Updated: Oct 14, 2022
Meditation coaches must work. Indeed, coaching meditation, writing, and teaching religious subjects is a profession. But if one is not a pastor or not teaching at a university, it is only now and again remunerative. To paraphrase Gandhi, I spiritually serve myself in spiritually serving others.
My real job is as a professional tour guide. 2020 would have been my 37th season in tour and travel. I've guided walking tours, hiking tours, biking excursions, luxury motorcoach tours, private tours for poobahs of various stripes, you name it.
I've toured groups of travelers through 48 out of 50 American states (Alaska and North Dakota excepted). Most of Canada, much of Mexico, several postings in the Caribbean, Germanic Europe, and parts of Central America have been assignments over the years. Sounds glamorous, doesn't it? It is, and it isn't.
Two-thirds of my career was as a freelancer, which means one takes what one can get. I've stayed in four and five-star hotels on one run. The next might be the No-Tell Hotel, where you wouldn't want to sit down on the bed in anything less than a Hazmat suit.
In the off-season, I hustled for any work I could get. I've done warehouse work, bookkeeping, tax preparation. I'm a passable rough carpenter. As a line artist, I helped create department store holiday window displays for Lord & Taylor, Macy's, and Marshall Fields.
One off-season, I worked with a natural habitat design and construction company. They created and installed zoo environments and massive aquariums. I see three of my aquariums in three luxury hotels I regularly visit today. Oh, and there was drywall installation and hot tar roofing. You get it, anything to hang on for another tour season.
I've been with a top-rated luxury touring company for the last third of my career, with medical benefits, profit sharing, and a 401k retirement plan. It's the major leagues, baby! I was already slotted into the calendar for 2020. Then the Covid plague hit.
My tour company saw bookings evaporate early and cancellations proliferate quickly. A cadre of exceptionally high-quality tour guides and professional office staff terminated swiftly and early. Essential office staff furloughed. Management became a skeleton crew on a listless ship.
The horrible situation did have blessings. While we had no jobs, medical benefits, or rehire guarantees, we stood early in queue for unemployment compensation and gained immediate access to our retirement funds.
So, in 2020, I switched back to freelance mode, taking what compensation and work I could get. I signed on as a temporary holiday employee with the United States Postal Service to stretch what was left of my unemployment fund into the new year. I distributed mail to a couple a' hundred post office boxes. I threw hundreds of packages in a day. Yes, U.S.P.S. does throw them (excepting those marked fragile) into bins for the carriers to distribute on their routes, for U.P.S., FedEx, Amazon, DHL, etc.
It was physical, tedious, taxing, and non-stop for a split shift: 5-10:30AM—2:30-6:30PM, six days a week, with two ten-minute breaks per day. Oh, and I just turned 69 years old! I'm in pretty good physical shape, but some days the job was a killer. Hey, after a year of non-work and reduced activity, I'm a physical guy, and mostly, I loved it. But for me, going postal was definitely temporary.
Categorically, I have to say, the people I worked with at U.S.P.S. were terrific. Professional, dedicated, hard-working, they were also, without exception, just plain lovely. Whether twenty-somethings starting out or thirty-plus-year veterans, most will, are, or have raised families on the job. All are service-focused. It's busy, exhausting work that supports busy, exhausting lives away from the Post Office.
Today I talk about spiritual practice in the daily life of a householder. In religious jargon, we are laypersons, just us regular folk. For us, the significance and the actualization of spiritual practice are personal, unique to ourselves and our circumstances. The qualities of our practice change weekly, daily, even minute to minute. Our spiritual practice is affected and buffeted by so many conditions and demands. By sacrificing some comforts of life, the cloistered are relieved of many of these discomforts.
For us, our task is to somehow carry our spiritual practice from stillness into the hard surfaces and the noisy chaos of everyday life as best we can.
Hey, relax! Our best is enough. For us, spiritual practice is not a vocation. If you entered a monastery and donned a robe, if you limited your possessions and narrowed your interaction with the world, a spiritual practice would be a vocation. If you took on spiritual practice as a vocation and then did not meditate diligently and regularly, you'd be shirking—not doing your job.
We're not monastics! We have real jobs—working Monday through Friday (and sometimes Saturday and Sunday), powering through the graveyard shift, killing it, and dragging it home every day to support families. We raise our children, care for our family and friends, participate in our community, and pursue our personal interests. Spiritual practice is just one more to-do on our busy agendas and seldom the highest priority.
At times, we can't do it all as our idealism demands. Something's gotta give.
Are we to skip feeding the kids—let 'em eat the putty out of the window frames—while we elegantly, perfectly religiously sit on our bums in meditation? Of course, not.
For the same reason, are we to forego getting the car repaired, the groceries shopped, the house cleaned, etc., etc., for the same reason? Of course not.
But, when you do all these things and can't diligently pursue your spiritual practice to the ideal level you've set for yourself, frustration, guilt, feelings of failure, the urge to give it up—any number of negative emotions can arise.
Hotei is the laughing Buddha. You've all seen him. He is the chubby jolly fellow sitting or standing, with a huge smile, usually with a sack near him or slung over his shoulder, like an Asian Santa Claus. You see him in Chinatown shops everywhere.
The story goes that Hotei wandered through the villages and marketplaces and from every person he begged, as is part of a Buddhist monk's vocation, and collected the bits of food and sweets and perhaps occasional small change that were handed in his sack.
