Gathering Goodness in New York City

By Tasha Lansbury

Earlier this month, I attended the “Gathering Goodness” weekend in New York City led by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, along with other teachers including Acharya Adam Lobel.

Two things that struck me were that Acharya Lobel was very funny and the Sakyong was so normal. I had anticipated the weekend as contemplative, quiet and intense.  It was actually all of those things – but it was also enjoyable, interesting and illuminating.  In explaining the mission of Shambhala, the Sakyong   referenced the story of his father’s (Shambhala founder Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche) escape from Tibet, where he had been a revered spiritual leader from a royal lineage.  Despite the horrifying realities of the occurrences in Tibet and the murder of his family, friends and fellow monks, Trungpa Rinpoche arrived in the West with his faith in the basic goodness of people and society intact.  The Sakyong spoke of all that was taken from his father – country, status, and lineage –, then noted how destabilized many of us become when we have our pen taken or our car keys go missing!  The sakyong also noted that his father could have just been a good Buddhist teacher here in the west, “But nooo” (his words), he wanted to start a movement to change the world.  Not only that, the Sakyong continued, he has a little son whom he essentially tells that HE – the Sakyong – is the one who is going to have to do this!

The first meditation exercise, was interestingly closely related to a technique I teach and practice with my clients in psychotherapy.  The instruction was to just notice our feelings, then to notice ourselves by placing a hand on our heart center, and then to touch the ground or the chair if we were sitting on one.   Touching the ground is a reference to the story of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree having attained enlightenment when Mara, the demon, arrives and attempts to create doubt in the Buddha’s experience of awakening.  In response to the challenge of validity, the Buddha simply touches the ground, as if to say “I am here”, “I, and this exist” and Mara vanishes.

After the exercise, the audience was welcomed to share their experience of having sat with our feelings and ourselves and the ground underneath us. What struck me most during this exchange was the realization of how much we are all related in our experiences.  I could identify with a piece of what everyone was talking about, as I suspect everyone else in the room could, too. This reinforces the notion that we really aren’t separate from one another after all.  Despite not knowing a single person in that room of 300 or so, our experiences and struggles aren’t so different.

The first person to share their experience of the meditation was a guy in his 20’s, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with a little stubble on his face. He had had his first music gig the previous night in a club in Long Island.  He related how he had been in near panic and consumed by fear the day of the gig, completely forgetting the lyrics to his songs.  To his own surprise, the show had gone great!  He marveled how the fear had dissipated and how the panic had all been in his head. During the meditation session, he initially found himself just marinating in all of these good feelings.  Then agitation began to creep in – and the agitation was about feeling good.  He recognized and shared with us that he expects to feel shitty because that is a familiar feeling.  And that if he’s not feeling shitty, there is something wrong.

Acharya Lobel then asked the young man if he’d care to sing a few lines of one of his songs.  He did, and in a soft, powerful and amazing voice sang a jazzy ballad that was so beautiful and touching, it left the rest of us incredibly moved – moved by the beauty of his song, moved by the bravery to share his story, and moved by our own identification with his struggle.

Another brave soul shared how she tries and tries in meditation, never sure if she is doing it right or if it’s the right meditation to be doing.  This notion of trying and trying but never getting it right is based on our idea of there being something inherently wrong with us (versus the concept of basic goodness).  We can’t ever get it right because we are flawed, we are broken and need to be fixed.  If we work hard enough, meditate long enough, take enough classes, read enough books (all personal examples of how I try to fix myself) then we will get it right.  But until then we are kind of screwed, because we’ll just keep messing it up and not getting it right.

In response, Acharya Lobel relayed that the most advanced meditation instruction is to “just relax and let yourself be as you are”.  What makes this so challenging is we can’t stand how we are!  We are filled with self-aggression.  We are critical and judgmental of ourselves and hence of others as well.

The last person I will write about is a man in his 80’s with whom I was paired up in a different meditation exercise.  I know nearly nothing about him, except that he has lived in the same apartment building in New York City for twenty years and has never greeted any of his neighbors.  He is retired and is now devoting his life to be awakened.  Along his path he is trying to say “Good morning” to neighbors when he is in the elevator.  He hasn’t been able to do it yet.  But he has stopped chastising himself and stopped the self- aggression for his inability to say good morning.  Instead, he tells me, “I can say good morning to myself in the elevator”.  And when he does say good morning to himself he is practicing loving kindness.  I imagine a smile forming across his face in the elevator taking in this loving kindness and how a neighbor might see this smile.  The neighbor then might smile herself or maybe even say good morning to the old man.  How much easier it might be for him to say good morning in response.

I left that day feeling a little raw and exposed.  As the Sakyong says “vulnerability is a good word” i.e. a good feeling to have because it means we are awake in the moment and not closed off or defended. I also felt a renewed knowledge of our connectedness and how we are all in this together.