When You Are Rich and Famous

For more on my experience of intensive meditation teacher training in the heart of Toronto, check out my previous post: Adventures in Shamelessness

During my first year of training, my meditation teacher Paul was incredibly available and generous with his time, instruction, and attention. Even though I didn’t yet know that attention, like writing, was a skill that could be nurtured, practiced and even mastered, I quickly realized that I wanted to be able to do what he could do.

As I started to work with Paul, things in my many areas of my life started to turn around. I’d notice how I’d feel during and after hanging out with him, and that made me want to hang out with him more. Whether playing board games, watching Game of Thrones, going camping, or just hanging out talking late into the night.

During our interactions, I felt utterly seen, connected, and like my life and troubles not only mattered, but were not exclusive to me and, unbelievably, were surmountable.  I was in awe at the casual ease and confidence he had, and the perspective he brought to helping me navigate really difficult experiences and unbearable conversations.

Beyond mind training

Every two weeks, for two hours a week–sometimes three or more–we’d get together for a mentoring session. I would firehose Paul with problems and practice difficulties, and Paul would sit there, eyes open, hands gently clasped, rephrasing my ramblings back to me in simple, organized, mature language. It was remarkable how the view he brought to matters de-escalated whatever overwhelm, despair, or sense of impending doom I’d been grappling with that day. Gradually, I started to see increasingly difficult life situations as workable.

I’d listen, I’d practice, I’d forget, I’d continue to practice, and slowly some of the things he’d say began to stick (and I started to take notes!). All the while, Paul’s patience seemed bottomless. As the years passed, I began to recognize a faint, familiar expression flash across his face whenever he would calmly re-iterate the exact same instruction for the hundredth time.

No matter what kind of difficulty popped up in my life during that first year of training with Paul, I grew unafraid. I’d come to know and trust that even-minded, sane, agendaless advice (what I would now call wisdom) was a mere text message, phone call, or email away.  And it was. So I’d email, and I’d text, and I’d call, and he would respond with some unexpected question or skillfully worded suggestion.

In Paul’s guidance, I started to grow quite comfortable and dependent on this new found source of safety and protection from the big bad scary world I’d discovered. Reflecting back now, I see how awesome and unique an experience my first year of training was. At first, all I knew is that I felt like a million bucks–like the god of wealth himself. Later I realized, I’d started to take that wonderful experience for granted.

If I had lived in Toronto even one generation earlier, (like Paul’s last teacher, Ken McLeod), and if I’d wanted the reliable, grounded, access to unfettered wisdom that has only been historically possible in a dedicated meditation teacher-student relationship, I’d have had to fly across the world, learn a foreign (possibly dead) language, endure ridiculous physical hardship, persevere and practice for years, and then with any luck, have a slim chance to connect with and establish a relationship an experienced teacher, and have an opportunity to train.

Instead I barked, “Hey Siri, text Paul Baranowski…”

My experience as a novice meditation student was typical of the rest of my first-world life: privileged and luxurious. I am grateful and humbled by the generosity and kindness I received during those early months. But that time in my training has passed. Today I have a greater capacity for awareness than I started with three years ago, and I am clear about which direction to go, to deepen and stabilize it.

I can see today, that the content of Paul’s teachings, the way he delivered that content, and all his help in its various forms, were not the end in itself, but have been pointing at something greater.

Thanks to the guidance of a skilled meditation teacher, I’ve been able to make several big life decisions without falling to pieces, running away, or self-destructing. Decisions that re-oriented my life in massive, unexpected, and exciting ways. I’ve also started to develop the skills to actually take care of my body, my mind, and my relationships, to be a stable and sustainable source of support for others, and to become a valuable contributor to the organizations I am a part of. These are just a few of the self-perpetuating gifts that I can never repay even with all the wealth in the world.

It’s not about the gifts

know that success in the world is ephemeral…

Seven-hundred years ago, Tibetan meditation master and teacher Tokmé Zongpo cautioned his students not to let the gifts of fame or fortune go to their heads because these things are ephemeral, unreliable sources of happiness, they come and go.

All of the gifts I’ve received from Paul, all of the priceless skills I’ve started to develop–were given to me freely, and have enabled me to live my life more awake today than I was able to a few years ago.

Today, I’m occasionally able to see when I’m getting in my way, as I’m getting in my way, and sometimes, I’m even able to step out a reactive cycle or two. Recognizing this in my experience means I am more capable of helping others learn to do the same. And that’s what it’s is all about.

The choices I can see and make today have been orchestrated by the thousands of choices I’ve made–knowingly or not–in my past, and culminate in the degree of freedom I have right now.

Working with Paul has been like joining an epic dance party that meditation teachers and meditation students have been keeping alive for thousands of years. These days, as each of our lives unfold, Paul and I don’t spend as much time together. I’ve come to see that Paul, like all things, is impermanent.

Three years ago my mission in life was to survive. To find a way to live my life that did not leave me constantly exhausted, overwhelmed, enraged or disconnected. Today I have a new mission: to strengthen my attention, to digest and stabilize what I have learned, and to hone my skills so that I may share the epic dance of awareness with others, and do my best to make sure the party continues.

This week’s class

This week, Matt will guide the meditation in the first half of class, and Paul will lead the second half as we work through Verse 19 and its commentary in Reflections on Silver River, Ken McLeod’s translation of Tokmé Zongpo’s  Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva.

Here’s Verse 19:

Even when you are famous, honored by all
And as rich as the god of wealth himself,
Know that success in the world is ephemeral
And don’t let it go to your head– this is the practice of
a bodhisattva.

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