Enchantment and Disenchantment

I watched “Leaving Neverland” soon after it came out last winter and came away perplexed. All over the Internet, there had been articles about how overwhelming it was for people to come to terms with what appeared to be irrefutable testimony to Michael Jackson’s guilt as a child molester. Did people have to give up the music, the videos, the memories? I was perplexed because I myself had no association with any of his work; I had barely even heard any of it. I remembered the outpouring of grief in 2009 following his June 25 death, which also made no sense to me at the time.

This time around I was sufficiently intrigued that I decided to see what the fuss was all about. I started with the music video of “Thriller”. At first it bewildered me, the long opening scene between a strange looking boy and his date and the Vincent Price voiceover. But then, a transformed Michael snapped into formation with the ghoulish dancers and began to move, letting loose with the song, and I was transfixed. I had become enchanted by Michael Jackson.

I made a study of him over subsequent days, and for awhile I fell more and more under his spell as a vocalist and a dancer. And then, almost ten years after the fact, I began to grieve his death, and to understand what so many people have been experiencing ever since that documentary came out. Do his actions cancel out the merits of what he accomplished? People may differ in their answers, but one conclusion is impossible to avoid: Michael Jackson was and still is a master of enchantment. 

The term “enchanting” has been watered down in our vocabulary to suggest  something lovely or appealing, although there is power that still lurks under the surface. A true enchanter is a dangerous weaver of spells, someone who can capture another person and lead them anywhere. Our modern world has a hard time even acknowledging such power, much less coming to terms with it, even though our obsession with celebrities throws us directly into its path.

Nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber describes the modern world as disenchanted, with the onset of scientific thinking that has diminished the importance of religious belief. There is something tragic about the loss of enchantment with the appearance of reason at the center of our universe. Certainly few people can argue with the benefits of science and medicine, nor would most want to bring back the bad old days of homophobia, misogyny, and hideous tortures as punishment for the sins of blasphemy and heresy. An enchanted forest may sound exciting, but in folklore it is a place of terror, where all sorts of dangers could catch a wanderer unawares.

Yet many of us seem to have a longing for enchantment nonetheless; we want a world that is more than the sum of its parts, that has hidden and unknowable depths inaccessible to the rational mind. This desire finds outlets in such phenomena as the Harry Potter or the Twilight books of ten or more years ago, which may fall in the category of young adult literature but are enjoyed by many adults who are no longer young. And then there are our celebrities, those quasi-divine beings who are the focus of our unacknowledged longings. Michael Jackson was the consummate celebrity of his time, combining extraordinary creative abilities with powerful charisma (another bleached-out word).

The trouble with being enchanted by a celebrity is that it’s a lot like trying to wrap one’s arms around a ghost. Jackson is dead two times over, first in 2009 and now in the death of all illusions about him, but even so, he was for his fans no more than a dream while he was alive. According to the Buddha, all of life in samsara is just as much a state of enchantment. We seek fulfillment where none is to be found, until our disenchantment motivates us to practice (although the process is not automatic; most people continue looking for lasting satisfaction in the world of appearances right up until the end).

Such is one side of traditional Buddhist thinking, which comes with a substantial dose of asceticism. There is another side, however, which is populated by deities and gives rise to vivid imagery, an enchanted world that only the most advanced yogis can enter in states of deepest concentration. This is the source of the religious art and ritual that is so strange to western thinking, with its own asceticism of scientific materialism. While one project of western Buddhism seeks to reconcile the Buddha’s teachings with the scientific study of the brain, there are other teachers such as Rob Burbea and, recently, Daniel Ingram who are calling for greater openness to our capacity for enchantment.

In the words of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As we travel more deeply into our own minds, we find these words to ring true.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

The Four Divine Abidings

The Brahmaviharas, or Four Divine Abidings, circumscribe the four attitudes of mind that are the highest level response to one’s experience and to other beings, human or animal. They are metta, translated as loving kindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy (sometimes translated as appreciative joy); and upekkha, equanimity. These qualities of mind can be cultivated through practice in meditation, until they become the framework for one’s interior life.

The most familiar to western Buddhists is metta, an attitude of unconditional love toward every living thing. There are phrases we can repeat to ourselves in meditation for individuals or all beings: may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be healthy, may you be safe and protected, may you live with ease and with joy. The exercise is most effective when concentration is deep, but we need not be perfectionists about it; repeating the phrases throughout the day, whenever we happen to think of them, is also well worthwhile.

