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I Contain Multitudes – Or the Laws of Physics

November 9, 2017

Story time!

TL;DR – Saw a car accident that made me question my religion, nationality, race, and gender.

Physics tells us that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. For example, the grey Honda cannot occupy the same space as the blue shuttle van. The grey Honda cannot occupy the same space as the white Toyota or the white Chevy. The blue shuttle van cannot occupy the same space as the white pick-up truck.

While in the eyes of science, this does not constitute sufficient proof that no two solid objects can ever successfully occupy the same space at the same time – in fact, what we know about atoms and subatomic particle physics, mainly that atoms are made up mostly of empty space between their particles, much like our solar system is mostly empty space between planets separated by vast distances yet bound by strong but invisible forces, leads us to believe that somewhere, at sometime, two objects probably will successfully occupy the same time and place, given that the universe is as near to infinite as we can conceive and objects have infinite opportunities to try and occupy the same place at the same time – however, it is sufficient to convince me (not a physicist) that I saw a demonstration of a law of the universe at 2:00 p.m. on the 210 freeway at the San Dimas exit. But I digress, what is what my mind does when it’s hopped up on adrenaline and has no other immediate outlet for that energy.

I was driving to deliver a guest lecture in a class on interfaith spiritual care from the Buddhist perspective when I approached a slow down on the freeway, not unusual in this area. I was almost fully stopped when I heard a loud bang directly to my left, in the carpool lane. Then the grey Honda hurtled past me within inches of my tiny red Smart car and hit the white Toyota directly in front of me before continuing sideways to hit the white Chevy next to it. The blue shuttle van hurtled by some ways further down the carpool lane to my left, impacting with a white pickup truck and possibly another car.

The words that immediately came out of my mouth were “Jesus Christ!” They also came out in a distinctly Australian accent. In case you don’t know what that sounds like, I have found this helpful clip from the movie Crocodile Dundee (which I admit to watching repeatedly in my youth):

The very next thought that went through my head is “What dafuq did I just see?” and it was in Jamie Foxx’s voice. This may be an adaptation from Baby Driver, though I don’t know if he says precisely that line, but this is close:

So apparently, when startled, I am no longer a white, Buddhist, American woman. I am a black, Christian, Australian man. Who knew?

I sat there in my car for a few minutes. Am I hurt? No, I’m not hurt. Is my car damaged? No, my car is not damaged. Can I do anything to help these people right now? No, I don’t think so. I’m not an EMT and they all seem to be mobile and have people helping them. Should I stay to give a witness statement to the cops? I have no idea what caused the accident or who was to blame. I just saw the aftermath – up close and personal. Traffic was slowly moving all around me, so I put my blinker on and rejoined it.

I drove to my exit with one hand on my heart. I left the freeway for surface streets. I reached the stoplight before my turn onto the college campus before I realized what I had said and thought and started laughing.

I guess this ‘self’ we treat as real, whole, and independent, really is just a fabricated amalgamation of causes and conditions collected throughout our lives. I carry within me and incorporate into my personality small details from the places I have been and things I have experienced, including pop culture. As I continue to live and experience, new things will mix with old. Thus the ‘self’ I consider ‘me’ is ever changing, never permanent.

It can also end in an instant. I’d like to say that this led to some profound reevaluation of my priorities and a reinvigorated practice life…but it didn’t. I went about my day as planned, though I apologized to the class I was visiting if my thoughts were somewhat disjointed and speedy. Side effect of the adrenaline high that lasted several hours. I went about the next day as planned.

It is now two days later and I tend to look at the entire incident with a certain amount of inappropriate humor. Several people had a very, very bad day on the 210 freeway. It is mere chance that I was not one of them. In contrast, I only had a mildly odd day and a clear reaffirmation in my belief in the laws of physics and the truth of non-self.

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Making Things

September 27, 2017
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Cover art by Good Citizen Media Group

I made a thing. I am making other things. It feels good to make things, but it is also time-consuming and nerve-wracking. In Buddhism we talk a lot about non-self, about not clinging to the ego, about the dangers of pride. But when I make a thing, I become anxious about it because I want people to like it. I want them to enjoy it, even if they never know who made it. And I realize it is because, in some small way, my self-worth is contingent on the value other people place on the products of my labor. From a Buddhist perspective, this is, perhaps, not terribly wise. But I am a social animal, so I am genetically programmed to care what others think of me.

