Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?

12/02/2009

The Wheel of Dhamma Turns

I am back in Mandeville, Louisiana after ... after a LOT.  Just before returning here I participated in a ten day meditation course/seminar in Washington State.  I'll detail more about that later in this post.  Before that I was house-sitting for a nice couple in Bend, Oregon and simultaneously reading about new ways to perceive the world, making great new friends, and putting a lot of effort into making two DVDs to share my Pacific Crest Trail experience with others who might never do a similar trek.  They turned out to be beautiful video-slideshows set to a great soundtrack.  Before house-sitting I was at home for Thanksgiving, before that I traveled with a good Peace Corps friend to Phoenix, a Southern California hot spring, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.  Before that I was with another friend in southern Oregon.  Previously, in Bend after getting off of the trail for the last time due to the arrival of real winter weather.  Previously, hiking, roadtripping, attending a wedding in Puerto Rico, and then HIKING thousands of miles across the beauty of the American West.  Before that I was living the adventurous life of a Peace Corps Volunteer in South America, enveloped in love, excitement, beauty, and possibility. 

These places and activities can be traced back nearly a decade to when I left the home I grew up in to attend university in 1999.  And now here I am again, feeling back at square one, with perhaps some idea of the ingredients I want in my life and those that I dislike, but not much of a blueprint for ultimately manifesting a workable self-sustaining version of that life.  Growing up I was sharp, analytical, engaging and inquisitive.  These qualities, I felt, would serve me well as I developed in ambition and focus to become a successful, high-achieving adult in society.  The pinnacle, the ideal?  Now the unquestioned progression is unclear, cracks appear in the formerly stalwart foundation, the premises of what makes one successful fluid in my mind.  Is the life, the lifestyle, the quality of life that I have enjoyed by default as a lucky member of the industrialized first world ultimately unsustainable and even immoral in its prerogative to burn through the energy capital accumulated by the past at the expense of present ecosystems and functioning human cultures and more gravely, at the expense of whatever healthily-functioning Earth systems might have still been around otherwise in the future?  Is it fair that simply because we as a species have the faculty of reason that we reason it's OK to burn irreplaceable oil and coal (altering the very climate), level forests, pollute land and waterways, practically annihilate most of our fellow species whom we don't judge as economically or aesthetically valuable?  Is our VERY temporary comfort and perceived prosperity worth the damage we're causing to systems that took geological timescales to come about?  Is a monoculture evenly-spaced same-aged plantation of genetically modified pine trees regularly cleared of underbrush the same thing as a normally functioning forest?  Does the ability to perform an act give one the right to perform it?  No.  The answer to all of the above questions is no. 

Really?  I feel as if these musing are simultaneously important and pointless.  We live in a world where all of this happens regardless of whether we like it or are even aware of it.  Even if we don't personally kill or oppress or chop or burn or steal or otherwise intentionally undercut the systems that ultimately allow us to be here, simply by living in and working for and contributing to the dominant culture and its ideology we are complicit.  Even if it were possible to fully live outside of the current cultural paradigm, and there are people who do make the attempt to truly live "off the grid," nearly all the rest are still busily humming along in their present unsustainable direction, and the natural backlash remains inevitable.  Perhaps in the form of uncontrollable drought, fire, storm, famine, disease, violence, etc.  Maybe "uncontrollable" ought to be the focus word here, for all of those unpleasantries occur naturally - they were here before humans and they'll be here after humans - but we will reach a point where they will accur and we simply won't be able to effectively control them.  The damage they'll do us will only be increased as the scale of the human enterprise increases. 

So, these are the perceived realities and their unthinkable consequences.  And I'm thinking about them, for better or for worse.  What to DO about it is my current inner question.  That implies that there is something that can be done about it.  One has to believe that there is something which can be done, for the alternative is so bleak and lacking in hope as to be unthinkable.  But what are the steps one can take to bring about positive change?  Being aware of it can be burdensome (as I'm experiencing of late), but worrying about it doesn't help, that's one truth.


OK, TO GET TO THE TOPIC OF DHAMMA...

