The other day I was involved in a conversation with three other women who speak publicly. One of them brought up the notion of “transmission.” Rather than giving just another how-to talk, she said, she wanted to transmit something of value. Words are useful, she continued, but authentic presence is more instructive.
I agree. But there is a conundrum. What do you transmit? Where does it come from? How can you find it, feel it, and then offer it? And how can you bring it to a public forum where people have shown up hoping to gain something of value? What do you put in your event marketing materials? “Show up and see Susan transmit something that she promises will help you” is not going to work.
These questions are at the very heart of what it means to be a spiritual teacher. As one who has been trained very carefully to teach meditation (and only after more than a decade of practice and months and months of meditation retreats), it was pointed out that meditation instruction is more than a simple explanation. It is a transmission. The “transmission quality” ensures, perhaps, that the instruction is received by both your wisdom mind and your conventional mind. Your wisdom mind (or higher self, soul, spirit, whatever you would like to call it) uses the instruction to deepen whatever dialogue(s) you’re having in unseen realms—with relatives, heroes, sages, Self, or who knows what. (But we all have such inner dialogues.) Your conventional mind uses the instruction to lower your blood pressure, treat insomnia, or just be less stressed out. Both are important.
In a transmission, something generates a signal. Something else conducts it. When most of us think about transmitting, we forget about that all-important first step: something generates a signal. In other words, the signal does not start with me yet it cannot be conducted without me. Lots (and lots) of trouble ensues when the conductor confuses herself with the signal. But I digress.
Though this may sound impossibly woo-woo, I’m going to step out here and advocate the traditional view. The signal comes from your lineage. If you are Buddhist, as I am, the signal comes from the Buddha or Manjushri or Padmasambhava. If you’re Christian, the signal comes from God, Jesus, or the Holy Ghost. If you’re Jewish, perhaps it comes from YHWH, Maimonides, Moses or the Lubavitcha Rebbe. And so on.
However, most of us don’t hold with established religions—are transmissions out of our reach? Certainly not. Whether you think of it in this way or not, you definitely hold a lineage. Think of the beings you most admire. Think of the values you hold the highest. Think of the people with whom you feel most at ease. These are your lineages. Maybe your lineage is songwriters and you revere Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon, and Nick Lowe. Or perhaps you’re of the lineage of scientists and you esteem Einstein, Newton, and Nikola Tesla. Maybe you’re of the lineage of people who have no lineage, of loners and cowboys and outlaws. Your lineage could be that of mothers, Italians, activists, gardeners, executives, or simply your immediate family. These all work. (BTW, if you are so moved, in the comments, tell me what your lineage is and who your lineage holders are…)
Before you teach, it is enormously helpful, critical, even, to invoke the power of your lineage. If you’re a traditionalist like me, there are prescribed ways of doing so via spiritual practices. But it is just as good to simply think of those you admire the most and hope to emulate. Bring them to mind. That’s all you have to do. But if you want to take it a step further, say to them in whatever way feels comfortable something like, “I hold your lineage and I’ll try to do you proud by extending what you started.”
Before I teach meditation for example, I think of my meditation teacher (with unending gratitude, I might add). He was taught by his meditation teacher (in this case, Chogyam Trungpa). Chogyam Trunpga was taught by his teacher who was taught by his teacher who was taught by her teacher…and on and on. There is an unbroken line of transmission all the way back to the Buddha. When I am about to teach, reflecting on this gives me tremendous ease.
This is how the transmission quality arises. I mean, it’s one way. I’m sure there are others.
Some years ago, I was producing a book with a CD called “Quiet Mind.” It was intended to introduce people to various kinds of meditation through essays written by some of the greatest teachers in the world. The CD featured each of them teaching the practice they had written about. Before I began work on it, I went to visit my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. I didn’t know if the transmission quality could be preserved on a recording! I asked him if it was possible. After thinking it over very briefly, he said “yes” and then offered me a formula for transmission that I have abided by ever since.
“When you are trying to teach something spiritual,” he said, “the first step is to establish confidence in the mind of the student.” Which makes total sense, because then the student can actually relax and open her mind to what you are saying and spiritual teachings are confusing enough without hearing them through a partially clenched mind.
“How do you establish confidence?” he continued. Step two! “Offer something real.” Yes! “And how do you know what is ‘real’?” he said, whereupon he laid step three on me. “Only that which you yourself know to be true via your personal experience.” In other words, not what someone else told you, not what you hope is true, not what other really cool people think is true. What YOU know.
