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Shambhala Sun | January 2013

No Gap: Writings from The Under 35 Project

The Under 35 Project, spearheaded by Shambhala Publications and now a regular online Shambhala Sun feature, is where Buddhism's next generation gathers to share their experiences. Click here to read more of their fascinating stories and learn how you can contribute your own.

Drinking to Distraction

Jenna Hollenstein

You know that moment when you realize you are scared or anxious but don’t know why? You might check your wallet, confirm the oven is off, or scan your calendar for forgotten appointments. Maybe you retrace the rapid-fire sequence of your thoughts, searching for the origin of your discomfort, but can’t identify anything in particular. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly calls it the “mean reds”: suddenly you’re afraid, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of.

I used to have these moments all the time. At first I thought it was just my crappy job or that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But even when I changed my environment, the feeling persisted.

Even as a child, I had a recurring sense of impending doom. I began drinking at thirteen and excelled at it. By early adulthood, my drinking became more socially acceptable and more frequent. I could avoid the mean reds, if only temporarily, by picking up a bottle of wine on my way home.

As soon as I walked through the door of my apartment, I’d be in the kitchen, peeling back the foil, easing out the cork, and pouring a glass of wine. My favorite moment was when I raised the glass to my lips, before even taking the first sip. In that moment, there was calm and predictability.

The problem was, that moment never lasted. The relief I sought was always just out of reach—maybe with the next glass?—or already in the past—why didn’t I stop at one? Before I knew it, the bottle was empty. Another night wasted.

I was the party girl who was always up for a cocktail, the advocate of red wine as part of the Mediterranean diet, the foodie who never failed to pair a tasty morsel with its appropriate adult beverage. It all served the same purpose: to distract me from the anxiety and uncertainty of the present moment.

I wondered if I was an alcoholic and assumed I had two choices: identify as an alcoholic and stop drinking or not identify as an alcoholic and continue down this path. Eventually, I realized I had a third choice: stop drinking even if I never identified as an alcoholic. Four years ago, I decided to try life without alcohol.

Life became very challenging. Most everything else remained the same, only now I was facing it unmedicated, feeling the discomfort I had always tried to avoid.

Gradually, I began to peel back the layers of other accumulated distractions. I took a year off from non-essential shopping, began to ask myself whether I was eating out of physical or emotional hunger, and questioned my tendency to turn on the idiot box and zone out. I acknowledged my most familiar and disturbing distraction: obsessive, neurotic, discursive thoughts about the past and the future. These were an addiction in their own right.

After a few years without drinking, I decided to try meditation. Susan Piver’s The Wisdom of a Broken Heart helped me break through my resistance, addressing the surprising power inherent in heartbreak and how meditation can help stabilize things.

At first, my meditation practice consisted of short five- to ten-minute sessions. It seemed impossible to maintain awareness on the breath; I was inundated with swarming thoughts. Finding a meditation instructor proved essential. Her concise instruction and intuitive guidance helped me be gentle with myself, accept whatever arose on the cushion, and continue returning awareness to the breath. Gradually, I worked up to 15- and 20-minute sessions.

 Off the cushion, I began to notice small differences: situations in which I would have immediately reacted angrily or defensively provided an opportunity for reflection and thoughtful response. I felt more open, empathetic, and vulnerable.

Through this practice, I have learned to allow some space into my life without needing to fill it with things that might have short-lived surface appeal but actually distract me from what is happening right now. I have also learned that the predictability I sought in a bottle is no more likely to be found on a meditation cushion. But it is possible—and perhaps the most important skill one can learn in life—to become more comfortable with that discomfort.


Jenna Hollenstein is a writer and nutritionist living in New York City. She explores the themes of addiction, awareness, Buddhism, and meditation on her blog, Drinking to Distraction.

Lost and Found

Ben Hutchison

There is no denying the spiritual power found within the Buddhist path. But what about the dips, those times of uncertainty when moving toward enlightenment feels like not moving at all? Feeling as if you have lost your path can be devastating, especially when you thought you’d found a spiritual practice that might provide you with unlimited peace and wisdom.

I’ve become profoundly disappointed in my experience with Buddhism at times. But I’ve also realized that that’s just a story, something I tell myself when my fantasy of Buddhism has run into the brick wall of reality.

There was the time I went to my first really big Buddhist ceremony and felt lost, alone, and unprepared. Or later, when I had joined a different Buddhist group even though I didn’t feel a connection to their form of practice. I’ve had issues dealing with sangha drama, and I’ve faced a more internal drama where I’ve had to decide which side of a spiritual argument I wanted to support. In each of these cases, it felt horrible.

