A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Carolyn Rose Gimian
Work, sex, and money: these are among the most powerful elements of everyday life, and they are topics that preoccupy us, almost every day. In relationship to work, innumerable books, articles, TV programs and internet sites give career advice, tell you how to dress for the workplace, deal with bullies or bosses, ask for a raise, or be an effective manager. Our obsession with sex and relationships is addressed, and titillated, in print and by film, television and the internet, whether we prefer fiction, the tabloids, or “reality” TV. Money has become an increasing source of anxiety. How to save, how to spend wisely, how to make more money, how to do more with less, exhilaration when the stock market rises, panic when we lose our job: we have lots of issues with money.
Chögyam Trungpa had much to say about those themes, in their own right and in relationship to meditation, mindfulness, and how we conduct our lives. I helped to edit three seminars he gave on these topics, which make up most of the material in this recently-published book. I found that what Trungpa Rinpoche talked about then, in the 1970s, still resonates with experience today.
The book begins with an overview of the whole terrain. In the first chapter, Rinpoche asks this question:
As Buddhist practitioners or practitioners of meditation, we are supposed to be immersed in the contemplative tradition and spiritual practice. Why would we discuss work, sex, and money?
Why indeed! Rinpoche then offers this perspective:
You may find that, in spite of your spiritual intentions, your life is involved with work, sex, and money anyway. In that case, maybe there is something to be said about those subjects after all. On the whole, we are not strictly spiritual or religious at all. People have to look for work. They have to find a J-O-B. We work for money. We may find that we are building our lives around sex and more generally on relationships.
Then the question is, are we really working on spirituality or not? If so, there is something that we might not have thought about: that spirituality isn’t really “spirituality” in an idealized sense. Do you think spirituality is something purely transcendental? It’s questionable. Real spirituality might have something to do with ordinary life.
Chögyam Trungpa then places these topics in the context of sacredness, which is quite an interesting shift. He writes:
The whole question boils down to whether we regard society as sacred. Society does contain profundity and sacredness. The sacredness of society is potent and powerful... We have to see not only the basic happenings (in our lives) but also their basic quality of energy, the energy that they contain... Work, sex, and money are actually the energy outlet of society, its energy radiation, the expression of its sacredness.
While that sounds intriguing, we all know that these areas of life are the source of many persistent difficulties. It's easier to say that everything is sacred than to live our lives from that point of view. If it were easy, no book on this subject would be needed, or the book would have just one chapter. But it has seventeen, so there must be more to the story!
In emphasizing the importance of our experience of daily life, Chögyam Trungpa is not suggesting that we abandon meditation. He's not saying to embrace work, sex, and money as opposed to meditation. Not at all. He suggests that they are complementary parts of life. We need both meditation on the cushion and meditation in action, and we flourish when we can bring the two together. In Chapter Two, "Meditation and Daily Life," he says:
In meditation, you don’t have interactions with people or the world outside verbally or physically, but still the practice is a way of relating with phenomena directly, rather than being caught in the centralized games of ego. Meditation is not a matter of withdrawing—you are not drawing in, retreating from the world. In fact, you are getting into the world. Until now the world hasn’t been able to show us its fullest expressions, because we never let it happen. We were constantly seduced by this or that. In the meantime, we were missing the boat all the time. Whenever there is an upheaval or uproar—all kinds of energies coming up—our minds are preoccupied with something else. We never become conscious of those things properly. But in meditation there is a sense of forthcoming, opening. Meditation allows us to see the hidden things, so we don’t miss one moment of energy or upheaval. We see them clearly and precisely because we don’t evaluate them. Evaluation requires more self-consciousness, and in the meantime, while we are evaluating, we miss something else. We miss the implications that happen around those energies that arise in our minds.
So in this case, meditation is a way of developing clarity, which allows us to see the precision of daily life situations as well as our thought process, so that we can relate with both of them fully and completely.
After discussing some of the general issues that frame the discussion of work, sex, and money for practitioners of meditation, Trungpa Rinpoche gets into the juicy details, with several chapters on each topic. The chapters on work are not just about the workplace and one’s career or profession. The author looks at general issues of conduct and discipline in everyday life, as well as how the smallest action or everyday activity can be either an expression of simplicity and wakefulness or a source of chaos, pain, and confusion. The section on sex includes both a broad discussion or sexual energy and passion, as well as discussion of relationships and relating sanely to family dynamics. In the section on money, Rinpoche looks generally at money as a form of energy. Chapters on the ethical approach to money and relating sanely to economics while being in business are included. The book concludes with two chapters on karma and panoramic awareness that tie together the whole discussion of a meditative or contemplative experience of everyday life.
Chögyam Trungpa witnessed and immersed himself in vastly different human circumstances and life styles. In Tibet he was an incarnate lama and the abbot of an important monastery in Eastern Tibet. He was raised in the monastic tradition, which he fully embraced in his early years. Tibet was not a culture of luxury, but within that modest society, he lived a privileged life. With the increasing presence and dominance of the Chinese in the 1950s, he experienced the devastation and destruction of his culture, and he was forced to leave his monastery, his family, and his country behind, forever, in 1959. He became a poor refugee in India. He led a frugal life in England, and during his early days in North America he had very little money. In the 1970s, he married and started a family, and in his later years, he led a householder's life of material comfort and relative affluence. He was an artist, a playwright, and a poet. He was the president of a university and of a large association of spiritual groups, he sat on the board of many businesses and organizations, and he helped to start a number of non-profit and for profit enterprises. In all of the life situations Rinpoche encountered, he harmonized and demonstrated both nonattachment and engagement. He didn’t shy away from life at all, yet he wasn’t trapped in life either. He made many mistakes and had many transitions in his life, and he learned from his experiences. So when he speaks in this volume of the very human challenges of working in the world, being a sexual being, engaging in intimate relationships, and relating to wealth, poverty and money, he speaks from a broad base of experience rather than preaching from afar.
Chögyam Trungpa had an enormous effect on the standard English vocabulary now used in connection with Buddhism and the practice of sitting meditation in the West. Meditation-in-action was one of the phrases he coined, and it was also the title of his first book of Buddhist teachings, published in 1969. If that title had not been used then, it could have been the title or subtitle for this book. In 1973, Trungpa Rinpoche replied to a letter (from someone he had never met), with these comments about his personal life, in which he explains the meaning of meditation in action:
With regard to your inquiry about my lifestyle, you must understand that I regard myself as an ordinary person. I am a householder, who makes mortgage payments. I have a wife and three children whom I support. At the same time, my relationship with the teachings is inseparable from my whole being. I do not try to rise above the world. My vocation is working with the world....There is a fundamental idea which refuses to divide things into this or that, sacred or profane, right or wrong. That is why I write and speak of meditation in action. It is much easier to appear holy than to be sane. So the idea is to separate spirituality from spiritual materialism. This requires a practice and some courage.*
Work, Sex, Money is neither a purely theoretical tome nor a "how-to" book. It is, I think, a profoundly helpful book that espouses the conviction that every inch of life is workable and worth celebrating. For me, it helps to reveal the richness of the life of every day, providing reminders, challenging my habitual tendencies, and leaving me with conundrums and ambiguities to navigate, and ultimately embrace.
It will be very interesting to see where the discussion leads us.
Order Work, Sex, Money here from Shambhala Publications.
*Excerpt from a letter to Steven Morrow, May 10, 1973. Used by permission.
Carolyn Rose Gimian is a principal editor of the works of Chögyam Trungpa, and the co-editor of Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness. She is also the director of the Chögyam Trungpa Legacy Project and a meditation teacher, trained by Chögyam Trungpa. Carolyn lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.