Beyond that, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from making a thing you can actually point to. I spent many years in college shuffling facts away into my memory and turning in papers that only one person ever read before I had this satisfaction. Then I took a watercolor class. I spent hours painting in the studio. Sometimes, I would only be working on color pallets or perfecting a particular stroke on a piece of practice paper, but at the end of my session I could sit back and literally point to what I had done. I could take it home and show it to my mother. I felt accomplished, even in a tiny way. I wonder if much of the dissatisfaction in our current work culture simply arises from our inability to point to any tangible product from our hours of toil.

For many years, my blog has filled this niche in my heart. I make a thing with words and put it out there on the internet for a few other people to find. Mostly, I simply enjoy the making of it and I enjoy rereading my old work from time to time. It is a ‘thing’ I can point to and remind myself where I’ve been and what I’ve done between here and there. (Which is probably more clinging, so that’s more grist for my meditations.)

You may note, however, that I have been absent of late. This is mostly due to my dissertation. This is predictable for PhD students, I have observed. We vanish into the wilderness of our books and data and theories, only to emerge months later starved for human company and incapable of monosyllabic conversation. I predict my blog will continue to feel the neglect for a few more months yet.

However, in the midst of all that, I did make a thing. It’s a little thing, a podcast with three episodes. It’s about my alma matter and current employer: University of the West. I had fun making it because I got to interview some of my favorite students and I got to work with a wonderful crew at Good Citizen Media Group who really made us sound far more professional than I ever felt. We were able to use some music from our students, Venerable Frank on a classic Chinese instrument and the punk duo Melody and PJ of Atomic Attractions. The entire process was fun.

The podcast was funded by a grant from the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism. They were very kind to offer us support not knowing what we might create with it. We could only make these three episodes (no plans for an ongoing series), but we did our best to ensure they give any listener a good idea of what our school is like and what a Buddhist-inspired education could be. Most of the students I interviewed were not themselves Buddhist, but they’re very happy to be at a school founded on the principles of wisdom and compassion.

Anyway, check it out, if you like. It’s called Journey UWest, which is a play on the ideas of education as a journey, the idea of Buddhism as a path, and the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. If you’ve every wondered what I sound like, now is your chance to find out. Then you can read all future posts in my voice. (Although, personally, I prefer to read all my old posts in the mental voice of Patrick Steward, but who doesn’t?)

 

Better Than Caffeine

July 21, 2017
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‘Borobodur 4’ by Hartwig HKD via Flickr.com

July has been a month of cognitive overload. I’m working on three highly creative, analytical, and energizing projects simultaneously. As much as I told myself architecture school was tough, I couldn’t have done this six or seven years ago. Even though I worked through my entire sentence in Arch Hall, it was usually on one major design project, a couple of boring part time jobs, and a one night a week at the student newspaper.

This month, I’m teaching an intensive summer class for three days each week in 2.5 hour morning blocks, with afternoon labs where I make cameo appearances to return graded work, give instructions to my TA, and basically provide comic relief. I love it. I love all 19 of my students and sincerely want them all to pass, even the ones who are failing right now. But it’s a constant performance, writing the script as I go with barely enough time to memorize the lesson plan and grade the papers in between. Luckily, it’s a class I’ve taught before, though not for a couple of years. The students finish their projects next week and I want to celebrate with all of them.

Amid that, I’m collecting and analyzing data for my dissertation. This involves 90-minute intensive interviews with fellow Buddhist chaplains. They’re a humorous, poignant, and enlightening bunch of folks. As this is a grounded theory study, between interviews I’ve been conducting continuous data analysis, reading and coding thousands of lines of text, writing hundreds of words of memos and notes. Questions and hypotheses proliferate like dandelions. There’s no time to slow down, because each interview must be coded and analyzed before the next. I’m sitting at ten interviews in the past six weeks with at least two more to go.

