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How the Light Gets In

 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

–Leonard Cohen

It’s a truism that the very things we would wish away—our flaws, our misfortunes, our tragedies, even—are the very means of our growth, or (dare I say it) our enlightenment. It makes perfect sense that light gets in through the cracks, yet a bald statement of fact means little. How a truism becomes reality is through lived experience. This blog is an assortment of some of mine.

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The Default Mode

During the course of our daily lives the vast majority of us spend almost all of our time in what is called the Default Mode, activated by the Default Mode Network of the brain. It’s the DMN that gives us our very selves, constructed from memories of the past, observations during the present, and projections into the future.

This way of existing  is so utterly familiar that we don’t even notice it unless we are forced to pay attention—if, for example, we are overwhelmed by ruminating on something embarrassing we did, or on someone’s slighting us. Even then we have no idea what we’re doing or why, and are helpless to stop it. And so we thrash around with various attempts at an explanation (“I’m so stupid! Why did I do that?!” “That person is such a jerk! I hate her!”).  These thoughts may be painful, but they appear to point to a solution. If I’m stupid, maybe I can figure out a way to wise up, or if I can identify another person as a hateful jerk, maybe I can undermine them in some way.

We need the Default Mode Network to get through the day. It’s what keeps us on track, helps us know what to do next, and makes it possible for us to learn from our mistakes.  Alzheimer’s patients are progressively hampered in their functioning by the erosion of the DMN. Unfortunately, the DMN can drive us crazy when it is overstimulated. People suffering from depression have an overactive DMN. The symboliste poet Charles Baudelaire describes this condition in Spleen II from the Fleurs du Mal: “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais milles ans”—

I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.

A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets,
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads,
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts,
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain.
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon,
In which long worms crawl like remorse
And constantly harass my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

Even without running amok, the DMN is behind what causes ordinary dukkha, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I’ll give an example from this morning when I took the dog out for his first walk of the day. Just as I stepped out the door I was immediately struck by the warm, humid air and the breezes. “It feels like swimming,” I thought, as the dog urged me forward from the driveway to the sidewalk. There was something delicious about the breezes, about the way they caressed my neck and entire body, as well as the smells of vegetation and the sounds of the morning. I saw the leaves of the trees rustling gently in a delicate dance.

Meanwhile, my dog was sniffing along the walkway for information about what other dogs might have passed the house and when, adding his scent at strategic points. My mind began to wander, thinking about the day ahead, wondering what I would try to do with my time, and evaluating my level of physical energy. I stopped being aware of what was going on around me as I became absorbed by pictures in my head. I saw myself doing laundry, doing dishes, sitting in meditation. Imaginary conversations popped up.

Later, as I was digging up a few weeds, I began talking to some image of a younger person—maybe my childhood self?—about the kinds of weeds I was seeing. “That big sprawling grass is actually pretty easy to yank out, but the taproot thistles are the worst! And those smaller grasses have networks of roots, and if you break them off and leave a piece, they just come right back.” Maybe I wanted to share my knowledge with someone. I used to be a teacher, and had a young child once who is now 17 and doesn’t listen to anything I say. Who knows.

We live with stories about ourselves, some of them helpful, others not so much. Some are paralyzing. At different times in our lives, different stories capture our interest. Sometimes we go to therapy, where we can learn to identify disabling stories and substitute positive ones. When stories become dominant over a culture or subculture they can harden into ideologies or belief systems. The work of historians is to make sense out of data and turn it into a narrative, an explanation, an account.

These activities are our defense against chaos, but underlying the stories about who we are is a noise machine in the brain that we scarcely notice, spouting random thoughts and images without letup. I sometimes play a game of trying to trace back a chain of thought to its origin. The mind leapfrogs from one idea to another, based on associations, puns, or resemblances, beginning its journey with an input, something we see or hear that strikes our notice, and ending far, far, away. In the meantime the leaves are shimmering with a light breeze, and the body is alive with a play of sensations, and we aware of none of it.

In the Default Mode we sleepwalk through our life, dreaming our dreams while life goes on in and around us. The consequences of not paying attention can be tragic and deadly. The work of spiritual practice is to open our minds to awareness, to move us in the direction of waking up from our enchanted sleep.

