I got the job as assisstant opinion editor at the Daily Nebraskan. I'm starting on January 12.
I wonder how that's gonna go?
Sylvia was beautiful. She has the most wonderful hair, black and glossy, her springy curls giving her a constant impression of energy. She was petite and well rounded, smiling, with sharp eyes and a wonderful way of articulating herself with words and gestures. She appeared fully engaged with the people and the world around her. She was a good Catholic girl from Los Angeles who had travelled with her church group in Europe and looked far too young to be a high school English teacher. I met her at Karme Choling, where she was attending the Mukpo Institute for Buddhist Studies before moving to Manhattan to study art.
We sat in the dining hall speaking about the places we had travelled to. She advised me that San Francisco was the only city in California worth visiting and that Wyoming was beautiful. We had both been to Colorado. She had a friend there, a woman who was a backpacking guide, who liked to go by herself to the wild places, the places without a footprint. She would search for days for those untouched spots. Sylvia was mystified, but I nodded my head. I could understand her friend. I thought of the Sand Hills and I tried to explain it as best I could in halting and clumsy language. I told her about the mountains and the grass and the ocean, struggling for a metaphor.
“You see, the wild places don’t care,” I said, knowing that wasn’t the half of it.
“But isn’t that scary?” she asked.
I struggled to explain. “But you see, because they don’t care, they don’t want anything from you. They don’t demand anything. They don’t tell you how to be. Like in the Sand Hills, it’s just oceans and oceans of grass and all you can hear is the wind. In some places you can walk across the hills and you can’t see anything human within that landscape, not a road or house or windmill, not even a barbed wire fence. Because everything people make contains a message, beyond its mere function, it has a reason, a ‘do this, not that.’ So even something as simple as a fence is a message from someone demanding something from you, don’t cross, walk beside, or telling you something, this is where your land stops and mine begins. Because we are social creatures, we are always looking for these messages, consciously and unconsciously. But the hills themselves don’t care and because they don’t care you’re…free.”
I think finding that kind for freedom is one of the things that helps us realize the constructed nature of our reality. Without the uncaring hills, the stoic mountains, or the indifferent sea to show us that something else is possible, we might never realize it. I wonder if that is why the Buddha sat under a tree, even if he might not have realized it at the time. After all, the tree didn’t care, did it? While the companions he had been studying with had all had expectations and they gave him guff for failing to meet those expectations. But the tree didn’t care. It was content to let him be and to go on doing as it had always done.
It is true that the fencepost really doesn’t care any more than the hills or the grass or the wind. It is the meaning our mind gives it that makes us believe the fencepost wants something from us, but it is also the interconnectedness of it all. We know someone made that fencepost, sometime in the past, someone felt the need to tell other people (or cows) that this was a boundary not to be crossed. We instinctively see a connection with that person. Our world is made up of fenceposts and the meanings we give them and the connections we seek through them.
These words are fenceposts. Fundamentally, they don’t care. They have no meaning. They make not connections. We care. We decide meaning. We make connections. Fundamentally, we are not fenceposts. We seek not to create boundaries but remove them. We seek to renounce all those barriers between ourselves and others, to connect, heart to heart.
“I think I understand,” Sylvia told me. She had such a thoughtful expression.
I smiled and leaned forward on the table, making a connection.
It's another two-fer today. Gee, you'd think I didn't have anything better to do during Dead Week than play on the internet. Well, I'm not convinced I have anything better to do, but I certainly do have something else that needs doing. Or so my professors keep telling me.
Keith had a family emergency. He has a two year old so we all hoped it was nothing serious. Julie, our professor, asked me if I could cover his portion of the group presentation. Could I explain the Rational Model? Sure. I told her I could. I didn’t know whether or not I was lying.
The truth seems like it should be a solid, immutable thing. Even the word “truth” sounds steady, strong, like a rock, like a thing with an absolute existence. As part of the Dharma, I have studied the dichotomy of relative truth and ultimate truth. I knew this statement, quick to reassure my fretting professor, belonged to the realm of the relative. But that wouldn’t make it any less a lie.
