Monday, August 30, 2010

What would the Buddha teach today?

I just finished reading the Digha Nikaya, and was immediately struck by how stylistically different it is from Mahayana sutras I am familiar with. The Sutta Pitaka, of which the Digha Nikaya is a member, contains the Buddha's core teachings. The suttas are highly repetitive and often take the form of systematic lists, probably mnemonic tools to aid the monks and nuns in memorizing the often lengthy discourses.

All those lists and reoccurring passages got me to thinking: since this teaching style--suited to the Buddha's time (around 500 B.C.E), culture, geography--clearly would not be the best fit for 21st-century Westerners, how would the Buddha deliver the Dharma to us today? Upaya, or the teaching of skillful means, entails that the teacher use whatever tools will work best with his/her audience.

For example, the teachings of impermanence, dependent origination, no-self, and emptiness, are all expressions of the same fundamental principle; they're just different perspectives on the same truth. Thich Nhat Hanh, in the true spirit of upaya, teaches his Western students about emptiness using a positive form of expression he calls "interbeing."

So how would the Buddha deliver the Dharma to us? Not only what tropes or delivery style would he use, but more fundamentally, what teachings would he emphasize? For just as Buddhism has adapted to suit the needs of each culture it meets, thus stressing different aspects of the Dharma each time it manifests in a specific culture, we as westerners have entirely different needs and concerns than say, medieval India or feudal Japan.

So what would the Dharma look like if the Buddha delivered it for the first time ever in New York City, London, or Los Angeles? What form would it take? Would it resemble Bernie Glassman Roshi's Street Retreats, or something else? I don't doubt that the core teachings would be the same, but what aspects of the Dharma would the Buddha stress if he were a Westerner himself?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Greed meditation

Sometimes I wonder whether I'm the greediest person in the world. If Lex Luther's weakness is the pursuit of power, mine is books. Buying books is like a hit of speed for me. Okay, maybe not speed, but it does provide a temporary rush or thrill. The second I see or read about a title or author I don't have on my shelves, I'm immediately seized by the need to own it (imagine a book in every hand in the picture above). And I mean seized--it's almost a physical imperative. My heart beats faster, the muscles in my stomach and chest tighten. I swear, it feels like I'm turning into a werewolf! And the craving is insatiable, for any satisfaction I gain is short-lived. Soon the buzz wears off and I move on to another title. And hence the cycle begins all over again.

As a Buddhist, I'm fully aware that this is not only craving/grasping, but also the cause of suffering. And the fact that all of the books are Buddhist (talk about irony!) only adds insult to injury. On the other hand, Buddhism does offer a practice to break this cycle: mindfulness. When these moments of greed (for that's what it is: an intense, irrational need to possess something) grip me, I try my best to stay mindful of them. To follow the breath and pay attention to the bodily sensations--the muscular constriction, increased blood pressure, intensified breathing. Soon it passes, almost like a panic attack or anxiety spell would.

After engaging these symptoms, I decided to explore them on the cushion. Here's what I do:

First off, my mind is like a carousel: rarely does a new thought pop up. It's just the same thoughts spinning around and around, waiting for their chance to steal the spotlight. Often they're about my family, books, this blog, or Buddhist practice. Inevitably, as I'm swept away on some fantasy, sooner or later I'll feel that familiar tug of greed in my chest. That's when mindfulness pounces!

The object of this meditation is to trace the physical, mental, and emotional experience of greed (although it can be any strong negative emotion: jealousy, envy, anger, anxiety, etc.) as it arises and diminishes. So once I spot it, I follow it with my mind, kind of like a sniper would through his rifle scope. Really try to penetrate the physical aspect of greed. What does it feel like? In what body parts are the sensations most intense? How long does the episode last?

Emotions are intimately connected to the mind and the body; they're like a bridge between the two. So the next time an emotion arises, try to identify how it physically feels. See if you can trace the link between the physical sensations and the actual emotion. Is there a difference between the two? Try to attend to the tonal shades of each.

Now here's the fun part: once you've identified your emotional pressure point (the one that frequently traps you) and followed it at least once during meditation, play with it. In the same way as you tongued a loose tooth when you were a kid, lure that emotion out of its shell again. Tease it.

It's easier than it sounds. All you have to do is think about the trigger. For me, it's books. The second I start thinking about them, my mind will take off on its own, literally grasping at any avenue to purchase one like a child in a toy store on a spending spree. For you, it might be your relationship with your boss, spouse, parent, sibling; or maybe it's bills or your health. Whatever it is, find the trigger, engage it during meditation, and then give the emotion free reign. Let it do its worst.