Then there’s my third baby. In February, my boss launched a major creative project at work and asked me to do two things as part of a taskforce of ten. First, I keep the team organized and on track. That’s mundane, sending meeting reminders, putting together agendas, checking in with folks. The second part is the more challenging bit: take what those ten people produce and synthesize it into something coherent and persuasive to present to the Board of Trustees.

We spent the first month just figuring out what our job was and the next four evaluating our options. This month, we’ve been working on designing something truly beautiful. Everyone has made a major contribution and it’s up to me to make sense of it. That’s okay, it’s what I’m good at. I’ve done it with accreditation reports, strategic plans, learning outcomes, and a dozen smaller projects. In all those instances, I had good relationships with open communication among the parties. This project is going to the Board, though, whom I know far less well and are often opaque in their intentions (at least to me).

I’m coping with some major transference. It’s like architecture school all over again. I fear I’ll pour my heart and soul into something beautiful that never gets built. This appeared as sad dreams and low energy in early June. Once I identified the source and worked through some of it on a weekend meditation retreat, the depression receded and I got back to work. Now as the deadline approaches, I am once again experiencing mild exhaustion and a strong impulse to retreat into Netflix and napping. Thus far I’ve held it off by focusing on being highly productive as early in the day as I can for as long as I can and resting in the evenings, without guilt tripping myself too much. I’ve even given up on walking the dog in the summer heat until this is complete. He’ll make do with weekends.

Thankfully, the end is nigh. With the end of July, the class, the interviews, and the project presentation will all come and go. The dissertation and project will continue, but move into different phases with extended deadlines. I plan to take at least two days off in the following week, which my boss heartily endorses. I could not have done this in the College of Architecture. Even as recently as three years ago, I don’t believe I could have done this. So what changed?

I started doing something different. Though I do very little meditation, maybe ten minutes a day on a good day, meditation does me a lot of good. It focuses the mind wonderfully. I noticed the difference on my recent meditation retreat. It was the first one I’ve ever attended from which I didn’t want to run screaming at any point. I believe this was partially due to it being a small retreat with people I knew in a mostly deserted retreat center. We cooked for ourselves and looked after ourselves. We interacted as equals, though we all looked to Venerable Guan Zhen as our senior, our teacher. No one gave me any advice or grief about my unorthodox meditation posture. No one tried to ‘fix’ me. (Buddha bless chaplains!) But also, I meditated.

I mean, really meditated. Not for ten or twenty or thirty minutes, but hours. I loved the silence and stillness of my squirrely mind. I’m sure that sounds like a paradox because it is, but there is a beautiful calm in letting the mind be squirrely without letting it make you run laps around the room. And I spent an entire day barely talking at all. What a relief that was!

Ten minutes of meditation most mornings are enough to help me concentrate and focus when I need to, let go of worries and ruminative thoughts when I need to, notice when my mind gets discursive in meetings, listen to my body when it says it’s tired, ignore my body when it wants five more minutes of sleep it doesn’t need, and have just the right amount of self-compassion, minus just the right amount of self-indulgence. Then there’s five years of audio books about social science, psychology, and Dharma. Back that up by two years of teaching a class about willpower while trying not to be a hypocrite. I guess teaching really is the best way to learn.

The people around me are also different. In Arch Hall, I felt a keen isolation. Here, I have ten other professionals on my design team, an entire support staff shepherding these 19 students through the summer program, and three dissertation advisors who actually reply to my emails once in a while (which, I’ve heard, is not that common among dissertation committees). Years ago, when I emailed my thesis chair for help with burnout, my message went unanswered. I also have a supporting partner, who obligingly asks “Should you be writing?” when I’ve spend more than an hour or two on the couch and makes me the best ever baked potatoes for dinner just because. Today, when I ask for help, I get help.

On Wednesday, I taught class in the morning like normal, had lunch in the dining hall with coworkers, and then retreated to my office to grade papers, answer emails, and write a summary of my upcoming presentation. A few minutes past three o’clock, I wandered over to stick my head into lab, where my students should have been working on their final project proposals only to find they were all gathered in Locke Hall.