If someone hold up a playing card, back facing you, and asks you to tell them the suit, is your answer a lie? A guess? Maybe so. But what if that person expects you to know for certain? What if that person relies on your answer? Then is it a lie? Do you wear your confidence like a cloak?
I read the one page explanation of the Rational Model. Five minutes later I stood up and made my introductions and moved through the half a dozen slides as if I had known all along what they had said - as if I wasn’t just paraphrasing the words, making them sound extemporaneous, as I read them – as if I knew what the Rational Model was – as if I had known we had used the Rational Model for our group project (which we did, but only by stumbling into it). I felt vaguely like a fraud, but also like a success for so smoothly fulfilling all their expectations.
As I handed off the presentation to the next team member and found a seat with my group at the back of the room, Julie whispered in my ear that I had done a fantastic job. I whispered by my standard line about having become quite competent at faking confidence.
“Fake it ‘til you make it, I always say!” Julie whispered back.
I guess. On the one hand, I’ve been living that line for half of my life. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve spend half of my life living a lie. I’ve spend my life pretending confidence, knowledge, expertise, caring, conformity, happiness, equanimity, and courage.
What if I’m not confident? What if I’m unsure, ignorant, inexperienced, indifferent, antisocial, depressed, tempest tossed and full of fear?
Let’s not be melodramatic here. I’m not that either. It is a fascinating thing that as human beings we can be so vital with contradiction. We can walk the Middle Way between all these extremes. We can live within the beauty of irony, sarcasm, satire, hyperbole, and fantasy. We can come to know all the joys and sorrow of samsara – never limited to only one or the other.
We can judge, reason, and discern. We can choose the truth and in so doing, bring it into being. I made a judgment and I certainly didn’t bother choosing rationally. I chose intuitively, based at least as much on what I wanted to be so as what I felt was actually possible. Maybe that is the greatest form of delusion, but I stood up and made myself into an honest woman. I did what I told Julie I could do. In so doing, I took another step towards actually being that confident person we all fake so well.
In the absense of a "true self," maybe we can live a lie.
I fell in love on the subway. It was in Chicago and it was bitterly cold. I was on the red line, which is more of an elevated train than a subway. A few stops after mine, a trio of teenagers boarded, loud and laughing as only teenagers can be. The first one I noticed was a dark-haired boy in a red T-shirt, only a T-shirt on a dark December evening. They stood in front of me, two boys and a girl, shifting and fidgeting with youthful energy and talking just a bit too loud.
The dark haired boy in the red shirt put his arm around the other boy in a loverly way and caressed his back, hugging his waist, jokingly I think, though the other boy did not throw him off. It was not the caresser that riveted me, but the caressed. He was not a boy, but not yet a man. His face was beautiful, with perfect high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and flawless pale skin with just the first brush of a five o'clock shadow. His eyes captured me, though they turned not in my direction. They were brown, just brown, but so expressive, so rich and captivating, turning this way and that between his two companions.
His body was trim and athletic, even beneath his quilted winter coat. It was black with a black scarf over dark blue jeans, which were blessedly neither baggy nor sagging. After a time a pair of seats opened up and he and the girl sat, the red-shirted boy standing close before them. The object of my misguided affection sprawled languidly, one foot braced on a vertical support, he head leaned back against the seat.
I did not know his age, nor his name, nor any single fact about him, but I loved him. From his sandy brown hair to his black tennis shoes, I loved him. This was the boy who less controlled women went to prison for and this emotion was what they got in trade. This was the boy that the Greeks wrote poems about and the Romans made statues of. I watched surreptitiously and tried not to stare. He was so beautiful and, unlike so many young people, seemed totally unconcerned by this fact.
