Monday, October 01, 2018

When Dharma (and/or Dharma Teachers) Seem/s to Say You Suck

I just got done teaching a weekend program in Chicago with Acharya Charlene Leung. The title was Healing Harm for Vibrant and Just Community: Exploring Social and Personal Power.

It was a revision from a previous program she has been working on for a few years, a version of which we did in Minneapolis awhile back. The version she had been developing focused more on unconscious bias, especially with race, and social conditioning. How to shake that social conditioning to build more vibrant Shambhala centers with true inclusivity and equity.

However, we were making the final course description when the Shambhala situation broke, and it became clear to both of us immediately that the program needed to be able to more directly include what was now a big part of our community. Thus, the new title - and new focus - was born.

The program was rich and deep, and we both learned a lot, as well as the participants, about all that goes into all three components: power, harm, and healing.

However, what stays with me most, and what I want to write about today, is an insight Charlene had towards the end of the weekend, as the two of us discussed our plan for Sunday's portion of the program. It relates to the hairy territory of intention versus impact, both in regards to teachers, and in regards to teachings.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Wide Open Heart Failures

Welcome to Miriam's Now-Monthly Missive on the Shambhala Situation,

I am writing to you again (Letter #1 is here and #2 is here) because regularity and requests have helped me assemble my thoughts and share them. As I find is often the case with practice,  structure helps create a container to show up in. Without structure, I would be overcome by doubt, or give in to the idea that I will just do it "eventually." Instead, I know folks are waiting to hear from me, and get a sense of what I am experiencing, what my questions are, and what resources I have to share.

I offer none of these letters as answers, instead, as a showing of my path of exploration, with hopefully some angles you haven't yet considered, and information you haven't yet tracked. There are a lot of things to track, and endless ways to think and feel about what is going on.

So please, listen to yourself first. May my sharing help you share - both with yourself and with others.

This edition consists of three parts. 

The first part is excerpts from readings I've done this summer from books and information sources I had read before, but now with a new context. The three books are Eyes Wide Open by Mariana Caplan, The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg, and A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield.

I discovered Caplan's book through another Miksang teacher around ten years ago and was blown away by how she described relationship to practice. Her insights now about relating to teachers have taken on a whole new level with what has happened this summer in Shambhala.

Goldberg's book is her memoir about coming to terms with the imperfections of both her birth father and her dharma master, Katagiri Roshi, around sexual inappropriateness/misconduct. I read this also when it came out, and had a feeling of relief that Sakyong Mipham wouldn't do anything of the things described in the book that Katagiri Roshi did. More on that when we get to it....

Kornfield's title is one I have read portions of for Karuna Training, but someone on Facebook pointed it out it has an entire chapter on troubled relationships with teachers.

The second part is more personal reflections on leadership, holding space, and more.

The third part is similar to what I have shared at the end of each of these missives - further resources for reading, digesting, contemplating.

Please enjoy. Take breaks. Think and feel for yourself. I thank you for reading and for asking me to write about this. I take that assignment deeply inside and share back out what I find. Please feel free to share in comments - respectfully, thoughtfully, and with some space around what you have to say.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Here Comes the Flood

It's been a very intense week in Dane County, Wisconsin.

On Sunday, I returned from co-teaching a week-long Karuna Training retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico:
View of the road and Pedernal in the distance. Note the dryness, despite flash floods the first night we were there.

And on Monday night, we had severe and rapid enough thunderstorms to cause serious mass flooding not two blocks from my house in Madison. This is after one night of rain and a few days of having to release Lake Mendota to preserve the dam into the river that flows south to further, now overflowing, lakes:

What's in the middle of the photo is a bench and what's in front of it is normally sidewalk. Yahara River in Tenney Park.
Here are more photos to help you get a sense of what it is like around here right now.

If maps are more your style, check here. We live at N. Baldwin and E. Washington.

As you can see by the maps, we live on an Isthmus, which is a strip of land between two lakes. While Lake Mendota and Lake Monona are not "Great Lakes" (EG Superior or Michigan, which do border Wisconsin), they are pretty substantial. Not ponds. And over the last few days, I have learned a lot more than I used to know about these lakes and the land on which I live. Namely, that the lakes are kept extra high for recreational purposes; that the Isthmus was once and really should still be a marsh in most places (including where my house stands); and that our storm drain system is poorly managed.

