Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | No Comments »
It’s been four days since my last shower. Four days since I had any meaningful contact with another human being.
Finally, here I am. Boulder, Colorado. The happiest place in America. Multiple publications have deemed this city to be the healthiest, happiest and smartest place in America. To prove the point, the city has more bike paths than paved roads.
I have a few friends in town, but they’re not free until the evening. I have an entire day to kill. Shit, I’m so lonely and tired.
I wander through town for miles admiring the blue sky and beautiful mountains so close I could touch them.
I decide to checkout Naropa University. My dream graduate school that I once applied for but never went. What if? Let’s see.
It’s the summer so nobody’s around. I walk into the library. There’s a beautiful girl working the counter. Helping some guy. I sneak away into the stacks of books, into the Buddhist and Daoist section. They have a copy of the Zhunagzi. I read it until I fall asleep. Some time later, awakened.
A war rages within my mind. Two voices. Opportunity and Fear through the lens of self-judgment.
OPPORTUNITY: Go talk to the girl! Learn about the school.
FEAR: But what if she doesn’t like me? What am I suppose to say? I look like shit. I haven’t showered or shaved in days. Maybe, I can just wait for my friends to get off work first….
OPPORTUNITY: For Christ sake, you’re 1,700 miles away from home. You brought a RV. You did all this to force yourself out of your comfort zone. Carpe Diem! GO!
It took me five days of driving far from home for me to do a cold approach, to talk to a pretty girl once again:
Me: Hi, I just got in town and interested in Naropa. Are you a graduate student here?
Library Girl: No, no I’m not. I’m actually an undergrad…..But maybe I can help. What program are you looking into?
Me: Well, I was really interested in the Counseling Psych program. I actually just drove into Boulder last night and volunteering at a Buddhist Geeks conference tomorrow. But I thought I’d try to know more about Naropa while I’m here…
Library Girl.: Oh, well, I have a friend that’s in the grad program, I could give you her contact info. And, actually, maybe my boss would talk to you. He did a grad program here although not in psychology. Do you want to talk to him?
Me: Umm….sure. Yeah that would be great. Thanks so much.
[…. Awkward conversation with the boss in his office about how great Naropa is and how everyone wants to come back and work for them…..]
Me (awkwardly putting on my messenger back over my head and talking at the same time): Hey, thanks a lot. That helped me out. Umm, I know this is kind of weird. But what time do you get off? Are you hungry by chance? I’m starving and my friends in town are busy until late evening….
Library Girl.: Well, I’m not actually hungry….But I could drink some tea! I get off in twenty minutes if that works?
Me: Sure! I’ll just be outside reading. See you soon!
To The Girl Who Shall Not Be Named:
Admittedly, I don’t remember the full conversation. I’m sure it lasted a lot longer. There were multiple points of time at which the conversation could of & should of just died right then. But, I felt like you kept giving me more rope to work with. Maybe I started the conversation, but you definitely helped to make sure it continued.
Twenty minutes later, we walked to a thai restaurant that was closed. Then another place. Closed. Finally a hole in the wall Asian place. Given your younger age, initially, I didn’t think much of you or us as a possibility. It was just so nice to have company and conversation. But, bit by bit, I became fascinated. You were intelligent, genuine, ambitious, and beautiful. I noted a sadness surrounding your upbringing and life back home. You had a fierce independence born out of necessity that I admired and empathized with. Yet, you didn’t seem to hold the same bitterness about it. I was falling for you.
There’s only a few people in an entire lifetime that I feel connected deeply to. They are so rare and precious to find. The ones where I can just say a few words, but you can hear and understand entire worlds I’m conveying. Where there’s no need for explanation, we just get each other.
After I ate, we continued walking along the Boulder creek. We sat on a bench for hours it felt like talking about our lives and watching a man try to teach his dog to swim.
Soon, it was getting dark and time to see my friend. I really liked you but what kind of relationship could this be? I was planning on staying in Boulder only for a week or less. We exchanged promises to meet soon and parted ways.
Over the days, we meet again and again. My mind and heart became infatuated in ways I hadn’t felt since college. I struggled to hold onto sanity every time one of my text messages to you went unanswered. Once, I wrote out a long message I was planning to leave on your VM when you suddenly texted me back. I later mentioned it, and you laughed.
