Monday, 28 November 2011

Occupy Your Practice

I’ve been dealing with dragons. A lot of the beasts have shown up lately: a couple of dreams; a side-of-the-bus advertisement; a song. There have been no fewer than three appearances in recent reading material. This morning when I sat down to meditate, two of the creatures swirled about as I practiced. Or, more accurately, as I tried to practice.

It is not easy resting attention on the breath while a pair of red-hot eyes holds me in their gaze. It is, to put it lightly, unsettling. I’m at the edge of my nostrils one moment, then a fiery glare swoops by and my mind rises like a flock of birds. ‘What is going on here?’ ‘Where the hell are these coming from?’ ‘Why won’t they leave me alone, in peace, to practice?’ After a few minutes of this I gave up. I got off my cushion in defeat. My thinking was, ‘If I can’t do what I am supposed to, I’ll give it a rest.”

I suspect I’m not the first meditator to do this. Maybe the dragons are unique, maybe they’re not. I would, however, guess I am not the only person who, unable to do what I am ‘supposed to’, elects to walk away from practice while the burn of failure heats his flesh. The instructions are clear and simple: place attention here. No one I know enjoys being unable to follow such basic direction, so...

So I walked away from the practice and wandered through to my workspace. Plopped down in front of the computer, I answered a few emails, browsed some of my favorite websites. Then I clicked onto CNN. I wanted to get the latest on the Occupy movement.

This movement has, for a variety of reasons, fascinated me. Starting as a small-scale gesture against perceived wrong, it has morphed into a worldwide expression of dissatisfaction and, in some cases, naked rage. Explaining this phenomena is proving difficult. Without obvious leadership or a clear agenda, identifying what the heck’s going on here is not easy. As a result, just about everyone has hazarded a personal point of view; in this I am no exception.

We live in an era when so many of the challenges facing us have causes and solutions well outside the sphere of the individual. Economic disparity, food insecurity, climate change - these are only the first such challenges that come to mind. All are pressing. All affect every one of us. All have their genesis and resolution in dynamics far larger and much deeper than any one person.

What Occupy has introduced to this situation is a forum, disparate as it may be, in which individuals are able to assert, “Hey, we count!” It’s like the tiny residents of Hooville in Dr. Seuss’ classic Horton Hears A Hoo. Challenged by fate, the Hoos come together and cry out to the unseen forces shaping their lives. They know their existence has value and they sense this existence is under siege. So at the top of their lungs they scream to the heavens, “We’re here! We’re here! We’re here!”

Whether the Occupiers’ cries will be heard or have any appreciable impact remains to be seen. The fact these cries are rising up, however, suggests many of us sense something precious is being threatened. More, it reflects an emerging conviction that our experience - the experience of Joe and Jane Everyone - has something to add to this situation. Our impressions have relevance. Our feelings have import. In ways we perhaps cannot yet fully articulate, Occupy is claiming our experience matters.

I find this inspiring. To affirm, for instance, that an economy dealing in trillions of dollars must take people like me seriously? This is outrageous and appropriate and I love it for both these reasons. The assertion that my concerns should - and, in fact, do - occupy an important place in the dynamics swirling about all of us is stirring. Like a cold, sharp wind the notion is bracing in the very best of ways. “Your offices and barricades, your wealth and your privilege,” this movement seems to be saying, “cannot change the fact that our lives mean something too.”

This has got me looking about my world in a different way. ‘What other areas,’ I wonder, ‘might I occupy a bit more? Where else would I like my feelings noted, my sense of things brought more fully into the mix? Where else is this necessary?’

These are questions I walked away from the computer with. After a bit of online reading, I needed a drink of water. Heading toward the kitchen, I tripped over my meditation cushion right where I had abandoned it thirty minutes earlier. I looked at it there for a moment, all faded surfaces and worn corners. The sting in my toe brought to mind the morning’s truncated practice session. The frustration. The difficulty. The hot failure. These memories made me want to toss the damn thing out of sight, hide it deep in a darkened closet. Instead I just stood there staring.

Meditation does not have a lengthy history in the West. If one takes the first newsreels featuring the Beatles and the Maharishi as the moment the practice entered our popular consciousness, we are only talking forty-some years. If one wishes to assert that the literary work of the Beats - Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder - or the popularization of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki more accurately mark this moment, only a decade and change can be added to the timeline.

Whatever the case, engagement between meditation and the modern world has not been going on all that long. In many ways, we are still getting to know one another. The tradition continues to learn what unique qualities we bring to the practice. Westerners differ from Tibetans, of course, but in what ways? Similarly, we continue to find out more about these practices. How, for example, the experience of sitting meditation shifts after ten years, twenty years, forty years of dedicated work.

A relationship is taking shape. As with any relationship, a couple of preconditions are required to ensure the long-term health and vitality of this union. One of these, that the two parties must be willing to give themselves to one another, seems like it is being well met. For the most part, teachings coming from the East - whether they originate in Japan, Thailand, Burma, or anywhere else - arrive with a high degree of integrity. They are presented by teachers well trained in the old ways, and more than willing to pass on the depth and richness of their tradition. At the same time, many of the students receiving these teachings demonstrate an impressive commitment to accepting and engaging these in as full a manner as possible. A considerable number have devoted decades to deep study and practice.