We are facing what could be called a natural disaster, but actually, it's a man-made or man-contributed-to disaster. Of course, many have warned of this for years, but most of us weren't listening. And those who were listening (those in charge) were ignoring, for all the reasons we ignore things - money, denial, opposing interests.

A projected map that's been shown on and off for years, which is re-surfacing now. When it has been shared, it has mostly ignored by those in power repeatedly.

Of course, this land used to be cared for by native people who were driven out centuries ago in order to make a state capitol in this precarious but beautiful city. I am feeling all the layers of our mis-management, climate change, and colonialism coming home to roost this week, as we sandbag my house and those of loved ones and strangers nearby.

Ilana is currently wet-vacing the "normal" amount of water we have in the basement (when you live on an isthmus, you do get wet basements; at least that we are aware of) so we can re-seal the sewer drain (lest it pop up and fill our basement with shit, which it will do if too many houses flood) and hunker down for storms beginning this afternoon.

Ironically, because of where we live, we are both part of the current problem and also subject to the results of the solutions. They've been draining Lake Mendota, which is top in our four lake water system, and so the Lake closest to our house (by a hair, we are nearly equidistant between Mendota and Monona) is "safe" as you can see in this animation, where it remains below 100 year flood levels.

However, we are also very close to the Yahara River (two blocks) and the even bigger issue is that we are at a low spot on the Isthmus (around 851 feet above sea level) which means our storm drains are full right now and ready to burst at the slightest increase. We are less likely to flood because of either the lakes or rivers, but because our storm drains can't drain into either of those bodies of water. In fact, the last few days, water has been coming *out* of the drains and filling our streets. This is all really well explained historically in this incredible document (long read but worth it if you want to see how we got to this point in Madison).

So we are as ready as we can be, and now we wait. Will it rain? Too hard and too fast? Will they have to release Lake Mendota again, flooding the system and pushing water up out of our storm drains? Or will the storms pass to the North and West, which won't effect us immediately but a few days down the road? Or will it all dry up, like rains do in New Mexico?

Let all this preparation be in vain. Only some already have experienced the consequences, so what we are waiting for has already passed in Madison and surrounding areas recently. I am scared that so few of my neighbors - including those in much more direct possible impact from flooding - are doing nothing. The National Guard is standing by, filling more bags and forcing them on to streets that are already flooding.

All we can hope for for now is that none of it will be needed, that there won't be worse damage. And all we can hope for soon after it is over, if not during this time, is for the uppity ups to pay the fuck attention and work harder on our water system.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Critical Devotion: A Second Letter from Miriam on Shambhala

Dear reader,

I have wondered if there was another letter in me. The first letter, and the following piece came out like a birth and afterbirth - I wrote them quickly, while still in the full pain feeling strength of the beginning of the situation. Since then, I have noticed my feelings dulling a bit, not because the situation has gotten less intense, but because my need to feel so deeply has modulated itself. Not to mention the fact that more complex emotions and thoughts are layering on top of each other now.

But then a student told me how helpful the first letter was - in fact, she and other remote Shambhalians (those without centers near them) had used it as basis for a conversation about what is happening, and others wrote their own letters after reading mine. I realized I do have some things to say, but mostly I have confusion to report.

Why should I report confusion? Because if I do it clearly, others will possibly see their own confusion mixed in mine. And, even more likely, others - or even I - will see the wisdom mixed in the confusion, because that is how wisdom and confusion roll. So here is a mix of experience, emotion, and thought, offered to you in order to help you find some resonance and consolation, clarity, and direction. Please take what you can and leave what you can't; it's not offered as debate, really, more as a sense of what a leader/teacher in Shambhala is thinking and feeling about all of this.

In a conversation with a meditation student this morning, she offered that this situation is like a muddy river - which is an analogy we use a lot in meditation instruction in Shambhala. Our minds often seem more like muddy rivers, but when we sit, the true nature of the water begins to reveal itself: clear, so long as we let the mud not disappear but settle into place. This situation won't settle for awhile - we are going to be in a muddy river a long time it seems, but that doesn't mean we can't work with our minds. In some ways, that's the main thing we can do now.

