Contra Costa Sun
Posted on Fri, May 20, 2005
Teacher Shares Zen Inspiration
by Meera Pal, STAFF WRITER
Michael McAlister was walking near a Buddhist monument in Nepal in 2001 when he saw a young pregnant woman walking with an older woman and several children.
Suddenly, the woman collapsed to the ground, in labor.
McAlister, like many local people around him, was enthralled by the scene and couldn’t turn away, even though he knew he was witnessing a uniquely private moment.
The woman gave birth to a screaming baby, but before anyone had a chance to celebrate the new arrival, she began to hemorrhage and died in the same spot.
“Birth and death had occurred in the same moment, and life continued,” McAlister said. “What I took away from that was that we don’t have much time.”
“We need to live each day as an expression of love.”
For McAlister, the lesson is one he has lived.
Now a history teacher at Acalanes High School, McAlister also leads a Zen-inspired mediation group in Lafayette, where he grew up in a Presbyterian family.
Before embracing Buddhism as a lifestyle, he had lived a life on stage as a standup comic working in New York and Los Angeles, where he says he would wax philosophical on politics, relationships and religion.
McAlister doesn’t really reflect on the many paths he has taken in his 40 years. As the leader of the Infinite Smile Sangha, a Zen-inspired meditation group, he teaches his students not to live in the past.
“Knowing that I will die, probably sooner than I want, inspires me to live as best I can and in a way that is filled with as much fun and integrity as possible,” he says. “Sometimes I’m really successful at that and other times I fail.”
On a recent Monday, he sat before a small group of people who form a semi-circle in a dimly lit room in Walnut Creek. Hanging on the wall behind him is a gold-leaf Om symbol.
The sound of traffic from the adjacent freeway filters into the room, but the group is silent. The people sit calmly, peacefully — in meditation.
Infinite Smile Sangha, founded in 2002, meets twice a week, Mondays in Walnut Creek and Wednesdays in Lafayette. After a 30-minute meditation, the group listens to McAlister’s Dharma talk, teaching them about Zen Buddhism.
McAlister welcomes everyone, regardless of religious background or belief, into the sangha to “uncover peace and balance in their life.”
“Our goal at the sangha is to bring relevant, nondogmatic spirituality into this world,” McAlister says. “Religion and our concepts of God have gotten in the way of finding peace and fulfillment.”
McAlister began his life on what appeared to be a different path. After graduating from Acalanes in 1983, McAlister went on to UC Berkeley where he graduated in 1987 with a degree in contemporary American history.
But, like many people his age, McAlister had always had deeply philosophical questions, like “Can you ever truly be happy?” “Is this all there is?” “What is true joy?”
Rather than growing up and out of his questions, McAlister turned to Zen Buddhism for answers. He did so, he says, after meeting a friend who he said “embodied radiant stillness,” or deep peace and calm.
“It was something that I wanted,” McAlister says. “Something seemed like it was missing and he had it.”
He began studying Zen Buddhism at Green Gulch Farm in Sausalito, and reading books on the subject.
At the same time, McAlister was also working toward becoming a stand-up comic, moving to New York in 1989. He said his Zen teachings helped keep him sane, especially with the highs and lows of performing in front of a live audience.
In 1993, he was setting up auditions in Los Angeles when he received a phone call from his old history teacher at Stanley Middle School, Robert Hiller. Hiller said he was dying from cancer and wanted McAlister to take over his class.
At the age of 28, “I walked into the classroom and I realized that this is what I wanted to do,” he says. “My life was suddenly fulfilling when I was teaching those kids.”
In 1995, he was hired as a history and government teacher at his alma mater, Acalanes High.
McAlister continued his studies on Buddhism. As his knowledge grew, so did his desire to learn more, especially about the other branches of Buddhism in Thailand and Nepal. In 2001 he took a trip to Asia.
He spent several months in monastic training in Thailand and another few months in Nepal.
He returned ready to share his knowledge with others.
While his teaching is Zen-inspired, he works to integrate traditions from Christianity, Hinduism, Kabbalah, and Sufiism. The approach attracts many students, including Lafayette resident Jeane Samuelson, who has known McAlister since he was 8 years- old.
A longtime student of eastern religion, Samuelson said it was difficult at first to see someone she had known since elementary as a spiritual guide. She has since realized that he has a lot to share with his students, she said.
“I respect him, and that is why I began to feel comfortable turning to him as a teacher,” Samuelson says.
Lafayette resident Mark Drevno says he was drawn to McAlister during his own search for a more meaningful life.
“You reach a point in your life where you look out there and see beyond what you’ve accomplished, or how much money you’ve made and recognize there is something deeper and more meaningful,” Drevno said.
After taking part in McAlister’s mediation classes for more than two years, Drevno said he is more able to “enjoy today for what it is, instead of thinking about what you don’t have enough of, or what you want.”
McAlister says ultimate goal is to know he lived a good life.
“I have always had this image, of being able to look back on my life at the moment of death and smile. I want to able to do that,” he says.
“I took that lesson away from Nepal. I took that lesson away from teaching kids. I took that lesson away from kissing my wife every morning and it is what I get to share with my students.”
Meera Pal covers Lafayette and Orinda. Reach her at 925-952-5029 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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