compassion empowered

The other day I had the great opportunity to present the practice of compassion to my students in middle school and high school.  We discussed the daring it takes to open the door to others, to just bring other people into our awareness.  Beginning with a sense of trust in our beings, we brought to mind other people and animals that we care about and extended a sense of love and well being to them.  Then we thought of someone who is suffering– from illness, injury, depression, loss, or just a bad mood– and we extended relief and joy to them.  We discussed how common it is for people to avoid thinking of people in suffering–how it’s often seen as depressing or morbid.  Turning it around we imagined being in a state of suffering ourselves and how we would feel if the people in our life said, “I don’t want to think about that- it’s depressing.”  It was a good session.  The students responded well and the atmosphere we created held the process so that there was engagement and respect.

The skills of the heart, kindness and compassion, are feelings, so can’t exactly be taught, but they can be suggested and hinted at.  As feelings, they are ephemeral, and can seem weak and naive. If they are to become active principals in shaping our culture, they need to be empowered.


Here is a story about that.  Padmasambhava is known as the great tantric master who established Buddhism in Tibet.  According to the story, the Tibetan King, Trisong Detsen first invited a wonderful teacher named Shantarakshita from India to establish the spiritual doctrine.  Tibet in those days was a wild place, full of fierce people, shamanic traditions, and feral spirits.  Shantarakshita, a wise and benevolent monk, supported by the King, established a monastery and taught the wisdom of Buddha, emphasizing kindness and compassion.  However, the native forces thwarted his efforts, destroying the monastery each time it was built.

Shantarakshita was no slouch. He knew his stuff and is renowned as one of the greatest masters of the tradition. But by himself, even with his extraordinary training and knowledge, he was unable to tame the negative energies he was up against.

Shantarakshita acknowledged that he needed help.  He advised the king to invite the great master, Padmasambhava to come from India.  He knew that Padmasambhava had a quality that had been missing, the element of power.  Padmasambhava wasn’t just a teacher, he was like a force of nature.  He didn’t align himself with any side. He wasn’t even “kind,” he was just real. With great wisdom and magical power he tamed the demonic forces of Tibet and enlisted them into the service of protecting and upholding the teachings.  He didn’t merely introduce an alternative possibility into Tibet, he transformed the culture itself so that it could truly embrace and express the principals of compassion.

How can we bring power to our principals, so that they can be known, trusted, and alive, even when we are surrounded by the demonic momentum of prejudice and materialism in our culture?  How do we not only teach, but transform?




spring of well-being

cloud moment

“In Shambhala, the constant application of not giving up on ourselves is known as discipline. It is not that we have made a mistake and need discipline to correct it.  Rather, it is that we have not made a mistake, and we need to be constantly reminded of this.” – Sakyong Mipham

In order to work with discipline in relation to our students, it is a given that we need a foundation of discipline within ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we are always willing to endure the most pain, and push ourselves even harder than we push others.  It also does not mean we only care for others, and hold ourselves with such low regard that we can be eternally sacrificed.  It means we enjoy an inner sense of spacious goodness and health from which we operate.

Our practice of discipline has to do with gently returning to well-being.  If we feel that the jungle of coarse thoughts and habits in our being is too thick to change we may not want to even begin.  This little trick of shame gives us the impression that winter can never become spring.  A little leap of faith is necessary.  We need to work with ourselves where we are, connecting with a fresh moment of appreciation, and letting it go.  We don’t have to analyze or check to see if we are building ourselves up.  Like e.e. cummings’ writes,

Spring is like a perhaps hand…

moving a perhaps

fraction of flower here placing

an inch of air there…

With these tiny moments of worthiness we begin a transformation.  It begins with a seed of trust in our own being and becomes an entire environment that includes others.