There was the moment we hung out at the top of a playground rocketship. A little boy who didn’t speak English joined us. I played a terrible magician trying to swallow a pebble and then reveal it in my hand. Instead, I actually put the stone in my mouth and acted like I was choking. Both of you laughed.
Later that same day, we talked on and on into the wee hours of the morning like a movie cliche. I thought you had mentioned a boyfriend before but must of misheard because you were wearing rather short shorts and a tight, revealing shirt. I told you I have a new practice of trying to be honest. And to be honest, I am deeply attracted to you, but I don’t want to ruin any other relationship in your life. You smiled and said you were poly.
I went to sleep that night cuddling with you thinking this moment was truly magnificent. The months and years of turmoil over the RV. The driving 1,700 miles across the country. No matter what had happened or would happen in the future, this moment, alone, was worth it all. And it was. My heart fell like it had blown open. This cold lump in my chest suddenly a blazing fire and sun radiating out through my body. So, this is what it feels like to be truly alive. To be fully present, awake, overjoyed, and to want nothing more from this moment…..well, nothing except for those awkward farts to stop from that supposedly lactose free ice cream. I kept going to the bathroom thinking there was a problem but was just flatulence. I would of been more upset if it wasn’t so outrageous. Why am I mentioning this now? Did you know?
If you had asked, I would of stayed in Boulder forever. But you had a life already set, part of the reason why I fell for you. And I was still a nomad heading to the Pacific. We made loose plans to see each again soon enough.
I’d leave Boulder in a few weeks to begin the next chapter filled with sorrow and hardship.
A few months later, on the way back, I would meet you again. I even proposed moving in together. But you already had plans with another lucky guy.
A year later, I would return to Boulder for the Buddhist Geeks conference once again. But you never responded to my earlier voice mail months before. So, I steeled myself to not contact you.. One of the last days, I walked back to my friend’s house. A good forty minute walk. I kept repeating a mantra, “She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone. Let her go. She’s gone, she’s gone, she’s…” I had to let go of the grief and sadness over that tiny but densely packed moment in our lives together.
Two years later, I would serendipitously be in Boulder again, this time just for a few hours. I sent you a message hoping for nothing. Just curious to know how you were and what closure might be possible. I had deleted your contact before, too painful to read those old messages. I wondered after two years if you still even had me in your phone. You responded back immediately. I was surprised and gladded. I assume you knew who I was. But you were out of town and busy. This wouldn’t be a Before Sunset type story. But, I was happy for you. You were doing well it sounded like. And I must of meant at least something. Assuming you even knew who was texting you.
In the end, it was just a few days together. But I was grateful to let good things pass and having ever existed at all. My heart opened in Boulder. That was a priceless gift.
Posted: October 9th, 2014 | No Comments »
I left Delaware on a Friday afternoon. A storm had caused chaos that week. I remember the electricity was still out at my parent’s house. But I was going west. My first stop Pittsburgh.
I expected Pittsburgh to be an industrial wasteland. Instead, I found a pretty thriving city. I knew one couple in Pittsburgh but not very well at all. They were more like distant family friends. I sent Sara a Facebook message at the last moment before driving off.
I had also tried to find people to hangout with through reddit and couchsurfing. A few people even offered to buy me a drink. Once I got to Pittsburgh, my inner alarms went off. Too weird. Too dangerous. No, I wouldn’t meet strangers via the internet.
Instead I used yelp to look for a hipster bar. I parked my RV. Went to the bar. Had a drink and talked to the bartender. But I suddenly felt nervous, terrified, and lonely. What the hell am I doing? The same thoughts and feelings overwhelming me once again.
I was too terrified to talk to strangers at the bar. I went outside and started calling down my list of friends. Just hoping one of them would pick up. The first leg of the journey, just five hours away from home, and I was getting cold feet.
Finally, one of my friends, Camille picked up. We talked. I settled down.
Eventually, I returned to the bar, talked to a few people. I went back to my RV half drunk and went to sleep. The magical, adventure of traveling cross country. Had I spent two years for this sad experience?
Sara sent me a message. She couldn’t immediately meet me, but her husband, John, could. The next morning we met up in a coffee shop. I planned on leaving after our coffee meeting to Chicago.
