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Obstacles on the Path (September 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2014

EXCERPT:

Obstacles on the Path

If there’s a rock in your path, you have to move it, go around it, or climb over it. The same is true in meditation, says SAKYONG MIPHAM. You can’t just pretend obstacles aren’t there. You have to relate to them. 

In meditation, we are on a journey from here to whatever we are trying to accomplish, be it mindfulness, peace, or compassion. We are developing the ability to have a fuller experience of our lives. But as we gain understanding and insight, there is a buildup of residue, which in Tibetan we call döns, or obstacles. An obstacle is something that cuts the line of our intention. If, while sitting in meditation with the motivation of benefiting others, we realize we are thinking about work, then obviously our intention has been cut. We are no longer on our intended journey.

The tricky thing is that we don’t always know when obstacles are arising. To detect them, we have to know our mind and our intention. The point is to be vigilant as we practice. As we settle our mind through meditation, any kind of imperfection in our character becomes stronger. With awareness, we can manifest our own genuineness about any obstacle we face. Intention is important.



Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s most recent book is
The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure.




Read the rest of this article inside the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

There Is a Path that Frees Us from Suffering / Gina Sharpe profile (September 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2014

There is a Path that Frees Us from Suffering

Insight teacher Gina Sharpe is working to create a truly inclusive sangha. The place to start, she says, is facing the truth that even Buddhist communities aren’t free from the suffering caused by racism. A profile by ANDREA MILLER.


Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe once asked a student why she only attended meditation retreats that were specifically for people of color.

“Gina,” the woman answered, “I’m from the South. If I’m the only black person in a room of ninety-nine white people, there’s only one thing that’s going to happen.”

“What’s that?” Sharpe asked.

Then came the woman’s answer—graphic and powerful.

“A lynching,” she said.

Looking back, Sharpe pinpoints this as the moment when she “really got it.” While the white Buddhist community may be very sweet, very well intentioned, that doesn’t change people’s visceral experience. “It was nothing I could argue with,” Sharpe explains. “It’s an emotional wound that won’t heal.”

Originally from Jamaica, Sharpe has a complex heritage—white, black, and Chinese. “I’m so assimilated that I’m more comfortable than many people of color in a white world,” she acknowledges. As a Buddhist practitioner in the Insight Meditation tradition, she never had any qualms about attending retreats that were otherwise all white, and for a long time she didn’t entirely grasp how difficult it was for many people of color. Yet the first time she led a people of color retreat, she noticed an unfamiliar feeling of relaxation.

“I didn’t realize that when I’m not in a diverse place, there’s a certain amount of unconscious tension that I carry,” she says. When she practiced with other people of color, the tension dropped away.

New York Insight is ten floors up on West 27th, but even from this height I can hear the sounds of Manhattan below—horns honking, music pulsing.

Gina Sharpe is at the front of the room wearing an understated gray top and black slacks. Previously a successful corporate lawyer, she was one of the center’s cofounders seventeen years ago and is now its guiding teacher. To open her teaching, she taps a singing bowl, releasing a warm hum.

“We choose to spend our time together as a community,” she says. “Even though we come together in what appears to be separate bodies contained in our own sacks of skin, we are inexorably connected. So, in that spirit, I ask you to turn to the people around you.”

Reaching out my hand to greet my neighbors, I suddenly see what makes New York Insight unusual. Like so many convert Buddhist centers in North America, it has a clean look that is at once cheerful and spare. There are tidy rows of chairs and cushions, a pot of orchids, and a soothing statue of the Buddha. But unlike so many convert Buddhist centers, New York Insight has a diverse membership. Indeed, it looks like New York City itself—a vibrant mix of black, white, Asian, Latino.

While it might be tempting to think that this diversity happened automatically—a natural result of the center’s urban, multicultural location—it is actually the product of years of effort.

According to Buddhist philosophy, ultimately there is neither black nor white; these are simply constructions of mind. But practically, there is a legacy of slavery in America, and racism is woven into the fabric of society. This is real.

“Given that,” Sharpe tells me, “it’s not just a matter of ‘Let’s put people in a room together and let them meditate and everything will be hunky-dory.’ Work has to be done on all different fronts.”

