Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Eyes Wide Open

Two weeks ago, I participated in a "Learn to Meditate" course at the Shambhala Mountain Center outside of Ft. Collins, Colorado. One day, I hope to be able to look back at this weekend and identify it as a turning point.

I have a great life, am generally happy and healthy, and don't really feel the need for a dramatic external shift in direction. But I'm looking for something more, some internal direction, something concrete regarding my purpose in this ever-shortening life. Problem is, I have a real problem trusting anybody who claims to have "It" all figured out. My sense is that "It" must be at once so paradigm-shiftingly profound yet so simple as to be accessible to me this instant without any further training or guidance, and yet for some reason "It" is still invisible to me and pretty much everyone else on earth. How can that be?

I'm not ever expecting to find the "right" answer, the One True Church, the secret password that will let me pierce the veil, or to experience an orgiastic moment of life-altering enlightenment. I'm simply hoping that, from the rubble of my prior Mormon faith, from the thrill and agoraphobia of this new life without obvious spiritual boundaries, I can find something solid enough to build a life upon and raise a family, and to have it all mean something before I kick the bucket in another forty-five years or so, barring, of course, our assimilation by machines.

For a long time, I've been craving spiritual wisdom, delivered by a good-hearted mentor who walks the walk. I think I found one at Shambhala Mountain Center: Greg Smith, our meditation teacher. Greg, with a quintessential American name, is anything but typical. He is a Buddhist artist who lives at the foot of the Great Stupa (Buddhist temple) that is the resplendent, totally unexpected jewel of the Center, tucked away at the far end of the land among some pine covered hills. Greg has lived there for decades, and in fact painted most of the interior panels of the Stupa. He has a calm, kindly, assured demeanor. He looks like the guy you'd want to teach you how to meditate.
The course was Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. I chose to stay on site in a "monk room." (Note: not a "monkey room", which may have been more fun but less enlightening.) The monk room is small: a bed, four walls, one window, two lamps, and no decor. A shared bathroom. No TV, phone or other distractions.

But being a modern sort of Buddhist center, they do have wi-fi. My first choice of the weekend was, embarrassingly, one of the hardest: should I turn off my phone? I was expecting a few important emails, and what if my wife had to reach me? But after pondering the decision an absurdly long time, I called Elizabeth one last time, told her I'd call her again on Sunday afternoon on the way home, said goodnight to the kiddos, and then I shut the darn thing off, which is what perhaps made possible everything else that was to happen that weekend. I was here to learn to calm my mind, and I wanted to get my money's worth, which required shutting off the constant flow of distraction that emanated from my phone. There was a real sense of withdrawal the first night: not checking my email, not feeling the buzz on my hip that gave me the sense that I was important, that I needed to be instantly accessible to people, that I could find the answer to any possible question within seconds. But once my hands stopped shaking and I stopped sweating, I settled into the blissful feeling of being unplugged, maybe for the first time in years. Maybe now there would be some space in which my mind and spirit could breathe.

I reported to the dining hall for dinner. The food all weekend was healthy and tasty. I met my fellow meditation classmates. Felt an instant bond. These seemed like my tribe: seekers, westerners, educated, a handful of doctors and nurses, middle-aged, looking for truth, open-minded yet appropriately skeptical. And mostly nice, good-hearted, altogether decent human beings.

From there we went to meet Greg and his assistant teacher, Margo, in the Sacred Studies Hall, a large room with wood floors and ample windows offering views of the snowy pine-covered hills. In the middle was an ornate stand with flowers, candles, and portraits of the two Buddhist teachers, a father and son, who, I was to learn, are the guiding lights of Shambhala Buddhism. There was an empty chair next to the stand, symbolizing their enduring presence, and then another chair for the current teacher, and next to it a meditation cushion. Arranged in three rows in the center of the floor were twenty-five other Gomden meditation cushions--cloth-covered foam blocks--resting on padded meditation mats.