I have tried to abide by this 3-step system for more than a decade since I first heard it. I have found it to be extremely reliable. So, as you go out there hoping to teach anyone anything whether through public discourse or private instruction, via the written or the spoken word, remember your lineage. Then establish confidence by offering something real based solely on your experiential wisdom. This way, I have learned, the signal remains strong and the conduit becomes ever stronger. You are able then to transmit in the best possible way: again, in the words of Sakyong Mipham who said to a gathering of dharma teachers, “don’t teach anyone anything. Help them to discover something.”
In this podcast, Susan discusses some of the most basic points about the Buddhist path: the Four Noble Truths, the three yanas (or teaching cycles), the ceremony by which one becomes a Buddhist, the main types of meditation practiced in the West, and more.
If you’ve ever wanted to get to the bottom of your deepest childhood wounds, stare unblinkingly at your creative terrors, or shine klieg lights on the dankest areas of your personal blind spot, I have a suggestion for you. Start your own business, preferably as a solopreneur. (Well, you could also write a book.)
When you work alone to launch an initiative that stems from your personal creativity and conviction and then put a price tag on it, you have just created the perfect storm for seeing what you really think of yourself. It’s like you’ve taken up residence in a hall of funhouse mirrors. If you receive a compliment or make a sale, you are tall and gorgeous. If your numbers come in below projections, you are squat and hideous. If you receive a message that a journalist has called you, you see yourself as put-together and on the leading edge. If you find she has called you for someone else’s contact info, you’re dressed in rags, about to trip on a rock.
As a solopreneur, every encounter turns into an encounter with self-worth. Every phone call, email, text message, business meeting, blog post, class, or conference is an opportunity to bolster or diminish ourselves. Each sale is a test of your belief in yourself and your offering. Invariably, the moment before hitting “publish,” great self-doubt arises. If someone buys it, self-esteem goes up. If no one does, it plummets.
I try to accrue as many positive moments as possible with the hope that someday I will reach a tipping point and no longer have to go through these calculations. Thus far, that day has not come. (I often tell my husband that my real job is managing my own moods.)
It never will.
Making the calculation is itself the problem. When I determine that I am unworthy, of course that undermines all of my efforts, not to mention zaps me of the energy needed to accomplish anything. And, while it feels great for a little while, it is equally as detrimental to determine that I am “worthy.” Worthiness is not mine to determine. It is inherent. It’s here right now and it is beyond question. Attempting to measure it is like trying to gauge the size of a mountain by crawling around on it. From one angle, it appears that the peak is just around the bend. Round that bend and you see that it’s much further (or closer) than you thought. All calculations are kind of useless. The mountain is what is. No matter how your perspective changes, this remains so.
You are what you are. You possess true brilliance, unique genius, and a singular point of view. Trying to gauge its worth is irrelevant. If your work happens to correspond with the current gestalt and you receive rewards for it, fantastic. If it doesn’t and you don’t, I’m sorry, I know how painful that is. But it doesn’t change your genius.
In addition to this genius, of course, no doubt you are also confused, mistaken, have pissed people off, and/or refuse to acknowledge your shortcomings. Thank god. I mean, it’s cliché to say so, but without these dark areas, you would have no platform from which to leap into uncertainty and it is in uncertainty that innovation, creativity, and wisdom are born. Seriously. Smooth sailing is not very interesting. At some point, anyone would fall asleep.
So as you go about this day and the invariable moments of “I suck” or “No, I don’t” arise, try to set both aside as momentary glimpses from a perspective that is bound to change before you get to the end of this paragraph. Remember: You’re allowed to feel excited, daunted, confused, depressed, exhilarated, bored, exhausted by your work. You’re just not allowed to doubt your worth.
The other day I wrote a blog post called Self-Employed: Three Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me. The response told me that the growing solopreneur subclass shares many concerns and issues. For example, when we look at each other, it seems that everyone else has got it together while we do not. This is often untrue. (But not always.)
It seems there is a need to discuss what really goes on behind the impossibly perfect FB posts (“Sitting on my veranda in Hawaii, exhausted but happy after teaching a sold-out workshop, sipping a glass of wine and loving my life. You?”) and perky-spiritual tweets (“The Dalai Lama promotes absolute compassion and so do I!!!!”).