John was a most interesting guy. I had only meet him twice before, very briefly. He was getting a Ph D in the humanities and read books of philosophy for fun. It feels oddly rare to meet another Asian/Korean American young intellectual. So many of us end up focusing on just thriving in the world as doctors, engineers, or some other profession. To prove to our parents, to our fellow Americans, and ourselves through our wealth and career status that we belong here. So, I felt an immediate kindred soul in John for doing such an odd career.
We chatted for a few hours about teaching, academia, Korean American experience, relationships, and so on. Towards the end, he invited me to stay around longer at least to see the wife. Remembering the previous night’s loneliness, I agreed to stay the night. Later, I met up with Sara who was going to be a pastor. How interesting, a female pastor. I asked her did anyone ever teach her how to pray? It seems curious that in Buddhist circles in America, there are different meditation practices. Yet, remembering my Catholic days, I don’t think anyone ever taught me how to pray.
I spent the afternoon exploring Pittsburgh by myself. I would suggest skipping the Heinz Museum if you’re ever visiting.
What I took away the most from the 36-48 hours in Pittsburgh was just how much people are good yet how important framing matters in a situation. Here I was. I wasn’t really friends with this couple, didn’t have either of their phone numbers beforehand. If we were living in the same city, it would of been rude and odd for me to just call upon them to stay over.
But I was in a RV driving cross country. That in itself was enough for people’s interest to be peeked. Obvious to everyone, I wasn’t trying to take advantage of anyone. The situation was such that they could help me, and I obviously could use the help. Time and time again, many friends, both old and new, would offer their homes to me, sometimes weeks on end. People want to do good, want to genuinely help others. But, we also don’t want to get hurt or mistreated.
The next day, I’d sail off for Chicago.
I spent less than 24 hours in Chicago. I was on a schedule to get to Boulder, Colorado soon and had already spent too much time in Pittsburgh. So, the next 2-3 days went by in a blur driving endlessly west through an ocean of corn. I worked in the day, drove in the evening, and slept in the RV in forgotten lands.
Photo is the Cathedral of Learning, taken from Univ of Pittsburgh’s site. Quite a cool place to checkout.
Posted: September 29th, 2014 | No Comments »
Two years ago, I journeyed westward on my second and final RV adventure.
It’s hard to believe I once owned a RV or even did this trip. This second adventure was a turning point in my life and so it’s been difficult to write about those months. How do I value those months? Is it possible to encompass into a single story? Was it all a waste of time and money? Or a life-changing milestone?
I decided that even an imperfect story is better than none. In future posts, I’ll write about specific cities and incidents. But, in this post here, I am going to cover an overview of the entire journey; all of the background motivations, highlights, and conclusions.
Background Pre-RV Ownership
a prominent theme in my thoughts from the past year was the idea of achieving great success or great failure. i felt like i had played it safe out of necessity for many years. But lacking any environmental/institutional pressures upon me anymore and having enough resources to safeguard me, i should take some real risks to reap some great benefits or miseries.
in a way, i wonder if i subconsciously am testing my limits to the point of destruction and thereby knowing where my limits truly lie. at the same time, i haven’t really been taking many risks, i haven’t really done anything spectacular.
I looked back at my writings from 2010 to revisit my mindset of why I purchased this most expensive and terrifying piece of my life.
In those years, I was in a long, transitional crisis after my academia dreams scattered. All my life decisions had hinged on finances. I had chosen all of my schools based on the largest scholarship package. By the end of grad school, I wondered that maybe playing it financially safe had backfired. I thought maybe if I had gone to the right schools I would still be on the right track. But the “right” schools would of meant debt. I had played it financially safe but maybe my life and dreams suffered as a result.
After realizing academia wasn’t my future, a prudent man would of traveled the world, joined a new tech company, or maybe go to graduate school for a different career. But I couldn’t let go of my existing job which let me work from home. Instead, I experimented and challenged myself in ways I never thought before. I did Toast Masters for public speaking, took an improv class, hired physical trainers, did pickup for socializing, tried to startup a business, and of course, this RV. I wanted to pursue skills that would serve me in any field for the rest of my life. The very same skills that frightened me the most.
I sought salvation and purpose by forcing myself into challenging situations where my only option was to sink or swim.
I wanted to be capable of overcoming any obstacle. Which is to say, I never wanted to feel small, inadequate, incapable, or hopeless ever again. I thought I had to forcibly put myself into those hard situations where I had no one else to rely on. No familiar habit, place, or people to hide. In hindsight, I think it had its benefits. But, the flooding technique has its limitations. It provides a glimpse that change is possible. But it relies way too much on a fortunate, lucky environment rather than actual deliberate practice and skill.