The ten day meditation seminar/course/retreat that I participated in was held at Dhamma Kunja, or "Grove of Dhamma" near Onalaska, Washington from January 21 to February 1.  This center is found at a rural location surrounded by minimal development.  There are grassy fields and stands of trees, open sky, views of the cascade mountains and towering Mount Rainier to the northeast.  The sound of the highway is remote enough to be hushed.  The purpose of the center is to train students in the meditation technique known as "Vipassana," meaning to see things as they really are.  The origins of this technique are said to go all the way back to Gotama Buddha, the original enlightened one, who developed it as a means of perceiving the world, of transcending the self, and of attaining liberation from suffering.  I almost want to put all of that in quotation marks because it must be taken on belief since no actual record exists to prove the validity of this or many other claims.  In the end, the individual must draw his or her own conclusions as to the value of such beliefs and such techniques.  Right and wrong cannot come into play here, nor truth and fiction.  Ultimately, if one finds benefit in a mindset, then that becomes one's truth.  I can't claim what is and isn't valid, what is and isn't real, that is for each person to decide alone.

So since coming off of the trail I had been increasingly interested in learning about meditation as a means to lessen or end suffering.  Providence had placed me in front of a book on Zen living and meditation, so I read it and began attempting to meditate for a while each morning, and I felt certain calming benefits from this.  By and by Vipassana was mentioned to me by a friend of a friend, and again by an old roommate, so I looked it up and decided to apply to the course.  (By the way, for vastly more information on Vipassana, or to learn about a center where you could seek the knowledge to end your own suffering in this manner, the place to go is
www.dhamma.org  )  The teacher is Mr. S.N. Goenka, a former Burmese businessman who is now the primary person spreading the supposed pure, undiluted and unchanged teachings of the Buddha.  More than 100 centers exist around the world where through the use of audio and video guidance and discourses, Mr. Goenka shares the Vipassana technique with new and old course participants on their paths towards enlightenment. 

The technique, put as basically as I can manage, is a means through which anybody can actually experience, within the framework of his or her own body, the nature of all things.  Namely, the nature of all things having the characteristic of rising, existing for a duration, and then passing away.  To understand this not merely on the intellectual level ("Saying that nothing is permament," OK I believe that), nor on the devotional level (So and so said it and so because I have faith in this person, I believe it too), but on the actual experiential level, where nothing is taken on faith.  One's conclusions are reached because one has felt the truth of the concept acting within one's own body.  No religious dogmas are taught, no blind faith is expected.  It is presented in a take it or leave it fashion, free from coercion and outside force.  The discipline required to learn and perform the technique and gain its benefits comes entirely from within.  And what exactly is this technique that can eliminate suffering?  That, I'm afraid, you'll have to learn from Mr. Goenka as he's a more experienced, patient, and knowledgeable teacher than I.  In my description of my time at the center it will be possible to get an idea of what the aim is, what the gist or goal of the technique is, but really after ten days all of us new participants were merely pointed in a direction and shown the absolute first step of a very long path that encompasses far more than is possible to absorb in ten days.

All students practiced "noble silence" for nine entire days, meaning that we gave up communication of any kind.  No speaking, no writing notes, no guestures or sign language, not even eye contact or glances.  We journeyed down the path of dhamma as if we were alone.  The day began with a wake-up gong ringing at 4am.  At 4:30 we began meditating in the meditation hall, a large, quiet, comfortable building set a few minutes' walking distance from the residential facilities.  Breakfast was at 6:30.  Between 8 and 9am everyone meditated in the hall.  More meditation between 9 and 11.  Lunch was 11-12.  Rest or interviews with the teacher were between 12 and 1.  Meditation in the hall or residences from 1 to 2:30pm.  Group meditation from 2:30 to 3:30.  More meditation from 3:30 to 5pm, when a tea break was held and some fruit was served (Only to the new students, the old students got no solid food after lunch)  Group meditation in the hall from 6 to 7.  Then some interesting stuff:  On televisions in the meditation hall the assistant teacher would play a DVD video of Mr. Goenka giving the evening discourse for about an hour and a half.  The discourses would elaborate on the technique and the theoretical aspects of Vipassana practice and the path leading to enlightenment and the ending of suffering.  This usually ended around 8:30, folowed by meditation in the hall until 9pm.  After that, anyone who had questions could ask them of the assistant teacher.  Everyone else was free to go to sleep.  Add this all up, and the total time each day ideally dedicated to meditation amounted to around 10.5 HOURS.  Now the actual time spent meditating was cut into by the necessity of short restroom breaks and the fact that since there were only three hours each day that were designated as mandatory group meditation sessions, oftentimes students would not stay in the meditation hall during the times that they were not REQUIRED to be there.  They might perhaps return to their rooms to nap, or wander the course grounds in silent contemplation.  Still, on most days I was sitting on a cushion with crossed legs and eyes closed for upwards of 8 whole hours.