And that work starts with understanding structural racism. “What does structural racism really mean? It means it’s not your fault,” says Sharpe. “You’re not to blame—you don’t have to feel guilty—but you should recognize it as a problem that needs a solution. And how do we as Buddhists solve problems? The first thing we do is we sit down and try to see the truth.”

Yet many Buddhists don’t want to see that structural racism operates in their own communities. According to Sharpe, white Buddhists often believe they’re so goodwilled that they can’t possibly be racist, and this means that they can’t be taught. Nobody wants to be seen as racist; nobody wants to look inside and see racist tendencies. “So when you bring racism up,” she says, “there’s so much guilt and shame about it that you get shamed.”

They’re not coming. What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they coming for these precious teachings that we have? This, according to Sharpe, is frequently the underlying attitude of predominantly white sanghas in regard to people of color not attending their centers. “There’s a feeling of ‘It’s their issue, not my issue,’” she says. “But racism hurts everybody.

 

If it weren’t for Duke Ellington, Gina Sharpe might still be in Jamaica.

Her mother was a legal secretary in Kingston, her father an alcoholic and womanizer. The couple divorced when Sharpe was five. Then a few years later, her mother decided to try to make a better life for her three daughters. Leaving them in the care of one of her former teachers, she immigrated to the United States, where she worked as a domestic servant—the only thing she could do under the radar.

Sharpe describes what happened to her as a Cinderella story. The teacher, who had a rather plain daughter, was cruel to the attractive Sharpe sisters. They were all supposed to have their own bedroom, but instead she piled them into one room and sometimes didn’t give them any food to eat. Not wanting to add to their mother’s burden, the girls did not tell her what was happening.

Finally, one of the sister’s school friends told her father about the situation, and he marched over to the teacher’s house. “I’ll talk to your mother later,” he told the girls, “but you’re coming with me now.” He and his wife already had five children of their own, but they welcomed the Sharpes into their family.

Meanwhile, the girls’ mother got married and acquired legal status in the U.S., yet she still couldn’t send for her daughters because she didn’t have enough money in the bank to satisfy the immigration requirements. But her new husband, a musician, was friendly with Duke Ellington. One day, Ellington caught her crying and asked what was wrong. After she explained the situation, he put the needed money into her bank account, and she immediately set to work on reuniting with her children.

Gina Sharpe, at age eleven, left her native land. Driving from the airport through Harlem, she was taken aback by the relentless expanse of towering buildings, the dirt, and the stark absence of nature. Yet she does not remember ever being homesick for Jamaica.

Sharpe had always excelled academically and, at her new school, a placement test landed her in ninth grade, making her three years younger than her classmates. Moreover, she was put into an experimental double-honors class for especially gifted students. It was like being at a private school, only without the price tag.

Sharpe was just fifteen years old when she entered Barnard, the prestigious women’s college affiliated with Columbia, and the age difference between her and her classmates proved to be too much. Unprepared for the extracurricular activities of sex and alcohol, she dropped out after one year and got a job as a secretary and—briefly—as a model. She did not have to strike too many poses before concluding that models were treated like pieces of meat. Moving to the West Coast, Sharpe became an assistant to a movie producer and worked on the films Little Big Man, Alice’s Restaurant, and Paper Lion. She introduced her sister Alma to the sixties’ sex symbol Troy Donahue and the two were married for a couple of years.

In 1970, Gina Sharpe returned to Barnard and completed her degree in philosophy with a minor in psychology. As it happened, on the day of her graduation Duke Ellington was across the street at Columbia. Though she did not speak with Ellington, Sharpe sat in the audience and watched as he was awarded an honorary degree.

 

Night has fallen, and through the windows at New York Insight all I see is darkness speckled with light shining from other windows near and far.

Tonight Sharpe is offering a few Buddhist meditation pointers, which are in essence all about being at ease without collapsing. I try to “breathe the breath” as she recommends, and then she shifts into what she calls “the underpinning of the practice”—the Buddhist teachings.

