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Taking Refuge

I first became interested in Buddhism in college after taking an introductory religion class my freshman year. I had been interested in a number of different religions for a couple years but I was particularly taken with Buddhism because it seemed to offer a clear, methodical approach to self-transformation. During the summer after my freshman year I was doing an advertising internship for a family friend in New York when my mother sent me an article from Newsweek about a monastery in upstate New York. I wasnít really enjoying the internship, so I decided to spend July up at the monastery. Although my first week of practice there was about as torturous as anything I can recall, after that week I felt like I got a taste of what practice was about.

Part of what drew me to practice initially was that I thought I could use the buzz and the good feelings I experienced in meditation to override all of the unpleasant feelings in my life.  I thought that meditation could get me to a place where I could eliminate all of my nervousness, my insecurities, and, though I wasnít totally aware of it at the time, my loneliness. Needless to say I was hooked pretty quickly. After spending a month at the monastery I told my parents that I was going to drop out of school and become a monk. Thankfully, they didnít let me.

During my second weeklong meditation retreat at the monastery I started to feel incredibly lonely. In addition to the loneliness, I developed a headache that only seemed to add to my feelings of isolation, partly because I didnít feel like anyone would be able to relate to what I was going through. These feelings then began to resurface every time I went to the monastery for the next year, often leading me to leave prematurely. After having a few of these episodes on a study abroad in India a year later, one morning I woke up with the headache but this very palpable sense of loneliness was gone. But I still felt like it took all of the enjoyment and buzz out of my practice.  You can imagine how I felt.  On the one hand, I felt like I had found the one method that could fix me for good. On the other hand, I felt like I couldnít practice because every time I did I just kept bumping up against the headache.  It was a terrible feeling.  And although I didnít realize it at the time, it was a big warning sign that there was something wrong with the way I was practicing.  But I kept thinking I could push through it.   And most of the meditation teachers I met with seemed to think the same thing.

So for a while I would practice and then after a certain point, like a year or so, I would get discouraged because I was just constantly bumping up against this headache that I felt was ruining my meditation. Meanwhile, I became interested in psychoanalysis, which helped me begin to address some of the emotional issues that my meditation teachers didnít seem able to help me with.  At some point I had heard about Barry, I canít remember how, and after emailing him he sent me an offprint of an article he had written in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.  I vividly remember him writing about a famous Japanese Zen teacher who used to say that you have to treat students the same way a mother tiger treats her cubs.  According to this teacher, a mother tiger throws her children off a steep cliff after they are born and she only raises the ones that are able to scramble back up the cliff.  What struck me about Barryís paper was that he emphatically rejected this macho version of practice. Instead, he said he had set up shop at the base of that cliff, ministering to the abandoned cubs who could not make it back up the cliff. Something about that metaphor really resonated with me.  It helped me realize that meditation isnít about toughening yourself up and trying to push through all these emotional problems.  So when I came to New York for my psychology internship I had already planned to see Barry in psychoanalysis and to come to the zendo. 

There were two main things that Barry stressed with me early on that have challenged and informed my ideas about practice ever since. The first one had to do with this nagging sense I had that I wasnít doing the practice the right way.  I was constantly trying to adjust my practice so that I could finally get it right.  So one day Barry simply told me that he didnít want me to do anything when I sat.  No counting the breath, no labeling thoughts, he just told me to sit there. Needless to say, this went against almost everything my practice was about at the time. I mean how was this practice going to fix me if I wasnít doing anything.  My first reaction was that I had somehow failed miserably and he had deemed it necessary to put me on some kind of remedial Zen program.  I also started feeling like Iíd be left behind as everybody else in the zendo went on to have these special experiences and wonderful insights.  But, over time, it made me start to question what practice was really about, what I was trying to fix, and what was really so wrong with me in the first place. In other words, it helped me start to open up to a lot of the feelings I was trying to use practice to get rid of.

The other thing Barry picked up on early on was that I had this mentality that practice was just about sitting. I basically thought that it was just about logging hours on the cushion and every thing else was secondary.  I had a similar mentality regarding my analytic treatment.  I thought it was just about coming in as often as possible so that I could learn everything there was to know about myself and I wouldnít need it anymore. So Barry told me that he wanted me to spend more time socializing before the sitting rather than running right to my cushion. He told me that he felt that it was more important for me to do that than to sit. Although it didnít seem to make much sense to me at first, over time this has really helped me open up the very narrow definition of practice I had.  I had been so focused on using practice to fix myself that I had completely missed how much this practice is about being with other people, about letting yourself be supported by others.

A few years later when Barry suggested I take the precepts I wasnít really interested. I still thought practice was about using meditation to get rid of all my problems and I couldnít see where the precepts fit into that idea. By asking me to take the precepts Barry was encouraging me to take refuge, to be supported by him, by the teachings, and by the community.  I just didnít realize it at the time.  Initially I was very focused on the precepts as something that you put on top of your practice, rather than something that emerges from your practice and a structure that you can take refuge in. Working with the precepts this past year has helped my practice feel less like a solitary endeavor and more about being with others. I used to focus more on achieving some state by myself but now I feel practice is more about sharing an experience with other people.

Itís kind of ironic because I really came to Zen practice because I was lonely and I thought I could use meditation to change myself so I wouldnít feel lonely anymore. Even though you would think that the obvious way to cure loneliness is to spend time with others, I was doing just the opposite at the zendo.

For a long time I didnít consider myself a Buddhist because I felt that it was just something I did. What I didnít realize is that itís really about being part of a community. Iíd like to thank all of you for letting me take refuge in this wonderful community.