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Aug 29
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Doing and Not Doing

Recently the Shambhala Times published an article called “Is Shambhala Just for Seekers?” by Russell Rodgers. In it he characterized the Shambhala Buddhist path as a “ladder”.

Over the years I’ve been involved in various Shambhala communities and have worked and practiced with a lot of people. It’s clear that the path has a number of “cliffs” on it: you’re going along with a group of people and suddenly some people just disappear. Often they’re gone for good.

So why do a lot of people complete level five of Shambhala Training and never return?

As a meditation instructor, I’ve seen how important it is for people to hear that whatever they can do is fantastic – if you can sit for one minute, great! Even thinking about meditation in a positive way is good.

The best attitude is neither encouraging or suppressing thoughts, and not evaluating an individual meditation session as “bad” or “good.” Meditation is constantly resting the mind in the present moment without giving in to dissatisfaction and judgment. Meditation practice is resting in or even relaxing into nowness. The mind responds to training and gets better over time: this is mindfulness, or the mind’s innate ability to pay attention.

Cultivating mindfulness as a basis, and the benefit of a coherent approach to training is the reason there are “ladders.” Shambhala Training levels one to five are an excellent introduction to sitting practice, giving participants teachings about mind and meditation, a range of techniques to apply in their personal practice, and practical experience in meditation.

But the “ladder” doesn’t mean that the essential teachings are only for the ambitious. The essential teaching of resting in natural goodness emphatically cuts through that attitude.

When I first did Shambhala Training level 1 I was living in a town far away from any Shambhala Center. At the end of the level, a number of participants said “we should get together and practice!” There was a local therapist who volunteered to host the group. Five people including me showed up and then . . . we had to decide what to do. We realized we had no cushions. We didn’t know which way to face. Some people wanted to just sit; some people wanted to chant mantras; some people wanted to lie down. That was the first and only meeting of the group.

In comparison, Shambhala Training in Boulder was absolutely refreshing because there was clarity: sit this way, on these cushions, facing in this direction, and for this long. That clarity allowed me to relax and actually meditate. And I shared the same experience of resting the mind in the present with the other participants.

After a while, I realized that the people organizing the levels were working hard for my benefit, and I could help out too. Any group activity requires leadership, effort, organization, and follow-through. Trustworthy leadership and coherent execution are wondrous. They are also a trap: “doing” seems better than “participating.” Those who are good at “doing” are rewarded. It starts to seem like the point is “doing” – staffing, coordinating, teaching, directing, and so on.

Later on, I once again found myself in a town far away from a Shambhala Center. With a family, it was hard for me to carve out time for practice, let alone get to the center. Every once in a while, someone from one of the Shambhala centers would call. I started to realize that calls were always to do something – staff, coordinate, teach – hardly ever for purely social reasons. This left me feeling alone and abandoned, and slightly cynical about enlightened “society”: I was only worthy of attention if I could fill a position or coordinate a program. That conforms perfectly to the society we live in, where your job and accomplishments define your worth as a human being.

This tendency is everywhere in Shambhala Centers. Level 3 graduates are told they can make enlightened society happen by staffing other levels. Great Eastern Sun graduates have the privilege of becoming center members in order to support ongoing programs. Graduates of Enlightened Society Assembly or Sacred World Assembly are seen as good recruits to take on administrative roles. It’s understandable from a center administrator’s view point. But it’s jarring to have spent intensive time cultivating “non-doing” to then have “doing” presented as the main valid activity.

The reality is: I have a deep bond with anyone anywhere in the world who has completed Level 1. We share an experience that is extremely rare – being willing to sit still with our own minds and not run away.

This is the paradox: in order to experience basic goodness, it’s wonderful to have structure that provides a safe, supportive environment to relax the mind. Creating structure requires activity, and since activity is more visible and concrete than non-doing, we misinterpret and think activity is the point. The very activity that cultivates basic goodness can become a blockage to simple human interaction. We end up with deep, intense personal experience and no opportunity to share it in an ongoing way. I think this is one of the reasons people fall off of cliffs along the path. Those who aren’t good at doing or have life circumstances that prevent them from helping out feel like there’s no place for them.

I’ve changed the way I relate to my fellow Shambhalians. I make a point of inviting people to go out to eat, or meet for a picnic, or watch a movie. I invite people to practice wherever it’s convenient – delightful lhasangs in the country, feast practice in a friend’s living room.

The trigger that inspires me to reach out is exactly the same feeling of isolation and abandonment that I had so long ago. If I want to create enlightened society, I need to create society first, and that comes down to simple human interaction, then mixing that with the larger vision we glimpse in programs and in our personal practice at home.

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