Stuff

I need to take time out of my narrative and talk about something that is currently on my mind: the disposition of my parents’ stuff. This is something that I have been doing for years now, ever since my mother moved from Cape Cod to Minnesota eleven years ago. She had been a widow for four years at the time of her move. During the period between my father’s death and moving to be near my family, she rattled around alone in the home they’d made together following his retirement in 1980. Of all the places they’d lived throughout their married life, that last house was the one they’d had the longest.

They both experienced the Great Depression and poverty as children. My maternal grandmother, abandoned with two small children in the 1920s, kept the house she’d paid cash for and took in boarders. Neither child had their own bedroom, sleeping on sofas in the dining room or living room. There were days when they didn’t know what they’d have to eat. My paternal grandfather lost his job and was almost broken by it. My father mowed a golf course from sunup until sundown during the summer and either gave the money to his parents or saved it for college tuition. In college, he never had a spare dime for anything beyond the necessities of life.

By the time my own parents embarked on their life together, having enough and then some was important to them. Over the years they accumulated things and experiences, buying Persian rugs, fine china, and nice clothes, and travelling. They kept their frugal ways in their focus on getting a bargain for everything they bought, which gave them a sense of control, seeing it as beating the system. If something nice was on sale my mother would buy it in quantities far beyond what she could use, stockpiling for a rainy day. These habits persisted for as long as she kept her independence.

My father began showing signs of dementia by the time he was 80, and gradually faded over the next five years until he died. My mother cared for him in their home, only resorting to sending him to an adult day care program in his last year or so. While he was declining I noticed that magazines piled up on furniture all over the house, while unfolded laundry accumulated in the bedroom. In the basement there were more clothes and a lifetime’s worth of miscellaneous stuff, with a room off the main basement full of shelves loaded with canned goods. After my father’s death the clutter increased, not to the point of hoarding, but significant nonetheless.

During the four years in Massachusetts my mother spoke over and over of moving out to be with me but had trouble coming to a decision. She’d come out to our place and look at real estate and talk about moving only to change her mind. I became exasperated and let her know it, but it did no good; my mother needed to let her process unfold in its own time. Finally she announced out of the blue one day that she was coming. The wheels were then put in motion to stage her house for sale, secure a place for her here, and dispose of some of her things and move the rest.

What she wanted was a leisurely process of going through her beloved things and deciding where they would go. Some she would give away to select individuals, others to charity, and reluctantly, still others she would let go to the dump. Unfortunately she had no concept of the scope of the task, nor was she prepared to do what was necessary to complete it. In the spring of 2007 she hired someone at $50 an hour to help her pack, but over several months barely scratched the surface. Above all, she was consumed by the belief that wasting usable things was immoral. By summer, however, the clock was ticking. She had hired a realtor and now had a timetable for getting the place ready.

That summer when I travelled to see her with my husband and son I was also in denial. The moment of truth arrived when, on the last day of our visit, I finally went to see the realtor, who told me that I would have to stay on and tend to the process myself; my mother was completely incapable of doing it, and would die in that house long before it was completed. The realtor proposed getting a group of men and their trucks in to cart everything away en masse over a period of two or three days. Trying to take any but minimal furniture out to Minnesota was unrealistic, as was continuing to sift through things. This meant I had to confront my mother and take the fallout.

It was brutal, but it got done. My mother yelled at me, howled against the realtor, hated the men who did the moving, and railed against the waste that ensued. One evening there wasn’t adequate time to load everything on the trucks, so a lot of her stuff stayed outside on the back patio. This was a scandal to my mother, to see her old television sets and stereo equipment from the 1970s sitting out exposed to the elements. I felt torn between her feelings and the prodding of the realtor, between the cruelty of the process and what I had come to see as its necessity. Eventually the house was beautifully staged, it sold for a good price, and my mother moved out to Minnesota, along with what was still a massive load of stuff. It ended up in a pile of boxes in her new apartment. The story of how we got it unpacked and put away will have to wait for another day.

My First Retreat

Even for a brief period, say five minutes, meditation is difficult for a beginner. The first thing one notices is all the thoughts swirling around in the mind, not all of them pleasant. If the meditator makes an effort at placing the attention on the breath, frustration and self-criticism arise almost immediately. Pain in the body will inevitably follow, not only because of the classic seated meditation postures. As one teacher put it, “We could all be on BarcaLoungers and we’d still notice pain.” The longer the session, the more these things can plague us, until the timer goes off or we give up, whichever occurs first.

People can take two approaches: either build up their practice gradually, or jump in with both feet. It may be easier to get oneself on the cushion for a brief sit, but over the course of daily, frequent, and lengthy sits things will eventually start to settle down, and the meditator may experience a calm bordering on bliss. Gettting through the early stuff to what Kenneth Folk calls “escape velocity” is the key. It may be difficult to carve out the time to do this in daily life, especially when most people have jobs, families, and other obligations competing for their time and energy, and so for many people the solution will be to undertake a meditation retreat.

My first retreat was at a local, rural retreat center, where I went for a long weekend, Thursday evening to Sunday lunch. Retreat life is an opportunity to derail the preoccupations and assumptions of ordinary life with a view to focusing on practice. The type of retreat I attended was a structured retreat, with a daily schedule and rules for getting the most out it. I was enough of a rule-follower to obey the instructions to the letter. We arose early, began the day with an early sit, and then proceeded to breakfast. After breakfast there was a work period, followed by guided mediatation, led by the teacher. The rest of the morning and afternoon, broken by lunch and rest, consisted of alternated seated and walking practice.

Each day there was a group meeting, including about 12 people and the teacher. Each of us was allowed to ask a question or make a comment, after which the teacher would spend a few minutes giving remarks pertinent to what the retreatant had said. While there might be some give and take between the teacher and student, other group members were instructed to avoid responding, either verbally or through glances or body language. In the evening after supper there would be a dharma talk, with some time reserved for questions from the entire group. On the last day of the retreat the teacher left time for 10 to 15-minute individual meetings for whoever wished to sign up.

We observed Noble Silence from the ending of the introductory dharma talk until lunch on the final day. This meant that, apart from the scheduled meetings, there was no talking and very limited eye contact except for necessary communications (for example, at one retreat I left a message for the retreat director to ask people not to use the wood-burning fireplace because it was setting off my asthma). We were also discouraged from reading or even journaling, although there were some people who took notes during the dharma talks. The purpose of these directives was to minimize opportunities for distraction and turn attention inward.

I won’t mince words: it was damned difficult. My brain was like a squirrel in a cage a lot of the time; I waited all day for the group meeting, rehearsing endlessly what I would say, only to find that the opportunity for voicing any of these thoughts was next to nil. When I was sitting I waited for the chime to go off, at which point I’d be walking, waiting for the chime to go off. Music played in my head relentlessly, as well as imaginary conversations with people at home, or with the teacher. People I didn’t know drifted past me or sat next to me, and I’d surreptitiously glance at them, trying to get a sense of what kinds of people they were. I built up scenarios in my mind, developing responses of attraction or antipathy to them based on nothing at all.

On this particular retreat I practiced mindfulness of breathing, combined with awareness of the Five Hindrances: desire (I want to get up and have some lunch!), aversion (this pain in my back is killing me!), restlessness and worry (thinking, thinking, thinking), sloth and torpor (sleep), and skeptical doubt (why am I doing this?). I was aiming for a state called access concentration, where all of the hindrances finally settle and the mind is calm. Following access, there is a series of beautiful concentration states called jhanas that bring the mind more and more deeply into peace. Depending on the level of practice, a person can experience anywhere from light to extreme absorption.

My practice over the previous four months had been constant and focused enough that I had already experienced some of these things to a very modest degree. The retreat deepened the practice in spite of all the mind noise, and I was able to carry that momentum home with me afterward. Since that first retreat in the spring of 2011, going on retreat periodically has been a mainstay of my life, although retreat life continues to be a challenge: as the inner chatter and restlessness have diminished, other difficulties have arisen to take their place.

What makes retreat life difficult is the ego’s resistance to being set aside. In daily life, our ego reigns supreme, directing our activities, opinions, relationships, and self-image. On retreat, without its usual stage for strutting, the ego has a tantrum, played out entirely inside the mind. Underlying its agitation is the fundamental terror of annihilation and death. Even the beauty of the jhanas can’t quite compensate at first. It takes a long time even to access this terror, much less face it down.

