Friday, June 22, 2007

Being is Believing

Some people have expressed an interest in my experience with Rangjung Rigpei Dorje, the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa and the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, who died on November 5, 1981. There is a great controversy regarding his reincarnation, and two men claim to be the seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa. For me, there is only one.

In the winter of 1976, my psychologist friend Carl Silver asked me to co-teach with him. At Antioch Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire, the course was entitled Spiritual Seeking and the New Psychologies. Carl and I prepared a syllabus and reading list, but preparing for lectures was a more spontaneous affair. The class met for three hours every Tuesday night. Carl and I would rendezvous in Greenfield, about an hour’s drive from Keene. I would bring a pint of fresh oysters, lemons, horseradish, and hot sauce, and Carl provided a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine. Whenever the oysters in Foster's Market looked a little tired, I bought shrimp. On the way to Keene, we ate, drank, and discussed the quality of the shellfish. Driving into Keene, we would chose a topic and organize the evening's adventure. The class contained thirty students, including some of the graduate school faculty.

Carl liked to lecture, and I led the demonstrations. He talked about the history, practice, and efficacy of the evening's esoteric discipline, and I guided the class in a related exercise or meditation. The last half hour was usually for free discussion. One of our students was an adherent of Dharmadhatu Buddhist Meditation. He announced one evening that the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism would be visiting Boston in April to perform the Black Crown Ceremony, during which he would embody the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Centuries ago the emperors of China had proclaimed the Karmapa to be their spiritual teacher, and the Black Crown was the symbol of his station. Carl and I seized the opportunity and suggested that the entire class attend the ceremony. The students enthusiastically agreed, and arrangements were made for the field trip to Boston. The timing was perfect; we were running out of new psychologies and esoteric disciplines.

To prepare the class, Carl lectured on the different practices and expressions of Buddhism, and our Dharmadhatu student described his experiences. I used my hand to explain the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. Disappointment, anger, and fear can close a mind like a tight fist ready to strike, I began. The human condition of suffering is the First Noble Truth. Filled with the pressure of its own emotion, the fist cannot feel itself or its environment. Force is its strength. Having no intelligence or relative perspective, the fist is a poor weapon, an oversimplified expression of the emotions that drive it. Desire, wanting anything in the material world, creates frustration because nothing lasts, not even time. The Second Noble Truth maintains that the cause of all suffering is grasping and clinging. As the fist gradually relaxes, it becomes more aware of itself and its surroundings. It becomes an open hand — soft, flexible, and responsive. That suffering can be ended is the Third Noble Truth. Released from desire and suffering, the hand can move and create, using the strength and gentleness of the world around it. No longer aware of being simply a hand with limitations, it becomes what it always was — a being greater than itself, in harmony with life. Can we live with open hands, hearts, and minds, giving and receiving with the same gesture? The Fourth Noble Truth is the Buddha's Eightfold Path of self-realization, the way to end all desire. It tells us to walk the noble path with right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right means of livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right meditation. The ultimate goal is total liberation — living in a constant state of oneness, nirvana, the awakening, Buddhahood.

The Black Crown Ceremony was held at the Rollerdrome in Boston's South End. Laurel and I arrived early and got seats toward the front. The hall soon filled with nearly a thousand people. We faced a four-foot-high dais covered with red and gold silk and a Tibetan prayer rug decked with candles and incense burners on either side. Monks in yellow robes guarded the area and scanned the audience continuously. The Karmapa might be in danger during this rare public performance. He was Tibet's third highest ranking religious leader, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama being one and two, respectively.

To the right side and just behind the dais, monks chanted and played Tibetan horns, inviting us to become quiet and attentive. The Karmapa ascended the dais and sat on a pillow. When I let my eyes relax and focus on a far-off point, I could see the luminous auras of people. The Karmapa's aura was a clear and rosy white with an edge of golden light. During the ceremony, while the horns blared and the monks chanted in their deep and resonant voices, he put on the black horsehair crown. He became the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and to my surprise and delight, his aura changed. He was prismatic, vibrant with every color in the rainbow, and tinged with gold and a soft cerulean glow that expanded outward. His energy seemed to touch everyone in the hall, and beyond. I imagined compassion spreading through the city, the country, and the entire world. Everyone in the building must have felt the remarkable power and grace of the sixteenth reincarnation of the "living Buddha."

After the crown was removed and the ceremony was completed, people were invited to come forward and receive the Karmapa's blessing. We waited a few minutes then Laurel and I got in line. People approached the Karmapa with their heads bowed, looking down at his feet. He would touch them lightly on the head, say a few words in Tibetan, and they would move off to receive a necklace of string and beads. As we moved along in the line, I noticed the Karmapa appearing tired and perhaps a little bored. He was giving to each person, but there was little exchange of energy or enthusiasm. I imagined that, even for a person of his superior spiritual development, this could be an exhausting experience. I whispered to Laurel, "When it’s your turn, look directly at the Karmapa and let him see you." Laurel knew I was talking not about her face, but about her heart and soul.

