Saturday, November 26, 2011


This post will be about sex, so keep reading.  This first paragraph, though, will make another point about meditation and neuroscience (and if you're tempted not to read it first, just remember that skipping foreplay is bad karma).  There seems to be plenty of evidence that meditation will eventually change the structure and functioning of your brain, which sounds amazing, but which is actually less amazing than what people like Robert Aitken have been saying for centuries, that it changes your character and your way of experiencing the world.  But in any case, it's one thing to accept that the practice is transformative, and quite another to want to sign up to the particular transformation it offers.  I once read a report on a study suggesting that experienced meditators could eliminate their subconscious startle reflex.  I thought, 'Impressive', and 'Why the hell would I want to do that?'

I had an exchange of emails at one point with a friend who was at the time (and is still) studying philosophy.  I was already interested in Buddhism at the time, and had been telling him about the four noble truths and the eightfold path, which I'd learned about in Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught.  My friend (like many friends to this day) urged me to consider what he saw as the inhumanity of ideals such as the extinguishing of desire and the realization of selflessness.  I wondered whether the attempt to extinguish desire made us more inhuman than unthinking servitude to it; whether the realization of selflessness had led to greater acts of inhumanity than selfishness' full realization.  And anyway, though I didn't really want to extinguish my self or my desires completely, I knew I wanted to become less self-regarding and less anxious; and that was enough to keep me going.

I know what you're thinking: what does this have to do with sex?  Well, achieving the orthodox Buddhist ideal of exstinguishing desire would obviously involve extinguishing what for many of us feels like the tallest and hottest flame of all, sexual desire.  That's presumably the main reason that monks strengthen the traditional precept against sexual immorality into a vow of celibacy.  I remember reading about Buddhism in a comparative religion textbook we used at my secondary school called Six Great Religions.  There was a picture of some monks with shaven heads looking very silly and very pleased.  Next to them there was a text box saying: 'KEY IDEA: celibacy is key to spiritual development'.  I thought, 'Gosh'.  Although really, Christian monks have usually had the same idea.

I can sometimes see where they're coming from.  Being free from desires may sound unattractive, but it can really just be a way of being fully present in the moment: enjoying the way the sky is ripening to purple over the silhouette of your neighbourhood may be more difficult if you're thinking that you haven't gotten laid for a few months and need to be plotting how to put that right.  And I'm surely not the only twentysomething single in America to be weary of dating: all the fussing and striving that goes into finding someone to desire, pursuing them, and eventually either disappointing them or yourself.  One of the things I've liked about being in relationships it's easier to put all that to one side.

There is, of course, another side to the story.  Many people's most intense experiences of being alive have come from romantic relationships or sexual adventures, and some of them would no doubt insist that those moments were not merely physical but spiritual.  James Joyce seems to have been one of these people: the ecstatic vision that Stephen Daedalus has of the girl with bare legs at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is simultaneously a religious epiphany and an erotic dream come true (as well as an Ovidian metamorphosis, but we'll put her turning into a stork aside for now).  And there's a vein of tantric Buddhism that embraces this: there are even buddhas who are said to have come to realization in more senses than one. 

There's a Zen koan that asks 'Why can't the clear-eyed boddhisatvas ever sever the red thread?'  Nobody knows the answer, but John Tarrant thinks the question is about desire, and his view on this deserves some respect.  Chris Wilson talked one night about how those great old Theravadin monks, try as they might, could never really exstinguish all desire; and about how the Zen way was more to accept that the world we're in was a world of desire, whether we liked it or not.  I looked up to see my friend one seat over nodding vigorously.  Since joining the group, I've gradually pieced together the complex web of relationships, amicable and professional and sexual, that helped bring it into being, and the equally complex network of emotions, desire and love and hatred, that still holds it together.