Then study it. This time, pay close attention to how the emotion arises and diminishes. Repeat as often as you need to. What you'll find is that, the more attention you give the emotion, the less power it has over you. You'll begin to see it for what it is: a habitual thought with a physical response attached to it. Namely, an emotion; nothing more, nothing less. And from this comes freedom. Freedom to act and choose.

One thing to avoid is mentally engaging the emotion by entering into a dialogue with it. You're like an anthropologist here: just study, do not engage. This includes psychoanalyzing it. We're a very psychologically oriented culture, so this may be a natural impulse. Avoid it. You're not trying to understand the source of the emotion as much as its nature (what it feels like; what triggers it, etc.).

The next and final step is to transfer this practice into your daily life. The next time the emotion grips you off your cushion, study it--experience it fully. See it for what it is: a transient, physical sensation. Soon it will fade away. This is the goal of the meditation. For the more frequently you watch the emotion pass, the more freedom you will find you have.

Don't, however, expect the emotion to disappear permanently; it won't. Inevitably, it will return. But with enough practice, it will begin to lose its hold on you. It won't feel as demanding or like such an imperative anymore. The hand of grasping will open, leaving you with the power to choose.

But you're not done. In fact, you never will be. Continue the process, engaging and exploring your emotions until you're no longer bound by them. Keep practicing....forever.



Top image borrowed with permission from flickr user scabeater.
Bottom image borrowed with permission from flickr user AmyZZZ1.

Flat Tire Samadhi

Since the summer's almost over and I'll be going back to work again (I'm a teacher), my wife and I decided to bring the kids to the beach today. Not five minutes from our house, we got a flat tire. As I was climbing out of the passenger seat, I could hear the tire still hissing--talk about buzz kill. Now under normal circumstances I would be fuming, hurling curses under my breath. But not this time. Confronted with a double dilemma--should we cancel our trip, and how the hell do you actually change a flat tire?--I stared at the Goodyear pancake.

To spin a quote from one of my favorite movies, My Cousin Vinny, "Sure I know how to change a tire, but I ain't ever changed a tire." As you probably already know, it's a pretty simple process, not worth noting here. But as I was concentrating on positioning the jack and removing the lug nuts, I disappeared. There was only the process of changing the tire. Maybe it was the result of my lack of experience, and thus my heightened state of concentration, but for once I experienced what Zen teachers mean when they say, "Just washing the dishes." My mind, that troublesome part of me that tends to get in my way, dropped off. It wasn't some mystical moment, but rather a fairly ordinary engagement of the activity, minus the gaps, the spaces created by my sense of "I".

I didn't realize it until later though, when my wife said, "You know, you took that pretty well." And she was right, kind of: I didn't have a meltdown because there was no "me" there to have one--no intrusion of that middle man called the self. Just direct experience. There was only the changing of the tire. Every day Samadhi. The sound of one hand clapping.

Pretty cool, but fairly ordinary I suppose. "Nothing Special," Charlotte Joko Beck might call it.

(In case you're wondering, we did make it to the beach, and I have the sunburn to prove it.)


Flat tire photo borrowed with permission from flickr user The Bees.

Meditation photo borrowed with permission from flickr user h.koppdelaney.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Meditation stare down

The longer I meditate the more I come to realize that I have the attention span of a gnat. Okay, maybe a fruit fly. I'm pretty hopeless. As far as concentrative meditation is concerned, staying focused for all of ten seconds is an all time record for me. Which is why I prefer awareness meditation. To quote Stephen Batchelor, "My Buddhism is a mixed bag." I practice a Vipassana-style meditation and traditional mindfulness, set against a Zen philosophical background.

What I particularly like about Vipassana, or "soft meditative awareness" as my teacher calls it, is that the emphasis isn't on staying concentrated or following the breath, as much as it is about catching myself when I slip. I'll settle into my breathing, focus my attention on my hara, and off I go in my head to some fantasyland. I'm thinking about mowing the lawn, grading papers, doing the laundry, you name it.

I've come to the conclusion that when you're sitting meditation, anything (and I mean anything, even the most trivial, mundane detail like a hangnail) becomes the center of the universe, an event of cosmic importance. It's like when someone's trying to talk to you while the TV is on. For some reason, whatever program is running suddenly becomes the most fascinating thing in the world. Have you ever noticed that? It could be about the history of paint, and for some reason it's more captivating than anything your friend/spouse is trying to talk about. Why is that?