Past station after station, as a hundred people came and went, I watched him and marvelled that any human being, live and in the flesh, could be so outwardly beautiful. He could have been a monster inside and I am not sure I would have cared. I could picture him, standing as the Roman statues stand, but of warm, soft, living flesh. He was young enough to be forbidden but certainly old enough to make his own decisions, be they ever so unwise and damaging. It is just that kind of young man, or woman, prone to damage and be damaged, fragile like china and yet somehow powerful.
Would I ever? I thought to myself and then smiled. No never. I shook my head slightly. Oh, but I could love him for those few minutes there on the subway. Love without entanglements, without attachment, without fear or loss or pain or heartbreak. Because I would never, even if he might have. My station came and I left the train without a backward glance and he travelled on into the night never knowing that for that short period of time and for ever after a woman loved him.
Or maybe he did know.
I recently attended a retreat at Karme Choling in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I participated in Shambhala Training Levels IV & V, Awakened Heart and Open Sky. I got my merit badge, a Level V pin, like a good little girl scout and I fulfilled my commitment to myself, to at the very least finish Level V before I decided if this meditation thing was all a crock of shit. Now I feel like the happy victim of a bait and switch, but in a good way. Level V came with a vast sense of happiness and relief, such that I am now looking forward to continuing on this path. If you continue reading below, you should know that this commentary contains some spoilers, so if you intend to take the Shambhala Levels yourself in the very near future, let me sum up so you need read no further: we are all buddhas. If I do continue on this path, these will probably be the last spoilers I post out of respect for the tradition, but this was something important for me which I thought I should share on the off chance that someone else might take encouragement from it. Let us start then from the beginning.
In August of 2004, not one week after I had moved to my new home in Lincoln and a scarce week before starting classes at the University here, I hopped on a west-bound train and found myself at Shambhala Mountain Center enrolled in something called Shambhala Training Level I, Birth of the Warrior. I loved the mountains. I loved the people. I enjoyed all this basic goodness stuff our teacher, Cynthia Kneen, talked about. I hated meditation. I say that word with a certain emphasis, dragging the ‘Hay’ sound up from my stomach, almost spitting the word, biting down on the ‘T’ sound. I HAY-Ted meditation.
But these people, they were smart and beautiful and glowing in a way that had little to do with their high-altitude tans. And these words in this book, they were strong and sensible and inspiring in a way printed words so seldom are. So, possibly because I’ve always been a bit of a masochist and because meditation was one of the hardest things I’d ever attempted in my life, I came back. I still didn’t get it and I continued not to get it for several years, but I resolved to give this who meditation thing a fair shake. Everything they seemed to say meditation brought - clarity, stability, strength, equanimity, compassion, even wisdom - I seemed to be getting from somewhere else in my life (ok, well maybe not so much the wisdom). I already had my support mechanisms in place.
Acharya Rockwell recently told me that people come to meditation because they are confused, because there has been some upheaval in their lives which they can’t make sense of. Heretofore, I was not confused. (Or no more than usually, I should think.) There had been no upheaval. But I was curious. Why? Why? Why did everyone seem to think this sitting around on your ass doing nothing and watching your mind jibber was such a grand thing?
I’m already enough of a mind game. I’d been watching my mind do cartwheels since elementary school. I’d lived a life of fantasy and storytelling to make up for the disappointment of reality. It’d gradually come to realize this was of no benefit. I’d sought then to free myself from my own illusions, to engage with my world more fully. I’d always been on guard against my introverted tendencies. I’d been the silent observer in my own head for so long, this was all nothing new to me, but here they’d formalized it. They’d made all these confining rules about sitting and breathing and where to place your gaze and to let your tongue touch your palette and to label your thoughts “Thinking” and so on and so forth. For what?
I struggled. I made it through Level II and learned a little more about the cocoons we construct to protect ourselves from reality. I sat quietly through Level III and learned how we relate to others, for better or for ill. (And I had my epiphany moment for the design of my studio project.) Then years passed. Every so often, when I was headed west, I would check the schedules for a Level IV, but it was always just before or just after my trip. I never bothered to prioritize it.
