Sunday, February 26, 2012

"I don't exist."

Last week in Sangha, one of our newer members, a man named Tom (We don't do last names, so that's all I know), who had spent a considerable amount of time in Japan and was very conversant in Zen Buddhism, said something that has stuck with me ever since. While the other members, during our customary self-introductory go-around, were sharing (as usual) their ongoing challenges with their practice, focusing on either self-congratulatory insights or personal frustrations and setbacks, Tom, when his turn came, made (something like) the following remark:

"Whenever I find myself either castigating myself, or taking offense at something others say about me, or wishing I were better than I am, I often stop to remind myself, 'I don't exist.' That is, this notion we all carry around with us of a separate self is ultimately illusory...I am just one temporary manifestation of the universe, but 'I' don't actually exist...the universe exists through me and everyone and everything else."

This was a bracing insight, which is good to remember whenever we get caught up in any of the innumerable self-centered, afflictive emotions (which can be summed up quite conveniently by the classical Seven Deadly Sins of patristic Christianity):

  • Pride: "I am better than you!"

  • Envy: "I want what you have!"

  • Avarice: "I want more!"

  • Gluttony: "I'm still hungry!" (no matter how much you've eaten)

  • Wrath: "I hate you because you insulted or abused me!"

  • Sloth: "I'm too tired and depressed..."

  • Lust: "I crave your bod!"
The common denominator in all of these afflictions is the First Person Pronoun. But what if this "I" does not exist? Well--in fact, it doesn't. Our bodies are constantly replacing their cells at different rates, and they depend on the constant input of minerals, water, and solar energy, tranformed into the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe, as well as the output of CO2 from our lungs, perspiration, urine, and fecal wastes. If any of these crucial systems of input or output are disrupted, we die. Our brains, conversely, retain their neurons for life, though these are nourished by the same flux of energy and matter as our bodies, but this neural continuity accounts for our memories, which give us the impression of a continuous self. But it is only an impression, and will vanish, along with everything else, to its primordial source once we die, leaving our physical remains to be recycled into new organisms. This "I" is nothing more, then, than the universe looking at itself--I and I, or "eye and eye." Or as Meister Eckhart once said,

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

Wow! As the hippies might have said, "That's heavy!"

This basic insight--"I don't exist"--has many uses. Whether you are feeling full of yourself, embarrassed, offended, annoyed, or self-pitying, you can use it as a quick antidote--something to bring you from being caught up in your personal hang-ups or Klesha back quickly to compassionate awareness of yourself and others, all caught up in the "inescapable network of mutuality"--

  • Breathing (with benevolence and gratitude for all life),

  • Observing (with compassion, yourself and others),

  • Letting Go (with selfless joy and openness to all things)

  • and Abiding (in peace, with patience and a gentle smile)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Garden Practice

Yesterday was an unseasonably warm day, breaking yet another all-time temperature record for winter temperatures on that date (as we have come, lamentably, to expect in these times of runaway global warming). So after months of neglect, I decided to get a start on my garden, which is currently a shambles, full of dry brush, henbane, and onion-grass shoots, enlivened only by the early daffodils that have popped up here and there, thinking it was already spring.

Obviously, there is a lot to do, although my garden time was cut short by my stressed low-back, exacerbated by age and by the futile effort of pulling up vines along the fence.

I will readily confess that though I am an enthusiastic advocate of gardening, I am an incredibly lazy, often unwilling, frequently conflicted gardener. The laziness seems congenital--a lifelong pattern of avoidance and procrastination about any task that requires sustained physical exertion and decision-making. I much prefer predictable, formulaic tasks like washing dishes, or sedentary, equally formulaic tasks like grading papers or preparing classes.

And so, the minute I overcome initial avoidance and step out into the garden, my mind is beset with deeply rooted Klesha (the Buddhist word for afflictive emotions or neurotic patterns), including the following:
  • Guilt (at not having done so sooner)
  • Indecision (trying to choose among the innumerable tasks that are demanding my attention)
  • Distracting thoughts (that often make it hard to plan any given task, select the right tools, and plan and execute tasks efficiently).
And once I get going on something (usually fairly formulaic and predictable, like clearing dead brush, pulling weeds, or preparing seed beds with a hoe and harrow)--come a host of further afflictions:

  • More Distracting Thoughts
  • Ambivalence (e.g. is that a weed or a wildflower? I call this the Gardener/Contemplative Naturalist dilemma--since my natural inclination is toward the latter role)
  • Indecision and ignorance (What should I plant where? How much should I prune that shrub or tree? How can I possibly know?)
  • Fatigue and Pain (the inevitable consequence of aging)
All of which, to put it mildly, often make gardening feel more like a season in Hell than a pleasant afternoon communing with Gaia. All of which begs the question: Why bother? Why not hire a landscaper to bulldoze the whole thing, and--like the old lady who lived here before us--turn it all into a bland, monocultural, easy-to-mow lawn?