Mark Manson has a good piece on this about traveling that encompasses my experience:
Many people embark on journeys around the world in order to “find themselves.”…
Whenever somebody claims they want to travel to “find themselves,” this is what I think they mean: They want to remove all of the major external influences from their lives, put themselves into a random and neutral environment, and then see what person they turn out to be.
By removing their external influences — the overbearing boss at work, the nagging mother, the pressure of a few unsavory friends — they’re then able to see how they actually feel about their life back home.
So perhaps a better way to put it is that you don’t travel to “find yourself,” you travel in order to get a more accurate perception of who you were back home, and whether you actually like that person or not.
But here’s the problem: Travel is yet another external influence.
The person you are on a beach in Cuba is not the person you are sitting in the cubicle in the middle of butt ass winter in Chicago. The person you are on a road trip through Eastern Europe is not the person you are at a family reunion in Toronto.
The self is highly adaptable to its external environment, and ironically, the more you change your external environment, the more you lose track of who you actually are, because there’s nothing solid to compare yourself against.
And rather than discover who you are, you begin to question who you are. One year you go to France and love it. The next you go and hate it. Taking that new job sounded like a great idea back home, now it sounds like a horrible idea, but then it sounds like a great idea as soon as you get back. One year you are a certifiable beach bum, the next beaches bore you and you have no idea why.
Is everything really changing that much? Or is it just you?
Frequent travel puts your identity into constant flux where it’s impossible to distinguish with certainty who you are or what you know, or whether you really know anything at all.
And this is a good thing.
Because uncertainty breeds skepticism, it breeds openness, and it breeds non-judgment. Because uncertainty helps you to grow and evolve.
And when you go long enough being uncertain of who you really are, what results is a form of subtle, long-term meditation — a persistent and necessary acceptance of whatever is arising…
And at some point, you just stop asking questions. And start listening. To the waves and the wind and the calls for love in all of the beautiful languages you will never understand.
You just let it be. And keep moving.
At the time, I thought a lot about what distinguished the masters from everyone else. Why is it 99% of people never reach the pinnacle of their goals. Reading everyone’s success stories, it seemed the underlying theme was passing through a breaking point, sometimes facing death itself. All of them took significant life risks and committed themselves to a journey whether they were physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise. Ordinary actions lead to ordinary results. Only extraordinary actions can lead to extraordinary results. I had major goals I wanted to accomplish within a few short years. Rather than building slowly, I wanted to build fast and large. I thought taking significant, calculated risks was the way. That the reward is proportionate to the amount of risk.
So, I went ahead buying a used RV, initially for 14k and negotiated down to ~12k. I thought worst case scenario, in a few years, I make back my initial investment. If I lived in it full time for even a year then any gas, repair, or equipment cost would equal the rent I would of paid anyway to live in a major city.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
“I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
“I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”
– On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Those three months felt like years.
- I volunteered and meet fellow Buddhist Geeks.
- I fell in love in Boulder.
- My RV transmission broke down in Portland ending my travels. On the same day, my RV got robbed.
- I gambled poker in Las Vegas for a week.
- I wrote my largest coding project in coffee shops in San Francisco.
- I meet the source of my RV inspiration, Tynan.
- I kept meeting friends, old and new.
I drove from Delaware to Oregon, down the coast of California, and back to Delaware in the span of three months. All the while working a full time job.
Post RV Thoughts
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
A month after returning home, I sold the RV via Craigslist to a grandfather in Washington DC. The following day, I drove to Boston to begin my new life.
By the end, my visions of wealth, success, and growth were shattered. I spent a year recovering and reorienting my life after years of obsessively focusing on visions of pickup, business, RV, and other ventures. I lived like a monk meditating every day. I started therapy. I didn’t interact with a lot of people. I moved to Boston telling my friends I looked forward to finally living a quiet. boring life again. And I did and I do.
That RV. The RV. My RV was special. I learned a tremendous deal traveling those three months. It also forced me to face some of my biggest inner demons. It forced me to really question what the hell am I doing with my life? Why am I doing this?
There were countless groundlessness moments both exhilarating and terrifying. Many moments of despair and doubt. Many moments of just wanting to break down and end this stupid journey. Many moments of just having to dig deep within me to keep going on.
