation session is firmly but gently prescribed: the staff arrive early and open the center, meditation cushions are set out or straightened up into a comfortable but orderly staggered grid pattern, and finally, the staff makes offerings of water, light, and pleasantly-scented incense to the shrine.

These simple and standard logistical facts of a regular Sunday meditation session are juxtaposed against the fertile possibilities that anyone could show up at any given time during the session to join in and that anything might come up for an individual practitioner during any given meditation session. The precise form of sitting practice combined with a space that can accommodate the openness of the human situation generates a powerful creative friction that characterizes and enriches meditation practice in an urban environment.

Sunday sitting proceeds into the morning: beginning with voluntary, intention-orienting chants, and continuing with sitting meditation divided by short walking sessions. Throughout the morning, some newly-arriving meditators join the group and others bow out. Generally, by the end of the morning, the shrine room is filled with over 25 practitioners surfing (or sometimes doggy paddling, or other times wiping out) on the tides of meditative mindfulness-awareness.

Meditation instruction is freely offered at the Austin Center about an hour before sitting concludes. A rotating staff of meditation instructors offers first-time instruction to anyone who walks through the door looking slightly dazed. Common reasons folks come to our center to receive meditation instruction include: curiosity about Buddhism, curiosity about meditation practice, seeking to gather material for a religious studies course, or sometimes, just being an inquisitive neighbor.

Around noon, the morning sit formally closes with chants of dedication—wishing that any openness of mind we experienced during our meditation session be of benefit to ourselves and others. Initial meditation instruction concludes around noon with the session. Introductory literature packets are distributed to new meditators, containing meditation tips, information on upcoming classes, and a list of related books for those intellectually inclined. New meditators are then invited to share a tea snack with the rest of the community.

Tea snack is where first-time meditators get to know the Austin Shambhala community. Tea snack is also an opportunity for our community to practice being together. This is where our mindfulness and awareness gets off the cushion and rises to a verbal, interactive level.

An aside about meditation practice in general: One popular misconception about meditation practice is that the quality of one’s practice is negatively affected by how much thinking arises during a practice session. This idea would imply that the eventual goal of meditation is to enter a void, thoughtless state. However, that is not the point of meditation.

One of the points of meditation practice is learning how to set priorities. When we practice gently placing our mind on an object of our choosing, that becomes a priority for our attention. When other requests for our attention arise—in the form of urgent or whimsical, electric or dull thoughts, we acknowledge these requests and gently return to the higher-priority object of our attention.

In the Shambhala tradition, the breath is used as a basic object of attention—it is a natural part of us that is right there all the time and does not cost anything to enjoy. When thoughts arise during our practice, it is ok—they are just not the priority for what we are doing at that particular moment.

In a similar way, we can engage in community practice by choosing genuine, kind, and wholesome interaction as our object of attention. When thoughts or insecurities or doubts about ourselves or others come up, that is not regarded as a bad thing, or a thing to be avoided. It is just not the focus or priority of our practice.

Much as there is no need to indulge in utopian (or dystopian) visions about someday achieving a perfect individual meditation session, we neither hope for perfect community relations nor fear they will never arise. In this way, our community practice is focused on the present and available goodness and openness generated from actual human interaction.

Gradually, in the same way that we develop kindness toward ourselves and a stability of mind in our individual practice, we can also develop kindness toward others and a stability of shared intent through community practice.

During our Sunday tea snack, we have the opportunity to explore community practice both by seeing with fresh eyes and ears how we relate with others and by finding what dignity can arise from our genuine rapport. As the tea snack gathering begins to diminish, we feel our social bonds renewed, taking perceived successes and failures, misses and connections, on or off the cushion, out into a broader world.

Without warning, we may find ourselves stopped briefly outside the Center door, noticing how radiant the afternoon sunlight looks, or catching a floral scent of particular pungency in the air. That moment of space and clarity to experience just how vibrant our sense perceptions can be is wonderful feedback that we are fully here, inhabiting our lives—holding the crisp, ephemeral moment joined with the residual hum of enjoying good and virtuous human community.