A poem I wrote about a retreat I did in Thailand in 2000.
Go to the Ant
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. – Proverbs 6:6
On the ninth day
in front of the hall
overlooking the pond
Shawls draping shoulders
still or slightly swaying
The low setting moon
a lunar eclipse
full and luminous
The celestial pace
her cosmic peek-a-boo
As on the seventh day
in the shade of a banyan
ants drag a beetle incrementally
up the trunk
I return as they reach a hole
to drag it in but with no success
And again as they descend
and dissect the carcass
the ants carry the beetle back
piece by piece it disappears
A number of years ago I was on a weeklong silent retreat where a metta or loving kindness meditation was offered every afternoon. Because this practice was new to some retreatants, there was instruction and a q&a at the end of each session. We spent the week in a classical progression through objects of our metta – the people to whom we sent our lovingkindness: moving from a benefactor, to a friend, to a neutral person and to our difficult person.
I had spent years of meditation practice on the same difficult person, my ex. Years of wishing this person happiness and joy had softened my heart. I was now very happily married and in love, but it was still such a challenge to bring this person into my heart without some amount of tension. So, I asked a question.
“I’ve had the same difficult person for years. I feel like I’ve come to a point where I honestly wish them well. I can genuinely embody a desire for them to experience ease and joy. It’s just that I can’t stop replaying the old stories and I can’t let go of my need to be right.”
The teacher looked me straight in the eyes and he said slowly and clearly, “You are right.”
I said, “Thank you.” Everyone laughed.
It was such a huge insight for me. I am right. And I can let go of those stories.
After the session, I went out into the woods and sat under a large pine and felt the tension finally releasing and a warm energy entering my heart.
I’m reading this book right now. In it, Nicholas Carr explores the changes the Internet has brought to our lives and particularly to our brains. Even though published in 2010 (the dark ages) it’s already a bit outdated (newsflash: e-readers will surge in popularity!), it’s still a fascinating look at the difference in attention and thought that various media elicit with a long comparison between the ‘deep reading’ and ‘deep thought’ involved with book reading versus the distracted thought processes of Internet reading/skimming.
It reminded me of an incident a few years ago. I was spending Thanksgiving at the home of friends and one of the kids there was playing with a new Wii in the basement. I had never played before so I went downstairs and asked him to teach me. He was about 11 years old and patiently explained how to hold the two controls and explained the game he was playing. It was split screen and we both had to keep track of our respective sides where our characters jumped off of a platform and on the long free fall down had to avoid some objects and strategically shoot others, speeding up and slowing down all the while holding two control sticks negotiating their various buttons. There was so much to keep track of. My character, the objects, prompts and instructions that kept flashing on the screen (press A, press B), random crap. I was a hot mess. The kid was zipping along while I was trying to understand how to even change direction. Understandable. I was new to the game. But what amazed me was after some minutes, he turned his head slightly towards me and in an annoyed voice said “PRESS B!” He was not only keeping track of all the facets of his game, he was keeping track of my game too. He could visually track enormous amounts of data and it seemed to me he did it effortlessly. Or at least not with the agony and futility that I was trying to do it. I’m sure with time, my brain would learn to do some of that, but it brought back memories of my own pre-adolescent bafflement as to why my parents couldn’t work the remote control or were terror stricken by programming the VCR. That’s when I realized, kids brains are changing. Again.
What Carr argues is that the Internet is turning us into more shallow thinkers. Yes, we are gaining new skills – quicker image and data processing, faster problem solving speeds but at the expense of deeper thought, creative inquiry and, I would say, mindfulness. Here’s what he has to say about it:
There’s nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. The problem is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself—our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the Net’s treasures, we are blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture.
After my video gaming failure, the kid pulled up another game and said to me, “Maybe this will be easier for you.” It was an electronic version of the game Memory. I was slightly insulted by being relegated to the baby game, but, you know what, I kicked his ass. And you know what else, my dad can still quote poetry he learned decades ago.
The Satipatthana Sutta – is considered the most complete instructions for the system of meditation put forth by the Buddha. Satipatthana is often translated as “Foundations of Mindfulness” with sati equaling “mindfulness.” This sutta contains very simple but profound guideline for practice. It methodically outlines how to practice, where to place attention, how to place attention… And in it, the Buddha lays out 4 foundations of mindfulness (body, feelings, mind states and mind objects).
