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,


  1. This reminds me of something I just read in the book “Conversations with God.”

    God says “Many think that white is the absence of color. It is not. It is the inclusion of all color. White is every other color that exists, combined. So, too, is love not the absence of an emotion (hatred, anger, lust, jealousy, covetousness), but the summation of all feeling. Thus, for the soul to experience perfect love, it must experience every human feeling. How can I have compassion on that which I don’t understand? How can I forgive in another that which I have never experienced in Myself? The purpose of the human soul is to experience all of it – so that it can be all of it. How can a soul be good if it never faces and denies evil? Obviously the soul cannot choose to be anything if there is nothing to choose from. For the soul to experience its grandeur, it must know what grandeur is. This it cannot do if there is nothing BUT grandeur. And so the soul realizes that grandeur only exists in the space of that which is not grand, but blesses – seeing it in a part of itself which must exist for another part of itself to manifest.”

    This was such a powerful passage and sheds light on all that you are writing. Everything that we CHOOSE to be must be born out of contrasts. It is only natural for that which is representative of “The greatest of good” (the Dalai Lama) must invoke the opposite, the negative, the fearful, the doubting. It is in this contrast that we are given a choice. A choice of who we want to be, which is our free choice. It is only then that we are able to choose to ascend, to reflect our Godlike essence, and walking away from the protestors and towards the true word of the Dalai Lama.

    Thank you for this.

    • Jason Garner says:

      Thank you Lauren for reading my story and sharing this deep and insightful comment. Big hugs of love – Jason

  2. Sometimes it amazes me how different people think in totally different ways. I had never imagined that people would protest the Dalai Lama. But then again, there is always someone who will protest or have a different view than everyone else. And I am convinced that some people truly like to be unhappy. Maybe not even consciously, like the little boy who threw himself down on the sand to get his father’s attention, people sometimes do it for attention. Some I think just do not know how to cope with the bad things that have happened in their lives, and this in turn makes them bitter and angry and lash out at those around them, and really not the type of people I like to spend my time with. “I hate everyone” t-shirt person would be included. Because here’s a lesson I’ve learned: even if you want to help them become enlightened, or even to just let go of some of that hate, if they don’t want to, there’s absolutely no point, because they won’t. You could have given her your ticket to go see the Dalai Lama and she either wouldn’t have gone because she didn’t want to, or wouldn’t have listened even if she did go, unless she was truly ready to change herself.

    Habit is comfortable. We all form them. We know what to expect. Asking for change, or to view something from a different perspective, that’s much harder. Often times sadly, it takes a tragedy in our lives in order to force us to examine what is truly important.

    The fact you constantly seek to improve yourself is an inspiration (even when I know there are days you take off – which you should, and enjoy them!! Sometimes that break is needed too in order to reaffirm our commitment and dedication). That you choose to share them with us is truly a blessing in my life.

    Everyone sees lives through their own unique eyes based upon there own experiences. Learning to do so with a clean slate is difficult. While I would say the people outside protesting only did so because it was what they felt was right and what they needed to do, based on their on experiences. Good and evil is a matter of which side of the table you sit on and how you see the world, and we all do the best we can for what we believe in. For that, it’s important to respect their views, and even their right to protest (peacefully of course, violence is a whole different issue) and make them known.

    But even in this real life world, peace can be found. I found it this weekend while waiting for my son to finish practice. I was meditating in the car, a nice enough day to do so with the windows rolled down. It wasn’t the sounds of the birds chirping that I would find in my own backyard, but rather the sounds of traffic. They can be soothing enough, the soft hum of the cars as they zoom by. The car horns remind me, take a deep breath, listen to the sound. Experience the sound that is happening right here and now. It is only an angry, impatient sound if you want it to be. It can also be a cue for a deep breath, a honk to a friend to get their attention to say hello. Really…it’s all about how you choose to interpret the world around you. So where ever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever is happening around you…enjoy it the best you can.

    Big hugs and much love to you and your family.

    Faith, hope and love, Kathleen.

  3. as always, you have written an interesting and very real article

    I have not been to L.A., but lived in NYC for many years……and loved it a lot…..everyone there was unfailingly kind to me…I never met a rude person there…..odd, isn’t it?

    while in NYC I learned to meditate by breathing, and allowing the noise of the city to help me to go even deeper into relaxation (a technique I learned as a hypnotherapist)

    the hardest part of living or being in nyc, at least for me, is not being able to take a drive in the country—-I am used to side roads, where you might not see more than 2-3 cars as you drive along

    I am used to hiking in places where you might not see another person all afternoon

    I seem to have gone off on a tangent here
    so I will just say that I was glad to read this article, and gladder still that you have had this wonderful experience

    peace, love and joy

  4. Ray Khelawan says:

    Wow…the fact that someone would protest the Dalai Lama shocks me. I like how you always strive to improve yourself tho Jason. I try to do that myself!! Much love!!

Leave a Reply