A second precondition often seems a bit more problematic. The movement of meditation from East to West is not so much an act of transplanting the first into the second as it is a process of mutual discovery. Something unprecedented is necessarily arising out of our meeting and, within this context, the subjective experience of modern students has considerable relevance. This tells us what works and what does not; it provides crucial feedback regarding the shape and form the tradition needs to take in its new cultural setting. Is, for instance, the practice of placing attention on the breath the best way for us to stabilize minds that have been heavily influenced by a speed-driven, technology-heavy, increasingly sedentary lifestyle? Only experience can answer this question. As a result, this experience is important. It should - and does - count.

I compare this situation to exploring a new cookbook. An unfamiliar recipe calls for a handful of Pasilla chiles and three jalapeno peppers. After a few trial runs, however, I realize the first are unavailable here and the second, to my taste anyway, are way too hot. So I make pencil notes in the margins: “Okay without chiles. Two peppers only.” And where the author claims in the upper left-hand corner this meal requires just twenty-five minutes to prepare, well it’s pretty clear she wasn’t dealing with dirty dishes and telephone calls, kids wanting attention and so on. I scratch out this estimate and jot “Just under an hour” overhead.

It’s not that I dismiss what the chef is offering, far from it. I follow her instructions as faithfully as possible for a while and, through this, discover what does and what does not work for me; I learn what kind of adjustments are necessary. I respect and trust both the authority of the recipe and the authority of personal experience. I treat each of these as important. Instead of recreating a dish, this process allows a wonderful and necessarily unique version of the original entre to evolve.

I rarely afford what happens to me while meditating this degree of significance. To simply watch what occurs when I sit is challenging enough. This requires sharp attentiveness, and I am easily seduced into something more dull and distracted; a kind of meditation as TV approach. To consider what happens to me important? To let my experience suggest a way forward? This seems impossible. I am frequently too lazy or doubtful to assume such responsibility.

In many ways it is easier to just follow ‘the rules’. There is a numb sort of safety in this approach, a shadowy sense of paternal assurance. Whether these rules work or not - that is, take me deeper into my own life - seems irrelevant from this perspective. Also irrelevant is any suggestion that this morning’s inability to adhere to these rules might point toward a needed shift in our relationship. Personal shortcoming is the more likely implication of this approach: The rules work, it is me who somehow falls short. It is this fact which occasionally makes walking away so tempting an option. An irresistible option, it seems.

Which takes me back to those people gathered in New York and Oakland and Vancouver and Rome. They have come onto the streets not because it is the easy or safe thing to do, but because they know their voices matter. Maybe the powers that be don’t often acknowledge this - maybe they seem to never acknowledge this - but at some level the Occupiers know their lives and experiences count. Further, they understand that for our world to flourish this relevance must be acknowledged.

Though the situations are admittedly very different, the same needs to be known of our voices and experiences as relatively new meditators. What we find when we follow our breath or chant the Heart Sutra or visualize a deity, these are important. They are crucial to the well being of the meditative tradition we are inheriting. Our willingness to come fully into our practice, then - to occupy our practice - is an essential aspect of our engagement with these teachings. Only by honoring this truth will they truly and deeply become part of us. Will they continue.

I didn’t make it to the kitchen for that drink of water. After stubbing my toe I stood before my practice cushion for a long while, staring, thinking this over. Eventually I sat down and resumed the practice I had dejectedly abandoned almost sixty minutes earlier. I placed my attention on the breath as I had so many times in the past and struggled to stay there. My mind was wild and flighty, even more so than before.

After a while of this, I considered walking a second time - but didn’t. I decided to go with what was happening, see where this took me. This was an unnerving choice. I shot a glance from side to side, as if wanting to ensure no one was looking. I even considered moving out of sight of the photographs gracing our shrine in order to hide what I was about to do. ‘I hope,’ I thought to myself, ‘Reggie never finds out about this.’

With considerable unease, then, I placed my attention on one of those dragons as it swooped past. This was a tentative move at first, but I soon surrendered and relaxed. Then I rode one of those winged beasts out into the thin, morning air. I had no sense of where this practice was going, of course. I had no idea what might happen next. In my bones this felt like the right thing to do, however. And this was exhilarating.


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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Both Beautiful and Dangerous

One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

Bruce Cockburn, ‘Lovers In A Dangerous Time’

The news brought a short-lived smile to my face. After months of high profile speculation, the Obama administration recently announced it was postponing any decision on the Keystone Pipeline until after 2012’s presidential election.

Keystone is a proposed link between northern Alberta’s tar sands and the refineries of south Texas. It is a 2,700 kilometer vein through which oil acquired via some of the most environmentally dubious practices on earth would flow. NASA scientist James Hansen has said this project’s approval would pretty much mean “game over” for global climate as we know it.

So a grin warmed my features when I read of the decision. ‘Not exactly a victory,’ I thought, ‘but something.’