One thing I see in myself and others are complex and often undeclared feelings about selling. I will be the first to admit, I HATE TO PROMOTE MY STUFF. It is just so embarrassing. First, I have to write about what is so great about me. That just feels weird. Then I have to get it in people’s faces and somehow divert their attention from whatever they were just doing. Then I have to talk about how awesome my offering is and why. Then I have to enlist my solopreneur friends by asking them if they would please, if they feel like it, if it won’t trouble them, if Mercury is not retrograde—tell their peeps about it. Next comes the issue where self-esteem meets bookkeeping: figuring out what to charge and putting it up for sale. Finally, and most difficult: figuring out how to stay cool with myself when people pony up (I’m awesome!!) and when they don’t (no one likes me…), both singularly unhelpful reactions.
There are three sales personalities I’ve noticed.
1. You probably won’t want this. Oh shucks, what I have probably sucks but if you’re not doing anything and won’t expect too much, you might maybe want to consider my paltry offering. I don’t really know anything but maybe if we band together in our not knowing, something will become known. Or at least we can cry and hold each other.
I will charge you the least amount possible.
2. I am King Shizzle from the Land of Shizzle and I come bearing shizzle. I know the secret. I’ve got what you need and I know how to make you a star, a success, a sex symbol, and rich. Just do these three or seven or twelve things and it’s yours. If you don’t, you’re crazy. My method will take you over the finish line. All killer, no filler.
I will charge you the greatest amount possible.
3. Here is what I know and this is how I can help. I’ve trained in my craft and I’ve vetted what I’m selling you. I know what I know and, more important, I know what I don’t know. I can tell you honestly that this will empower you in the following ways because this is how it’s empowered me and others I’ve taught. I will give you the following tools and stick by you as you figure it out for yourself. You can do it. My customer knows who they are and will self-select.
I will charge you a price that is a combination of fair market value, tempered or expanded by what I believe it is worth.
Personally, I aim for #3 but have been known to fall back into #1. #2 is a complete mystery to me.
Each method has its strengths (and obvious) weaknesses. The first exhibits the highly desirable quality of humility but taken too far becomes redolent of pathos. (PS: pathos does not sell…) The second reeks of confidence but rings hollow and phoney. The third is very measured and pragmatic but may not be sufficiently diverting to cut through the noise.
For each of us, some combination of humility, confidence, and pragmatism is required. Working alone, how do we know what we are projecting? The best source of feedback comes from your fellow solopreneurs, a community of generous, smart, semi-crazy lone rangers who are trying to figure it out just like you. Personally, I’m happy to share what I know. Up to a point… Then I’ve got to get back to being alone because that’s where my art can be found.
When in doubt, consider being guided by the following:
Most important is healthy respect for your own natural inner richness and awareness of the inseparability of giving and taking. As the image above indicates, it may be impossible–and unnecessary–to differentiate.
The other day I received this text from a dear friend who had recently started her own business: “When you started your own thing, did you spend any time hiding under the covers?” Only the first three years, I replied.
There are particular inner difficulties in working for yourself. No matter how carefully your plan has been researched, how market-ready your idea is, how deep your faith, and even how much money you have, certain issues seem to arise. I began working for myself close to a decade ago and I’ve experienced them over and over. And of course during this time, about 2 gazillion other people I know have started working for themselves and I’ve seen it in them too.
I applaud you, brothers and sisters! Please live your dreams. Please untether yourselves from the status quo.* Know that you are extremely brave. And try to remember these three things.
1. Allow your daily schedule to arise over time and then have faith in it. When I first started working for myself, I tried to implement a schedule that mimicked as closely as possible the work I had just left (working for The Man in the entertainment industry). I sat down at my
desk dining room table at 8a. I planned to “work” (on what??) as if I had a predetermined set of responsibilities. I broke for lunch at around 1. I planned to knock off around 6p.
I did it this way because I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. Month after month, I forced myself to stick with this schedule because I thought that if I did not, I’d end up watching TV all day. Without a firm structure, I feared, I would not get anything done so I tried to replace the discipline of accountability to The Man with the discipline of…beating myself up.