 

 

I Get my Feet Wet

It’s hard to imagine that a woman of 57, which was my age when I began to meditate, would be in need of someone or something with ultimate authority to declare what is true and what is not, yet there I was. Daniel Ingram possessed superhuman authority as far as I was concerned. I attributed the same powers to Kenneth Folk, and to my local meditation teacher, who I assumed was as realized as the pragmatic dharma people. It thus caused me endless confusion and agitation to find them disagreeing on certain points, even more so when I found that Daniel’s online forum, the Dharma Overground, was in 2011 in the middle of a major dispute that split everyone into warring camps. Unfortunately, being a brawler myself, I jumped right in and called one poster a “groupie” for having an erotic dream about another teacher (she shot back that I was obviously sexually repressed). I finally flounced off in disgust and began posting on Kenneth Folk’s forum instead, only to find some of the same discussion going on over there.

Eventually everyone settled down and the dispute has now become about as relevant as a long-ago squabble among siblings. What I wanted at the time, though, was absolute assurance that the path I was on was right, and that there were obvious, discernible differences between the real deal and its fraudulent imitations. I also wanted the people in the know to be rock solid about everything. Over the years I have come to realize that all of us, authors and teachers included, are works in progress, engaged together in a learning process that is overwhelmingly social.

In the meantime, I began meditating, and posting about my sits. I began with concentration practice and stuck with it for about six months, until I turned to insight practice in June of 2011. These practices differ greatly in terms of their approach and effects. The aim of concentration is to focus on one object to the exclusion of anything else, in order to strengthen the mind and prepare it for insight. There are many possible objects that could work, but the main one is the breath. Some people focus on the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, while others follow the breath into the abdomen and out again. Focusing at the nostrils is the quickest route to becoming deeply concentrated, but because it places all of the energy in the head, the meditator can start feeling spaced-out, especially while on retreat.

Insight meditation is a different story. Its purpose is to break down the experience of the self in the world, and gain direct knowledge of the way the three characteristics permeate every single sensation. In Buddhist teaching there are six “sense doors”: the five that westerners recognize as sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, with the addition of thought. Thoughts are considered to be sensations just as are the flavor of chocolate or the sound of a bird. One form of insight practice involves focusing on any one of these senses, or on all of them, with a wide or a narrow focus. There is also something called vedana, translated as “feeling tone”, which can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. All sensations can be labeled as one of these three.

The three characteristics, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, apply to every single sensation one experiences, a well as to one’s conception of the whole. For example, a momentary thought (“I forgot to buy bread!”) is impermanent (it arises in the mind and then disappears), unsatisfactory (it brings no lasting happiness), and not me (maybe “I” forgot the bread, but the thought arises unbidden and does not define me). The same might be true of a visual sensation, even one’s face in a mirror, which is in fact a picture of a face. It flickers in and out of awareness, doesn’t satisfy (even if it is beautiful; seeing one’s beautiful face gives only a momentary jolt of good feelings), and is not me. All of life is the same. One’s relationship, for example, is never permanent—even if it is long-lasting, the dynamics change from moment to moment. No one can gain complete, lasting satisfaction from clinging to another person, and no one can ever specify what the self that clings is in concrete terms.

This last insight is the hardest of all to swallow. We want to be sure of who we are, and of who the people in our lives are. That is why we label ourselves and others, and attribute to them qualities that are good, bad, or indifferent to us. When I was younger I became obsessed for a time with defining my “type,” according to the fashions of the times. Was I a romantic type? A classic type? And what clothes were best for my figure? What colors best complimented my skin and hair? Beyond the obvious goal of making myself as attractive as possible, I wanted to know who and what I was. The fascination with planning thoughts is another way of solidifying the self. If I can specify to the minute what I’ll be doing over the course of a day, I will know what I am. If I know my body chemistry, my ideal eating routines, my best times for going to bed at night and getting up in the morning, than I will know who I am.

Insight meditation dismantles the comfortable world we keep trying to build for ourselves, over and over again. When done skillfully with high concentration, it can be disorienting in the extreme. I know this is not a good selling point for doing such practice, but the truth is, most people arrive at a determination to do it only after everything else they’ve tried has failed.

