I Get my Feet Wet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Three Poisons: Greed

According to Buddhist teaching, there are three poisons that affect the mind, creating a distorted lens through which we view reality. These are greed (desire), hatred (aversion), and delusion (wrong view). These roughly correspond to the three types of sensations we encounter: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Finally, there are three basic personality types that lean towards one of the three poisons more than the other two, although all of us are affected by all three. I am going to begin with the greed type.

People of this type look at a room full of objects, or a catalogue or department store, and immediately focus on wanting what they see. My mother was a greed type. She was a marathon shopper, bringing home sacks of things almost every day. A typical exchange between us would go like this: “That’s a lovely shade of lipstick you’re wearing, Jane. What is it?” “It’s a Revlon, called [insert name here].” “Oh, really? I’d like to get that shade. Can I try it? Maybe it will look good on me.” And within a day or two she would add it to her collection.

Whenever she travelled with my dad the two of them would acquire Persian rugs, bone china, and artworks to bring home. At the point of my father’s retirement, they had a sizable house filled with beautiful things. The task of downsizing was excruciating, which is why they did only the bare minimum to fit into their retirement home, itself not exactly small. After my father’s death, my mother stayed in that house for four years before moving to my town in the Midwest. Getting her out of there was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, because she wanted to spend hours considering each item, reminiscing about it, lovingly planning either to donate or keep it. I and her realtor ended up calling in a group of men with a truck and hauling off all the stuff she would not be taking with her. She was furious, but if we hadn’t done it she would never have made it out of there at all.

Greed types are hungry for experiences, things, life itself. Greed isn’t necessarily all bad, for without it none of us would be motivated to do the things necessary to keep us alive. We also wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good things the world has to offer. As with the other two poisons, however, greed is rooted in the illusion that we can find true freedom and happiness from what is outside ourselves, and the energy we devote to getting the things we crave can occupy our entire lives, setting us up for frustration and even abuse (think about animal hoarding). The thrill of anticipation is never quite realized in having what we want, and so we soon get bored and want something more.

I think about greed as the feeling I get when I see something that causes me to light up like a Christmas tree. In my case, it’s cake. There’s a scene in the 2013 version of the Great Gatsby that I noticed more than any of the others, in which Jay Gatsby prepares to meet his lady love at Nick’s cottage. He fills the place with flowers accompanied by an extravagant array of cakes, and for the entire scene, the cakes were all that I noticed. A picture of a beautiful cake is often enough to send me to the store to get some for myself.

Greed or desire is a lens through which a person experiences the world. Everything is evaluated as being potentially available to a greed type, who has a bottomless bucket list. While it may seem unflattering to describe someone in this way, we’re only presenting facts to be understood, not moral judgments or criticisms. Insight is the necessary step to letting go, which in turn leads to freedom.