A story about my first meeting with a spiritual teacher: A Tibetan Lama who handed me an axe instead of teaching me how to meditate. That was actually a much better idea than i was prepared to admit at the time.
Published by Rebelle Society. read in oiginal…
This is it
“Whatever is happening is the path to enlightenment” ~ Pema Chödrön
I was in my early teens when I started to hang enormous quartz crystals around my neck and go overboard into New Age spirituality.
By the time I turned 20, I had divinities hanging on my wall like rock stars, and my house was so saturated with incense smoke that my friends said it was beginning to smell like bacon.
I was in massive pain. My body was a mess, my hair was falling out, I was in and out of the hospital with chronic eczema, and my love life was falling apart. I dealt with it by shaving my head, wrapping a white shawl around myself, and reciting mantras faster than all the monks of a whole monastery, on double espresso.
I found my first real teacher at age 20 in a shamanistic tipi camp. I have no idea how a reincarnated Tibetan lama found his way out in the forest with us New Age types. I heard that years ago he had resigned from the exiled government in India and left monastic life. He landed in Europe, spent his last money on a pair of jeans, and got a job washing dishes in a restaurant.
Back in Tibet, he had never done any manual labor in his life. He would still give Buddhist teachings in the basement of his house though, and in summer he would lead retreats from a primitive tipi in the forest. Very low-key lama.
“Tell me how to meditate,” I begged. He laughed out loud, picked up a chain saw, handed me an axe and said, “Let us cut some wood first.”
I had heard from the others that he was a powerful clairvoyant, but whenever I asked him about my future, he would kindly ask me to help him in the garden. When I wanted to learn how to recite the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit, he asked if I could do the cooking for his next retreat.
I spent most of my free time washing tea cups in his basement, cooking vegetarian food in the forest, and laughing at lame Tibetan jokes over butter tea.
When we eventually had some quiet time, I would never miss the opportunity to ask him for advice. He would listen for a while and then fall asleep! No kidding! Chin dropped right to the chest, and…Bam!
But I was in deep pain and my life made no sense. It just hurt! Nevertheless, I was deeply convinced that I had come to this planet to learn something. That there had to be a spiritual path here for me to walk. This horrible suffering must have been given to me for a reason.
What was my dharma? What was the mission? I had no clue. I wanted to get over these annoying obstacles to my path.
I was sure that my suffering was just burning off bad karma so that later I could rise up and save the world. I wanted to find my path now, and I had no time to spare. So I decided to become a Buddhist.
All my teacher did was give me a simple meditation practice to do each day. But I wanted him to teach me Sanskrit! I got impatient and began to read books about Buddhism on my own. I really thought I got wiser during those years.
I worked out all by myself that I had way too many attachments, that my ego was too big, that I needed to develop more loving-kindness, that I had to find my Buddha nature, that my enemies had Buddha nature too, and that I needed to learn how to love them without compromise.
His sweet response to my new-found spiritual identity was to talk to me about living from ‘the Middle Way’. “Finally, a path!” I thought. “Cool, I totally get it! Just stay in the middle, do not go overboard. Lead a balanced life!”
The Middle Way for me, however, turned out to be an endless array of personal failures. A narrow and dangerous path that I would fall off at any minute. I was either too disciplined, or not disciplined enough. I either loved too naively, or failed to muster real and deep compassion. I was either too self-centered, or too boundaryless. Getting your spiritual shit together in perfect balance seemed almost impossible!
My lama friend smiled at me, poured me another cup of tea, and asked, “How are the kids?”
We remained friends for years. I slowly grew hair, stopped being a Buddhist, and took up Yoga. He did not mind. Once I became a Yoga teacher, I began to silently criticize him. He did not mind. I however, was visibly disappointed when I saw him fall asleep in seated meditation one day.
