How I Found Dharma Refuge



We base our lives on routines. Some we end up with because they give us comfort and instant gratification in the now. Others we proactively build based on a notion that in the long run they will bring benefit. A little while ago it dawned on me that I spend a lot of time sitting around. Every single week I'd spend hours and in some months I’d spend multiple days of doing nothing but sitting and watching. When you step back and consider that ~33% of our lives we are asleep, all that sitting adds up to a good chunk of the remaining waking hours. Hours that I could be doing something more useful and yet time after time I instead choose to just sit and meditate.

This post is my story on how I discovered Dharma Refuge, a local non-profit group where people come together to practice meditation.

Many have written about the benefits of meditation and many others have disputed those claims as not being scientifically/clinically proven. Those who practice it and those who don’t each have their own reasons and opinions. These are my reasons for doing it…

  • It’s a mental exercise in learning how to stay focused. Kind of like doing push-ups but for your brain.
  • It allows you to learn more about your own mind. Learn what is in it by observing types of thoughts/emotions/sensations that tend to pop up
  • It allows you to practice self-awareness by training the mind to notice its own state and consciously decide how to respond to what's arising
  • Through self-awareness, it helps us achieve a higher degree of emotional/mental self-regulation since once we notice our own state, we are able to pause and then (not always) proceed with a more skillful response.

Before 2020 introduced its own set of challenges and disruptions, my meditation practice included 15-min sitting every morning, attending a weekly 35-min sitting at Dharma Refuge, every ~1-2 months finding a day of silence for ~8 hours of meditation/reflection and once a year in October going up to Jefferson, ME for a 5-day silent retreat. In 2020, the daily/weekly practice is still going strong, but it is those longer pauses in life that I’ve begun to miss lately.

But here meditation is only half the story, the other half is that along the way I discovered Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which in their tradition (as well as in several other traditions) are collectively called Dharma. What I have come to appreciate is that while meditation plays a central role in a Buddhist practice, in itself meditation is simply a technique or a tool (think of a “hammer”). The Dharma and the people who devote decades, if not their entire lives, to studying and teaching the Dharma is what helps people like myself to learn how to use that tool effectively (i.e. when you pick up a hammer, do you build a mailbox, a shed, a house or just go around bashing things?).

I don’t label myself as a Buddhist. I’m not even sure if there is such a thing; there could be but I’m not. But I do regularly attend meditation and dharma teaching sessions. I don’t generally advertise this part of me when I meet new people, but I also don’t try to hide it, and from time to time it does come up in conversations. It is always interesting to see people’s reactions, which range quite widely. Oftentimes, the follow-up question I get is, how did it happen?

It’s an excellent question, considering that to most people (myself at one point in time included) Buddhism is simply a religion, one of several major ones, but in no way special or differentiated from the others. Whereas, having been raised until the age of 11 in a Soviet Union where the government did their best to eradicate all traces of religion, prior to this I barely attended a handful of religious services my entire life and those that I did attend, were in my childhood and generally against my will. For the majority of my life, I did not have a single spiritual bone in my body that I was aware of. In fact with my upbringing growing up in Eastern Europe and with two engineer parents on top of that, I had plenty of bones that did the opposite, they would actively scream to stay away from anything that smelled like any kind of organized religion.

So that’s the starting point for this story, and thinking back, it yet again feels like another series of random events.

In the Summer of 2015, my wife and I spent a few months living in Asia while the courts were finalizing paperwork for our adopted son. We stayed mostly in Seoul, South Korea but also got a chance to visit Hong Kong and Japan. While in Japan we took a 9-day bus tour to see a number of various places around the country. We spent A LOT of time on a bus. It was on that trip that I dipped into Amazon’s philosophy section and dug out Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a very interesting read and after I finished it, I noticed (either in Kindle Store or on Goodreads, don’t remember), it was tagged Buddhism. For all of five seconds I had a thought cross my mind, “hmm curious, good book but I don’t see the Buddhism connection” and then… I moved on with my life.

About half a year later, having gone through the rotations of the book genres that I typically read, I once again turned to looking for the next philosophy book. As I was scrolling through pages and pages of various titles on Amazon looking for something that would catch the eye, the one that caught it was a book written by Steve Hagen titled Buddhism Plain and Simple: The Practice of Being Aware Right Now, Every Day and again… there’s that word, “Buddhism”. It’s a religion and what was it doing in a philosophy section!?