The latter is not an option, of course, for it goes against all of my basic convictions about the inestimable value of native plants, biological diversity, and fresh, home-grown vegetables--all of my frequent preaching about the three primary steps in overcoming our toxic addiction to Glomart and healing and creating Gaia:
  1. Plant and grow Gardens.
  2. Cultivate and grow Communities.
  3. Cultivate and grow Diversified, Sustainable Local Economies.
So--faced with this basic psychological conflict between theory and practice--between a passionate commitment to everything Gaian, starting with Gardening--and my habitual avoidance of hard manual labor, systematic planning, and complex learning and decision-making--what gives?

Yesterday, on my first foray into my chaotic, conflicted garden of the mind, I hit upon an idea, that is at least worth an effort: Incorporate gardening into my daily practice, whenever possible. And this means, perhaps after my formal meditation, doing perhaps an hour or so of Karma Yoga in the garden--staying in the present moment, and breathing, observing, and letting go of whatever kleshas arise, but practicing Right Effort in setting modest, achievable goals and staying with them. I feel that if my practice is authentic, then as Pema Chodron says, everything I do should become infused with Dharma. And as a kind of prop to acknowledging and letting go of all these Garden Kleshas, my Tingsha, my Tibetan Bells, will gain an honored place among my garden tools, such that, whenever necessary, I can invite them, and then--Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide...and resume gardening.

So be it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Gaian Jesuits?

Even though I have never been a Roman Catholic, and have little use for the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, I have always had a grudging admiration for St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus. This Spanish-Basque soldier-turned-monk used the military discipline he had learned to create a highly disciplined monastic order, later known as the Jesuits, to undertake the enormous and challenging task of both reforming the corruption within the Church, and revitalizing it by reclaiming for the Catholic Church many of the areas of Europe that had been lost to the Protestant Reformation.

The Jesuits accomplished this task by means both fair and foul, ranging from political manipulation, infiltration of regimes, and conspiracies to the creation of a wide array of impressive educational establishments that undertook to "deprogram" new generations from (what he saw as) the Protestant "heresy" and bring them back into the fold of (what he saw as) the One True Faith. These educational institutions, in turn, trained their students with a rigorous regime of logic and rhetoric, which has created an array of very impressive and influential scholar-activists throughout the world down to this day. Yet his whole edifice of education, scholarship, global missionary outreach, and political influence was predicated on rigorous basic training in "spiritual exercises" which not only ensured their total and unquestioning loyalty to the Church, but also gave them the intellectual tools and the inner spiritual fortitude they needed to fundamentally transform and revitalize the Roman Catholic Church and give it a formidable global influence that it retains to this day, especially in the Southern Hemisphere--from all of Latin America to much of subsaharan Africa, and on as far as the Philippines.

So again, my admiration for St. Ignatius is based on his truly impressive influence and accomplishments, not on his totalitarian religious ideology ("My way or no way") nor on the ethically questionable, Machiavellian means that he and his followers frequently used in their religious warfare. This leads to my question: Could a Gaian order be established, broadly based on the model of the Jesuits, that would train its sworn adherents to undertake, with similar dedication and efficiency, the subversion of the dominant Glomart ideology, and the regeneration of both a hopelessly corrupt political culture and a dying planet? Lets imagine:

Like the Jesuits, the training for a Dharma Gaia Society would be predicated on "spiritual exercises"--not to engender total devotion to any one religious ideology, but rather to create a solid, reliable foundation for open-minded, generous, intellectually open and rigorous, but deeply rooted spirituality, accessible to anyone, and compatible with any authentic faith tradition or lack thereof. The mission of the Dharma Gaia Society would be to integrate both Vertical and Horizontal healing of our fragmented Selves, our distracted Communities, and our devastated Planet. The "spiritual exercises" at foundation of such training, therefore, would not be any question-begging ideological catechism, but rather meditation, based on the Tenfold Mantra:

  1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide)
  2. Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch (Abide)
  3. Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.
Total commitment to this Tenfold Mantra as a guide to living would be the only precondition to membership in the Dharma Gaia order--practicing it every day in formal meditation, and having it available, at all times, to deal with the vicissitudes they encounter with life. Once trained in this basic discipline, Gaians would go forth into the world to practice Doing Good Work by learning, teaching, healing, and creating Gaia--by pursuing lifelong education in green living (Learning), by finding occasion and establishing programs or institutions to instruct others in the contemplative arts (e.g. yoga, tai chi, etc.), community regeneration (from gardening to community organizing to political involvement), and ecological healing and regeneration (teaching, healing, and creating).