As we can see all around us now, mindfulness – as a concept — has entered into our modern mainstream culture. There’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness at Work, Mindfulness in Nature – there’s a new book out called “Urban Mindfulness” – which seems like an oxymoron — there are mindful childbirth classes, mindful parenting groups — I’m just waiting for mindful pole dancing or the mindfulness of hedge funds… I think we can all appreciate the idea of being more mindful. To me at least, there’s something about the word that really speaks to a sense of present moment attention that I know I often lack day to day – it’s a challenge to remain mindful. And I definitely want to be more mindful. I could spend an entire post talking about all the ways I’ve been unmindful just today, and it’s only 9:45 am.
But actually I want to talk about that word “mindful” or “mindfulness” and critique it a little. Of course, not to throw it out, because I am obviously not ready to do that, but I think language is very important because it guides our understanding and is often very complex especially when we are dealing with translations… so let’s explore this word mindfulness a little – since it’s become such an important concept. In Pali, the ancient language of Buddhist texts, the word, again, is “sati.” But it’s been very interesting for me reading a translation of the sutta to discover that sati does not only mean mindfulness. In their analysis of the suttas and of other Pali texts, many scholars have noted multiple meanings and connotations to sati. For example, one other meaning of sati is awareness. So, Awareness. Mindfulness. Awareness. Mindfulness. Do those words mean the same thing? They seem slightly different… and, for me, somehow awareness seems more encompassing. For someone else, mindfulness might work better. That’s the tricky stickiness of language.
Sati also has the connotation of memory. Not in the sense of recalling information but of remembering to be present. You know the feeling during meditation when your mind has been wandering and you come back into your body, your breath, into the present moment – like you’ve remembered “Oh, yeah, duh, I was meditating. That’s what I was doing.” That very precise moment of awareness is sati – sati as remembering the present moment.
And what is it that we are aware of? What are we remembering? We are remembering to be fully in this moment. We remember to be aware of our breath, our body, our existence. We are putting aside our stories and coming back into our fully lived presence.
Now, why am I going on about this? We all know that we’re here to (at least) try to come into the present moment… Why am I talking about words? Of course, words will always fail us. They can never capture the totality of experience – especially our inner life and the boundless experience of loving presence. But words are also very powerful directives, and it may be semantics, but I think it’s very interesting that as a culture – at least our English speaking culture – we have chosen the words “mindfulness” and “mindful” as our main translation of this coming back to the present. Maybe other western translations are different. But here, mindfulness is the concept that has captured our attention.
And I don’t think this chosen translation is an accident but actually speaks to a central challenge for many Western students of the Dharma. We are products of a culture that for centuries has privileged the mind. And speaking for myself, I know my mind is actually the problem! We might recognize the statement – “I think, therefore I am.” We may know that saying even if we can’t remember the source. “I think, therefore I am.” This is one of the central ideas of Western philosophy- that thought and thinking are what define us. Not only define us, but what create us.
It’s why we call someone who has strong mental abilities “smart.” And that is how we define intelligence, by mental skills – in our culture, these happen to be mostly verbal and mathematical or scientific. Now, as a society, we have very very slowly started moving beyond this bias. For those of you who are educators, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences in education asks us to think differently about intelligence and to consider physical abilities, emotional skills, spatial abilities and other talents as “intelligence.” But really, our schools, our professional environments and so much about our culture still privilege the mind.
And so, “mindfulness.” When asked to describe her spiritual practice, a Zen nun from fifteenth- century Japan responded, “I meet life with my whole body.”
Here’s a little exercise –
- Close your eyes and come into contact with your breath where you normally do or wherever is most prominent or comfortable for you in this moment
- Now, see if you can become aware of your tongue in your mouth. Not moving it or changing anything, just place your full attention on your tongue
- What did you notice?
A quote from the Buddha from the Anguttara Nikaya:
There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body. (Anguttara Nikaya I, 21 )
And from the Majjhima Nikaya:
If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated. (Majjhima Nikaya 36)
Reggie Ray, Buddhist scholar and teacher in the Tibetan tradition, believes that as Westerners we are extremely disembodied and that until we learn to “meditate with the body” that practice is “no more than a mental gymnastic.” Here’s what he has to say in his book “Touching Enlightenment”
The meditation taught by the Buddha and practiced in subsequent Buddhist history is deeply somatic – fully grounded in sensations, sensory experiences, feeling, emotions, and so on… [But] the somatic teachings of Buddhism have not crossed the cultural divide that separates Asia and the West. This lack of transmission may be due to our own extremely disembodied state, in which we are literally unable to hear the call to embodiment present within traditional Buddhist practice.