I've always approached meditation groups as a refuge from all that.  Most of my Zen friends would probably remind me that there is no real refuge from desire, so I'd better stop pretending I can find one.  I won't pretend I've never felt attracted to anyone I sit with.  But I won't date within the community, just like I won't date in the department; call me Theravadin, but I'm not into sanghacest.  Occasionally, I look around the zendo at my dear friends, knowing that they're feeling impatience or anger toward someone, and feel glad to be free of it all (assuming I really am).  But more often, I watch them meditating together and bowing at one another, and become aware of a feeling in myself of admiraton, perhaps awe, even envy, that though they go on feeling lust or longing or regret or frustration at one another, they always do so, in this space at least, with compassion and dignity.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Night community

I used to prefer cats to people, but recently I've been coming round to the human race.  When I first starting meditating, I saw no reason to do it with anyone else; actually, since it seemed like kind of a weird thing to be doing, I prefered nobody else to be around when I was doing it.  I remember reading a passage in one of Christmas Humphreys' books where he says that Buddhists don't really do community; they just read books and meditate at home on their own.  I found that reasuring, since I never really liked having to talk to people after church.  Once when I went to a Quaker meeting with a friend he said, 'We like to think of coffee after Meeting as an integral part of Meeting, but I'm not very good at that'.  So we left without talking to the welcoming older people, and I was glad: they looked boring.

At some point I realized that I was so busy with working, playing, and drinking that I wasn't anywhere near meditating every day.  I thought that joining a group would provide me with some extra motivation or will-power, and I was right.  Even though I didn't take to the group in Oxford in a big way, I met some apparently normal British students who were into meditation and weren't shooting for a certificate in yogic flying.  I talked every now and then to the teacher about meditation, and that made me want to try out the advice he'd given me, if only as a matter of personal courtesy.  And when we sat, I couldn't get up and absent-mindedly start perusing books as I sometimes found myself doing at home.  I had to meditate, and that reminded me that I liked meditating, actually rather a lot.

When I moved to Battersea I found that there was a very good chess club down the road and a very ornate Buddhist temple.  There was an altar or three at the end of the meditation hall, any number of snarling deities or half-deities wielding all manner of blades, candles and flowers and mandalas and gilt-framed photographs of reincarnated Rinpoches.  There was a complex series of bells, deep bells and tinny bells and jangling bells, to tell you to start meditating or stop, to start walking or stop, to make tea or drink it or listen to the dharma talk or do one yourself.  The people were the kind of Western Buddhists who started sentences with phrases like, 'When I first started down The Path...'  A man from Toronto gave me some useful hints about meditation, but it wasn't enough to keep me going back more than once or twice a month.  The chess club was great though: I went every week.

At Stanford the chess clubs was rubbish: everyone was analyzing and talking about math.  It was only in my second year that I started turning up to the meditation sessions advertised online in the Old Union.  There was guided meditation offered by a young man that looked to me like your typical Stanford grad student - clean-cut, Asian, serious and pragmatic - except that he had a certain calmness about him.  After a few sessions stubbornly doing my own practice, I decided to give his visualizations a try, if only as a matter of personal courtesy.  I ended up coming every week, even during breaks when I'd be disappointed to find no-one there.  Sometimes it was just the two of us; usually two or three others came.  There was a medical student, an tiny Indian girl, a middle-aged woman in philosophy.  We talked a little bit after the meditation about how we'd felt, and all the things we'd thought.

The year after Sith graduated I found what I'd thought was my ideal group.  There was no hierarchy, though there was a Religious Studies student who'd been a novice monk and answered my questions about monasteries in South-East Asia.  We'd meet, sit in our own ways for half an hour, and then disperse without saying much more than hello, goodbye, and thank you.  The following year afternoon sessions were led by a happiness researcher who drew something of a larger crowd.  There was a young techie who told us how meditation sometimes made him burst into laughter for no reason, a chilled-out Brazilian with an afro who just couldn't stop smiling, an anxious undergraduate who said looking at the contents of her own mind terrified her.  And all these groups were my sanghas; this year I've started staying for dharma circle in the same space.  Another year, another community.

If I'd been given the power to create my own ideal meditation group, it wouldn't have looked like Wind in Grass.  There wouldn't have been any koans, for a start, since I've always been a small-vehicle guy when it comes to meditation.  There wouldn't have been discussions or Zen games or dharma talks.  There certainly wouldn't have been statues of the Buddha, candles, or incense, not to mention disembodied heads, energy eggs, or Zen crickets.  But part of joining any community is being with people who have different preferences than you do, and different ideas.  If they didn't, it wouldn't be a very interesting group to be in, since you'd never learn anything.  Sometimes when I'm sitting in Wind in Grass I come across a rich tenderness in myself towards our altar, a drawer with a table cloth over it loaded with paraphernalia.  I didn't realize I would like it; thank goodness someone else did.

