Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shock the Monkey

The Triumph of the Monkey

"All of man's misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room alone," said the French philosopher Pascal. Anyone who has ever practiced meditation knows exactly what Pascal was talking about. In meditation we discover our own inability or unwillingness -- or simply that we don't know how -- to sit quietly in a room, whether alone or with others. Instead, the "monkey mind" jumps and screeches and demands that we direct our attention this way and that way: daydreaming about the past and future, drifting off into faraway lands, imagining conversations or working out our salvation by thinking it through conceptually. "Anywhere but here," the monkey seems to say; "anything but sitting here quietly, in a room, alone, with nothing to entertain me."

We hear a lot these days about people with so-called Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, who are unable to hold their attention on any one thing for very long. But perhaps all of us humans have ADHD to one degree or another, and the people who've been diagnosed with this disorder are just the canaries in the coal-mine, displaying more acute symptoms of a condition that afflicts us all.

Monkey mind is a universal human condition, and it's nothing new. It was around at the time of the Buddha, and long before that. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that it's built right into our biology. Animals whose attention is skittery, who are always looking around anxiously for predators, tend to have better survival rates; whereas animals that become absorbed in attention to any one thing for too long tend to get eaten by those same predators.

Human beings no longer have very many predators, but over the course of evolution we certainly did; and monkey mind served us well by keeping us alive in those conditions. It is, however, a habit of mind that has outlived its usefulness, and now brings us grief and frustration rather than protecting us. Today our way of living and our social and personal ambitions demand an unprecedented level of sustained attention. Whether it's studying for 14 hours at a stretch and doing well on 3-hour exams in order to succeed in school, or staying awake through interminable business meetings and conferences in order to do well in business, or being engaged in day after day of intensive meditation in order to realize the true nature of mind and attain spiritual awakening -- whatever our ambitions may be, monkey mind is our enemy. (The exception: if our ambition is to be a channel-surfing couch potato, then we should feel right at home with monkey mind.)

There is good reason to believe, too, that our modern culture of information overload and instant gratification has recently turned up the volume on monkey mind. We humans live out our lives today constantly adrift in a turbulent sea of news, images, stories, songs, jingles, advertisements, programs; our attention is splintered and pulled between newspapers and magazines and television and radio and movies and the Internet and billboards and computer games -- an endless parade of glittering media that tantalize our eyes and ears and lure away our minds like the sirens that call men to shipwreck. It's no wonder, then, that we find it so agonizingly difficult to sit quietly in a room, alone. We have been conditioned, through biology and culture, nature and nurture, to do anything but that.

But despite all our genetic and cultural conditioning, the Buddhist teachings say that with practice and effort we can find within ourselves a deeper dimension of mind, one that isn't enslaved to the monkey's continual parade of distractions. "Our problem is that this busy mind can lose its connection to its real nature," says the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. "When we take time to look beneath all this activity, we discover a sense of spaciousness and awareness, peace and happiness, that doesn’t change from moment to moment."

The Carrot or the Stick?

Buddhist meditators spend a lot of time trying to learn to "sit quietly in a room." We sit on our cushions and keep our bodies more or less still, and try -- frequently in vain -- to keep our minds on an object in order to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Sometimes, we spend a whole session just doing battle or engaging in diplomatic negotiations with the monkey, who demands that we redirect our attention elsewhere. In any case, our approach to working with mindfulness is predominantly the carrot approach: dangling before us, and spurring us to keep moving forward and keep trying, is the promise that we will attain some good result from practice, or from practicing well. Maybe we chase after the greatest carrot of all, the elusive maha-carrot known as Enlightenment -- or maybe we chase after baby carrots, relative benefits like being more calm and relaxed, not being so caught up in our emotional dramas, not being controlled by our addictions. In any case, while we outwardly train in sitting there quietly in a room, secretly, on the inside, we are all chasing after some kind of carrot.

