Becoming a Shambhalian – by Michal George

I’m sitting at a gate of the Paris airport ready to fly back to Cape Town. I left just over two weeks ago. With an intention to deepen my practice, and in order to attend Enlightened Society Assembly,   I made my way to Dechen Chöling – the European Shambhala land centre in the heart of the French countryside. With this challenging, inspiring, and vivid experience behind me, I sink into my comfortable seat in the AirFrance lounge waiting to board my flight. The coffee cup from which I have been sipping stands on the side table to my right. I have had a magical time and feel somewhat overwhelmed. All is still and good in my world it would seem. In the background a song. Not in the form of piped in background music, but taking the form of a memory.

Towards the end of my trip, and completely by chance, I stumbled into an intimate art exhibition space in Paris which featured a prominent South African artist, Moshekwa Langa. The exhibition, which explored the themes of connection and belonging, included a video installation which featured as its soundtrack the song “Where do I begin?” As I attempt to make sense of this trip and my ESA experience in particular, the words of this track echo in my ears.

Even though I consider myself an experienced traveler, I found myself tested at every step of the way toward Dechen Chöling and beyond. I got stranded in Nairobi, and spent the first five days of the program without any of my luggage. I got pretty ill in the middle of the program. Finally, my wallet was stolen in Paris at the end of my trip, and then my phone broke. There were many other testing situations along the way. One of the central theme of ESA is how we engage with others. How wonderful then that at every turn in my travels I was offered an opportunity to practice. The question of my role in creating enlightened society has infused my life in recent years, and even though the feedback I receive from the world is that I often fail in this endeavor, the inspiration I get from the Shambhala teachings and programs such as this, focuses my exertion. My aspiration to create a world of harmony around me to the best of my ability, grows ever stronger.

Part of my regular practice is attending the Shambhala Cape Town Thursday night meetings at Erin Hall in Rondebosch. During a recent talk our senior teacher, Jennifer Woodhall, offered us this quote: “Under duress we do not raise to our expectations, but fall to our level of training.” The wisdom contained in these words by Bruce Lee, reverberated in my mind as I encountered the difficulties of my travels. I find that the discipline of daily meditation practice, combined with regular contemplation of the Dharma, and the knowledge that consciously trying to “lighten up,” goes a long way in supporting my intended way of being in the world. It grounds me. The place where I prepare for this practice in my meditation bench, while my practice space is in what I bring to every energetic encounter. What became apparent during the last two weeks however, was that I have, in recent years and at least to some degree, created a bubble around me in which I feel safe and comfortable, but which doesn’t necessarily prepare me for the unexpected challenges of being completely engaged in the world. It seems that I constantly fall to my level of training.

I usually take to retreats and meditation programs like a duck to water. But this time, for some reason which initially dumbfounded me, I encountered real resistance to the teachings. The Enlightened Society Assembly program I was a part of, was well-developed and rich. The days were full of rituals, contemplative practices, and wisdom transmissions. I was afforded many opportunities to look into the resistance I was encountering. Several times during sitting meditation I attempted reaching into my mind to see if I can grasp or touch the essence of the blockage I was feeling. Time and again, I found nothing there at all. Perplexed by this spacious void I encountered, I was able to relax. Then, contemplating a passage I came across by Alan Watts, I felt myself open to the teachings presented during the program. I realized that like Watts, the aspect of the practice “I am personally interested in is nothing that can be organized, taught, transmitted, certified, or wrapped up in any kind of system. It can’t even be followed, for everyone has to find it for himself. If you don’t get it from yourself, where will you go for it?”

Yet I chose to travel far to attend this program. Going on faith, which I equate with a feeling that something makes sense. Not that it will work out the way I envisioned, but that the force pulling me there comes from a source of knowing that what I encounter will enrich my way of being myself in the world. I wasn’t disappointed.

The ESA program was presented by Acharya David Schneider and Shastri Beate Krichof-Schlage. I was in awe of what they said during their talks, as much as I was in love with what they don’t say, but how they were: simply, honest, and very real. I was deeply moved by the way Beate guided our practice of the Shambhala Sadhana. The intimacy of her presentation of this beautiful text, Sakyong’s love letter to each one of us as she described it, melted any remaining resistance I might still have been hanging onto. While the gesture of extending our practice beyond the meditation hall during our morning group Warriors’ Walk before breakfast, transmitted the straightforwardness and intimacy of opening to the world.

Boots crushing leaves,

Morning delight.

The shrine is lit.

When did I become a Shambhalian? During my first visit to Erin Hall, where I initially encountered the teachings and sat with the local Sangha? Or was it after taking the Enlightened Society VoW – a high point in the ESA program? Or was it the moment Acharya Schneider proclaimed my new Shambhala name certified by the Sakyong’s seal of approval? Or maybe at some point in between? The countless centre visits, books read, and retreats attended? I suspect that it’s actually none of the above. For it feels like it is in the process of becoming, questioning, being the questions and living with them, that I inch closer to my truth. And in this process I witness my truth dissolve into everyone else’s truth, like the sound of the gong which calls us to practice while celebrating our basic and innate capacity to hear and to listen.