It takes awhile to remove the harness of indentured servitude, so please be patient with yourself. Working on your own after years (or decades) of working for someone else leaves an imprint of fear, lack of imagination, and self-judgment. Even if you revered your boss/company/mission, someone else has set the context and that “someone else” provided you with the safety and constraints of an other-referenced work setting. Thinking you can simply transfer that work ethic to your new situation is not only nutty, it is not good enough or big enough to serve your brilliance.
I tried to shoehorn myself into The Man’s schedule for about 18 months when it dawned on me that I could do it another way. Instead of forcing myself to do this or that, I wondered, what would I do if left to my own devices? Would I watch TV all day? Would I sit at my desk, twirling a lock of hair and gazing into space? Would all my plans and dreams disappear into slothfulness?
Yes. On some days. But those days don’t trouble me as much as they used to.
This experiment was scary at first because I took away the net of predictability to find my own natural structure. I dropped what I was used to and also stopped listening to “experts” and their theories about productivity to see what my intuition told me to do. For some months, I experimented and it was from this that I learned to trust in my own crazy, circular, bumpy, mysterious process.
Here are the very loose parameters of the schedule that arose when I let my day unfold rather than hog-tie it to something external:
Do creative work in the morning, as early as possible. Try not to schedule anything, anything before noon. Safeguard this time. Even if I sit there twiddling my thumbs, sit there. Exercise before lunch. After lunch, do what takes the least amount of brain power. Towards the later afternoon, try to do some project planning. If I feel like working after dinner, I do. Sometimes I work on the weekends, sometimes I don’t.
This is what works for me, not you. You have to discover your own rhythms and this discovery comes only when you relax and allow your creative wisdom to guide you. It takes time. Throw in some good old-fashioned pragmatism and a couple of hard core reality checks and you’ll do fine.
Expect this to go fairly well about 30%-50% of the time. I know, that’s not a great percentage. But that’s how it is. Travel, loved ones, fatigue, and loss of heart can all interfere. That’s okay. It’s just you and you can figure out how to adapt.
This may always be a bit of a struggle but not because you lack discipline—because each day possesses so much possibility and so much richness that it is hard to figure out where to start.
2. Watch out for the roller coaster. The emotional ups and downs of working for yourself are extraordinary and have the power to dictate how you feel about your entire life. Someone sends you a positive email and you think, “This is working. I’m good at what I do!” Three people cancel their subscription to your newsletter and you think, “I’m such a fool, this will never work. People hate me.” You see a news headline predicting growth for your industry and you’re all, “It’s a sign! I’m on the right track.” You logon to Facebook and see someone doing exactly what you do but making beau coups of cash and you fall into despair. “I’m such a fool, this will never work. People hate me.” Seriously.
It seems you are only as good as your last email or phone call. Don’t worry about it. These thoughts are only meaningful if you believe any of them. So when despair dawns (for the zillionth time), try to say something like this to yourself: “Oh, there’s that thing again that is pointing out to me how deeply I long for success in fulfilling my mission. I long for it so much that I’m incredibly sensitive. But every other time I’ve had such thoughts, they’ve eventually gone away. I’m going to assume that this current batch will too.” And when great hope arises, try for a mindset akin to this: “Things look awesome and I’m so excited. *Yay Cheering Back Slapping Celebrating Jumping Up and Down Congratulating Self* for about 60 seconds. Then go back to work and enjoy how much you love the added energy that comes from faith in yourself.
PS If you have a book for sale on Amazon, never read your reviews. EVER.
3. Get away from your desk. I can be having the most down-in-the dumps kind of day and then go for lunch with a friend whereupon I return to work vastly energized. Even if you don’t talk about work, taking time away from your (necessary, useful) focus on yourself creates perspective. When you’re on your own, it’s very easy for that perspective to becomes twisted. I often say to my husband that my main job is managing my own moods. Connecting with others for a meal, a chat, a walk, a yoga class is more stabilizing than anything.
And of course, don’t be afraid to hide under the covers from time to time. We all do it. I might be doing it right now.
*Special thanks to Seth Godin for continual reminders and encouragement. If you’re making the leap to working for yourself, his books and daily newsletter are a must.
Hello and welcome to your meditation practice! I look forward to practicing together.
It is very common to think that negative thoughts can harm you and you shouldn’t think them. I disagree. Before today’s meditation, I explain why! Hint: your mind is vast…
Audio-only version can be downloaded here.
Hello and welcome to your meditation practice. Today, as per usual, we sit together for 10 minutes and I give the full instruction.