If you haven't read the first letter, please do. Respect the time and effort I put into writing these and see the context. May they all be of benefit.

1. War Zone/Apocalypse
A couple of weeks ago, a senior teacher told me I am now living in a sort of war zone. I blinked. What on earth could he mean? He explained how it was for him, when he lived through CTR's death and also the awful incidents around the death of VROT. The situation was constantly changing, with very little predictability. Important people would suddenly drop power or be put out of power, and news hit like bombs, blowing apart communities. Infighting, confusion, mass chaos. Ergo, war zone.

A few days later, without my repeating that line, an Acharya I was speaking to repeated the same thing. Clearly there was some resonance here, as these two teachers don't even know each other.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Where I Am

(This is a further exploration - this time more felt sense - of what is "going on right now in Shambhala." See this previous blog post for the details/what is going on, and resources/links. I think this likely stands on its own as writing, but context can help. "Where I Am" is a default prompt from Saundra Goldman's #continuouspractice community.)

Revised image:
Sandstorm by Linda Mead (shared with me, and given permission to me by the artist,
because she thought of this piece she made previously while reading this writing). 
I am in the desert. I thought this was an oasis, a placed beyond place, a respite from all the loss, the losses of all these years. Fear kept me here, in this mirage, convinced of that "What you see is what you get."  

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Letter from Miriam on the Current Shambhala Situation

A drawing I made this week when I couldn't write about this yet.

I am writing today as a teacher, Vajrayana sangha member/student, and lineage holder in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. Most of my life is deeply entwined in Shambhala; all I teach has at least some if not a lot of contact with Shambhala. Today is the end of a very long and hard week for those of us in Shambhala, and I want to write to you about some of my story this week with my feelings (first) then thoughts (second) and resources (last).

Some of these things have appeared elsewhere – in Facebook conversations, in personal exchanges with others – some of these are new. I wanted to compile them all together for myself, for my fellow sangha members who are suffering, and for those confounded by the news and outside the circumstance all together. Everything I say here is in my own words and my own experience, however, I don’t exist in a bubble and I have been greatly inspired, and supported by many folks this week, especially my Shambhala Office of Social Engagement peeps this week.

I will insert a trigger warning here, because there is mention of sexual abuse and clergy sexual misconduct. I myself am a sexual abuse survivor, though I have never experienced abuse in this lineage. Please read with care – lots of self-care and also care for me and for other survivors who tell their stories. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Surprise - and Not Surprise - of Death

This last Sunday, one of our long-term Madison Shambhala sangha members died. Fred Mather had ongoing health issues, heart ones amongst them, and so his death wasn't a surprise in a sense. Yet, of course, when we think someone might die soon and they don't, as happened a couple of times with Fred in the last few years, actual death comes as a surprise.

A friend asked today if I know how to handle death - then answered her self by saying I must, considering how many deaths I have been through. But I told her I don't really. I am not sure we ever know - she and I wondered over what "death skills" would be and how one acquires them - because each death is unique. And in addition, all the deaths I have experienced have either be traumatizing or re-traumatizing, so what I associate with death is trauma, not just grief and loss.

Friday, June 01, 2018

What is Contemplative Writing, Again?

Recently I had an experience in an online class where I found myself going off in a way different direction, while writing, than I expected. Actually, I didn't know what to expect, and I ran into a trigger - a memory which carries trauma associated with it. I made the decision to *not* write about that, and came up with this piece. The prompt was "What are birds saying?"

It helped *me* clarify some things about how contemplative writing relates to formal contemplative practices. So here, for your exploration, is the piece as I wrote it, with very little alteration.

What are the birds saying when? Immediately my mind scatters in many directions. I could write part of this memoir or that project. I could use this time to write about writing. But can I just be here, in my weekly air conditioned second floor home office, with a huge fan blowing semi-cool air around the room?             
There are no birds in here.            

Oh. Fuck.             

