Enlightenment & Compassion in One Sneeze

sneeze-cat meditation

Credit https://flic.kr/p/8q3vqR

The secret to happiness is caring about others. Simple. Yet, my mind has an addiction to being self-centered. I learned this important lesson again recently at a community sit.

I was three weeks into being a Modern Monk at Center for Mindful Learning (CML). I was not sure what to expect coming here. But I am surprised at how happy and liberating I am now. While I plan on returning to urban life, I could train at CML for a year or more.

So, three weeks in, I went to Burlington Quaker House. CML does a weekly Sunday talk and guided meditations. It may of been my first time outside of the monastery. I am excited to get out again.

Soryu, our teacher, is giving the talk and guided practice. He introduces a guided listening meditation to note each sound as pleasant or unpleasant. Noting sounds as neutral is not an option.

And I hate this place. The chair hurts my ass. It’s impossible to sit straight in it. A family of mosquitoes swarm and bite me. People are talking outside like right by the window. Car horns are blaring. Folks keep entering and leaving the room. I miss the monastery. My lovely cushion. The silence and stillness. The beautiful windows displaying nature. No one moving or leaving the room.

I’m noting every single sound as unpleasant. Unpleasant is a weak description. Offensive fits. Even the chirping birds feel like an attack against my peace. The mental dialogue I’m having about the experience is itself annoying.

Reminder: I’m not looking for meditation advice. I’ve practiced meditation for a decade. I know how to calm myself down. But I told myself I would just do the practice of noting pleasant or unpleasant sounds. I wouldn’t do self-motivation talk, therapy, or change my technique. Every single second is just noting a sound and its flavor.

So, I’m sitting in my torture chair noting frustration and tension at every sound. Both the sounds from outside and the mental dialogue inside are just pain and suffering.

Then this magical moment happens.

I don’t cause it to happen. I wasn’t looking for it. It just happened outside myself. It was like one of those Zen stories. A woman is walking down a path with a glass jar of water. The jar slips and shatters on the ground. The jarring sound causes a sudden awakening for the woman.

Likewise, this moment was a doorway to infinite love and easy, deep concentration. And it all came from an ordinary, everyday experience.

The woman sitting in front of me sneezes.

That’s it. She sneezed.

At first, I note the sound of the sneeze and am halfway through noting unpleasantness of sound. But I notice that doesn’t actually feel true. I’m puzzled. This is different. What changed? I realize that in the moment right after she sneezed, I was actually concerned about her. I wanted to say god bless you. I am outside of myself. These thoughts and realizations happen in a micro second.

This simple insight is so clear in my direct experience. I already know it; I’ve already experienced it before. But I need constant reminders. My suffering stops when my attention gets directed at caring for others or even myself. My meditation session immediately changes like a light switch.

It’s no longer a struggle to sit still and relax. Every sound is loving and pleasant. Even the sound of someone on the roof banging away reminds me that someone cares about this place to fix it up. The flushing toilet makes me grateful that we live in a country that has clean sanitation.

This moment is the great fruit of meditation. When everything is the same yet my experience transforms out of nowhere. My consciousness breaks free from its self-centered delusion to a wider, truer reality. Everyone experiences this phenomenon in sports, love, and any flow state. But meditation makes it so, so crystal clear. Joy is not about the outside world. Being able to transcend and embody every moment is not about what I’m doing, how I feel, or what I believe. It’s just my orientation, my attitude to experiencing the world. Whether I am experiencing from a closed, self-centered perspective or an open, inclusive viewpoint.

Pay attention next time someone sneezes. Hear, see, & feel what is

A Modern Monk : My Next Life


“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

Today was my last day working as an IT professional. I worked at my former company for ten years. Tomorrow will be the first day I’ve ever been without a paying job since I was 17. That’s huge. As high up there as my first retreat. Maybe even more than losing my virginity. The fear of being financially destitute has haunted me as long as I can remember.

Tomorrow, I’m driving to Dai Bosatsu, a Rinzai Zen monastery in Upper New York. I’ll be practicing a week long retreat with the Mondo Zen school.

After the retreat ends, I’ll drive immediately to The Center for Mindful Learning (CML) in Johnson, Vermont. I’m joining their small group of full time, young residents for at least six months.

After 2.5 years in Boston, I’m leaving my job, my friends, and most of my old life.