Once when I was on retreat one of the more severe looking students told me I should bow when approaching the teacher's room, bow after I'd gone through it, and then bow to the teacher before sitting down.  The next time I went into the room I did just that, and David looked at me and said, 'Dan probably told you to bow - which is sweet, since he's trying to make younger students feel at home.  But you should know that I couldn't care less.'  Since then, I don't bow to David (I shake his hand).  But for the rest of the retreat I still bowed to Dan.  You bow to Dan by bowing before entering the room to speak with the teacher.  I know Michael likes bowing too, so sometimes I bow to Michael.  You bow to Michael by bowing before sitting down, before serving tea, before lighting more incense.  And it seems fair enough, after all the bowing he's done for us by organizing Wind in Grass.

Once a month we have Community Night, when our practice is even less formal than usual (which you'd think would be difficult, but somehow we manage it).  There's a beautiful baby girl stumbling headlong around the zendo, gooing and gaing and aiding our meditation - she's a year old, the same age as my niece in distant England.  Our artist friend Mick, who left for Mexico last year, is here in the form of a wax energy sculpture on the altar - he is disguised as an enormous translucent egg.  My friend Ashley is sitting across from me cycling through memories of sticking needles into people therapeutically, which is her day job.  Marika is here with her boyfriend, Michael is here in his business suit, Raffy is looking clean-cut.  We are huddled in our wooden hide-out like revolutionaries or terrorists dedicated to doing nothing.  This is my secret society of friends, my sworn conspiracy of meditators, my night community.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sesshin session

The day after I came back from my first retreat, I knew I could thank the man who offered to smack me with a stick, the tea that almost scalded me, and all the serious people who didn't speak to me, for the high that I was feeling.  I was hiking back up Potrero Hill with two bags full of cheap and heavy groceries from Trader Joe's, singing under my labouring breath and composing in my head an umpromising poem I would never write down.  How had I gotten there?  It had started with Wind in Grass organizer Michael urging me to go (on retreat, or as he called it, sesshin), and making it easy for me by telling me I need pay only what I could and arranging a ride for me from the city.

The drive up to Santa Rosa was quiet - there was a man next to me that we'd picked up from the airport who gave one-word answers to my friend Ashley's attempts at conversation, and who I decided must either be very Zen or very rude (or both).  When we got to the Angela Center (usually used for Christian retreats) we went up in the elevator and stepped out into an inchoate zendo.  There were two stern-looking older men talking about Zen and Christianity and complaining about how the people materializing out of the elevator were wearing shoes in the meditation hall.  Almost immediately I was coopted by a tiny Asian man who directed me like a mechanical crane to hang several of his paintings high up on the walls.

I was shown to a room where I met my room-mate, a physics professor who seemed anxious about his allotted task of ringing the bells for the week.  The bells?  I was soon familiar with them, since they woke me at 4:30 the next morning.  I stumbled into the meditation hall where there was a man who looked like Socrates bowing and pouring tea to the people seated next to me, one at a time.  He was pouring steaming tea into my cup in the dark, and suddenly I realized the cup was filled to the glowing brim, the hot liquid about to spill over and scald my hands.  Later Socrates approached me in the hallway and whispered the convention: you're meant to hold your hand out until you've gotten enough, and then pull it sharply up.  Why hadn't anyone told me?

After the first two hours of meditation, I went back to my room, but then glanced at the printed schedule and realized that everyone else must have gone down to the dining hall for breakfast.  When I got there there everyone was muttering evilly in guttural tones about demons and hungry ghosts.  I stood by the door, awkwardly.  After breakfast I was put to chopping carrots and told to do it mindfully and above all quickly.  Then there was an hour of free time.  I followed a path past statues of Mary and Jesus out to a grassy hill.  I went over the hill, over a wooden fence, through the woods and stood staring for a while at a lake steaming in the early morning like hot tea.  When I got back to the zendo I realized that my socks had been soaked through with dew as chilly as dawn lakewater.