We were progressed through various stages of Vipassana during our time at the center.  For three entire days the focus was on awareness of breathing.  Students maintained their attention on their nostrils, the nasal passages, and the flow of breath through them.  Later, we would maintain awareness of the triangle formed between the nostrils and the upper lip.  Eventually, the awareness was passed over our entire bodies as we monitored physical sensations varying from hot and cold to vibrations, pressure, or intense pain and everything in between.  Through diligent practice, the idea was to observe these sensations objectively, without identifying with them or becoming attached to them.  Pleasant or unpleasant, we became aware of the fact that all such sensations were simply impermanent, impersonal ever-changing phenomena.  This aspect of the practice is practically impossible for someone to grasp if they've never experienced it personally, hence the difficulty in explaining it in an easily understood manner. 

It is easy to dismiss sitting on a cushion with eyes closed in a quiet room as an unimpressive feat if one has never tried it, but I must say I was quite humbled to learn how difficult it is to remain motionless in meditation for an entire hour or more.  Challenges come from all around:  Fatigue and sleepiness are no-brainers as your eyes are closed and the body wants to go into sleep mode.  If that isn't a problem, the mind all throughout life has been trained to wander and search and ponder and think and reason and calculate.  However, in meditation a person asks the mind to forego that impulse and simply focus on a simple task.  It is no exaggeration to say that for me, the taming of the wild beast of the mind was excruciating at first.  Absolutely the most challenging thing I can recall ever doing.  But with practice, it did gradually become more possible and towards the end of the ten days I could meditate for an entire hour without opening my eyes, separating my hands, or shifting my sitting position.  I know it sounds easy, but just try it and you'll understand.

Sitting until the circulation in your legs is cut off and the joints in your hip and knee are absolutely screaming with a throbbing white-hot pain, when your spine is aching and shoulder blades are stinging with resistance to nothing but simple motionlessness, when your mind is shouting for you to let it off its leash and go daydreaming about the past, the future, anything but the now, the inane ins and outs of your breathing ... what is the point?  Well, this was a major question on the mind of many students at the course, but each persevered in his or her own way and reached new understandings of the meaning of pain, suffering, egolessness, and truth.  As Goenka puts it in his teachings, all suffering stems from habit patterns that we form in our minds, patterns of generating craving or aversion as a response to things we encounter or feel throughout our lives.  We develop emotional attachment to people, circumstances, ideals, etc. which in reality are only temporary manifestations of a flow, a constantly changing universe.  When we are able to understand this internally, it becomes perfectly clear how absurd and unproductive it is to get attached to anything that is so impermanent, so ephemeral, so barely substantive.  Easier said than done of course.

During the course of meditating I shed tears at one point, laughed out loud at another.  I struggled in a way I never could have anticipated, and I came away from the experience with a sense of having come closer to true understanding than at any other point in my life.  I'm pretty sure that those ten days were the longest I've ever gone without eating meat or fish.  It was one more unique and insightful experience in what has been up to now a life full of wondrous experiences and opportunities to learn.  Am I my own little Buddha now?  Heck no, as I write this I feel less equanimous than perhaps I ever have, and that's a frightening place to be.  Do I recommend Vipassana study and practice to others? Certainly.  I believe that anyone who shows the determination necessary to stay at the course for the full ten days and puts in earnest effort while there will benefit and gain in ways impossible to predict.  There is plenty more to write about just regarding the meditation course, and plenty of questions yet to answer, but I think my purposes in writing this post have been fulfilled.  It has come and gone and my attention must turn to what follows.  I'd be happy to elaborate on the experience for anyone who has interest in learning more about it, so just send me a line.  For now, that's a wrap. 
Much love to all.
 

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