I prepared for our meeting by clearing my mind and grounding myself. A few minutes later, I stood before the Karmapa and looked up into his shining face and bright eyes. I smiled and he returned it. Then we had an extraordinary telepathic conversation.

"Exalted one," I began, "the Red Sox are in town and play Kansas City tomorrow. There's nothing like a baseball game in Fenway Park. We could just kick back for a while. How about it?"

Smiling even more broadly, the Karmapa replied, "Thank you for the invitation. Though it sounds quite enjoyable, I am a captive of obligation and my protectors. The monks keep me on a busy schedule, and I have little time for myself. They would never allow such a thing as a baseball game. For me, this life is not about ordinary pleasures and entertainment. I am the spiritual and temporal leader of my people and my duties are constant. I bless your kind heart."

"Of course, you are right," I said. "How foolish of me! You seem tired, and it was the first thing that came to mind. I feel deeply touched by your compassion and your humanity. In another place and time perhaps we could be friends. Please forgive me."

He almost laughed. He felt like a dream from my childhood, comforting me late at night, teaching me about things I had yet to learn. His face filled with light, and he said, "In another time and place we are certainly friends." We spoke without sound, but it seemed perfectly natural. Then, as we looked into each other's eyes, he put his hand over my head and lightly touched my crown. I felt the exquisite sensation of lightness travel down through my body and up to my head again, and my entire body moved into an ecstatic state. I floated about two inches off the floor, and connected effortlessly to everything around me. "This is being human," I realized. The Karmapa and I were sharing, in communion and bliss. It was his extraordinary gift.

Gradually, I felt the floor beneath my feet again, though I seemed to weigh about a quarter of what I did before he touched me. I thanked him for showing me what it is to be human. As I turned to walk away, I looked back at Laurel. She was smiling, almost in tears. Silently, she knew what to do. She looked up at the Karmapa, and he saw we were mates. I stepped away, and a monk placed a string around my neck. I looked into the monk's eyes. They were strong and clear, and though I was beaming with joy, he didn't crack a smile. I was just another blissed out guy. I waited for Laurel. The Karmapa touched her head, and I saw her body become light. She appeared to gently bounce up and down, her entire body vibrating. At that moment I knew that anything was possible.

We walked away together holding hands, then sat down. For several minutes we stared silently at the Karmapa. I noticed a few people were now looking up at the Karmapa when they stood before him to receive his blessing. He appeared brighter and more energetic. We couldn't talk about our experience for hours. Carl asked us about it, but we just smiled and exchanged pleasantries. "Wasn't it wonderful?" "Yeah, it was great." I wanted to tell him what a real person the Karmapa was, and that his life was a gift and an inspiring sacrifice, but I didn't think he would believe me. It was still difficult to trust the world with my treasures, and I didn't what to disturb the feeling of his touch.

Weeks later I was telling my spiritual teacher about my meeting with the Karmapa. He explained that at any one time there are at least seven and as many as thirteen fully realized human beings on the planet. The Karmapa was certainly one of them. I could imagine what it meant to be fully realized. When I was twelve years old, Ted Williams was the greatest person in the world to me. I think he was close to being fully realized. The Karmapa never got to see Ted Williams play baseball. If he had, what would have happened when these two fully realized human beings met? They wouldn't need to talk about enlightenment. Could they talk about baseball?

Without words, the Karmapa had given me the gift of humanity and had shown me the possibility of living in light. He didn’t need to talk about rules or abstractions. He was a man of action. His way was as clean and natural as Ted Williams swinging a bat. There was no flaw and nothing to discuss — being was believing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Seeing is Believing

Our cultural assumptions and values have led us to be more accepting of what we experience through popular media on television and the internet. We experience it as compelling and authentic, even though we are severely limited in how we are able to interact and respond.

Many HDTV ads describe enhancing our reality by making it more realistic, but in fact, it is not reality. It is just a technologically enhanced image and sound presentation. Our assumptions about what is real and values about passively received information may be inhibiting the sustainability of our culture. The high value we place on popular media may make us more vulnerable to propaganda, lies disguised as truth, ignorance, and corruption.

Why do I know anything about Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, and the Olsen Twins? They are the commercial entertainment that pays for the fake news. Why do most Americans still believe there was a 9/11 connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein? Is it because there are no YouTube videos to disprove it? Are we winning the war? Are there al-Qaeda sleeper cells everywhere across America? Will Scooter Libby be pardoned? More news in 90 seconds.

About three weeks after 9/11, I talked with a friend who lives in Manhattan about his experience that day visiting the World Trade Center site. He said it made him very angry and sad, but it also gave him a better sense of the reality. He urged me to do the same, if it was at all possible.