Recently we had a full work-day at the Abbey, and I was assigned to a crew working outside in the woods. I spent the whole morning using a chainsaw, clearing dead spruce trees that had fallen or were in danger of falling. Having lived the first half of my life in the suburbs and the second half in New York City, it was my first time using a chainsaw -- which I found both intimidating and exhilarating. It was dirty, noisy, physically demanding and dangerous work, but strangely satisfying.

It was only later, when the morning's work was done, that I realized the profound effects it had on me. At lunchtime, all through the afternoon, and until I went to bed that evening, I noticed that my monkey mind had simply curled up quietly in a corner and was not making any noise at all; I felt that abiding "sense of spaciousness and awareness, peace and happiness" described by Dzogchen Ponlop. It was, in fact, a far more noticeable and lasting mental effect than anything I'd been able to concoct in all my deliberate meditation sessions on the cushion. I found myself wondering why and how a morning spent chainsawing trees could produce a greater degree of mindfulness and awareness, a deeper sense of calm abiding, than a morning spent sitting in front of a statue of the Buddha in a meditation hall.

There is, for one thing, the physical component: any physical activity that brings us down out of the ethereal realm of thought and into the earthy realm of the body promotes greater presence. Too often we sit there in the meditation hall with very little sense of the body, lost in the idea that meditation is something that happens primarily or only in the mind, and the body is merely a vehicle that gets us to the cushion and then causes us lots of distraction and pain once we are there. But Chogyam Trungpa equated mindfulness-awareness with synchronized mind and body, which is something that can only happen when we are fully grounded and present in the physical body. And maybe there is something to be said, too, for exhausting the body's surplus of nervous energy through hard physical labor, which leaves us nothing to do but relax and let go when the work is done.

But in addition to the physical aspect, there was another element in my morning practice of chainsaw meditation that is notably absent from my usual cushion practice: the element of danger. Using a chainsaw is dangerous business, demanding a very high degree of undistracted attention. The penalty for letting your attention wander off into a fantasy or becoming distracted by something else in the environment could be extreme: the loss of a hand or a foot, or worse. Total one-pointedness is required at all times, under threat of a gory punishment for non-compliance.

This, one might say, is the ultimate stick approach: the opposite of the carrot. The dangling carrot sweetly promises a good result if you just keep trying to bring your attention back to the object of meditation: so you spent the last 20 minutes lost in a fantasy, that's okay sweetheart, it doesn't matter, don't beat yourself up, just keep coming back, you'll get there eventually, and even if you don't it's still okay, just be friendly to yourself. But the chainsaw, the ultimate stick approach, brooks no stupidity, and is unforgiving; it threatens you with a terrible consequence if you let your attention wander for even a few seconds. And as a result, you are highly motivated to do one simple thing: you damn well pay attention, and you do not let your mind wander from the task. Period.

In some Zen temples they have a person called a geko who wanders through the meditation hall with a stick and whacks people who appear to be drifting off or fidgeting. Imagine if the geko, instead, carried a chainsaw and would cut off one of your beloved appendages as a penalty for letting your attention wander. In such a horror-movie scenario, one of two things would happen: you would either very quickly develop total, one-pointed mindfulness and say goodbye to monkey mind, or you would say goodbye to one body part after another (or, a third alternative: you would simply drop dead from terror).

Truth and Consequences

This is, of course, just an extreme metaphor meant to illustrate a point: when we believe we face no consequences for letting our attention wander, then we have little motivation for resisting the deeply ingrained habits of monkey mind. We can wander endlessly in distraction and think we're getting away with something. But when there are obvious consequences for doing so, then we have a strong motivation to disengage from the monkey's nonsense. If the consequences are so drastically manifest as when working with a dangerous power tool, then our motivation to pay single-pointed attention can be so strong that the monkey is literally shocked into submission. This is what I experienced for the remainder of the day after my morning chainsaw meditation.