So this is the dream. Is the Tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra a powerful enough tool of basic mind training (as were Ignatius' spiritual exercises) to accomplish this huge, intergenerational task? Time will tell.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On One Breath

In recent weeks, I have developed a mantra on a single breath that has proven very effective at quickly inducing a state of meditative stability. It is so useful, in fact, that I have started introducing it to my students in all my classes, referring to it as an "inner tune-up" to complement my "outer tune-up" (which usually consists of a small selection of Qigong longevity exercises). Here is the way it works:

  1. On the inhale, say to yourself, "breathing."

  2. In the brief pause at the top of the inhalation, say, "observing."

  3. On the exhale, say, "letting go."

  4. In the brief pause between exhalation and inhalation, say "abiding."

The reason I use the participial form ("breathing") rather than the imperative form ("breathe") is that any imperative we say to ourselves immediately creates a familiar dichotomy within us: the authoritative Parent figure and thus, the recalcitrant Child figure. If, for example, a sugar addict attempts to deal with his or her addiction by saying "Don't eat that cookie," that addict immediately creates the temptation (the recalcitrant Child) to do the exact opposite.

This tendency is beautifully illustrated in Gregory Bateson's essay on alcoholism, "The Cybernetics of Self" in which he cites the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in subverting this internalized Parent-Child dichotomy by encouraging their members to surrender control (let go).

So by saying to oneself "breathing," one is simply acknowledging what one is actually doing--not giving and obeying a command to oneself. Ditto for the others: "observing," "letting go" and "abiding." As such, these words become transparent--they become windows, through which we look at ourselves doing what these words say. This is also why, in his Sutra on Breathing, the Buddha instructs us to say "Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out"--and why, in his Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, he speaks of "mindfulness of the breath IN the breath, of the body IN the body, and so on.

As we go deeper into meditation, the words gradually drop away as crutches, rather than distracting us as attachments. Soon we are simply and wordlessly breathing, observing, letting go, and abiding. This is the wordless, timeless, selfless state known as alaya.

But for most of us, this blissful state of non-thought, of emptiness and calm abiding, does not last long. Brain-chatter, like Nature herself, abhors a vaccuum, and will rush in to distract us again and again. This is where it is useful, I find, to displace this random brain-chatter (since the our minds can actually focus on only one thing at a time) with the mantra itself--focusing once and again on the four participial verbs--Breathing, Observing, Letting Go, and Abiding.

Another technique for displacing mental chatter--throwing a bone to our restless monkey-minds, as it were--is to map on to these four terms other related tetrads, that keep us focused on the Dharma, rather than on our own distractions. Here are a few examples that map on very nicely to these four stages:

  1. Empathy (Breathing in), Joy or curiosity (Observing), Benevolence (Letting Go) and Equanimity (Abiding). These are, of course, the Four Brahma-Viharas, slightly altered in order: Karuna, Mudita, Maitri, and Upeksha. This technique also fits very nicely with the practice of Tonglen (Taking in our own and others' suffering, and breathing out healing to ourselves and others).

  2. Birth and childhood (Breathing in); Adulthood (Observing) Age and Wisdom (Letting Go) and Death (Abiding.)

  3. Fire (Breathing in oxygen--a transform of solar energy) Air (Observing the oxygen as it is carried from our lungs through our blood to all parts of our bodies) Water (Letting go on the outbreath, as water flows downhill), and Earth (Merging with dust--with the ground of our being.

  4. Om (Breathe in) Mani (Observe) Padme (Let go) Hum (Abide)

And so on. I also can extend the tetrad to embrace the entire Tenfold Mantra, thus incorporating my vows into my practice in only three full breaths:

  1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide)

  2. Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch (Abide)

  3. Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.

Practicing this way regularly has definitely improved my concentration, making it less likely that in formal meditation, I will be carried away by distracting thoughts. And that, after all, is the point. That is why it is called "practice:" to increase, gradually, the likelihood that in the course of daily life, we are more likely to respond to vicissitudes, whether within ourselves or in the world, with empathy, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These four participial conscious reminders--Breathing, Observing, Letting Go, and Abiding--can be coordinated with the four phases of any breath we take, any time, anywhere, no matter what, and quickly restore us to the equipoise necessary to do what needs to be done.