Before we sit today, I encourage you to relax self-judgment, especially when it comes to your meditation practice. Our practice, rather than trying to get meditation “right,” is about relaxing with ourselves just as we are. Instead of critiquing our every move, we extend the hand of friendship. This, it turns out, is the way to find our innate, pre-existing wisdom which is always there.
Thoughts? I always love to hear them.
Audio-only version can be downloaded here .
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“I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love wherever I find it and offer it to everyone who will take it…I will seek knowledge from those wiser and teach those who wish to learn from me.” Duane Allman
Today has been a crying kind of day. Perhaps you’ve had such a day where you feel everything. I saw some posts on Facebook about sick children and I started crying. I reflected on a conversation yesterday with a friend and recalled the tender, hopeful look on her face when she talked about her dreams and I couldn’t stop crying. I was talking to another friend this morning about my hopes (and frustrations) about my own work and I couldn’t stop crying. And besides my ridiculously first-world problems, I remembered a story I read yesterday about a poor 8-year old Yemeni girl who died after her “wedding night” from sexually induced injuries. I sobbed and sobbed. I’ve got to get out of here, I thought. This is a terrible world.
I went to the grocery store to get something to cook for dinner and as I was purchasing some fish, I noticed they were selling fresh (meaning uncooked) lobster tails. Wait, I thought to myself, how did they get those tails off the lobsters? Did they rip them off of a living creature…oh, no… I couldn’t stop crying. I need to stop eating fish, I thought. I looked around and saw other types of flesh for sale and thought, I can’t stand the suffering. I should become a vegetarian. (I know there are those of you with extreme beliefs on this score, and I appreciate you. But I ask you to hold those thoughts for the meantime.)
I looked at the guy’s face behind the fish counter and there was something very dear about him, like I could have told him why I was crying and we could have had a chat. (I didn’t.) If I stop eating fish, will he have a job? If I only eat vegetables, can I ever really be sure they’re farmed in a way that doesn’t include the suffering of man or beast? Maybe I should go live on a farm and grow my own food. Maybe I should never go to a store because someone’s face might be so dear and touch me so much that I never recover. Maybe I should just stay home.
I looked around the store for a safe person to look at or a safe product to buy, one untouched by suffering. I stood for a while staring at the vegetarian spring rolls. Surely these are untouched by creature sorrow, I thought.
I couldn’t know. I looked around the market and there was no place that didn’t make me think of suffering. There is no place to go, I thought. There is no place to hide. I can’t even go buy dinner at the store.
At that moment, I realized that there is no corner I can back up into that does not include suffering. None. Of course, as a Buddhist, this is the first noble truth we are taught: Life is suffering but for some reason, until I saw those lobster tails, I didn’t quite believe it. Suffering is not optional.
It’s hopeless I thought.
And then I didn’t.
As I walked out of the store, I noticed the song playing through their sound system: Blue Skies by the Allman Brothers. I love that song. I stopped in my tracks. I have listened to that piece of music countless times and this is why: partway through, a second guitarist joins the first and they begin to play together. With no effort, they find each other and play in tandem and off each other, one sweeter and the other fuzzier, totally separate and completely joined. At 2:27 they say hi and at 4:11 they say bye and in between they have a loping, endless, easy companionship. Friends. You might expect that two guitarists would “duel” or try to outdo each other, but not Dickey and Duane. They fall into each other and that falling outdoes me every time and I, well, cry. Always.
My friends, we have each other. We are capable of extraordinary companionship and dialog—and I don’t only mean we can hash things out or come to agreements or recite poetry to each other—I mean we can encounter each other. We can respond to each other. We can connect with each other. We can see each other and the seeing (or, in this case, hearing) is everything. We are not alone.
Yes, it is true that our hearts are unprotected at every moment and anything from horrific child abuse to an innocent spring roll can cause us to fall apart. But we have each other. While we can’t protect our own hearts, it is totally within our power to protect each other’s. In fact, each is the only protection of the other. The Golden Rule is not a suggestion, it is an imperative. I can be careful and respectful in the way I talk to you, and not just that—in the way I think about you. I can watch out for you. I can see your sorrows and when you are drowning in them I can embrace you. When you are scary and about to go off the rails, I can feel sad for you in addition to all the rage, confusion, or fear you might also rouse in me. This is a kind of protection.