The far enemy of metta is hatred, while the near enemy is attachment. When we first attempt to do metta, we unfortunately realize that we can’t say with sincerity that we wish good things for every living being. An immediate example is certain kinds of harmful creatures, like wasps, mosquitoes, or poisonous snakes. There are even harmless insects and reptiles that bear enough of a resemblance to harmful ones that we feel an immediate response of disgust when thinking of them. How are we supposed to wish good things to a bug?

More troubling are people towards whom we have complicated feelings, or even uncomplicated hatred. That is why it is recommended that we undertake metta practice in stages. There are four specific types of recipients: ourselves, benefactors or friends, neutral persons, and adversaries. Many Westerners have even more trouble expressing love for themselves than for adversaries, feeling they don’t deserve it, or that in loving themselves they are in danger of becoming narcissistic. A good beginning might be a benefactor, or even a neutral person, someone one sees from time to time but with whom one doesn’t have a close relationship.

As we begin working with metta, we encounter attachment as well as ill-will, which is why saying metta for intimate partners or family members is as complicated as for adversaries. We want our partners or children to be happy, successful, healthy, and strong because when the people we love are thriving, we are thriving, whereas when we have a depressed spouse or a sick child, we ourselves are naturally wounded as well. While such responses are understandable, they ultimately do not lead to peace of mind, and can even get in the way of our ability to care for the very persons whose lives are most important us. Ask any adolescent what they most want from a parent and the answer is likely to be, “space.”

Karuna, or compassion, is the response to the suffering of others that opens us to intimacy without the burnout we are likely to feel when we become identified with it. The far enemy of karuna is cruelty, while its near enemy is pity. Pity, feeling sorry for or commiserating with someone, turns the other’s story into our own, making it all about how awful we feel for them, or conversely it can set us apart from the other, causing us to see ourselves as immune to the other’s affliction. Cruelty is rejoicing in another’s suffering: “Good! I’m glad he got what’s coming to him!” While we like to feel that there is justice in the world and that “bad” people get punished, indulging in the desire to judge and punish other people can only be a source of unhappiness.

Compassion is characterized by spaciousness, which can occur only by our emptying ourselves of ulterior motives. Just as metta is wishing good things to everyone unconditionally, karuna is openness to the suffering of all regardless of what anyone deserves. There can be feeling for others, a movement of emotion through ourselves that brings us into intimacy with them, including tenderness and sadness, but without resistance, rumination, or the urgent need to fix whatever is hurting.

The third brahmavihara, mudita, is a joyful response to something beautiful and good. Sympathetic joy is the rejoicing in something good that happens to another, which may possibly be the hardest of all the divine abidings. When we think of someone we dislike for any reason, the last thing we want is to see that person thrive and prosper, especially if that person benefits through actions of injustice. We certainly don’t want someone who is arrogant, unprincipled, phony, or undeserving to get a promotion, admiration, or love from someone we admire.

The near enemy of mudita is identification, while the far enemy is envy. In the case of identification, we want those whom we favor to thrive because their success enhances our sense of self. Professionally, we want people we’ve mentored to do well as a testimonial to our influence and good advice. Still, we may not want them to do too well, which would put us in danger of being surpassed by the beneficiaries of our patronage, and tip our good feelings over into the territory of envy and resentment. We feel envy when we see people who are richer, better looking, healthier, or more influential than ourselves. Why should they have that big house, that beautiful family, that loving spouse while we are stuck in a small apartment, divorced, childless, and sick with worry over our bills?

Practicing any of these brahmaviharas is fiendishly difficult because they bring us up against our own sense of lack. Envy, ill-will, or identification all speak to a depletion within ourselves, a feeling of not being enough. When we think of another person having what we lack, we want to latch onto that person’s success in the hopes of owning some of it, or else see that person’s happiness diminished. We don’t even have to experience misfortune in our own lives to feel this way; we can want to see someone fail even when we are ostensibly doing well. The driving force is the deficiency we feel within.

The last brahmavihara is equanimity, upekkha. This is the ability to be with whatever comes up, to disattach oneself from outcomes. At first glance it may seem to negate the other three, which call for all-embracing good wishes, compassion in the face of suffering, and joy in the face of good fortune. Underlying all of these attitudes of mind, however, is the recognition that we do not control outcomes, and that good and bad things come to everyone.

