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Mister Monk’s Neighborhood

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

Everybody’s talking about Mister Rogers. The documentary, the Tom Hanks’ movie, and a handful of books about him released just this year are bringing back memories and bringing us to tears. So I’m going to jump on the Mister Rogers’ trolley and join the fun.

It’s not hard to understand why we need Mister Rogers. All those books and movies have expressed it. Even the most optimistic of us know that the world can be very unkind. Entire political parties are just plain mean, and it seems to have only gotten worse. Mister Rogers saw this. He even prophesied it in that episode where King Friday the 13th, fearful of change, wanted to build a wall. So many of us got chills re-watching that episode that ran in the first week of the broadcast in 1968. Now here we are in 2019. King Friday is running amok and Fred Rogers is no longer with us. We have our reruns, but where else do we turn? “Look for the helpers” he’d said. One day I typed the word “Buddhism” in Google maps and found them. In my neighborhood I found Kadampa Meditation Center.

If you’ve been following along on this blog, you know that I committed to myself to attend a six-week series of meditation and Buddhist teachings at Kadampa. At first I committed because I wanted one less night in my apartment drinking wine—and the series did give me that. It also gave me profound learnings on Buddhism. And after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and reflecting on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it showed me why a certain kind of teacher is so important.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood resonates with kids and adults because it uses ritual and routine to make people feel safe. It’s predictable. We all know how the show begins: Mister Rogers walks through the door, removes his coat, puts on the sweater, takes off work shoes, and puts on navy sneakers. Now we are welcomed and ready. We trust Mister Rogers to take us on a 30-minute journey of friendship and teachings. That’s like school. It’s also like religion. If you’ve joined the Mister Rogers’ trolley like me, it came as no surprise that he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. And what do religions have? Ritual and teachings.

One of the reasons why I like going to meditation is because of the routine. I know I will remove my shoes before entering the temple. I will sit down. One of the volunteers will begin the class by sharing upcoming events. We will stand for the teacher. The monk will walk in and settle on his cushion. He will adjust his robes. He will set down his books. He may take a sip of water. He will then say, “Lovely….” and begin the class. He will often say, “…And if you’re joining us for the first time, a very warm welcome to you,” emphasis on the word “warm.” He will tell us exactly how we are going to spend the next hour and a half. He will outline the night’s topic and give us a strategy for the 15-20 minute meditation. All are welcome. Other than the monk’s voice, the room is quiet. There are no interruptions. No one gets up. No alarms and no surprises. What a very rare thing.

Think about how much of both our mandated and pleasure-seeking worlds revolve around the unexpected. We don’t know what kind of mood our boss will be in or how bad traffic will be. Even in our safe space of family, friends, and intimate relationships, someone else’s drama can quickly become our own. So then we hop on Instagram or Facebook to chill. We may be calmed by a cute picture of a kitten or delighted by a cool pair of shoes, but we are also horrified by news and flipped into anxiety. All of this is unexpected. Where do you go where you know exactly what will happen? I go to meditation class.

Then of course there are the friendship and teachings of Mister Rogers. Some say he was hokey and folksy, effeminate and kind of creepy. What they are missing is that behind these labels is a man who paid attention to people, especially children, in a way that many of us aren’t accustomed to. We aren’t used to someone leaning in, looking into our eyes, and using our name. Hearing someone say, “I enjoyed talking with you, Katie.” This deliberateness is rare. Much like watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as a child, I’d been quite happy to receive this deliberate attention from the monk from a distance. But last Monday we had a conversation.

I’d brought a friend to class so afterward, instead of rushing out to bike home in the cold, my friend and I stayed to visit and enjoy snacks. We had tea and cake and paid attention to each other in a way that I felt was more intentional than if we hadn’t just come from meditation class. Then the monk sat down and introduced himself. He asked us about our work. He gave my friend kind, focused attention as he leaned in and asked about her film projects. I watched her light up. I lit up too when I told him that I had intentionally committed to attend his class for the past six weeks to write about it. He asked me to email him my blog address. Wait, what?! The monk wants to read my blog? The monk has email? It was so surprising and yet so simple. He is a human interested in knowing another human, just as Mister Rogers—Fred Rogers really—was a human interested in other humans.

I emailed him the next day and hours later, there was his name in my inbox. That same place that held rejections from jobs and old emails from men who didn’t love me was an email from the monk. It was a validation of my existence and effort.

What do the validations of our teachers teach us? That it is such a good feeling to know you’re alive. It is a happy feeling to know you’re growing inside. People can like you exactly as you are. And there is only one person in the world exactly like you. It’s not entitlement, it’s affirmation. It’s a way of expressing, “I see you,” in world where many of us feel unseen.

I see you. I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Happy Thanksgiving.

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