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.