Detaching by Debriefing: Life as a Part of Meditation…

Release through discernment begins by pondering various events and aspects of the world until the mind slowly comes to rest and, once it’s still, gives rise intuitively to liberating insight (vipassana-nana): clear and true understanding in terms of the four Noble Truths (ariya sacca). In release through stillness of mind, thought, there’s not much pondering involved. The mind is simply forced to be quiet until it attains the stage of fixed penetration. That’s where intuitive insight will arise, enabling it to see things for what they are. This is release through stillness of mind: Concentration comes first, discernment later. –Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo

I recently participated in a mediated discussion with a group of women. Some of the women were offended that other women in that group were, seemingly inexplicably, not speaking to others in that same group. Interestingly enough, the majority of the women who often don’t speak when spoken to, eventually synopsized the situation by claiming that the women who were offended by not being spoken to should “stop taking things so personally.” One “non-speaking offender” said, “My life is complicated; I have problems; and I don’t always feel like speaking. It’s nothing personal. You should just understand that I don’t  have  to speak to anyone when, or if, I don’t want to.” Yet, this same woman was upset that the people to whom she formerly refused to speak, simply because  she  was in a bad mood, later refused to speak to her once she felt like speaking!

Please, don’t apologize. Take a few moments to reread what you just read. I have ruthlessly edited for simplicity’s sake; yet, I, myself, still can’t understand, or believe, what I’ve just written…

Now, for the really freaky part: There were two group facilitators, and each of them agreed with this woman. They claimed, that they, too, often had bad days where they didn’t feel like speaking, and because of this, it made them more “compassionate” when they encountered others who were not speaking because, obviously, they were in a bad mood. And because of their ability to be understanding and compassionate, if someone who refused to speak to them yesterday speaks to them today, they speak – because they’re just that “big.”

I had a problem with that – and I said so. I think they’re driven not by compassion, but by self-indulgence or Self-ishness  (in the Buddhist sense of the word). It seems to me that the women who were upset, if they were truly “compassionate,” would have been much more understanding, rather than complaining about being treated as they treated others. They were offended that certain people no longer spoke to them after they had previously squashed those people’s sincere greetings, or inquiries as to their health, or worse, stared them down with utter hostility because of being in a “bad mood.” In other words, they want the right to be rude, simply because, like a toddler, they don’t “feewul gwood,” but once they feel better, they believe it is everybody else’s responsibility to make sure that their happy state of mind continues by indulging them – even though they are incapable of paying anyone else the same courtesy. Additionally, they lack the understanding that other people’s words, actions, prejudices, etc., should not ever be the foundation for our “happiness”…

Compassion is complex. It is much more than “feeling sorry for someone.” In fact, I believe that ‘compassion’ would be concerned for another’s feelings at all times, no matter how it was feeling that day. I also believe that compassion would not want to hurt someone in a way that it truly understands “hurt” can be conveyed. So, this experience got me thinking about the sinister power of emotion. What follows is my actual post for today, the one I would have liked to have written without this seemingly circuitous introduction. This is what I would have liked to have said had we not all had to simply agree to disagree and drop the topic…

I have worked in the retail industry for the past four years. If a customer walks up to me, needing either information, or just feeling like shooting the breeze, and I am in a bad mood, I don’t have the option of pouting and not speaking. I didn’t have that option when I taught in the classroom, or when working at a service desk, either. I believe that most people would agree with me, here, and say that obviously, the whole “not-speaking thing” doesn’t apply to professional situations. Consequently, my question is “So, we can only abuse the people we love, or with whom we live, or upon whom our financial security does not depend?” Please. Think about it.

Emotions (how we feel) are not “us.” They don‘t have to color our lives. We can observe, but yet not be or become, those emotions. Emotions are not inescapable or inevitable; yet, if we treat them as if they are, they become not only “habit,” but also our prison. And ironically enough, we, too, can become the prison of emotion. We “store” these emotions/feelings (particularly the destructive ones) in our backs, arthritic fingers, necks, shoulders, and even breathing capacities.