A student who’d come through this very same class with me three years ago was there, holding these baby freshmen captive while she read them the riot act about stepping up, paying attention, showing respect, working hard, and using this opportunity to pass so they didn’t have to take this class all over again. “You don’t have to go to college,” she reminded them. “You chose to be here.” Some of these kids, ahem, young adults where freshmen at her high school when she was a senior. She took no prisoners, while the staff stood back and watched, some with stunned looks, others with barely concealed delight. Later that day, two students came to find me in my office for input on their projects and an unprecedented three of them emailed me with questions or completed work two days before deadline. I found our fierce lecturer before I left and gave her a hug. (Brainwashing works!)

I couldn’t have done this six years ago. I couldn’t have done this without good teachers leading me through, a sangha all around me, and the Dharma at my back. I don’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but I think it shows what training the mind and the right environment can accomplish. The Three Jewels are better than caffeine, it turns out.

Final Path Update

July 4, 2017
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‘Dharma Wheel #280’ by trugiaz via Flickr.com

8-Month Reflection

Last October, I began a project to bring the Noble Eightfold Path more fully into my life and daily practice. I was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s cultivation of 13 virtues through focus on one virtue each month in an endless cycle and by the Christian liturgical cycle, which uses annual events and a three-year rotation to cover the scriptures in the Bible. I also drew on game theory and the psychology of habit formation to try to engage more deeply in Buddhist practice.

Now that June is concluded, I have completed eight parts of the path in eight months. However, I am not done yet. I originally conceived of this process in three rounds. That means a complete cycle would be two years. Each part of the path would be focused on three times, first for impact on self, then on near others, then on the world at large. After two years, the cycle would begin again with a focus on self cultivation. At this point, I have completed the first third of a full cycle.

The results are interesting. I’ll share my June report below. This reflection is about the entire process.

One thing that has become increasing clear over the last three months, in particular, is the need to support this effort with daily and weekly rituals. It is not enough to set a goal at the beginning of the month, without also having strong habits already in place for checking back in on that goal and staying accountable to oneself and others.

Therefore, as I continue on this project, I will consider ways to weave it into a daily routine that includes regular self-check-ins and a weekly routine that involves deeper practice and a check-in with others. I do not presently know what form this may take. I think it is critical to my continued growth in this area.

June Report: Right Intention

My goals for June included metta mediation, clarification of project goals at work, clarification of my career path, and clarification of intentions in my relationship at home. I did very little metta mediation in the month of June, but I did far more shamatha mediation than normal. In June, I did my morning meditation 16 of 30 days, which is about average for me. However, I also attended a 2.5 day retreat with fellow members of my Buddhist order which was certainly my best and most enjoyable retreat experience to date. I may reflect on the factors that contributed to this in a later post, but this retreat helped with my June goal of Right Intention.

First, the retreat offered several sessions of prolonged shamatha meditation that I was able to engage with in a deep and meaningful way. My focus was good and my mind steadier and more comfortable than it has ever been in such prolonged practice. For one full day, I also tried diligently to practice more silence and say very little. I found that the less I spoke, the better my meditation became. The more I spoke, the more discursive my mind became during meditation, often fretting over what I said or what someone else said. When this happened, I longed to return to the more peaceful state that coincided with silence.

I carried this insight with me into the following week and practiced saying less at work and at home to good results. I did not feel that I was stiffing myself. Rather, I was genuinely curious to see what would happen if I spoke less, listened more, and just let things unfold as they will. So far, the results have been positive. I hope to continue this experiment as appropriate in the coming months. It is hard, however, to break out of existing habits to jump into conversations, but I am also watching myself when I do jump in to see both precisely what my intention is (to contribute or just to be noticed) and the outcome.

I did not write out a career plan. However, some stress and sad dreams early in the month prompted me to exercise my demons by writing out worst case scenarios and clarifying what was really troubling me. It also clarified my intentions in relation to those scenarios. I found this process very helpful and my dreams have been less depressing. I also ran across this TED talk about stoicism and writing down your fears shortly after completing my own worst case journal, and I recommend both the talk and the practice.

So while the month of June didn’t proceed precisely as I had intended (heh), I feel that I still made a good deal of progress on Right Intention during this month. I am also renewed and refreshed in my meditation practice and considering seeking out more regular retreats to deepen my shamatha practice and perhaps start learning vipassana.