noticing others

rat gabe








When we’re mired in our thoughts, revolving around self-doubt, competition, or project mentality, we don’t actually see others, though we may interact with them. Really seeing others takes turning our fixation inside out.  Considering another person and how they may feel in the context of what’s going on, we open up.  Suddenly we notice the way they’re sitting. We’ve been determined to communicate our thoughts, but suddenly we see that our tone of voice is berating.  We’ve been annoyed by their bouncy distraction, but suddenly we realize that it’s been raining for a week and today it’s sunny–they feel energized.  With a slight shift we become inquisitive.  We acknowledge that other people’s experience arises in context.  It’s made up of many ingredients and elements, many of which are invisible to us.  In addition to whatever is happening in the slice of time they are encountering us in, they are also living the whole vastness of their lives.

Project mentality is when we either don’t remember that, or when we don’t care about it because we have things to get done.  This is not to say we should always set aside our projects and just have endless process groups.  We do have things to get done, and we may decide to push ahead, even on the sunny day.  What is important is that we release our fixation and jump into the lake of others.  This inner shift may or may not change our plans, but it will dramatically change the feeling in the way we carry them out.

like a lion licking your face

fsp-Snow-LionThe path of the Lion is connected with discipline and joy.  Do the words “discipline and joy” go together for you?  Here, discipline is not about rules and their enforcement.  The outer level of form, rules, protocols, manners, and rituals is important to attend to carefully.  But those forms should be a support and reflection of a more inner feeling, the culture we wish to develop.  Whether a school practices a precise, martial level of outer discipline or a reactionary freedom from rules of any kind, it’s the teacher who holds the feeling and intention of those forms within.  If that feeling is a lack of trust in herself or her students, the outer expression becomes controlling and harsh.  Before long the teacher is exhausted and burnt out.

Lacking trust in ourselves as teachers begins as a natural and inevitable feeling of shakiness and tenderness. Part of us fears that we’re frauds, that we don’t have anything of value to offer, that we will be boring or even despised, and that we don’t know how to handle the living dynamics of the classroom with skill.  If we solidify those fears we’ll try to use the outer discipline of the classroom as a shield.

Lacking trust in our students is not seeing their basic goodness and intelligence.  If we see our students as worthless, and education as a means of turning them into something worthy, we’ll try to use the outer discipline as a whip.

Because these doubts arise for all of us as a natural aspect of working with others, discipline needs to be an inner practice for the teacher.  This does not mean dividing ourselves in two, with one side watching, pushing, scolding and correcting the other.  It means trusting that given the right conditions, seeds will grow into beautiful plants and flowers.  Brilliant expressions of creativity, love, and intelligence are in our nature.  Our culture of learning and discipline can be like a trellis supporting their growth.

This practice is well summed up in the Shambhala slogan, “Take delight in others and propagate dignity.”  Delighting in others, even though they may behave poorly, be disrespectful or disinterested, depends on our ability to see them in the light of trust and care.  To begin with, we have to notice that others are there.  The discipline is to see past our self-preoccupation, our lesson plans, what we think is going on, and suddenly, actually see.  It’s a joy to do so, like a lion licking our face.



gentle and tough

IMG_4008Gentleness is nice and all, but it’s a tough world out there.  We can’t always live in a protected world of soft things, kind people, and the sounds of running water.  There are harsh realities in this world.  Some parents choose to send their children to tough schools for this reason, to acclimate them to the hard side of things.

I’ve heard that in some Inuit societies young children are allowed to handle sharp knives, despite the likelihood of getting cut. The use of knives is such a basic element of everyday life, that learning to handle and respect them early, through experiential education, is the norm.

Without  doubt, one way or another individuals need to come to terms with the hard edges of life– the cold winds, the burdens of everyday duties, not having what we want, harsh words, competition, and the sheer aggression that is an aspect of our society.  For some, that aggression is an everyday reality, a part of their family or school culture, or a presence on the streets they traverse.  How do we educate our children to relate with this part of the world?  What sort of culture do we want to develop around the truth of aggression?

