Monks and Mindfulness 5

The Way of Compassion Hosts Tibetan Monks in Carbondale

Three monks stand at the front of the room, chanting. Their murmuring, singing voices rise and fall in a persistent wall of sound. Rows of adults sit at attention, droplets of water tracing through hair, down foreheads, cheeks and necks. An insistent bell clangs, clangs, clangs. Delicate threads of smoky incense hang in the air. Monks ritually move along rows of participants. Upon completion, they rise and stretch, restored, sharing hugs, smiles and quiet conversation.

Hosted by the Way of Compassion Foundation’s Dharma Center, monks from Gaden Shartse monastery visited Carbondale for a weekend of teaching, healing and blessings. Their Vajravidaran purification ritual sought to remove negativities and their imprints, and to protect its participants in the future.

A steady, warm presence radiated from the back of the room—Laura Bartels, executive director of the Mindful Life Program, based in Carbondale. Bartels is married to a former Gaden Shartse monk, John Bruna. “In addition to the teachings, both cultural and Buddhist, that the monks bring, they are raising funds to feed, house and educate the monks back in the Tibetan refugee settlement in India, and to preserve the Tibetan monastic tradition,” explained Bartels.

As Spiritual Director of the Way of Compassion, Bruna maintains deep ties to Gaden Shartse. Founded in 1409 in Tibet, it’s where the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism emerged, but since the 1950s, when the Red Chinese Army invaded and occupied Tibet, the revered monastery has been located in India.

After the Chinese invasion, his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and established a government in exile in India. Under his guidance, Gaden Shartse monks re-established their monastery in Mundgod, in Southern India, with the goal of reviving Tibetan education, culture and Buddhist teachings. Each year, its monks tour, visiting Carbondale and many other places in pursuit of these goals.

From her post at the door, Bartels greeted all who came to the tantric healing, accepting donations for the monastery and selling copies of Bruna’s recently published book, “The Wisdom of a Meaningful Life.” Bartels, who founded the Mindful Life Program (MLP) along with Bruna and Mark Molony, hopes that MLP will bring mindfulness to a wider audience, not just Buddhists.

Bartels, known locally as a leader in the green building community, began studying Buddhism in Washington D.C. in the 1980’s. “I was always seeking healthier ways to respond to things in my life, to reduce my own mental and emotional suffering first, and those around me as well,” she explains. A car accident that injured both Bartels and her son catalyzed her practice. “Part of my long healing process involved mindfulness and meditation. It became an essential practice for dealing not just with healing, but with life and all its ups and downs and becoming more of the person I wanted to be.”

The Mindful Life Program and the Way of Compassion, which sponsored the monks and teaches Buddhism, are separate but related programs. MLP takes mindfulness practices outside the Buddhist tradition and, as Bruna puts it, presents “the transformative power of mindfulness within the rich context of its origins so that it is not limited to simple awareness and can truly empower people to flourish.” MLP also offers mindfulness programs online to give more accessibility to locals and to “take it out of just the domain of the wealthy, educated, upper-middle class community”.

For Bartels, “a meaningful life is lived with both attention and intention. When our attention is scattered, it’s hard to stay focused on an intention. Studies show that our mind is wandering about half the time we are awake. Also, when we don’t take the time to pause and reflect on our intentions, it doesn’t matter if we’ve cultivated attention. What matters is where we’re directing our attention and if we have control over that.”

So what inspires a room full of Westerners to listen to incomprehensible Tibetan chanting for 30 minutes?

Bartels reflects, “Each day is a day that will never come again, a day to be the person we want to be. We invite people to… ask themselves, how they would like to participate in it. What are the qualities they would like to develop in themselves? What are the values that are important to embody in their daily activities?”

“Every thought, word, and action plants seeds in the garden of your life,” writes John. “Are you planting seeds of love, compassion, peace—or those of anger, resentment and dissatisfaction? Choose wisely and tend your garden well.”