I love New York City. My mother was born and grew up in Manhattan. Many other family members lived there and left their marks. I had enjoyed many solo urban experiences as a young teenager visiting relatives in the city. My first legal beer in a bar was in McSorley’s on the Lower East Side. Like your first high, every other beer in my life pales in comparison. I met my wife in Central Park, and we shared out first kiss under a street light in Greenwich Village. It is all good.

For a few days after talking with my friend, I considered what it might be like to see the devastation. On that September morning, I had watched the attack on television like almost everyone else. Later I went to work at the Academy at Swift River and counseled the young men and women there, many of whom were from New York City area and had family and friends who worked at the WTC. No family members of students or staff died in the attack, though there were incredible stories of coincidence and fortuity.

I realized that the events of 9/11, this critical day in American history, were not real for me or for my family. Television, even stories from others who were there and saw it for themselves, had not provided the experience I needed to suffer, in the sense of feeling, what had happened. The only way was to be there.

About a week later in mid-October, I drove to the city in the evening with my family and stayed at my friend’s apartment overnight. We did not dine out in a fine restaurant, as we usually would. We left early the next morning and took the subway downtown to Canal Street, as close as we could get to the WTC site, more than 15 blocks away.

Walking by empty office buildings with broken and boarded up windows, seeing everything covered in dust, we were awed by how large an area of the city had been affected. We could smell and taste the ubiquitous dust, instantly collecting on our shoes and clothing, and though we were relatively silent as we walked along, we were all thinking and feeling the same thing – death was in the air. No television picture or diagram in a magazine could provide the same impression.

There were other people walking along, as well as firemen and policemen. There were no cars, except official looking vehicles and dump trucks. We came to the terminus, an improvised observation site about three blocks away from “ground zero”. We saw the trucks hauling away the remains of what had been a proud landmark of American prosperity.

We bought some bottled water from a street vendor and walked to a small nearby park, Washington Market Park I believe. We held hands and in silence prayed for the souls of the dead, we prayed for healing, and for peace, and understanding. Then we went our own ways within the park and each of us found an earth spot, a place where we felt connected. We meditated, wondered, and let ourselves feel the tragedy around us. We cried. My tears felt like the dry, acrid dust in the air. They gave no relief, and could not sooth the grief and desolation I felt. The sensations of death and destruction were visceral, like nothing I ever experienced.

Clutching a handkerchief to my nose and mouth, I did recall my deep sadness visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum sixteen years earlier, but that was a reflection compared with walking through the looking glass this day.

As we wandered away from the site we came across FDNY Station No 1. Inside the firemen were selling T-shirts to raise money for the families of the fallen heroes. It was an optimistic effort, and we welcomed it.

We walked back to Canal Street, noticed the Chinatown vendors selling 9/11 souvenirs, and left the city early that afternoon. We could say little about what we encountered. Words were insufficient. My family said it was very difficult, but they appreciated the experience and understood it was the right thing to do.

I am a healthier skeptic now. When I hear a politician or pundit refer to 9/11 or I read some reference to the terrible events on that day, even the conspiracy theories, I could recall how I felt watching my TV as it unfolded, but even that memory does not compare to the day we visited the WTC site. That day I became aware of the cruel reality of senseless murder and destruction. The images on our televisions and monitors look real, but they are not. They are only sight and sound – no dust, no smell of death, no ghosts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


John Robison tagged me in response to Drama Mama, so here are 10 odd facts about me.

1. In 1976 I met the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpei Dorje. He was the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and the brightest, kindest, most enlightened man I have ever met. He touched my head and I lifted several inches off the ground. Thinking about him still makes me smile and my heart sing.

2. I have a naturally perfect bite. It was used as the standard in a national research study on bite abnormalities in 1962. Something has to be perfect about me – there are so many imperfections.

3. I spent a year of my life, 1967-68, on the most isolated piece of real estate on Earth – Johnston Atoll in the Central Pacific. The atoll has more unique species of fish than anywhere else. Everything manmade on the atoll was removed about 10 years ago. Now it is just for the birds and the fish again. I wish them all well.

4. I will not eat lima beans. I do like Brussels sprouts, and do not judge people for not liking them, particularly people from southern California. Brussels sprouts are at their sweetest and best after a killing frost in the late autumn.

5. I have no use for hula hoops, though I have been briefly amused by watching other people use them.

6. I started the Beanie Craze of 1954. I made my beanie from 3 red and 3 green corduroy triangles. I wore it everyday and soon lots of people were wearing beanies. It only lasted for two years.

7. I once collected antique griffin and dragon candle holders. I have more than 30. I don’t know why. I just liked them.

8. I don’t like to weigh myself. I am losing weight these days through diet and exercise, but the idea of measuring my weight and keeping track of it just doesn’t motivate me at all. It feels like watching the clock, which I also do not like to do.

