Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dumb and Dumber

Pigs get a bad rap in Buddhism. We know today, from laboratory studies and barnyard anecdotes, that pigs are among the most intelligent animals -- more intelligent, scientists say, than dogs. But in traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography, pigs are vilified as the symbol of ignorance. The famous depiction of the Wheel of Life illustrates how we get stuck in the cycle of suffering and in various hardened mind-states as a result of habitually indulging and acting out on our own afflictive emotions (kleshas, in Sanskrit). At the spinning hub of the Wheel itself we see the three main causes of our suffering, known as the Three Poisons -- ignorance, aggression and craving -- symbolized, respectively, by a pig, a snake, and a rooster.

Ignorance, or delusion, is regarded in Buddhism as the primary or root affliction, the one that underlies all the others: because we are deluded about the true nature of things, we fumble our way through life, making fatal mistakes and bringing all kinds of ruin and suffering upon ourselves and others.

As Westerners, it may seem strange to us that Buddhist psychology regards ignorance as a klesha, or an afflictive emotion, in the first place. A state of ignorance, or not knowing, does not correspond to what we think of as an emotion, which involves a state of feeling. The confusion here stems from a dissonance between the way we use both words -- ignorance and emotion -- in a traditional Buddhist context versus a contemporary Western psychological context.

In Buddhism, the term "emotion" or "afflictive emotion" (klesha) refers to any mental state that disturbs and agitates the mind, obscuring our ability to see reality clearly and leading us (most often) to act unskillfully. This includes states that are obviously charged with what we think of as "emotive" content, such as jealousy and craving and hate; but it also includes states such as pride and ignorance, which may seem to us to be less "emotive" but which nevertheless disturb and agitate the mind's natural clarity and openness.

The term "ignorance" also has to carry part of the blame. In English, "ignorance" seems to imply a state of being simply dumb about things: a mere lack of knowledge that could stem either from an innate stupidity that prevents one from understanding the nature of reality, or from the fact that no one who *does* understand the nature of reality has ever bothered to explain it to you and, therefore, how could you know? This kind of ignorance is a passive state.

But there is another kind of ignorance that is not a passive state, but a very active one -- and this is willfully ignoring the truth because the truth is not convenient or comfortable. This kind of ignorance is a basic state of denial or resistance towards the way things are that is rooted in our aversion to discomfort. We see only what we want to see, and hear only what we want to hear, in order to avoid the feeling of groundlessness or uncertainty that would arise if we allowed ourselves to take in the full truth of how things really are.

This meaning may actually come closer, in many cases, to the meaning of the Sanskrit term "avidya" (which we usually translate as "ignorance"), and it helps us better understand how the state of ignorance may, in fact, be charged with "emotive" content just as much as the other kleshas. "Avidya" comes from the Proto-Indo-European root "*weid-" meaning "to see" or "to know," and brings us our English word "wit." When we choose to ignore some aspect of reality -- to not-see it, to not-know it -- because reality is inconvenient, we dim our own wits, proceeding from dumb to dumber. From this perspective, "ignoring" or "denial" might often be a better translation for "avidya" than "ignorance," because they point to a state of mind which is actively tuning out some aspect of reality that provokes discomfort.

Consider, for example, the way we live in denial and fear of death. In modern Western society, we squirm at the very mention of death (we feel that to talk about such things is "morbid"), and we go to great lengths to keep it out of sight and out of mind as much as possible. Intellectually we all know we're going to die at some point, and that death could come at any time from any number of unforeseen causes, but emotionally we don't behave as if we really believed in these facts. When death does come, for us or for our loved ones, we often act so surprised. At the same time, because our general awareness of death is being suppressed, we are secretly fascinated by it. We devour murder mysteries and slasher films and vampire and zombie novels, because they give us a "safe" way to engage with the images of death without really letting in the knowledge that it's going to happen to us.

But "denial," as they say in 12-Step groups, "is not a river in Egypt." Our ongoing, willful act of ignoring the fact of our own inevitable death and the uncertainty of when it will happen -- the effort to keep this threatening knowledge out of sight and out of mind as much as possible -- does nothing to change the reality. All it accomplishes is to keep us in a state of ignorance, which botches our attempts to live authentically and happily in this turbulent realm. And it isn't because we're too dumb to realize the truth or because no one has bothered to explain it to us, but simply because we don't want to see it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rock and Role

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was doing a meditation practice that involves holding one's attention on an external visual object -- in this case, a simple stone I picked up on the beach -- that many people in the world would probably consider the act of sitting and staring at a rock for 30 minutes to be evidence, if not of actual insanity, at least of great stupidity and dullness and a tremendous failure of imagination. If you're going to stare at something, they might ask, why not stare at the TV screen and at least be entertained while you're sitting there?