In the meditation hall there were probably forty or fifty people, with one long row along the walls and another smaller rectangle of mats in the centre of the room.  Most of the silver-haired solemn people that made up the majority of the group were wearing the black bibs with the curtain-rings that I'd seen Chris wearing at Wind in Grass.  Were they all chaplains or priests or masters of some sort?  To my left there was an altar covered with a thick white cloth and topped with three gilt statues of gyrating Eastern deities with limbs to spare and loaded with slicing weaponry.  There were tall candles burning tall fat flames and vases stuffed with flowers and a stalk of incense trailing an elaborate wake of smoke.  I looked across at Ashley seated opposite me and prayed that she would know what to do when the time came.

After a while there was an announcement: the Head of Practice would soon be stomping around and we had the choice of either getting a shoulder massage or being whacked with a stick.  Excuse me?  It seemed like a joke, a choice that wasn't really a choice at all.  Who would choose to be whacked with a stick?  As it turned out, a majority of the serious elderly people wanted the rod on their shoulders: they bent down ceremoniously to the left, whack whack, they slid down to the right, whack whack.  I'm told that this is to help meditators avoid falling asleep during the long afternoon sessions.  I went for the shoulder rub and have never looked back.  But I needed it: sitting cross-legged for eight or nine hours a day is tough on your body, especially if you're already in chronic pain.

At the end of the first day someone said, 'Prepare the hall for dharma talk'.  Everyone gathered into a crowd, there was a boing sound like when Wile E. Coyote runs into a cymbal, and in walked another man with an extra silly Buddha bib like David's.  He talked for a while in faded antipodean cadences about how most of our lives consist of killing zombies, one after the other, but there were always more.  After the talk we all stood in the candlelight and David came in.  He said, 'A man walks into a restaurant and orders the soup.  After a while, he calls the waiter over and complains that the soup is unbearably salty.  When the waiter looks incredulous, the man says, "Taste it yourself".  The waiter replies, "But you don't even have a spoon"'.  And that was life too, complaining of how bitter things were when we hadn't even made an effort to taste them.

The next morning I began to notice the trees outside through the window of the meditation hall.  At breakfast as we grumbled our grace, their deltas of rich wood began to distinguish themselves from the darkness.  I talked illicitly with the tiny Chinese man: it turned out he'd been a Christian minister, then had gone an various voyages to India, and now practised Zen.  I walked out to the lake, filled to the glowing brim with cool water.  I was whisked away by Chris to see David and do work in the room.  I chopped vegetables efficiently, and ate and slept.  The next day it was time to leave my first sesshin (I could only stay for the weekend).  The night before David had said, 'It's when I'm on retreat that I start to notice myself building the house of pain.  It doesn't stop me doing it, but I notice myself doing it, and somehow that's enough'.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Zen people are assholes

Once there was a temple that was destroyed by fire; its great library was completely destroyed.  Priests from a nearby shrine came to the great temple concerned about the loss of ancient Tang and Sung dynasty texts.  The master told them, 'None of them have been harmed'.  'Where are they then?' one of the priests asked doubtfully; 'Would you show us the Tang edition of the Mahavairochana sutra?'  The master held up one hand.  The priests didn't know what to make of this, but another one asked to see the later translations of the Lotus Sutra.  Again, the master held up one hand.  He said, 'The covers were burned, but you can still hold the texts in your hand'.

That was one of the first koans I heard at Wind in Grass.  When it came to the discussion, everyone put their interpretive pennies into the hat.  When the Zen bug (which preceded the disembodied Buddha head) came to one hipster girl though, she just put up her hand.  She looked kind of pissed off.  Later on I got to know her better when she ended up being up at retreat the first time I went to one.  Before you eat a meal on retreat there's a weird ritual where a plate is passed around every table and everyone puts a morsel of food on it.  Then one person from each table takes the plate up to the altar and offers the food up.  The whole while everyone in the room is muttering a dark twisted form of grace in which we invoke all the demons and hungry ghosts, asking them to take our food and be at peace.  One of the first times I was involved in this I took a particularly plump raspberry and put on the offering plate.  A few seconds after the rite had been concluded the girl whispered harshly over at me, 'I can't believe you gave a whole fucking raspberry to the hungry ghosts!  They don't even exist!' 

