It’s a funny thing, studying spirituality in a busy city. I find myself — no matter how much I study and practice — always feeling like the location isn’t quite right. Sitting on a meditation cushion in Los Angeles always feels like it’s almost, but not quite, complete. Maybe it’s just that LA is a little too, well, LA. You know what I mean?
So as much as I enjoy the wonderful teachers who visit us often, I occasionally like to leave LA and study elsewhere. Kind of like a mini-spiritual pilgrimage, if you like. And that’s what I did recently when my family and I traveled to attend classes the Dalai Lama was giving on the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Before you get excited thinking we went all the way to India to see him … we didn’t. We went to New York City (I wish I could write that in the tone of that salsa commercial where the cowboys discover their salsa is made in NEW YORK CITY!).
Okay, okay — I know that’s not really a huge spiritual step up from LA. But it was a change of scenery, and in the romantic-adventure corners of my mind it was a pilgrimage to see a great master teaching from an ancient text in a foreign tongue, and in this world of modern day spirituality that’s about as good as it gets. So off to New York we went.
While waiting to board the plane in Los Angeles, I was reminded that I was still dwelling in the concrete jungle by the woman standing in front of me whose tee shirt was emblazoned with the words, “I Hate Everybody.” I was curious if that included me and thought of tapping her on the shoulder to ask. I didn’t want to bother her, but then again there wasn’t much downside given she had made such a bold declaration. Then I thought maybe the kindest thing to do would be to give her my ticket to see the Dalai Lama and stay home. After all, clearly she needed it more than I did, right? In the end, I just smiled and laughed to myself at the irony of my message of loving kindness intersecting with this walking billboard of indiscriminate hatred. That’s LA for ya.
“Perhaps New York will be a little more spiritually awakened,” I thought when we landed and I got off the plane. This thought was quickly interrupted by the loud voice of the passenger behind me who yelled, “Get the hell out of the way, moron,” before pushing me aside with her oversized purse. That’s New York for ya.
The next day we made our way down the bustling streets of New York en route to see the Dalai Lama. The weather was cold, not the bone-chilling cold that New York sometimes gets, but cold enough that my California custom of wearing slip-ons without socks started feeling like a really bad idea. But it didn’t matter; walking with my family through the honking horns and loud voices of New York made me feel like we were on a special journey … like Dorothy and her companions going to see the wizard. In fact that song began playing over and over in my head like a secret chant, “We’re off to the see the wizard, the wonderful Wizard of OZ . Because, because, because, because beCAUSE … because of the wonderful things he does.” I was so happy I had to stop myself from jumping and clicking my heels in the air and finishing the song with a “La – la – la – la – la – la – la!”
My internal wizardly fantasy was interrupted by the sound of beating drums and chanting as we approached the venue. Wow, I thought, this is really cool. Except it wasn’t. Surrounding the venue were protestors. Protestors? Who the hell protests the Dalai Lama? I mean come on … there’s a lot of bad shit going on in the world, and this guy’s not part it. But there they were. A band of aggressive protestors with bullhorns chanting “False Dalai Lama, Stop Lying,” accompanied by a really catchy snare drum and signs calling the Dalai Lama a liar. “What’s wrong with these people?” I wondered.
Uggghhh. This was not what my spiritual pilgrimage needed. So I turned my attention to the venue … the world-famous Beacon Theater. There on a bright red LED marquee in large yellow letters was the name of the Dalai Lama … sandwiched in between Dane Cook and Bill Maher who would be “appearing soon.” It wasn’t exactly a holy sign, but it was still kinda cool … cool enough in fact that I thought even the typically spiritually cynical Bill Maher would enjoy taking a picture of his name appearing next to the Dalai Lama’s and send it home as evidence that he “had made it.”
Once inside the mood changed. The protestors, bright lights, and snare drums were replaced by the familiar feeling of being in the company of other spiritual students. Monks in robes, businessmen in suits, men, women and children, young and old, all in one place to learn alongside one another from the pillar of the spiritual community.
We spent the next two days learning with the Dalai Lama as he taught us from the writings of the Buddha and the wise teachers who have analyzed those writings. This wasn’t the typical Dalai Lama speech … his familiar smile and child-like giggle were still present but there was also a reverence to his talk. Like a man reviewing his deepest beliefs with a new generation of students.
For me the most impactful parts were the discussions of the nature of emptiness, of seeing beyond our ingrained programming, beliefs and first impressions — releasing our preconceived notions and allowing people and situations to be as they are, not as we make them, widening our perspective beyond the familiar and allowing for other possibilities and opportunities. The idea of approaching life empty of judgment and allowing it to be full of possibility.
Each morning as we entered the venue, left for and returned from lunch, and returned to the hotel in the evening we were taunted by the small but loud crowd of protestors and their ever-present snare drum. Each time I saw and heard them I would think the same thing: “What kind of person hurls anger at the Dalai Lama?” Surely no one I would ever want to know.
And then something amazing happened, as if the universe had heard my mental proclamations one too many times and decided it was time for me to learn the week’s lesson in real life. We noticed a familiar face and then two and then three. There among the protestors were a couple we knew and their small child. Not great friends, but close enough acquaintances that we know each other. There they were, yelling and chanting in opposition to the Dalai Lama.
My family and I walked down the street, stung. All of our assumptions had been challenged. These people we thought we knew weren’t quite living into the story we had made up for them. The protestors, who just a moment earlier had been an odd bunch of really crazy people, now had names we knew … AHHHHH! This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Right?
We walked quietly for a while. Taking in this moment, in fact all the moments. Like an old-fashioned slide show in the living room of my grandmother, I played through the week’s events. The woman with the “I Hate Everyone” tee shirt, the airplane passenger who pushed me out of the way, the beauty of walking down the yellow brick road (aka Broadway) with my family, the loud chants of the protestors, the bright red LED sign, Bill Maher … and the message of the Dalai Lama to allow things to be as they are and to approach life with emptiness and equanimity.
And then it all kind of made sense. We live in this time and this place — in cities with honking cars, pushy people, and protestors. We have friends whose stories of themselves don’t often line up with our own versions of them. Our signs are bright and our inspiration is often mixed in with the cynicism of TV comedians. And intertwined in it all is the perfection of life … when we allow it to be. The emptiness that the Buddha wrote about so long ago, the qualities of open mind and profound compassion that the Dalai Lama speaks of, and my family’s ability to connect with our own spirits amidst all the perceived distractions of the big city are one in the same. The path — whether it be in the Himalayas, the yellow brick road or Broadway and 74th — is the destination itself.
On our final night in New York we went to see our friend and teacher, Sharon Salzberg, for a meditation class. For our family, Sharon has embodied the concept of real-life spirituality — a spiritual pioneer who, after 40 years of meditation practice around the world, chooses to reside in New York City and teaches the simple notion that the entire practice of meditation is about beginning again and again and again as we learn to love ourselves. After a beautiful lecture from Sharon we settled into meditation. A handful of people, in a small room, sitting together focused on our breath … in and out … in and out … ahhhhhhh … and then, as if New York needed to remind us all where we were — a honk, and then another, and another, and another until all you could hear was an audible sea of honking New York automobiles. Inside I smiled …
… that’s real-life spirituality for ya.
Big hugs of love,