Late Winter Blues

I got depressed a few weeks ago. Off-and-on depression is a familiar experience for me, but this one was especially nasty, on a par with the grief I felt when my mother died. I was thoroughly blindsided, and felt helpless to pull myself out of it.

Right up until that time, I’d been on a bit of a roller coaster emotionally, but I’d been meditating a lot and was on the whole doing well. Then: bam! I got sucked down into the vortex. There was a trigger, which I won’t go into, but it became a source of desperate fascination for me. Meanwhile, in my daily life I was experiencing a lack of the kinds of experiences that help to produce good feelings. The weather was awful, with a grey sky, rain and snow, and worst of all, ice that made walking the dog a treacherous gauntlet. Even worse, my sleep took a nosedive.

After surgery on my right shoulder in January I still had lots of pain, plus I had developed a case of bursitis in my left shoulder that felt even worse than the one that had been cut open. My ability to do the simplest tasks was severely limited. For awhile I had been enjoying scented candles, which provided sensory pleasure that offset some of the physical nastiness, but then I developed a cough and had to give them up. My brain was foggy enough that I couldn’t read anything even remotely challenging.

Then there was the troubling acknowledgment that I needed to stop taking opioids, now that I was over six weeks out from my shoulder surgery. I can’t say that the pills reduced the pain all that much after the initial week, nor did they provide reliable sleep, but they did make me feel good all over. When I reluctantly gave them up, I discovered that I had become dependent on them, maybe even mildly addicted. Suddenly my nerves became a source of jangly noise in my head and my entire body felt miserable. When I tried to meditate I felt like jumping out of my skin, so I stopped sitting entirely. Prior to this experience I had looked on opioids as an occasional respite from pain. I had an ongoing prescription for times when my fibromyalgia pain got to be too much, which I took at the rate of about three times a week. The result was a welcome feeling of euphoria. Now that was gone, and my own brain chemistry was exposed in all its deficiencies.

The result was overwhelming. I felt as if I had become plugged in to all the sadness and melancholy of the universe. I cried a lot, feverishly struggled to find answers, and dove into distractions. In daily life I could barely function; could barely manage to get dressed and make the bed in the morning or make a cup of tea. My poor dog stayed at my side throughout, but I felt no comfort from his presence out of guilt over how little I could respond to him.

People who knew about this implored me to get therapy, but I didn’t have the energy to pick up the phone and make an appointment. There was nothing I could do by way of self-help either. Throughout this time, I was bedeviled by a painful question: why am I still here? Why am I even alive? My mother’s death of two years ago hung over my head like a cloud of unknowing. She was 97 and had dementia, so at the level of all reason it was more than time for her to go, but her death made me an orphan, a motherless and fatherless child, and at 63 years of age I couldn’t make sense of myself with no parents to mirror myself back to me.

It is impossible to describe this feeling to anyone who hasn’t been through it. I have been a practicing Buddhist for almost 10 years; before that I was a liberal-minded Christian for about 30, yet in the condition of existential despair absolutely nothing made sense. There is nowhere for the logical mind to go under such circumstances, no verbal formula to pull oneself out. The trigger for this recent bout of depression involved another person’s death from years ago. I remember thinking, how can a person be here in the world, making an impact, and then be irretrievably gone? It’s not as if I haven’t understood the teaching on impermanence, nor am I unacquainted with the facts of life and its inevitable end. Yet at certain times, this time being the most recent, death presents itself as an impossible enigma. How can this person, that person be gone and I still be here? And what am I even here for?

The conventional wisdom is to get a person out of this dangerous place as quickly as possible, to return them to ordinary life and functioning. But as I look back on it, I recognize that my time in the wilderness was itself a form of wisdom, a doorway, a point of disclosure. Religions offer among other things a means of making sense of death, but no one ever really makes “sense” of it because death, either the prospect of one’s own or coping with someone else’s, is beyond sense. At the point of someone’s death, even the death of a pet, there is a tear in the fabric of our universe that leaves an aperture into the unknown. For a time we are suspended in this radical uncertainty, until the tear closes up and we begin to inhabit a new universe without the missing piece, in its place memories and stories that give comfort. Of course my mother is gone, my father is gone, and all of this was bound to happen unless something worse were to happen and I were to die first. Of course I will die some day, and here’s hoping it’s not before my time and I leave no loose ends. Life goes on, people move on, adult or even minor children readjust, spouses remarry, friends mourn and then resume their social and work lives in new formations. And all the while, under our feet there is the abyss, which can swallow us without warning when we find ourselves undefended.