See, there I go, daydreaming again!

But the more I sit, the shorter those periods of distraction are, and the faster I am to return to the present.

Here's a little technique that I use to keep my mind centered (for a whopping ten seconds): take a deep breath and clear your mind. When you've successfully emptied it of all its contents, concentrate with all of your awareness on the next thought. Pretend that you're a mental ninja about to pounce on the next thought that steps through that door.

Get ready for it.

It's coming any second now.

Keep waiting.

Wait, wait, wait, here it...no, that wasn't it.

What you'll notice is that if you actually wait with enough attention, no thought will arise. It's as if attention is a spotlight and stray thoughts are fugitives (which in a way is exactly what they are).

It's not so much the battle of wills that concentrative meditations can feel like (between you and your thoughts) but you calling your mind's bluff. A staring contest of sorts.

Sure, after a while your attention will drift and you'll find yourself daydreaming, but with enough practice you'll find the periods of open awareness growing larger. This frees the mind to be present in the moment. When a sound arises and your attention is drawn to it, that's fine. But return to the breath and the bare attention. And again wait for those thoughts to arise.

Give it a try. See if any thoughts pop up. Tell me what you think.



Photo borrowed with permission from flickr user R'eyes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Child in Charge

I visited Sesame Place with my family the other day. For those of you who don't know, it's like the Sesame Street version of Six Flags, a watered-down version of Disney Land. What intrigued me the most about the trip was seeing parents from every ethnic background--white, black, Latino, Asian, Indian--all with the same purpose in mind: making a child happy. There we all were, in 90+ degree heat being dragged around by pint-sized kids. Talk about shared humanity. In the end, we're not that different after all.

Then I realized that the entire scene was a great metaphor for human experience. The kids are dragging us around, but they themselves are being driven by desire--that insatiable, unnegotiating child-like craving to possess something, whatever it may be. When I'm in an especially crusty mood, I like to joke with my wife that our children are "need machines." And in a way that's what children are (at their worst; they're also amazing too): the moment they're gripped by an impulse, they need to satisfy it. There's no negotiating with them; they need it NOW. At Sesame Place, this craving was only magnified by all the excitement, flashing lights, costumed characters, and rides.

Metaphorically, the kids dragging their parents around are like the human ego--that blind need to possess something, someone, or some experience. For as as much as I would like to think that I'm more mature than a five-year-old, the truth is, when I want something, I too want it NOW. And truth be told, the things I crave--books, knowledge, a full head of hair--are not any more reasonable than what my three-year-old daughter desires. And when I don't get it, I get angry, just like she does. I may not stamp my feet and have a full blown temper tantrum, but I'm not above a little sulking if it'll get me my way.

Humans--like the parents at Sesame with their children--are dragged by their attachments. This is the Buddha's Second Noble Truth. We're at the mercy of our grasping minds, hijacked by greed, craving, and egotism. It's the human condition, and the reason we suffer. So what's the cure? Mindfulness, awareness--the Eightfold Path. But you can bet your bottom dollar that I didn't find any hint of that at Sesame Place!

All and all, I found the trip to be very interesting. It was like a little window into human nature.



Elmo photo borrowed with permission from flickr user stev.ie
Crying child photo borrowed with permission from flickr user noobbaru

Friday, August 20, 2010

Are celebrities really what Buddhism needs?

Jeff Bridges is on the cover of the latest issue of Tricycle. This strikes me as odd because Bridges isn't a Buddhist (he's been interested in the dharma and studying meditation for the past ten years, but doesn't formally consider himself a Buddhist). It would seem to me that his celebrity status is what landed him on the cover of the magazine. Which might make sense if Tricycle weren't a Buddhist magazine!

Let me explain that last one: the only people who are reading Tricycle in the first place are those already interested in Buddhism, so it's not like his face on the Tricycle cover is going to attract anyone to Buddhism. If this were Time or People, that would be different--some non-Buddhist might read and say, "Hey, I didn't know that Jeff Bridges was interested in Buddhism. Hmmm, maybe I'll give it a try." That would be great for the dharma and a productive use of his celebrity-hood.

But that's not the case; anyone reading the interview is probably already interested in Buddhism. So why is he on the cover?

Let me just say off the bat that I like Bridges--The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies, so much so that I own two copies of the same DVD! I think that it's great that he's interested in Buddhism and that he's dedicated so much of his life to feeding hungry children in America.

