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.
It was 1975. My Buddhist meditation teacher was coming to NYC. I wanted to see him. I also wanted my Aunt and Uncle, who lived near my boarding school in rural PA, to be able to appreciate him as well. Besides, I didn’t really know the city and could use some help getting there. A high school senior, I had been practicing on my meditation cushion for several years. Aunt and Uncle were skeptical. This was before the Dalia Lama, before karma was in Merriam Webster’s. If Buddhism wasn’t a cult, it was certainly foreign. Tibet was unknown. They found a babysitter, and we drove into New York City from suburban New Jersey.
The talk was in a spacious church. We arrived on time. There was plenty of room. Curiously, well after the starting time, people were still wandering in. At some point, the place was full and a bit noisy. The hall echoed as hip 20- and 30-something’s exchanged greetings and chatted.
How long did it take Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche to arrive? An hour? An hour and a half? Long enough for the lively chatter to be replaced with a subdued tension and the occasional grumble of irritation. My Aunt was no exception. She had found a sitter for her teenage children, had talked my Uncle into driving us, and now we were waiting. And waiting. Waiting for a person who was alleged to have answers, to have wisdom. No announcements were made to explain the delay. Frozen in the face of family turmoil, my stomach tightened, bracing for whatever happened next.
While her anger was never directed at me, in those days my Aunt had a temper. Arouse her wrath at your own risk. She was charming and smart, but if she was mad, she was not to be trifled with. After an uncomfortable hour in the pew, my Uncle suggested we leave. No, my Aunt was firm. We would stay. My own parents having separated many years earlier, my Aunt and Uncle were like a second father and mother to me. They were paying for prep school. Their home was my home.
My dad was in Texas, my mom in Boston, my younger brother in Colorado: life was already in pieces. Would anything ever connect? Not tonight. Hopes for a good impression had evaporated. My Aunt and Uncle were Christians, but not strictly. Having confronted the hypocrisy of church elders as a teenager, my Uncle, a budding artist, could wax cynical on all things pious. My Aunt remained open to the Protestant faith of her parents. Neither one was closed-minded.
Finally, just as people had started to leave, there was a shuffle on the stage and Trungpa sat down in the chair that had been waiting for him. He didn’t apologize for keeping us. If he even noticed the room’s irritation, it was hard to say. For half an hour or so, Trungpa spoke in a soft, high-pitched voice. I have no recollection of what he said.
As Trungpa spoke, my Aunt’s irritation seemed to grow. After hearing the questions from the audience that somehow overlooked his lateness, she turned to me. “How can he tell people to trust their own intelligence and keep them waiting for an hour and a half?” she asked, an edge of exasperation in her voice.
Knowing there was no answer, I mumbled something. Before I knew it, my Aunt was out of her seat and had approached the front of the room. Trungpa was still in his chair, sharing hellos with well-wishers at the foot of the dais. I followed along anxiously. Nicely turned out in a knit suit, her purse clutched under one arm, my Aunt put the same question to Trungpa. There was urgency in her voice.
My teacher leaned down, a smile brightening his face. “Well,” he said slowly, articulating each word, “It depends.” Incredulous, my Aunt reformulated her challenge. Again leaning towards her, Trungpa offered an explanation, “I didn’t want to jump the gun,” he said, seemingly delighted at having found the phrase that captured the moment. As if losing interest, Trungpa casually looked to the next person who was waiting to talk to him.
In my mind’s eye, there, in front of the stage, is where the top of my Aunt’s head kind of blew off. The conversation was over. We left the church and rode home. It was awkward. My Aunt and Uncle never asked to see Trungpa again. When they referred to him, in lieu of the honorific Rinpoche, they would call him ricochet.
Undeterred by this setback, after high school I moved to the meditation center Trungpa had founded in Northern Vermont. Two years later, I was off to college. Before I left, I shared with Rinpoche that the (one) school which accepted me had a program in Buddhist Studies. There was a very long pause. “I think you should study business,” he replied, without explanation.
As the years past and my meditation practice deepened, my Aunt and Uncle began to voice respect for the tradition I had embraced. Chogyam Trunpa died. I became a student of his son, Sakyong Mipham. They were especially pleased when the Sakyong named me Acharya, or senior teacher.
Tonight, almost 40 years later, we will try again. My wife and I will travel with my Aunt and Uncle to see Sakyong Mipham give a talk and sign books in New York City. My Aunt, once a housewife, is now a producer of cabaret. She has been reading the Sakyong’s latest book and “really getting a lot out of it.” My Uncle, an established sculptor and patron of the arts, is interested in doing a statue of Milarepa, one of the patron saints of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to being a Buddhist teacher, I am a CPA. My Uncle is over 80, so we may not stay for the book signing.
And yes, I think we all are a bit anxious. As my Aunt shared with me approvingly on the phone the other day, she expects Sakyong Mipham to be on time.
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.