9. I don’t have any phobias. I did once, but they left me because I wouldn’t feed them.

10. If I know your secret, I won’t tell it to anyone. I am very good at keeping secrets.

Since I am new at this, I do not know of any blogs besides the ones that have been recently tagged. I prefer to tag at some future time, rather than randomly tag someone I don't know. If this is bad form, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Baby Boomers, Divinity, and Bob Dylan

I was born 11 months after the end of World War II - a baby boomer. I was fortunate to survive infancy intact and not too damaged by the fears of my parents. I soon learned that if life was a battle between light and dark forces, most things were certainly shades of gray, a difficult and depressing vagueness of color.

My journey was not unusual. Many of us were trekking along, changing darkness into light, and returning to the darkness, again and again. Schools taught us to be good citizens, obey the rules, respect authority figures, wait your turn, and don’t cut in line — perfect lessons for growing a nation of factory workers and managers. The world, however, was changing. Computers and high technology introduced the Information Age and the time of American industrial domination was nearly over. By the end of my adolescence I knew that life demanded resourcefulness and creativity. In the mind and hands of a wizard, knowledge was worth more than gold. I had learned that pain passed away and revealed a blessing to the righteous. Distress was a call to be alive and fully conscious, if only for a moment. Joy was a gift I could offer to myself and others, and not an achievement. The challenge, I concluded, was to be divine.

The first time I saw divinity was when I looked into the eyes of my newborn daughter. I could have been blind and still known it. Compelled to ignore my emotions, words, and my entire conscious history, I allowed myself to be immersed in the sensation of being. I knew she was divine.

Two years ago, I could see the same divinity as I looked into the eyes of my dying mother. She was blind and still she knew it. Again, I was immersed in the sensation of her being. Nothing else mattered. She knew she was divine.

Last fall my family went to the Bob Dylan Show at the Mullins Center in Amherst. The show was not as compelling as a newborn child or a graceful death. Bob Dylan’s poetry has been there when I needed to imagine something in more than shades of gray – the remarkable sensation of being a leopardskin pillbox hat. Bob Dylan is divine, and I'm certain he knows it.

If conscious relationship is everything, as scientists and philosophers tell us it is, then an encounter with anyone or anything could provide meaningful and essential connections to our natural world. Having been taught to categorize, consume, and control in an attempt to manage my life, I learned to anticipate success and fear disappointment. Opening up to the here and now turned my life around. My hope is that we will re-sensitize ourselves to spontaneous engagement, and learn that in an apparently insignificant confrontation there exists a universe of fulfilling possibilities. Essentially, divine nature offers itself freely to those open and willing to enter into a relationship.

Disclaimer: The “divinity” mentioned above does not represent any specific religion, hierarchy, dogma, practice, theology, real or imaginary being; nor is it a fluffy white candy, usually made with egg white and nuts. In fact, the author assumes that no common definition of divinity or spirituality exists. This is one reason why Native Americans tell stories to their children and have a rich oral tradition. They do not write their stories down. I have been told many believe that once a story is written, its truth begins to die. Divinity is discovered in the unrecorded spontaneous sensation of being. I may keep writing this blog anyway.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Welcome and an Introduction

This is my first blog, so I humbly ask for your understanding and patience. I am a mentor, a counselor, a husband, a father, a small business owner, and a friend. My main occupation is being a mentor to startup adults, ages 18 and up, and their parents. My business is Strongbridge Associates LLC and you can visit our website at

My work involves helping startup adults acquire self-knowledge, know their dreams, overcome obstacles, take healthy risks, and gain the confidence, serenity, and self-determination to embrace life and achieve long-term success. I have been working with struggling adolescents, startup adults, and their parents for more than 30 years. I love the work.

Though my work is important and I enjoy it, being a husband and a father is my greatest joy. My wife and I have been happily together for 38 years. Our two children are adults now, and are doing well on their own paths.

My friend John Robison, author of Look Me In The Eye, encouraged me to create this blog. I am the “insightful therapist” that introduced him to Asperger’s Syndrome ten years ago. John was not a client then and has never been. At the time, we were friends who enjoyed discussing a broad range of topics over lunch or dinner, and occasionally going on off-road trips in our Land Rovers. We still enjoy the same things, and our friendship has grown over the years.

In the future posts, I hope to express some thoughts about adolescents, health (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual), imagination, society, family, honesty, love, reality, spirituality, and whatever else seems related to the "glue" keeping us stuck together on this warm and wonderful rock. I would like to hear from you, and to know your thoughts and comments.

Healing Bear refers to the bear totem of healing through introspection and the darkness. As we look within ourselves may we discover the healing nourishment provided by Mother Earth.