But every day seemed like magic. There was no common pattern I could follow. Figuring out where to park, where to sleep, where to eat, and where to work were all daily difficulties, constantly changing.
Although sometimes I wish I still had that old RV, that I could go drive into the wild once again. Traveling forces a constant awareness of the present moment. It’s a great high to feel completely engaged with every moment.
I went west thinking the journey would change me for the better. To become brave, fearless, to let go. And I sort of did. Going west the challenge, the confrontation with life was whether I could let go of the old, of my identity, of my safety and comforts to engage with the unknown, ever changing, present moment? But that freedom was dependent on constantly moving. On never staying still. Never building a home. Always being a visitor. Coming back to the East Coast, to move permanently to Boston, I realized that the next, large challenge was to be free in the midst of building a home.
The greatest gift that old Rialta RV gave me was the experience. I ventured thousands of miles away from home, survived, and even thrived. After Florida, I was confident I could move anywhere, make friends, and develop a life. After the westward travel, I exhausted that dream that I still see in people’s eyes when they talk to me about wanting to travel. The grass is greener on the other side, but you have to keep moving to a new side. No matter where I go, there I still am.
Going west, I discovered new facets of myself. Returning east, I began the life long adventure of loving, caring, and enjoying myself.
In the end, the only way to travel is being free of expecting or wanting any particular experience.
Photo is from Oregon Coast, the beaches are quite different from the East Coast
I had a lot of difficulty writing this piece. It took two years to finally publish something. What kicked me in the pants was reading this story. It gave me a framework, a perspective to accept and appreciate my westward journey. I like his line, “You don’t get over the fear. You run towards it, with your knees buckling.”
My intention is to write several stories from those three months. Meeting post-modern Buddhist Geeks. Falling in love. Discovering how boring Las Vegas poker can be. Breaking into tears in a Home Depot. And so on. Then I can write some contemporary pieces about life in Boston. The meditation scene. Organizing a Dharma House. Doing a week long Mondo Retreat and more.
Posted: July 8th, 2014 | No Comments »
Everything constantly changing.
Thoughts and emotions turning.
Happiness in the morning over a pleasant email.
Discomfort in the afternoon over the heat.
Sadness in the evening over a disagreement.
Mind keeps thinking of possible opportunities.
Lost loves keep haunting my dreams.
Excitement over meeting someone new.
Exhaustion over having to try again and again.
The meditation bell rings. Ding. Ding. Ding.
Letting go. Dissolving into the present moment. Just awareness.
Noticing a gadget plugged into the wall. Its blinking red light. Blink. Blink. Blink.
Has it always been there? Has it always blinked?
Touching back into this Primary Point, there is no struggle. Not making good or bad, not making pleasure or pain then there is no problem.
Everything simply is as it is. Can I accept that? Can I allow that? My resistance only brings suffering.
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
But it’s the second turning that’s still challenging. Form is form. Emptiness is emptiness.
The present may be done. But the future is still uncertain. How shall I act?
An agitated mind. All these uncertainties in the near future. All these changes that need to happen. Yesterday’s fruit is today’s rotten fertilizer. It’s time to move forward.
Keep re-evaluating my story. How strange and odd it is.
This discomfort. This uncertainty. These are the feelings I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to master and control.
I thought great success or great failure would teach me.
But after so many attempts at mastery, I know the only option left is to learn how to stay present here.
And I wonder. If or when I go job hunting. What shall they think? What if my future love reads these words?
Will they see courage? Will they see wisdom? Or will they see melancholy, foolishness, and naivety?
So many unfinished drafts trying to put into words what cannot be expressed.
Why don’t I write about programming, minimalism, travels, or something else?
I look over an old writing:
it is not wealth, it is not fame or power I truly seek. It’s always been a self-overcoming. At some point I decided that I was still too attached and wasn’t going to get past my problems via inner training alone. Fear of poverty, aversion to pain, wanting companionship, and so on. And reminded of Osho’s model of Zorba the Buddha. So I changed my view. After all, even the enlightened person still keeps living in this world. And I’ve yet to see one that’s like the idealistic stereotype. They have flaws, they’re human.
So I would seek enlightenment by putting an end to those fears and desires by satisfying them. Wealth, traveling, social dynamics, relationships, so on. But even years ago, when I wrote my self-story, I would have great success before vanishing from the world to do intense inner training and be truly free.
