At the top of this year I shared that I was taking sabbatical for an entire year and considered writing weekly blog post. I made it to 17. My plan was to, “live a contemplative life which means to mostly disengage from a social life and spend my time in study and meditation.” A friend recently asked me how 2018 will be different from 2017 and it’s something I’d been contemplating as I entered the winter of my sabbatical. As I enjoy my usual tradition of New Years Eve rituals, I thought I would share some of what the past year has taught me.
I observed four themes this year: 1 – I don’t resonate well with sarcasm, 2 – I tend to give my power away to spiritual teachers, 3 – Relationships are my most cherished gifts to receive, and 4 – Trust is the most important aspect of any relationship.
At the beginning of the year I disengaged from all of my volunteer activities except for leading dharma talks/meditation at Asheville Insight Meditation. By June I realized it was time for me to resign from the leadership team and I gave my last talk but continued offering monthly sound meditations.
2 – Asheville offers many Buddhist teachers, monastics, and laypeople to help guide one through the dharma. There were many local options. What I knew from years of experience with spiritual teachers is I’m best served by someone who walks their talk (aren’t we all?). I often hear of sanghas (Buddhist communities) who have difficulties with their teachers – monastic and not – just like any other religious organization. And what I hear most is that teachers are humans too…they are going to make mistakes and a sangha should not judge them but rather receive the teachings. Pema Chodron has said something similar in her experience with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who suffered from alcoholism and inappropriate behavior.
I think of spiritual teachers in the same way I think of Math teachers. Sure, a math teacher might not get every formula or equation right, but most of the time, they do. And when they don’t, it’s very clear that the answer they came up with is wrong and it’s important that they understand where they made their mistake – then own their mistake and share it as a learning opportunity for others who want to learn math. They also have limitations in their abilities; not every math teacher is an Einstein.
It takes courage and leadership to do this. All too often spiritual teachers aren’t willing to reveal their own weaknesses. They work hard to prove they are on a higher spiritual level than others and they project onto their students which if not addressed, actually harms the student and the teacher. To me, this is a failure of the teacher because the only way to truly teach the dharma or any spiritual or religious way of being is by action, not words. And in that sense everyone is a teacher. If you want to teach kindness and compassion, show kindness and compassion.
So with this insight I spent the remainder of the year visiting Serenity Insight, Heartwood Refuge, and Asheville Insight. While my studies weren’t guided and therefore I was not as disciplined as I thought I’d be, I learned that I have a tendency to give my power to a spiritual teacher, believing he or she knows something I don’t know. And it’s true that they might be able to speak the dharma more eloquently than me or relate the Buddha’s words to some psychological concept better than I can. They might very well be more spiritually enlightened than I am. I admire those qualities and desire to further develop my ability to share the dharma in words that are easily understood. But most importantly and above all, I want to live the dharma. If my actions reflect the words I seek to share, then I am giving to the world what I most desire. So when choosing a teacher, actions speak louder than words is what drives my decision. And when I really think about it, this insight has little to do with teachers. I’m not sure I’ve really shared what I mean by giving my power to a teacher. That may be a future post. For now what I want to share most is that we each have a teacher within. And without judging others, we are best served listening to ourselves with an openness to the voice of others (teachers) who lovingly and compassionately support us on our journey and path of learning.
3 – Since I wouldn’t be socializing as much as I had been in the past (I had pretty much quit attending sangha and I spent more one-on-one time with others,) I wasn’t sure how my relationships at the beginning of the year might be different today, this last day of the year. I found almost everyone to be supportive of my plan. There were only one or two who had expectations of me…how I should engage in the world and how often we needed to visit to remain friends. Upon reflection, I know now that we were not friends in the first place. I have learned this year the true nature of giving and receiving. Relationships have nothing to do with time or time spent… it is what we hold in our hearts for one another. Some of you I have known for all or most of my life; at least well over twenty years. We may not talk to one another often but I hold you in no less regard than those who by virtue of geography, I see once a week.
The biggest relationship challenge of 2017 was manifested by the election of DT as President. I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand Christian support of the man. I don’t understand anyone holding the character of DT over Obama. (You might prefer his policies, but what he has shown to be his character?) I’ve learned that just because I don’t understand my friends and family with those inclinations, I love them dearly and they are important to me. One of the reasons I stopped posting this year was because so many of my contemplations were brought about by the current state of our country. And one thing I know for sure is that neither you or I have all the answers…and almost all of us need to take some deep breaths and speak to one another in person rather than social media, email, or even telephone which leads me to another insight…
3b – No matter what we believe, scientific proof or not, religious or not, political or not, we are all attached to our beliefs. What we hold onto is not what we believe so strongly in but rather our fear that we might be wrong…who would we be if we were wrong about something or everything? When we let go of that fear, we can allow ourselves to be wrong and if we are wrong, others might be wrong. I’m not suggesting we live with no opinions or beliefs, I’m offering the possibility that we are not our opinions and beliefs. We can believe anything we want…convincing others to agree with us doesn’t necessarily mean we are right and they were wrong. Accepting that we are all right sometimes and all wrong sometimes and we don’t always know the difference, can help bridge the gap in our relationships and give us peace of mind and joy in our hearts. Try it!
4 – Trust is really the foundation of relationships. I trust I will make mistakes and you will forgive me. I trust you will make mistakes and I will forgive you. Earlier this year a friend told me that I hurt her feelings. Her response to what I said was unexpected and the pain I caused her was unintentional. I apologized and took action to correct my mistake. I also explained that I did not mean to hurt her and would never intentionally hurt her. I asked for forgiveness. My request was met with an unwillingness to accept that I made a mistake. By the end I felt attacked and hurt and it seemed our friendship had reached an impasse. I even explained that I was feeling attacked and still, no kind words of apology or forgiveness. I know I make mistakes and certainly if I hurt you more than once and seem to have no regard for what I am doing, I don’t expect you to stay my friend. But when I share heartfelt thoughts in explanation to what I may have said or done and I ask for your forgiveness, I can only hope you will forgive me as I forgive you. Otherwise the only course of action is to let go of our friendship and trust that you find happiness. We have to protect ourselves from those who harm us. Boundaries are healthy and necessary to maintain good relationships. After a year of spending most of my time alone and somewhat disengaged from the world, I know the friends I can count on to trust me with their heart as I trust them with mine. As Brené Brown says, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen… True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world…, Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
This past Wednesday was my final sound meditation at AIM and I am only offering two more full moon meditations here in Asheville. This is to give me time and space to prepare for my upcoming move to Burnsville, NC. The move is fulfillment of a lifelong dream as well as a result of my sabbatical; realizing how much I want to live in a small town and care for land, plants, and animals, while offering service by way of individual retreat space. I will definitely share more on that as it becomes more of a reality. 2018 may not be very different than 2017 in the level of contemplation and reflection. I suspect that once I’m in the new home I’ll spend more time with Buddhist studies and become even more dedicated to my practice. I miss being of service and I know that will manifest in different ways – some of which I’m not clear on right now. My relationships are strong and I commit to nourishing those…so many friends have shared that living an hour away doesn’t have to mean less time together, certainly no less love. It’s been a long time since I’ve kept a gratitude journal and I’m bringing that practice back into my daily routine as I already know I have so much to be grateful for.
I end this year with heartfelt thanks to everyone near and far who has supported me this year and all years. May each of you find inner peace and radiant joy.
With metta, Kate