Thinking About Talking About Spirituality
by Theodore Browning Lemann
Last May, I graduated from Naropa University in Boulder, CO with a degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Naropa is one of few Buddhist universities in America. Among more schools that are aligned with Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, and secular thought, a Buddhist institution that hands out degrees stands out...
After I finished school, I was lucky enough to be able to have one last summer "vacation" to visit family and friends at home in New York before going back to Colorado to kickstart my career. Upon my arrival into JFK airport, I quickly realized that I was not in Boulder anymore. Suddenly, I was in a world of diversity, Dunkin' Donuts, fast taxis, flagrant expression, excitement, riff-raff, and overstimulation. There was hustle in the air. Everybody I saw was so sure of themselves in all the crucial activities of living for the city. It wasn't long before a little jealousy began simmering: it took me three or four tries to swipe my metrocard before it registered and let me through the turnstile, while on either side of me the locals didn't even break stride. I felt insecure. Here I was, no longer a native, but now with something to prove.
On the first night back, my father was hosting a few of his friends for dinner and I had the chance to join them for the latter half of the meal. Making an entrance with my bags and eventually sitting down, the conversation became directed towards me. The typical questions were asked and I introduced myself as a recent graduate, in about the same way I did at the top of this page. When I got to the part about the Buddhist university, curiosity at the table grew. I gave my elevator pitch about Contemplative Psychotherapy, saying something including mindfulness meditation, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and how both could inform the psychotherapist, allowing them to work with more precision for their client and less friction for themselves. Let me just say that when I finished undergrad, my elevator pitch about being an English major usually didn't perk any ears, and in some cases it was a conversational dead-end. Everybody knows an English major who isn't sure what they're going to do with their life. However on this particular night, as the silence held following my words about this cutting-edge means of psychotherapy practice, I realized that people were not only listening, but they might have wanted to hear more. In this moment, I had my first taste of something that became an ongoing theme in my summer. Whether I was aware of it or not, in many social circumstances I would be holding the seat of resident Buddhist scholar. I became a sort of mindfulness diplomat, and though I really didn't feel qualified for it, the greater discomfort of admitting to my insecurity pushed me forward.
Though it is not always easy to see from within the insular spiritual communities that exist in places like Boulder, there is a greater majority of America where to broach the topic of meditation, one must start from the beginning. The very beginning. I'm talking about the stuff that you have forgotten you were ever taught (and you kid yourself that it's no longer relevant this far along on the path). I'm also talking about the taken-for-granted vocabulary that actually needs to be defined when you're conversing with a person without assuming they totally get everything you're saying to them. It is tempting to fast-track to the pinnacle of all paths, but it is not always skillful. This is what I often find myself doing after that brief but panic-stricken conversational pause, which indicates that my audience wishes me to discuss one step deeper down the rabbit-hole. I have found myself in this situation time and again, and usually one of two things occur. Both of them are equal in providing me a valuable lesson.
In one case – if the other person is shy or polite – I just keep talking, didactically balling the subject into intellectual knots until we are both fortunate enough that I snap out of it. My attention tethers back to this earth and I notice the look on the other person's face: bewilderment, discomfort, fear, concern. For whatever reason, the tears of rapture just aren't quite streaming. Is their faucet clogged? Could they not keep up? I like to believe I'm not this arrogant, but really, I try and remind myself to consider my intention when I tailspin into grandiloquent lectures and poetics. Am I afraid of being found out to be one of those spiritual phonies I secretly quip?
In the other case – the one I find more challenging – the person I'm talking with stops me mid-sentence:
"Ok, so a big part of meditation is resting the mind so that…"
"What do you mean resting the mind?"
Uh oh. These situations give me good insight into how full of shit I am. When I'm surrounded by my spiritual community, it's really easy to have seemingly deep conversations on as mindless an auto-pilot as that which I would use to discuss celebrity gossip. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's tackled the big topics of other-emptiness or inter-being while silently daydreaming about sex, or cookies, or personal finances. I'm probably not the only one who likes to think it's a testament to my mindfulness that I can do all of those simultaneously. But – and I'm new to this so stop me if I'm wrong – mindfulness is not about maximizing our mental capacity. It's about our ability to rest our attention in the clarity of the present moment. No, too many buzzwords. Mindfulness is… it just is. No, just no. Ok, mindfulness has something to do with curiosity and I have come to find that I am showing a person anything but that when I talk their head off or give them rote, "wise" answers. Somehow, the popular maxim of my English major applies: Show, don't tell.
These days, we of the world of mindfulness are fortunate in that the greater mainstream communities are intrigued by our practices. There is a growing appreciation for the scientific legitimacy of meditation practice and though I would prefer if this left-brain measure weren't a prerequisite for approval, I am also aware that it is the reason I now hold a Master's degree and am trusted to practice psychotherapy. That being said, the foundations of metaphysics, meditation, non-duality, and all such things is far from settled or secure in this country. That puts us in an interesting position as practitioners of any method because we are all diplomats of our spiritual homeland, and we are now seeking citizenship in America.
At that dinner party on the first night of summer, I can't tell how exactly I failed to get my point across, but I know that I did. I know that I was too eager and I was unsettled. I know I was being guided by a sense of having something to prove. I was trying to feel the rush I imagined in that New York City hustle by being able to preach some Dharma, but a puffed up chest is not an open heart. What's more, as the summer progressed and I had the same conversation come up time and again, I don't think I ever really figured out how to do a sufficient job of verbally conveying my experience of the path. People I came across were ever-inquisitive and I only continued to flummox them with every endeavor to share my most precious and exciting passion. There is great solitude and lonesomeness in this, but it can be held with honor.
This is to be taken somewhat seriously. At best, by pointing at the moon and missing the mark we may only be setting ourselves up for being labeled as weirdos, but there's also the chance that we are the first and only point of contact for some people who are curious about the world of spirituality. It would be a disservice to give them a bad impression. More often than we know, our voices are heard as being on behalf of the greater spiritual community and that is a responsibility we should hold with respect. So, how do we pitch our path? Fastballs, curveballs, sliders, and change-ups don't help. Don't pitch. Don't put God in the zoo. I've found it's best to be myself, happily demonstrating the simple benefits of the practice I've grown to love.
Theo works as a Child Protection Therapist, his clinical training background being in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University. His meditation path, practice, and view blossomed from an interest in Qi Gong and Taoism, which grew to include thorough study in Tibetan Buddhism. These days, Theo focuses on the craft of integrating a diligent meditation practice with agency work, while also striving to maintain a grounded sense of living the good, worldly life.
ARTWORK ON HOMEPAGE BY BEAUTIFULURSELF
We are dedicated to our mission of helping to awaken the collective consciousness.
If you appreciate this post, please consider donating. Everything helps!