I daydream sometimes of great success or of great danger and lost. In either case to override my ingrained fears. To get above the pleasure seeking and aversion to pain wired into all of us.
a game i’m playing to get out of games.
Posted: March 22nd, 2014 | No Comments »
As the year 2014 approached, I thought what am I going to do now?
The previous year, 2013, I focused on deepening my meditation practice and contentment. I tempered my ambitious career goals, did not look to date anyone, traveled very little, and lived a boring, routine lifestyle.
The mystic Osho once said,
…to be real is always difficult. To live with a wife and to be happy is really difficult; to live with children and to be blissful is really difficult. To work in a shop, in an office, in a factory and to be ecstatic is the real difficulty. To leave everything and just sit under a tree and feel happy is not difficult — anybody will feel that way. Nothing to do, you can be detached; everything to do, you become attached. But when you do everything AND remain unattached, when you move with the crowd, in the world and yet alone, then something real is happening.
The true challenge is not going off to a retreat center to gain some insight. Doing so can be a valid path, but it would be escapist for me right now. The challenge is living a full, mindful life. Last year, I drastically simplified my life to see if I could be mindful and content again. For the most part, I succeeded. Now, I want to address those big challenges again of livelihood, relationships, and health.
I’m uncertain how or if it is possible to be both ambitious and content? Will I fall back into cynicism, hopelessness, and judgment? Every time I’ve returned from a retreat, my old habits always crept back in and overpowered me in the most important emotional moments.
Is it just a matter of patience and more practice? Or something else? Over the months, I’ve been mulling over this question and asking others.
In December, I did a weekend retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center with Master Bon Shim. During our private interview period, I posed a question:
Me: You said before that even enlightened individuals still have conditioning, a conditioned ego?
Master Bon Shim: That’s correct. Even after realization, there is karma. Enlightened does not mean perfection. Masters still make mistakes, still get things wrong.
Me: So, is meditation enough then? Can meditation, by itself, unravel or undo or burn through all karma, all conditioning?
Master Bon Shim: Well, there is the example of Siddhartha, the Buddha, who reached complete nirvana, complete awakening….
In general though, too many students have this “checking mind”, of constantly evaluating their teacher. This is not so good. Clearly, there are some bad teachers, and you should be careful of abuses. But, this “checking mind” that’s looking to find a perfect teacher or faulting good teachers for not being perfect is not good.
(paraphrased from memory, my apologies to Master Bon Shim if any of this is incorrect)
Although I gained a lot from our interviews together and that weekend in general, I felt dissatisfied with the answer.
A Heart Blown Open Book
I keep thinking back to a book where American teachers question the Dalai Lama on explaining how it is possible senior teachers make such grievous mistakes:
A dozen Western Buddhist masters, from many different backgrounds, were brought to India to participate in the conference. They sat in an audience, with His Holiness on stage taking their questions. Kelly was near the front, and he listened as one of the American teachers brought up a troubling question: A high ranking Tibetan teacher had gotten into trouble for sleeping with some of his female students, and had been sued and forced into a kind of hiding from the uproar he had caused.
"How do you explain his behavior, your Holiness," the questioner asked, perhaps hoping for a psychological explanation. The Dalai Lama, smiling, leaned forward.
"The problem," he said, gently, "is that their insight is not deep enough. When the insight of your true nature is deep enough, it transforms all parts of us, so that Basic Goodness and compassion naturally and effortlessly arise. This prevents the kind of deluded behavior we see with him." He sat back.
Kelly, incredulous, waited for someone to challenge the statement. He raised his own hand and the Dalai Lama pointed to him.
"Your Holiness," Kelly offered, "may I use a word here?"
"Please," came the answer.
"Bullshit," Kelly dropped, and a collective gasp went up from the audience…
The Dalai Lama chuckled.
"I know this man we’re speaking of," Kelly continued. "He took three three-year cave retreats where he saw only his master and lived in the wilderness with no power, no heat, no bed. That’s nine years of the most intensive monastic training. He trained with you, your Holiness, for a decade. And he spent another decade training in the States. This man trained for thirty years, and you’re telling me his insight isn’t deep enough? I’ve met him, I’ve talked to him. I’ve practiced with him, and I’m telling you, that explanation is, with all due respect, bullshit, your Holiness."