Zen people can be assholes.  I don't mean that in a complaining way; it's just something I've noticed and appreciated.  It's part of what makes me feel at home at Wind in Grass, since there's a certain normality there.  The hipster girl told me how she'd been on a vipassana retreat for a whole month once.  It had changed her permanently and made her happy and all that, but one of the things that stuck in her mind was that it was impossible to go through doorways, because whenever you tried there'd be a smiling Buddhist on the other side inviting you to go through first (at which point you'd obviously have to smile back and insist that the smiling Buddhist go through before you).  That doesn't seem to be a problem at Zen retreats.  I was definitely intimidated by some of the people I saw at my first retreat, but then I got to know them better, and now they just scare me.

Ultimately, the practise is about compassion (like all true religious paths, perhaps).  But there's a lot of emphasis at the outset on authenticity, too: you never get the impression that people have plastered smiles on their faces, which has sometimes been my suspicion at meditation events of different persuasions (not that having a smile plastered on your face isn't better than having most other things plastered on your face).  If you're pissed or randy or distraught, the Zen prescription seems to be to just be pissed off or randy or distraught (and maybe: notice that you're pissed or randy or distraught).  Don't criticize yourself for it.  After a while you'll realize that being pissed, randy, and distraught are all fine states of mind to be in, and you won't be so desperate to change your state of mind or the state of the union.  And from below the surface of that equanimity compassion will bubble up naturally.

That's my understanding of the teaching at this point, and I don't like it all that much.  (So my understanding may still be imperfect, or the teaching may just be crap.)  But it does raise an interesting and obvious point about Buddhism: that's it's a capacious and varied set of practices, and it shouldn't be surprising that different emphases in terms of the ethics will lead to practitioners who react differently when they meet each other at doorways.  This also links up with the recent posts on meditation and neuroscience, since it's often amusing to me to read of studies that show how 'meditation' has this or that effect in the brain.  What kind of meditation?  Often they'll stipulate it's 'Buddhist meditation'.  Thanks.  (My former teacher Mike Hagerty's work is an exception in this regard, often describing in detail the particular type of meditation that's being studied).

It's pretty obvious, though, that different types of mental exercise will lead to the development of different features of personality, just as different physical exercises lead to the development of different muscles in the body.  That actually seems to be one of the starting assumptions of lots of meditative practices: people who do metta for example, are aiming partly to cultivate a generous attitude that will issue in right deeds and good action.  So it's no surprise that meditators who concentrate on an object of meditation will develop a certain one-pointedness, and that Zen types who just fucking sit for hours at a time will become increasingly badass.  I don't want to emphasize this too much, since in the end there seems to be something common to all types of meditation which just grants you peace in an unpredictable way (maybe in the way that all types of exercise make you feel slightly better somehow).  But it's worth noticing, and worth bearing in mind: be careful what you sit for.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

This is your brain on meditation

Let's return to the question of the scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, making the scope of our enquiry slightly broader than pain this time around.  There seems to be a lot of research out there suggesting than regular meditation can improve your overall health, reduce anxiety and depression, and even make you smarter.  As far as I can tell, the claims seem to be true, though I wouldn't be surprised or dismayed if some of them turned out not to be.  But I want to make two points here: the first is that it has always seemed to me that the hardest way to get the benefits of meditation is to try to get the benefits of meditation; and the second is that health, cheerfulness and smarts are all very well, but there's a way in which meditators who focus on getting them are missing out on something much better and readier to hand. 

There are plenty of meta-scientific studies out there showing that research on most novel medical treatments follows a consistent pattern: at first, the new technique is acclaimed, as study after study demonstrates that it has incredible benefits, low costs, and few side-effects.  After a while, there's a reaction, as studies appear that imply that the vaunted effects represent little more than the action of placebo.  In a final stage, researchers settle into a consensus that the novel treatment, though not the panacea it had at first seemed, is also not the fraudulent practice some had accused it of being.  And something similar may well be in store for research on meditation, scientific research into which is still relatively young.