We love our children and we want them to flourish, to succeed, and especially to survive.  We want to keep them safe, but we don’t want to keep them weak.  So what is the best way to teach them to be tough, resilient, and powerful?

In a traditional sense, it is the role of the father lineage to transmit these qualities and introduce the hard world.  In our culture, this transmission has become tremendously confused and perverted.  The qualities of toughness, fearlessness, and the ability to meet our world with power have been  thoroughly mashed together with aggression and egotism.

At the core of our encounter with life is our feeling about ourselves.  Generally we experience aggression as something that points toward a negative feeling, the sense that there is something lacking, inadequate, lesser, or unworthy in us.   This sense of lack is the seed of aggression within us.  Our culture waters this seed in many ways,  through competition– the premise that we could prove our worth by succeeding in comparison to others; materialism– the premise that we could be worthy if we had more; and through intimidation– threats of punishment if we don’t accept our lack of power.  In the world of children and teens, these forces loom large.  They speak through peers, parents, teachers, and media, and result in rage, depression, and apathy.

In order to meet and transform this culture we need to begin from nonaggression, a ground of trust in human beings.  As teachers we must develop this trust personally. Trusting ourselves we have no need to convince others by deception.  Knowing a trust in ourselves that is basic and true, we can trust our students. This is a deep trust, not a calculating one. It doesn’t ask our students to prove they are worthy of it, that’s the territory of aggression. It holds their entire being, which may be full of doubt, depression, anger, and frivolity, in a great embrace of trust and kindness.

Once the poet and Zen master Ryokan was invited to dinner by the parents of a teenage boy who was developing an angry and rebellious disposition. The parents hoped the priest would impart some words of wisdom to the boy and maybe set him straight. The evening progressed, but the parents were disappointed, as Ryokan said not a word to the lad.  As Ryokan prepared to depart, the boy bent to assist the honoured guest with his sandals.  Tying on a sandal the boy felt a drop of moisture on the back of his neck. Looking up he saw the face of Ryokan gazing down at him, smiling slightly, his eyes wet with tears.  After this, though the priest had said nothing to him, the boy’s attitude shifted.

Basic trust is the seed of a different culture, the “culture of no mistake.” This is an environment of basic acceptance and worthiness, in which one need not constantly compensate for an underlying sense of inadequacy.  No one has made a fundamental mistake, therefore we can make relative mistakes, we can be who we are, seeing our shortcomings without feeling guilty.

Learning to relate with aggression in an aggressive, fearful environment is like watering seeds with gasoline. Flames may spring up, not likely flowers.

Gentleness does not produce weakness.  From the ground of nonaggression we can begin to relate with the sharp edges of our world.  With trust in ourselves we can finger a sword’s blade.  We can take an insult.  We can feel cold rain on our face.  We can fuck up and apologize.  We can say, “NO,” when we need to.  We can compete when we want to, and we can turn competition off when it’s not called for.  Knowing the yang, we can keep to the yin.

Everyone needs the culture of no mistake.  We should create it for ourselves at least. If we can share it with another, that’s society.  Some people’s lives are full of aggression.  You may be the only genuine reference point they have.





Awake Effort





The world is awake and we are awake.

Awake is constantly bombarding us, reminding us that our separateness is just a bubble.  For example, you see a yellow flower .. ! .. For an instant you are awake, just there, natural, yet indescribably alive.  This aliveness is already there, we don’t have to create it.  In a sense we are already awake.  Since we are already awake, we don’t actually have to wake up. But still, we often fail to notice that wakeful energy in the midst of ordinary life, so some kind of effort is necessary.  This special effort is the third aspect of practice.

Usually effort is laborious, but in this case, it is not so much a straining sort of effort.  It’s more like letting down our guard and allowing the world in.  There is a sense of being willing to appreciate our life.  Not that we are just going to experience sweetness and pretty flowers all the time.  Appreciation isn’t about blissing out; it is about being willing to experience life itself, however it manifests.  With that sense of appreciation, sudden flashes of amazement take place in which we discover the world beyond our thoughts.

