Today I went to a seminar on happiness at the Kadampa Buddhist meditation center in Chelsea. I don’t know that I am a Buddhist, or that I am any religion. But out of the global sampler platter of spiritual practices I have encountered in my 27 years on Earth, I find that Buddhist philosophies make the most sense and offer the most practical advice. I’ve met a lot of monks in a lot of weird places, and they have shown me things through the most subtle gestures, sometimes without even speaking. My curiosities about Buddhism have never pressured me to adopt a delusional belief structure, attempted to rob me, or demanded I adopt the mandates of a patriarchal authority figure, or else. Every time I approach Buddhist practices with questions, its teachers simply encourage me to look inside myself to find the ways by which I can alter my perspective to maintain inner balance.
In this sensation-seeking body in general but especially in this roller coaster of a concrete jungle, I’ll take all the balance I can get.
In 2012 I sat in the main lecture hall at the Being Human conference in San Francisco. When a presenter walked on stage to commence a group meditation, I looked around incredulously and, unwilling to participate in this ritualistic exercise, took out my phone to tweet. Clear my mind? Was that even possible? Consuming mass amounts of information via the internet was my meditation then. Now, possibly out of frustration with the state of information on the internet and the increasingly invasive modes by which it is transmitted, I have found a new appreciation for mental stillness.
Back to the present day in this meditation class, a woman came in late, sat down next to me, proceeded to check her email on her phone and scrawl into a notebook with the loudest pen ever. As I struggled to maintain my concentration atop my annoyance, I felt a karmic poke in the ribs.
So the lecturer, Kadam Morten, proceeded to talk about finding happiness. Where is it? American society would like to have us believe that it is somewhere out there. You can touch it, taste it, feel it, buy it, fuck it, smother yourself in it—oh but not yet. You’re not quite there yet. But, if you keep working and spending and wanting, then maybe you’ll find it. No. According to Morten, happiness is inside of each of us, we only have to learn how to access it so we can find our way back there any time. This involves dumping all the worries and cluttered thoughts and to-do lists from our minds and just being with ourselves internally.
During a guided meditation, he instructed us to think of something that made us happy. At first I panicked because I realized that my happy places and people and moments also made me sad because I am now so far away from them. But then I managed to get back to a place in Michigan, sitting on the end of a pier looking out at a perfectly still lake next to my best friend, our heads resting on each other’s as we sat in silence. And I remember thinking in that moment that I wanted to save it like a file on my computer, to access at will always and forever.
And then he beckoned us to prepare to meditate on death, in the most light and jovial manner I have ever heard anyone approach the topic.
“The impulse to check in with external stimuli has never been stronger,” he said, referencing the entirety of what capitalism immerses us in. “Now is the time to check in with death, and be present in our lives.”
While it is oft considered morbid to think about death and especially to talk about it, Morten made a pretty compelling case for why we should think about it excessively: the fact that we will die is really the only certainty we have in life. ‘Death and taxes…’ whatever—we could all die before it’s time to do taxes. To live life in denial of our mortality is to live disconnected from reality, whereas to embrace death is to live in the moment, he said.
So imagine that tomorrow you will die. What would you do with your day? Would you spend it arguing with someone you loved? Would you spend it watching TV? Reading celebrity gossip? Being a drone?
Nah. You’d do something radical. You’d make a step toward creating the legacy you’re capable of leaving behind. You’d connect with people you love. That’s what I intend to do tomorrow.
Thanks to Talia Eisenberg for inviting me to explore this peaceful pocket of NYC.