But I have to admit something. Over all those years, I didn’t really have a practice, at least not a strong one. I was too involved in the books, the beads, the titles, and the labels, consumed with trying to get somewhere. Trying to achieve enlightenment and peace. I had expectations about myself, my sangha, and the various lineages to which I felt attached. I had it all wrong.

In practicing Buddhism, in whatever form or lineage you choose, there is going to be loss and disappointment. As Dogen writes in his Genjokoan, “Flowers fall amid our longing and weeds spring up amid our antipathy.” Looking back at my patterns now, I see this “loss” of mine a little differently. now, I practice. I don’t wear beads too often. I still have books, but I read them instead of carrying them around for show-and-tell.

In my head, my story used to be about how I would lose my dharma practice over and over again. But now “losing” seems more like shedding, and that shedding has revealed something so much better. So I never really lost my dharma. I just lost some trappings. And I hope you lose yours, too.

Ben Hutchison is a husband and father who lives in Cincinnati. He sits zazen daily.


Metta for a Mom

Subha Srinivasan

My daughter, Anjali, had just been born. I was standing by the sink with her in the next room, sobbing because of exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and crashing hormones. My shoulders ached from nursing (it seemed so much harder than I had imagined!) and I was feeling sorry for myself. Then, spontaneously, the metta prayer arose in me silently: May I have compassion, and may I be free from suffering.

That prayer has been of help to me in all sorts of situations. After maternity leave, I was fortunate to be able to work part-time. But doing so as a professor proved difficult. Constantly playing catch-up and bogged down by responsibilities, I was unable to enjoy what time I did have with my little one. I remember the evening after months of internal deliberation when, on a walk by the pond, a version of the prayer arose: May I be happy, may I have peace, and may I have an easeful heart. I decided to leave my job at the end of the year and pursue a more skillful livelihood for myself.

Recalling the metta prayer has been helpful in the most difficult of moments: when my daughter has been sick. The last time she had an infection she cried incessantly, inconsolable after a heavy dose of antibiotics. It hurt to witness her pain, to be unable to help her with her diarrhea and discomfort. I said the prayer for both of us: May we have compassion, may we be free from suffering.

The first time I said this prayer to Anjali, she was so tiny. I was not yet used to having her on the outside of me! The prayer allowed me to acknowledge that she was an individual, of me but not me. I was there to love her, but I could not control everything for her. All I could do was my best, and trust that that was enough. Having metta in my heart gives me the steadiness to go on through the difficult times with compassion and kindness. In doing so, our practice becomes our life, every moment, every day. We come home.

Subha Srinivasan lives in New Hampshire with her husband and daughter and is the author of The Year of the Rose: Reflections of a New Mother and Lessons in Mindfulness and Loving-kindness.

A New Chance

Kelley Clink

On Valentine’s Day, 2004, my brother wrote on his blog: “Bitterness is a huge waste of time. That’s right, I said it! But goddamn, goddamn, is it hard to abandon. Peace, peace is where it’s at. I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Creating True Peace, and on a lot of issues the dude is right on. So I’m creating peace in my life, ending violence inside myself, enjoying breathing.”

Two months later, just shy of his twenty-second birthday, he hanged himself.

My mother had sent him the Thich Nhat Hanh book in early 2004, a few weeks before he posted about it. She sent me a copy too, but I didn’t read it. I’d settled, at twenty-four, into a comfortable discomfort. I figured the anger and fear that had plagued me for years, the waves of emotion that drowned me almost daily, were part of my personality.

I was haunted those first years after my brother’s death. We had both struggled with depression during adolescence, and we both attempted suicide in our teens. It looked like I’d come through it: I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, got married, moved across the country, and started a career. But after my brother’s suicide I viewed my sanity as a taut thread, capable of snapping at any moment.

I couldn’t admit how afraid I was, not even to myself. My grief was a live thing, strong, dark, and foul. I was sure that, if I turned to face it head-on, I’d be devoured.

I sat down to meditate, for the first time in my life, two years after my brother’s death. My practice began as an exercise in stress reduction stripped of spirituality—a successful way to lower blood pressure, the book I was using promised—but it felt like more. After a childhood of turmoil and doubt in the Church; after an adolescence of anger, depression, and atheism; after an early adulthood of anxiety, fear, agnosticism, and heavy grief, was I capable of peace?

Breathing in I know we both suffer. Breathing out I want us both to have a new chance... Our suffering, A new chance
Breathing in I want to be happy. Breathing out I want you to be happy... My happiness, Your happiness
Breathing in I see us happy. Breathing out that is all I want... Our happiness, Is all I want.

