Thursday, July 28, 2011

Putting Myself out There

I'm always freaking out about putting myself out there. I'll post something on Facebook and then an hour later, as I'm walking down the street, I'll think, "shit! I shouldn't have posted that thing on Facebook!" Then, a second later I'll get over it and move on with my life. When I was younger I was often paralyzed by the fear of putting myself out there, and I didn't even have to deal with social networking. Unfortunately, this doesn't necessarily get easier with age. A lot of people get better at avoiding potential embarrassment and pain by staying inside their nice warm cocoons. Maybe that's why adults suck at learning new languages. We always want to be right, sound smart and never suffer failure.

But my meditation teachers keep instructing me to put myself out there, and meditation has given me a lot of confidence to experiment and to fail. Putting yourself out there means making mistakes and often falling flat on your face, then getting up and saying, ok, that failed miserably, so I'll try it another way next time. It means being fearless in the face of failure, and resting in the knowledge that I'm not always going to get things right.

What it doesn't mean is acting like an asshole, giving constant unsolicited advice to all my friends or saying whatever I feel like to everybody. After all, the Buddha taught upaya, or "skillful means."

Putting yourself out there is a bit like learning a new language. You practice your set phrases and then you get to Mexico. You think you are picking up the language, but then you want to say something about an embarrassing moment, so you say, "estoy embarasado." Instead of saying what you meant, you tell everyone you are pregnant. You fall flat on your face, but you laugh it off with your new friends, assuming you've had some success practicing gentleness. Next time, you'll definitely get that word right, but if you didn't put yourself out there and try to communicate, you'd never learn Spanish.

Sometimes I still cringe a little when I'm putting myself out there. For example, this blog is an experiment in moving out of my comfort zone. I know and accept the fact that some people are going to read this and say, "whoa, he kind of went off the deep end with this meditation blog." I understand that not everyone is going to get it. By practicing gentleness towards myself, it is easier to imagine that others will cut me some slack as well.

So where does this fear of putting oneself out there come from? For starters, I'm thinking it comes from attachment to a self, an identity. I've experienced the loss of self in brief moments of awareness, but to live constantly in the knowledge that the self is illusory, is not something I have achieved or that I really fully understand. Since I grew up in the self affirming punk scene, Noah Levine's words really resonated with me when he said, "you have a personality, it comes through, it's conditioned, it's completely part of you. It's not your true identity." Being part of the punk scene was empowering. It was by developing this hard-core, counter cultural identity that I put on my armor and found a way to get around in society. I felt like I had a place in the world and that there was something special about me and my friends. There was a time when I was terrified to let that identity go. It gave me all my power, but later I realized that I could get a lot more done by relaxing my grip on that identity a little bit.

To start putting yourself out there you have to get a taste of fearlessness, which is not so different from equanimity. But to learn fearlessness, you have to start with gentleness. And to learn gentleness, you have to learn to be gentle to yourself first. Gentleness is one of the first things you learn about when you study meditation. It's an ongoing process, not something that you ever graduate from. I expect that the same goes for putting yourself out there. It is a practice and a process, not something we graduate from.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Contemplating Impermanence from my Hotel Room in Phnom Penh