I like to sit, not meditate, just sit. I sit on busses or park benches or in restaurants or libraries or just on my couch at home. I always thought of it as paying attention, but to nothing in particular. A squirrel or a bird wanders into my sight. I hear the wind in the trees. I watch the clouds go by and a person or two pass through. I think whatever I think and when I get caught up and wander away, I come back. I center myself again in my seat, in my little slice of the world, and I just sit.
Every year at Shambhala Mountain Center they have a program for teenagers called Sun Camp. It’s kinda like boy scouts for Buddhists. The Sun Campers were a khaki shirt as part of their uniform and on the back it says “When you lose your mind … Come back.” I love that.
Two summers ago, I described this to my meditation instructor. Why, I wanted to know, was it so easy for me to just sit on the bench in the courtyard and simply be and so hard to get my ass to the cushion? And what’s the difference between the two?
It’s not meditation, she told me, I was just spacing out. It didn’t really count. It wasn’t beneficial. I needed to meditate. I’d only make real progress with meditation. I needed to get my ass to the cushion.
Really? I thought, because it doesn’t feel like spacing out. It feels like being present. But I didn’t speak and I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure it sounded like spacing out.
Over time other people reacted the same. What do you mean you don’t meditate? How can you not meditate? Meditation is so important. You need to meditate.
A few weeks ago I had an emotional episode. I broke down and bawled my eyes out. I got angry, a little crazy, and I got my butt to the cushion. And I made it a priority to find a Level IV. As it turned out, I found a Level IV & V program with Acharya Rockwell at Karme Choling. I managed to sell it to my thesis professors as an investigation of another type of retreat center. (Which definately paid off, in the end.) Karme Choling offered me a scholarship and payment plan to help with the costs. Off I flew, leaving my family behind on Thanksgiving.
In Level IV the technique changed yet again, we brought the gaze up, raised it off the floor. People struggled with this, they found themselves overwhelmed with thoughts, sense perceptions, the glorious phenomenal world. I just shrugged. Due to my bad back, I have already modified the instructions so much, what’s one more thing? I spent both levels leaning against a gomden supported by one of the posts in the middle of the shrine room. Close gaze, raised gaze, stand on your head, so what? I was still bored to tears and trying not to fall asleep. I learned some important things about trusting my sense perceptions and that thoughts, like sights and sounds, are among these. They are the perceptions of my mind and just as much a part of the world, of my experience of the world, as anything else. They are not separate. They are not me, but they can be trusted.
I played hooky from meditation and I enjoyed the physical and perceptual exercises. Acharya Rockwell has that presence that I have noticed in the acharyas. He is there, every moment, and smart, funny, kind, and helpful. I enjoyed his talks.
Level V came around and we all gathered to receive the meditation instruction for Level V. There is no instruction, Acharya Rockwell told us, just drop it. Just be. It’s the technique of no technique.
I’m not usually a dunce, but it took me a moment to catch on. I suppose I was incredulous, which I don’t recall ever having been. Really? You mean I can just be? Finally, I can just be! It was such a joyous relief. I was awake for the entire morning sit, no head-bobbing at all. I can just be. Just be. Just be. Damn, why didn’t somebody tell me this four levels ago? I can just be.
Acharya Rockwell was my meditation instructor and when I spoke with him the first time, I hadn’t much to report. Now I had a question. I told him my story. I told him about my just sitting. I told him that his instructions sounded an awful lot like what I’d always done but been told didn’t count. And I asked my question: when is the other shoe going to drop?
No shoe. I can just be. I can really just be. Damn! I knew I knew it all along.
As I left that interview and looked back on the years between Level III and IV, I realized something. I paid too much attention to all the people that told me my version of sitting didn’t count. Over the years I gradually devalued it, sat less and less, and finally stopped. All the while I struggled to maintain a formal meditation practice and failed again and again. This left a gap in my life and stripped me of my normal coping mechanisms, my strength, my clarity, made me vulnerable until I finally broke down. Until it drove me back to a formal meditation practice in search of relief.