And why was he spending more time working on his house than sitting on his cushion? And was it really okay that he was drinking beer and eating meat? Is that really the behavior of a reincarnated spiritual leader? My visits became rare as I took my striving to new heights, bending myself backwards on the yoga mat.
It has been 20 years since then. I am not afraid to admit that I have spent quite a few of them banging my head against the wall of spiritual accomplishment. But along the way, I did have the good fortune to meet a brilliant Yoga teacher.
I came to him wanting to learn handstands, he told me to go into Child’s Pose. I wanted to heal my asthma with Pranayama, he told me to let go of manipulating my breath. I wanted to understand Yoga philosophy, he told me to feel sensation.
It all felt annoyingly familiar. So this time I gave it a try.
I may never be able to grasp the full implication of what these two teachers have really done for me. But I can tell that the first laid out the tracks and the second gave me more than one push. I am not sure of what it is, but something is moving.
Looking back to that first meeting with my lama, I think I understand what he was trying to show me when handing me an axe instead of the Heart Sutra. His simple message was not unlike the one my yoga teacher spelled out to me years later: This is it!
Cannot find your path? Have a look in the mirror. You are the path. Not aware of your life’s true purpose? Not sure what your sacred duty on the planet is? It is a no-brainer: This is it! This very life is your dharma. Your next step is it. Mission accomplished.
Being a totally messed up 20-year-old with no life, no hair, and an axe in my hand, was the mission. Being in pain and being sick of it was the mission. Wanting to get over it, learn Sanskrit, meditate, or do wild back-bends, was an expression of my inability to accept that mission. But even that resistance was the mission.
Feeling the pain I was in seemed a bit too much for me to bear at the time, so I had to wrap it in white shawls, paint over it with spiritual symbols, sing mantras, read Sutras, believe in concepts, and do postures. But no matter how I tried to bend my body, control my mind and train my tongue, the pain was still there.
And the pain was an invitation to inquire more deeply. To drop the “I’m okay with it” mantra, to let go of being a spiritual hero, to strip down to the bare facts, to risk the vulnerability of admitting that I had no idea why all this shit was happening to me.
My body and my life falling apart were not expressions of me being stuck in some lower state of consciousness. My illness was not burning off bad karma so I could one day rise up to a more elevated and totally painless mode of existence. Imagining a divine light at the end of the tunnel was preventing me from realizing this was it.
Looking back, I think my lama had fully realized this when he got his bum off the golden cushion, put on those jeans, and started washing dishes. No wonder I saw him spending more time in his garden than in meditation. I bet it is all the same to him.
I am not sure I really get it yet. I am not sure I really got anything out of those 20 years of spiritual practice. Really. There may be nothing to get.
But I do recognize that my view on a spiritual calling has changed. I am no longer desperately looking for a steep and narrow path to enlightenment. I no longer want to get over it and go to a better place. My dharma seems to me today to be just what I am already busy doing. My spiritual duty is to fully face the life I have on my plate here and now.
Not just when it feels great, but also when it hurts like hell. No reservations. Just feeling it as intimately as I am capable of in the moment, and responding from there.
It makes no difference whether I think I am an arrogant, selfish, demanding, useless, deluded idiot, or whether I think I am an enlightened being on a mission to save the planet. It does not make any difference whether I chant mantras or make money, whether I embrace or resist, whether I laugh, love, cry or sigh.
I will be doing exactly what I am doing because there is nowhere else to be but in this very moment and in this very body.
I may be wrong. But I would like to suggest that the Middle Way is no narrow path to tread with neurotic precision to get to a pot of gold at the end.
The Middle Way is probably the broadest and most inclusive experience we humans will ever get our heads around. It is not a balancing act, it is embracing the full spectrum of everything that we are. Deluded and divine, bad and brilliant. Nothing left out, nothing disowned.
Cutting wood, cooking food, having babies, being furious, loving like crazy, being bored or getting a depression is no less spiritual than reciting the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit. Some of it hurts more than others, but it is still your sacred path.