So being a bit curious by this point, my next step was to visit one of my favorite website in the whole wide Internet, Wikipedia to read the first introductory paragraph summarizing Buddhism. I started reading… a) I confirmed my suspicion that “it’s just a religion” but then b) I noticed the Wiki page mentioned it was a non-theistic religion and I wasn’t quite sure what that word meant so I clicked on it. That took me to another Wiki entry describing a class of religions that, to the best of my personal interpretation (i.e. I’m not quoting wiki), do not worship or follow any deity. Up until that with my limited, narrow understanding of life and universe, that description simply did not compute. Isn’t the whole point of a religion is to worship and follow some kind of god?? Curiosity piqued just a tad more, I hit the Back button and returned to the Buddhism page to figure out if they are not following a god, then what kind of a krazy scheme is this? I read few more paragraphs past the introduction and took away that Buddhism doesn’t deny the existence of deities but at its foundation is the belief that if anyone is going to help you in this lifetime, you better have faith in yourself and focus there. Make your own effort to learn to work with your own mind and the world around you rather than simply relying on a some external factor to come along and make everything better. Well… this is something I could get behind. And so…

I bought Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple and read the whole thing over the Christmas vacation while visiting in-laws in Philadelphia.

First off, that book is a great read and I would encourage everyone who is practicing and learning to be a human to read it regardless of your beliefs or affiliations. When Hagen authored that book, one of his intentions was to provide an introduction to the core essence of Buddhist philosophy as he understood it without going into the specific variations, coloring and biases that were introduced over the last 2,500 years by various cultures where Buddhism is prevalent. And I think he did an amazing job.

But my own story doesn’t quite end here. I read Hagen’s book and just like with Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I moved on with my life.

As the next 9 months of 2016 unfolded, I transferred roles in my job from a software engineer to an engineering manager. Due to the combination of multiple factors…

  • A role change and new stresses/challenges of having to learn how to manage and work with other humans and my boss, to whom I am forever grateful for her support and patience with me, repeatedly reminding me, “dude, you need to be more mindful”
  • A conversation with a friend who happened to mention that recently he started meditation and found the practice helpful
  • The increasing wave of visibility and popularity of mindfulness and meditation in popular media
  • And a book, Willpower Instinct, that my kindle happened to recommend to me where the homework at the end of chapter one was to start meditating five minutes every morning. (I’ve written previously about how I discovered that book)

… in September of 2016, I began the meditating every morning. At first it was five minutes and then gradually got up to fifteen. As I’m writing this, 4 years later in September of 2020, my morning meditation is still fifteen minutes and very much a part of the daily route.

About two months into this new habit, I realized its status has changed from a short-term experiment to something I was interested in cultivating long-term. This is when I remembered that in Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple, there was a good portion of the book dedicated to describing proper form, technique and mindset for learning how to meditate. I went back to the book and reread it for the second time. It was during this second pass, that I noted at one point in the book Hagen mentions how he is affiliated with a Buddha Dharma center in Minnesota where people would come together to practice meditation and that in recent years these centers have begun to sprout out all over the United States. Quick Google search for “buddha dharma center rochester ny” led me to discover that we indeed have several organizations; the one that caught my eye, was the Dharma Refuge. But… because by this point it was the New Year holiday and I’ve always had a long-standing personal policy to never start anything new at the beginning of the year (that’s what everyone else does; I have to be different… the story in my head went), I made a mental note to check out Dharma Refuge at the end of February.

I didn’t make my way to Dharma Refuge until the last week of March in 2017 when I joined the group for their Wednesday night practice. As Sue, the local teacher there, would jokingly say on occasion, “people tend to come for the meditation but then they stick around for the Dharma,” I found that statement to be profoundly accurate in my case. In three years since that first visit (and with exclusion of destabilizing events of 2020) I have not missed a Wednesday night practice unless I was out of town.

What I discovered, and continue to discover to this day, is that Buddhism really wasn’t what I thought it was. In one way it is very much a religion with its own history, rituals, prayers, temples, monks and everything else one would expect. However, as Eric Ripert mentioned in an interview with Tim Ferriss (great episode, highly recommend), Buddhism can be a religion if you want it to be, but it is also a science and a philosophy, and not knowing this when I joined Dharma Refuge, that’s where my surprises came from. For one, there are striking similarities between Buddhist teachings of the East and the philosophers of the West, whose books I enjoy picking up from time to time. At the very core, both of these groups of people spent their entire lifetimes trying to figure out how a human is to live a decent, virtuous life (and in some cases what “virtue” itself is) and then pass those teachings onto the next generation. But then there’s also a large overlap between Buddhist teachings and the modern world psychology and sociology. Our business world these days is raving about the importance of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, and here we have 2,500-year-old knowledge that talks about being present, listening to others (listening to the whole world, not just people), empathy and compassion, educates its practitioners about how every human sees the world through their own lens, how limiting those lenses can be at times, how precious those lenses can be at other times, and how to honor, respect and be open to the differing views rather than fight against them. Doesn’t that sound familiar to anyone who had any management/leadership training? How about diversity and inclusion training?

I’ve stayed with Dharma Refuge and continue learning and attending Dharma teachings because this practice has already changed who I am. Learning how to be more present, open and self-aware has been immensely helpful in my professional role. Which is not to say I still don’t have my moments of visiting a dark place from time to time, but that’s also part of the practice: accepting our very own nature, our humanity and our imperfection. At home, my wife repeatedly tells me I am not the same person I was four years ago. According to her, I am now a better husband, better father and generally a better human. And that's why I continue to sit. Just sit and watch.