On the other hand, meditation itself is not a new practice but an ancient one, dating back at least 2500 years.  There's a sense in which anyone who has met an experienced and authentic meditator - a monk, say - knows that their practice has developed certain character traits, whether or not they want to develop those traits themselves.  And there's a sense in which what neuroscientists look at (brain waves, neurogenesis, activation of various areas of the brain) are phenomena of secondary importance when it comes to meditation.  We don't experience the ion channels in our neurons, can't tune into our brain waves, don't feel our amygdala lighting up the way it does on a scan.  But we do feel better about the world after sitting still for a little while, and that may be all the evidence some of us need.

Still, it's encouraging to see how the initially sceptical scientific community in the West has fallen slowly but surely head over heels for meditation.  There have been a number of crucial contributions.  One was the medical researcher Herbert Benson's work on the 'relaxation response' and its health benefits in Boston in the 1970s.   Another has been the cooperation encouraged by the spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso between neuroscientists and advanced meditators at the annual Mind and Life conference, inaugurated in 1987.  And another was the neurologist James Austin's 1998 book Zen and the Brain.  There are now centres dedicated to meditation research across the US, including one at Stanford.

And what have all these researchers found?  I can't hope even to survey the findings of the thousand or more studies on meditation that have been published since the 1970s.  But here a few especially suggestive findings.  Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee studied 201 African Americans in their fifties and sixties who had been diagnosed with heart disease, following these subjects' health over nine years.  Half the group was assigned to a course on diet and exercise, while the other half enrolled in a meditation class.  At the end of the study, the researchers found that the incidence of heart attack and stroke in the group of meditators was only about half the rate in the control group.

Similarly spectacular results were reported for the treatment of depression in a study carried out at UCLA.  The group of subjects is this case was a worryingly small one, of only 36 people, all of whom had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and all of whom were taught to meditate.  Reported symptoms of depression in the group as a whole had nearly halved after three months, and the benefits were retained for the rest of the year.  (The three-month duration of the activation period, reported in a few studies I've seen, chimes with my experience.  It was about three months after I'd started meditating for the first time than I began to feel I had a real handle on my facial pain).

Another smallish study from UCLA looked at the brains of 44 people, half of whom had practised meditation for several years.  MRI scans showed that the hippocampus - an area of the brain associated with memory - was significantly larger in the brains of the meditators than in the control group.  Admittedly, this may have been because people with large hippocampi are pre-disposed to meditate rather than because meditation increases the size of your hippocampus.  But researchers at Harvard and Yale have interpreted similar results as suggesting that meditation actually stimulates the production of more grey and white matter in regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex. 

This is just a glance at a few studies on three aspects of health that meditation has been claimed to improve.  But it looks like we have a simple technique that is free, has no side-effects, is available to everyone, and that reliably makes people healthier, happier, and cleverer.  I'm not in a position to be able to offer any sort of reliable meta-analysis of this research, but the balance of evidence seems clear.  But though I suppose that meditation might make you healthier and happier and smarter, I don't think people should meditate in order to achieve these goals.  I don't really think people should meditate in order to achieve other goals either.  The thing is, I don't think people should meditate to achieve any goals at all.  In fact, meditation for me is partly about realizing that there aren't any goals you need to achieve apart from appreciating the amazing show the daylight is putting on for free.

My first problem with meditating for health and happiness (or even wealth, as I'm sure some do) is that it makes the practice into another kind of striving.  Even sophisticated (or just plain honest) Christians like C.S. Lewis have always stressed that prayer isn't about getting what you want, but about putting your heart in the right place so that you want (or at least accept) what you get.  And as a matter of observation it seems that you only stop being nervous about a presentation when you stop making its success such a big deal; you only stop worrying about a date when you realize that your happiness isn't going to depend on its outcome (though your ego might); and that in general, and paradoxically, things only start falling into your lap once you've sat down and given up reaching for them.