The first order of business was learning the proper posture and mechanics for meditation. That seemed like a small thing at first, but by the end of the weekend, I realized how vital it was. Meditation takes physical stamina. I learned to stack another cushion on my Gomden so that when sitting cross-legged my knees would fall below my hips. This one trick saved my spine. Ankles crossed, hands on thighs, pelvis rolled forward to stack the vertebrae appropriately. And then, surprise . . . eyes remain open.

This one threw me, but I soon learned the true power of it. My previous conception of meditation was invariably with eyes closed. How else to still your mind from the constant visual distractions? How else to escape to that elusive place of stillness? Eyes closed is the type of meditation that I do in shavasana after yoga, and I love it. More of an escape from my mind. But this was shamatha meditation, a different style, different purpose. Not an escape but a present mindfulness, and a mindful presentness. Or as they term it, peaceful abiding.

With peaceful abiding, the goal is to acknowledge, and then let go, of all of the baser functions of the mind, those aspects of consciousness that dwell on what to cook for dinner, or feel regret for something that happened in the past, or fret endlessly about what may happen tomorrow on in twenty years. The goal is actually goal-less. You get past your need for something specific to happen, or some ambition or fantasy to come to fruition. But it's real. It's grounded in the present. You don't suppress any thoughts, but neither do you indulge them. We did dozens of meditations, and I couldn't always get to that diamond of stillness at the center of my mind, but I often could. It would last for a few minutes, and yet paradoxically in that few minutes, time ceased to really matter. Time was just another artifact of my consciousness's preoccupation with this thing we call our life. When I got to that serene, goal-less place, a range of subtle physical sensations became noticeable: a quality of rich light that flooded the periphery of my vision, a pleasant tingling of the skin of my scalp, a tangible sense of muscle relaxation.

In this type of meditation, breath is regarded as the physical anchor point for the mind, the constant intersection of body and spirit. In and out through the nose. Not controlled, just normal, natural, paying close attention to the physical nature of it. I learned to focus on two sensations: the whoosh of air in the back of my throat, and then the slow rise of my collar bones when my lungs were reaching full capacity. Whenever I felt my mind wander, I would return to those two sensations.

Yet my mind still wandered. I pondered things that I couldn't just swipe to the side. I spent time thinking about the nature of breath, what a powerful focusing tool it can be, what a natural metaphor it is. Since the minute we were born, we've been breathing. All the time. Awake, asleep. And we're always one breath (and technically a few minutes) away from death. Our breath is a tenuous connection to our consciousness, and thus our presentness. And breathing is under both voluntary and involuntary control. Through breathing, we can instantly slow our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, decrease our cortisol production, and still our mind. In and out. It's always going on, the background rhythm of every moment of meditation or confrontation, the tidal cadence of life.

The basic pattern of the weekend went like this: short instruction or discussion, twenty minutes of sitting meditation, short instruction or discussion, twenty minutes of walking meditation, repeat. Interspersed we had some breakout groups, a walking meditation to the Stupa (for some additional sitting meditation), and lots of good food and conversation.

On the last morning, we continued this pattern for a couple of hours. But after a couple of days of being unplugged and constantly stilling my mind, feeling that tranquility of soul, I began to notice an unexpected restlessness. At first I acknowledged it, didn't indulge it, yet it persisted. Eventually, I realized that I had begun to ruminate on a chain of thoughts, What's the point of all this, beyond a nice parlor trick? I tried to slip back into peaceful abiding, but things kept creeping back in. My job, my faith transition. Just acknowledge and let go. My brothers and sister, my writing. Push those to the side. I started to speed up. My kids, my wife. Swipe to the side and . . . no! I realized that this was my life flashing before me, all of my attachments, the very things that make me me, the things that make me human, passionate, fragile, empathic, frightened. And I was just pushing those away, as if they held no real value? Letting them go? The restlessness transformed instantly to anger, then to a desperate fear, like what I imagine crosses the mind of someone who arrives at their deathbed unprepared. This was me confronting the Void. Experiencing the ultimate insolvency of the ego. A glimpse of true "selflessness," not in the sense of charity, but of death. As this shadow flitted across my unstilled mind, I flailed, grasping wildly for thoughts to cling to.

