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Apr 12
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A Waste of Time

martiniCOLUMN: In Everyday Life

guest article by Acharya Michael Greenleaf
originally published on Samadhi Cushions

The $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.

“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”

We’re in a boardroom on the 35th floor. Tall windows face the East River, which, on this spring day, is shrouded in low clouds. The topic of our meeting is a staple in the world of finance: litigation, specifically, a lawsuit stuck in New York’s civil courts. I’m a trustee. The trust is the plaintiff. As an accountant and a Buddhist meditation teacher, I’m also a novelty. The attorney hired to fight our case is, apparently, trying to break the ice.

Joining us at the conference table is a tax accountant. He’s known me longer and ignores the remark. These two professionals are from an older generation. Having taken up Buddhism before it was trendy, I’m familiar with the cynicism embedded in the attorney’s “gentle ribbing”, but there is something new.

Not so long ago, “to retreat” was more than getting away. Misguided or not, there was at least rigor beyond the familiar and comfortable. Instead, I’m learning, to retreat now means to indulge in a spiritualist, new-age self-pampering. In the 40 years since I began meditation practice, marketing departments have been waging war. “Retreat” and even “meditation” are now prisoners of promoters for luxury spas.

Why am I surprised? Once the purview of visionaries like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, these days the word “Zen” is used to sell everything from cookies to skateboards. (Just a guess. Sure enough, Google it.) Eastern Spirituality is positioning that shapes a brand. It signals tranquility – the kind enjoyed with a green tea in one hand and a Bombay martini in the other.

The monster of materialism swallows language and tradition, digesting them and spitting them back out as something it can love. Behind the transformation of the words is a myth enshrining the culture of productivity and busyness. (The kind of myth that lets a spa swallow a Buddhist retreat center.) In this myth, to slow down and be quiet is to perfect the art of escape.

As Frank Bruni observes in a recent NY Times op-ed, the person who insists on retreating “attracts a derogatory vocabulary: loner, loafer, recluse, aloof, eccentric, withdrawn.” To retreat is antisocial and escapist. Or, put another way, a big waste of time.

Time away is time off. Meditators on retreat are spa-goers who invoke the dream of distance from society and work. In the euphoria induced by green tea in the morning and martinis in the afternoon, looking within, contemplatives see what they want to see.

Ironically, at the retreats I attend, nothing is further from the truth. The practice of being is challenging, takes guts, and is hard work. In stillness feelings are uncovered, insights born, and connectivity is cultivated. Meditation, the word, may have been coopted. But for those who take it up, mindfulness, (and under this rubric let’s include quiet time and solitude), is a way into the challenges of life, not away from them.

Adulthood begins by asking “What to do?”, but the more mature question is “How to do it?” As a partner or parent, we’ve committed to a relationship — but how to cultivate that? We have work or a career — how do we pursue it? As a member of a community, or society — how do we participate?

These questions require self-reflection and self-knowledge. For that, quiet and stillness are essential. (By some measure, meditation is simply a technique that addresses how to be alone with ourselves.) Meeting the moment that is now, we discover not only something about how we are, but also who we are.

Like the spa-goer, the meditator wants something. But in the culture of retreat, without the help of green tea or a massage therapist, we find the person who can give us what we want. How? By slowing them down and inviting them into the moment. Is a retreat time well spent? For the answer, find the person who wants to know.

Like any discipline, what comes out of meditation practice depends upon what goes in. According to the author Susan Cain (her book “Quiet” is mentioned in Mr. Bruni’s op-ed), much research connects quiet and solitude with creativity and productivity. We worry that our time will be wasted, but is the question really our own? Or is it the product of a culture busy turning a native and contented curiosity into an efficiency-obsessed, future-oriented race for something more?

My two colleagues are expensive company. The clock is ticking. The attorney’s invitation to retreat hangs in the air without a reply. “You wouldn’t last a day,” I think to myself as the conversation shifts to New York’s Civil Courts. Budget cuts and understaffing mean justice delayed. Our court date has again been moved back. Cynicism and skepticism should abound — unless of course you’re being paid by the hour.