My second problem with focusing excessively on the medical gains of meditation is that it misses the real windfall.  When they asked Gautama what he'd gained from enlightenment, he reportedly (I get this from Henry Miller) replied, 'Nothing - and that's exactly why it's enlightenment'.  Stopping worrying about your job, your health, even your family, must all ultimately be part of an understanding that there's nothing you can possibly lose (or fail to gain) that will take away this moment, with the lamplight and the stillness and sounds of the night.  And it may be that that realization will heal your heart and grow your brain.  I don't care.  I sit in the half-light, listen to the silence, look around at the restful objects teaching me how not to move, knowing there's no improvement I can make that will make this moment more true.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Work in the room

The third or fourth time I turned up for meditation at Wind in Grass I found that they'd hidden a man with a white beard in the closet.  The space we sit in has a rustic, outdoorsy feel, even though as soon as you step outside you can see the densely clustered towers of the downtown area sparkling away beside the Bay Bridge.  Every time you walk in the door it's like going on an urban camping trip.  The wooden floorboards are rough and unsanded (some work practice we never seem to get around to), and throw up splinters that unquestionably help with mindfulness when we're doing walking meditation in our socks.  In the corner there's a wooden door with a catch and behind it there's a small space between the wall behind you and the sloping bedrock of Potrero Hill.

That night they'd announced that the teacher David would be coming.  After we started meditating the girl to my left put the disembodied head of the Buddha in my hands and disappeared into the corner.  Beneath the noise of the heater you could hear hums and haws and sometimes an explosion of laughter.  After twenty minutes or so she came back to her cushion.  I passed the head of the Buddha on to the person to the left of me and opened the door of the closet.

In the closet there was an empty chair, and across from it another chair with a man with a white goatee in it.  Next to him there was a little table with a bell and some other curious objects on it.  Around his neck he had a kind of apron like the one I'd noticed Chris wearing, only this one was yellow and sparkly, as if he had taken care to dress up extra silly to keep the children entertained.  He looked friendly and glad but also kind of mischievous, as if he were savouring the happy outcome of a recently executed practical joke. 

This, I later learned, was our version of dokusan, a private interview with a Zen teacher.  (This was also my first encounter with a Zen teacher, although I'd foolishly taken the other chap with the black bib as a teacher, because he had taught me things.)  I've heard that in Japanese tradition the interview can be quite confrontational, with the master throwing the student a koan immediately upon entry and ringing the student out of the room with the bell if a satisfactory answer is not forthcoming.  When I heard this I immediately felt at home, realizing that the Japanese had invented the Oxford tutorial.  'How did the ancient Greek city-state get there?'  'How do you stop the sound of the distant temple bell?'  Ding-dong.  We've all been there.

My actual experience was much more disconcerting, consisting as it did largely of patience.  I sat down and waited for the teacher to say something, and he sat there and smiled.  At a certain point we started talking about meditation.  I'd already been practising for seven or eight years but immediately felt that everything was upside down.  More precisely, I felt like the strange man sitting opposite me was flipping my brain over, repeatedly and lighthearetdely, the way you flip a fried egg over on a frying pan.  Flip, flip.  This is your brain on koans.  And my koan was to stop the sound of the distant temple bell.  With what?  How come?  No idea.  It was like an extra secret dangerous mission from the spy agency that you couldn't refuse. 

I've since had many sessions in the room with David Weinstein, in Wind in Grass, on retreat, in somebody's house in Alameda, over the phone.  Somtimes we talk about meditation, which I thought is what I was meant to be doing at first (and that may be right; I don't know).  Sometimes we talk about what's going on in my life, which I was pretty sure was wrong, until I found out that's what most people in Wind in Grass were doing (not to say that it isn't wrong; it may be).  And sometimes we talk about stopping that damn bell from clanging in that distant bloody temple.

After I'd put forward my interpretion of the koan, my thoughts concerning it, and my complaints about it ('My koan doesn't appear to be working'), David started asking me to show him how to stop the bell without using words.  I have no idea how to do this, but I've figured out that figuring something physically is a big part of koan work, the only way, David told me, of getting the understanding into your bones.  I will work on that.  In the meantime, I look forward and backward to meeting strange men with white beards whenever I enter the closet.  There I am with Socrates in the Agora, finding out thay I have no idea what piety is.  With a priest in the half-darkness, admitting that getting everything wrong is alright.  With Wittgenstein in the deckchairs, a fly being coaxed towards the open end of a bottle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


One day a friend of mine asked, 'What do you actually do when you meditate?  Because just thinking about your problems over and over just sounds awful to me'.  I had to agree that that sounded awful.  So it's lucky that that isn't meditation.  Although maybe it can be if you do it with the right attitude.  Because after a while you realize that everything you do, if you just take the trouble to be aware of what it is that you're up to, can be meditation.  It's the flip side of the old koan where the earnest young student asks, 'Master, what is meditation?' and the master says, 'Not meditation'.  Precisely - and not meditation is meditation.