In reality, there are always consequences to our actions. The trouble is, we usually don't see the consequences so clearly or vividly. Whatever we do repeatedly becomes a habit -- a groove in our neural circuitry that grows deeper with each repetition, from which it becomes harder and harder to redirect our minds and do something different. This is one of the aspects of what Buddhists call "karma." When we indulge in the habit of distraction and wandering mind, then we become more and more inclined towards that state, and it becomes more and more difficult to hold our attention on any one chosen object -- we are less able to stay present and more prone to drift willy-nilly, wherever the monkey wishes to lead us. The consequence, in other words, is like a self-fulfilling prophecy: we become trapped in our own personal version of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a mental prison of our own creation.

There is an old legend about a Buddhist practitioner who couldn't stop his mind from wandering and was always falling asleep on his cushion. Finally, one day he climbed high into a tree and set up his meditation seat there. The danger of falling out of that tree and crashing to the ground if he drifted off was the motivation he needed in order to stay awake and present.

If we were to apply less dangling carrot and more threatening stick to taming and training the mind, then maybe we would have more realized and accomplished meditation practitioners in the West. I'm not at all sure that the Buddha really meant for us to practice for 30 or 40 years and still remain hopelessly enslaved to monkey mind; his vision of the spiritual path seems to have been a little more ambitious than that.

Perhaps it is time for us (in the words of the old Peter Gabriel song) to shock the monkey.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil

Unbiased Compassion

The love and compassion of a buddha, they say, is like the sun: it shines impartially and unceasingly on all beings. There is no picking and choosing involved, no personal preferences, no hope or fear. A buddha doesn't shine the light of his compassion only on those beings he likes or who please him, and withhold it vengefully from those who fail to meet his standards. "The great Way is not difficult," said the Third Zen Patriarch, "for those who have no preferences."

Most people have no trouble extending love and compassion to the people they like, and to the people whose behavior pleases them. It's easy to love someone who's lovable. But what about someone whose behavior is unethical, or whose personality is offensive? How is it possible to extend love and compassion to someone who is, by any reasonable standard, acting like an idiot, or a poseur, or just a plain, old jerk?

I find this incredibly challenging. I can give lip service to compassion and loving-kindness, but when I'm faced with someone who's a thief and a liar, or someone who's delusional and in denial, or someone who's aggressive and abusive, it's not so easy to find the love and compassion within myself. Instead, everything in me wants to shut down and say "No!" to the offending person.

One thing that helps is to look within myself and remember that there have been times in my life when I, too, have acted selfishly -- when I was almost certainly perceived by others as a jerk (difficult as that may be for me to imagine). There have been times, too, when I was a poseur, trying to impress other people and gain social advantage. And there have been times when I acted like an idiot, when I was in denial, when I shot myself in the foot through my own stupidity.

With pretty much any quality I might find offensive in others, I can discover at least a trace of that same odious quality within myself if I look closely, and honestly. And I have first-hand experience of the fear and insecurity that drive people to behave in such ways. From there, it's not such a great leap to feel empathy for someone who has gotten so stuck in those familiar traps that they just live that way all the time.

Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

It seems that America, my home country, has grown into a nation divided against itself. The never-ending power struggle between progressives and convervatives, left and right, has reached a crescendo of bitterness and animosity that I've never seen before, and that has perhaps not been seen since the Civil War. Citizens of the same country are pitted against each other, determined to fight for their values and defining themselves in opposition to the enemy. It seems more difficult than ever for people on either side of the divide to be compassionate and respectful and tolerant towards those on the other side.

Politically speaking, I know which side of the divide I stand on, and it's not with the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin. But when I look at such people, and at the whole conservative backlash that's now taking place against Obama's rise to power, I can infer the fear and pain that they must be in to make them behave as they do. After all, I suffered the same kind of fear and pain and anguish throughout all eight years of the most recent Republican administration.