In fact, using an external object (such as a stone) as an object of meditation is an ancient practice handed down in the Buddhist tradition, and is particularly emphasized in the Mahamudra meditation lineage of Tibet. But, at least in the Westernized forms of Buddhist practice that I've been exposed to, this technique does not seem to be as widely practiced as the more common forms of shamatha (or "calm abiding") meditation that involve resting the attention on the breath and bodily sensations, or on visualizations or mantras and other mental fabrications. (See my article "Meditation 101" for a basic introduction to shamatha practice with the breath.)

In fact, I've known long-time shamatha practitioners who have only ever done the practice using the breath, and have apparently never been told that shamatha comes in other flavors. Now, don't get me wrong -- the breath is a wonderful and profound object of meditation, for reasons that are too many to go into here -- and I have no doubt that these single-minded practitioners have gained a great deal from having such a narrowly defined practice. But I can't help but wonder if they could go deeper and wider if they were to train, as well, in other varieties of the practice. That has been my own experience.

The basic principle of all forms of shamatha meditation is to place the attention on a simple object, something that isn't complicated and doesn't require much thought, and rest the mind there. When the mind wanders, as it inevitably does, bring it back to the object, gently and without melodrama, and continue as before. As Ken McLeod puts it, "Return to what is already there and rest." That, in a nutshell, is shamatha. Deceptive in its simplicity, this practice, if done with sincerity and dedication, gradually calms and steadies the agitated and hyperactive mind, resulting in a heightened sense of well-being and greater presence. Shamatha goes right to the heart of the general ADHD that seems to be built into our human DNA, and continually places speed bumps in our way so that we have to slow down and come more and more into the present moment.

Different varieties of shamatha work with the different sense consciousnesses. Meditating on the breath centers the attention on the body consciousness and the sense of touch, the sensations of the body breathing. Meditating on an external object centers the attention on the visual consciousness and the perception of an object with external form. There are also meditations on sound, taste, and smell, but these sense objects are somewhat more intangible and elusive, and are therefore more difficult objects of meditation, at least for beginners.

As human beings, our eyes may not be as sharp as those of some animals, but our minds are nonetheless dominated by our visual perception of the world. Perhaps, from an evolutionary point of view, we've learned to rely so heavily on our vision because our powers of smell and hearing -- the other senses that would help us stay alive in a world of predators -- are completely pathetic by the standards of the animal kingdom. In the West, in this scientific age, we tend to think that the mind or the "self" is located in the brain, directly behind the eyeballs, and we are so strongly identified with our visual consciousness that it is difficult for us to imagine the existence of a mind without it.

This is what makes shamatha with an external object interesting -- it picks up on this dominant visual mind and uses the visual faculty itself as the conduit for meditation. Because we spend so much of our lives relating to visual forms, training in this way helps us carry the mind of meditation into our everyday experience -- which is, by the way (lest we forget), the whole point of meditation.

The external object could be any simple item: a pebble, a stick, a ballpoint pen cap. Personally, I recommend doing the practice with a stone. I find there's something appealing about the way a stone just sits there, so solid and unmoving, so very stony.

Place the stone on the floor or on a table in front of you, in a place where you can comfortably see it while maintaining good meditation posture. Place your attention on the stone, on the visual perception of it; look at yourself looking at the stone, and really *see* it. If the stone is large, you may find it helpful to direct your attention to one particular detail and hold it there. Try to look at the stone with a relaxed gaze; you're not trying to bore a hole in the poor rock with your laser vision, but you're also not letting your eyes wander away from the object. You're also not particularly thinking about the stone, but merely perceiving it, and holding your attention in that simple experience. When your mind goes off into a train of thought about something, and you become aware of it, simply return to perceiving the stone nakedly, without additional commentary. Notice how your eyes are always looking right at the stone but sometimes you don't even see it because your mind is somewhere else. How is that possible?

If you find that your mind is very discursive and drifting away from the stone a great deal, try the following thought experiment. Imagine that this stone sitting in front of you is not merely inert matter, but that it possesses tremendous intelligence and awareness. It knows when you're looking at it with your mind and when you're not. In fact, this stone gets very angry and wrathful when you are not paying attention to it, and it will rise up and strike you right in the forehead if your attention wanders from it for even a second. Imagining this, look again at the stone and see if your experience is the same. If not, what is it that makes the difference?