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Learning As Love

From the viewpoint of Earth, outer space seems so vast but full - especially in New Mexico or Colorado - the stars touching each other, crowded in the cool night air. My mind knows when we do go out into space, closer to said stars, there's actually a lot of space, further space, outer space, between the stars.

Is my mind like this? Seemingly crammed to the brim with content, commitments, inspiration. Endlessly full - a contradiction. But when I slow down enough, I see there's space between thoughts, enough room for entire breaths to come and go, and be freely witnessed without interruption. Same mind - different scope - from tele to micro and back out again. And the thoughts are not so separate from the spaces between them, though when my mind is agitated, my thoughts seem completely unconnected to a quiet background of existing and peace.


This week has been filled to overflow with IBS. This chronic condition - which I've had for over 28 years, and only really known how to work with in the the last ten years or so - is all-consuming when it sets in. I lose a lot of perspective - my focus shifts to the so-called "large" intestine, which suddenly seems too narrow for what needs to pass through it. In the last couple of years, I've found if I can recognize the IBS ASAP and begin the protocols I know work - hypnosis, restricted diet, supplements, massage, heat - it usually passes in 24 hours or so. Usually. But this last week has been tight - time and energy crammed with classes, returns from travels, etc - and I didn't really give it enough space. It all backed up to a critical point last Saturday, when it became apparent I had to cancel everything and begin again.

But by last Sunday, after a day and night of careful eating, no work, napping, and overall resting my nervous system, it wasn't gone. I had to keep adjusting - keep flattening open field of expectations, irritation, space, and time - so things could move along in their own time. I found some new massage points and they helped. I took a new supplement - which helped too much at first, and eventually, after 48 hours of intense stuckness (this after a few days of discomfort), my intestines were re-calibrated again, more or less. Until yesterday, when it started all over again.


I have been making my own semi-abstract drawings lately to color, as I haven't found coloring books that fill my needs, and I am getting more patient with my own drawing (lack of skill) level. Yesterday, I got the idea to draw my small and large intestines from a medical rendering. It felt good, healing, to look closely at this mystery zone that has caused me so much pain in the last few decades. In some ways, I have numbed myself to my digestive system - dissociation out of irritation, struggle, fear of pain - and it feels as foreign to me as outer space. Drawing my intestines helped me better map - literally - where my pain tends to arise and see it with my mind's eye. It created the paradoxical experience of both getting more distance from my illness - seeing the whole system as if watching the Milky Way from an unclouded clear camp site - and also an intimate proximity - a contour map of convoluted pathways I have actually felt quite closely.

A perfect balance - a place to rest my mind that seems connected but spacious.


Over time, as I age and certain conditions don't go away, or get worse, or new ones appear, I increase my curiosity about this wildly singular and somewhat unknowable body. I find it a combination of uncategorizable felt sense experiences - simply feeling sensations as sensations, whether painful or pleasurable - and cracking open anatomy books, watching videos, learning about how all the systems in the body work,  or change their working. This curiosity has been mainly satisfied by non-western, non-allopathic approaches – Traditional Chinese Medicine, somatic experiencing, and the like. But good old-fashioned anatomy satisfies the intellectual, detail-oriented mind, like mannequins with their stomachs cut open, revealing color-coded livers and kidneys. I stay connected to my own expanse by exploring the vast unknowableness of my body– the electrical currents it creates and runs on, the automatic and autonomic systems–as well as the intellectual desire to learn the names of parts I can literally put my fingers on.


I have always held such curiosity about the psyche – which is even more invisible – but it feels like the psyche is not separate from the body. Just as how these words aren't separate from the page, and stars are not separate from space. What if the intimacy of learning could help more of us to feel deeply connected, to express and experience care towards our ailing bodies, which are bound to be in pain at one time or another?

