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May 31, 2017

An Elephant Walks into Shambhala Training.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

I’m new to Shambhala Buddhism, but I just took their Level I training course and have some thoughts.

This weekend I attended a three-day meditation training, hosted by my local Shambhala Meditation Center. Before getting into this specific course, I’d like to introduce Shambhala for those who aren’t familiar.

Shambhala is an educational organization offering both traditional and secular (i.e. nonreligious) presentations of Buddhism for Westerners in modern society.

I have been relatively aware of this community since I moved to Los Angeles three years ago. I was looking for Tibetan Buddhist teachings, and their name came up in my search.

I attended a “Young Sanga” night at the Eastside center in LA but was turned off by the sense of exclusivity and pretentiousness emitted by the student assembly. I never went back.

Side note: I have come to realize that it was not the Shambhala community, but rather the LA one giving me the “icks.” Cue lesson about keeping an open mind.

It wasn’t until I was knee-deep in Buddhism at the Vajrapani Institute that my curiosity about the place returned. My resident teacher (a sassy, six foot tall Buddhist nun) proclaimed Shambhala’s founder “a genius” and within a week his book mysteriously appeared in my inbox. So, naturally, I read itand my prior distaste transformed into whole-hearted appreciation. I can’t even say how many home run, heartbreaking, lightbulb moments happened for me in the course of that short text.

Now, finding myself in Boulder, I reside in America’s “Shambhala Land.” The heart of the lineage lays here, it’s where Chögyam Trungpa put down roots and grew his founding community back in the 1970s. Many of his original students still live and teach here, which is pretty amazing.

The whole premise of Shambhala’s teachings is translating traditional Buddhism into a language and lifestyle that is realistic for Western students. Most of us don’t intend to renounce all earthly pleasures, shave our heads, and move to a remote environment free from distractions. We’re busy. We have lovers, and stressful jobs, and bills to pay. But still—we don’t want to struggle through life. We want happiness and peace, and we want to help people have the same. Shambhala speaks to this longing.

With all this in mind, I decided to give their program a whirl. After all, if I learned anything last year it’s that my life is much better with dharma people in it.

Shambhala organizes their courses in levels: one through five. So I started in with Level 1: the Art of Being Human. I roped a couple coworkers to join me too (I’m a bit of a wrangler in that way).

I walked into the meditation hall with my student cap on. I was jazzed about the opportunity to “talk shop” with the teachers and my new peers. I’ll admit my ego walked in with me, thinking she had this down and was so ready for an introductory course. “I’ve been meditating for years and lived at a Buddhist center. I got this.”

Hah. Joke’s on my ego, as usual. Unbeknownst to me, this weekend’s agenda (which wasn’t shared upon registration) was 90 percent silent meditation for three days. It was so humbling. Despite a solid daily practice and several prior experiences with retreat, this was the most I’ve meditated uninterrupted, well…ever.

And it was hard.

My mind got restless and tantalized me with a myriad of distractions. Work demands, social plans, daydreams about my (indeed dreamy) guy, even wild creative ideas that I really wanted to follow. Nope. Back to the breath. Again. And again. And again.

I feel so silly for thinking I had an intro course “in the bag,” and I’m grateful for the stark reminder that I will always be a beginner at this. I was impressed with the perseverance of the folks in the room who had never meditated before—talk about getting thrown in the deep end! But we all did it. We stayed with each other in silent solidarity and came through knowing ourselves better for it.

Honestly, this course was nothing like I expected. At all. But I left feeling like it was incredibly valuable. I questioned why Shambhala would choose to begin the path this way, but as I gathered amongst these new friends in our closing circle, my heart felt soft and open. All that meditation opened my mind up to myself, and thus allowed me to appreciate each individual in the room so much more.

If we had spent the weekend in discussion over ideals and philosophy, or even intellectually considering meditation, all our masks and egos would have created those initial impressions. We would receive the offered information from the same mindset we’ve carried our whole lives. But by beginning this learning with disarming all our defenses—with the challenge to courageously sit with ourselves, our thoughts, our physical discomfort—we bonded through something so real: Our hearts and the honesty of who we are at this moment.

Meditation is the ground for all practice.

I truly believe that.

Whether we’re a Reiki healer, a scientist, a “spiritual but not religious” type, a teacher, a writer, a mother, or a world traveler—meditation opens us up to each other and all experience.

So when I was eight hours into the day and wondering why this was Level 1… I was unknowingly returning to my heart, a little more with every breath.

Now, my passion for this practice has been revived.

What’s beautiful is how Shambhala is nonreligious, attracts all kinds of people, and exists in nearly every major city.

Wherever you are reading this, I strongly encourage you to consider attending a Level I training. This is a skill you will carry for a lifetime.

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Author: Danielle Beutell
Image: Ed Ogle/Flickr

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