 

 

The Three Trainings: Morality

This would be a good time for me to discuss what goes into Buddhist practice. There are three specific trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom (often called insight). All three are necessary for a balanced practice.

The first, morality (sila), is what keeps a yogi on the straight and narrow. It is encompassed by the eight precepts, which for most householders (anyone who is not a monk or nun) are limited to the first five. They are as follows:

  1. Non-harming. This one is often interpreted as a prohibition against eating meat, although not all Buddhists are vegetarians. I have noticed, however, that retreat centers all serve vegetarian meals, and many are focusing on vegan food. In general, though, the non-harming precept can be understood as not engaging in violence toward other living things. I have been less likely to kill insects or rodents since becoming a Buddhist, for example, and I am in a Facebook group called People Against the Unnecessary Killing of Reptiles. When my neighbor told me she had beaten a nest of garter snakes to death with a shovel I was horrified. I also believe that limiting or eliminating meat from one’s diet is a good thing to do if at all possible.
  2. The second precept forbids a yogi to take what is not offered. Roughly, this encompasses stealing, but can also be understood as avoiding such conduct as cheating on income taxes, dating someone in a committed relationship, failing to return something one has borrowed (I’m guilty of that one), or otherwise helping oneself to things that belong either to someone else or to the community. Some of my colleagues would grap handfuls of items from the office’s supply cabinet far beyond what they needed for their work. Other people get greedy around food, especially in an office setting (guilty!).
  3. The third precept rules against engaging in sexual misconduct. For monks this means celibacy, whereas for householders there are a number of possible interpretations. Traditionally, it has meant avoiding sex outside of marriage. Today, people could regard sexual misconduct as any kind of sex that is nonconsensual, a failure to respect other people’s boundaries, or a lack of honesty in sexual relationships. Taking responsibility for one’s health and safety and that of others is part of this precept as well. Finally, avoiding sexual contact in relationships where there is a power differential is vitally important: mentors, employers, managers, and teachers must not take advantage of their power over others. Unfortunately, many scandals in the Buddhist world have had to do with violating this precept.
  4. Next is the precept of right speech. First and foremost this precept forbids lying, although I expect that extreme circumstances such as lying to Nazis about hiding Jews would be an exception. However, in ordinary life, lying to take advantage in a situation or even to save oneself embarrassment is forbidden. Even lying to avoid hurting someone (for example, denying one has had an affair) is contrary to right speech, although it is up to individuals to figure out the particulars. What about white lies, such as admiring a friend’s new haircut when you hate it? Probably it’s best to refrain tactfully from being too enthusiastic, although with practice you can figure out how to give warm feedback without lying: “It’s so much fun to try out new things!” This precept also demands we avoid gossip, harsh speech, hurtful speech, or even unnecessary speech. A person could talk a bit about the weather with someone, but it’s best not to waste hours in idle talk.
  5. The fifth precept admonishes against consuming intoxicating drugs or alcohol that lead to carelessness. Among other things, it’s difficult to practice when one is high or drunk. I have found that even a single glass of wine takes the edge off my ability to focus. Can a good Buddhist have a beer with friends? Traditionally the answer would be no, but many modern Buddhists see no harm in a drink now and then, or the occasional use of marijuana. It all depends on how it affects an individual. Many people arrive in pragmatic dharma circles having had experience with psychedelic substances, and some continue to experiment with them, often in the context of scientific studies. For these individuals, taking such drugs responsibly includes careful attention to context and setting.
  6. With the sixth precept, we arrive at the group of three that apply especially to people in monastic settings. The sixth involves training oneself to avoid eating after 12:00 noon. Some people on retreat voluntarily undertake this precept, while others can honor it by not eating in between meals and having only a light supper for the evening meal. I have always wondered how anyone could manage to stop eating at noon, but a monk I spoke to about it told me that people get adjusted to it. Occasionally at my local meditation center we will take visiting monks out to lunch after a Sunday dharma talk, and I have noticed them loading up their plates at the buffet several times. I guess that’s how people adjust to it, considering that we all need a certain amount of fuel to get through the day!
  7. The seventh precept enjoins monks and nuns from dancing, singing, or indulging in entertainment; wearing perfume, jewelry, or cosmetics; or adorning the body with garlands. Lay practitioners might choose to dress modestly and simply, and minimize distractions such as TV shows, movies, novels, parties, and the like. It all sounds extremely dreary, but on the other hand there is something to be said for keeping one’s mind from getting inundated with mental noise day in and day out. I know that fussing about my hair or my wardrobe takes energy and creates agitation. I also know that it is extremely easy to get completely caught up in the lives of imaginary people and the actors who portray them, and that such entertainments can take up significant real estate in my head.
  8. Finally, the eighth precept forbids lying on luxurious or high sleeping places, or sitting on high or ornate chairs. The Buddha was especially concerned with two things: first, that monks and nuns not place themselves above others in status; and second, that they not indulge in luxury. While this precept applies to people in monastic life, a householder today might think in terms of living simply as a way of minimizing the stress of maintaining many possessions. Similarly, laypeople can find that opting out of the competition for status is a component of a more satisfying life.