Going Forward

I have decided to discontinue monthly reports on the blog. However, I will continue with some kind of a practice journal. I may share insights from this work from time to time, particularly when they are interesting and relevant. I think the monthly blog posts have taken on a kind of ‘homework’ flavor. I think we would all prefer better quality posts on more interesting subjects.

I shall, however, share an update in eight months time on the conclusion of the next section of the cycle. This section of the cycle will focus on how cultivation of the Eightfold Path affects the people in my life. In many ways, I see potential for this section to be more fruitful.

I shared with a friend just the other day that, as an introvert, my instinct is to withdraw and seek solitude when my mood is low but that I have learned that this is actually one of the worst things I can do. Instead, if I go out and try to help people, I would find myself feeling infinitely better. It’s like magic. So perhaps these next eight months will be very magical.

I hypothesize that we will each get something different out of the three rounds. Extroverts may find the first round the most difficult and most rewarding, while I suspect that for me it will be the second round. Who knows what will happen when I expand the circle of care still further in the third round to include the entire world. It will be interesting to find out.

Happy travels on your path.

June Path Update: Right Intention

June 1, 2017
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‘Buddha’ by Jan Brünemann via Flickr.com

May Report: Right View

Round 1: Deepen knowledge of the Four Noble Truths.

I forgot to keep a nightly journal almost as soon as I wrote my plan. I just don’t know where that went. I did start trying to write a little (30 minutes) at night before bed, but that habit was spotty and I completing forgot my focal writing prompt.

I am trying to strengthen an evening routine that includes more chores, exercise, and writing, and less watching television. However, since I am currently in weak shape, the exercise really wears me out. Some crazy people say exercise energizes them to read, write, or do other cognitive tasks. Presently, exercise just exhausts me and it’s all I can do to hold myself up in the shower. I hope this will change over the next three months as I become fitter and I can establish the habit of an evening journal

I did, however, do better on morning meditation, hitting 4 of 5 weekdays throughout May. I am now also trying to incorporate weekend morning meditation and am currently 1 of 2 on that. My entire morning routine is becoming more solid, including eating breakfast at home and taking a healthy packed lunch to work.

Sadly, however, I also did not do much reading of the books I identified.

What I Learned

Overall, I would have to say that this month was a bust because I just didn’t remind myself of my goals or follow through. Some of this is seasonal. Early May is busy as our students finish classes and prepare to graduate and faculty finish grading and annual program assessment. Then there is a lull in the two weeks following commencement. Everything seems roomier and slower. There are fewer deadlines and meetings, less to manage and push. As a result, I let myself become a little laissez faire about my task list. Right View clearly suffered from the busy/lazy swing of May. Perhaps June will be better.

June: Right Intention

Contracts are renewed in June, so I have been thinking a lot about my career. Conversations over the past few months with my dissertation advisor have clarified how my dissertation serves as a launch pad for my bid for a faculty job at the end of my PhD program. Simultaneously, some unexpected personnel changes at work have prompted me to consider opportunities and challenges within my current institution.

I always feel conflicted when considering my career. Much of how we make career choices and job bids is permeated with ambition, competition, politics, and personal promotion. My intentions get all tangled. Am I really advocating the best solution for all? Or am I just going after what I want? To make matters more confusing, there is often significant overlap in that venn diagram, but their are no sharp lines to tell you when you’ve strayed out of the overlap zone and into sheer selfishness.

Right Intention, on the other hand, is the resolution to act free from ill-will and cause no harm. Selfishness blinds us to the harm we do to others. Right Intention also includes an attitude of renunciation or a letting go of desires that may hinder us on the path. Ambition is the direct opposite of renunciation.

The Buddha advised Rahula [MN 61], his son, to reflect on bodily, verbal, and mental acts before doing them, while doing them, and after doing them to ascertain if they lead to self-affliction, the affliction of others, or both. Where they cause affliction, they were unfit and one should resolve to give them up. Where they bring happy results, they were fit and he should have the intention to continue them.

But how can we discern when short-term affliction may lead to long term happiness? And how can we discern affliction at all when many of the consequences of our actions are hidden from us?

We cannot always know the consequences of our actions, because we cannot always control how they will be received by others or how those others will communicate with us. This is precisely why Right Intention is so important. We can always do our utmost to understand our own minds, which are our constant companions.

