This is a story about my friend Jenny.
Jenny and I attended the Tuesday night gathering at the New York Shambhala center. Jenny’s new to Buddhism – this was the second Shambhala talk she’d ever attended. My normal tendency would be to skip the weekly post-talk reception and book on out of the building to experience my cognition of the teachings in solitude and open air. But Jenny requested that we stay.
As we drank our tea and discussed her recent engagement to her long term boyfriend I did my normal, “attempt to avoid eye contact with people you kind of know”, cagey routine. Jenny was Jenny, no more or less Jenny-esque than previous incarnations of Jenny. But to my disbelief, during the course of the reception, three different people approached Jenny, shook her hand and said, “What’s your name?” As we were leaving the center, a man said, “she looks like a good meditator.”
Um. Who says that?
I admit I can be a bit of a social curmudgeon, but even a porcupine must feel a little wounded sharing a cage with a puppy at a petting zoo – especially when the porcupine has been going to the Shambhala center for 3ish years and the puppy only twice. As we were walking to the east village I interrogated her:
JULIA: So do you like that kind of thing, that kind of reception?
JENNY: I really like it! It’s like a mixer.
JULIA: I hate mixers.
JENNY: I love them.
JULIA: I don’t like to talk to people.
JENNY: I love talking to people!
JULIA: (thinks deeply) I’m always afraid when I’m talking to people I don’t really know – you know – like at a mixer – that invariably they’re going to disappoint me in one way or another. Like they’re going to say something stupid or shallow and then I’m going to have to judge them in my mind. Or they’re going to want something from me that I don’t want to give. The prospect of that makes me tired and resistant.
JENNY: I’m always afraid that *I’m* going to disappoint other people. So then I want to prove myself wrong and so I want to talk to them.
JULIA: Hmm. Do you judge them?
JENNY: Not while talking. I don’t think so, no.
HOMELESS MAN: There’s a book sale! Doesn’t anybody read anymore?
JULIA: (shrinks into ball of self-protection)
JENNY: (Laughs. Smiles at man as we pass)
My favorite ‘focus’ during the loving kindness practice, the one that I can just open my heart and pour all of my love and wishes for the best of humanity is the “neutral person” (If you are unfamiliar here is a good breakdown of the loving kindness meditation). When good old neutral – haven’t-done-any-interacting-with-you bartender from last night pops into my mind during loving kindness practice I wish the hell out of happiness, health, safety and ease for them with a heart shining forth like the Great Eastern Sun. Why shouldn’t I? They’re a completely blank slate.
The hardest loving kindness object for me is the “hero.” My autodidactic, narcissist, intensely analytical habit energy frequently prevents uncomplicated hero worship. It’s a problem. A quotation from Crumb, the excellent 90’s documentary about cartoon artist R. Crumb, has always stuck with me: “Yes he (R. Crumb) is hard on other people. But that’s because he’s even harder on himself.”
When I was 23 and I heard that line and I thought, Yay, just like me. 5 years later, I tend to think, Boo, too much like me.
One of the many reasons I started studying Buddhism more in depth is due to trying a visualization exercise I came across in a podcast by Bob Thurman. At the start of the exercise, one imagines oneself surrounded by their heroes. At first, I couldn’t think of a single one. It was fascinating to watch the hero-candidates in my mind get kicked out faster than a mid-western teen at a Broadway chorus call. Bob Dylan was evicted for the Victoria’s Secret advertising campaign, Joni Mitchell for “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” Bruce Springsteen for everything after 1983. Ghandi and Mother Thersea seemed too far away to be real, I couldn’t figure out how to visualize my beloved Old Dead Writers, and I didn’t know what Robert Altman looked like. My high school English teachers just reminded me of what a putz I was in high school, as college professors reminded me of what a putz I was in college. When I did come across heroes I admired I would often have the thought, “well there’s probably something wrong with them.” Thus revealed, this attitude was troubling – where was my humilty? My love for humanity? My sense of reverence, respect and wonder?
Studying the dharma has, in the past five years, made me more apt to appreciate someone. Kind of. At least I’m more apt to catch myself the moment I start to negatively analyze the “other” in order to hold up the fragile stronghold that is my sense of self. I do, however, still long for Jenny’s blatant fearlessness toward the prospect of getting to know you. I don’t necessarily want my meditation to be another project, but I do hope that Loving Kindness will eventually weaken my rigid self-protection and judgment so that I can be more open to discovering the varied peoples of this wide vast world.
Because who knows. A couple of them may well turn out to be my heroes.