About her meetings with students, Sharpe says, “I want to understand how the practice is manifesting in their life and thinking, because I believe that practice should permeate everything. It shouldn’t be that you sit for forty-five minutes or an hour in the morning, and then you get up and there’s no more thought of it. In every moment, there’s a dharma lesson.”

So when a student comes to Sharpe with a real-life concern such as “My mom is dying,” Sharpe’s response is twofold. First there is the simple human piece, which is, “Oh my God, your mom’s dying. How are you and how is she?” Then Sharpe shifts into her role as a teacher, leading her student to explore deeper questions in the vein of: How does impermanence work in your life? What was your relationship to your mom? Are you holding resentment toward her and have you worked with that from the point of view of suffering and the end of suffering? Sharpe may point students in a certain direction, but, she says, “The student is wise enough to get it. I don’t have to lend my wisdom because they’ve got their own wisdom that they can work with.”

Sharpe’s approach leading tonight’s dharma talk is similar. In fact, as she puts it, it’s not so much that she’s leading a dharma talk but rather that we’re all creating the talk together. The format is inquiry, and it’s not a one-way street.

A woman sitting cross-legged on her chair takes the mike and explains that she’s been meditating consistently for quite a while and she can feel how the practice has transformed her life. Yet, she says, “I have a hard time with actually landing on the teachings. They don’t stick.”

“What do you mean?” Sharpe probes.

“Like the four noble truths. I’ve heard them a million times, but every time it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what they are!’ Somehow I’m not super connected to them.”

“Is it okay?”

The woman adjusts her hat. For her, she says, it’s okay. Yet she wonders if it really is. She’s just happy doing what she’s doing. Shouldn’t there be a next step?

Sharpe pauses. “So what can I do for you?”

“I love your questions!” The woman smiles. “I guess the question is… I mean… you don’t know me well enough to give me the answer on a personal level.”

“Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t!” Sharpe laughs. “Everybody learns differently. Maybe you don’t need to know what the four noble truths are.”

The woman persists: “Is it important to find a teacher?”

“Is it important to you?”

“I guess I’d want to have a reflection at some point.”

“When it becomes a heart’s desire—if it ever does—then you look for a teacher.” But for now, Sharpe asks, what are other ways to seek the answers to life’s big questions?

“There’s a lot,” the woman says. “Meditation is one.”

“Beautiful.”

“Therapy, friendships.”

“Beautiful.”

“Nature.”

“Go for it!” says Sharpe. “Live your life fully. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s.”

There is skillful means in Sharpe’s teaching. It’s not one size fits all. When a man in a grass-green shirt and glasses asks a related question, she gives a much more tempered, traditional response.

The man, who identifies himself as Ken, explains that he appreciates how meditation focuses the mind. Yet he’s unclear how this leads to what he defines as the larger objectives of meditation: developing compassion and understanding no-self and impermanence.

“How long have you been practicing?” Sharpe asks him.

“For a few years but not consistently. Sometimes I give it up.”

“Have you ever been on a silent retreat?”

“No, but I try to go to dharma meetings about three times a week, here and at Tibet House and the Shambhala Center.”

“So where do you think you’re falling short?”

Ken simply repeats that he isn’t seeing the connection between meditation and wisdom.

Sharpe asks, “Are you interested in being able to think it through, or are you interested in being able to see it work its way into your life?”

“I’d like to know the intellectual connection.”

“Aha! Well, there’s a lot to be said for being able to reflect—we’re intellectual beings. But we’re also emotional and physical beings. The way to realize these connections is not by thinking them through.”

Take the concept of impermanence, she tells him. You can watch the shifting tides and the spinning hands on a clock and you can tell yourself 150,000 times that everything is impermanent. Yet that doesn’t mean you understand it in your gut.

As Sharpe sees it, the teachings of the different schools of Buddhism all wind up in the same place: the four noble truths. Nonetheless, if we’re all over the place in our practice, shopping around and sampling different traditions, we may have breadth but not depth. When we choose a path and delve into it deeply, our intention is not like a cork bobbing on the water but like a stone dropping down: the mind steadies and insight appears.

“If you’ve been practicing for a while, a retreat is really helpful,” says Sharpe. On retreat, you get a base of stillness and silence, which broadens and deepens your practice at home.