Have I acted from ill-will, sensual desire, or delusion? Did I act with loving-kindness and compassion as my intention?

While loving-kindness cannot always ensure a good result, it can ensure a Right Intention. If the result is bad, then I am motivated by that same loving-kindness and compassion to make amends and learn from my mistake. If the result is good, then I can dwell in sympathetic joy. And when I do feel motivated by desire or ambition, I can abide in equanimity and reflect to clarify my intention.

Therefore, during this month, I resolve to strengthen myself in the brahmaviharas (divine abodes), particularly in loving-kindness and compassion.

Round 1: Cultivate Right Intention through the brahmaviharas or four virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy.

  • Do a 4-minute metta meditation each morning
  • Pause to reflect on suggestions and proposals at work to clarify intentions before sharing them with others
  • Write out a career plan (or more than one) that clearly outlines potential risks and benefits in order to clarify intention
  • Pause to reflect on requests made at home to clarify intentions before burdening my partner

Round 2: Systematically reflect on the outcomes of thoughts, speech, and action to determine what intentions drove them

Round 3: Act from loving-kindness and compassion through volunteering or other altruistic work

July: Right Speech

 

Listening as Love

May 23, 2017
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‘listen’ by gwenchiu via Flickr.com

“I don’t know how the quote goes, but I once heard someone say that ‘listening is so close to love that most people don’t know the difference,'” my classmate paraphrased and my professor affirmed.

This struck me. We were learning to be chaplains, so we were learning to listen. I could see listening as an act of generosity, goodwill, complete concentration on the other person, as an act of meditation, and as egolessness. But what does it say about us and our society that we listen to each other so little that it can be conflated with love? I felt sad.

I’ve since found the origin of the quote in a Christian author named David Augsburger, who said “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

I was trained to listen as a chaplain starting seven years ago, but I didn’t quite understand it then. (I’m not entirely sure I do now.) Like most people, I grew up thinking of listening as a utility skill, a means to an end. You listen and then speak or act. As a child, you listen to the directions of grownups to stay out of trouble. As an adult, you listen to someone’s arguments so you can refute them. All listening has a purpose beyond the mere act of listening.

I carried that belief with me into chaplaincy. One of the first things they beat out of you in chaplaincy training is the notion that you, the chaplain, can ‘fix’ anyone’s problems. Chaplains often deal with cosmic scale existential crises. You’re not going to ‘fix’ death, dying, illness, injury, trauma, or grief. I knew I wasn’t listening so I could learn how to fix things, but what did that leave?

Was I listening so I could learn? To see clearly the patterns of human suffering? Was I the ultimate participant observer in life’s sufferings? Some chaplains call this ‘witnessing’ and describe it as a sacred duty. I can understand, but it seemed like there was more to it than that.

Moreover, how was I to listen with no purpose to focus my attention? Nothing to listen for, just … to listen? My wayward meditation practice rescued me. I made people the objects of my meditation and I gave them more attention than I’d ever managed to give my own breath. People are ever so much more interesting.

Still, my assumptions about listening pushed at me, so I listened to them, too. I listened silently to my need to ‘fix’ things, to my own intolerance and judgments. I listened to my sadness and grief, my projections and cynicism, and my impatience. I listened to my attachment, aversion, and delusions while people spilled out their own and we got down in the muck together.

And there were those who listened to me. My chaplaincy supervisor listened to me gripe and complain. She listened to my uncertainty and fear, even to my intolerance and judgments. My cohort listened to my attempts to provide care, my failures and successes and frequent complete bewilderment.

Slowly, it became clear to me that listening isn’t close to love. Real listening is an act of love itself. To be heard or seen by another for who one is, rather than who that person wishes one to be, that is an act of selfless love. And it is so, so very rare that any of us can be that selfless.

When people find themselves in the presence of that kind of love, heard, seen, and accepted for who they are with every flaw, every vulnerable wound, something profound takes place. I can’t explain it. It’s the kind of thing we need poets for. But it is a healing. It can overturn worlds, even if only for a moment, that kind of acceptance.