Popping our discursive bubble in this way is humbling.  The world is vast; our fixations are small. It gives us a moment of perspective.  Yet this humbleness is the tiger’s empowerment; we discover a sense of connection to a harmony beyond our conceptual grasp.

As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, we can work with these sudden moments of awake, “and do so with no effort in the effort,” and then our effort becomes self-sustaining.  It arises as an ongoing, spontaneous discipline in our lives.




Flute of Genuineness

As I sit to write this I can feel the cool touch of the keyboard on my palms, the morning sun is playing patterns outside the window and across the floor, one of the neighbour’s chickens is clucking, a cell phone begins chirping like a cricket, my daughter’s foot taps the coffee table while she looks at a book on the couch, I feel the pulse of a little kink in my back, a subtle achy feeling in my shoulder, warmth in my belly,  a thought about teaching tomorrow awakens a little flutter of anticipation in my chest.

As human beings we can not rely on feeling anything in particular, but we can rely on feeling.  Attending to whatever is occurring in our experience, feeling our humanity, is the second aspect of practice.

Feeling is being with ourselves fully, allowing our present experience to blossom or fade as it will.  The texture of life in this moment is a gateway to our human goodness.  It is a way home from the mindless wandering of habitual distraction and fantasy.

In every moment of our lives we have experience arising, including pleasure and pain, sweet and sour, happy and sad, ease and irritation.  Within each ordinary experience and perception, like the kernel within the chaff of discursiveness, is the open, perceptive aspect of our being.  It is our ability to be touched by the world.  It is slightly soft, tender and romantic–like a lonesome flute.  It has a quality of natural trust and fearlessness– it is open to reality as it is.

Feeling our experience is a natural practice of mindfulness, which is sometimes described as bare attention.  Feeling is coming into the present moment. Again and again, in the midst of any activity, we bring our attention to our feelings and perceptions.  However, as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes, mindfulness “is more than just paying attention; it is a feeling of deeply caring about our mind, and therefore who we are–not with self-centeredness, but with kindness and love.  In Shambhala one meditates like a mother or father watching a child.”

This approach to mindfulness may differ from some of those in practice today. Feeling involves becoming more intimate with our experience.  Often mindfulness is associated with distance, observation, silencing, and detachment.  For example,

Contemplative practice is also commonly described as enabling a type of detachment from the contents of our consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, and reactions that flow though our minds. Several approaches instruct the practitioner to avoid reactive attachment by just being mindful of whatever thoughts or feelings emerge. This allows us to observe the contents of our consciousness rather than simply being absorbed by them. Such arms-length distance allows us to recognize and therefore potentially interrupt usual patterns of thinking and impulsivity, freeing the mind to notice unexpected insights. For example, instead of just seething with anger, the contemplative mind may allow a little more space between the anger and us. (from Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom, by Tobin Hart)

The difference here may be primarily semantic.  On the other hand, there may be an important difference in practice.  For many, mindfulness definitely involves creating distance from mind’s activity.  This is natural, as most people are drawn to meditation based on feeling aggravated by their mind’s speed, and tired of the drama of their habitual reactions.  Recognizing patterns and learning how to unhook ourselves from thoughts, fantasies and emotions is essential.  But if we set up a division in our being between our quiet, contemplative selves and our discursive, emotional selves, we end up with a deeper struggle.  This dichotomy can also extrapolate into our experience of daily life.

The Shambhala approach presents a subtle shift based on greater trust and care.  Trust means that each element of our experience is basically good.  Care is guarding from mindlessness and fragmentation.  When we feel what is arising we are immersed in it. Rather than being lost in our mental commentary, we go to a deeper aspect of our experience.  And we may discover that even anger, in its essence, is seething with goodness, moving and transforming like clouds, playing around the sun of worthiness.

mom and noel