But now I know I can just be. No technique. Just be, just as I have always been. This is awakened heart. This is open sky. This is bodhicitta. This is buddha-nature, that thing we all have but can’t see.
I remember when I read Thich Naht Hahn’s words and realized nirvana is now. I remember how I laughed like it was the greatest, most wonderful joke ever played. I remember how happy I was. It is the same. I don’t regret Levels I through IV, they gave me the ability to see this clearly, to articulate and understand. And now after all that, I can drop it, let go of the technique, and just be.
We are all buddhas.
“I will never need to go skydiving…
“I find here and there granite seats where I can listen to the whispering trees and flowing water… I notice the neurosis, the ego, the anxiety is still there, but it is small now and distant, like the ant against the mountain or the bird against the sky…
“I have flown on four swift legs not my own through the rushing course of trees and over the whipping grasses…
“I have rolled my eyes at my own behavior and then gone about it anyway, smooching in the Wal-Mart aisles and tickling in the aspen groves. I have teased and laughed and been very conscious of all the ways I shut down, close off, protect and defend against people who might, only just might, hurt me some amorphous someday. I have dragged out my introverted habits by their tails and held them up to the light only to realize the only one chewing on the slippers and peeing in the house is me. But I don’t scold them, no never that. I just stop feeding them until someday they might turn into little dust bunnies and blow away.
“I have listened to the rain. Some rain drips like the ticking of a clock, quick and steady. Other rain pitter patters like children’s feet, splashing and jumping. It snowed last night, so the land is bright and white, the clouds full and soft. Here and there the rain has washed the land clean, bright green moss over dark grey stone. The tall, tall, trees reach up, and with soft needles, tickle the underbellies of the clouds that skim the rolling hills. The sky laughs, shaking, and rain falls gently down. The grasses smile and wave. It is almost winter.
“I watch people go about the day, warm and snug. Bright colors and thick carpets chase away the grey outdoors with reds and greens and oranges. Warm cups of tea steam and sparkle in the lamplight, which shines onto the crisp white pages and the clear black text of a book held softly in the lap. Water seeps in through cracks and crevices, dripping with a hollow and discordant Poh! into gently placed buckets. Like the meditation bell that calls our attention away from our tail-chasing thoughts. The world is breathing.
“I feel the chill seep in and seek the warm company of friends, the cheery heat of laughter, the happily knit pair of thick winter socks. It is a day of scrubbing and cleaning, cooking and making, thinking soft and slow thoughts, rough and raging thoughts, of washing away the sorrows of the world. It is the day of sad joy.
“As I continue on, I find the great wide world is so much more interesting, so much more perfect in its every moment than all my little mental worrying ants and drifting birds and misbehaving dust bunnies.
“Poh! the water drips! We are here again.”
I didn’t eat much of my dinner. The energy curled in the bottom of my stomach, displacing hunger and thirst and even fear, vibrating through me. My voice was more steady than I expected, ringing out the words. Did it quaver just a bit there? Maybe, but only just the tiniest bit. As I read the second to last lines, I realize they are wrong. Or not wrong, just unfinished, just misunderstood, just always changing. I realize my worrying ants and drifting birds and delightfully misbehaving dust bunnies are part of the wide fascinating world. They are as much of the world as the mountains and the horses and the people and the rain. Yet, I read my offering as it is, only stumbling a bit over those final words as I discover the new ones yet unwritten. And they clap and I bow and sit down again. They come by later, one here or there to compliment the words. I was flattered and I stuttered a little to say my thanks. Sometimes I feel the words don’t belong to me anymore than the landscape belongs to the painter. Other times I cling like a jealous terrier.
But the fact that the words, arranged just so, might have helped someone, might have made someone sigh or smile - well that is a wondrous thing, a wondrous like the wild world thing.
Note: portions of this reading and post were excerpted from a previous post, Little Perfect Present Moments.