That being said, I still don't see why he's on the cover of the magazine, or why there's full-length interview with him that barely touches upon Buddhism. It seems like an appeal to the mainstream, an attempt to make Buddhism cool. But does Buddhism really need that? Or more importantly, is that the best thing for Buddhism?

And why do I care so much? I don't know; it just grates against my nerves. If you thumb through Tricycle you'll notice that there are a lot of advertisements, which I understand are necessary to keep the magazine afloat--to subsidize printing and distribution costs, etc. That's fine; I got that. But there's something else at work here, something very subtle:

All of these magazine ads promoting Lama-so-and-so and Zen Master-such-and-such (not to mention actors like Bridges) add a celebrity air to Buddhism. "Guess whose retreat I'm going on this summer? [Insert name of choice] Roshi!" It can turn even a serious spiritual magazine like Tricycle into the red carpet for Buddhist Hollywood, and that's what I worry will happen when you start mixing mainstream celebrities with Buddhist practice. It can turn Buddhist teachers into spiritual rock stars.

Listen: I'm not trying to suggest that this was Tricycle's intention (I'm sure it wasn't); I'm simply trying to point out some of the pitfalls that may be awaiting Buddhism unless we--those who write and read Buddhist literature--are cautious. There is a way to balance success in the Buddhist community with the Buddha's teaching of humility, a way to stay grounded and safeguard the dharma from consumerism. (Again, I'm not trying to suggest that any our Buddhist teachers are insincere or in this for the money. But in a materialistic, consumer-driven culture, anything can be exploited and turned into a product--even the dharma.) It's the Middle Way, and as Buddhists, we need to make sure that's the path we're walking.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"I am not..." meditation

Here's a beginning meditation exercise that I've found useful. I don't know where I heard it, but I'm pretty sure I didn't make it up. It vaguely resembles Genpo Roshi's Big Mind (vaguely).

I begin sitting and start to think of all the roles I play on a daily basis: father, son, brother, husband, teacher, writer, meditator, etc. Each of these roles has a unique taste and texture to them--who I am as a father isn't the same me as when I'm in the classroom teaching. Often I'll feel a tension associated with a certain role. My chest may tighten, or I'll experience a light burning sensation above my heart. It's important to experience the feeling associated with each role as deeply as possible.

Now I shift directions and go through each one of these roles and say to myself, "I am not a [insert role]." Sit with that until the attendant feeling begins to dissolve; then move on to the next role. On and on until you've exhausted all of the social roles you play. It's a way of stripping the mind bare of all the responsibilities and social functions it habitually grasps onto to create its sense of identity.

This is a good way to begin a long meditation; I find it really calms the body and mind by clearing away the mental debris. Once it's done, you can begin whatever kind of meditation you normally practice--following the breath, koan study, mantra, etc.

Give it a try and tell me what you think.



Image borrowed with permission from flickr user Kat.B. Photography

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sit, Ooboo, sit.

I just finished reading Mark Epstein's Going on Being and he came up with a great metaphor for meditation. Anyone who sits knows how circular the mind can be--racing around in circles, obsessing over the same thoughts, over and over again. Epstein calls this Groundhog Day (named after the movie where Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, possibly forever). In a Buddhist sense, the mind runs on habit or karmic energy. Like wheel ruts in a road, the mind follows habit patterns, which explains why it's so hard for us to change our behavior--it's literally carved into the neural highways in our brains.

The mind tends to dwell on certain thoughts, or at least mine does. Like a dog on a short leash, it walks back and forth, constantly retracing it steps. And the more I pay attention to the workings of my mind, the more apparent my individual mental tics become. Meditation is perfect for this. For me, it's Buddhism itself that keeps popping into my head. It's a subtle form of obsession, for it tends to fly beneath the radar. I'll be following the breath and blam! off I go on a magic carpet ride: I'm thinking about the Buddhist book I'm reading, my blog, or worse, meditation itself. And it's hard to spot, for when I'm in the middle of a reverie about meditation, I often confuse the thought with the practice itself. Damn it! Talk about treachery--my mind will co-opt anything, even Buddhism, to avoid sitting still.

