"This time," one client said, "the terrorism is more insidious. It's in Washington." Maybe that's hyperbolic and maybe the fear is inflated by the other fears that haunt them, but my clients demonstrate in a clear way that our psychological equilibrium can be greatly affected by forces outside our control in ordinary culture.
I'm right there with them. In a column a few months back, I quoted Gary Trudeau's comment that when he sits down to pen his Doonesbury cartoon every day, he finds it impossible to think about anything but the damage the Bush administration is doing to American democracy. Whether I sit down to write this column or to chat with friends, I find the same thing happening. And I find it has a snowball effect. By the end of a 10-minute conversation with a few friends on the day Republicans tried, sneakily, to eliminate the confidentiality of our income tax returns, I felt like an enemy of the state in the Soviet Union. The Republicans' actions are intolerable. But so is the mental state created by dwelling on them.
That's why I had to return to the cushion. I mean the meditation cushion.
Over the years, I've written in this space about Shambhala Training, a meditation program founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I first became involved with it about 15 years ago and I often call it one of the two best things I ever did for myself. Most Americans think of meditation as a tool of relaxation and zoning out -- avoiding conflict. In actuality, it's a disconcerting confrontation with the mind's contents. Instead of sitting with a cup of coffee and complaining to friends, you sit silently on a cushion, try to focus on your breath ... and watch your interruptive thoughts parade before you like creatures in a Dr. Seuss story.
With sufficient practice, an amazing thing happens. Your thoughts and emotions, which earlier shocked you with their ferocious intensity and demand that you leave the cushion, turn into tiny bubbles, percolating unobtrusively. It is remarkable enough to realize that your thoughts really are not who you are. But it is an inestimably useful skill to learn how to watch those thoughts and feelings pass through your consciousness without seizing a butterfly net and chasing after them, as if they had permanence. A bubble caught in a butterfly net is going to disappear anyway.
Some people criticize meditation as escapist "navel gazing." After all, how does it serve the world to sit 20 minutes a day, focusing on your breath? Believe me, if you come to peace with the way your own mind works, you come to peace with the world around you. Indeed, one of the principles of Shambhala Training is "basic goodness," which we find underlies consciousness when we exercise the courage to see through the forest of bubbles. One of the things that appealed to me about Shambhala Training from the start was Trungpa Rinpoche's commitment to the creation of an enlightened society (like the Shambhala of ancient myth).
He put it this way in his book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:
"We have the burden of helping this world ... If we take our burden as delight, we can actually liberate this world. The way to begin is with ourselves. From being open and honest with ourselves, we can learn to be open with others. So we can work with the rest of the world, on the basis of the goodness we discover in ourselves. Therefore, meditation practice is regarded as an ... excellent way to overcome warfare in the world: our own warfare as well as greater warfare."
My own meditation practice, starting with Zen five years before I found Shambhala, has been fitful, especially during the last seven years, when I was engaged in doctoral studies (and probably most needed it because of the seduction of intellectual games). But I am called back to it. It is an odd thing how the smallest taste of the mind's freedom and the simple fact of being in a body sitting on a cushion -- trying to be present -- becomes compelling.
Atlanta is gifted with an inspiring Shambhala community which recently opened a beautiful, new meditation hall in Decatur that accommodates up to 200 people. This weekend, beginning Friday evening, the center offers the first of the five levels of Shambhala Training, "The Art of Being Human." This is the center's annual half-price ($75) offering of the workshop. But you can also receive free meditation instruction any Tuesday or Wednesday evening, or attend an introductory three-hour workshop Dec. 12 for $50. Call 404-370-9650 or log onto www.atlantashambhalacenter.org.
Soon, you -- Republican or Democrat -- will be as tranquil as the Buddha. OK, maybe at least you won't need Xanax any more.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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