On Boredom

For many or even most people, boredom is an evil to be avoided at all costs. Young children wail, “I’m bored!” at their parents, expecting them to drop everything and provide them with entertainment. During my years as a college teacher, I knew that the worst thing I could do was conduct boring classes. Students want to feel “passionate” about their work, and resent anything that is repetitious or empty of the kind of content that can engage them personally. When they leave school, they want to move into exciting and meaningful careers. Older people encounter midlife crises, which are above all else a rebellion against sameness, routine, and boredom. They quit their jobs, leave their marriages, and reinvent themselves in the hopes of reigniting that same passion their younger selves expected out of life. And finally, retirees face the challenge of finding activities that can fill the otherwise vast emptiness of their days.

These are all ordinary, middle-class people who seek entertainment, excitement, and meaning at every point of the life cycle. People who fall outside of that demographic, people who are unemployed or stuck in jobs that offer no intrinsic value, not to mention people who suffer from the kinds of illnesses or disabilities that make it impossible to work full time, face even more acutely the challenge of boredom. For many of them, the poet Mary Oliver’s famous question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” appears as nothing more than a mockery of their situation. People without options can neither plan nor do.

With so much at stake, it pays to ask ourselves what boredom really is. Buddhist teaching treats it as a form of aversion, alongside the more vivid manifestations of hunger and thirst, pain, terror, and hatred. At first glance it appears not even to be that powerful of an aversion. It’s obvious that being tortured is far worse than sitting through a monotonous lecture on the structure of the Cluniac order of monks, or being forced to endure an afternoon visiting one’s elderly great-aunt. Yet boredom can be as deadly as outwardly worse afflictions if it hardens into depression. Ordinary, prosperous people whose lives lack variety, interest, and meaning, and whose relationships with others are characterized by superficialities and one-sided obligations, can be driven to despair if there seems to be no escape.

If we pay attention to it rather than push it away, we can discover that boredom manifests in the body in recognizable ways. For me there’s a dull headache, probably from tensing up the jaw and neck in frustration. There is also a weird metallic taste in the mouth, as if boredom were something I would like to spit out. Finally, while we tend to think of boredom as putting us to sleep, its initial effect is agitation, as the mind casts about for anything at all that can relieve the tedium. When we eventually fail, we fall asleep as a way of getting away from it.

Boredom is so hateful that most people actively prefer emotions that would otherwise be considered painful, such as anger or even fear. Talk radio or just ordinary news broadcasts are appealing because they stimulate these feelings, as does watching violent entertainment. People become embroiled in long-standing feuds with coworkers, family members, or former friends and claim that their adversaries are making them miserable, yet they can’t disengage. If they were completely honest with themselves they’d have to admit how seductive these unresolvable conflicts are. Long gossip sessions with allies are deeply satisfying; unfortunately without the common enemy the satisfaction would dry up at its source.

What is it about boredom that makes it so awful? To begin with, boredom is not just a lack of stimulation, but rather a form of suffering, which includes resistance to a situation. Furthermore, what provokes it varies according to individual taste. What one person might find hopelessly boring—the lecture on monasticism or the company of the great-aunt—another might find interesting and valuable; some people love loud parties, while others might find them miserably boring. In any case, however, a person could choose to let go of expectations and allow the experience to unfold in whatever way it does, without suffering. Yet simply deciding to do this is next to impossible for most people. We need to go deeper.

To unlock the secret of boredom, we need first of all to look at the resistance. Part of the frustration of a boring situation is that it is beyond our ability to control. We can’t just get up and run out of the room, or find something more interesting to do. We are stranded, robbed of agency, powerless. This is a more serious threat to well-being than simply not having enough to do; in fact, being powerless is a threat to our very survival.

Even worse, a loss of agency in an unstimulating environment offers an unwelcome window onto a truth that we do not want to face: the fact that we are hurtling through time to an unknown end; that as sure as we are born we are going to die, and when we do, we will no longer have power over anything. Our relentless activity and stimulation allow us to forget about this fact, or else they give us the illusion that we are doing something either useful or pleasurable with however much time we are given. Even spending hours mindlessly surfing the internet can keep such demons at bay, until we look up from our obsession hours later and realize we have lost an afternoon.