Meditation facilitates our learning how to distance ourselves from emotion/feeling in a direct, purposeful way. I’m referring to detachment, not psychosis. Through the practice of meditation, we learn to conduct that same kind of observation in our daily flight; in the waking moments of a fitful sleep; and even as we are doing the seemingly most un-meditative things, like participating in an unfriendly discussion, or actually confronting, with scientific objectivity, our own pain, depression, fear, bitterness, or feeling of having been wronged. Oh, wait a minute, the latter is actually very “meditative!” It’s just not possible to do it in a detached manner until one first learns to meditate. And after benefitting from the discipline of meditation, when one feels wronged or hurt, they are less likely to want to hurt back, or to feel their hurt in a self-destructive way. Non-meditators call this type of observation or internal review “obsessing,” “brooding,” or “perseverating on the negative,” and rightly so, because in their case, that’s exactly what it is.

And then there’s the day, sometimes only after years of meditation, that you realize that the former “you,” when faced with a particularly trying situation, would have literally killed yourself, or most definitely “acted out” in ways that would have brought numerous and immense complications to your own life, as well as the lives of others, thus increasing your karmic debt load, exponentially…

Now, you are, at least, a little bit freer to be more compassionate; less judgmental, and poised on the precipice of promise…

Yep! That’s it for today! If it helps, I’m glad. If not, that’s understandable because as the Buddha said, each person must travel his or her own path. So, I’ve written this only to reach out and communicate the lessons in a personal experience, not “save” anyone — no one can do that no matter how hard they try. Liberation is a blossom of personal experience. Or so I have heard…

Namaste.

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Reference:

Dhammadharo, A. L. (1979). Keeping the breath in mind & Lessons in samadhi. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery.

 

 

 

 

Chanting: What It Is, And Ain’t…

The practice of chanting often gets a bad rap. Many older people, who reached adulthood in the 60s and 70s, upon hearing the word ‘chanting,’ think of the followers of Charles Manson (yes, he’s still alive and incarcerated), or are reminded of the Hare Krishna sect whose members often appeared to be either drugged, in a trance, or both; and seemed to do nothing but beg for money and – chant. And of course, there was the little matter of whether or not they were a cult.

Contrary to popular opinion, chanting is simply (and most profoundly) a form of meditation. Buddhists refer to it as “active” meditation, as opposed to “sitting” meditation, which is conducted in silence, in the posture akin to that of many statues of “Buddhas.” This distinction, between sitting and active meditation exists precisely because there is a distinction. One may engage in meditation while sitting, walking (called ‘walking’ meditation), or even washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or, in some practices, having sex (and no, that is not the “tantric” Buddhism about which you’ve probably heard – at least not in the way that so many people mis-understand it). The point, here, is that almost anything can be [a] meditation, if it is practiced “mindfully,” a term referring not to just a periodic ‘practice,’ but also the way a Buddhist should always try to live his or her life.

Ideally, when chanting, one’s purpose will be higher than (or at least, not solely dedicated to) chanting for a new TV; attracting that seemingly unavailable guy or gal; or, winning the lottery. Believe it or not, many people, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu, among others, chant for union with the Divine, peace, inner or outer transformation, and the like, as part of their meditation practices.

Now that Hare Krishna devotees are no longer a prominent strand in the cultural fabric of American alternative culture, other chanters have come to the forefront. Among them are those who claim that either this or that chant will ensure that you’ll soon be driving a Mercedes; fighting off desperate (but achingly beautiful) women; or be richer than Croesus in three months. If any, or all of this actually happens, it will not, in reality, be because of any particular chant, but rather because, perhaps for the first time, you’ve truly focused your creative energies in an unusually positive, directed, and productive manner, which is an element of any kind of success.

Many people chant to the Bodhisattva, Tara (actually a group of deities), representing compassion, liberation, and success, among other things, often with the desire to become more like her. This chant is:

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha

Chants may or may not mean anything in particular, and often contain such elements as the syllable “om,” which has no definition, per se, but is considered to be a “primeval sound,” which in itself, is supposed to be beneficial. There is not space, here to consider the full meaning of this mantra.

Contrary to people who chant to deities, some people chant to no one at all. An example of this is the chant: Om Shanti Shanti Shanti. Again, it contains the syllable “om,” and the word, Shanti, (Śānti) in the Buddha’s language, Pali, means “peace.” Thus, Shanti is a type of invocation, referring to and calling upon ‘peace’ in body, speech, and mind, for oneself and the world.

These mantras are older than time; but there are also “new” mantras, consisting of terms and “sound syllables,’ constructed by meditation masters and teachers within certain ‘spiritual’ traditions. And of course, there are the mantras that we construct for ourselves, however unknowingly, and even the mantras that shysters construct for purposes of nothing more than financial gain.

Two of the funniest mantras I’ve come across are on the Website, Guru’s Feet. The first is more ‘spiritual’ than it first appears; and the second, either quite cynical, or perhaps, even naïve. Mind you, I’m not placing these mantras in any particular tradition. On a page titled “A mantra for employment,” Michaelji Ramaprasad posts:

“I will get off my ass and work Om”
“I will get off my ass and apply Om”
“I will realize I can only control that which I can control om”
“I will drop my pride and accept what I get Om”
“I will get off my ass Om.”

Another contributor shares his own mantra:

“Om Nama Bill Gates Nama Lee Iacocca Sri Sri Write-a-resume-and-send-it-in.”

If you’ve experienced long-term unemployment in this particularly brutal jobs market, you know that it takes more than “hard work” to land a job. Only the lowest-paying jobs in the service industry sector appear to be proliferating. So, my advice would be that unless your job causes you to be in non-compliance with the Buddha’s admonition for  Right Livelihood, which would also mean you’re out of compliance with the rest of the steps along the Noble Eightfold Path, don’t quit your job, believing there’s some magical incantation that will automatically provide you with another job. That said, there’s a lot to be said for hard work, right priorities, and being flexible, very flexible…

For me, “the answer” regarding chanting is somewhere between mysticism and cynicism. Again, chanting is a form of meditation. And if it takes hard, scientific fact for you to believe in anything, it has already been proven that chanting (meditation) is “good for you.” I know someone who is constantly playing a song, the content which I cannot repeat here, is all about “’F’ you; ‘F’ her; ‘F’ that;  and ‘F’ everybody.” If he’s not blasting this through his leaky headphones, he’s blasting it on the computer, or singing it. This causes me to remember the literary essay, “As A Man Thinketh” by James Allen (published in 1902). In it, Mr. Allen says: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In a sense, we are all, always meditating. So, what kind of thought foundation are you laying down in your life?

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And here’s a link to an unforeseen “Part 2” of this post:

Why Many Americans (Buddhist or Otherwise) Should Reconsider Their Misconceptions About Chanting…

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Namaste.
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Related Readings:

Chanting Man Forces Flight to Kona From Seattle to Return from Huffington Post.com

Om — The beginning of all creation from Shamballa: A space for sharing and being

Chanting: A Basic of Buddhist Practice from About.com/Buddhism (Website)

Sacred Hebrew Chant from Sacred Hebrew Chant.com (Website)

Gospel Chanting from One Man’s Offering: Gospel Chanting (Website)

Monks Singing Gregorian Chant in a Catholic Benedictine Seminary from YouTube.com

Native American Sacred Chant and Recitation from Out of Body Travel.org (Note: It was difficult finding a link for Native American chant that would hopefully be appropriate because there are a great many links, dealing in some… incredible… ways, addressing “War chants,” as well as the racist ‘tomahawk war chants’ that are so popular at sporting events. Additionally, I found instances of Websites being challenged, or removed, due to inappropriate content. My goal here, is simply to show the diversity, and commonality, of the chanting tradition in various cultures. Hopefully, I’ve been successful.

Medieval Chanting in Stroud Green from London Strange (blog)

Understanding Islamic Chants from Complete Wellbeing (Website)

Meditative Sufi Chants — HU — Sufi Zikr Meditation from Daily Motion.com (Website)

Chanting: Why We Chant from Kwan Um School of Zen (Website)

 

 

Mindfulness vs. Ritalin

I am currently reading Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life.  The Sakyong is the son of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, subject of the documentary, Crazy Wisdom. In 1959, it was Chögyam Trungpa who led 300 people out of Tibet and into the exile (the result of a conflict with the Chinese government) that stands to this day. Trungpa’s son, the Sakyong, whose title means “Earth Protector,” was born in India, in 1962; and he, himself, would not see Tibet until the year 2001. I am struck, and deeply touched, by the pains taken by Chögyam Trungpa in teaching his young son the ropes of mindfulness and discernment (not that this can be ‘taught,’ so much as sought, and certainly, I’m sure Trungpa did not find the instruction ‘painful’).

In  Ruling Your World, the Sakyong shares memories of his father teaching him the elements of mindfulness, through meditation, from an early age. It was serious, pointed, incremental training, with a particular goal in mind, but loving, as well. Interestingly enough, at one point, the Sakyong shares that his father handed him over to the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, for meditation instruction. Chödrön writes that not long after that, it was she who became the student of the young Sakyong, a relationship that stands to this day.

I’ve often wondered, while reading this book, if the young Sakyong played peek-a-boo, bounced off the walls, and ignored his teachers, preferring to talk and giggle with an imaginary friend instead of engaging in instruction. I’ve wondered if his mind ever raced with the energies of youth, or if somehow, because of the nature of his birth, because of his being the incarnation of a great meditation instructor, he was somehow, unusually sedate.

The reason I’ve wondered about the Sakyong as a little boy is because I know of another brilliant little boy whose father, rather than teaching him mindfulness, or working to constructively direct his youthful energies, decided to give him Ritalin. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that the conditions we’ve labeled ADD/ADHD are real. As a teacher, I’ve seen how children with this ‘disorder’ can disrupt classrooms and drive everyone around them practically insane. It’s quite obvious that these children are suffering, just as everyone else around them. But I’ve also seen the suffering that entails once they’re drugged. Imagine being six- or seven-years-of-age, and being “depressed’ (a side-effect of Ritalin), but not knowing what depression “is,” and having to take other medications to try to balance out the combination of a hyperactive nature and a drugged depression. And yes, Ritalin is the same drug that teenagers used to traffic in because it has the opposite effect on adults.

This other boy’s father, besides medicating his son, also engaged in self-medicating. And he didn’t teach his son mindfulness and discernment through meditation because he did not have that knowledge or experience. Additionally, in his own way, though a successful man, he, too, was “hyper.” And now, decades after the Ritalin Rush, we are seeing the purported (or probable) extended side-effects this drug has had on the young people we drugged, some almost into a malevolent, macabre “extinction.”

Is it possible that we could try something other than drugging our children into oblivion? What if these children were taught mindfulness meditation? Obviously, the parents, and even the doctors would have to be trained, too. And this is not to say that parents and medical professionals have not tried other methods, alternative and organic. I simply can’t help but think that treating ‘youth’ as a psychiatric emergency is a dangerous thing. And consider this: A fair number of mental health professionals claim that it is not possible to diagnose such mental illnesses as bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) in youngsters due to their not having yet reached a certain age of maturity and level of cognitive functioning. So, why do we take children, as young as four or five, and do everything but bind them in a strait jacket and inject them with Thorazine?

In the interest of balance, please check out the links for the music video on ADHD meds, below (yes, music video), and a blog post by someone with ADD,  for whom Ritalin has made all the difference in the world (in a positive way).

Do ADHD meds work? We break it down for you in our latest music video from PandoDaily (Website)

I have ADD from Modern Day Artemis (blog)

Namaste.

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Related Readings:

Kids Getting On Your Nerves Again? from HADDOCKWALLOP! (blog)

ADHD could be a fictitious disease?/TDAH pourrait être une maladie fictive? from Another Day in the Marathon of Life (blog)

i don’t want comfort from Wake Up Tiger (blog)

Children — ADHD & bipolar (history etc) Robert Whitaker – Psychiatric Epidemic from Beyond Meds (blog)

“Stoner” by John Edward Williams (A Review)

Williams, J. (1965). Stoner. New York, NY: New York Review of Books.
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Back in the Good Ol’ Days, we had values. Songs had ‘meaning!’ We didn’t listen to crap like Fergie’s “My Humps,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” or Kelis’s “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard.” Our songs had lyrics with substance and gravitas  like The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” baby. There’s not a day that passes when I don’t thank the Buddha that I wasn’t born in some obscene year like 1990! So, it’s only because I was a child of the 60s that I happened upon the novel, Stoner.

Let’s begin by saying that it isn’t, at all, what you might think it’s about. I mean, we all know what a ‘stoner’ is; so, when I discovered this work featured at my local independent bookseller’s establishment, I wasn’t even sure I was going to read it! But I did wonder, as I picked up the book to examine it, why the man depicted on the cover was wearing a suit from the late 1800s. Actually, “Stoner” is the surname of the main character in the book of the same name. And amazingly, the book was originally published in 1965, the decade of my birth, and then simply lost in the shuffle, forgotten, until just recently  this  century! Just as interesting are the rumors regarding Professor John Edward Williams,’ death. I’d been told, more than once, that he’d committed suicide. Truth be told, he died in bed, quite happily enough, leaving behind a wife, family, and not a few friends.

A small placard affixed to the front of the bookstore copy said, simply, “The best book I’ve ever read!” One of the bookstore staff warned me that it wasn’t a flashy, exciting read, but more of a deep, introspective, examination of a rather unremarkable man’s life. In many ways, she was correct; but I beg to differ regarding ‘excitement.’ This could be the undergraduate English major in me, but I was shaken, and moved, to my core. I could easily have read the book in one sitting, but instead, decisively closed the cover and laid it down, unwillingly, someplace out-of-the-way, for brief intervals over a period of three days.  I felt compelled to savor what I’d read, and delay what I knew would be the final, painful end of a rare reading experience. Not since Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha” (1922) have I felt this way about a work. And like Hesse, it’s quite obvious that John Edward Williams was, in his own fashion, a ‘spiritual’ man.

From the first page of  Stoner, author John Williams lets you know that William Stoner, the subject of this work, is no one special.  By the middle of that first page, we know that William Stoner was a university instructor who “never rose above the rank of assistant,” and was barely remembered by any student who’d ever taken one of his courses. In fact, after his death, it was noted that his colleagues didn’t think much of him, either. Williams’ lack of concern in developing some type of hook to pull the reader in from the start could be the reason why this work simply disappeared into the dustbin for the next 50 years or so. I won’t lie: it did occur to me to lay claim to my “within ten days and good condition” right to refund after reading that first paragraph. Nonetheless, I turned the page, and by page 9, I just knew I was in for one of the rare experiences of my life. I had to find out more about this poor boy who’d escaped the impoverished, illiterate, threadbare existence of a Missouri farm, where his parents eked out a subsistence, only because of an almost freakish opportunity to receive a university education.

Prior to leaving the farm to attend classes, young Stoner had known nothing of next-door neighbors, socializing, fine clothes, reading for pleasure, or the carelessness of youth. His parents were the stereotypical hard-bitten, illiterate, inarticulate poor dirt farmers who had given up the vernacular of light conversation, endearments, or even complaining. Life was simply hard, and one did what one had to do to get through it. So, the clueless young Stoner builds his adult life on a foundation of nothing and what little romance he is able to extract from Medieval English literature and the rarely-sought perspective of a few, not-so-close friends. But Stoner is far from ignorant. And somewhere within his hardscrabble life, he learns to love and to appreciate what beauty he can find along the way.

During Stoner’s first year as a student in the College of Agriculture at this fictitious University of Missouri (Williams, himself, taught at the University of Missouri), Stoner is awed by university life, but his passion to continue is exceeded only by his fear of returning to the farm where very little, if anything, ever grew. Then, near the end of page 9, we learn: “It was not until he returned for his second year that William Stoner learned why he had come to college.” Soon after, Stoner would leave the College of Agriculture to become, of all things, an English major, thus leaving his parents to think he’d soon be returning to run the family “business.” Williams, in his spare narration of Stoner, simply states: “In the summer he returned again to his parents’ farm and helped his father with the crops and did not mention his work at the University.” And the wonder and pathos of it all is that Stoner did not have to say anything because it never would have occurred to his parents to ask him how ‘things’ were going. Nonetheless, he changed and grew. He learns Greek and Latin, within the space of a year, well enough to read simple texts. And we learn that “Sometimes he thought of himself as he had been a few years before and was astonished by the memory of that strange figure, brown and passive as the earth from which it had emerged.”

Stoner’s career would encompass America’s two World Wars, and Williams provides some rare insights, through his characters, into how academics viewed conscription, volunteering, and the crushing effect these wars had on the very people and things for which American warriors fought, such as art, literature, and the value of a general education. In fact, one character is driven to madness. But one of the most confounding aspects of the book is Stoner’s marriage. If the expression, “thinking with his little head instead of his big one” had not yet been coined in the 1960s, it should have been. Stoner’s choice for a life mate, fairly early in his marriage, sets in motion a number of events, so inexpressibly tragic, but so easily avoidable with just a little thought, that one finds it impossible to keep one’s mouth from hanging open for much of the book. Nonetheless, and much to my amazement, Williams still manages to keep the tone of Stoner, mundane, dispassionate, and even.

Throughout Stoner’s tragic and remarkably unremarkable life, it is his career, as a university instructor, not professor, that keeps him sane and solid. Even after he realizes that despite his great love of literature, and respect and passion for education, that he is most definitely not a good instructor, he continues to plod on with a mindfulness most students of meditation would envy. And that mindfulness and dedication would carry him through several departmental scandals, controversies, and the ugliness of faculty politics. Certainly, it is in Stoner’s struggles to come to terms with the mess of his life, and the tragic nature of the little beauty he manages to experience, that reveals the aforementioned spirituality I found in Williams’ writing. All along the way, Stoner remains alert to the gifts ‘life’ gives him, however bare and paltry they might seem to anyone living life more “large.”

Once, Stoner experiences “…an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words…” Later, Stoner discovers the emptiness of “learning,” but still appreciates the learning that leads him to this chilling discovery. And at a fairly late stage in his life, despite being married, he finally learns of true love, searing sex, and the staggering price he must pay for that knowledge. Near the end of his life, which ended long before his career, Williams says of Stoner, “He seldom thought of the past or the future, or of the disappointments and joys of either; he concentrated all the energies of which he was capable upon the moment of his work and hoped that he was at last defined by what he did.” Oh, reader! Does that not sound like some type of meditation to you?

Somehow, through a work thoroughly unremarkable in the areas of drama, humor, or much in the way of any character’s internal life (though Williams’ narration could fool one into thinking that Stoner had much more in the way of an internal life than was actually depicted), the author manages to create a character of such warmth, depth, dignity, magnitude and quiet, passionate desperation that there can be no question, by the end of this novel, that greatness can be found, and fostered, in the most unremarkable of remarkable places.

This is a work that will, one day, be read by every “educated” person. It deserves to be read, and murdered by, every first-year college student. And I, for one, will never be the same for reading it. Neither will you.

Namaste.

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Related Reading:

John Williams’ Stoner: The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of by Tim Kreider from The New Yorker

Stoner by John Williams from bookemstevo