The first time I read these words of Thich Nhat Hanh’s, I pictured my brother and I sitting cross-legged, facing each other and holding hands, breathing in and out. Something inside me shifted, and soon I could turn and face my grief.

I began to understand that peace wasn’t what I’d thought it was. Peace didn’t mean escaping my feelings—it meant cultivating the ability to acknowledge and honor them.

Even now, nearly a decade later, I still think of my brother when I sit. I picture him across from me, with a smile easier than the one he wore in life, and I know that both of us have found some peace.

Kelley Clink is a writer and amateur photographer in Chicago. She is currently working on a memoir about her brother’s suicide.

Occupy Heartbreak

Margarita Manwelyan

It’s a windy October Wednesday afternoon in 2011, and I am heading down to Liberty Plaza to meditate at the occupation of Wall Street. I feel an ache in the center of my chest and a lump in the back of my throat that I can’t swallow away. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts. The one I loved and trusted has kicked me to the curb:

“This is not working for me. Please don’t take it personally.”

My pain is real, but this Occupy movement is also real. So I’m taking my aching heart, my eyes puffy from tears, my ambition, my yearning for unity and justice, and I’m hopping the 4 train to the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. Who knows what will happen? It’s a daring escapade: opening to what is, to reality, to the dharma of the here and now. It’s magic and it’s heartache, sharp, tangy, sweet, spicy, and real.

Why do I go? Because I care. How do I know? Because it hurts. Tears spring up for the 99%, for the 1%, for myself, for humanity, for farm animals, for lonely companion animals, for endangered wild animals, for fish in the sea, for birds free and captive, for the planet. Our world is tender, raw, hurt, and angry, and yet remains unconditionally loving in this magnificent present moment.

We are all in this together. There is much to be done, and somehow that actually feels encouraging.

Margarita Manwelyan is a yoga teacher and writer who lives in New York with her dog, Hershey. She is a member of the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) Meditation group.


How May I Help You?

Sophia Aguiñaga

Thank you for calling. How many in your party? I’ll need your insurance information. Our special today is lemon cream custard. Do you have an appointment? Your photos will be ready in an hour. Let me know if you need another size. Blush and foundation are on sale through Monday. These shoes have clearly been worn outside. Are you saying that you’re upset because you had to listen to someone speak Spanish before you reached a representative? My name is Sophia. I’ll find you a clean fork. How may I help you?

The twenty jobs I’ve had since I was fourteen had one thing in common: customer service. Early on, it never crossed my mind to offer compassion to the people approaching me for help. I saw each individual calling in, checking out, or asking a question as just another needy customer. On bad days they were annoyances, rocks in my shoes as I tried to get through another day. Then there were the truly angry and rude customers.

As I matured, it dawned on me: without these people, I would not have a livelihood.

Until then, my customers weren’t quite real to me. “Have a good day” was just an easy nicety that made ending a phone call or seeing a guest out of the office a little less awkward. Work is, after all, different than other basic human interactions. We can spend day after day, for years and years, serving strangers rather than ourselves or those we know and love. Where are we supposed to find all the compassion, empathy, and under- standing that a fifty-hour workweek demands? How can we be sure there will still be enough left for ourselves? reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have a job isn’t always enough.

Sitting on my meditation cushion, I’ve discovered something that I did not expect: each individual calling to lodge a complaint or trying to return a worn pair of shoes is an occasion to simultaneously give and receive. They present the opportunity to plant the seed of compassion while replenishing the supply in the same exact moment.

Suddenly the question, “How may I help you?” has a new meaning, and a new answer: I can offer you what any creation truly needs and deserves—compassion.

And, of course, I’ll be happy to get you a clean fork.

Sophia Aguiñaga lives in Portland, Oregon, and now works as an editor for a private foundation.

Captain Hook and Indian #2

Susan Yao

My first heartbreak happened at the tender age of thirteen. I had a crush on Captain Hook, aka Zach, in the school play. My role was Indian #2, a nothing to a celebrity like Zach. I pined after him, imagining myself as the Tiger Lily to his Captain Hook.

When the play was over, I decided to announce to him that I liked him. I locked myself in my bedroom with a phone and called. He had absolutely no idea who I was. I quickly mumbled, “never mind,” hung up, and cried.

