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Three Western Buddhist practitioners share their stories.
It can be hard to see past one’s presuppositions, but I’ve never known a case when it wasn’t worth trying. Ideas about the world easily go stale; the world, however, does not. It is always alive with possibilities. Although studying and practicing Buddhism may well alert us to the problems of holding ideas that have worn out their welcome, it doesn’t immunize us from doing so.
Buddhism in the West is a dynamic and multifaceted project, but it is often seen, including by Buddhists, in terms of simple categories and stereotypes. For all its positive contributions, Buddhist publishing has done more than a little to reinforce these errors. Tricycle is no exception. We have, though, seen in recent years, largely through the participation of our online community, that much of the standard thinking about who practices Buddhism and how they practice is quite stale and needs dismantling.
Readers of the magazine may have noticed that we have been taking steps toward that end. Here is another. We have reached out to three members of the Tricycle community who in some way or ways—ethnicity, geographic region, health issues, age—don’t fit the image of a Western Buddhist put forth in the popular press or, for that matter, in the Buddhist press. We asked them to lift a corner to reveal parts of the Buddhist experience that often are hidden. Hearing their stories, we can better appreciate the richness of the community life we share.
—James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher
By Meara Claire Hayden
I didn’t really want to go. Meditation seemed ridiculous to me; something that my mom does at 5:30 in the morning. And to go to a retreat where you do nothing but sit there for an entire week—it seemed like there was scarcely anything that could be less appealing or a bigger waste of time.
It was September of my freshman year of high school, and I was 14 and not particularly happy. I hated my school. The kids all seemed to be cut from the same apple pie; if anyone was thinking for themselves, they certainly didn’t speak their minds out loud. I was attempting to create my own group, but I felt unhappy all the time, and I just didn’t fit in.
This was about the time when my 16 -year-old brother, Miles, who I didn’t consider the world’s best role model, was pushing me to go to one of the teen meditation retreats he attended. They were put on twice a year by Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme). He told me about the amazing group of people and how easy it was to be accepted just for who you are. That sounded good, but the idea of sitting there for close to seven hours a day, doing nothing, didn’t. But I figured it was something new, an out from the Wonder Bread suburban education mill at my school. So the day after Christmas in 2009, I got onto an Amtrak train in Philadelphia with my brother and set off for the lower left-hand corner of Virginia.
We got there a day early, and the only other person in my cabin was another girl who had arrived early too. Taylor wore all black and had short black hair with dyed-blond streaks. I took an immediate dislike to her, but being the extrovert I am, I bounded up and introduced myself . She gave me a barely disguised glare, clearly wanting as little to do with me as I did with her. Later, after we had become best friends, Taylor told me that she had pegged me as a preppy-cheerleader type; I thought she was some sulky Goth chick.
The retreat began with mindfulness meditation (vipassana). It was painfully frustrating for me. “Watch the breath,” I was told, “Where is your attention right now?” intoned the teacher. In my mind I replied, “Well, it’s on your voice, because you are speaking to me, you idiot.” The day went on, and my frustration continued to grow as I watched thoughts continue to come up and strangle my awareness. I got angrier and angrier with myself, watching my thoughts take hold no matter how hard I tried to push them away.
Enter metta. At the end of the evening, I was introduced to lovingkindness meditation. Unlike the misery of vipassana, metta was like putting on comfy pajamas and sitting in front of a warm fire. It was easy to sit there and just love. Everything. The exercise started by extending metta toward someone easy. I began with my family. It felt so fantastic—we were using the “fruit basket” method—handing each member of my family a perfect, glowing mango, with a smile and kind words. As the teacher moved along, I could feel my heart growing more open, and I felt every part of my body begin to smile. By the time she got to the entire world, I was about ready to burst with the happiness of it all, and I was astonished to find out that a half hour had already passed. Metta seemed to make all the thoughts of “I am not good enough” and “My life is not worth living” seem silly and selfish.
Sending love to the person next to me, part of the metta meditation, became increasingly easy as the week went on and I discovered the extraordinary personalities that had come together for this New Year’s week. Unlike the stifling atmosphere of my high school, everyone at the retreat—teachers and teens alike—were so different from one another and yet so accepting of the differences. There was a girl close to my age who was pregnant. Another girl’s father had died recently. One boy my brother’s age was getting married. There were gay, straight, and bisexual people from all different backgrounds and places, a lot of them coming from really difficult circumstances. The chance to be with people who were so accepting of their differences was something that would draw me back to more retreats.
Back in Pennsylvania after that first retreat, the magic of the week slowly faded back into the crushing monotony of school. The only bright spot was when I discovered that Taylor—now a good friend—went to school in the district directly adjacent to mine. What’s more, I was already playing music with a bunch of her friends, including her future boyfriend (also to become one of my best friends).
The post-retreat comedown is something the teachers try to prepare you for, but just knowing it was coming didn’t really help that much. After my third retreat, I decided to do something about it. Taylor was doing her senior project on the meditation retreats, and she was planning her own meditation night for teens. The event—which we put out to all our friends on Facebook— was to consist of a period of vipassana, a shorter period of metta, plenty of food, and a dharma talk. Taylor asked for my help in putting the evening on. I was to lead the metta, which Taylor abhorred. Almost 20 people—all local teenagers— showed up. And to our surprise and delight, they all loved the evening and asked for more. We had expected it to be a one-time event, but we quickly responded with plans for a second evening, and then a third. Now we have these groups every other week, and we are creating our own sangha to support us in our practice.
Our practice is completely different from what I have watched my mother doing at dawn every day. About a month ago I sat with her for the first time at the Village Zendo in New York City. I found that Zen practice didn’t suit me very well. While everyone seemed very nice and accepting, I didn’t understand the way they did things. I came to feel that while it is all very well for my mom to inhale Dogen and cut a harsh path toward awakening, at 16 I want something completely different.
My mom would like it if Taylor and I had teachers and recognized the 2,500-year-old Buddhist traditions, but we want to keep our group just teenagers. We are trying to create not a group of “Buddhist converts,” but a group of kind, supportive people in our generation. In these groups, anyone who wants to lead a meditation or give a talk is encouraged to do so. We are beginning to have open discussions where we are really learning more about each other and ourselves.
People tell me that this is not the way that Buddhist meditation is usually practiced—that it should be much more structured and that teachers with a lot more experience should be giving dharma talks and leading us in meditation. But this is America in 2011 and my teenage friends are not interested in enlightenment. We are just interested in getting through these difficult years with somewhere safe to be ourselves without fear of being judged and forced into social boxes. Maybe in the future I will be more inclined to do “serious” practice in a formal tradition. But for now this is what my friends and I want. And you know what makes it all worth it? Hearing the voice of someone who comes to our group for the very first time saying, “I am shy, and I don’t usually like speaking, but here I feel as though everyone really cares about what I have to say, and I am really interested in opening myself to meditation.”