These kinds of escape-hatches are ultimately unsatisfying because they must end sooner or later, leaving us feeling empty and unhappy with ourselves. It’s not that there is no point ever in watching a video or reading the news, but doing so over and over as a way of killing time is a recipe for depression. Even the satisfaction of a task well done is limited by the fact that as the moment passes, we are left where we were before. But if these approaches all fail us in the long run, what are we to do?

One of the most satisfying experiences people can have is a flow state. People experience flow when they are creating something, exercising their talents, out in nature, jumping out of an airplane, or skiing, depending on their inclinations. People love the activities associated with flow states, and seek them out. But what if you could be in a flow state regardless of what you were doing—what if you could get flow just watching paint dry? What if a lot of people could do that? Talk radio hosts would be out of a job, while gossip would be reduced. There would be far fewer blog posts to read (such as this one!), or “likes” on Facebook, or videos to watch.

In order for that to happen, people would have to confront the aversive state of boredom, examine it, and allow it to unfold. They would have to sit with things as they are, not as they’d like them to be, watching sensations as they rise and pass away, allowing the quiet and the inactivity to continue. Along with bodily sensations, thoughts would come and go, some of them pleasant and seductive, others of them distinctly unpleasant. This is insight meditation, and it is no easy thing. Beginners find themselves practically climbing the walls as the mind struggles to stave off boredom until it suddenly turns quiet and goes to sleep. Even experienced meditators will have sits in which they feel an overwhelming urge to get up and run out of the room! The difference is that over a long time and with experience, a meditator learns to work with these phenomena without reacting and without resistance–most of the time.

The long-term effects are an ability to watch paint dry without boredom, among other things. Every moment, without exception, is a banquet of experience that a person can observe and investigate. Even deeply unpleasant experiences can be allowed to be as they are. Our most painful and difficult emotions become accessible in a way that allows them to do their work and then dissipate. We would lose our fear of being stranded with nothing to do.

This is an ideal that is not easy to realize, but even steps in the direction of such realization can greatly alleviate the suffering of boredom. As we begin to take those steps, we learn to know ourselves in a way that allows us to feel compassion rather than impatience and condemnation. There is no single experience, even repeated regularly, that can compare with the benefit of knowing that at every moment, what is given is just enough.

On Sadness for Loved Ones

Okay, I’ll come out and say it: my soon-to-be eighteen-year-old son has a substance abuse problem. At this point it’s primarily alcohol. I am grieving.

I have learned from my early life with two autistic brothers that the sadness one has for oneself is a piece of cake compared to sadness for the pain of loved ones. I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, the archetype of all such grief, and not meaning to be melodramatic or anything, I’d so much rather be up on that cross myself. “There is a crack in everything—“ yes, and one of the hardest is watching the child I love flounder with the kind of thing I know all too well is far more powerful than his youthful self can understand.

There’s the rebuttal that most kids drink at some point or experiment with drugs, and that I’m overreacting. Maybe so, or maybe this situation is more serious than most, apart from the fact that what other kids do and what one’s own kid does are experienced as entirely different things. What I myself have done and what my child is doing are also different things. I remember that I abused alcohol when I was young, and in the process endangered and even harmed myself. My parents were lucky not to have known about most of it. I turned out “all right,” although the things that prompted me to do it haunted me for years and many of them haunt me to this day. Still, in my own case, I have a sense of ownership over my actions and their consequences, however illusory. In the case of my loved one, all I can do is stand helplessly by, after having taken the necessary steps as recommended by the wisdom of whatever experts weigh in.

The Buddha says this kind of suffering is brought on by attachment. Like all suffering, it is governed by the equation Suffering = pain + resistance. I want things to be different. I want the path before my child’s feet to be smooth and easy, at least for the time being while he is still young and not fully formed, even though I know that this wish is impossible. I am attached to him and to outcomes I wish for him. Does knowing this help? Yes and no. In the thick of it, the suffering is still there.

The Buddha also teaches that to end suffering one must give up all attachments. Is this possible, or even desirable? Let’s look at it closely. My suffering does not help my son. He does not want to see it, to have to deal with it in any way. His problem is his own. So one thing I can do for him is keep my tears to myself as much as possible, establish boundaries with him, talk to him as necessary about our expectations as a part of this household, make resources for recovery available to him, and then demonstrate that I trust him to work things out for himself.

When I was his age, my mother and I were almost literally at each other’s throats. She made it clear that I had disappointed her, and that she took it personally. I got the “I carried you in my body for nine months” speech, which in my son’s case I could amend to “Your father and I traveled across the world to get you” speech. It had the effect of pushing me away and causing me to act out more recklessly than I otherwise would have done. What creates the hardship for the child, or any beloved person, is the parent’s message that the child’s life is not their own, that they will always belong to the parent more than to themselves. No free being can tolerate such a thing.

And so I realize that letting go of attachment is not the same thing as ceasing to love someone; in fact, it’s the opposite. My son has his work cut out for him, while I have mine. I cannot take his work on myself, nor should I attempt to pile my own work on him. That is all.

 

Update and Dharma Talk

Hello, everyone:

My life blew up in my face around four months ago, and I’ve been thrown off my writing ever since. I don’t want to go into details out of concern for others’ privacy, but will simply resume posting, beginning with a dharma talk I gave yesterday at the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center on the Three Characteristics. May it be to the benefit of all beings.

The Three Characteristics

One of the foundational teachings of Buddhism is that there are three characteristics that are integral to absolutely everything we experience. These are dukkha (which is often translated as suffering, but perhaps better as unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self or not-self). Thus all of lived experience in this world is unsatisfactory, impermanent, and devoid of a solid, enduring self.
Now we can understand each of these characteristics at two levels. First, there is a mundane or everyday sense, which everyone can relate to without special training. In addition, there is a more refined or supra-mundane sense, which we begin to experience when we train our minds through meditation practice. I will begin by describing each of the three characteristics in the everyday sense.

Dukkha

Dukkha, translated usually as suffering, is something all of us can understand easily. Everyone without exception encounters the ills life has to offer, although for some it seems that bad fortune is worse than for others. Woody Allen’s character in “Annie Hall” addresses this phenomenon in a famous scene:

I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.

Obviously, people with certain disabilities might beg to differ with his characterization of their lives as horrible, yet his point is that ordinary life is not happy, but miserable. People suffering famine, genocide, torture, and war are obviously in a different situation than those of us in the western white middle classes, and yet even our fortunate lives are subject to the kinds of suffering that render us miserable. If we die young, there is a sense of unfulfilled potential and tragedy, while if we live to be old, we watch our friends, acquaintances, and family members die. Losing a parent is traumatic, no matter how old or how sick, while losing a child is devastating. In the lottery of life, those of us who escape losing our parents by default die young enough for our parents to outlive us.

Yet even taking these things into account, we might look around us and be tempted to conclude that some people seem to have all the luck. They grow up in relatively uncomplicated, prosperous families, get into the best schools, enjoy robust health and good looks, marry well, and have good-looking, healthy, accomplished, and loving children. Everything they touch seems to turn to gold. Yet even these individuals are subject to sickness, old age, and death. In the Upajjhatthana Sutta the Buddha offers five recollections to keep us mindful of these things:

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds (karma) are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my karma. My karma is the ground on which I stand.

Knowing the very conditions of our existence, we begin to recognize that there is no basis for envy or resentment of anyone. All of us are in the same boat, even those who enjoy better seats on the boat. When we embrace this knowledge fully we can open up to unconditional love, compassion for the suffering of others and ourselves, and the experience of joy in the joy and good fortune of others. The painful sense of separation between self and others begins to dissolve.

Anicca

The inevitability of old age, sickness, and death is central to the characteristic of impermanence in the mundane sense. We all experience changes throughout our lives, some of them longed-for (for example, New Year’s resolutions, which are all about desired change), but others deplored. When we are children we look forward to growing up and having the power and autonomy we assume our parents have. When we are young adults we take our strength and beauty for granted, but desire the money and status that older people seem to enjoy. As we age we undergo change, noticing our flagging energy, grey hairs, and weight gain. It gets more difficult to undertake what at one time we could do with ease. Many of us marry, start families, and watch our children go through the changes we remember from our own youth.

Circumstances around us change as well. Older people often deplore these changes, looking back to the good old days when we imagine things were better. Life was simpler back in the old days, we didn’t have all of today’s modern conveniences and electronic gadgets but we knew how to have our own fun, people used to look out for one another unlike the impersonal society around us today, and so on. Change, in fact, is at the root of a lot of life’s unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha.

Our children grow up and move away, leaving us with empty nests and a sense of bewilderment over where it all went. Family members die and we find ourselves missing them at certain times of the year, especially the holidays. The jobs we once enjoyed no longer give us the same satisfaction they once did, as a new boss or a new policy takes over. Many jobs disappear altogether, never to return, taking with them our identities and our sense of purpose and community. At no point can we rely on anything to remain the same for as long as we’d like.

Even desired changes are unreliable. People who win the lottery or lose significant amounts of weight, for example, often find that they are no happier than they were before. New problems take over where old ones leave off. When Obama was elected in 2008, I thought a new age of enlightened government had dawned, only to find myself horrified by the way he was treated by the opposition. Those of us who now anticipate a happier 2019 with a Democratic majority in the House will doubtless find ourselves frustrated by the limits of positive change—although don’t get me wrong, I am one of the hopeful ones. For every chance to make things better, however, the realities of life remain.

None of this means that we shouldn’t celebrate the good things of this world and work to remedy the bad things, or that we give up taking care of ourselves and others. What we want to cultivate is the equanimity to face the inevitable ebb and flow of life with as much courage and awareness as we can muster.

Anatta

I’ve observed a lot of arguments over the best translation for this characteristic: is it no-self, or not-self, or even non-self? The question is hard to resolve, because the first syllable is a negation of what follows, atta, or in Sanskrit, atman, meaning self or soul. Some say that what is being negated is not any and all selfhood, but a stable, abiding self, while others see the negation as total. We can look to the Buddha’s teachings in the Suttas for some clarification, beginning with the Anatta-lakhanna Sutta. He describes to his monks a series of attributes to which we might attach a sense of an enduring self: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. The problem is that none of these are within a person’s control. The Buddha then asks his monks the same series of questions for each attribute:

What do you think of this, O monks? Is form permanent or impermanent?”
“Impermanent, O Lord.”
“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”
“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”
“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”
“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

For those of us trying to grasp what this means for our lives, it might be helpful to consider that nothing, from our bodies to our thoughts, is personal. When someone insults us, it’s not personal. When it’s cold outside, it’s not personal. When we’re in a bad mood, it’s not personal. I invite you to fill in the blanks in any way you choose. Anger, hurt feelings, the answer to a problem, the determination to begin a task may all arise, but none of it is you, me, or us. We recognize this fact when we begin to observe closely. Addiction is a good example: at some point, at some time, triggered by whatever, the addict has had enough, and recovery begins. Fear descends on us unasked for, and then withdraws. Sexual desire appears and then disappears. We begin a project with a plan for how it will go, and find ourselves looking at something quite different at completion.

The changes occurring in the course of our lives give the lie to any sense of a separate, enduring Self. I may continue to exhibit qualities that were in evidence when I was a child, but these qualities do not in themselves constitute a self. Even the “I” pronoun with which I am making all these observations is merely a convention. To quote George Harrison, “and life goes on within you and without you.”

As this characteristic becomes clearer to us, we suffer less. We do not respond with hurt feelings or with defensive anger in the way we once did. Working to hold ourselves together is, according to the Buddha, the true basis for dukkha. We open ourselves to the Divine Abidings of unconditional love for all living things, compassion for all suffering, joy in every good thing, and equanimity in all circumstances when we finally see through the illusion of Self.

The Supramundane

It is time now to move on to the less obvious ways of understanding the three characteristics. But before I begin to discuss them at the level of the supramundane, I wish to point out that the mundane is by no means trivial or even inferior to the supramundane. Understanding the three characteristics as we live in this world is foundational to our ethical behavior. Still, with vipassana, or insight (“clear seeing”), we can put our experience under a powerful microscope. The microscope is our minds, highly trained by practice. When we do this, the lessons penetrate to a deeper level of understanding, and have the ability to transform the way we experience the world.

There are countless approaches to practice, and unfortunately, practitioners often argue vigorously over which is the right or best one. Even yogis at high levels of attainment can get attached to the path they were taught, the path that brought them their attainments. None of this means that the rest of us must throw up our hands and conclude there’s no way of knowing what to think. I have my own set of criteria for effective practice, which I’ll outline here.

  1. First, a good practice is effective in bringing insight. Now I recognize that many meditators are not interested in acquiring a microscope, and I honor that choice. Most people in our culture these days are trying to find relief from the stresses in their lives (stress being another translation for dukkha), and a meditation practice helps them find a measure of peace and balance. But for people seeking a more advanced level of insight, a practice should help them do that. Some practices are particularly powerful, but since this is a talk about the three characteristics and not about practice per se, I won’t go into the nuts and bolts here.
  2. Second, a good practice is balanced. Imbalance can lead to negative personal side effects, all the way to the horrifying examples we see of dharma teachers abusing their positions and their students. To my mind, a balanced practice is one that incorporates all of the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is no good practice that bypasses morality, and practice that leads to an attainment topheavy with insight and not much else is not good practice.
  3. Thirdly, a good practice takes into account the needs and situation of the individual student. It would be a bad idea to take someone with severe depression or psychotic tendencies and send that person on a rigorous course of powerful insight practice, for example. Some people have natural abilities for concentration, whereas others need help with it. Someone in the midst of a challenging life, caring for children and/or sick relatives while holding down a difficult job, is going to have a different approach to practice than a person with a stable life and abundant free time.

Be that as it may, my emphasis in this section is on vipassana, clear seeing, on what happens when we get that microscope and begin to see the three characteristics in all sensations, beyond our experience of everyday life. I shall begin with anicca, impermanence, because in my own tradition and experience that is the one that appears first.

In the fifth-century a.d. the Sri Lankan monk Buddhaghosa wrote a commentary called the Visuddhimagga, which maps a series of stages that practitioners experience as they develop insight. This map, called the Progress of Insight, has sixteen stages altogether, leading ultimately to a breakthrough moment at the end that is the culmination of what has come before. I will focus on a few of these in a general way, beginning with the fourth stage, called “Insight knowledge into the arising and passing away of all phenomena” (“A&P” for short). This is the point at which impermanence is brought home to us at a microscopic level. Experience takes on a vibratory quality that can lead to an ecstatic explosion of sensation. We are not just seeing change over time; what we are seeing is each sensation as nothing more than a momentary blip, no sooner experienced than gone, to be replaced by whatever comes next. There is a sense of awe and excitement, as the meditator watches these sensations come and go at lightening speed. Practice becomes effortless and even thrilling.

The A&P has the feel of a tremendous breakthrough, which in fact it is, but eventually it is followed by a series of insight stages into dukkha, suffering, beginning with the fifth insight stage, Dissolution. Whereas at the A&P the meditator sees phenomena rise and pass away in real time, at Dissolution everything appears to be lost, gone before it is even experienced, as if the observer is barely alert enough to notice. It’s a tremendous letdown after the excitement of the A&P, yet it’s as necessary to insight as the more powerful and gratifying experiences of that prior stage. An entire parade of nastiness follows: insight into Fear, Misery, and Disgust, followed by insight into Desire for Deliverance. Sometimes these insight stages pass quickly, while at other times people can get stuck in them, maybe even for years. The last of the dukkha insight stages is called Reobservation, which pulls together all of the unpleasantness that has gone before.

What are these like in real time? Insight involves being able to see all experience in samsara, the world on the wheel of craving, aversion, and delusion, for what it is. The essence of these stages lies in the fact that we are still invested in the illusion of Self, even though we have experienced the breaking up of the sensations that constitute Self in the ecstasy of the Arising and Passing Away. Jack Kornfield has written a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, but we could at this point in the Progress of Insight map say that we are experiencing After the Ecstasy, the Freakout. This is why insight at this level can be unsafe for some people, especially those with a fragile sense of their own boundaries. We all need functioning egos to get through the day, for without them we are left unprotected in the face of a world of confusion. We need teachers and a sangha to whom we can turn to be reassured that we will eventually emerge on the other side, and to help us do that skillfully.

So, a person could have nightmares, flashes of panic, bouts of crying, and feelings of nausea. On the cushion this can amount to unpleasant sits with painful sensations, while off cushion a person can experience unexplained mood swings that can be confusing to themselves and to those around them. There’s a researcher at Brown University named Willoughby Britten who specializes in helping people through these stages, which are all too often ignored in traditional teaching.

Eventually a practitioner comes out on the other side into a stage called Insight into Equanimity, in which experience becomes peaceful and beautifully vibratory. Everyone loves equanimity, and most would be happy to stay there forever. Think of those days or experiences when everything clicks, when the sky takes on a particularly lovely shade of blue, the breezes are gentle and refreshing, and there is harmony within oneself and in relation to others. Shinzen Young describes happiness as “the body is at ease and the mind has answers.” Equanimity feels like this.

The Progress of Insight path is also called the Path of Purification. Having been through the disconcerting freakout of the dukkha stages, we have looked at life honestly in its suffering and unpleasantness, and have arrived at a sense that whatever happens, we can deal with it. Of course this feeling is temporary, like all the other stages on the path, and most of the time meditators fall back into the earlier stages to experience them again. This is a cycle that can repeat over and over, in fact, until the true breakthrough occurs, leading to the insight into anatta. Once again, I will not go into the nuts and bolts of how that happens here, but will instead describe what the experience of not having a self is like.

First, let me emphasize that Buddhism teaches that self is an illusion, and that we create this illusion by stringing together experiences as if they are solid and enduring, whereas in fact they are vibratory and fleeting. We could do a direct pointing exercise in which we look all over for the elusive self, just as the Buddha did in the Anatta-lakhannasutta Sutta quoted earlier. Perhaps we might look at our bodies or our heads and try to locate the self in space. For most of us, the prime location we imagine for it is behind the eyeballs, as if there were a little person lurking in that spot directing the whole show.

The absurdity of this image is obvious, but there is more to the illusion than that: we see our pretend-selves in everything that is “out there” as well as inside our heads or our heart centers or wherever. When we admire a flower, we project our enjoyment onto the image/scent/texture of the flower, bringing that object into our own felt-sense of who or what we are (“I am a person who admires flowers”). The flower then becomes an extension of our self-talk, and of ourselves. As we continue to engage in self-talk, we flesh out the object we are working so hard to create and sustain. Every strongly held opinion, every preference, every judgment we make, even seemingly trivial ones like “onions are disgusting,” gets woven into the portrait. The desire to live a full life, to travel, to experience the world, is all part of that creative act that engages us for our entire lives, until it somehow mysteriously stops.

The most famous pointer the Buddha has given us is the Bahiya Sutta, in which he instructs his interlocutor as follows:

Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that. When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of dukkha..

This, then, is the supramundane understanding of anatta, according to which the self has no place either in the world out there or in here.

What is life like without a self? Pretty much the same as life with it, minus the irritating pebble in our shoe, or the hot coal we are always carrying around. There is no angel choir, nor are there visions (although these can come with advanced-level concentration states). Life goes on as before, complete with sickness, old age, and death. We do our jobs, raise our children, retire, hang out with our friends, drink coffee (or not), with the one exception that we are not inserting Self-illusion into everything we do and experience. Objects appear as they are, empty and luminous. In the words of Sara Teasdale,

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

As depressing as this may sound, what it describes is a world that is empty of the self delusion. The war in this context is what I would describe as our samsaric war of craving, clinging, and aversion. After the war is done things appear just as they are. They do their thing, oblivious to whether we are present or absent.

There is a lot of debate about how this state comes about, but I find that the Progress of Insight map, with its path of purification, works as well as any other system I have seen. Its use is a key part of the Mahasi Sayadaw Burmese Insight tradition, but some would argue that it unfolds for all spiritual practitioners in all traditions. I have read and listened to many discussion of this question, from which I’ve drawn the conclusion that the map may be imperfect and maybe even counterproductive at times, but it is nonetheless a powerful tool for turning an untrained mind into a microscope.

I would like to conclude with Daniel Ingram’s parable of the kazoo. Life is like a beautiful concert, performed by the most celebrated symphony orchestra, in a perfectly designed hall. We have paid substantial sums of money to hear this wonderful performance. The players are all in their appointed places: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion in full array, with a renowned conductor ready to begin. There is, however, an old, beat-up little chair in front of everything. Just as the conductor is about to bring down his baton, a shabbily dressed elderly man carrying a kazoo shuffles out onto the stage, and half apologetically takes his seat in the chair. He has no idea what the orchestra is about to play, he hasn’t even rehearsed with them, but as the music begins he takes up his kazoo and several beats out of sync begins to interpret what the orchestra is playing. The audience is so transfixed by the kazoo’s sound that it doesn’t even listen to the orchestra, focusing entirely on the little kazoo player’s interpretation. Sometimes the rich tapestry of orchestral sounds will stand out and catch a listener’s attention for a moment, but inevitably the kazoo succeeds in covering it up.

Such is life in samsara. The point of practice is to begin to hear the orchestra. There will still be the buzz of the kazoo as part of the mix, but our attention will no longer be fixed on it as the dominant sensation. This is your life, for which you have paid a high price. The Buddha is telling you to do everything you can to sense the amazing tapestry that life weaves at every single moment. It is your birthright.

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.