A World of Difference

by Yuichi Handa

In the post to follow, Yuichi Handa, a long-time meditation practitioner, teacher, and author shares two related and parallel stories: the first, of his relationship to meditation practice and the Dharma, and the second, of his relationship to writing and Shambhala Art. 

Yuichi will be leading a Contemplative Creativity Lab on “Journaling as Practice,” on May 8, 2021, which is open to all through Zoom.  Workshop information and registration along with further bio info for Yuichi can be found here.  Seattle Shambhala Center is a co-sponsor, along with Los Angeles Shambhala Center, of the Contemplative Creativity Lab and this program. 

[Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash]

You might say that I lived in pursuit of peak experiences in my teens and 20s.  If heightened moments were a thing, I would have been called a materialist.  Besides experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a teenager (and seeing/experiencing that as a dead end), I’d also attended a handful of meditation retreats, and experienced moments of profound peace and understanding during most of those.

And yet, at some point in my early 30s, it dawned on me that all the moments and experiences in the world—or of my lifetime up to that point—didn’t seem to amount to much in the midst of, say, a tense argument with my wife at the time.  I was still essentially the same person, as if I had never meditated, with the same patterns of aggression, attachment, and denial in those moments of truth.

This is to say that neither my on-again-off-again meditation practice nor any of the wondrous experiences I had undergone seemed to be showing up when it mattered most.

It wasn’t until about 20 years ago, when I began abandoning the pursuit of moments and experiences and replacing it with the aspiration for something more consistent, disciplined, and sustainable, that I began seeing meaningful changes underneath.  I had struggled to keep up a daily meditation practice for well over a decade up until that point, and it really wasn’t until I made this shift in priorities that it finally stuck.

About a decade later, I met my teacher, Khentrul Lodrö Thayé Rinpoche, in perhaps one of the most, if not the most, pivotal moments of my life.  And here is the point of this narrative: I’m not sure I would have been ready for the mind- and life-altering effect of my encounter with him had I not already been committed to a robust daily practice for the prior decade.  It was that daily practice that revealed to me in blatant and glaring detail the shoddy quality of my mind despite all (or most) outward appearances otherwise.  You could say that I knew my mind well, especially in its deeply ingrained neurotic tendencies, and from within that mind, I could see and sense that Rinpoche’s mind was profoundly different in depth and scope, in clarity, openness, and even rigor—I’d met with some of the most brilliant people on the planet, including a few Nobel prize winners, and yet, his mind felt thoroughly different, as if in a different category altogether.

In one way, it was as if my practice up to that point was pure junk, useless drivel, (and naturally, my entire practice changed from that day forward).  At the same time, I understood that perhaps all of it was necessary.  Without that daily encounter with my own mind for years and years, the impact would likely not have been the same.  Certainly, the encounter with Rinpoche’s mind was important.  But it was the preliminary work—the commitment to maintaining a container of daily practice—that I believe to have been key.  It’s what allowed me to appreciate what was happening while it was happening, which I may have missed otherwise.  But because I was so ready for it, it meant all the world to me, and in turn, it changed the course of my life.

All of this is to say that one can have profound experiences and encounters, but without the proper priming, there likely won’t be genuine appreciation and understanding of the significance of such moments.  The encounter then won’t pierce through to the core of one’s being.  It won’t penetrate to the heart of one’s lifelong struggles.  And without that, there likely won’t be the necessary follow-through in action and commitment to try to embody the qualities inherent in such moments.  And without the dedicated follow-through in action—the long effort—what, really, is the point?

I could also put it like this: the saying goes that the teacher appears when the student is ready.  But that doesn’t fully capture the phenomenon.  The truth of it is that the teacher is always present and always has been, and it’s only when the student is primed and ready that the student finally perceives the appearance of the teacher.  In turn, the student may even come to recognize the timeless nature of it all, but that’s another story for another time.

