As if by Accident

An Excerpt from Ellen's upcoming memoir: Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust


Though I was skeptical of gurus back then in 1971, the title of Trungpa Rinpoche’s seminar, which I’d read in the newspaper—Passion, Aggression, and Ignorance— intrigued me. Hearing him describe the inner landscape of my mind, its struggles and uncertainties, was like hearing my mother tongue after living in a foreign country for a hundred years. Until that weekend, I’d resigned myself to living in private agony, tortured by self-consciousness, self-criticism, and shyness. Finally, I’d met someone from the same universe, or at least someone who understood.

During that October weekend, everyone was offered a private interview. Mine happened late Sunday afternoon. Rinpoche sat in a director’s chair, wearing dark suspenders against a white shirt, his jet black hair neatly combed. The weathered skin of his fleshy face seemed fluid and full of movement as if the molecules were swimming in a sea of energy, his round lips like waves. A can of Colt 45 beer sat perched on the table to his right beside a pack of Marlboros.

A sense of loneliness hung in the air. I had the impression that he was weary. As I sat down on the cushion in front of him, he looked at me without smiling and asked, “How old are you?”

My 19th birthday was two days away and had been on my mind all weekend. Though my life lay ahead of me, I felt incredibly old. His question pierced the burden I had carried since birth, and I burst into tears.

“Have you been doing any sitting?” he asked gently after the tears subsided.

“No, this is my first time,” I said.

Then, in the distinctive accent he had acquired studying at Oxford, he gave me meditation instruction. The instruction was simple and extremely ordinary, but he was there in a way that seemed so real. I hungered for that quality of presence, beyond all the food in the world. That’s how it all started, not from wanting a new religion or system of beliefs.

From that time on, I worked closely with Rinpoche. Meditation helped me befriend my own experience. If I felt pain or loneliness, that was okay. I didn’t have to try to be somebody else. No one in my life had ever acknowledged pain so directly. For nineteen years, I’d simply believed something was wrong with me, especially since the pain I carried didn’t seem to be mine. It was my parents who’d suffered, but they had seemingly put the past behind them. If they were capable of happiness, why wasn’t I?

Rinpoche had a gift for articulating our discomfort with uncertainty and the various ways we avoided experiencing it by covering it up. Being human seemed to invite this basic anxiety. Was this really true of everyone? It was a relief to feel I was part of a level playing field.

Meditation slowed things down so one could more easily notice this uncertainty and how we fended it off with an endless stream of thoughts and emotions to create a sense of solidity or me-ness—in relation to which everything not me helped define my existence. Like a microscope, meditation made the smaller particles of experience and mental events more visible. I absorbed his teachings like a sponge.

Sitting practice, as we called mindfulness-awareness meditation, was a paradox, a combination of trusting something and trusting nothing. It was like walking in an empty field and noticing all sorts of things usually ignored: clouds in the sky, the buzzing of insects, and the constant parades of tiny thoughts like half-buried ants marching on the ground. Since nothing else was happening, the ants could become the size of elephants, amplifying or dredging up anything ever said to us—millions of thoughts and feelings and fantasies, if only to pass the time.

After its initial fascination, meditation often became boring, and Rinpoche considered this a step in the right direction, an opportunity to face ourselves honestly instead of wearing a spiritual costume. And then one day, as if by accident, we found ourselves just there, sitting on the ground.

During those first months of sitting, I began to notice gaps between my thoughts. If I sat long enough, a sense of well-being often arose. The sense of psychological space felt refreshing, as if layers of dust were brushed from my skin and the air could finally enter my pores. Despite ups and downs, meditation usually gave rise to a sense of clarity, brightness, and even humor. It seemed like the only thing that made sense to me, perhaps for the very reason that there was no magic formula, no promise of happiness or bliss.

But the idea that damaged spirits who had suffered a traumatic death in the Holocaust were open to a Buddhist perspective seemed hard to imagine, considering my past and how upset my family became when I first visited Rinpoche’s meditation center in Vermont, then called Tail of the Tiger.

“If you continue with this Buddhism, you will be disowned.”

I couldn’t understand why my father was so adamant since he didn’t believe in religion. It seemed like a complete misunderstanding since, to me, Buddhism wasn’t a religion at all. It became painfully obvious that neither of my parents cared what sort of practice I was doing. Though I wasn’t praying before strange idols or giving away my possessions—just sitting and following my breath—the label was what mattered.

When I told Rinpoche how my parents had threatened to disown me, he said, “Don’t try explaining to them in words.” His voice was casual, yet soft. We were standing outside the bathroom in the old Vermont farmhouse which served as both meditation center and communal living quarters. I moved a few inches closer.

“But what do I do now? How do I handle it?” I asked.

“You have to show them by how you are,” Rinpoche said, framing his words carefully. “Your family is very important. Don’t cut them off. There is heavy family karma here. One day, they will understand what you’re doing.”

One day . . . but what would I do in the meantime? I felt torn by what seemed like an irresolvable dilemma. On the one hand, Rinpoche’s advice was practical. It was also enigmatic—as if he knew more than he was saying about the past and future.

From then on, I did my best to avoid arguments and any mention of Buddhism, trying not to alienate my family, while embracing the lineage that spoke to my heart.

Ellen Mains became a student of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche in 1971 in Montreal, Canada. Since then she has taught in various capacities within the Shambhala community in both the U.S. and Europe. In addition to meditation, she is trained in several body-mind practices including Kyudo (the Way of the Bow), and currently guides people in an embodied practice called “Inner Relationship Focusing.” She lives in Boulder, Colorado and has written a soon-to-be-released memoir called: Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust.