Category Archives: blog

The Conversation that Saved the World

this article originally appear on the Green Zone Institute blog

Would you believe that one single conversation already saved your life?

Cuban missile crisis, 1962

Cuban missile crisis, 1962

How powerful are words? Can they really change the world for the better? Don’t we often feel that words are just so much talk-talk-talk while humanity and our fragile planet teeters on the brink? “Less talk, more action,” as the English saying goes.

Yet a single conversation did indeed save a million lives, perhaps even a billion. Perhaps everyone on the whole planet — man, woman and child. And beyond. Dogs. Cats. Plants. Fish. Birds… All of it.

In October 1962, hundreds of feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, one human being — a person just like yourself — spoke to another and saved most of the life on this planet. Someone who was not famous. Not a President or a Premier or even a high commander. One person saved us all, with mere words.

His name was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He looked like this.

Russian Submarine Officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

Russian Submarine Officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Many today don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, or don’t remember it well. The militaries of the US and the Soviet Union faced off in the waters off Cuba, threatening to launch (and counter-launch) nuclear weapons, which would destroy much of the world within an hour.

Many of those who lived through those fateful weeks might only remember what they were told at the time (which turns out to be largely untrue). If you’re interested, you can find endless amounts of insightful material, from Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States, to the film Thirteen Days. There have been many helpful historical analyses of its importance, from the perspective of geopolitics, to the impact on decision making in the Nuclear Age, to its changes it introduced into the psychology of Americans. While all these are compelling, I aim to tell Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov’s part of the story in a simple way. In a human way.

As a conversation.

What Happened on The Submarine

Vasili was an officer on a Soviet sub, ordered to wait beneath the Caribbean Sea during the conflict in total radio silence, with no contact with their leaders in Moscow. The sub was spotted by the American Navy and so it dove deep, to hide. Multiple destroyers began dropping depth charges, which exploded on one side of the sub and then another. Boom. And again and again. Boom. Boom. Each blast shook the vessel, heightening the sense that death would come at any moment. The crew was trapped by how deep the sub could go, and limited by the charges dropping from above. In the midst of this, the air conditioning broke, pushing temperatures to levels so high that crew members passed out. The air was rank and stale. Surfacing for fresh air was out of the question.

Exhausted and anxious, the sub’s captain, Valintin Savitsky, assumed the worst. The charges going off meant what he feared most: World War III had already begun. In their last minutes, he could at least fulfill his orders before they all died, launching the sub’s nuclear-tipped torpedo to at least destroy part of the US fleet.

Ironically, the charges the US Fleet were dropping were not lethal. They were practice rounds, aimed not to destroy the sub, but to frighten it into surfacing. The US Fleet had no idea that the sub was armed with nukes. Similarly, the rest of the US military — poised for a ground invasion — did not know that the Cuban ground forces had many small-scale tactical nukes at their disposal, which would have resulted in even more devastation.

Properly frightened, and assuming the worst, Savitsky asked his second-in-command to arm and load the nuclear torpedo. As per their protocol, they just needed approval from a third officer: Vasili.

The exact details of the conversation are not clear. One Russian intelligence officer watching the conversation remembers “[Vasili] told the captain that the ship was not in danger. It was being asked to surface. Dropping depth charges left then right, noisy but always off target—those are signals, [he] argued. They say, We know you’re there. Identify yourselves. Come up and talk. We intend no harm.”

How long did the conversation go on? This is still classified. How did Vasili make his points? This too is classified. There are many things we cannot know. But what we do know should shake our sense of how the world actually works.

A U.S. Navy HSS-1 Seabat helicopter hovers over Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba (October 28–29, 1962)


Dispelling ‘Hollywood’ Solutions

Unlike in movies, Vasili didn’t grab a handgun from someone’s holster and hold the sub’s leadership hostage, heroically preventing a nuclear war with force and ingenuity. He didn’t pull rank, and command the captain to stand down. Nobody called on the radio at the last minute to change the order. Unlike in movies, the world these men inhabited was every bit as complex and implacable and immune to simple manipulations as our world is most days. Though unlike most of our days, in that moment, humanity was leaning halfway into a bottomless void from which it could never return.

Would a gun have worked — or would such a move automatically mark Vasili’s perspective as invalid? (I picture him being labeled a counter-Soviet spy, placed in cuffs while they launch the torpedo. In films, such a hero breaks his cuffs and fights his way to the nuclear key. In reality, Vasili would likely watch, helpless and hopeless…)

In this kind of standoff, can one wait for a ‘Hollywood’ radio signal from Central Headquarters? (There they are, waiting, typing in the codes… Was that bit of radio static a garbled signal that the standoff is over? No. No it wasn’t. The launch will continue…)

Or do we look on, helpless, longing for those with requisite rank to manipulate situations for the rest of us? (There was no one with rank — this was a wide open situation where three men had to work together to either destroy humanity, or to save it.)

Should we scream not to do it? (Go ahead, scream. See what happens.) Should we cry? (“The officer lost his perspective and was removed from the control room.”) Shall we sneer in scorn at the stupidity of the others? (and enjoy feeling superior while the world ends…?)

Are we truly as helpless as we sometimes feel — spinning in a big world like a frightened baby animal, flailing and squeaking without protection?

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov later in life

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov later in life

The Conversation ‘Magic’ that Saved the World

What happened in that moment was a form of ‘magic’ we most often overlook: Vasili spoke clearly and calmly. His wife later described him as a “modest, soft-spoken man.” He kept his composure. He spoke neither exaggerating nor suppressing what was true. Dropping depth charges left then right, noisy but always off target—those are signals… He spoke in a way that could be heard. Maybe they are saying, ‘We intend no harm.’

Whether it was short, or whether such a conversation took an hour, the real magic was that words alone worked. The inauspicious and overlapping mistakes that were leading both sides of this drama in a tragic direction were overcome and dispelled, there in that fetid chamber. Three men looking at each other. Vasili speaking as best he could. And then the decision is made: turn it off, take it out, disarm the charge, we’re not firing.

I train people in communication. It is my work, and my passion. This is certainly the most dramatic conversation I know of — and perhaps in the history of the world. Maybe not in style, but in effect. We mostly don’t consider that every one of our words helps to create an atmosphere in which we all live. Whether that atmosphere is claustrophobic and rank, or fresh and enlivening, depends upon all of us together. Whether someone leaves a room slightly more confused, or a bit more clear… Whether they’ve lost their confidence, or remembered that even in the midst of their flaws, they’re human and alive and fundamentally empowered to keep on trying… We too can try. No matter what has come before, we have innate abilities. And we can train to bring each other back from the brink of mistakes that have powerful long term consequences.

And even beyond this — to help humans appreciate their fundamental decency and sanity. To recognize negative patterns and to anticipate them, so that such patterns won’t cause as much harm. Far from helpless, with a little training — particularly in the acute, self-observation of mindfulness meditation — we can help to build a more resilient and joyful collective human experience.

Should we have built statues to Vasili? Isn’t he the single greatest hero of all time? Or perhaps we ourselves are the symbol — the tribute to his moment of greatness. Like Vasili, we hold this magic as a part of us. We’re not all brilliant speakers. But we each have resources. We can speak humbly. And clearly. We are ordinary, as he was. And using the magic of our ordinary words, we can each help protect and enrich this world.

Join Greg Heffron and Acharya Susan Chapman for their 5-week course on Mindful Communication starting April 15, 2017 or check here for future start dates. 

About the Author

Greg HeffronWriter Greg Heffron is a Senior Mindful Communication Instructor who co-teaches the Shambhala Online course The Five Keys to Mindful Communication with Acharya Susan Chapman. He owns and manages Green Zone Institute, dedicated to reconnecting people to the fundamental human ability to communicate. He was the first certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by Susan Gillis Chapman. He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher since 2005.

Meal Blessings and Great Eastern Sun

A natural foods chef looks at how meal blessings can fundamentally change our relationship to food, and help repair our relationship to the natural world. 

by Marcella Friel, originally published in the Shambhala Times

Several months ago, I was visiting a dear sangha friend who read to me the following excerpt from Acharya Jeremy Hayward’s book, Warrior King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa. The excerpt recounts a comment made by a Tibetan lama named Thrangu Rinpoche, who was one of the Dorje Dradul’s closest heart brothers and friends:

[The Dorje Dradul] told me that America is a very developed country, in many ways. But there was a problem because there’s been so much destruction of the land, the land has been wasted and destroyed…. Also most people in America aren’t from this land but come from other places originally, and are not indigenous to the land, so they don’t have any particular native culture…. So although externally it is a highly developed country, the people suffer inwardly from diminished or depressed life energy, and depressed or damaged drala….

In the instant I heard these words, I recognized the root of our collective struggle with mindful eating.

Food culture is the basis of human culture. For millennia, indigenous societies have anchored and organized themselves around the tribal rituals of growing, hunting, harvesting, preparing, and eating food. The reliability of those cycles—planting in the spring, tending in the summer, harvesting in the fall, and storing for the winter—connected human beings directly to each other and to the rhythms of nature. It created a sense of belonging both to the tribe and to the dralas, or elemental forces, that birthed the food on the table.

According to renowned Zen chef Edward Espe Brown, the cultures that are still connected to these rituals have the lowest occurrences of eating disorders. “Conversely,” Brown explains, “we see that ours is a culture with few eating rituals and numerous disorders.” In modern society, few of us, as Thrangu Rinpoche noted, live on the land we came from. We eat a diet that’s not only radically different from our ancestral fare; it’s a diet that’s disembodied from the earth itself.

weekthun08-oryoki-300wDivorced from the natural cycles and tribal activity that brought food to us in the past, our industrialized food system erases all continuity outside of its appearance on the supermarket shelves or in the fast-food menu. It’s the food of the setting-sun world, in which, as the Dorje Dradul explains, “everything is compartmentalized, so you can never experience things completely.” That compartmentalization leaves us prone to damaged drala: the compromised life force that manifests as food addiction, disordered eating, and degenerative disease.

Isolated within our own thinking, we beat ourselves up for our addictive eating habits. We solidify our sense of ourselves as weak willed, unworthy, and undisciplined; our lives and our society become barbaric. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. We can heal this dismal predicament through the practice of Great Eastern Sun vision. The Dorje Dradul describes Great Eastern Sun vision as an ecological approach “based on appreciating ourselves.… We take care of our bodies, we take care of our minds, and we take care of our world.”

How do we turn the setting-sun habits of our addictive food behaviors into Great Eastern Sun vision? We begin by slowing down. We practice simple rituals and blessings before we put the first bite in our mouth. Author and physician Gabor Mate points out that the ceremonial use of a substance is the direct opposite of the addictive use. Whereas food addictions reinforce our alienation in a hostile world, food rituals elevate our consciousness and celebrate our connection to a larger, benevolent universe. They also, according to chef and nutritionist Rebecca Katz, downshift our nervous system out of fight-or-flight mode and into a parasympathetic state, which makes our food easier to digest.

heirloom-tomatoes-istoc39e1My favorite mealtime ritual is putting my hands on my heart, closing my eyes, and taking three conscious breaths. Much like bowing before entering the meditation hall, such a gesture creates an energetic transition from everyday speed into sacred space. Meeting our food with meditative awareness, we relax our harsh self-judgment into simple witnessing. We dowse our emotional landscape for the groundwater of compassion, where it forms the touchstone of unconditional self-love, which in turn is the greatest gift we can give others.

While we might not ever return to the foodways of our ancestors, we can invoke the consciousness of sacred appreciation through the simple act of slowing down, pausing, and recognizing the interconnected constellation of beings seen and unseen that ensure our daily nourishment. Through the power of Great Eastern Sun vision, we restore our damaged drala and emerge from addictive bondage to recognize our lives as worth living and our earth as worth saving. Cultivating this vision is our sacred task at this time.

M11Marcella Friel is a natural foods chef who has cooked and taught in meditation retreat centers throughout North America. She now runs Tapping with Marcella, a food and body image coaching practice that helps health-conscious adults love and forgive themselves, their food, and their figure.

Editor’s note: readers interested in learning more can consider taking Marcella’s upcoming class, “Mindful Eating: Joining Heaven and Earth at the Meal Table,” which opens April 30, 2016 through Shambhala Online.


Part Two is Doing

In this clip, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche responds to a question from a young man who is inspired by The Shambhala Principle, but struggles with how to live and embody it, given his challenging circumstances. This took place on May 7, 2015, at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. To see the entire video talk, click here.

Live Sakyong Programs: Save the Dates

KSMR-Atlanta-thumbSakyong Mipham Rinpoche will give a live talk on The Strength of Basic Goodness from Amsterdam on Friday, September 26 at 3pm Atlantic. See it live and/or watch the recording at any time over the weekend. This one is open to the public, so invite friends, family and the Shambha-curious. More details here.


Then, the Sakyong will teach on the Shambhala Sadhana on December 6, 2pm Atlantic, from Halifax. Gather all Sadhakas; gather, gather, ho! Register here. 

The Road to Boulder


This morning as I was driving to Boulder to pick up the camera for a Shambhala Online Kasung program, I was feeling a bit disappointed because the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche is giving a special weekend of teachings at the Boulder Shambhala Center. I knew of this long ago and planned to attend, but I didn’t register before it was sold out. I told myself I could just go to the teachings he’ll be giving in Denver (where I live), but learned on Thursday that program was two weeks ago, so I missed that as well.

I’m driving and feeling a little low, wondering if maybe I could just drop in and listen to a talk by Thrangu Rinpoche (of course not). My phone was on shuffle, playing random musical selections, when a talk by Sayong Mipham Rinpoche comes on about the importance of the view. One of the things he says is that the mind of the budhha is not different from ours. It’s all one mind. All from the same family. Of course he’s right, and as I listen to the Sakyong sharing these insights, I feel better, blessed even. There’s nothing to see, nothing to miss that isn’t already right here. This richness that we enjoy as part of this lineage is so precious.

Listen to the post here: 

Resetting the Brain

Or, The Importance of Daydreaming

“In practicing awareness in everyday life, at a certain point, the wandering mind itself, the daydreaming mind itself, turns itself into awareness and reminds you.” The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume 2. Glimpses of Abhidharma, p. 291. 

Contemplation par Ghassan Salman FaidiAs meditators we train the mind for stability, focus, and awareness. While we strive to be present and awake at every moment, it turns out the brain (not to be confused with the mind) needs to go into wandering mode every so often in order to function optimally. It’s just how the brain rolls, according to an article on the neuroscience of attention by Daniel J. Levitin in the New York Times.

One of my favorite neuroscientists, the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, advised meditators to take a break to refresh the mind when the mind can no longer hold to the object of meditation. “Fresh start,” he called it. His methodology for studying the mind, which relied more on the bare bulb of awareness, preceded the flowering of the cognitive sciences, but his conclusions are in line with today’s brightest minds, so to speak.

The brain reaches a point when it is saturated and needs to switch out of focused problem-solving and into daydreaming mode. That’s when the brain relaxes, and moments of insight and creativity are most likely to arise. Our culture’s emphasis on productivity can make taking an intentional daydream break seem like a travesty; in reality, switching from focused mind to unfocused mind is a necessity. If we don’t do it consciously, the brain will do it for us. Taking a walk or listening to music can act as a neural reset, refreshing the brain for more sustained periods of focus.

Surfing, tweeting and emailing do not count as zoning out, however much we may think of these activities as down time. “If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods,” suggests Levitin. Focus on a single activity for 30 to 50 minutes, then take a break.

If you think of open meditation, or resting the mind without a focal point, as simple awareness, which attention system is in play — focus mode or daydream mode? What do you think?

Kasung Take Lifetime Oaths, Vow to Practice Online

Kasung gathering at SMC July 2014Some 20 warriors took the lifetime oath as Dorje Kasung in mid-July at Shambhala Mountain Center, as the Sacred World Assembly drew to a close. Kasung Kyi Kyap Jesse Grimes and Dapon White and Master of the Court Mark Thorpe officiated the event, offering words of inspiration to the group of 50 Kasung. (There was so much khaki in the room, even the photo is khaki colored!)
After the oath ceremony, the lung was read for a special vajrayana practice for Kasung. Shambhala Online will host an online practice for this in August 2014. Stay tuned for details.

Aspirations Coming Forth

Crocus in snowOver this last week tulip leaves and brave crocuses poked through the cool ground to see the sun, only to be covered by a wet, sloppy snowfall. Now the snow is receding and the bulbs hold forth. These seasonal moments bolster my sense that a huge flowering in Shambhala is rumbling underneath the surface, like so many overwintering bulbs just ready to burst through the cold ground seeking the sun’s warmth.
At Shambhala Online we have a tiny window on the aspirations of Shambhalians around the world. People email us to say, “I’m hoping to go to Enlightened Society Assembly this summer and need to take…” Or, “How can I finish my group ngöndro credits in time for abisheka?” It’s as though we are all seeking the light, reaching out for the next phase of growth. Before long, groups will gather at the land centers to study and practice, to teach and learn, to meet fellow travelers and share a moment, a meal, a mantra.
The senior teachers of Shambhala – our amazing group of acharyas – are gathered now at Shambhala Mountain Center. They’re hearing the Sakyong teach, catching up with one another, planning for the year to come. We will enjoy the fruits of their retreat, as they teach in the months to come. Like so many sunflowers turning toward the sun, we will absorb what is given, bloom forth and drop the seeds along the way for others to discover.