Ten Thousand Leaves in Autumn –

Ten thousand leaves flutter in the breeze on the big maple tree out my window. Suddenly, the sun bursts forth, lighting them all aflame, changing my visual palette from a dull brownish yellow to a brilliant gold against a checkered blue and white sky. The raindrops on my head from ten minutes ago are still evaporating as I pause at the computer, dropping into the present moment and contemplating the mystery, the beauty, the struggles of life.  Dark clouds loom in the distance to the southwest. A client arrives and I step away from my contemplative window on the world to offer acupuncture, gift of the ancient Chinese sages. When I return to my computer, the sky outside is gray again, the leaves dull.  An oft heard saying in Seattle: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes.”

Regardless of where on the planet you live, the wise person applies the pith of this expression to the internal weather systems of our mind: Happy, sad, calm, stressed, anxious, elated, depressed, hopeful. These ephemeral moods come and go, uninvited, through the infinite expanse of mind, like clouds with many shapes and sizes. The natural empty space of the sky holds them, but is unaffected by their presence, calling us to not be attached to anything that arises in the moment. The drama you find yourself living through will keep changing. Just keep noticing the primordial mind that observes phenomena. Don’t try to change the weather in the moment, just ride it like a wave. Keep letting go. And in your reflective observation, trust that wisdom will grow, and in time, you will learn to avoid the tornadoes and typhoons before they arrive on the shore of the present moment.

On Tuesday, four men at a Seattle parole facility walk into a small conference room to begin a six-week meditation class at CCAP (Community Center for Alternative Programs). CCAP was established in 2003 by King County as part of a growing awareness in society, supported by research, that incarceration does little to actually rehabilitate lives. If our goal is to create a society based on compassion, is it logical to expect a retributive justice system based on punishment to stop the violence in our world?

CCAP utilizes life skills classes and other services such as meditation classes to assist individuals in transitioning away from behaviors and choices which lead to criminal activity against society.  I’ve been volunteering there for six years now as part of an outreach effort of Tzu Chi, a non-profit humanitarian group whose aim is to promote the culture of compassion in society. Tzu Chi was founded not by billionaires looking for a tax break or ways to legitimize extreme wealth inequality, but by a twenty nine  year old Taiwanese Buddhist nun, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, with only infinite dreams and no money.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen, Founder of Tzu Chi

She inspired an initial group of thirty housewives to donate a few pennies every day into bamboo piggy banks. The end goal was not to attract millions of followers, build hospitals, community centers, and establish relief missions (although all those have been accomplished in more than eighty countries around the world today). The central goal has always been to transform the culture of humanity through the paths of love, compassion, generosity, and altruistic activity.

The men in the room are all mentally present to varying degrees. Some are awaiting trial. Some have been already sentenced. One was in prison recently and had requested teachings on meditation, but they weren’t offered on his floor. He is delighted to have been invited to attend the class.  The others fall on a continuum from somewhat enthusiastic to confused about where they are and how they got here. All of them have been assigned by their caseworker to take the class.

No matter how technically skilled my presentation is, I will need to win their trust and build a connection in order for the information on offer to take root in their lives. Introducing myself, I share that I chanced upon a meditation class at age 17, a time of significant personal anxiety for me, which included acting out in school and conflicts with authority figures.  For the next ten minutes, I explore different definitions of meditation, keeping it as simple and jargon-free as possible. There are two kinds of meditation – calming and analyzing.  During silent meditation, we practice calming the mind. The rest of the time, we analyze and investigate our experience with mindfulness, learning to unplug all of the automatic behaviors that we have been conditioned to act out, cultivating the wisdom required to not only be successful at worldly life, but ultimately, to walk the path towards peace and spiritual freedom.

Half of my audience is still with me, but the other two nod their heads until their chin touches their chest. Time to shift to the guided meditation. I explain the technique of observing the breath and letting go of thoughts as they arise. It sounds simple, but the monkey mind is difficult to tame.  We sit in silence for fifteen minutes and I check in with the participants afterwards. All of them remark on feeling calmer and more relaxed. I thank them for their courage to try something new and for the opportunity to create spiritual community which is always something to treasure.  If you can do this for just a few minutes every day, I tell them, it’s like watering the grass. In time, it will be lush and green, healthy and full of life.

We all make mistakes, but that does not define the essential awake and pure nature of our being. At a deeper level of truth, there is no evil or good, no guilt or innocence, only actions and consequences. After autumn, comes winter, then spring. After a crime there comes a chance to re-establish the ethical framework of love and caring that rests upon the truth of our interdependence.  The sun is shining again outside now, with clouds drifting down from the north.

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