Kelly sat back, smiling. The Dalai Lama nodded his had and chuckled again, his eyes shimmering behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
"That is because your insight isn’t deep enough," he said with a kind-hearted smile.
Kelly’s mouth popped open. As the Dalai Lama waited patiently for Kelly to respond, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. (p275-6)
Reading this passage was really exciting to me. Here was a teacher that asked the scary questions. If dedicated meditation for decades was not enough then what’s the point?
It would be easy to say the Tibetan teacher who took advantage of his students was a fraud,. The scarier truth is that maybe he was truly awakened AND still wrongly took advantage of his own students. That even the highest among meditation masters are capable of human faults and mistakes. As Zen Master Bon Shim said, even enlightened people still have their habitual conditioning remaining.
Therefore, is a high level of insight, of seeing into the fabric of reality is not enough, not sufficient to living a good householder life, to transforming one’s ego and habits?
To some degree, I worry I am doing what Zen Master Bon Shim said. “Checking mind” and wanting perfection from my teachers and myself. Yet, there is this doubt that perhaps my practice could be improved, that there was something I was missing.
Junpo also shares similar doubts. Despite his practice and experience, despite having received transmission from his teacher, Junpo says:
The years of meditation had created a stillness in his mind that made seeing what arose there easier. In the quiet he could sit with his arising impulses, emotions, and thoughts. For most of us, we react to life — someone cuts us off in traffic, and we get angry right away…Our reactions are conditioned, meaning that for most of us we don’t notice that the energy of the emotion must first arise, and then we have to react to it. That we could, in fact, choose a different reaction if we could slow the whole process down.
Kelly, because of his insights and quietness of mind, had greater freedom to choose his reactions, but he had little understanding why those particular impulses arose within him in the first place. Perhaps, the difference was cultural or perhaps it was indeed because his insight wasn’t deep enough, but Kelly did not agree with Dalai Lama. His Holiness, after all, ha had lived in the rigid container of a monastery for his entire life, and was a man who had taken a monk’s vows of celibacy. In Kelly’s experience, it was intimate relationships that were the most likely to activate one’s old conditioned patterns and allow for the emergence of emotional energy that one would never encounter in a monastery. (277)
My frustration and seeking stemmed from this tension of insight and ego. I could go off to a retreat and experience absolutely beautiful moments of truth and reality. I would experience the joy of simply being alive where the sound of my breathe is music, and the work of ants is a symphony. And after all that, I return home to find my old habits and emotional triggers return. My relative, ego life remained buried in my subconscious.
The book continues
…he saw that the path to true freedom had to hold both truths as real. There was a small, conditioned ego that could impede every part of your life, especially your spiritual insight. Worse, it could deeply distort spiritual insight with its neurosis and pathology. But there was also the Absolute, the ground of being where Kelly had taken his seat. They were both true, in every person – a relative, temporal, and finite ego that would blink out of existence a few decades after it became self-aware, and an immortal, timeless, an utterly imperturbable deeper self that did not come and go….both of them needed to be integrated for true insight, true wisdom, true freedom….
…And spiritual teachers, likewise, were often some of the most neurotic people out there. Many…wanted to simply get away from their small, broken selves, as if becoming Enlightened or Awake or one with Christos or God would somehow magically fix all the broken parts of their smaller self. As if one ever transcended the ego. One did not – insight came through an ego, always, never around one. (280-1)
Here was the crux of the problem. I had often focused only on the spiritual insight path OR on the self-improvement ego path; switching between the two but never integrating them together. My meditation practice and my regular life felt like opposites to me.
It was only after I started doing therapy that I realized the bridge between these two worlds was my emotions. I realized just how much of my own emotions I was avoiding. How judgmental and hopeless I often felt about myself. Somewhere in my early meditation practice (and really just my early adult life), I got the mistaken belief that emotions are not a valid object of meditation but a distraction.
So much of beginning meditation is focused on setting up pristine, peaceful environments to practice because it can be so difficult to even be mindful with positive feelings and places.
However, reality is not so kind. It provides whatever arises whether that’s joy or pain. The mistake is judging a painful moment to be not suitable for meditation and that one should solely focus on the breathe. Or, judging one’s self for feeling pain or suffering and thinking meditation should “fix” this illusory pain. Expecting to stay with the breathe in all those charged moments though is ridiculous. Instead, staying present with those emotions, with those situations and seeing them as they are is the true challenge. Getting to the core of experience and emotion to see the world and one’s self without filter. Going through the emotion is the meeting point between meditation and daily life.