And then . . . And then . . . the previous two days of meditation kicked in. What do you do with the "monkey brain", those seemingly untamable, perseverant thoughts? I acknowledged them. I considered from whence they came. I engaged briefly their attendant emotions, fantasies, discursive thoughts, subtle thoughts. And then I let them all go.

Breath in. Breath out. The fear subsided. Instantly. Those thoughts weren't real, anymore than my worries about what I might do after retirement, or if Ebola strikes my clinic, are real. Those thoughts and emotions aren't value-less, but they also are not substantive. Constructs of the mind.

Immediately after this experience, Greg brought us to his attention. We did a walking meditation, and then we sat for some final instruction. He then led us into an exploration of structured contemplative meditation, which is where we actually did harbor a goal, the consideration of a certain fundamental aspect of human life.

He described four aspects:

  • The Preciousness of Human Life, Free and Well-favored, or Our Good Fortune
  • Impermanence
  • Karma
  • The Futility of Samsara (the cycle of suffering)
Each of these aspects is totally engaging and I perceive potentially transformative, but I'll save that for another day. He asked us in our final meditations to first get to peaceful abiding, and then to bring into our awareness a thought, first The Preciousness of Human Life, Free and Well-favored, or Our Good Fortune. We were to ponder this, not with the intent to solve a problem, but to let our mind turn it over and see what gems were uncovered. Then we were to let those dancing lights of concrete thoughts sublimate into an essence that we could feel, but perhaps not name. Then we were to stay for a period of time that felt right, but not too long. Then come back into peaceful abiding, letting that contemplation go. 

As I got into the contemplative aspect, the thoughts that came to my mind were of my children's births, that breathtaking emergence from the womb, holding their pinkness, hearing their first cry, cuddling them between me and their loving, beautiful mother. Tears began to flow. After three days of letting go of such moments and memories, here was my chance to treasure them. My thoughts transitioned then to my parents, how they must have felt when holding me as an infant. (I don't know, maybe not, I understand I was a fussy baby.) I thought of my lone surviving grandparent, Helen, and how she must have felt when holding my father, and how her parents must have felt holding her. There was a chain of love, hope, commitment, binding me to my children, to my parents and ancestors. This was the human family, all of its strengths and weaknesses, the midwife of the human spirit.

Coming back out of that place was joyous. Judging by the responses of my fellow students, they had similarly potent experiences. Next, we contemplated impermanence. Not nearly as ecstatic, yet so profoundly beautiful. Reminded me of Steve Jobs' Stanford commencement speech: 


"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. 
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

After some final words and discussion, it was over. One final lunch, some photos and exchanges of contact info, and that was it. Back in the truck, phone on and buzzing incessantly, heading back to Denver, my family, and "real life." But what is "real life?" That is now an active question in my thinking/problem solving/ruminating/ creative/fickle mind. Hmmm. Maybe something I should meditate on. Or contemplate. Or both. Another thought: in three days of intense spiritual practice, God was never invoked. He/she/it was never dismissed, but never referenced. No dogma. No "Thou Shalts." No calls for conversion. That probably seems strange to any person from organized religion. But to me it was great. It doesn't matter if you're Buddhist or not. It's a pragmatic philosophy as much as a religion. The weekend gave me mental and physical space to explore, and to peacefully abide. Of all the things that Jesus said, my favorite remains, "The kingdom of God is within you." I think the Buddha would agree. Eyes wide open.

The trick now is of course to translate these new practices into my "real life." To that end, I've purchased my own meditation cushion and rug, set up a little sanctuary in my room. I'm trying to meditate for ten minutes every morning and night, and for one hour every weekend. Hasn't been too hard so far, because it feels so sublimely rewarding. We'll see if twenty years from now I can look back at this weekend and call it a turning point. I hope so. At the very least, it was an engaging respite from the day to day, spent with new friends and mentors in the Colorado Rockies. Totally worth it.


Finally, I feel it is appropriate to end this epistle with a photo of me and my new friend and fellow agnostic bodhisattva, Michael. Appears enlightenment doesn't dampen the irrepressible human urge to photo-bomb.

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