Mastering the Art of Meditation -
Julie Garrett -

Having spent three years in seclusion, Gainesville's David Bole is now a lama in the Tibetan tradition.

As we turn 50, we become acutely aware that we are running out of time. David Bole's response to that awareness was to embark on a journey of the mind, a journey that placed him in a 3-foot-by-3-foot box 14 to 16 hours a day.

In November 2000, Bole, a Gainesville acupuncturist, left for a Buddhist retreat at a meditation center in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York - a retreat that lasted for three years, three months and three days.

Traditional retreats such as this are practiced among a small percentage of monks who practice the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, the spiritual path Bole has followed in this country for 20 years.

"Karma Kagyu is based on a lineage, the spiritual transmission from teacher to disciple over a period of generations," says John Newman, associate professor of Asian religions at New College of Florida, Sarasota. "It uses ritual and meditation as a method to very quickly transform ordinary humans into awakened beings, or Buddhas. It puts a great emphasis on compassion and altruistic activity.

"As an ideology, Buddhism has a lot to offer to the West. On the whole, it is a very tolerant tradition. It is not trying to cram itself down people's throats."

Making the decision

When Bole's aging meditation teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock, N.Y., announced he would be guiding his last retreat, Bole said he knew it was "put-up or shut-up." (Rinpoche means "precious jewel" and is a title reserved for a revered teacher.)

The retreats are a step one must take to become a lama ("guru" or "religious teacher") in the Karma Kagyu tradition. Bole said he intended to do a retreat such as this at some point, and he wanted to attend one led by his teacher. It just came sooner than he expected. "I really had to rally to make the preparations," Bole says, recalling the three weeks it took to divest his life and head to the retreat. "But things fell in place and it was a go."

Bole describes his decision-making in early fall of 2000, as he was leaving: "This life is short. And it is impermanent. We don't know how long we have. When I am on my deathbed, I don't want to say, 'I wish I had done this' or 'I wish I had done that.' It is imperative that we use this precious human life to gain the (spiritual) benefits that we can avail ourselves to. From my point of view, the time in retreat was very important."

Going on retreat

At age 51, Bole closed his acupuncture practice, sold his home and acupuncture school, bid his wife, Joy, farewell, and left Gainesville for Karme Ling meditation retreat about 90 minutes north of Woodstock. It was November 2000.

There he lived with seven other monks without TV, radio or telephone, without leaving the center's small grounds, only glimpsing the changing colors of treetops as the seasons passed outside the stockade fence. His health remained good throughout the retreat.

His personal meditation space was tiny - about 3 feet by 3 feet - what he calls "the box." He spent about 14 to 16 hours a day there. He slept sitting up for only four hours a night, midnight to 4 a.m., and was encouraged to maintain consciousness during dreaming: "You'd control the dreams, manipulate the dream, and you'd see that the dreams are just ephemeral. Then you see the dream-like quality of this world, as well."

His days were filled with individual meditation and group meditation, studying holy texts (he can read Tibetan), and doing "yidam," or lineage meditation practices, to benefit all beings and generate good energy.

"It's very regimented," says Bole, whose Buddhist name is Karma Lodro Sangpo, which means excellent intellect. "It's not like you're sitting around kind of wondering what to do. You're ruled by the gong. We'd get up with the gong, change practices with the gong, have lunch with the gong."

His acceptance as a retreatant was an honor. Only the most advanced, serious students of Karma Kagyu are allowed on this type of retreat. The DVD documentary, "Yogis of Tibet," shows some of the advanced practices learned by retreatants (

Karma Lodro, manager of Karme Ling Retreat Center, says that Tibetan Buddhist monasteries traditionally have retreat centers associated with them.

"Out of a population of 1,000 monks, maybe 10 would be in retreat," Lodro wrote in an e-mail. "The retreat that David did was the traditional format and length . . .. There were retreatants from Taiwan, England, Austria, Brazil and the U.S. in his retreat . . .. Very few do a three-year retreat."

Insulated from terrorism

Bole entered the retreat in a pre-9/11 world. Since he had limited communication with the outside and no access to TV or radio, he was spared the surreal images of plane-smashing-tower and the gut-wrenching aftermath of a country in mourning. But Bole and his fellow retreatants knew about the terrorist attacks in a fax sent that very day.

"The reason we got the fax about 9/11 was so that we could offer prayers for those who died in that awful event," says Bole. "We offered special prayers at that time for the families and for those who suffered in that terrible event."

Indirectly, Bole says, they heard about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rinpoche was in contact with the outside world and told them things, and they would receive letters from friends and family that would include occasional magazine stories, Bole says.

On March 7, 2004, he successfully completed his retreat. Then he traveled directly to New York City where he saw "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway. He went from being totally removed from society to one of the world's most frenetic cities. How was that?

"Fine. I had no problem with it," he says. "Since you create your reality, you take it with you wherever you go."

But he said he noticed a huge change in our culture.

"When I came out, everyone was resonating with 9/11 and with terrorism. The whole world had changed."

All things Asian

Although Bole oriented most of his adult life toward the East, he grew up Catholic in Palm Beach County, the son of a lawyer and a nurse. He was an altar boy, attended 12 years of Catholic school, and says he was being groomed by the priests and sisters to enter the priesthood.

He came to Gainesville instead, arriving in 1971 to start his junior year at the University of Florida. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology in 1978. During that same period, he studied what he calls "the hard martial arts" such as karate and aikido, until drawn to the "softer" practice of T'ai Chi.