Likewise Junpo writes:
Doshin nodded. “Not much point to spiritual insight if you don’t understand your emotions at a core level.”
Kelly nodded. “How many times have awakened teachers screwed up because of something emotional? An affair? A flash of rage? Addiction?
Doshin nodded again.
"We need to create koans centered around emotions, koans that train us to transform negative emotions within our awakened minds. Therapy and shadow work ain’t enough. Meditation isn’t enough. The stronger the emotion — depression, anger, anxiety, lust, jealousy — the more fuel there is to drive us to our true nature, to wake the fuck up." (304)
Often, meditation is presented as a way to feel less stress and be more productive. Yet, there seems to be so much chaos in one’s mind when meditating. In reality, those feelings and thoughts have always been there, but our lives move so quickly we don’t even pay attention.
In fact, I dare say we subconsciously want to both be distracted and be present. There is a part of us that fears the doubt, pain, and chaos within ourselves and thereby wants our smart phones, our social media, everything to keep us distracted. On the other hand, there is the genuine side of us that regrets the lack of connection, the lack of presence in our lives..
I’ve meditated for several years. Despite knowing better, I thought I could meditate my way out of feeling negative things. I could somehow be aloft, above and beyond such small, relative ego problems. The truth is that you can never go around problems, you can only go through them.
It is very difficult to just be with difficult emotions, people, and situations. The natural instinct is to fight, flee, or fix. One lesson that has helped me tremendously though is that by being present with a difficult experience, I can unpack what is going on. I can see that underneath the anger is fear. Underneath the fear is a great caring. While it is easy to get judgmental about myself being angry, once I can see its source is a great caring then I can be compassionate to myself, I can see things as they are. Likewise, I can be very judgmental about others based on their surface actions and speech, but can be compassionate once I feel the source of those actions in their actual core emotions, their core needs
One of the things Mondo Zen seems to be doing is intentionally triggering those intensive emotions to have a safe place to mindfully look into those charged emotions.
As a next step, I’m also looking to start a Dharma House. At its core, the house is a place where we live together in supporting each other’s practice. In terms of everyday life though, it’s an intentional, safe home where our egos come into contact, and we willingly stay present in that charged situation so that we may learn to communicate in a mindful way. It’s a practice I’m not sure many of us ever get to consistently try except with our spouses and maybe business partners.
Finally, I’ll end with what Junpo has to say about the Dalai Lama’s insight is not enough response:
"I’m curious what you think now about what the Dalai Lama said to you a decade ago. How it relates to this."
"That my realization wasn’t deep enough?" Kelly asked, laughing. "He was right."
"But I’m curious what you think about the idea of what he said. That if one’s realization is deep enough, it transforms all of his being, and there is no need for psychological shadow work."
Kelly considered. His lips drew in and his eyes momentarily turned inward. "He was right," he said at last. "If you realization is deep enough, it transforms the entirety of the human being."
"But there are only a handful of people on the planet who wake up that completely. For the rest of us, it’s a process that our shadows interfere with. But completely Awake, Doshin, is completely awake." (305)
Is meditation enough? Yes. But, only if I can apply mindfulness in all situations including those I most want to avoid and run from. The traditional meditation center and teachings don’t have all the answers, it’s up to us to find our ways to train mindfulness into our everyday life.
One day I hope we can all completely wake up. In the meantime, I continue seeking ways to deepen my practice on and off the cushion, inside and outside the meditation center.
A Heart Blown Open: The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Dennis Kelly Roshi by Keith Martin-Smith is an amazing book and highly recommended even if you’re not into meditation. Kelly lived a most extraordinary life having experienced the wholeness of life from drugs, sex, and wealth to abusive father, cancer, and prison. I’ve read the book two or three times now.
I did not include more information on his emotional koan process as this post was already too long. I also have no personal experience with the koans, but I’m hoping to do a Mondo Zen retreat later in the year.
This post was exceedingly difficult to write. I have several drafts approaching it from many different angles, but all of them addressing how to integrate mindfulness and daily life better. Part of me feels like this is a “no-duh”, that’s so obvious life insight, but I don’t know, it means a lot to me.
Photo is from a mountain hiking trip I did last month, beautiful weather and scenery