Tuesday, June 18, 2013

It's a trick

Since I'm moving to the ends of the earth, I recently went to Wind in Grass for the last time.  The others were nice enough to throw a party for me and invite me to say a few words about what I'd learned from practising with them over the previous three years.  I guess it was my first dharma talk.  It went something like this.

'I wanted to tell you what I'd learned from being a part of this group, and a number of answers immediately sprang to mind.  I've learned what Zen is, what Sanbo Kyodan is, what koans are.  I've learned that to have an effect on how things are done in a group you have to step up and participate.  I've learned that it's possible to have a group of young people come together to meditate in a way that's somehow both deeply committed and playfully irreverent.

Somehow none of these answers felt right.  I'll tell you what I think I've really learned from Wind in Grass in a moment, after a long digression or two.  Because I also wanted to address something Michael brought up the other night.  I'm referring to the strange fact that as Zen students we're meant to be doing two things at once: practising meditation earnestly, and giving up all thoughts of gain.  But if we're already Buddhas and don't need to progress, why do we go on week-long retreats?

First off, I want to give you a sense of what progress in meditation feels like.  I took up meditation after my first year at college, near the end of which I started having a lot of pain in my face.  The doctors all told me I was stressed, but that obviously wasn't right.  After a while I realized that it might be, and cast around for things that might help me.  I found a website with some instructions on meditation for beginners and went at it.

The meditation I was doing involved focusing on your breath, and labelling thoughts as they arose.  It's not our practice here, but it was helpful.  After four months or so of sitting every day, I felt significantly better, like I was finally on top of my pain.  If I have any allegiance to Buddhism, it's to a great extent because of the way, over those few months, the practice just picked me up and set me on my feet again.  It's hard not to feel grateful to something that has that effect. 

That was progress.  And it wasn't the only time I've felt I got somewhere through meditation.  It happened again about a year after I'd come to Stanford.  I hadn't been practising much, but started doing guided meditation with a grad student from Thailand.  This involved focusing on a visualized sphere of light in your belly - not out practice here, but helpful.  Within a couple of months I felt more both sharper and more relaxed, better able to cope with things.  That was progress.

A final example of progress came when I went on my first few PZI retreats.  I'd never really gotten koans until I heard John Tarrant speak, guiding us to follow the koan wherever it led, the way you follow an old overgrown track in the forest.  This is our practice here, and it helped me.  I just fell into the practice, and it was transformative.  That was progress too, I think.

So that's one side of the antinomy.  We just do feel that we're progressing, and it's probably true to say that none of us would be here tonight if we didn't have some sense of what that felt like.  At the same time, there's also a sense in which approaching meditation with some aim in mind is exactly the wrong way of doing it.  And this is where we come to the two tricks I've put into this talk.

The first way I'll talk about a trick is to say that meditation has a trick to it.  It's not a trick like the one all the 11-year-olds knew back when I used to play SimCity, where you could type FUNDS and the game would give you more money.  It's more a trick as in a knack, a style of doing things, like when someone tells you how to turn a key in an idiosyncratically sticky lock.  The trick of meditation is summed up in the old koan: 'If you turn towards it, you turn away from it'.  The paradox is that the only way you can progress in meditation is by giving up all thought of progress.

The other trick is meditation itself.  Meditation, I can tell you, is a trick.  It's a familiar one.  It's like when you book a hotel online through a website which shows pictures of a room with magnolia flowering outside your window and a pool with an infinity horizon on the patio.  When you get there, there's a shitty plastic plant on the windowsill and a deck next to the parking lot with a filthy little plunge pool.  You thought you were getting one thing but you got something else.

Meditation is like that, except instead of getting the plastic plant and the plunge pool you get to the hotel only to realize that there's an ocean right across the street and out the window a tropical rainforest.  You would lay on the bed and flick through the 14 million available free channels, but the forest is much more interesting; the amenities of the hotel don't seem to matter any more. 