I’m sitting on the back patio of my hotel room in Phnom Penh, contemplating impermanence. My time sitting on this cushion will soon come to an end. My time in this beautiful hotel room (with a private dipping pool - what?!?!?) will come to an end; I will move to a new hotel room (will it be as good?). My time in Cambodia will come to an end and maybe I'll return home safely. My time with my beloved fiancĂ© will come to an end. She’ll become my wife, but my time with my wife will some day come to an end (and it will definitely end in heartbreak), and my time on earth will surely come to an end.
This is a heavy contemplation before 7am, suffering jet lag and adjusting to the sweltering heat of Cambodia, but contemplating impermanence has been a rewarding practice. Through the contemplation of impermanence, I aspire to rest in the truth that all compounded[i] things are impermanent. By resting in this knowledge, I cultivate fearlessness in the face of change.
By facing some of the most difficult truths in life, you start to relax into the realization that everything is impermanent. At the end of this contemplation I stop and realize that my chest has tightened. My heart is beating a little faster (cool, I can feel my heart beat!). I recognize the fear of these truths and the discomfort it causes. I acknowledge this fear, drop the words, and hold onto this feeling. I let it sit and I experience the physical sensations. Then I drop the practice and return to my life.
I was listening to a podcast by Noah Levine of Dharma Punx the other day and he was talking about how he met this person who said, "I've been studying Buddhism lately, but man, what a bummer!" (My dad says the same thing once in a while). A student of the Dharma might argue that contemplating the truth of reality is important and that this philosophy attempts to cut right through the fear and bullshit, resting in all of the hard truths, even if it leaves us squirming sometimes. What was it that Nietzche said? "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger," or some Conan the Barbarian tidbit like that... But that would only be half of the story. The thing that people often fail to realize when hearing about the teachings on impermanence is that great joy and peace can come out of a contemplation like this. Once I realize that my time walking the earth is impermanent, and once this knowledge sinks deep into my bones, I will slowly learn to appreciate every moment, every movement, every shadow, every word and every rumble from the motor bikes outside my hotel window. I won’t be taking my fiancĂ© or my mom or my dad or my friends for granted, at least not as often as I otherwise would. I won’t be taking myself and my health or the job I love for granted, because I know these things will end. My aspiration is to learn to appreciate every fleeting moment that passes. Those moments of awareness are like a bird swooping in overhead to see what is going on, before mysteriously disappearing back into the sky.

[i] Pretty much everything we deal with on the day to day level is a compounded thing, as the Buddha taught. Things come about as an aggregate of many factors. For example, this cup of tea I am drinking is the product of sunlight and fertile soil and water for growing the tea leaves. The cup contains water that had to be heated by a person for it to brew. Some stranger picked these tea leaves in India, and then a truck took it to an airport before someone flew it here. That required gasoline, someone to build the truck, roads, etc., etc. etc. There is a teaching on interdependence embedded in there too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Contemplating Spiritual Materialism at the Kalachakra Empowerment in DC

Today I volunteered at the Kalachakra for World Peace event at the Verizon Center. The Dalai Lama is leading the Kalachakra empowerment over three days and today was the first day of that empowerment. This is a historic ocassion as the Kalachakra is a fairly rare event and carries profound signficance within Vajrayana Buddhism. It is unlikely that the Dalai Lama will ever offer this again in DC.

It was a kind of a weird juxtaposition to have a sacred event at the epicenter of agression, capitalism and competition, where the Washington Wizards go to battle with the LA Lakers. One of my fellow volunteers pointed out the irony of having a TV screen with the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama on it, and an advertizement for the Army on the side bar. "Not just strong. Army Strong." (Note to self: find out if Army makes trash bags or condoms.)

My job, along with a team of volunteers, was to pour purification water and blessed water into the hands of people observing or taking the Kalachakra empowerment. I won't get into specifics about the empowerment, but basically, those taking the empowerment are committing to a set of daily tantric practices. This stuff is way over my head at my current stage in practicing and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Needless to say, I was more of an observer than a participant in the empowerment ceremony.

I was fascinated by the zeal with which many of the Tibetans participated, doing prostrations in the Verizon Center, and coming up to me with empty water bottles, asking me to fill them with blessed water so that they could take it back to their families in Minessota and Massachussets. During my visits to China, India and Nepal, I've seen Tibetans practicing Buddhism, but I've never seen it in the United States. It is remarkable just how differently Westerners practice and Tibetans practice. Westerners are generally more focused on the meditation practice, whereas Tibetans are very interested in blessings and sacred objects like blessed red string to wear on their wrists, and kusha grass, the same kind of grass that the Buddha's meditation mat was made of. In fact, there was a small riot at the Verizon center during the distribution of blessed red string and kusha grass. I wasn't there to see the pushing and shoving, but it put a damper on the awesomeness of the whole event to hear that violence had broken out around something so sacred.

This is not to say that only Asians bring a strong materialistic streak to their Buddhism. I noticed how much I and other Americans were yearning for little Buddhist goodies to bring home and satisfy our spiritual materialism. I was disappointed not to have gotten a big piece of kusha grass to put under my mattress. The lore is that if you put the grass under your pilow, you'll have dreams that will bring you closer to the Kalachakra empowerment ceremony. That sounds pretty cool... and now that His Holiness planted that seed in my head, I better push my way to the front and get me some of that holy grass!