It is sad that the vitriolic, "Drill, baby, drill!" nonsense being passed off as public discourse by so many Republicans and Tea Partiers could actually garner so much national attention, and stir up so much animosity and ill-will in people on both sides of the political spectrum. And it is nauseating when individuals who are visibly bloated with prejudice and aggression and greed, masquerading cynically in the name of family values and patriotism -- "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," to borrow a phrase from Al Franken -- are placed in positions of power and influence.

The past week has brought us several outrageous examples (as if more proof were needed) of the widespread hypocrisy of conservatives. Now that BP's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is threatening the U.S. coastline from Texas to Florida, suddenly we don't hear them chanting "Drill, baby, drill!" anymore. And yet another prominent Republican and anti-gay activist, the Baptist minister George Alan Rekers, has been caught and exposed with his hand in a male prostitute's cookie jar. How many of these right-wing homophobes have now been outed as closeted homosexuals? I hope someone is keeping a list of these guys -- I've lost count. Rekers cynically claims that he hired the hooker, and took him on a European vacation, only in order to share the gospel of Jesus with him and save him from his sinner's lifestyle -- but the prostitute affirms to the Miami New Times that they shared a lot more than that.

Sympathy for the Devil

Even as I oppose, on general principle, the entire conservative movement and most of the things for which it claims to stand, it is still possible (admittedly, with great effort) to feel compassion and kindness towards the human beings who comprise that movement. To borrow a phrase from their own playbook: "Love the sinner, hate the sin." The internalized homophobia and loneliness of people like George Alan Rekers is profoundly sad, and having experienced the pain of those feelings myself, I know that as a human being he is worthy of compassion, not mockery. The pain that drove Rush Limbaugh to become a pill-popping drug addict is also not completely foreign to me. To allow my moral outrage at such people's hypocritical actions and deeply misguided political views to make me hate them would be playing right into their hands. It would be stooping to their level. In spite of my outrage, somewhere inside I know exactly where these people are coming from. Their pain is my pain. But it's so easy to forget that.

This doesn't mean that we should agree with anything that Sarah Palin, for example, has said or might conceivably say, or that -- Heaven forbid -- we should ever allow her to be voted into a national office. But the similarities between us are greater than the differences. Not only are we citizens of the same struggling country, facing the same set of problems, but we are both human beings -- citizens of the same struggling planet. We both feel pain and fear; we both want to have happiness and want to avoid suffering. In the larger scheme of things, the distinctions between us are negligible, almost non-existent. Deep inside, beneath our differences, I am Sarah Palin -- and so are you.

Last week, President Obama addressed the University of Michigan's graduating class and urged them to maintain "civility" in political discourse -- even as a shrill cabal of Republicans and Tea Partiers protested outside and accused him of being a "socialist." Obama's call for civility -- for simple human courtesy and reasonable, respectful dialogue in politics -- sounds almost quaint, a throwback to an earlier, more innocent time in American life when civility was a value that meant something to most people. Listen for five minutes to one of today's conservative shock-jock radio shows and you'll know that civility doesn't mean a damn thing anymore.

But the virtue of civility is precisely what is most needed today; it is the only thing that will de-escalate the bitter, bipartisan stalemate and hateful, internecine struggle that have become the hallmarks of American politics. Civility would be a step towards real patriotism. We can all agree to disagree, and we can work towards solutions to our problems. But it would be a lot less painful for everyone if, in the process, we were to maintain some degree of respect and compassion towards one another. The unbiased compassion of a buddha shines impartially on all beings, even on hypocrites and liars and hate-mongers and shock-jocks and spin-doctors and greedy, thieving rogues.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Gift of Desperation

Idle curiosity is not what brings us to the genuine spiritual path. Most of us step onto the path after something -- or a series of somethings -- has driven us to it. Life's pressures and irritations have gotten to be too much; or something cherished -- often a relationship -- has fallen apart or been taken away, or is in danger of doing so. We might feel a slight but chronic sense of discomfort and restlessness, or we might feel an acute and urgent sense of panic. In either case, we come to the spiritual path looking for a better way to live, a way out of our suffering. Desperation drives us to finally seek out wisdom and freedom.