“Then insight is nothing that you have to seek,” she concludes. “It simply happens. The mind is still and so it sees the nature of reality, and, from that, wisdom and compassion arise. When we see for ourselves that we are deeply connected to other beings, we don’t have to try to be compassionate. Compassion arises because we know there’s no difference between us. Your sadness is my sadness; your joy is my joy. Meditation is a way of helping the mind settle so it understands that in a deep way.”

 

Gina Sharpe’s home is full of buddhas. There’s a white one presiding over the kitchen where her husband, John Fowle, is making lunch. Then there’s a buddha of gilded wood in the piano room and one of brass in the bedroom. And hanging on the living room wall there’s a Chinese painting on tin of an arhat. Thirty-five years ago, Sharpe tells me, she was going up an escalator in Bloomingdale’s when she saw this arhat and decided he had to be rescued from just being somebody’s decoration. For Sharpe, Buddhist imagery is a tangible reminder to practice. She smiles when she puts it this way: “Lest you forget.”

Fowle serves lunch in the dining room and the three of us cluster at one end of a long table. In the center, there’s a South African table runner decorated with a giraffe motif, and at our feet there’s a cat with a charmingly strident meow. The meal is a carrot-mushroom medley, perfectly seasoned asparagus, and brown rice topped with a kidney bean stew. Though I relish every bite, Fowle insists that his wife is the better cook.

The couple met more than three decades ago when they were both young lawyers—Fowle working for a firm in the Bahamas and Sharpe working for another in New York. Their first date was at a restaurant that served platters of sizzling steak, and Fowle says he was so nervous that he invited a friend along. “This particular friend was married to a brain surgeon, and he told me not to get involved with Gina because she was too smart. I totally ignored his advice.”

Less than two years later, on an afternoon in September, Fowle and Sharpe went to Tiffany’s and picked out a ring. The next day they got married.

I ask Sharpe how she and her husband find equilibrium in their relationship, and her answer is generosity and kindness. According to Sharpe, marriage is difficult because it’s a very close relationship with someone who has their own practice, their own history, and their own ideas about how things should be. We all have a history of trauma, isolation, and abandonment, and so much of what constitutes life is how our past difficulties manifest and how we work with that. Marriage, she says, is not just about “How do I get my needs met?” It’s about “How do I get my needs met? How does the other person get their needs met and how does the relationship, which is a third entity, get what it needs?”

“A marital relationship,” says Sharpe, “shows you all of the places where you’re stuck, all of the places where you’re selfish. Marriage is the dharma of sex and money and work and relationship all contained in one situation. If we look at it as practice, then we learn from the conflicts that naturally arise.”

As for Sharpe and Fowle, I’ve rarely encountered a couple so supportive of each other. When I ask Fowle who his teacher is, he tells me there’s a group: Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield. But his number one is his wife.

“This is clearly biased,” he says. “I don’t care. Gina is the best there is. What I love about Gina’s teachings is that they can cover a Buddhist text and be very detailed, and then she’ll open it up and take you from your head to your heart.” Fowle also points to the work that Sharpe has done for people of color in the dharma.

 “It’s not about proselytizing to those ‘poor people of color’ who need to know the dharma,” she explains. “When we’re in a room that’s not diverse, we’re missing opinions, we’re missing viewpoints of the world. So getting a more diverse sangha is about enriching our community. It’s not about getting them to come get what we’ve got but for them to bring with them what they’ve got. When we all study the dharma together, it becomes really rich.”

Sharpe feels that a critical step to encourage diversity is retreats and sitting groups specifically for people of color. In these safe spaces, people of color have the opportunity to connect with Buddhist practice and many of them will fall so in love with it that they’ll then begin attending general retreats and sitting groups.

In 2005, Sharpe was instrumental in establishing the NYI People of Color Sangha, a sitting group that meets once a month. This was followed by other initiatives to reach out to people of color and to educate convert Buddhists, particularly those in leadership positions, about issues of race, diversity, and equity.