This makes me think of Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop. It's a dense, highly theoretical exploration of consciousness via art, mathematics, and music. Very dry, but good for dinner party conversations if you want to sound smart. Hofstadter posits that consciousness is like a perpetual feedback loop of sorts. He uses the brilliant mathematician Kurt Godel's self-reflexive equations (they actually contain themselves, creating a type of meta-mathematics that could go on to infinity) as a metaphor for human consciousness. Disappointingly, Hofstadter doesn't touch upon any Buddhist psychology in his exploration of identity, consciousness, or the self. But his incorporation of Escher's mind-bending, spatially impossible landscapes are dead-on for the kind of Groundhog Day maze I find myself in. Like Escher's famous two hands painting one another (see above), my mind runs around and round, infinitely. And always on the same subjects--chores, meditation, books. The thoughts feed off themselves; they don't need me at all.

I think this is what the Buddha meant when he spoke of anatta, or not self. For there's definitely an impersonal quality to thoughts, especially since I don't have to actively think them for them to appear. They often have a life of their own. And yet, when I'm mindful enough, I can tighten the dog's leash and rein the thoughts in. When I'm mindful, that is.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Buddhist Proposal

I'm always coming up with ideas for books. Usually they're fiction, but this one's Buddhist. If I were qualified, I would love to write a comprehensive series that explores all of the prominent Buddhist teachings and traditions from around the world.

I can't count how many times I've been disappointed by some Buddhist title that just didn't deliver. Perhaps it was personal tastes, the author's writing style, their interpretation of the Dharma, but it seems that there are more mediocre Buddhist books than there are good ones. So I got to thinking, rather than run the risk of buying a book by a new author every time your interests shift to some new aspect of the Dharma, why doesn't one "expert" or scholar write a series about Buddhism?

So author X would write one book about the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, another about emptiness and no-self, then Zen, Vajrayana, and so on. The titles would progress linearly, giving readers a progressively more complex view of Buddhist philosophy and traditions the further they read. The books could span the entire Buddhist gamut/canon--Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana. A definite advantage to such a purchase is that, after reading the first book, you'll know what to expect from the writer, and whether or not you want to read more of the series. Often, I'll get hooked by a writer and read all of their stuff; then I toss my hands in the air and say, "Now what? Where do I go from here?" Not to mention, it would help beginning students consolidate their studies and avoid reading titles piecemeal. I know from my own experience, when I first began delving into Buddhism, my reading was all over the map.

The series needn't necessarily be written by a single author. A team of writers could collaborate, each contributing in his/her area of expertise. Frankly, I'm surprised that Shambhala Publications or Wisdom Books haven't already compiled such a collection.

I don't think such a volume exists. If so, please let me know because I'm very interested in finding a comprehensive series from a credible writer.


Photo borrowed with permission from flicker user Stewart Butterfield.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Raising a Little Buddha

As a parent of two preschool children, I've recently noticed that there are very few resources for raising your children Buddhist. Tricycle ran an article a few issues back, but it was pretty skimpy and struck me as lip service more than anything else. A quick internet search yielded only a handful of sites and only one book title (If the Buddha Had Kids: Raising Children to Create a More Peaceful World by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D.). Try the same search for raising your children Christian or Jewish, and your options will increase exponentially. What's up with that?!

Did anyone notice in President Obama's inaugural speech that he acknowledged Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, but not Buddhists? You wonder why? The fact is that the Dharma absolutely will not take a solid foothold in the West until we as Buddhists recognize the importance that Buddhism can play in children's lives. I know this is a touchy subject for some who feel that children shouldn't be "indoctrinated" into a religion, and I agree; but as it is, American children are already being indoctrinated into a culture of greed, materialism, and irresponsibility. So what choice do we have?

Buddhism is a relatively new religion in America, arguably less than a century old. But given the growing availability of Zen and Buddhist centers in this country, you would think (or expect) there to be some guidelines, or suggestions at the very least, on how to raise a child Buddhist. But there isn't.

I say it's about time there is.

My wife, not a Buddhist, said to me, "You know, I might be interested in going to the Zen Center if there was something for me and the kids to do while you are meditating." Some family crash course in Buddhism, perhaps. And I would love to take her up on it, but no such program exists.

Granted, Buddhism always has and probably always has been a solitary religion, in the sense that while other religions are congregating, Buddhists are meditating. I got that. But in a country that places so much emphasis on children, Buddhism is surprisingly silent in this regard. And this doesn't only extend to children, but to families as well. Western Buddhism, as a whole, is not very family-oriented. It's about time we filled that gap.

A few miles away from where I live there is a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple that offers Dharma classes for children, but this is for Sri Lankan children. In addition to a language barrier, there is a cultural divide that would literally leave me and my children dizzy. So what does that lead a Buddhist parent to do?