Desperation gets a bad rap in our society. We are supposed to be cool, calm, collected, and in control -- and someone who is desperate has lost all those qualities. He is pathetic, his life is out of control, he's a mess, he's losing it, he's desperate. Keep away from him, it might be contagious.

Desperation is not a sign of failure -- it is actually a gift. It is only from desperation that the genuine motivation to change -- the key to all spiritual growth -- can arise. Only by passing through the dark night of the soul can one experience the miracle of the dawn. If things are just peachy-keen and there's no sense of desperation at all on our path, then why bother with all this spiritual crap anyway? Wouldn't it be easier and more fun to just go shopping?

Without desperation, we have no sense of urgency, no compelling desire to grow or change, no commitment to step outside our habitual patterns. We are lukewarm, and our spiritual path is half-hearted and half-assed. "So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth," said Jesus. We might dabble in studying or practicing spiritual teachings out of intellectual curiosity, but we have no real idea why we're doing it. Desperation brings things into sharp focus.

When someone is addicted to drugs, he lives in denial of his problem -- until things get bad enough that reality begins to pierce through the bubble of delusion. At some point, slowly or suddenly, it becomes impossible to go on living in denial. But he has to hit bottom, and be desperate, in order to be jarred into seeking a way back up, a way out. His sense of desperation gives rise to a genuine and strong motivation to change, and that is the point at which recovery becomes possible -- the point at which he admits his problem and asks for help. Until he has that strong motivation to change from within, he can talk about recovery all he wants but he'll just be blowing hot air.

There are a lot of people blowing hot air on the spiritual path, just as there are in other realms of human endeavor. There are a lot of people acting cool, calm, collected, and in control. But beware of people who pretend to know too much. Someone who shows a little bit of desperation, a little bit of struggle, and a little bit of doubt, someone who bears a few scars from his journey through the dark night of the soul, is a more reliable friend in spiritual matters.

"I’m quite desperate. A lot of other teachers must have experienced this desperation. I am so desperate. You can help the world. You, you, you, you, and you – all of you – can help the world. You know what the problems are. You know the difficulties. Let us do something. Let us not chicken out. Let us actually do it properly. Please, please, please!"

-- Chogyam Trungpa, Great Eastern Sun

The Buddha was desperate. Why else would he have done what he did? The Buddha left behind his royal family and his comfortable, luxurious palace life, giving up sex and romance and money and power and fame, and setting out as a penniless beggar on a lonely and difficult quest for spiritual realization. But why? A person would only take such a radical, almost unthinkable leap if he was desperate. Suffering had penetrated through the delusional bubble of luxury and comfort in which he had lived, and it had pierced his heart. His desperation drove him to leave behind the pampered life he had known and seek out the way to go beyond suffering.

Most of us, if we reflect back to the time when we first set out on the spiritual path, can make the connection between that impulse and some kind of suffering we were experiencing in our lives, some subtle or acute sense of desperation that led us to that breaking point. The trouble is that once we have been on the spiritual path for a while we tend to forget our original motivation. We no longer feel that same sense of desperation. Our circumstances may have improved, our minds may have gotten a little calmer, we may be more at peace with ourselves -- and so we no longer feel the same strong motivation to change that we felt when we set out on this path. As we move further and further away from that original spark of desperation, it becomes easy to drift into a state of complacency.

If you feel desperate, count your lucky stars. Let that feeling be the fuel that lights your motivation to change and grow, and take whatever steps you need to make that happen. Let it be the force that propels you forward into action, into growth, into change, into enlightenment. If you've forgotten what it was like to feel desperate, try to get that old feeling back. If you've slipped into complacency about your spiritual growth, remember why you started on this journey in the first place.

Whatever you do, don't be half-hearted and half-assed in your practice. Don't be lukewarm. Be a little bit desperate. Meditate like your hair is on fire.