Dharma Gates: Deep Practice for Young People

Last summer, the Monastic Academy hosted two retreats designed for college students. We did this in partnership with Dharma Gates, a non-profit co-founded by MAPLE alumni Miles Bukiet. Readers of this blog might recognize Miles’ name from his paper, Monasteries of the Future, which clearly articulates the value of monastic training in our current times. You can read my summary of his paper here.

The two Dharma Gates retreats were held over two weekends and attended by twenty-eight students from Middlebury, Wesleyan, Harvard, and other colleges and universities.

The retreats were three to four days and were designed to be accessible to new meditators. Students practiced classical meditation such as mindfulness of breathing and the body, interpersonal meditation based on the traditions of authentic relating and circling, and also had the opportunity to connect and build relationships with one another in a more unstructured way. All of this was held within the supportive structure and context of our monastic container.

I was incredibly impressed with what I witnessed. I wish I’d had this opportunity when I was in college! When I started meditating in my sophomore year in 2010, I only knew a few people at my small liberal arts school who meditated. By the time I graduated in 2013, I knew about ten other people with a meditation practice. Yet, each of these friends had encountered different traditions and there was no real community or sangha between us.

Without a teacher, my practice was fueled largely by reading and my own trial and error – mostly error. Having a teacher and a community at that ripe time of life might have supported me in going deeper in my practice, sooner. I am excited for the opportunity and gift these cohorts of college-age students are receiving.

Dharma Gates was founded by young people dedicated to sharing deep practice with their peers, in part because of the urgent need they perceive for their age group to explore their inner lives. In addition, working with emerging adults is an extremely high impact endeavor. When young people are exposed to the wisdom that comes from deep meditation practice in community, the effects will ripple out through their actions in the world for the rest of their lives, conceivably fifty years or more.There is also the potential that some percentage of Dharma Gates participants will pursue intensive monastic training, which is tremendously exciting to me personally. We are seeing early indications that this will happen – several of our apprentices at the Monastic Academy this summer found us through Dharma Gates.

Additionally, Aaron Stryker, the director of Dharma Gates, has joined MAPLE as a resident for a one-year commitment. During our work periods, he works on Dharma Gates full time. Both MAPLE and Dharma Gates aim at very similar goals, and we are proud to support Aaron in doing his work. We also hope to create a mutually supportive relationship between the two organizations. For example, as Dharma Gates participants become MAPLE apprentices and then residents, more of these residents can lead Dharma Gates events and programs. This synergy has potential to bring exponential growth to both organizations. This is the Art of Alliances at work!

In response to COVID-19, Dharma Gates has pivoted for the time being from in-person programming to regularly scheduled, donation-based online meditation sessions. Besides various hour-long sessions, they will offer an online home-practice retreat this August.

While I hope Dharma Gates is able to return to in-person events and programs as soon as possible, I am extremely impressed with how they have adapted to the new circumstances and continue to serve their mission of bringing deep practice to young people.

In preparing to write this article, I conducted an interview with Aaron about his work with Dharma Gates. Please enjoy reading his responses. If you feel inspired by the work he and Miles are doing, consider making a donation to Dharma Gates. You can also subscribe to their newsletter to receive updates on their growth. Lastly, you can also connect a young person you know with their work by directing them to the Dharma Gates website.

Interview with Aaron Stryker

Tasshin: Why do you practice meditation and Buddhism?

AS: Honestly, I started practicing because I had to. Shortly after I arrived at college, I was practicing some breathing exercises I had found in a yoga book I was reading, when I had what some people call a kundalini awakening. This kind of experience often borders on psychosis, and it certainly did for me. The next few months were extremely intense – I oscillated between ecstatic states, existential panic, depression, and all sorts of other wild experiences.

Fortunately, I knew what was happening. I was reading all about kundalini awakening through this process. By November, I was connected with my current yoga teacher in Ann Arbor. At that point it became very clear that if I wanted to learn to work with and hold this bliss without the psychotic experiences, I would need to do a lot of practice. I started practicing asana when I was 18 and took the following year off of school to ground and clarify my whole nervous system.

I feel like the decision to practice was made for me. Resisting awakening when your body is ready is called psychosis. It’s extraordinarily painful. It didn’t feel like I had an option. Since then, I’ve just gotten better at surrendering and have less desire to fight. I just keep taking the next step that’s put in front of me, which eventually lead to Zen practice & Dharma Gates.

Tasshin: What inspired you to start Dharma Gates?

AS: I went to Mysore, India for three months to study ashtanga yoga when I was 20. It was an incredible experience. I remember being so happy on the flight home, thinking that I’d really got it. I went straight from the airport back to my university and I remember seeing all of these people staring at their phones and grimacing. I had this deep experience at that point that wow, a lot of people in my generation are deeply unhappy. Like really doing pretty terrible. Not that I had it all figured out – I battled with intense anxiety during the rest of my time at Wesleyan, and still sometimes now. But the situation was just so clear. The answer was also clear. People need guidance from people with actual wisdom. I’m not talking about myself – I’m not pretending to be a dharma teacher, just a connector.

Over the next couple years, I helped to start a student meditation group with a few friends. We started bringing groups of college students up to this Zen Monastery in upstate New York, Dai Bosatsu Zendo. It turns out people had a really good time. A lot of the people we brought liked it a lot and had very powerful experiences, even though it was just a weekend. That was really the inspiration for Dharma Gates. That’s the basic thing – organize groups of young people and bring them to monasteries. It seems to work.

Tasshin: What kind of meditation do you teach? Is Dharma Gates Buddhist?

AS: So far, Miles Bukiet has been our primary facilitator. Miles teaches mindfulness of breathing and the body as well as interpersonal meditation, or circling. In the long-term, we would love to work with teachers of many different traditions, allowing participants to experience all manner of styles of practice.

If the aspiration is for full awakening for the benefit of ourselves and the world makes us Buddhist, then we are. We try to be clear that our intentions really have nothing to do with making everyone Buddhist – the label is largely irrelevant, so long as you understand the core message that transformation happens through practice, through the body, and through relationship, over time. We have a strong commitment to sharing the ethical component of meditation training and seek to connect participants with the most deeply trained practitioners in the United States. This naturally leads us to orient towards Buddhist communities and teachers.

Tasshin: Why do you include circling and interpersonal meditation in Dharma Gates programs?

AS: Interpersonal meditation has really become an integral part of what we offer. I think it works particularly well for the younger demographic. Authentic connection and community are often the primary sources of meaning for young people, and they’ve been trained to search for these things in drugs and self-destructive forms of socializing. Using the tools of contemplative practice to deconstruct our interactions with others and find even higher degrees of vulnerability and connection and relationship at will tends to be an eye-opening experience for people. It can really reorient someone’s values very quickly when they realize that what they’ve been pursuing in one direction is actually located in an entirely different direction.

Tasshin: What has surprised you about the programs and services you’ve offered to college students?

AS: I’ve been consistently surprised by how genuine and earnest people are. There’s a popular narrative going around that young people today are narcissistic snowflakes. That’s been completely the opposite of my experience. The people who participate in our programs have predominantly been smart, dedicated to doing what is actually good, and aren’t afraid to experience a bit of discomfort to get there. A lot of them have been fed a lot of bad ideas by our culture and are doing their best to wade through the swamp to find what’s actually good. We make it very difficult for them.

Tasshin: What’s been the hardest thing about starting a non-profit?

AS: It’s quite intense, all around. I’m living and training at MAPLE right now. I work on Dharma Gates around 30 hours per week and train in meditation and yoga another 30. There’s a lot going on in my personal practice and my responsibilities with Dharma Gates are constantly increasing as well. It’s what I signed up for – it’s pretty much the highest growth environment I could imagine, but it can be quite challenging.

There’s this other piece of starting an organization, which is that you have to be the compass that decides what to do and why. There’s this constant process of zooming out, looking at the big picture, and determining whether what we are currently doing is actually worth it. I’ve gotten better at this over time, but it’s still an ongoing process that I need to be reminded of by Miles and the other folks I’m working with at various points. It’s easy to get completely drawn into a project that is actually not the one that is the most urgent at a given time.

Tasshin: What advice would you give someone starting a non-profit today?

AS: The most helpful thing I ever learned about starting an organization was called the lean start-up model. Basically, the principle is that you grow the organization in tiny, extremely low-risk increments and make sure that with every increment you receive and respond to feedback from reality. This is the opposite of the model of beginning an organization where you take one big idea, work for five years to launch it, and then unveil it at a huge launch event only to find out that nobody actually likes or cares about it.

The fact is, humans have a pretty poor sense of intuiting what other people actually need and want, what the kinds of projects the world will support and which ones it won’t. Instead of going from one big idea, doing a ton of work, and bringing it into reality, start with big idea X, create the smallest, least risky approximation of X, try it, and use the feedback you get to innovate on X. What the organization actually does will likely change as you actually go through the process, but the high level mission and values stay the same. In this way, you know over time that you are building something that is actually needed while still addressing the organization’s mission.

