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.

 

 

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 Three Characteristics: No-Self

Anatta or no-self (sometimes translated as not-self) is the hardest of the Three Characteristics to understand. We can all agree that the things of this world are impermanent, or that there is suffering, but to grasp that you are not you, that “you” as a separate, continuous self do not exist, hits the roadblock of a lifetime of experience. How can I not exist? If I don’t exist, then who or what is writing and reading these words? Whose life is it that I remember, whose future do I imagine? Close on the heels of disbelief is fear of what it would mean for anatta to be true. I might be able to give up a lot of things, but not my precious self!

The Buddha teaches that what we call atta or self (atman in Sanskrit) is really just the coming together of five aggregates, or bundles: form, sensation, perception, mental formation (or fabrication), and consciousness. When I first encountered this teaching, I initially felt a sense of relief that the Buddha left us with at least something to hold onto. The trouble is, holding onto any of these bundles (khandas or skandhas) leads to ignorance, delusion, and suffering. For example, identifying with the body (form)  leaves us with the unfortunate delusion that we can control it, which we do by trying to be as beautiful, healthy, or strong as possible, preferably more so than other people. People suffer from eating disorders when they desire a slender body and have a powerful aversion to fat. In the meantime, the aging process goes on its merry way in spite of our most strenuous efforts at stopping it. Illness strikes, and while medical help is available, some diseases can’t be cured.

Sensations are even less to be identified with the self. We may enjoy pleasurable sensations, but we can’t make them last, nor can we eliminate unpleasant ones. Our thoughts may seem at first to be a more likely candidate, but a few moments quietly observing them should be enough to convince us otherwise. Thoughts arise unbidden and with little coherence, if any. Still, out of the chaos of free association there will be a few thought sequences that can take hold and proliferate, turning into definitions, beliefs, and even entire ideologies. It is easy to grab onto them and find security, even if they are negative thoughts (“I’m ugly,” “I’ll never understand math”). Many of these thoughts are formed in defense against further pain, because if I can be the first to claim I’m ugly or stupid, I’m not going to be vulnerable to another person making those judgments.

What is the field of consciousness that seems to hold all these things together? Nothing more than memories, associations, and projections, which are anything but stable. Our past is gone, and the person we thought we were is gone with it. Yet the belief that each person is a self persists, and in certain respects it serves a purpose. The suffering of my first marriage resulted in part from my underdeveloped sense of self, which made it possible for me to latch on to someone who appeared to have a strong sense of self. Telling a person in that situation that the self is an illusion is utterly useless. It might be more helpful to say that the rage and insults of the partner are not personal, but that kind of statement is an invitation to spiritual bypassing.

Bypassing is a hazard in the spiritual life, regardless of one’s path. St. Augustine originally thought that his faith in God should have made him immune to grief upon the death of his mother, but it wasn’t until he broke down in tears that he began to heal. In the Buddhist path, thinking that “you” don’t really exist or that your own actions and those of others are simply forces of nature, the product of causes and conditions, can function as a form of denial. We have to confront the truth of our own experience, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Believing or even rationally understanding this teaching is not the point; one must experience it directly. There are practices that work to bring about such an experience. One is to ask oneself where the self can be found. Is it in the eyes? Is it in anything the eyes can see? Is there a little man behind the eyeballs looking out on the world? Is it perhaps the brain? Ah, we may be getting somewhere here. Let’s look at the brain and see what’s there. Is the brain afraid of embarrassment? If so, on behalf of what, itself or something else? What is afraid? We know there are parts of the brain that govern various functions. This being the case, then, are there parts of the brain that are the self, the prefrontal cortex, perhaps? If so, why doesn’t it succeed in dislodging unnecessary, paralyzing fear?

Such questions can be pursued with a teacher over a period of hours or even days, until direct insight hits. Other people have arrived at insight by detailed, extensive journaling, writing to discern what they know to be true, or what they know to be true of themselves. For some people, this practice is supported by years of meditation, while for others it is not. Finally, insight meditation practices—noting, body scanning, and the like, supported by concentration practice—can lead to a dismantling of the illusion of self.

The experience of a world unidentified with self is deeply liberating, but it can also be uncanny. We are dug in so deeply with the illusion that we have no idea how anything might appear without it. Life goes on, just as before, nothing changed, yet nothing the same. And absolutely nothing is personal.