Meditation is like that.  I started doing it to cure my toothache and came to feel I'd started a relationship with some inexhaustibly fascinating person who somehow was the same as the table and chair in my room.  It did help my pain a great deal but perhaps only because the pain had ceased to seem so relevant; and by the time it had helped my toothache, it just seemed to matter less whether I was in pain or not.

That's what I had to say about Michael's antinomy.  I also hoped you'd indulge me with another digression, one that might make Elana throw something at me, since it's about how much I like Christianity.  I was raised a Christian and it's always interesting to see how people in my family react to me being a Buddhist.  When I went to Canada for Christmas my aunt asked me very respecfully on the first night whether I wanted a beer; they would be going to a church for a service, and I was free to come or not.  I said I loved Christmas services, and was especially keen on beer.

I've also been dating a Catholic girl for the past couple of years, and I've been going to church quite a lot.  At first this was only out of solidarity, but it made me think a lot about what I prefer about Buddhism and what I still like more about Christianity.  My main issue with Christianity is having to believe the story about a guy who rose from the dead, but there's one way relevant to this talk in which it things right.  When I went to Rockridge the other weekend to visit PZI's new center, I passed some Korean evangelical church.  It sounded like there was some kind of sacred 80s disco going on inside, involving equal measures of synthesizers and songs of praise.

That strikes me as exactly the right way of reacting to the universe.  As Buddhists I don't think we celebrate enough.  People come to Buddhism because it offers a way out of suffering, but this sometimes has the unintended consequence of making Zen centers feel like particularly grim hospitals.  Our tradition always tries to remind us that there's really nothing to be healed; but even if there were, the right reaction might still be worship.  If the only way of experiencing the rainforest is with a headache, I'll take it, and I'm taking pictures too.

All of this was just a roundabout way of getting to what I've really gained from Wind in Grass.  I've gained nothing.  Instead, I've enjoyed every second: staring at the grain of the floorboards, getting splinters in my socked feet, looking over at people during meditation and wondering who's getting it on with whom.  I've just enjoyed being here with you, and I want to thank you for being here with me while I did it'.

As leaving presents I brought a book by Alan Watts, an English Anglican who turned into a Californian Buddhist.  I also brought a little owl figurine.  I spend much of my life studying classical Athens, so I guess in some sense I've always been an acolyte of Athena.  She's the goddess of wisdom, so she's in the same line of work as Buddha.  She's there on the altarpiece now with outsize eyes, symbolizing mindfulness and serving as a reminder that it's a good idea to look at things squarely - even when things go wrong, as they sometimes do in Zen groups. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Meditation on drugs

Recently a couple of friends admitted something to me.  They both asked me not to judge them, and then sheepishly told me they were taking antidepressants.  On both occasions I looked back at them and said, 'Me too'.

In fact, I've been taking them, off and on, for about a decade, ever since I began having chronic pain.  After trying a number of different drugs, I was prescribed amitriptyline.  It was easily the most helpful medication I'd been offered, and I've stuck with it.

Amitriptyline is an one of a family of older-generation drugs called tricyclic antidepressants.  It affects the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, unlike the newer SSRIs, which more precisely target the reuptake of serotonin.

Nowadays it's very commonly prescribed for chronic pain, usually at a lower dosage than is indicated for depression.  I started off taking 20mg a day in England, which helped me finish my first degree but left me in considerable pain. 

In my first three years in California (with the help of more liberal doctors) I was on 100mg a day.  I had periods when I was pain free, and though I did feel the side-effects (drowsiness and dry mouth) more strongly, I felt that the drug would never do me any harm.

That all changed one winter when I started taking 150mg a day because of some extra pain deriving from some dental surgery.  I began feeling very depressed, and noticed that I was twitching, itching, and sweating profusely all the time. 

I didn't know it, but those were the symptoms of 'serotonitis', an overdose of serotonin.  When I realized, I went cold-turkey, which immeditately made me feel better but which brought the same symptoms on in a more intense form.  I remember sitting in the Castro Theater one night in that period, sweating and itching and twitching, watching some noir classic in a strange euphoria of relief.