The near enemy of upekkha is indifference, while the far enemy is panic and despair on the one hand and manic joy on the other. It is easy to confuse equanimity with a lack of caring. How can anyone be reconciled to the death of a child, or the tragedies that affect entire populations displaced by war or famine? How can a good person say “let it be” to monstrous cruelty? No matter how deep our practice, there will be circumstances that plunge us into overwhelming grief and pain. The point is not to no longer feel these things, but to be willing to feel them on behalf of ourselves and others. Having felt them, though, we go on; we do what is necessary, comfort ourselves and others, and above all not add any more than necessary to the weight of suffering in the world.

The Divine Abidings are a recognition that all beings desire happiness, regardless of their relation to us in life, and that our goal is to promote the sum of happiness in the world, and to diminish suffering. When we repeat phrases to ourselves—in the case of karuna, “may your suffering diminish, may it end,” and in the case of mudita, “May your good fortune continue, may it increase”—we are training the mind to turn to these thoughts automatically. We can think of them throughout the day as we encounter others, while express compassion for ourselves when we find we are feeling a sense of lack or depletion. The overriding recognition that things are as they are is what returns us again and again to inner peace.

 

 

I Become a Christian

I grew up in the Congregational church, although as a child and young adult I had little interest in being a Christian. As I grew older I realized that I was angry at God for what he had done to my brothers, and that I could neither understand nor forgive that outrage. To love God and believe in his promises was for me tantamount to saying that it was just fine for my brothers to be as they were, and as a witness to their suffering I would never do that. Through college and for years afterward I lived in that state of stalemate.

So what changed? I remember one incident in particular, the one that precipitated my leaving my first husband. We were arguing about something trivial on the morning we were to drive a significant distance to visit his family, and like so many trivial arguments this one became heated. We needed to drive two cars, because we had just purchased one and were driving the other, a loaner from his parents, back to them. I was already nervous about the drive and feeling that I couldn’t go through with it, but when I told him this his anger quickly escalated. He got physically abusive, shouting threats, pulling out a gun and pointing it at me, and then throwing me to the floor, where I lay crumpled in sobs, thinking I was going to die. Then out of nowhere I began to pray. I told God, “if this is my time to die then I accept it, but if not, help me through this!” Suddenly my fear and distress left me, I stood up, walked into the next room where my husband sat sulking, and said, “Let’s go.”

As soon as he got what he wanted he dropped his rage, but I didn’t forget what had happened. My prayer itself amazed me at least as much as the immediacy of its answer. I recognized that there was something within me that I had tapped so rarely as to be almost entirely unaware of it. Where did this sudden calm come from? How was I easily able to do what a moment earlier had seemed impossible? I didn’t know, but later I would return to this experience as I felt drawn more and more back to church.

In graduate school, studying medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history, my attraction grew. I was puzzled because I had so many reservations about Christian doctrine, but a course on monastic culture opened in me a desire for solitude and prayer. I loved St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs, the mystics’ allegories of love, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I began attending an Episcopal chapel during a year-long post doc in Alabama, and continued for over three decades. During this time my faith waxed and waned, because I could never fully sign on to the Nicene Creed, even as I recited it week in and week out. Yet even in the absence of perfect faith, I felt loved. I understood intuitively that to love God and be loved by God were one and the same. I also understood that out of human clay, God in all His glory became manifest, transforming the base metal of our human nature into pure, radiant gold. I began seeing a spiritual advisor, then stopped, then returned much later to another, and stopped again.

Throughout this period I cried a lot, out of gratitude and an over-abundance of feeling. I cried in church, through hymns, through sermons, and with certain Bible passages, the Book of Ruth in particular. I was excited to learn that the spiritual writers considered tears to be a holy gift. I wrote in a journal and prayed the daily office. My favorite theologian was Meister Eckhart, whose sermons were the perfect expression of what I felt and believed. I became interested in my dreams, recording them in my journal. One day as I was writing I began to meditate on the mirror image of the desert and the garden, the transformation of the one into the other, when suddenly I felt myself enveloped by the most powerful, exquisite sensation of pure love. I stopped writing, in tears, gasping for breath, and thought, no, no, I can’t, I can’t, please, not yet. And then with the most perfect tact it withdrew, leaving me wondering what possibly could have just happened.

Experiences like that are open to so much interpretation, yet who can know absolutely what it was and what it meant? Like my earlier experiences, it became part of my story, even during long years when my attention was elsewhere. Life intervened, and although I continued to go to church and sing in the choir, I became enmeshed in my career and my family, absorbed by triumphs, disappointments, challenges, griefs, routines, and drudgery. In the parable of the sower, Christ describes the seed that falls everywhere, some on fertile soil, some on barren land. Of the seed that takes root some will grow and flourish, but other seed will find itself choked by weeds. That was perhaps my situation. My little plant never fully died, but it did not flower in quite the same way again.

The Big Wow

I think it was in a post by Brad Warner that I first heard about The Big Wow, or perhaps it was just on one of the Internet forums I frequent. The Big Wow is the overwhelming, transforming, hit-by-a-bolt-of-lightning mystical experience that changes you forever after. Everyone wants one of those, and once you get it, you spend a good part of the rest of your life wanting another, and another, and another. Yet it’s not the Big Wow that actually transforms you; it’s the plodding, day-to-day grind of sitting in meditation, doing walking meditation, practicing mindfulness during the day, questioning yourself, and getting your act together on a number of fronts (which is what the Noble Eightfold Path is all about). You may be able to draw on the memory of that experience to motivate yourself to keep plugging away, but in the long run it’s a mistake to make too much of it.

My Big Wow happened when I was 19. It was March of 1973, and I was returning to college from spring break. For some reason, my violin teacher had loaned me her car for the week, a reflection of how close we were during that period. I was traveling east on the Massachusetts turnpike, going a little over 70. There was a school bus in front of me, and we were approaching a slight hill. I got in the left lane to pass the bus, accelerated to about 80, and then without warning the school bus pulled in front of me (I can still see it in my mind’s eye). Being a young, inexperienced driver, I did the opposite of what I should have done: I slammed on the brakes, putting the car into a tailspin. I overcorrected with the steering, tried the brakes again, and then began to panic as I lost all control of the car.

What happened next is hard to describe. I remember skidding back and forth over the highway with a few other cars in view, and I remember a look of concern on someone’s face through a window of one of those cars. I recognized with a sickening horror that I might not be able to get out of it alive, when suddenly I surrendered and everything stopped. I felt myself gently pulled upward, out of my body, and I felt the various parts of my identity fall away as if I were dropping layers of clothing. I had a thought: so now this one is over, the one called Laurel, tall, blonde, a violinist—and so it ends, and now I’m returning. And then I was flooded by an indescribable love, and thought briefly with regret about my parents, how they would grieve. But consolation was immediate: soon they will know, in no time at all. And there was relaxation into that love which was my true home.

The next thing I recall was returning to myself in a daze, with the car on the left shoulder, facing in the opposite direction of the road. I had no idea how I got there. I eventually made my way to the right shoulder, where I was approached by a kind man who had stopped to help me. I slowly followed him and his family  to the nearest rest stop, and had a cup of chicken soup and some tea. “See,” he told his young daughter, “Laurel went through all that and now she’s sitting right here.” We parted and I drove the rest of the way into Boston.

It would have been lovely if, in the aftermath of that experience, I could have integrated its insights and lived my life forever free from the fear of death. Instead, I was left with another phobia about driving on highways, which has stayed with me to this day. It would also have been lovely if I had gained the kind of perspective that would have led to better mental health, or at least more maturity. No such luck. I did spend time and energy puzzling over it, in an attempt to put it in some kind of framework that would make it intelligible. At the time I was under the influence of my Christian Scientist music teacher, who urged me to put it out of my mind and not speak of it. Traffic accidents fall in the same category as illness, something that involves the unreal material world, which according to that doctrine we must transcend.

Later, when I became serious about Christianity, I viewed my experience as an encounter with the pure love of God. I read mystic writers with a sense of having something of my own to bring to the table, feeling a little smug about it, to be honest. I had fallen into the trap of seeing myself as special, an inevitable pitfall of the spiritual life. Later still, as a Buddhist, I saw it as one of the stages on the Path of Insight. In some respects it fits the profile of both traditions. I have come to prefer calling it The Big Wow, however, because that term is just irreverent enough to keep it in perspective. Such things can happen, and then other stuff happens, and it’s best not to wallow in it. The most such an experience can do is inspire you to keep practicing when you might otherwise skip it. It is ancillary, not central. That is all.