Now that I've started going to Sangha retreats and Dalai Lama events, I've started to notice the spiritual materialism that Chogyam Trungpa warned about and that we can read about in his book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. In that book he says, "If we become successful at maintaining our self consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine development is highly unlikely." Picking up on this vibe in a big way, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, who gave a Dharma talk almost exclusively to a Western audience after today's events, noted that Easterners have gotten into a nasty habit of waiting for lightning to strike them and give them spontaneous enlightenment. She warned Westerners not to fall into the same lazy beliefs. She praised westerners for being skeptical about stories about how the Buddha would give a Dharma talk and people would become instantly enlightened. The point is that real development takes real work. We have to spend countless hours sitting on a cushion to develop wisdom mind or prajna, and we have to exert ourselves in learning to love humanity, which sometimes seems so damn unlovable. We have to practice multitudes of kind and selfless acts to rouse Boddhichitta. We can't just buy it in an antique shop in Osaka or Dharamsala. I guess that means we can't take it in pill form either... better get to work with that meditation...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sangha Retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center with Sakyong Mipham

Sangha Retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) in 2011 may live in my memory as a life changing experience somewhere alongside losing my virginity, joining the Peace Corps, and deciding to get married. I'm not sure I'm coming back home the same person that I left.

The Shambhala Sangha Retreat is kind of like Lolapalooza for Dharma students in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. Every Sangha retreat features giants of the Shambhala lineage and this year's event at SMC included Sakyong Mipham, Acharya Arawana Hayashi and Acharya Adam Lobel. Actually, scratch that thing about Lolapalooza. It's more like the Tibetan Freedom Concert but instead of the Beastie Boys you get Sakyong Mipham. The point is that if you want to attend a summer retreat and study with some great teachers, this is a great event to attend. For me, this was the first meditation retreat I had ever attended outside of a city, and it was amazing.

I met Sakyong Mipham for the first time a couple of years ago when he spoke in Baltimore. He was on his way to meet Queen Noor. To be honest, I wasn't blown away by the meeting, even though other people I knew there seemed floored by him. So I went to SMC with no expectations other than that I would hear some teachings from as legitimate an authority on meditation in the East or West as you will ever find. The Sakyong just returned from a year long retreat and so I was hoping he would kick down with some wisdom bombs and blow our minds.

That's just what he did. I had the feeling that the Sakyong had blossomed into his role as a spiritual leader, that he had fearlessly confronted his doubts about human nature and his commitment to his father's legacy (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche). Through this deep self reflection, he saw not only his own nature, but the key to human dignity. He admitted his doubts and this honesty is the first thing that struck me: we don't have to take anything on faith, but figure things out through contemplation, experience and reflection.

The Sakyong taught on the theme of basic goodness. To know basic goodness, you have to know feeling. That was a word he used a lot, "feeling." Bravery is allowing yourself to feel the feeling that you are feeling. Not running away, not burying it, not turning your back on it. Don't be afraid to hold a feeling and poke it; see what it is made of. Don't be embarrassed of your humanity, your awkward moments, your tears, your mistakes, the things that scare you, your lust, your materialism. In all this pain and discomfort you will find opportunities to touch basic human goodness.

He spoke about themes like the embodiment of the feeling of basic goodness (bringing it down from the head to the heart). He also talked about noticing the ceremonies in life and the need to consciously design the ceremonies you engage in, or face the reality that others will design the ceremony for you. He quoted his father, Chogyam Trungpa, "life is ceremony," and the poetry of this father to son to Sangha transmission was not lost on the Sangha retreat participants.

Throughout this retreat there were several moments when I thought my heart would explode. This came not only from the teachings, but from the outward expressions of human goodness that I saw in the Sangha. I hung out with a concentration of incredibly talented and inspiring people, from an ex-neo Nazi turned peace educator, to a couple that run a children's theater, to the Dog Whisperer's website manager, a holistic healer, musicians, a community landscaper, a mother of two, and multitudes of other humans devoting their lives to creating a more sane planet. Coming to Sangha retreat felt like a meeting of minds, a tribal gathering, a battery recharge, and an opportunity to evaluate our wildest aspirations that suddenly felt like many steps less than impossible.