But of course if you'd told me this when I first became interested in meditation it would have seemed like nonsense, and maybe it is.  So let's start how I started, by becoming aware that there are two broad styles of meditation, a style centred on concentration, and a style centered on mindfulness (samadhi and vipassana in Sanskrit respectively, for those who like ancient languages).  I also came across a few other approaches (like metta or loving-kindness meditation) that didn't seem to fit into either category, but I've come to think of most of them as involving some aspects of concentration or mindfulness (since loving-kindness is partly about becoming aware of the other people around you).

In any case, the first form of meditation that most people meet is based on focusing on the breath.  This is the style of meditation I learned about on the internet, and it's typical of many of the concentration approaches to meditation in that it offers you an object of meditation (the breath) and asks you to rest your attention on it.  Another popular technique is to focus on a simple physical object, like a doorknob (favoured by the British teacher Christmas Humphreys), or a ring (something I tried to pin my thoughts to for a while).  The visualization technique I learned from my Thai friend really just replaces the physical object with a mental one like a ball of light.

Mindfulness practices, instead of drawing the mind to a single point, invite you to expand it to embrace everything around you.  You can begin a mindfulness meditation by just becoming aware of the various parts of your body and how they feel, or by simply listening to the sounds around you while trying not to let any particular train of thought carry you away.  When thoughts come, which they will, just notice what they are without criticizing yourself and go back to listening to the noises around you or being aware of whatever sensations there are in your body.  You don't need to grasp at them - they'll come on their own, and all you need to do is pay them the tribute of your attention.

I've practised both these styles of meditation, and I've found that they are different in some ways.  I find mindfulness a more pleasant or rewarding practice when my mind is relatively relaxed and open to the world pouring in.  On the other hand, when I've had a stressful day and my mind is jumping from thought to thought (as one teacher always put it) like a monkey leaping from branch to branch (as it says in the scriptures), I find that concentrating on a visualized object will block out distractions like nothing else, though the exercise itself might feel difficult.  But the more I practice these two different styles the more I'm coming to think that they're doing more or less the same thing.

One way of communicating one of the things they have in common is to say that my friend was right - though meditation is never primarily about your thoughts, in some ways any meditation worth its salt will give you some kind of knowledge of your own thoughts.  In zazen (zen meditation) as I've been taught it the path to being aware of your thoughts is very direct - especially in its most unadorned form, shikantaza, in which you just sit and notice what happens, and whatever does happen in your mind is meditation.  But even the concentration styles have this feature, since though your intention is to focus on the object of meditation, part of the effort of doing that will be to notice where your thoughts have strayed to.

I could put it more strongly: the meditation object in these styles acts as a kind of crowbar with which you can pry your attention from your individual thoughts.  When I first read about meditation on the internet, the monk who wrote the piece I was reading went on at some length about how labelling your thoughts would eventually make you realize that your thoughts and phenomena in the world were two different things.  I didn't understand this at the time, and I took it to be so much metaphyscial claptrap I could leave behind while taking away a useful relaxation technique.  But actually, what the monk was saying is exactly right: really, it's only since I've started to become aware of all the voices in my head that I've realized that I'm going sane.

It's so easy to assume that your friend being an asshole is just a natural feature of the world before you consider that your friend being an asshole might just be a thought rather than something factual.  And your thought may well be right, but it may be useful just to be aware that it could also be wrong.  Mindfulness meditation makes you aware that there's difference between your thoughts and reality by the opposite route: rather than making you aware of your thoughts, it invites you to be awake to what is going on around you, which you then notice is not the same as the thoughts you'd complacently taken for truth.

And after a while you realize that what is going on around you is so much more varied and complicated and spacious and beautiful than what you were thinking that it's not even sad.  And after a little while longer it strikes you that even the anxious thoughts that are distracting you from the moment are part of the moment too, and you recognize that whatever you do, however you may conspire to cock things up, you're part of something very interesting.  And then you can relax, because there's no tecnhique or theory you could possibly need to make anything more perfect than it already is.  What is meditation?  Not meditation.