For Dharma Gates, we initially wanted to design a gap year program that connected college students to monasteries. We may still do this, but over the course of our time working on it, we realized that that wasn’t actually the core innovation that we’d arrived at. The real, most essential service we were providing was helping young people begin serious practice at all. Since then, we’ve been honing in more specifically on this goal and building our programming around this. It was a pretty significant pivot.

Tasshin: Why is what you’re doing important in the time of COVID, where there is mass death, unemployment, and societal change?

AS: Our civilization is stitched together by many complex interactions between human beings across the world which are liable to break down. COVID-19 is a relatively minor disruption to the status quo compared to the kind of change that will be brought about by the ecological crisis, and yet it appears to be radically reshaping our society and in some ways threatening the stability of the social fabric.

It seems probable in the next two hundred years that this fabric, that which holds humanity in some semblance of collective trust and decency, will be stretched far thinner. The extent to which we will be able to skillfully cope with this scenario will depend precisely on how many people throughout our society have undergone deep spiritual training – these people have an anchoring, calming effect on the collective cultural intelligence. Deeply trained people can help many around them make sense of and process their pain in ways that aren’t destructive.

If, over the next ten years, Dharma Gates can help several thousand young people experience some level of this training and bring this into their lives and society, this will have downstream consequences that could save many more lives and alleviate an enormous amount of potential suffering. Many of the people we are working with are in university deciding what to do with their lives. Each person who, as a result of a Dharma Gates event, decides to embark on a life-time of practice and ethical work contributes enormously to dismantling the socio-political machine that is destroying life on this planet.

Tasshin: Why are you (Aaron) living and working at the Monastic Academy as you work on Dharma Gates?

All throughout my time building Dharma Gates, I’ve been very clear that the project will not happen unless I am able to maintain a serious practice while building it. It would not feel psychologically possible or ethical to try to serve as the director of Dharma Gates without a strong commitment to deepening my personal practice. I am basically still a novice practitioner, and yet the mission of our organization is to emphasize depth & integrity in practice. The organization must, therefore, be structured around the depth & integrity of practice of the founders. If it is not, it is hypocritical. It is dead. The energy of the practice is the core around which anything that is positive that I do in my life might happen or manifest itself, but the core is the core. The practice is like a fire that you must keep feeding – everything that happens, internal or external, you keep throwing it into the fire. In this, Dharma Gates is really just another offering to the fire of practice. As long as it stays this way, I will feel in integrity with my role in the organization. If Dharma Gates starts to be bigger or more important than my practice, then we have a problem.

So, on the highest level, I’m living at MAPLE because MAPLE supports me in developing the kinds of skills needed to run an organization like Dharma Gates while also pushing me to embody the mission and vision in my life more completely.

I also have a long-term yoga practice which I am extremely committed to and MAPLE respects body practice in a way that few other monasteries do. I can continue to deepen into my asana practice during the morning exercise periods before breakfast here. This is really big for me. There is a lot of informal time to hangout in community here than at many other places, which feels very healthy for me right now. I’m sort of re-learning how to be in relationship with others after my college experience in which I was sort of a hermit for several years. All I did was meditate and that wasn’t great for me psychologically. I learned a lot about what spiritual bypassing means in college.

Tasshin: Is there anything else you’d like to say or share with the world?

The real message of Dharma Gates, the one that I’d like to share with as many people as possible, is that we really aren’t trapped. It’s almost a trope in our society right now to view ourselves as being powerless against the overwhelming force of what we are up against, whether you see it as suffering, capitalism, technology, systemic injustice, or something else. The more people feel this way, the more true it becomes. We need to let go of our stories of hopelessness and despair, and we need to stop pretending that we understand what the world is. Once we “understand,” we’ve boxed the world in, and we shut ourselves off from new teachings.

When we realize that we aren’t trapped, we realize that there are people out there who can really help us; there are people who know the answers to our questions. This is what we try to demonstrate by bringing young people to monasteries, but it doesn’t just apply to young people, and monasteries aren’t the only sources of wisdom in our culture. The invitation is really to open to the gifts that are already available all around us.

The photos in this post were provided by Dharma Gates. Thank you to Aaron Stryker for contributing to this post, and to Madeleine Charney for editing it.

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