Friends have quizzed me about my future life in Vermont. Can I have guests? What kind of work will I be doing? How long will I be there? What will I do afterwards? I don’t know. I have no backup plans. I visited the center once and meet with several of the residents and the teacher, Soryu. I found out about CML from my friend Daniel. I meet him three years ago when I volunteered at the Buddhist Geeks conference. It’s ironic to think that I went to the conference with hopes of finding a mindful company I could join. Three years later, it sort of worked out that way.

Months ago, I was contemplating what I would do next year. I bounced between different extreme options. Apply for a divinity or counseling graduate program? Move to urban residential center? Travel around the world while working remote? Move to CML?

I’ve always wanted to practice intensely in a retreat center. I worried though that it was for the wrong reasons. Did I want to go to escape from life or find some magic enlightenment pill so I wouldn’t ever feel lost or suffer again? The idea of taking vows for life never appealed to me. But I did feel an extended practice period would be necessary. I also felt there was a fear of giving up my existing life. My freedom, my income, my friends. But I knew if I had a million dollars, I would absolutely go to CML… Okay. I don’t have a million dollars though. My concern is related to finances. Could I afford to go? I carry zero debt. I have enough savings to last me more than enough time to find another job even if it’s not ideal work. So, becoming a monastic wouldn’t destroy me financially. The real fear is opportunity cost then. Would I be gaining more by going to CML versus keeping my job and continue to build my life by myself?

The truth actually hit me hardest while doing a circling intensive weekend in NYC. The reality was that I rely on myself so much to get things done. I have a hard time relying on others. I had tried to build external groups and structures to hold me accountable whether it was the dharma house, joining coaching programs, or cultivating practice groups. Even going so far to buy a RV and travel cross country to force me out of my comfort. But, at the end of the day, I can’t fulfill my dreams by myself. I kept thinking that the really serious people who take dharma as their life are probably at a center, in a divinity program, or actually doing the work. They are not going to show up to beginner drop-in

CML was a opportunity to have others support me and keep me accountable. Everyone wakes up at 5am to practice. There would be no escape from each other or myself. I would grow and benefit in Vermont. Whereas, another year in Boston? I don’t know how much would really change. It would mostly be on my shoulders as it has for so many years now.

In addition to the meditation practice, CML offered a sort of dharma, startup non-profit. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial itch but how to apply this to mindfulness without becoming a hypocrite? This was one of my greatest questions of figuring out Right Livelihood. Here I would have the chance to explore this Great Question with other brothers and sisters.

To be sure, it hasn’t all been roses and sunshine. The past few weeks, I’ve felt a mild undercurrent of dread, fear, and excitement. Every morning, my very first thought is about Vermont. It still feels unreal.

Just a little over a year from now, I’ll be 30 years old. In my time in Boston, I’ve gotten more and more confidence in that I can be the person I truly want to be. My entire life previously had felt like a series of compromises. That there was no space for me to be the person I wanted. Whether it was feeling lost as a Korean American that didn’t even fit in amongst other Korean Americans. As a young student wanting to pursue video game development or web development but finding universities did not take it seriously. Or a graduate student interested more in contemplative practice than philosophical knowledge. Each time, I took the financially safe choice. I followed the money and thought I could do it by myself. Each time, I found myself later years ahead my time. Video game and web development are huge billion dollar industries now. Contemplative education and research is huge with meditation even taught in university classrooms. I see mindfulness now reaching towards a peak moment in popularity, impact, and recognition. I see other role models carving unorthodox paths that interest me. I’m going to trust my gut this time. I have the finances to carry me. I’ve exhausted my other options.

Right now, I can only keenly feel what I’m losing soon. Impermanence. Constant change. My old friends like Dan, Shuo, and Jimmy who were why I came to Boston in the first place. My dharma communities in Kwam Um Zen, CIMC, and Shambhala. All the friends who feel like my tribe. My people. This is the best time I’ve ever had in Boston. I feel the pain of giving that up.

I remember an old college puzzle. The aspirant on the path fears making the leap of faith into the unknown. The bottomless depths impossible to grasp. Yet, once the jump is made, the surprise, the joke, the absurdity that the leap was no leap at all. There was solid ground always there.

I’ll be making that leap tomorrow and next week and for the rest of my life. I hope that I find solid ground more times than not. But I’ll be okay either way. In the end, the choice is no choice at all. I remember my graduate thesis between Sartre and Buddhism. Beyond good faith and bad faith, there is authenticity. To live the mystery of being myself or running away. Let me keep finding the courage, faith, and support to stay at the edge of being myself.

Years ago, my mentor Dr P gave me a thoughtful note summarizing me: “I find myself to lose myself. I lose myself to find myself.”