After that I was more cautious.  In the last few years I've gone off the drug completely a few times, only to go back on it again.  In some ways being off it isn't that different; I feel the pain much of the time in both states, but it feels more distant and manageable when I'm on the drug (and sometimes it's completely absent). 

Both of my friends who talked to me about antidepressants had spiritual or religious doubts about taking them, so I thought I might raise the issue here.  Are antidepressants antagonistic to a spiritual practice, or complementary? 

I can't answer the question definitively, partly because there are a lot of different drugs and practices out there.  But I have looked into this a bit online, and it might seem at first as if meditation and antidepressants are doing more or less the same thing, since they both raise levels of serotonin in the brain.

This is actually more complicated than it seems, though.  One recent Norwegian study (with only 27 subjects) suggested that regular meditators had higher levels of serotonin than non-meditators, but that meditation itself seemed to reduce the level of serotonin in their blood. 

An older Harvard study appeared to show that people who meditated produced the same amount of norepinephrine (a 'fight or flight' drug), but that it had ceased to trigger an emergency response in meditators. 

So the scientific evidence on this appears complex, and I'm not particularly well-qualified to assess it.  Looking at this from a traditional Buddhist angle also raises some hard questions, such as whether antidepressants should be discouraged as intoxicants, or encouraged as pain-reducing medicines.

I'm not sure that I have much to add from than angle, either.  But I can say a bit more about my own experiences of meditation and one kind of antidepressant, in the hope that it may be useful to other people who are in a similar situation.

I've practised meditation through the whole period I've been on amitriptyline, usually for twenty minutes a day, though occasionally less (and very occasionally more) than that.  Of course all I can do is tell you what it felt like to me (which may not be unimportant).

I think that meditation without the drug is more challenging.  My mind is more anxious and I'm distracted by pain more.  On the other hand, it's also more rewarding, since the difference between my state of mind before and after sitting is more dramatic.

When I'm on a lot of the drug, meditation is often very pleasant.  I breathe in, I breathe in, and it all flows along very pleasantly.  But in some way it feels more superficial.  I feel like things have gone more smoothly but that I have gained less insight about myself and my condition.

Ultimately, the plan is to go off the drugs.  The plan (often revised) usually involves doing more and more meditation as I slowly come off it.  Unfortunately, I've been too busy lately to commit to longer retreats of the kind I had in mind, so full implementation of the plan will have to wait a bit longer.

In the meantime, I try not to beat myself up about it.  Some people take insulin for diabetes.  Other take statins for high cholesterol.  I take amitriptyline for chronic pain.  I also meditate, which is cheaper and doesn't make my mouth dry.  In other ways they're just two different things that help. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Making it wrong

For the past year I've been living with two philosophers.  Occasionally they leave books about ethics the kitchen table.  One of those books made me think again about the Buddhist precepts I took about nine months ago now, and about the discussions with a teacher that led up to them.

I didn't take the precepts for purely ethical reasons.  I did so mainly for other reasons - committing to a practice, a community, and so on.  But committing to precepts clearly has an ethical dimension.  So what does it mean to commit to Buddhist precepts?  What are they? 

I was inclined to viewing them as rules.  In that interpretation, 'I vow not to kill' means that you can't kill anything under any circumstances.  My teacher David favoured a more psychological interpretation.  For him, not killing was about not killing your spontaneity or your vitality.

Both of these interpretations I found difficult to take.  I found it difficult to take my own interpretation of the precepts as rules mainly because, if they were rules, I couldn't honestly commit to some of them.  I found David's interpretation hard to take because it seemed to drain the precepts of all content, allowing him to take them to mean pretty much whatever he liked.

Consider the precept against intoxication.  I took it to mean that you shouldn't drink or take drugs.  If it meant that, though, I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to it.  David thought it was about maintaining your attentiveness - whether you'd been drinking alcohol or not. 