My first encounters with Shambhala Arts took place around 2004 or 2005 at both the Baltimore Shambhala group and Karmê Chöling in Vermont.  I deeply cherished and enjoyed the workshops/retreats, as well as the people I met.  Many of the experiences and teachings felt resonant and meaningful to me.  And yet, if I’m being honest, hardly any of it stuck.  Or perhaps it did underneath my notice, but as far as I was concerned, it was similar to what I wrote above about things not showing up when it mattered most.


[Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash]

In fact, the entire enterprise felt a bit superfluous to me usually after a few weeks.

Fast forward to 2021.  Or let’s make that 2017.  I was a tenured professor at CSU Chico in mathematics and mathematics education, and long story short, I decided to resign, mostly because it didn’t feel like it was the life I was supposed to be living.

A few years prior to quitting, I just so happened (!) to have gotten back to writing daily.  Although I had been writing on and off for most of my life, my relationship to writing was very similar to the relationship I initially had to meditation.  I found some level of fulfillment and enjoyment in it, and yet, it was more about the enjoyment, and less about the daily discipline and dedication of showing up to it.  One thing I’ve learned about myself is that the pursuit of enjoyment oftentimes degenerates to self-indulgence, sloppiness, lack of care, disconnection, and ultimately, disappointment.  On the other hand, a disciplined and sustained effort almost always leads to an experience of genuine joy, likely due to some level of competency that results from the long effort.  Or maybe it’s that the process of showing up to something repeatedly across years and sometimes decades chips away at all that isn’t love and joy?

Anyhow, even after quitting my job, I continued to write just about every day and have been doing so for the past few years.  Some days, it’s simply pages and pages of journaling or note-taking, but about half the days, I’m writing and editing with the intent for others to read what I’m writing, like what I’m doing here, and that has also led to plenty of short pieces scattered across the web along with seven to eight published books during this time.

It was in this milieu of creative regularity that I happened to visit a Shambhala Art gathering just about a month ago.  Before that, I hadn’t been involved with anything related to Shambhala Art for about eight or nine years.  And yet, I felt the same feelings of surprise, gladness, insight, exhilaration, connection, and joy that I had felt in prior encounters.  More importantly, though, something had changed, and I don’t believe it was the program or people.

The difference was that I was approaching it as a regular creator, as someone who now had what amounted to a daily creative practice.  Somehow, the direction and flow of my life were in sync with the direction and flow of the program.  Whereas prior encounters with Shambhala Art might be likened to visiting a beautiful place in a far-off country, this most recent engagement was like finding a cherished treasure in my own backyard.  It felt close to the life I was living, not something to be yearned for, since one doesn’t yearn for the life that one already lives.  And yet, it also felt rejuvenating and utterly supportive.

In practical terms, I left that recent gathering with such inspiration and energy that I immediately began work on a short compilation of past writings that I hadn’t known what to do with for over five years, and I finished a first draft in two weeks!

So that’s the take-away here.  My appreciation for the Shambhala Art function I recently attended was mediated by my own relationship and commitment to creating and showing up to the act of creating.  What I once experienced as a dalliance or fleeting flirtation now feels like a potential for genuine relationship.  Somehow the lived experience in and of itself was the same—filled with the familiar sense of wonder, excitement, and promise—and yet, everything to follow appears different.  Put differently: in the moments themselves, the differences are nearly indistinguishable.  But where things look to be leading, it’s a world of difference.


2 thoughts on “A World of Difference

  1. Very inspiring and meaningful to me. Writing has been one of the richest and most fruitful aspects of my life, and I have been neglecting it–and feeling as if I am not offering to myself or the world who I really am at my core. I hope to be able to register for your journaling class. Thank you

  2. Thank you for reading and for your kind words, Tarney! And it was nice to meet you at the workshop!

    It’s a lovely thing, I think, to come back to one’s creative expression, to have even the smallest of domains in which we *create*–or co-create, really. Somehow that same quality of being then expands out into our lives, and before we know it, we find ourselves co-creating a fresh, new life, one that we couldn’t have imagined beforehand. 😉

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