When I realized how beautifully (and, okay, oddly) our human situation is set up, that the only possible protection comes, not from money or policies or movements, but from acknowledging and loving each other—well, I couldn’t stop crying. There is nothing but hope. And music, always. So the next time you are sad, listen.
Hello and welcome to your meditation practice!
Everyone gets depressed. Meditation can be helpful in some circumstances. It has helped me. In today’s video, I explain a bit further.
Thoughts or comments? Today’s practice lives here and I love to hear what you’re thinking.
Every year on 9/11 I feel moved to repost this. May it bring benefit and healing.
There is a Buddhist meditation practice called Tonglen. In Tibetan, tong means “sending out” and len means “receiving.” So Tonglen is known as the practice of sending and taking, or of exchanging self for other. Instead of inhaling what makes us feel good and exhaling what makes us feel bad, this practice asks that we do the opposite. We breathe in the suffering of others by visualizing it as dark, hot, sticky soot and smoke coming into our lungs. We breathe out what is positive in the form of air that is light, bright, clean, and cool. In this way, we volunteer to take in some portion of the world’s suffering and offer up to it whatever good we possess.
On this date twelve years ago, I decided to drive into Manhattan.
On September 11, 2001 I was in Washington, DC visting my parents. I was scheduled for a book signing at Borders in the World Trade Center on September 12th. I woke up early on the 12th, unsure of where to go. Should I stay in DC? Should I try and make it home to Boston? Would the roads even be passable? Would the streets be lined with armored vehicles? Would there be checkpoints at every on-ramp? Low-flying helicopters? Terrorists speeding for the border? At the very least, I imagined that the highways would be crammed with motorists now that the skies had been shut down to flight. If not terrorists, then for sure I would encounter rental cars full of businesspeople who had met at airports and formed groups heading to Cleveland or Atlanta or Toronto.
I decided to to get an early start and take my chances. So I had a cup of tea and was on the road by 6AM.
Although the drive from DC to Boston would take eight or so hours under normal circumstances, I was prepared for least twelve hours in the car, maybe more, maybe even a few days. I was thinking I might have to spend a night or two on the road, what with all the detours and slowdowns that I was sure to find around New York City. I considered heading west and up through Harrisburg and then across the Hudson Valley into Western Massachusetts, bypassing any and all routes into Manhattan.
As I approached the exit for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I reconsidered. Everything was pretty quiet. Very quiet, actually. I decided to continue on with a direct route toward New York City, thinking I’d divert when I came upon the first delay.
Just a few months prior to this, I had moved to Boston from an apartment on West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. I loved living in Manhattan. I loved my apartment. I loved everything about my beloved city, including my running route—down the side streets of Chelsea and across the West Side Highway, south toward Battery Park, a look across the river at New Jersey, a view of the Statue of Liberty and on to the World Financial Center Plaza, weaving through throngs of people disembarking from various ferries. At this point I would slow and cool down by walking through the World Financial Center to the World Trade Center, always against the crowd of men and women in suits who were moving through turnstiles, boarding elevators for work. You could feel them still trying to wake up, clothes pressed, bits of hair still wet from the shower. These sweet signs of morning were a tender contrast to their staring-ahead expressions (another day at work) or gait (I can do this). I on the other hand was not pressed, not fresh, and was heading home. I always loved that I was going the exact opposite way of everyone else. As people streamed up the steps from the subway, I threaded my way down, underground, past the shops, past Greys Papaya, Starbucks, Borders. Every morning I would stop at the newsstand at the turnstiles, buy the New York Post, and read it on the ride back up to Chelsea. Then off at 23rd and 8th for a short walk back to my apartment. Someday, I hoped, I would build up the stamina to run down and back. Or not. Which would have been OK, because I so loved the routine as it was.
As I drove, I tried to picture what this route would look like today. What parts of it still existed? Who had been walking there when the planes hit? What had the ferry riders seen? Who had gone in early to get some extra work done, or late because what the hell, I’m sleeping in this morning? I kept the radio on in the car. I heard that entry to Manhattan via the Holland and Lincoln tunnels was prohibited and it made me incredibly sad to think of New York City in isolation like this. And so along with everyone else, along with our country, the other countries, and with all of New York, I cried.
Several hours into the drive, it appeared there actually weren’t carloads of businesspeople or terrorists racing about, nor had I seen a single armored vehicle or helicopter, or passed through one checkpoint. In fact, the roads were eerie and deserted.