Introductory conversations tend to follow a pattern at retreat centers. These are places where people have gathered from all over in order to practice together. Everyone is very different and yet all fundamentally the same. We all sit and eat and sleep and suffer and chase our thoughts. Because we have spent a while studying the dharma, we know this, so when we introduce ourselves, we focus on the differences rather than the similarities.
“Hi, I’m Joe/Jane.”
“Hello, Joe/Jane, I’m Monica.”
“So where are you from?”
“Really!” It’s not actually a question, just a statement of surprise followed by, “Wow, I didn’t know we had any Shambhala centers in Nebraska.”
“We don’t. Nor in the Dakotas, or Iowa, or Kansas.”
“So where’s your closest center?”
“How far is that?”
“From where I live in Nebraska, it’s 550 miles.”
They look at me with faint amazement. I begin to feel a little squirmy and a little uncomfortable, like I’m dominating the conversation. After all, I don’t even know where they’re from yet.
Their good opinion of me increases aswe move into the next phases of conversation, "How did you get involved in Buddhism?" and "What do you do?"
“That takes some dedication. To do it all on your own, especially when you're so busy. To travel that far and to practice without a sangha, and then to come all the way here to Vermont for this program. Wow!”
I never really thought about it that way. After all, one of the other participants was from San Francisco. At least they have centers in San Francisco. I have been conscious of being somewhat isolated here, separated, but it never occurred to me to think of myself as dedicated. After all, I am Buddhist. It doesn’t take much dedication to be who I am (or am not, such as it were). I was Buddhist before I knew what Buddhist was. I never really became Buddhist, I just discovered a whole bunch of people already like me, which was great. They happened to call themselves Buddhists and that was fine by me. Sometimes I feel like the cuckoo in the robin’s nest who finally migrated and found all the thousands of other cuckoos already headed in the same direction.
It makes me think though, and worry a little, that my practice is influenced by being the only black goat in the herd. I keep seeking out the other black goats, and we hang out for a while, and I feel safe because I don’t stand out quite so much anymore. Then, at the end of the visit, be it hours or days or months, I go back to my original herd, which isn’t so bad, because goats are goats wherever you go, but I’m once again the only black one. I’m one of a kind, or nearly so, here in Nebraska and I’m one of a kind when I leave because wherever I go, I’m the only one from Nebraska. And I gotta admit, sometimes it’s sorta cool to be one of a kind.
That’s why I started this blog after all. I was feeling isolated, separated. It is now one of the few steady things in my life. I’ve been able to maintain it and to grow through it, to mature into a better writer (I hope) with a stronger love for writing than ever before, and to expand my knowledge of the dharma and meet wonderful new people. It seems that I have flourished in isolation. Yet, is that really the best thing for an introvert? It is the comfortable thing, to be sure, but that can be dangerous. Comfort goes a long way to enhancing our habitual patterns.
So I leave. I seek out other cuckoos, or other black goats, other Buddhists. I go from one extreme to the other, from being ignored to being interesting. No wonder I love spending time with the sangha. Being the center of attention, if ever so minor or fleeting, is a great high. No one would ever think Nebraska could sound exotic, but to people on the coasts, it seems to be. They know the middle of the country only from the writings of Willa Cather and Laura Ingles Wilder.
“Isn’t Nebraska flat?” they ask and I always laugh.
“No, Nebraska isn’t flat. It just looks that way from the Interstate.”
Does being alone affect my practice? Certainly. In an odd sort of way, I live in solitary retreat. Yet, I can also get lost in the whirlwind of mainstream American culture, absent of all those supports or reminders, except those that I construct for myself. I had better be good at constructing those supports. I had better remember to prioritize my practice. I suppose maybe I am dedicated.
Acharya John Rockwell taught the program I recently attended at Karme Choling in Vermont. He spoke a bit about exertion and how it is akin to joy, how Trungpa redefined the word exertion to encompass joy. I guess that’s a complicated way of saying it’s easy to do what we love, so we should cultivate our ability to love what we do.
Dedication is easy when you love.