And what if being curious in this way could help us learn to love learning about race, about gender, about all the other socially-constructed-but-really-experienced aspects of our individual lives? This, too, I remain curious about - how to cultivate curiosity where before I have mainly contracted in fear - whether its exploring my own chronic illness, or witnessing someone else describe being the receiver of a bias I know nothing about. The patience and kindness of staying present as much as possible, then the dedication to study and explore on our own, when we can, so we can express our love of our bodies and each other through forms of curiosity and learning that don't exasperate the suffering more.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

How to Survive Mother's Day

Having a mother

1.    Be grateful you were born. No matter how much she angered, angers, or will anger you, find a granule of gratitude under there. Maybe it’s buried, under rage, or worry, or loss. But some part of your brilliant being knows you came out of someone’s womb. For now, there’s no other way to be born.  The transmen who have given birth are important but rare exceptions: fathers with wombs. In any case you were born from a body, not a test tube. Thank that body in some way, even if only in your heart, and not to the person who occupied/occupies the body from which you were born.
2.    If your mother is absent – mentally/emotionally/physically, or dead – mark that. If you never met your birth mother – you were adopted, or fostered, or she died in childbirth, even if you love your adopted mother, there still can be a lot of loss on this day. Acknowledge its effect on you. Maybe recognizing Mother’s Day often feels more like jealousy of other people’s seemingly normal or even healthy relationships with their moms. Share with someone, or ones, you trust, how hard it is for you. Make a new normal: if you share your struggles, others will, too, and we can break to delusion that mothering is somehow easy, and being mothered is somehow simple.
3.    Maybe you have two or more mothers – raised by a cackle of witches, or lesbian couple. Or an aunt, or stepmother, or godmother, or family friend feels more like a mother to you. Try to thank as many mothers as you have had, at least in your heart.
4.    Gratitude can contain multitudes. Gratitude doesn’t mean forgiveness, or ignoring all prior harm. It just means in this moment, you recognize the value of others giving and sustaining your life. That simple. That hard.

B)  Being a mother

5.     Being a mother is the entirely most under-appreciated job/role in this world, to this day and beyond. Thank yourself for taking on. Don’t expect anyone else to pamper you, or thank you. Nurture yourself best you can today.
6.     If you were a mother but… you lost a child, or they are grown up and a longer around, or they are teenagers and seem to hate you - know you still have mother in you. You have mothered, even if only in your womb. So feel these mother part or parts, and respect and appreciate her/them, even if only by you, even if only for moment.
7.    If you were not recognized as a mother, but you’re still mother see number six.

8.    If you are mother with a living mother, you’re in a very peculiar and precious position. You see all the ends of motherhood intertwined, an ouroboros of birth and death, of offering, honoring, and rejecting. Trying to get bigger than the whole, to hold it for yourself, for your mother, for your child/children. If you can’t, don’t judge yourself; hold the knot of where you are like a paradox or puzzle.

9.     If you are a grandmother, thank yourself at least twice, sincerely. Really. You’re in the bonus round, but that doesn’t make things easier. You’re still mother, only now a mother of a mother. Mothering a mother is a hell of a job.


C)  Not Being a Mother

 10. You don’t have children, you didn’t have children. You don’t identify with motherhood.

        Celebrate the women who do identify with motherhood and you are doing it. Especially the

        women you see doing it well – friends, coworkers, cousins, celebrities, even. If only in your  

        heart, let the extra space of non-mothering you can offer hold the impossible whole of  

       motherhood for others.

11. If you are a man, a father or not, give the mothers you know lots of leeway today. As much as you can. Recognize your mother. Mourn that you will never mother, if you feel that grief, if you plan to stay man.


D)  All the Rest

If you’ve read this far in the piece and are thinking: How dare she tell me what to do!, or you don’t see yourself reflected in it – please, I beg of you, make your own instructions. There are as many ways to survive mothering, mothers, and Mother’s Day, as there are children. And we were all children, once. We were all born from someone, directly from the womb: by C-section or live birth; breech, or head first; just-in-time, too early, too late. Someone held us in a womb for a long time, even if they didn’t know how to mother us after we were born, or seemed not to care, or fucked up. So make up your own playbook. If you do, share it and encourage others to do the same, too. Because no matter what the patriarchy says, we don’t see or hear from mothers or about mothers enough. And this is the day for that. 


Thursday, May 03, 2018

Rage Running

Last night was a tough one. I was at the tail end of my period - the day when, after nothing happens for 24 hours, suddenly I am bleeding harder than any other previous day. The aches are deep, twisting my uterus in a spiral that grabs at all local muscles - intestines especially.

