Sunday, March 17, 2013

Breaking the spell

This weekend, rather than spending my Saturday cycling up an enormous hill, I decided to sit on my ass all day.  The Stanford Zen group (loosely affiliated with the Buddhist Community at Stanford) had organized a one-day meditation retreat in the inter-religious center on the top floor of the Old Union.  Since I was going to be in the South Bay that weekend anyway, I decided to go along.

I don't really know the people in the Stanford Zen group, since their regular meeting is on Wednesday nights, the same night that Wind in Grass meets.  They seem to be run by two or three serious-minded and dedicated undergraduates who organize the regular weekly sittings and the odd one-day event on campus.

I don't know what kind of crowd attends the weekly meetings, but the crowd that turned up yesterday was a mixed bunch.  There were naturally a lot of students, both undergrads and grads.  There were also a few people who lived in the local area and had come in for the day.

There were more Asian people than I see in the meditation groups I go to in the city.  I've read that a feature of Buddhism in America is that so-called 'ethnic' (Asian) and 'convert' (European) Buddhists tend to gather in different groups.  But the group that I saw yesterday seemed evenly mixed.

Seated opposite me were a Chinese mother and her son, who looked about 11.  Every so often she notice him fidgeting and give him a sharp tap with her hand.  I thought of how unused I am to seeing this sort of thing in a Buddhist context, whereas I grew up in a world where parents forcing their children to church was very familiar.  There was a way in which the mother encouraging her son to meditate was sweet, but it reminded me how easy it still is in the West to forget about the more customary, religious aspects of Buddhism.  I've met very few Buddhists in the US who didn't come to it voluntarily.

We had three periods of meditation with breaks in between.  The meditation periods consisted of half an hour of seated meditation plus about five minutes of walking meditation.  The breaks were ten minutes long.  During the meditation periods people went for one-on-one talks with a visiting teacher, Max Erdstein.  At one o'clock Erdstein gave a talk, followed by a Q&A.

In my interview with Erdstein, I talked to him about my experiences over the past few years: the initial experience of falling in love with a new group, my disagreement with John Tarrant, and then my increasing disillusionment with institutional Buddhism more generally.  He told me that the inclination to test out a teacher was worth honouring, but reminded me that not all groups were the same.  He told me to trust my instincts.

In his talk, he told the story of why he started meditating.  When he was an undergrad at Stanford, he contracted a chronic illness that left the doctors perplexed.  Out of desperation, he bought a meditation book and CD by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  After a while, his health began to improve, and he stopped practicing.  A few years later, while working at Google, the stresses of the job brought him back to it.

He said he remembers considering two paths through life.  The first was trying to be so successful in business that he'd never be at a loss for anything.  The second was trying to moderate his wants.  He looked at people he knew who'd embarked on both paths.  While he was often impressed by the top people in his company, it seemed to him like they'd acquired more skills than wisdom.  Conversely, although his meditation teachers weren't perfect people by any means, they appeared to have a kind of depth, an level of insight about their own lives that seemed valuable.

He passed on a few similes that some of his teachers had used to describe what a meditative practice might bring.  It was like when you're in the movie theatre, and you're entirely immersed in the world of the movie.  Then, for some reason, the spell is broken, you look around you for a second and see how everybody else in living the ups and downs of the characters on the screen.  You remember, just for an instant, that none of it's real.  But then you return to the movie anyway, and somehow your pleasure in it is enhanced, not ruined, by your knowledge that it's all an illusion.

Or it was like going up in a plane to do sky-diving for the first time.  You jump out of the plane, and for a moment it's exhilarating, you can fly, float, do somersaults.  Then you're falling, it's horrible, and you realize that the parachute you'd been depending on is missing.  Buddhism, Erdstein said, wasn't like being handed a parachute.  It was like realizing that there isn't any ground to hit, that you'd go on falling forever, and that the falling really was like the flying you'd taken it for the moment after you jumped.

I found myself very moved by Erdstein's talk - but not so much by the analogies as by the personal narrative.  That was partly because it was so much like mine.  But there was something else, something I've noticed about dharma talks.  When people offer advice, instruction, or admonitions, I usually find something within me resisting (which is a healthy enough reaction).  When people just say plainly why they started meditating, I almost always hear in their experience an echo of mine, an echo that somehow confirms mine or at least keeps company with it.

I had to leave half-way through the Q&A, but it had been a great morning: twenty or so people in a simple room meditating together and talking about it afterwards.  There weren't any statues, or robes, or all that much bowing.  There was a teacher, but nobody demanding prostrations when I went to talk to him.  The event was free: the first meditation retreat, in my three years in SF, at which nobody asked me for money.