So those are the precepts. Morality goes hand-in-hand with the two other trainings, concentration and insight (wisdom), which I’ll write about later.

Pragmatic Dharma

I realize now that this blog is in danger of turning into a cliché about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, how it changed my life, and how you, too should try this wonderful technique. I apologize to those for whom this is true, but that’s not what this blog is about. For example, in many respects I am still the same silly, dysfunctional human I’ve always been, with the emphasis on human. I am not any more productive now than I was before; in fact, I’m now much less productive, although that has nothing to do with meditation. I am still distractable, I still get anxious, I still get depressed. I haven’t tried playing the violin in several years, but at the time that I stopped I was still unable to perform in public. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed, enough so that I look on my life as a story about before and after. The “before” person is becoming less and less visible to me as time passes, although I can talk about her story when I put my mind to it (granted that there is no one definable person on either side of the turning point). The “after” person has been meditating, engaging in online discussion forums, reading dharma books, attending retreats, and generally being Buddhist-y in an unobtrusive way. She’s also been binge-watching TV series (loved “The Americans” with all the sex and violence), killing time on Facebook and Twitter, obsessing over the news, and fussing about all her self-sabotaging ways.

There is also the difficulty that the Laurel I have described to you so far is a bit of a tormented soul, not to mention quite the drama queen (remember, I have diagnosed myself as an aversive type). I told my history to the lead teacher on one of my retreats years ago and he said, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a sad life.” I was taken aback, because I really didn’t recognize myself in that description. Later on while meditating I entered a deep concentration state, and had the equivalent of a lucid dream of myself as a 4-year-old child, dancing to a pensive piano tune. I felt the embrace of love surrounding me, knowing that my parents adored me and that I was safe. No, I cannot say I’ve had a sad life, even if I did grow up to become aversive and an occasional drama queen. Nor is this description of myself meant to be self-denigrating or a disarming tactic. We are all of us dealing with our stuff in our own way, and my way tends to be what you see here.

I must return, however, to myself at my turning point, wringing my hands and crying over my failure to overcome my stage fright. I had been reading Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (MCTB for short), and at that moment of despair I resolved to take on a dedicated meditation practice. The book I’d been reading is the foundational text for an approach that is called pragmatic dharma, and so we must turn to that phenomenon and get a sense of what it is about.

Its first overriding feature is that it is goal-directed, and the goal is transforming insight, awakening, enlightenment. The term “enlightenment” is so loaded that I hesitate to use it at all. People attach all sorts of mythology to this term; in addition there’s the problem that if you put three dharma teachers in a room and ask them what enlightenment is, you’ll get more than three answers, along with a lot of hemming, hawing, and “I don’t knows.” The leading teachers in the pragmatic corner of the spiritual marketplace don’t even all agree about what the goal is or how exactly to approach it, although certain contours emerge.

There is, along with goal-directedness, the belief that old, traditional teachings are useful only insofar as they contribute to progress. If a certain meditation technique or belief produces results then it’s fine, but if it creates confusion, blind alleys, or even serious misbehavior on the part of esteemed teachers (all too common, unfortunately), then it must be subject to rigorous criticism. Typically, the approaches that lead to abuse are anything that elevates the teacher to the position of a godlike guru whom students feel they must obey if they wish to progress. “Crazy wisdom” is one such approach: the suggestion that beyond a certain level of attainment, a person no longer has to observe normal moral standards. Rigidly hierarchical structures amplify this effect.

