As a practicing Shambhala Buddhist, I like to think I don’t have too terribly much invested in this forthcoming holiday racket. That’s good, I suppose, because it’s stacking up to be another tough one.
This year, I have lost two jobs, one rather recently. And I have twice come rather close to losing my life. The first came in April from a sudden flareup of acute pancreatitis that had me in the hospital for four indescribable days, detoxing from booze and experiencing worse physical pain than I had previously imagined possible. The second came a couple of weeks later, which had me back in the ER with a severe gastrointestinal bleed and a hemoglobin level that my admitting doc described as a third-world problem.
It was a time of severe disappointments and learning to be less clingy by having certain attachments violently ripped asunder. On the upside, it was the year I finally began practicing Shambhala Buddhism in earnest, with accountability, as part of a community and as someone determined to thrive in a very new and unfamiliar reality.
Shambhala is a form of Buddhist practice created by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, passed on to his son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and a worldwide lineage of practitioners, some of whom meet in a swanky new West Loop center that used to house Oprah’s gift shop. It’s focused more on taking fearless personal stock and action than on ritual and dogma.
But Shambhala does have holidays. “By following the seasons and the stars,” writes practitioner Andrew Forbes, “we may understand the story of humankind.” Holidays give religious groups built-in social and events calendars. And the Shambhala holidays are pretty neat-o. Watching a year go by takes a form not unlike the development and progress of a human life. On our New Year’s Day, Shambhala Day (roughly coinciding with the Tibetan Losar) the year begins in earnest, in infancy. At the Spring equinox, the infant becomes a youth. On Mayday, the youth falls in sweet, cheesy, adorable love-love-love. By Midsummers day, life on earth has reached maturity and the youth’s love is in full bloom, ripening into friendship with the arrival of autumn. In the winter, old nutrients are repurposed as new fertilizer.
Sweet, no? But, since meditation practice is about noticing, it’s hard for me not to notice a process that begins shortly after Halloween, when the Marshmallow Peeps go into hibernation again and are replaced with the brown and orange of Thanksgiving and then by the red and green of Christmas, the American capitalist gangbang that some talented and foresighted heathens got rich writing songs about.
Ostensibly, it’s about celebrating some hippie’s birthday, although no one seems to think he was actually born on Christmas. In reality, it’s a “sentimental time of year,” writes Interdependence Project teacher Lawrence Grecco, in which “memories of better days have a way of creeping into our consciousness.”
It is a season based around wants. They’re not just wants for stuff, although those fuel its sustaining engine. It’s about wanting our friend and family to behave in prescribed ways, and wanting to feel a certain way about ourselves, inevitably failing to live up to our own dreams and ideals.
“It’s perfectly human to want something and to get attached to things,” Grecco continues. “But the moment we want something, we have to understand that part of the deal with wanting something is that there’s a degree of suffering built into anything we could ever want, attach to, or hope for. That’s just the deal because nothing stays the same forever.” Anyone who’s had an assigned departure time from O’Hare to LAX and has found himself watching the Lions lose in an airport bar with no available stools certainly and deeply knows this.
As a Shambhala practitioner, I plan to focus as much as possible on the potential for renewal, to prepare myself to rejoice in the unexpected, the big disappointments and sublime pleasures in store for 2015. On the crunch of dead leaves under my shoe, turning to new fertilizer.
As a Buddhist, albeit a fairly secular one, I plan to practice metta, or lovingkindness, for myself, for my family, and for all of humankind in Chicago and beyond. That might mean listening to someone else’s troubles or sharing a belly laugh in lieu of a Target gift card. It may mean not jumping down anyone’s throat for disagreeing with me about fleeting mass delusions. It will certainly mean, at least and at last, giving myself a goddamn break.
May you be happy. May you be safe. May you have peace. May you be loved. Yes, even you.