And he also points out that perhaps, Asian teachers, coming from more embodied cultures were not aware of the extent of our disembodiment… this maybe also why the transmission of the teachings from East to West lost the somatic element. He says perhaps the traditional instruction to locate the breath at the nostrils can be problematic for those of us who are always in our heads.
I know this is true for me. Over years, I developed a refinement of attention at the nostrils – it’s a powerful place for practice because of the subtlety of sensations there. But a couple of years ago, I realized how head-centered I had become where it really felt like my practice was happening almost entirely north of my neck. I was still and concentrated, but there was something very disembodied about my attention. So I opted for the less refined, grosser sensations of my belly and in the past few weeks in my chest to better root myself in the body. Again, it’s not that the breath at the nostrils is a bad practice – it is extremely profound, that’s why it is a central teaching. But is it the best tool for us? Each of us needs to explore this for her/himself and experiment over time. It can be a very subtle shift.
Maybe in the same way “mindfulness” is not a bad word – it’s a very profound word and a powerful concept — but is it keeping us stuck in our heads? I love the cluncky compound word that dharma teacher Eugene Cash proposes: “mind/heart/ body-fulness.” Can we embody that?
Transformation comes from acceptance.
There are others no doubt, but I see this as the main paradox of practice. The spiritual path is one of transformation, or else, why would we set out on the journey. But it is not in striving for change that we experience transformation, but only through acceptance. The practice of loving presence shifts our rigid patterns. Acceptance opens the heart to a new way of being in the world. Similarly, it is relaxed awareness that motivates our efforts and brings energy to our practice.
We often bring the same achievement attitude we learn in school and in this culture in general to our meditation practice so at a certain point you will probably experience the thought “I’m not doing this right” not understanding there is no right or wrong. There is just a constant rebalancing. Like a seesaw or the Buddha describes it as tuning a lute or a stringed instrument. Not too tight, not too loose and as you play, you will always have to re-tune it (and may even need to replace a string). For myself and I imagine for many of us today, our strings are mostly too tight. Not always, but a lot of time, it’s acceptance and relaxation that we need to emphasize.
Here are the two things I am trying to make central to my practice and the only ‘advice’ I have to offer:
- Give yourself space and time
- Be gentle with yourself
That’s it. Those have been my biggest lessons in these difficult years of mine. Okay, there’s more to them (like what to do with that space and time), but those are the basics. That’s all I got.
a few months ago i was reflecting on the fact that i am a slave to technology. i don’t even do the mytweetyface social media sites any longer, but i am controlled by my email. if i’m not looking at my macbook, i’m looking at my iphone. waiting for the next sign. it guides so many of my actions. i have become almost completely reactive.
that’s when i noticed that reactive and creative are the same word. the c just moves.
i know i’m on a maniacal youtube trip at the moment, but posting justin bond’s song made me remember v’s show at joe’s pub in january (fabulous) and v’s amazing cover of this joan armatrading song (which v heard that morning cleaning v’s apartment and rehearsed for the first time that night in the dressing room!). what happened to joan?
only because françoise & catherine say so…
I have a number of friends (and one husband) who grew up on communes. And I know even more people (including me) whose parents were definitively shaped by Marxist theory. It’s definitely generational. Our parents were influenced by the ideals of liberation movements around the world, both cultural and political. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my attempts to reconcile revolutionary desires with spiritual wisdom. And, I definitely still yearn to liberate from the more oppressive forms of our culture.
For me, lately this has meant finding a new way of “making a living.” I have made the decision not to return to a full-time permanent job. I believe this is the best thing for my health and sanity. It takes some sacrifice (mostly material) and it heaps on rewards (mostly time and space). I know not everyone can make such a radical choice but I am excited to see more and more people making changes to the way they engage with life and work and blurring the lines where those meet. I have friends working from home, flexing time, making/selling/bartering goods and services, and generally finding ways of living and working with more freedom. For many of us it was spurred by the financial catastrophe brought on by Wall Street and its cronies but that crash now feels like a blessing. It feels like our generation’s answer to communes.
And here is Mx Justin Vivian Bond‘s take on the current situation:
The New Depression
… so, bring on some flight of fancy
bring on a magic decree
bring on a high-heeled tranny
bring on fantasy
bring on the ascendant masters
bring on ecology
take what you need
and give a little back
that’s the new economy