Extreme versions of these positions don't work.  If the precept against killing means you can never kill anything, you might have problems dealing with hamburgers and Nazis, let alone E. coli. 

If you think it is guiding you not to kill your spontaneity, you should say how you can tell it isn't guiding you not to kill your depression, or your murderous urges.  You may choose to apply it to spontaneity because you like spontaneity.  But then you're just adapting the precepts to whatever ethical assumptions you happen to have already.

You're also draining the word 'killing' of any content.  If you take the precepts metaphorically, they can all end up saying the same thing: you shouldn't kill your vitality, you shouldn't steal your vitality, and so on.  But there might be ten precepts rather than one because each of them is trying to tell you something different.

There is natural middle way between these two extremes.  You might take the precept against killing to be advising you not to kill things - on a reasonable interpretation of what 'killing' consists in, and within the bounds of what might reasonably be expected of someone.  So it might mean you have to become a vegetarian or a pacifist, but not that you can't take antibiotics. 

This isn't a bad way of taking the precepts.  It makes them possible to commit to while also preserving their natural meanings.  On this reading, it's clear what the Buddhist path is; you may reject it, but at least it's clear what it would mean to embrace it. 

The problem with this compromise position is that it's fuzzy.  What is a 'reasonably interpretation' of what killing is?  And what can reasonably be expected of people?  Some people may find vegetarianism or pacificism as difficult to embrace as toleration of E. coli.

This objection claims that the precepts aren't informative enough.  And that may well be.  They may be best taken as guidelines rather than as a complete ethical system.  They may simply point to things that are important ethically and ask us to be aware of them: be careful about killing.

The book I found on the kitchen table was by a philosopher called Jonathan Dancy, and it helped me think about these issues.  Dancy is a moral particularist: he believes morality isn't about rules but about context.  That's closer to David's views than to my initial take on the precepts.

I didn't read Dancy's book through, but at this stage moral particularism doesn't strike me as particularly plausible.  One view that Dancy canvasses in his book, though, was more helpful.  This was the approach of W.D. Ross, whom I knew as a scholar of Aristotle. 

If Ross had moved to San Francisco and become a Buddhist, he would have called the precepts prima facie moral claims.  On this view, the precept against killing says that if an act involves killing, your starting assumption should be that it's bad.  You may later revise this view, for example if you find out that the beings being killed are E. coli; but it's a good starting assumption.

There are all sorts of reasons philosophers nowadays don't like Ross' theory.  Some of them aren't very important - such as the complaint that Ross should have used the phrase pro tanto rather than prima facie.  Pro tanto reasons are reasons that other reasons may trump, whereas prima facie reasons may, on closer inspection, turn out not to be reasons at all.

Despite this infelicity of language, Ross' main idea is clear.  Killing is a 'wrong-making' feature of actions.  If it has killing in it, it's more likely to be wrong when looked at as a whole.

There are further complexities.  You might (like my housemate) want to distinguish two versions of this idea.  In the first, killing adds some wrongness into the mix.  I may decide that killing E. coli with antibiotics is right in the aggregate, but there's still a bit of wrongness there (in the killing).

In the second, all we look at is the action as a whole.  If we decide that killing E. coli is good in the aggregate, then we have to conclude that killing simply wans't wrong in that case.  This is close to the epistemic claim that if killing is part of an action, it makes it more likely to be wrong.

I might be wrong, but I think that Ross' view offers us a pretty satisfactory way of approaching the Buddhist precepts (or any other ethical guidelines) that avoids the extremes of treating them either as inflexible rules or as nearly content-free suggestions. 

Whether I think the ten Mahayana precepts really identify 'wrong-making' features of actions is another question.  I actually don't have a problem with gossip, for example.  I like gossip.  Maybe I prefer the five Therevada precepts: killing is wrong-making, stealing is wrong-making, sexual immorality is wrong-making, lying is wrong-making, intoxication is wrong-making.  As they say.