They say Avalokiteshvara has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears to see and hear the suffering of the world. It is natural to assume this is so that she can then act on that suffering with her thousand hands and thousand feet, to feed the hungry and nurse the sick, worthy selfless deeds. I now believe her first selfless deed begins with seeing and hearing the cries of the world, knowing there are some things that not even a celestial bodhisattva can fix.

Willa Miller, a professor of spiritual care at Harvard, shares the teaching of Patrul Rinpoche on the subject of listening through admonishments on how not to listen.First, do not listen like an upside-down pot into which nothing new can be placed. We often turn our pots upside down to protect ourselves from suffering, our own and others. When we turn our pots upright, we can listen attentively without being distracted by judgments, feelings obsessions, other sounds, or physical sensations. We learn to value the speaker’s words, cultivate curiosity, and let go of our own need to be heard. This is very hard, but right listening is the first stage of Right Speech. Ultimately, letting go of our need to be heard is also liberating and reduces our own suffering.

Second, do not listen like a pot with holes that only catches some things, but not others. Likewise, we often do this to protect ourselves. We hear what we like and forget the rest. Instead, we can listen to remember, understand, imagine what that situation must have been like, and empathize with the speaker. Miller describes this as “an energy of receptivity paired with willingness to feel with” the other and “come alongside” them. When we walk beside someone, we also learn to recognize what it is like when someone walks beside us.

Finally, do not listen like a pot containing poison that contaminates anything put into it. This is the most pernicious form of listening and we do it almost every second of every day. We hear someone’s words and judge their intentions, intelligence, education, or character, imbuing them with meaning beyond what is spoken. We can demonize or lionize the other on a simple turn of phrase depending on whether it disagrees or agrees with our own preconceived opinions.

Miller asserts that good listening comes from having the right motivation to listen, which, according to Patrul Rinpoche means not wanting to “glorify oneself and vilify others.” Instead, we can purify our own poisons and become a selfless and non-dual listener, totally absorbed in listening beyond self-consciousness of subject and object. This does not mean we forget ourselves, but that we do so with equanimity. We listen to both the other person and to how we are receiving their words to monitor for our own poisons. This is the egolessness of listening and it is immensely freeing for both us and them.

Sometimes I forget these instructions. Sometimes, I don’t want to listen. I don’t think I can bear to listen right now. I doubt that listening actually does any good at all. I wonder if it just lets people reinforce their own wrong beliefs.

Then I put all that away and I make them the object of my meditation. I listen. And the less ego I bring to the listening, the more healing and liberation we both experience. Listening from a selfless place costs nothing. It does not deplete; it only replenishes. I listen and I accept what I hear without struggle.

This doesn’t mean I forgo wisdom or discernment. I’m listening to what is, what has been. The future is still unwritten. When I listen well, I can reflect well what I’ve heard and the other person can then hear and see their situation more clearly.

In being heard and not being rejected, a profound sense of space can unfold. Patterns of harmful habitual behaviors loosen a bit when the listener makes space for what is, without trying to push it this way or that, without trying to ‘fix’ it. Suddenly the speaker finds they’re not being pushed into their standard coping mechanisms. There’s nothing to defend against or react to. More becomes possible. Wisdom helps us see potential paths and listen for what becomes possible, even if it was not possible a moment ago.

Wisdom and listening share a common trait – egolessness. Without myself to worry about or protect, love manifests as a true desire to reduce suffering, any suffering, in the most healing way possible.

Listening isn’t close to love. When done selflessly, it is love. We don’t know the difference because there isn’t one. Dualism collapses into interbeing. And isn’t that the point?

Power of Tea

May 11, 2017

Tea at Three Flyers 2016It began with one teapot, six cups, and a single bag of cookies. I put up flyers around campus. I had no idea who might come. We only had six chairs, so it would be cozy. Sometimes one person came and stayed a few minutes. Sometimes five people came and stayed the entire hour. Sometimes, I mostly sat by myself, sipped tea, and read a book.

Slowly, slowly, like the steam wafting leisurely from a cup of hot tea, word began to spread. I added a second teapot and more cups. We moved to a larger venue, one with about ten chairs. The snacks diversified to include fruit strips, little chocolates, mixed nuts. I got a packet of to-go cups for those who were just passing through but could still benefit from a cup of tea.