Bole says as he learned the physical moves of martial arts, he began an inner journey to train the mind, which included a regular meditation practice.

Once he began practicing psychotherapy, he found that talk therapy did not address his clients' physical ailments.

"I was looking for something that addressed body, mind and spirit," says Bole. "Acupuncture is a really wonderful system of medicine that addresses all those aspects."

He left the United States for England in 1978 to study Five Element-style acupuncture in Oxford with J.R. Worsley at the College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture. After graduating with a degree in acupuncture in 1983, he was one of two practicing acupuncturists in Florida and helped create Florida's acupuncture licensing guidelines.

Today, he practices a Japanese-style of acupuncture. "It's a non-insertive style that is very gentle, very effective," Bole says. "We use acupuncture needles on or near the skin, but they don't puncture the skin."

Lessons in impermanence

The end of Bole's 15-year marriage to Joy Bole, also a Gainesville acupuncturist, was an unexpected fallout from the retreat. "We thought we could make it through the separation, but it didn't work out," he says.

The two didn't get to speak during the divorce process, never had an opportunity to look into each other's eyes. All their communication was via fax and e-mail.

Like anyone going through a divorce, Bole said he experienced feelings of anger and denial relating to the break-up of his marriage. The experience was grist for the mill of his spiritual practice, he says, another lesson in the impermanence of all things. "The good point is that I was in retreat," he says, "and I knew the nature of my mind. I could watch my thoughts buzzing along, doing their thing."

One of the benefits of meditation is becoming aware of one's thought process, "so (they) don't run all over you. You don't have to be a victim. It gives you the option to be responsive but not reactive."

He says in Buddhism, all your experiences are used to move your spiritual process forward: "Even things that are considered obstacles and detriments are brought to the path and seen as vehicles for growth. You embrace it."

Bole says meditation and Buddhism lead to your true nature, where you don't get distracted by fortune's slings and arrows.

"It's kind of like being the center of the hurricane," he says. "With all the stuff going on around us, the inside is peaceful, calm."

Buddhism is based on compassion and loving kindness for all beings. One goes on retreat, or meditates, to help others: "You see the suffering, you see all the things that are going on, and you want to help people, and you want to be of benefit to them, but you really can't be of benefit until you've obtained some realization yourself."

Coming home a teacher

Since returning to Gainesville, Bole gives talks about Buddhism around the state and is available to answer people's questions about meditation.

Terry Lehman of Jonesville is president of Karma Thegsum Choling, the Gainesville Karma Kagyu group.

"We provide a place for people to learn what is referred to as 'the dharma,' or the teachings of the Buddha," says Lehman, who has been involved with the group since its inception more than 20 years ago. "And we provide a place for people to get together once a week and (meditate) together."

Lehman says to his knowledge, there's no one in Gainesville aside from Bole who has undergone such an in-depth retreat.

"Our attendance at the meetings has gone up (since Bole has returned from retreat). People see David as a resource. He can clarify certain aspects of sitting meditation or other aspects of the practice."

Since Bole worked so closely with his teacher, Kempo Karthar Rinpoche, Lehman says asking Bole questions "is like getting answers from Kempo Rinpoche himself."

Bryan Cuevas, professor of religion, Buddhist and Tibetan studies at Florida State University, says Karma Kagyu has been historically in Tibet a tradition that has emphasized the practice of yoga and meditation.

"The founders of the tradition were great Tibetan yogis," Cuevas said.

As for Bole's retreat, "it's quite a feat to commit yourself to three years. The end result is that you are then qualified to be a teacher of all of the advanced practices of that particular lineage. He's done it the traditional way. In that regard, he would be recognized by the Tibetans as being a legitimate teacher. He's not some guy who has read some books on meditation and now he's going to teach."

Lucian Kragiel, owner of Atlantic Design and Construction in Gainesville, said he went to talks that Bole gave both before and after his retreat.

"When someone has actually experienced over three years of intense solitude and constant meditation and prayer, then their experience becomes more first-hand," says Kragiel. "David's means of teaching now is much more direct from his own experience."

Jason Neelis, assistant professor in the Department of Religion at UF, says there is a "significant, growing interest in Buddhism among American audiences."

"To have someone who's really immersed in the tradition available for local practitioners shows how Buddhism is gradually spreading to areas that aren't metropolitan cities or near the centers," says Neelis.

Journey to Tibet

Bole accompanied his teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, now 80, to Tibet for more than a month this summer. Rinpoche lived in Tibet until 1976. Because he traveled with Rinpoche and a small group of monks and lamas, Bole was granted entry to unique shrines and holy places, and got to see things that typical Western tourists would not.

"We traveled to many of the sacred sites that Rinpoche wanted to go to and never had the opportunity to see," Bole says. "So it was really a pilgrimage for all of us monks as well."

Bole says a Westerner wearing robes riveted the attention of ordinary Tibetans, who wanted their photographs taken with him.

"They just couldn't believe that there was a Westerner, a Western monk. For some reason, they just didn't see them in Tibet. So that was quite an attraction."

The 55-year-old Bole is now an ordained lama and is starting his life again in the real world. He's opened an acupuncture practice in the same healing center as his ex-wife - they are now good friends - and will be teaching a meditation and T'ai Chi class in Gainesville beginning Wednesday.

He plans to make himself available as a guide to people who want to study meditation and Buddhism. Helping people along their spiritual path goes with the territory of being a lama.

"I feel like it's a great blessing to do it," Bole says.