As the professionals weigh in on contingencies and probabilities, I can’t help but wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Author’s Note: Some astute readers have suggested that my bias (evidenced by the assertion that the litigator “wouldn’t last a day”) is more of a problem than any alleged distortions by the forces of materialism. These readers have a point. The thought is obviously defensive and says more about me than about the attorney. There might be a presumption that I look down on him. To be clear, I like him and respect him. I tell the story to share. Perhaps it’s a lesson. The next time your path is misrepresented, do better than I could. Make an effort! Set the record straight.

Michael GreenleafAcharya Michael Greenleaf is a volunteer at Samadhi Cushions who works on marketing and internet issues. He is also a meditation teacher with many years of experience in the Shambhala community. Michael is a member of the core faculty for Mukpo Institute at Karme Choling. His professional training includes a CPA as well as an MBA in finance. Michael credits his Buddhist practice with helping him see the dreamlike nature of financial information.

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6 responses to “ A Waste of Time ”
  1. I completely relate with this piece, having also been accused of being a navel-gazer and intimidating people I love with flat silence at their razzing remarks. I do kind of wish you’d engaged the attorney, Acharya Greenleaf, by sharing your thought out loud with him. Perhaps he would’ve learned something that day and you wouldn’t feel you’d wasted your time there with him.
    I do find it ironic how modern Western society’s perception of meditation retreat has done a 180 since Trungpa’s days of encouraging hippies to uplift themselves but remains just as materialistic. The humor never ceases. :) Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Harlan Duke
    Apr 17, 2015

    Perhaps you could have challenged him by speaking aloud your thoughts about his (lack of) ability to last at a retreat, as gently and impishly as you liked. Law is a competitive field, and my (ex-)colleagues in the field like nothing more than a challenge. It could have been voiced in the same ribbing spirit as his comment.

    One never knows if the seeds of comments like that would grow, likely he’d laugh it off initially, but the challenge might linger in his mind. Who knows what may have resulted? People have done far more outrageous things than try a retreat as a result of far smaller challenges.

    I’ve always found the best response to sarcasm or ribbing is to take it completely seriously, with a twinkle in your eye–to humbly rise to the challenge, as it were. I love the verbal fencing of probing humour, half stated insults, subtle challenges. It’s bubbly like champagne, if done with love.

    Spiritual materialism in society is a monstrous hydra with seemingly infinite heads, one that I have no idea how to approach skillfully, but not so difficult to handle one-on-one, I’ve found. Humour, challenge, and curiosity all are great weapons, especially with men-of-the-world like this guy.

  3. Michael, I thought you spoke well. Your statement about the litigator inspired the same thought in me. Meditation is hard work, and retreating with others is very challenging. At retreats we can’t have the privacy that a spa-consumer would enjoy. Thank you for writing. I appreciated your perspective and found much to agree with, having been accused of being a navel-gazer myself.

  4. Susan Dean
    Apr 12, 2015

    I’m afraid even “mindfulness” is becoming corrupted. I recently read an article on the benefits of mindfulness that discussed “mindfulness training” in the military in which soldiers are taught to notice their breath and to fire only on the out breath because the body is more stable then.

  5. Jan Watson
    Apr 12, 2015

    Well said – both of you, Michael and Peter, who have definitely lasted longer than a day!!
    ( but who’s counting!) Love, Jan

  6. Peter A. McLaughlin
    Apr 12, 2015

    “Wouldn’t last a day” was the best moment of the piece. It was a zinger. (Of course the Acharya believes in the man’s basic goodness. He was just using a rhetorical device to make a point. If that isn’t permissible, then we might as well chuck most of the last 400 years of English literature).
    I’m afraid the pendulum has swung far from an old culture of cynical, sharp pointed critics to one of soft, cuddly, “let’s not have any cross-talk” fragility. Goodness, the Vidyadhara wouldn’t have lasted a day!

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