Kevin O'Connor / Staff Photo
Jane Arthur, outgoing executive director of the Karmê Chöling meditation center in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, stands outside the snow-speckled front door designed and painted four decades ago by founder and spiritual master Chögyam Trungpa.
Want to ring in the new year right? Meet Jane Arthur. She knows a little something about navigating transitions.
Born in Honolulu and brought up in San Diego, Arthur studied nursing in Fort Worth and went to work in Washington, D.C., only to transfer to law school and practice in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
“That was sort of a fertile time,” she recalls of the latter overseas stint, “when I began to get curious about how did I really want to live my life.”
After exploring the possibilities on a trip around the world, Arthur took her friends’ suggestion to stop at the Karmê Chöling meditation center in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. There she became a student, then a staffer, then, for the past seven years, its executive director.
Now Arthur is yet again transitioning — this time out of the office. She decided to move on before nailing down exactly what’s next. Some people would fear such a leap. She instead has faith.
“I like the flying, the air under my wings, the ‘I don’t know’ phase — anything’s possible.”
In a world of defensiveness and dysfunction, how does one learn to live with such optimism and openness? To answer, Arthur rewinds back to her father, who attended Harvard Medical School, then set up a practice with a friend whose family lived 5,000 miles away in Hawaii.
“My dad was always a dreamer and an adventurer.”
His daughter is, too. Schooled in California, she inherited his wanderlust for the world.
“I imagined living a life of the mind, but from an intellectual point of view. I always wanted to help, to somehow find a way to make a difference.”
Earning a nursing degree at Texas Christian University, Arthur went on to work at what’s now the Children’s National Medical Center in the nation’s capital, only to go to George Washington University Law School, into private practice and a public defender’s post in nearby Virginia. She then did a stint with the attorney general’s office of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory between Hawaii and the Philippines.
“I’m a curious person, and I suppose you could take that two ways. I kept trying on these various hats to see if that was the calling, but somehow I wasn’t satisfied.”
Instead, Arthur felt she was doing too much yet not enough. As winter melted into spring in 1997, she visited Karmê Chöling. Travel guides direct visitors to the town of Barnet — population 1,708 — 10 miles south of St. Johnsbury. You then look for a former dairy farm painted with Asian accents. That’s where, in 1970, Chögyam Trungpa set up the first Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in the United States.
But Arthur wasn’t there to sightsee. Instead, she sat still — for a month.
“That was when I realized I was in a place doing something that deeply resonated in me. Maybe in terms of how I could help, how I could make an offering to the world that was meaningful.”
A month later, Arthur returned to study the teachings of Shambhala (the word means “source of happiness”), a Buddhist-based spiritual practice with the view that every human being has a basic nature of goodness that can be cultivated and shared.
“People go off and make choices that, in turn, make for tremendous suffering,” she says. “The experience of being a public defender, sitting with my clients in jail and listening to their stories, allowed me to recognize they wanted to be happy, too. They were just confused about how one went about that. I thought, I could really help people if I could help them change their minds.”
As Karme Choling’s executive director since 2006, Arthur is charged with raising both consciousness and enough resources to maintain a 717-acre property with 35 employees as “a place for nurturing personal and societal transformation,” according to two-page job description.
A member of her local Rotary Club, Arthur also has traveled the state to teach such topics as “Finding Sanity in Uncertain Times.” Her advice: Don’t work harder, just smarter. It’s less about doing and more about being. Stay open, flexible and present. Sustain a sense of humor. Remember the bad can be good if it shakes you out of complacency. And, throughout it all, stay mindful.
“The world is speeding up — almost into hyperdrive. So much of our life takes us along.”
Hence her seemingly contradictory suggestion to help people get where they want to go: “Could we stop long enough to really think about what we’re doing? For me, a transition is a moment when you very intentionally choose a direction. If we take the time to pause and be present before we respond to a situation, we will act in ways that promote goodness and human dignity.”
Arthur will celebrate the new year by leading a “Relax, Renew and Awaken” retreat before leaving Karmê Chöling. But she’s staying both in state and with Shambhala.
“If one practices, one becomes more human, and that means you feel things. You don’t gloss over the facts.”
She’s not afraid to experience the bittersweet emotions of moving on.
“The fact that I care about something so much — I’m planning on enjoying the sadness.”
For she knows everything has a flip side.
“I’m trying to appreciate the poignancy of ‘the last this’ and ‘the last that.’ Because then I can go into appreciating the first time the next things happen.”
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