I remember this middle school rejection distinctly because my dreams were epically unrealistic. I somehow hoped that 1) Zach knew who the hell I was and 2) he secretly loved me back. Ten years later, I worry that I’m still that way when it comes to love. I was recently very interested in someone. Let’s call him Joe. We were both Buddhist, had graduated from the same college, and were teachers. I imagined us raising social activist, politically radical (yet humble) Buddhist babies. We started spending time together, and I dared to wonder: Had I finally convinced some unsuspecting fellow to date me?

Nope! According to him, we were Good Friends. We would never be a Buddhist power couple. The disappointment was crushing. Was I being naive? Did I not put out the right signals? Were my hopes as epically unrealistic as they had been in middle school?

Ultimately, I realized that my pain, insecurity, and disappointment were the results of attachments to unrealistic expectations. I use “attachment” here in the Buddhist sense, which means a futile attempt to hold on to what is impermanent. When we do this, we suffer.

Now, with Zach and Joe in mind, I try to date without any expectations. I tell myself, “If we date, great. If we are friends, great. If you are a therapist who can help me overcome my fear of slugs, great. If we never see each other again, then I am at peace with that too. I will enjoy the present moment, whatever it brings.” If I maintain that clarity, then not-dating will not feel like rejection. Not-dating is simply another possible outcome of the interaction of two people.

 When I was thirteen, I wasted time fantasizing about how things could be different with Zach. Instead, I should have just introduced myself. Maybe then, when I called, he would have known who the hell I was. And maybe, just maybe, he would have loved me back.

Susan Yao is a middle school history teacher in New York City.      

We Love Them

Stacy Chivers

I work as a respiratory therapist at a small community hospital nestled by the ocean in southern California. Most of our patients are elderly, and serving them can be difficult. My dharma practice has helped.

Dementia is rampant in the elderly community and it can be ugly. The patients can be very mean and sometimes physically abusive. When patients rear up to hit me while I am stopping them from getting out of bed, I use my calmest voice and try to reorient them to where they are. I see them as confused individuals who don’t mean to hurt anyone. They are victims of a disease that causes them to act out. I use compassion. I will hug them. Sometimes the simple act of telling them that you understand, and touching them lightly on the arm, brings them back. Sometimes not. I just try every time to treat them with love, patience, and compassion—as if they were my Grandpa or my Grandma, but confused and scared. We all need a little love.

Last week I had a patient who has Parkinson’s come to me for an outpatient arterial blood draw. It was a really bad day for her: she was shaking all over and having a hard time walking. Embarrassed and nervous, she kept apologizing for her Parkinson’s. Instead of getting irritated, I used my practice of mindfulness and really talked with and listened to her. She smiled and her shaking eased a bit.

This lady was afraid of having her blood drawn. I tried to get the sample, but she was shaking and crying so hard that I missed the artery. I helped her focus on her breath and come back to the moment. Successful, I wheeled her back down to the lobby and helped her into her husband’s car. She reached for my arm and pulled me close and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, thanking me for being so kind to her.

That practice of mindfulness and compassion shines through in everything I do. I love every patient in my care, and often get to call them Grandpa or Grandma. They love it. I love it. They feel comfortable and happy, even in the coldness of the hospital. The patients will comment that everyone who works at the hospital really acts like they love them. I tell them it is true. We do love them! Even the hard-to-get-along-with ones. They’re just confused, scared, and sick. Patience, compassion, mindfulness, understanding, and love: I use them at work, at home with my fourteen-year-old son, and with my friends and family. It all helps me get over hurdles with grace and dignity, letting love shine on others and making their lives a little better. Be a shining sun. The light will keep moving and growing. It’s contagious. Try it.

Stacy Chivers describes herself as a thirty-four-year-old single mom and medical worker with a Buddhist heart and punk-rock rebel soul.

Heart On Fire

Brian Otto Kimmel

Brian Otto Kimmel

When I came to Buddhist practice I thought I needed to put on a good show, to be the perfect practitioner. Growing up surviving trauma, before I even heard about Buddhism, I believed that by sacrificing my own needs, by thinking only about others, I would be freed. I believed that if I thought about myself, I would let the mysterious disease of sexual abuse destroy me. It nearly did.

I was eleven years old when I finally told. I was thirty pounds underweight, anorexic, severely malnourished, and as psychologically vigilant as a deer feeding in an open field. I watched for predators and was startled at the tiniest touch or sound.

I testified in court against my stepfather when I was twelve. I believed it was another opportunity to serve. The grown-ups around me, including parents and the prosecutor, said my testimony would help save other kids. In many ways my testimony did help, but left unattended was the little child inside of me.

In my twenties, I took ten years off from school and worked to heal myself through psychotherapy and Zen meditation. I depended on family and friends financially and sometimes lived on the streets. I was told by close friends and teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, that I needed to love myself first before I could really love others. I did not understand what that meant and questioned it whenever the advice appeared.