Suddenly I noticed that I was approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge. Suddenly I noticed that my right turn signal was on and I was taking this exit, heading into Manhattan.
Apparently, I was the only one out driving that day who felt they had to go in to New York City. I was downtown and in Union Square within about 20 minutes. I parked in the garage next to the yoga studio my friend owned and went in. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, how long I was going to stay in NYC, or who or what I was trying to see, exactly. I made my way up the stairs to the yoga studio on the second floor. It was open. I didn’t recognize the person behind the desk—a new employee. She said “are you here for Tonglen practice?” Apparently I was, so I said “yes.” She said, “we’ll be starting in 10 minutes” and indicated the front studio. I took a seat on a cushion in the back and watched as the room filled up. I looked out the big picture windows that faced onto 14th Street and imagined what was just beyond—St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Village, Soho, Tribeca, the Financial District. We were less than 2 miles from what wasn’t yet called Ground Zero.
September 12th was as bright as September 11th had been. The sun was streaming through the windows and the light was thick with dust and particles. The air smelled heavy, like burning rubber and metal. I briefly wondered what exactly it was that I was breathing in. But there was no time to consider this further—practice began. The gong rang. The 30 or so people in the room began to settle. The first minutes of practice involved simply attuning to the breath, coming in, going out. Breathing in some sense of this new reality and breathing out to meet it. We can’t undo it. We can only be in it.
In Buddhist thought, to die unexpectedly is considered the most difficult circumstance in which to find one’s bearings in the bardo. You are likely to be quite surprised upon finding yourself dead. You don’t know where you are. It is a state of extreme disorientation and suffering.
Tonglen practice began. We imagined that we were surrounded by innumerable unseen confused souls, very surprised, very upset, very, very frightened. In silence, we offered companionship and courage. The instruction is first to connect with your own suffering and then extend to take in the suffering around you. Breathe into that. Relax around it. Then connect with your own goodness—your sadness for others, the strength you have to offer, your very willingness to help, even if you have no idea how—and breathe that out, offer it, give it away. Do it again and again. Imagine the suffering around you as dark, thick soot and breathe it in, offer to take it. Now breathe out light, bright, cool air. Now do it again. And again. And again. As we practiced, I realized that the air itself literally met the description. It was dark. It was thick. It was sooty. I tried not to space out and reject it. I failed. I tried again. We breathed in the dust of the World Trade Centers, the particles of blood and bone and computer keyboards, and breathed out, maybe, something healed and pacified.
After the practice I went back out to the street. I was going to try to walk as close as I could to the site. The first thing I did was look up for the Towers to get my bearings, but they weren’t there. I started down Sixth Avenue, normally so loud and chaotic, now closed to all but foot traffic and emergency vehicles. Droves of people were wandering slowly, some alone, some in pairs or small groups. The streets of lower Manhattan were full. No one wanted to be alone, yet there was nothing to say. There was silence, broken only by police or fire sirens coming up behind people, trying to get by. We parted for them without looking.
Manhattan was closed off at Houston Street so I turned and walked back through the side streets of the West Village, also full. The crowd grew bigger as I returned to my starting point, Union Square. I looked up to see it filled with people—wandering about, crying, embracing, sitting expressionless. Someone had unraveled a huge roll of brown butcher paper, at least 40 feet long. It was weighted down by dozens of lit candles and vases of flowers and was already largely covered with scrawled prayers, drawings, questions, words of shock, words of pain, attempts at explanation. Most were exhortations against hate of any kind and sorrow for all victims. For the thousandth time since I’d moved there and away, I thought how decent New Yorkers are, how kind, how open, and how passionately and always I will love New York City.
To close a meditation practice, Buddhists do something called “dedicating the merit.” It’s a way of saying “whatever may have been generated by my practice is offered for the benefit of all sentient beings.” You give it away. My teacher says that not dedicating the merit is like not pressing the save button before shutting your computer off—you may have done a lot of work but you’ll probably have to start over. So this is what I wrote on that long scroll of brown paper, weaving words between candles:
By the confidence of the golden sun of the great East,
May the lotus garden of the Rigden’s wisdom bloom.
May the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled.
May all beings enjoy profound, brilliant glory.
I circled around Union Square a few more times and returned to my car for the rest of the drive home.
If you resonate with the practice of Tonglen and would like to try it, here is instruction: