Monday, 19 September 2011

Flesh On Bone

It is an admittedly strange admission for someone who meditates every day, who regularly teaches this practice to others. It is strange but true: I don’t like many of the books I’ve read about meditation. There are exceptions, of course. Minus Buddhist Saints of India - a worthwhile volume, but what an effort! - I have loved each of Reggie Ray’s books. I also enjoyed John Welwood’s Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Will Johnson’s Posture of Meditation, and several of Pema Chodron’s titles. For the most part, though, what I read about sitting practice leaves me cold.

This is not to suggest such texts lack value. I know many find these works insightful and affecting. And for many of us books published under the names Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa, to name but two, provide a tangible sense of departed teachers we would not otherwise experience. The number of people who have told me Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism opened a long, transformative relationship with Trungpa’s teachings? I cannot remember.

I am also aware these books can provide both new and experienced practitioners much needed exposure to the view - the conceptual perspectives of a meditative tradition. In many ways as important as practice itself, such exposure cannot be dismissed. So I am certainly not arguing that books on meditation lack value. Instead I am making a very personal confession: In general such books really don’t do it for me. Rather than inspire they leave me asking, ‘What does this have to do with my life?’

Not long ago, for example, I read an article about anger. “When working with anger,” the author began. What followed was a detailed exploration of how anger arises and how we might fruitfully ‘work with’ its visitation. Nowhere in these pages was anger described in any way I was familiar with. At no point did the writer reveal, “I was so angry I could spit,” or “When she looked at me like that I felt my flesh begin to boil.” Anger was more or less presented in the abstract - away from its context and meaning as a feeling that arises in the bump and jostle of everyday experience. It was, I thought, as if we were looking at the emotion in a laboratory setting. Safe. Sterile. Before long, I wanted to throw that magazine across the room.

For me meditation has never really been about laboratory experience. My practice has always seemed at its best when soiled with the dirt and grime of life: when equanimity is destroyed by a frustrating encounter with a computer or when tender-heartedness is cracked open by an unexpected act of kindness. Even in the center of a still and silent shrine hall, what is interesting from my perspective is the sudden appearance of doubt: the unsettling conviction I am the only person doing this practice totally wrong!

In her unusual memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, transgendered author Jennifer Boylan writes: “I do have to say that I don’t find gender theory especially helpful in terms of explaining the thing I felt. I resent, to no small degree, the idea that a theory should even be necessary. To be honest, just about the only theory I trust is story and I’m hoping that, before all is said and done, the tale I am trying to tell can stand in for the theory.”

This might be part of what I am trying to get at here. I find a far too significant portion of the reading I’ve done about meditation has a sense of the theoretical about it. The fact that much of it is not - that a large portion of writing on this subject is actually based on direct experience - is somehow lost in presentation. I consequently feel a sense of separation from the everyday, disconnection from its joys and sorrows, as I turn page after page. Which gives rise to that question: ‘What does this have to do with my life?’

In this regard, maybe Jenny Boylan is on to something. Maybe we need more stories in meditative literature. If the ‘theoretical approach’ does not “explain the thing” we feel, if it is not somehow illuminating the stuff of our lives, perhaps we need to use a different mode of presentation. Stories offer depth and texture. They invite us to see and hear, smell, feel, and taste. They immerse us in a richness of being that is affecting, life-affirming. Like I’m Looking Through You, for instance. By the end of that book I felt myself seeped in the often-strangeness of Boylan’s growing up. I had a sense of her experience that seemed tangible and real - and sometimes, honestly, quite surreal.

Which perhaps explains why I enjoy reading Pema Chodron. She often uses stories to bring a sense of life to the teachings, to cast them in a different light. In doing this she really slips under the skin of those who are listening. The resonance of her tales, in fact, commonly outlasts anything else she says, leaving behind a lingering feeling of what she is pointing toward. Who, for instance, can ever forget Chogyam Trungpa and Dilgo Khyentse sitting silently in a garden together. “They call that a tree,” Trungpa says with a gesture. The two men begin to laugh. Pema’s teaching here? Emptiness: things are not what we think.

This ‘story orientation’ certainly contributes to the fact that one of my favorite books is Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. Norris is a late-convert Christian who finds solace in both the worship of her local parish and the Benedictine communities she enters for retreat and renewal. Subtitled A Vocabulary of Faith, Grace presents her consideration of the language of her tradition, of the words she has met and often struggled with since returning to the fold. ‘Christ’ and ‘God’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Hell’ are given attention in these pages, ‘attention’ being the term I use to describe Norris’ attempts to pierce the too-often lifeless shell of inherited orthodoxy in order to find the living, breathing spirit within.

In doing this attending, Norris of course draws heavily upon her impressive experience with Christian practice and study. In looking at the word ‘repentance’, however, she is just as willing to quote John Climacus' The Ladder of Divine Ascent, as she is to draw from her time teaching poetry to school children - both of which she does to wonderful effect. This approach very much reflects a “firm conviction that human beings are essentially storytelling bipeds, and that dictionary definitions of potent religious words, while useful in understanding one’s religious heritage, are of far less importance than the lived experience of them within that tradition.” It seems it is, for Norris, the flesh of life as it hangs from the bones of the teachings that gives her tradition vitality and meaning.

Which brings me again to Reggie Ray. No one I have ever met is able to speak to the subject of meditation with as much communicative intensity. Sitting in a shrine hall while he teaches, the attention of all those assembled feels riveted to the words flowing forth. This effect seems less volitional than responsive - as if our collective focus is simply obeying an implicit command to be right here.

Recently, however, I find my most potent experiences with Reggie occurring outside the formal teaching context, in far more ordinary situations. Sitting around a dinner table, for instance, discussing the scope of his daily involvement in a public meditation retreat then underway he says, “I am not not going to be there.” Not not. Suddenly all the words I’ve ever heard or read about the space of mind fall away. I find myself dropped into that space, awareness moving out in all directions.

Such moments are not well suited to abstraction and theorizing. I suspect, in fact, abstraction and theorizing would effectively strip instants like these of every last bit of their potency. Leaving these moments in life, where they arise, then seems essential in sharing their power. This is something stories have the potential to allow.

I am thinking now of some words written by the eco-philosopher David Abrams in his latest book, Becoming Animal. Of science and technology he says, “Such tools can be mighty useful, and benevolent as well, as long as the insights that they yield are carried back to the lived world, and placed in service to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience. But technology can also, and easily, be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shroud to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambivalence of the real.”

Substitute ‘meditation’ for the words ‘such tools’ and ‘technology’ and you have a sense of how I feel about this practice. Meditation belongs in “the lived world”. It belongs “to the more-than-human matrix of corporeal encounter and experience.” It flourishes and finds meaning in the garden and around the dinner table. It is in these places that meditation most dramatically flexes its transformative muscle and from these places story-telling allows us to speak.

If the majority of writing out there does not immerse the practice in such contexts, in the everyday, then perhaps we need to find a new way of communicating on this subject. Perhaps we must. Because Abrams’ last words carry as much resonance for me as his first: Left abstracted from life, meditation, like science and technology, can easily “be used as a way to avoid direct encounter, as a shroud to ward off whatever frightens, as a synthetic heaven or haven in which to hide out from the distressing ambivalence of the real.” With the world teetering as it is at the present moment - with our inborn brilliance just waiting to shine - avoidance and hiding out, while understandably compelling, just do not seem options.

Let our story-telling begin!


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Anonymous said...

Neil, I can relate to what you writing about here. I was wondering if you have read any of John O'Donohue's books?