As mentioned, however, this smile was short-lived. Only days later, a high-ranking member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government revealed Canada’s likely response to this delay. Keeping with Harper’s long-standing refusal to include climate change and environmental integrity in policy decisions, the official claimed our country would simply take its product elsewhere: across the northwest provinces via another pipeline, then onto tankers that would cruise the BC coast before setting for Asia.

The difficult news did not stop there. In that same paper I found an column entitled ‘The Point of No Return On Climate Change’. In this Iain Hunter writes, “There was a report last week that I thought would have received much greater attention than it did. The International Energy Agency said the tipping point for when climate change becomes irreversible will be upon us in five years...If by then,” Hunter continued, “the changes demanded by international agreement - for all countries developed and developing must be on board - are not starting to be effective, the dreaded 2C of warming that the scientists (warn we must avoid) will be unavoidable.”

It was late afternoon when I read this. By the time I put my daughter to bed that evening, I was heavy with implications. It is a painful thing, playing with one’s child while simultaneously fearing for her future - to laugh at her tickles whilst contemplating a world diminished by human folly, the world she will inherit. Laying side by side as she drifted toward sleep I forced my eyes open. I wanted to look at her for as long as I could, to hold her in this way. I longed to say something - “Sorry,” perhaps - but could not find an adequate voice. My sight blurred behind tears. I fell under a weighted slumber.

Years ago, when I was a student at Naropa Institute, one of my classes hosted a guest lecturer. He was a healer of some sort. His gift involved visions. He spoke passionately through the entire ninety minutes he was allotted. What I recall is this: “Our culture is speeding toward a cliff.” He may have repeated this several times. I know he said it forcefully. I know it had an impact.

I was riveted by his words. I didn’t understand them. I couldn’t really grasp what they were pointing toward. But they felt true. This admitted, however, I never imagined I would one day look at the world of my lifetime and see evidence of his assertion in so many places: vanishing species and rising chaos, life systems of water and earth and air struggling, human population spiraling upward while our collective denial continues. I certainly did not imagine seeing this would cause me so much pain. That I would lay beside a slumbering nine year old and feel my heart ache for her. Break for all the children like her. Cry for all the parents who wonder fearfully, ‘What will her/his life be like?’ Who fear for what their childrens’ lives are like.

Among many other things, I consider this aching, breaking, crying heart further proof of the gifts my daughter has brought into my life. “She is a force,” I have often said. This force has the power to pull me out of habitual smallness - no small feat - and insist I step into something far more open and vast.

Delight offers one example of this. Prior to her birth delight in my life was often doled out in careful, considered rations. It was as if I had a Central Committee in my being. This was a grey haired, stone-faced group that used humorless guidelines to determine what was appropriate enjoyment. Woody Allen movies, for instance, were okay; animation was not. Bob Dylan was acceptable; ABBA on the other hand? No way! I was, in this regard, like many an ideologue: stiff, stingy, and terribly restricted.

Such stiffness is hard to maintain sitting beside Samantha as she watches Glee or Ugly Betty. Her excitement spills into the room when the kids sing ‘Loser Like Me’ or Betty’s nephew re-enacts Hairspray. As the waters of her delight rise, I have a couple of options: erect ever higher walls in an effort to avoid drowning or just give in and swim. Having tried the former on many occasions and failed - her pleasure comes up way more quickly than my walls - I now just laugh at my stinginess and try to relax. When able to do this, I become a little more open. I find myself smiling like a blissful idiot through, of all things, a wonderful medley of Journey songs!

My ability to feel for others has also been enlarged by my daughter. I feel for her, of course. But also for other children, sometimes all children. And also for other parents. I am so grateful for this growth. I appreciate beyond words the human maturity it represents - the growing up, the growing period. I just never thought it would hurt so much, scare me so.

I recently read a book entitled Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr. Upwards considers the spirituality of one’s second half of life. This, Rohr asserts, is a hard won spirituality, a difficult wisdom characterized by passage through pain. My experience with Samantha certainly bears this out.

Experience also bears out a second characteristic Rohr ascribes to this phase of development: a shift from ‘either/or’ to ‘both/and’. This is a movement out of a way of being that is necessarily narrow and bounded, and into something broad enough to hold the inherent contradictions of life. When we are able to transition into its second half, Rohr observes - and not all of us are - life is lived on bigger terms than before. Not good or bad, black or white, but good and bad, black and white.

“Look at this, Dad!” That is Samantha yelling. It is the morning after the Harper government’s tar sands declaration. I am slumped over the kitchen table, my heart still sore and heavy. I want nothing more than to crawl back under covers and hide for a while. I don’t want to look at anything. “Dad!” she insists. “Dad! Look!”

She is at the far end of the living room, dancing all over the couch. Her body is moving in ways mine cannot anymore; her feet doing things mine were never capable of. As her features light up, her hair sprays wild in every direction. Behind her is a large window. Through this I can see a clear blue sky opening wide to the day. It is tinted a vulnerable hue of pink way off on the horizon.

I smile in spite of myself. A deep, warming smile. ‘My God,’ I think wandering to where I can better watch my daughter and welcome the breaking day. As it had the night before, my sight blurs as I look at this child, take in the world of which she is part. My breath is raw and shallow as I sit there. It is all so beautiful.


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