Recently, Sharpe and her collaborators launched “Cultivating a Beloved Community,” an eight-week course that explores differences and similarities through a Buddhist lens. The first course was led by four teachers—a white lesbian, a black gay man, a white straight man, and a black straight woman—and forty-five people applied for the sixteen available spots. “It’s not just talking about race or sexual orientation or prejudice,” says Sharpe.“It’s really looking at suffering and the end of suffering.”

“The way suffering ends,” she concludes, “is that its cause is understood. Racism is a huge part of American suffering. If we’re not attending to it, we’re being ignorant.”



Read the rest of this article inside the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

On Track with Paul Newman (September 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2014

EXCERPT:

On Track with Paul Newman

Between blockbuster movies, car racing, and salad dressing, Paul Newman was one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities. Yet, says MICHAEL STONE, he was one of those rare people who could sit still and watch the rain fall.

I’d seen Paul Newman around the track. He wore shades, he always had his collar up, and he seemed like the wise, rebellious leader of both his team and the entire paddock. He said good morning to everyone, like a man from a time when men were elegant.

I was twenty at the time, studying philosophy at the University of British Columbia, and depressed. In the summers I ran communications and marketing for a racing-car team owned by a wealthy businessman from Toronto. Through my girlfriend, Laura, I was introduced to Paul at a dinner in Monterey, California. Laura thought I’d be able to find a job with his team.

Our first private conversation was at the Homestead racetrack in Florida. Paul was sitting in an oversized chair in his custom bus, tracing his fingers down the window as raindrops streaked the glass.

“Michael?” He stood up and reached out his hand.

“Good to meet you,” I said.

“Do you bet?”

“Not really,” I answered, looking down at his white socks and running shoes.

“Have a seat,” he said.

There was just a small table between us, and my left knee was almost touching his. He was wearing a Kmart baseball cap and white golf shirt, and it was funny to see someone his age and so admired covered in corporate logos. Feeling like I needed to say something, I stated the obvious: “It’s been raining a lot.”

“How long,” he asked, “do you think it takes for a raindrop to go from the top of the window to the bottom?” His watch was on the table. Maybe he’d been timing the raindrops as he’d been sitting here alone. Maybe he wasn’t alone much. “Pick a raindrop,” he said.

I pointed to one on the window and he pointed to another. My raindrop moved slowly down the tall, tinted window, touched another raindrop, then shot down to the windowsill. Meanwhile, Paul’s thin, old finger traced the path of his raindrop as it dripped slowly down the glass, then crossed the window toward me and finally came to a stop right in front of my knee.

“Again,” he said.

This time I chose a drop at the top of the window. It moved sideways and then stopped. It was absorbed by another droplet and then the whole area pooled, becoming one large drop, which slid down. Paul’s raindrop made a slow, straight line to the bottom of the window, and he looked over at me and smiled.




Read this complete article inside the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Is Nothing Something? (September 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2014

EXCERPT:

Is Nothing Something?

THICH NHAT HANH answers children’s questions.

Children have a special place in the Plum Village tradition of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. There are special practices, vows, and programs designed especially for children and teens, and Thich Nhat Hanh often fashions the first part of his dharma talks with them in mind. He regularly takes questions from children, and by and large adults can identify with what they ask. Children may be smaller and younger and they may have a funny way with words, but their questions reveal that they, like adults, are grappling with the human condition. What follows are real questions from children and Thich Nhat Hanh’s insightful answers from a new illustrated book, Is Nothing Something? “I always try to give an answer that offers the best of myself,” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “I am much older than the children who asked these questions, but when we sit and breathe together, it seems that we are the same.” —Andrea Miller

 
What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is energy. This energy helps us enjoy what is happening right now. Mindful energy can bring us a lot of joy. It helps us suffer less and learn from our suffering. A good way to get some mindful energy is to close your eyes and breathe easily. Just pay attention to your breath. If you can enjoy your in-breath and out-breath, you are creating mindful energy.


Is nothing something?

Yes. Nothing is something. You have an idea in your head of nothing. You have an idea in your head of something. Both are things that can create either suffering or happiness.

 
Why do I sometimes feel lonely and that no one loves me?