People began donating tea, mostly through the time honored practice of re-gifting. Variety packs and beautiful tins of loose leaf tea would show up at my office door, with lovely Chinese lettering on them (which I cannot not read). Frequently they appeared just after Christmas or Chinese New Year or someone’s business trip abroad. Many times I brewed ‘mystery’ tea and was never disappointed.

We moved to another venue, slightly larger. A small fundraiser enabled the purchase of a cart to carry all the tea things and snacks. I gained a student assistant and didn’t feel a single drop of guilt (well, maybe one) for tasking her with washing up. Rewarded with tea every week, she never complained. As she prepares to graduate this weekend, she told me that hosting tea was the favorite part of her work each week.

Tea at Three has become a venerable institution. It is the only event related to my work as a Campus Chaplain that has endured these past four years. I tried leading meditation. A few people came, then no one at all for several weeks, then I gave up. I tried leading process groups for chaplains and grad students to talk about their stresses and support one another. They were problematic. I’ve held events and hosted speakers to mixed results. But tea, ah tea, is something students ask about.

“What day are you hosting tea this semester?” they want to know when we pass in the hall. “Same place?”

“Can I bring a pie next week? I’m baking this weekend,” they offer.

“Can I show folks how to prepare tea the traditional Chinese way?” and they bring their own beautiful teapots and cups.

“I don’t like tea,” she says, but she comes every week, buys a soda from the vending machine, eats the cookies, and stays the entire hour.

Students, faculty, and staff are all welcome. There are many regulars, some who stop by occasionally, and a few who pause in surprise.

“I didn’t know you did this,” they say and accept a cup of tea.

“Yup. Every week for three years now. I’m glad you found us. Have a cookie.”

We held our final Tea at Three of the school year this week. It was a special event. A colleague unveiled the woven art project students and staff created together earlier in the spring. We had flowers and tiny vegan chocolate cupcakes and iced fruit tea. The couches overflowed and people pulled up chairs from elsewhere or just sat on the floor. I passed out tea and then sat down with a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn. People came over to watch me knit and two young women, one from Sri Lanka and one from Nepal, gave it a try. Folks wandered in and out. Students voluntarily served tea and refilled teapots at need. Conversation drifted from topic to topic.

“Are you reading the New York Times or the LA Times?” I asked a student with a newspaper and we began a conversation about politics and his recent trip to visit prison inmates with a professor.

“When will you get your black belt?” I asked the young woman who doesn’t drink tea as we talked about the people at her dojo.

“How’d that stats test work out?” I directed towards a small group of students who had lamented the difficulty of their final exam at last week’s tea. A repeat of complaints against the professor ensued.

“I got a new tattoo! Do you want to see?” has been heard more than once at our little tea party.

“Oh, it’s three o’clock,” harried staff exclaim as they pass our little group. “I guess I can sit for a few minutes,” then they stay for half an hour.

The thing about tea is that there is no other agenda, no assigned topic, no target group. Sometimes we spend the entire hour talking about memes and television. Sometimes we talk about suicide and childhood trauma. Sometimes we talk about both on the same day. I make an effort to check in with each student and staff person, but there are also times I just sit back and listen as they build connections with each other. Such a simple thing, but we all immediately know what to do when sitting around sharing tea. It’s a human thing thousands of years old.

In technical terms, this is ministry of presence. I rarely think of it that way, though. Mostly it’s just tea. Many cultures still use tea medicinally. Some herbs do affect the body, but mostly I believe the medicine of tea is in the human connections it fosters. Recent research has shown that patients who spend just ten more minutes talking with their palliative care doctors each week report less pain and need fewer medications than those who are denied that human connection. Tea is powerful because it is a focal point for building those connections.

Once in a while, someone who has been to tea will show up at my office door. “Can we talk?” they ask. Their expression tells me they need more than tea and cookies. But because of tea, they know I’ll listen.

This week was the last Tea at Three for the year, but not the last Tea at Three. Commencement is on Saturday. Next week, I’ll offer a travelling tea with my little cart coming around to the offices, a little relief for faculty and staff at the end of a busy semester. Travelling tea will continue each month throughout the summer. Tea at Three will return for fall semester. I look forward to sharing a cup with you.