It’s been a week of bumping up against men, patriarchy, sexism, misogyny. In all kinds of ways, some subtle, but mostly explicit. I keep finding it in my interactions with men, and embodied deeply in the women I know and interact with. I have the great fortune to listen to 28+ stories a week - 28+ people sharing whatever is in and on their minds at any given moment. In addition to classes, it just so happens this last week, I heard and read a lot of difficulty, abuse, rape; or obliviousness about those incidents. It’s fatiguing, exhausting, actually, and I’ve needed a lot of naps to restore my sanity and energy; that it should all parallel my period seems perfect in some ways.

Last night it all hit a peak. A few messages cumulated into one hour, and I hit the wall. I went to TRE, I went to writing, to meditation, to walking in between thunderstorms and seeing a gorgeous and dramatic sunset. But it was clear none of these things were going to dissipate the energy I needed to expel safely. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Colors of Space

My intention this year was to work with space. Actually, my intention was just the word “space” - no "work with," no "feel more of," no "find more," etc. No direction at all, which is, after all, a bit antithetical to space - direction, that is.

The word arose naturally, intuitively, and would not go away, as my intention word for the year usually does. I was not surprised - I was in the middle of a  teacher training for what is called Maitri Space Awareness. MSA is a program that focuses on using colors and postures to help understand the natural energies that flow through all of us. These parallel the elements - air, earth, fire, wind - and also space. Space, in this case, referred to as Buddha*, is both an element (though not one we commonly think of in modern western society) and also the ground for all the other elements to arise from. Early on, I noticed how pure space, all by itself (symbolized by the color white in this tradition), is quite rare. It is usually colored with something - green, red, blue, yellow - eg one of the other families. And then, as I got closer to Space as an element itself and began to feel out its characteristics, I noticed there’s an uncanny closeness to Space and Whiteness. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Audience Versus Critic

"So, I've been thinking lately," a client who is starting her first novel said to me during an appointment the other day. "I need to start thinking about my audience - who they are, what they want to hear, what voice works."

I had just finished Jen Louden's newsletter on realizing her memoir doesn't work, after working on it for 100,000+ words. I understand - you can't just write the whole thing without thinking about audience. But thinking about audience too soon can really cut you off from the actual voice that is still finding its way out.

"Sounds good," I replied. "Any ideas?"

She went on to express that her mind had started offering feedback from a potential audience.
"Oh? What kind of feedback?" I asked.
"No one is going to want to read about this character if she x, y, or z's," she replied.
"Oh honey," I said to the client, "That is NOT thinking about your audience. THAT is your inner critic."

So how do we know the difference?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Unedited Selves

Do you have any space in your life where an unedited version of you can appear?
In a friendship? A romantic relationship? At work? In nature? On the page?

Recently, a long-term participant in my contemplative writing courses noted that this is what she appreciates most about our practice together. I had mentioned that I first appreciated this practice because the writing is unedited - not the "finished product" we usually see (though that has changed over time with the proliferation of social media and blogs), but a more raw, direct, unedited version of writing. It helps calibrate shame we have over performance, continuity, how our minds actually work, and natural creativity. Of course, what this shows us is an unedited version of our MIND, which is something most of us are afraid of seeing, as if we will find only dysfunction there.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Watching My Speed

Well hello there.
It's been a few months.
Where have I been? All over. Too run down. Too occupied. Also happily engaged, but overall, too too much, and too fast.

So I am back now. Memoir Mind has a post this week, too, and I am going to work at posting again regularly. So hi. Nice to see you again (or meet you the first time).

This week I've been thinking about transitions and expectations, and about speed and pacing. The image above comes from my annual coaching program, Return, and is an example of the weekly forum where folks can post on their intentions.

For me, I most recently noticed this in my transition from non-exercise to exercise.

Last year I learned to run again, and really (gulp) enjoyed it! Someone I was running with joked that she never thought of me as a runner - I seemed too, well, cerebral for that. I laughed too - though I now understand those two to not be in competition with each other, I was raised with that belief, too. I had intellectual parents and one older brother who thought and talked a lot and didn't exercise; I had another older brother who ran and did triathlons but didn't do a lot of philosophizing.

Where did I fit in?