Sometimes the people around you are distracted and may forget to express their love. But if you feel like no one loves you, you can always look outside at the natural world. Do you see a tree out there? That tree loves you. It offers its beauty and freshness to you and gives you oxygen so you can breathe. The Earth loves you, offering you fresh water and delicious fruit for you to eat. The world expresses its love in many ways, not just with words.


How can I love someone who likes different things than me?

To love is to discover. If you keep on loving another person, you will keep discovering wonderful things about that person. You can enjoy the differences because it would be boring if everyone were the same. Even if the other person has a quality that doesn’t seem lovable, you can practice loving that person  anyway, just as they are, and not how you wish they were.




See more inside the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

RAIN Cools the Flames of Anger (September 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | September 2014

RAIN Cools the Flames of Anger


EMILY HORN teaches us how to recognize, accept, investigate, and not identify with our anger. 

The best way to transform anger and other strong emotions is to befriend them. As with any relationship, it takes time to become intimate with the inner workings of our minds. To do it we need courage and strength. And we need the help of an effective technique.

Peeling away the layers of anger moves us closer to life and empowers us to stand up for justice. One of the most effective ways to deepen and transform our relationship with anger is a four-step mindfulness-based practice known by the acronym RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identify. Here’s how it works.

 

1. Recognize Anger

The first step of the practice is to recognize the many forms that anger takes. The energy of anger can move from irritation to resentment to rage. One form can fuel another in a fiery chain reaction that takes just seconds to explode.

We must be willing to face the demons that lie inside us so we are not controlled by them. There are many moments when anger arises without being recognized. Because we fear the intensity of anger, we allow it to build up over time, but pushing anger away or denying it only causes unconscious aggression.

Anger doesn’t just disappear when we start to meditate. But with mindfulness practice and the support of others, we can recognize it more quickly when it arises and have the presence to respond appropriately.

 

2. Accept Anger

Learning to accept anger is the second aspect of RAIN. Nonjudgmental acceptance melts the frozen and unconscious aspects of anger and cools the heat of active anger.

It is natural for our protective instincts to arise in certain circumstances. These are an important part of our evolutionary history. Befriending anger requires us to welcome our survival instincts as they arise. You don’t need to judge or condemn them.

We must learn to accept not only our personal anger but also the collective anger that permeates our world. Patience and forgiveness, for both ourselves and others, are important practices to help cool the flames of aggression.

 

3. Investigate Anger

The third step is to investigate the nature of anger. What is this energy that morphs and changes? That can burn like fire and harden like ice?

When you recognize anger is arising, you can use your attention to zoom into all the different layers and forms of anger. This includes bodily sensations, thoughts, and the whole range of feelings on the anger spectrum.

Is the anger light, dark, murky, or hot? Where is it felt in the body? What happens to your breath when you’re angry? What are the themes of your thoughts?

By applying your curiosity directly to the feeling of anger, you can change a potential damaging moment into a powerful experience of energy. This will create wise change.

By investigating anger you begin to notice how anger morphs into other emotions. You see the subtle ways you identify with your anger, and how the intensity of anger is like a glue that sticks you to your storylines. This leads to the final step of RAIN practice.

 

4. Not Identify with Anger

When we practice non-identification, we set aside the stories we tell ourselves about our anger. Focusing on the movement of the breath softens our identification with these stories so we can simply be with what’s happening.

When we move beyond our personal story, we open into awareness. Non-identification brings the understanding that anger arises and passes away. In that moment we become even more intimate with anger.

We burn out quickly when we identify with our anger, when we don’t recognize how it is driving us, when lack curiosity and investigation. But when we befriend anger, it fuels empowerment, resilience, and change. It deepens into non-separation and living in less harmful ways. Learning to use RAIN—recognizing, accepting, investigating, and non-identifying—turns the suffering of anger into a conscious and workable energy. Through the art of mindfulness, we see the harm that our anger has caused and use it instead to power our lives for the benefit of all.

 

Emily Horn is an Insight Meditation teacher and the community director of Buddhist Geeks, which explores what it means to be a Buddhist in this high-tech world. She lives with her husband in Asheville, North Carolina.



From the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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