In my late twenties I ordained as a lay member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Our order is composed of monastic and non-monastic practitioners dedicated to a life of service through compassionate listening, applied mindfulness, and ethics for a healthy life and society.

I began to witness the deep effect of personal transformation. When others find out I am a survivor of abuse, queer, a musician, and an activist, they often ask me questions. Many are curious about how I found Zen at a young age, what allowed me to stay for so long, and how the practice and tradition has affected me. As an Order of Interbeing member, I have learned skills in being more fully present for those with questions and in answering from my heart, from the depth of what is true for me. Because the object of practice, says Thich nhat Hanh, “is to grow our hearts big.”

I came to Zen with my heart on fire. The more afflictions I burn up, the more beings can take refuge in me. After everything I have experienced, others can look toward me as a model for change. If I can do it, so can you.

Brian Otto Kimmel is a non-monastic member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Professionally, he works with individuals and groups seeking an integrative approach to contemplative practice in daily life.

Sex Happens

Stillman Brown

Radegast Beer Hall, Brooklyn, on a Friday night in February: twenty- and thirty-somethings are three bodies deep at the bar. There’s the roar of conversation, enormous steins of beer being hefted and emptied, a big smoking grill in the corner covered with bratwurst and kielbasa. A chaos of people having a good time.

I was there with friends who were on a mission to hook me up with someone—anyone—after a bruising split with a long-time girlfriend. They located a girl who seemed a little shy (good for me), and she was pushed forward like we were at an eighth-grade dance. I remember thinking she looked a little like a young Amelia Earhart (also good for me). “She has a boyfriend but he’s in France,” one of her friends shouted in my ear. And even though I wasn’t looking for anything but drinks with my friends and an early bedtime, I accessed that familiar hook-up mindset, dusted it off, and got to work.

I went through my checklist: She’s into fashion (negative); she lives in the East village (positive, geographically convenient); she’s a student at FIT (neutral); she enjoys reading Tom Clancy (unexpected, intriguing). I was flirting, sending and receiving energy, but I felt lifeless inside. The reason was simple: I was still in love with my ex.

When I first moved to New York, it seemed like everyone had come there for some particular creative or professional pursuit and had an agenda, and that energy could carry over in to matters sexual and relational. I’m from Indiana, where if you liked someone you simply kind of hung around until attraction, time, and communication got you laid. Not so in New York. You just want to... “get to know me?” the girls seemed to say. Seriously? And for a while I tried to fit in with this culture.

Finding a Buddhist community helped change that. I realized it was possible for me to be genuinely myself and be attractive. It’s not a coincidence that around the time I started meditating and wrestling with self-acceptance, my love life began to pick up.

On the subway during my morning commute, I sometimes daydream about threading my way up misty peaks and contemplating the dharma as a wandering mendicant. But right now I am a practitioner in an American city. I have a job, obligations to friends and family, a social life. I’ve had to ask myself: Is it possible to be mindful and genuine in such a chaotic and sexual environment? And if you take this Buddhism thing seriously, is it possible to practice right conduct and still play the game?

When I took the Five Precepts as part of my refuge vow, the third was, “Abstain from sexual misconduct.” That can mean no sex out- side of a committed relationship, but is it practicable in a modern, urban context? Young people hook up. Sex happens. In taking refuge I was asked to approach the third precept from an intentional perspective: refrain from using sex to mislead or manipulate, to distract from loneliness or suffering, or to fill an addiction or craving.

But back to the beer hall and Ms. Earhart. I was, in fact, breaking several precepts that night: drinking hard to keep up the charade, saying a bunch of untruthful stuff (“I think you’re really great,” “Fashion is awesome,” “I’ll call you”), and engaging in the kind of sexual misconduct that is intentional rather than literal. I missed my girlfriend terribly and there was still grieving to do. My flirting had arisen out of a place of suffering, misleading Amelia and doing a disservice to my own broken heart.

It has been a year since that night in Brooklyn—time enough to sit with a broken heart until it’s mended. As I return to New York’s dating scene, I’m trying to see it not as a minefield but as just another part of practice. In intimacy and sex, we transcend the little walls we construct around our hearts and bodies, and Buddhist practice can help us come to each new encounter as an opportunity to be more honest, embodied, and fearless.

Stillman Brown is a writer, producer, and adventurer who lives in Brooklyn.



Read more from The Under 35 Project on Shambhala SunSpace here. And to submit your own work, click here.

From the January 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see more from this issue.

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