Most traditional Buddhist centers in the east and the west emphasize secrecy in discussing stages of insight and other attainments. Pragmatic dharma by contrast endorses openness, public discussion, and feedback from many sources. There are dangers in doing this, chief of which are competitiveness and grandiosity. Another problem is the real potential for embarrassment when a claim to an attainment proves premature. Still, the benefits outweigh these disadvantages. People learn that awakening is possible, and get to see how others are doing it. They also are inspired by the feedback loop that keeps their practice front and center. Being in close companionship with others who are doing the same is a wonderful motivator.

This companionship exists mostly on online discussion forums, but over the years there have been opportunities for people to meet at conferences and get-togethers. In addition, Buddhist and other meditators have participated in scientific studies regarding the effects of certain kinds of meditation practices on the brain. The wealth of information now available to anyone with access to the Internet has exploded just in the 7+ years I’ve been practicing. The irony is that none of these developments would be possible without the much-maligned Internet, the very medium that has been such a source of distraction to me and others for so many years.

Turning Point

My commitment to a meditation practice came about as a response to my stage fright, oddly enough. After I left graduate school I had stopped playing the violin entirely, and didn’t pick it up again for a couple of decades. I was just too busy, and besides, I did not need any more stress in my life than I already had. Eventually, though, I hauled the instrument out of a closet, sent it out for repairs, and tuned up the strings.

I was miserably out of shape, but after giving it some regular, gentle practice I was surprised to find at least some of my technique beginning to return. My husband suggested a simple piece for me to play during the prelude in church. People have a tendency to catch up with their friends during this time, which helped keep the nerves at bay, but they perked up and listened to me that first time because no one had had the faintest idea that I could even play.

I had no idea how it would go. I touched the bow to the strings, and within seconds realized that I was shaking. I worked with the situation, let things gel a bit, and carried on. After the fact I had reason to feel encouraged: after all, I hadn’t played in public in many years, and now I had actually done it. My listeners were amazed and impressed, and so I decided that I would make a point of acclimating myself to performing. I recalled my fear when I first tried singing solos, as well as my nerves teaching classes. Repeated exposure worked in those cases, I reasoned, so repeated experience playing in this low-stakes setting should have the same effect.

Over the years that followed I played church services, I joined the local orchestra, and I even played for a couple of weddings. I became part of a flute, violin, and piano ensemble at church that performed for less formal services once a month. I learned new music, becoming acquainted with the organ and violin repertoire (not large, but wonderful). What I found was that again and again, I would improve to the point that it seemed my nerves were almost gone, only to have them come roaring back the next time I tried to play. Obviously, the violin was nothing like singing or lecturing for me.

Then I hit on another possible solution: I would try the viola. I thought that a new instrument with which I had no fraught history would trick my brain into thinking that I could make mistakes without shame. I learned a new clef, a new arrangement of strings, and a new, longer fingerboard. I congratulated myself that I was improving brain function by forcing myself to undertake something challenging in middle age. Unfortunately, though, the instrument was in essential respects the same as the violin, with all the same liabilities.

By the time I began playing viola I had begun taking beta blockers for my nerves. At first they seemed to be the answer to all my prayers, until they stopped working. I increased the dosage and the pattern repeated. I realized that continuing on that path was dangerous, so I settled on a dosage that seemed reasonably effective and stuck with it. Playing with the pills became my new baseline, following the same pattern as playing without them had been in the past.

At Christmas time in 2010, I played a nice little romantic piece on the viola in a small church service and felt good. The very next time I played, however, I forgot to take my pills. Maybe I was subconsciously feeling sufficiently confident that I thought I wouldn’t need them; who’s to say? I was doing the slow movement to a Brahms sonata, an exquisitely beautiful piece, but from the outset everything fell apart. I was completely blindsided, then frantic, then plunging ahead just trying to contain the damage. Afterwards I felt a toxic mixture of shame, bitter failure, frustration and grief. I retreated to a room in the church basement where I paced the floor, wringing my hands and crying, and then I thought of Daniel Ingram’s book. I thought, why not try it? What do I have to lose? And so I resolved then and there to undertake a meditation practice.