Traditionally, monks consume what they garner in the amount necessary to sustain them. Hotei's chubbiness may suggest he digested a bit more than just sustenance.
But, it is recorded that Hotei distributed the best stuff to children who danced around him and played with him wherever he went. When Hotei's sack was empty, he went on to gather and distribute more.
Hotei was not a temple monk, nor had he any desire to call himself a Zen Master. He was a Buddha of the marketplace, a lot like us.
It is a custom between Zen monks to question each other to check each other's Zen when they meet. In the story of Hotei, it is said that while he was at his work-play, another Zen monk met him on the street and asked Hotei the following question:
"What is the significance of Zen?" [Think meditation and spiritual awakening here.]
Hotei immediately plopped his sack on the ground in silent answer.
Then, asked the monk, "what is the actualization of Zen?"
Hotei picked up his sack, swung it over his shoulder, turned on his heel—I always imagine him kicking up a little puff of dust as he accelerated—and strode off to do what he does. *
I have read or recalled Hotei's story hundreds of times over the years. But, I remember the precise instant many years ago when it went from being a quirky, funny little story about a chubby little Zen monk into a simple understanding of what it is to take one's spiritual practice out of the quiet space into the chaos of the marketplace.
I didn't see it for a long time because I overcomplicated it. I disbelieved it could be all that simple. This is a spiritual practice. There's gotta be thunder and lightning, revelations on the road to Damascus. Nope—simplicity. Simple to understand. Not easy to do.
We all carry a sack of stuff. Some of it is sweets, some broccoli, some cake, some turnips, sometimes a shiny quarter, sometimes a corroded penny. It's our sack of stuff.
Sometimes the sack gets heavy so, you shed its weight. The stuff is still in it. You plop it on the ground and rest for a while. Quietude, that's meditation. That's the significance.
My brief experience with the U.S. Postal Service revealed the utter simplicity of its massive
complexity. Someone(s) before me picked up a stack of mail, or grabbed a parcel, moved it down the line a bit, and then set it down.
While these days, there are giant electronic sorting machines for the standard postal letters, ALL of the mail has to be physically handled by human beings at some point(s) in its journey. And, inevitably, there are massive numbers of potential detours, exceptions along the way. Letter too thick, address faded, handwriting illegible, sloppy packaging, no such occupant, insufficient postage, no forwarding address because they left the country to elude the I.R.S. pursuit for delinquent taxes.
The mail comes in sacks, bins, and pallets, stacked to overflowing. I (we) pick it up, move it along, and set it down for the next person(s). Someone(s) else picks up the exceptions, researches them individually, and moves them along to the next person(s), some to their final recipient(s), some not. This is the actualization.
A good meditation teacher will quickly inform you that everything is Zen [Think meditation and spiritual awakening here.]. You put your sack down for a bit of quietude. Nothing special; you do it when you can. When you need to, you do it on a cushion, in a park, at your office desk, at a bus stop. Fit it into your schedule when it fits, just another element of your busy day. This is the significance of meditation and spiritual awakening.
Then, you pick up your sack and do what must be done. Deal with the exceptions. Get results to the correct recipients. Embrace the hard surfaces and the noisy chaos of everyday life as best you can. Remain neutral and centered, busy, but unhurried, undisturbed. That is the actualization of meditation and spiritual awakening.
[Vigyan Bhairava Tantra, technique #6] "When in worldly activity, keep attentive between the two breaths, and so practicing, in a few days, be born anew." **
[Alternative translation of the Vigyan Bhairava Tantra, technique #6] "When the ingoing pranic air and outgoing pranic air are both restrained in their space from their (respective points of) return, the essence of bhairava, which is not different from bhairavi, manifests." ***
Bhairava and Bhairavi are both names for God, the creator, the source of all that is. It is that which is unborn, undying, uncreated, undestroyed.
Breathe in. Before you breathe out, there is a turning. Amid the turning from in-breath to out-breath, there is a gap. Before you breathe in, there is a turning. Amid the turning, there is another minuscule interval of non-breathing. During daily activities, attend to the gap between breaths. That's it! Don't underestimate the power of this simple practice.
Whatever you are doing, keep your attention on the gaps between the two breaths. Practice while active. Do not practice in isolation. Eating? Eat and focus on the opening. Walking, working, riding, cooking, caring for the children, petting the cat; focus on the gap.
Why, when active? Activity diverts your mind from here and now again and again. Do not allow distraction. Just be active!
Often, we are two verbs, doing and being, circumference and center. Doing is the role we play in life. Being is who we are. If you have an affinity for this technique, soon, you will "BE" doing it. The circumference and the center will collapse into unity, into mindful mindless acting, peaceful and undisturbed.
Buckminster Fuller coauthored a book entitled I Seem to Be A Verb, and he was right! You play an active role in the drama of life. As a verb, you are that role. You will learn another in the next life or in the next instant of this life. "To be, or not to be." Act or not act. ****
You play many roles in this life. Focusing on the gaps between breaths allows you to observe each character you play while playing it excellently. You are the part, but not mistaking the part for ultimate reality. Breaking your identification with peripheral doing and resting in being your life is the purpose of this technique. ___________________________________________________________________
*Compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A collection of zen and pre-zen writings. Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 1978. p. 31
**Osho. The Book of Secrets (p. 74). Osho International. Kindle Edition.
***Vijnana Bhirava Tantra: Sanskrit Text with English Translation.