I think part of this has to do with the fact that the majority of Western Buddhists are converts. So maybe they don't know how to raise Buddhist children. But it's about time we learned. We need to get our butts off the cushion (it's not often you hear that expression!) and start considering how we're going to insure the Dharma's continuance for the next generation.

Some ideas are: perhaps a senior student could lead Buddhism classes for children or family members while parents meditate. Not babysitting, but teaching--the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, mindfulness, and of course, meditation. Buddhist parents could also attend. You don't need to be a huge Center to offer a program like this. It's about reorienting our values more than it is about our resources. Where there's a will, there's a way. But first, there has to be a drive. And frankly, for the most part regarding children, I don't see it on the web, in literature, or even offered in Zen centers (at least those with websites).

I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on this subject. Please offer me some suggestions or resources.



Buddha photos borrowed with permission from flickr users: ~Mers, Karol A Olson, and JCT(Loves)Streisand.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Zen Community Loses a Legend


Yesterday, August 5th, legendary Zen teacher and founder of the cross-continental Diamond Sangha, Robert Aitken Roshi died. Aitken touched many lives through his teaching, and inspired countless more through his writing. Author of the classics Taking the Zen Path and The Mind of Clover, as well as translator of the Zen classic, The Gateless Barrier, Aitken Roshi was one of the leading figures responsible for introducing the Dharma to the West. Though I never had the pleasure to study with him, I, like many others, feel an indirect connection to him--he was my first Zen teacher's teacher's teacher (kind of like a Dharma great-grandfather)--and thus I am personally grateful for his generous contributions to the global Zen community.

He will be greatly missed and never forgotten.



Photograph of Robert Aitken and Anne Hopkins Aitken borrowed with permission from flickr user albill.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zen and The Art of Bodybuilding

Brad Warner recently wrote an article, "Health, Fitness, and Zen," about Zen practice and exercise, a subject I have been interested in for some time. For months I've been toying with the idea of writing a book called Zen and The Art of Bodybuilding. Weight training has been an integral part of my life for the past 16 years. So much so that I was considering writing a weekly post on this site about the importance of staying mindful while we exercise.

Although there isn't much written on the subject, mindfulness in the gym is just as important as it is in the car; not only can it reduce injury, promote a stronger mind/body connection, but it is the bedrock of our Zen training. And yet, most people view exercise as just another chore. So they reward themselves with mindless entertainment in between--or even during!--exercises/sets. Most of the people I see working out are listening to iPods or watching TV. When you routinely work out, you tend to eat better, for what's the point in exercising if you're going to "Super Size" it later? Zen practice should be no different; there is no off-season in Buddhism.



Staying present during exercise is as integral as a healthy diet. We shouldn't look at going to the gym as mere physical exercise; rather, it's a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. How does our body feel? Do we feel our heart pumping? Is that pain or simple muscle fatigue? Asking these questions is vital to understanding our bodies, and mindfulness is the key to opening up that gate.

Recently Oprah issued a 'No Phone Zone' pledge, in the hopes of promoting safety and mindfulness while driving. I'll extend that challenge to include reading, watching TV, and listening to music, not only in the gym, but any time that we are occupied with some other activity. Because, really, we're not multitasking, we're multi-slacking. Let's cut out the drone of white noise in our lives and concentrate on where we are. Be mindful, stay present.


Weight rack photo borrowed with permission from flickr user jerryonlife
Meditator photo borrowed with permission from flickr user alicepokrn

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This Meaningless Life

At some point, we all find ourselves contemplating the meaning of life. What is the purpose of all this? Why am I here?

I think I have an answer, not so much to these questions as to the motive of inquiry--in other words, why we're asking the questions in the first place. For I feel that only by addressing the root or cause of these existential questions can we hope to make some sense of the questions at all.

The foundation of the Buddha's teaching is that life is dukkha, which can be translated roughly as "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness." He says this because life lacks the very things that we as psychological beings need most--stability, security, and certainty. It's the nature of life, of reality, to change, which is the cause of so much of our anxiety. In the face of impermanence, the expression, "Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one," echoes with ominous certainty. Anything can happen to us. I can drop dead in a minute, a year, a decade--there are no guarantees in life. We begin to ask, "What is the meaning of all this?" precisely because we are grasping at something solid--some bedrock that is immune to the conditional world that we perceive as so threatening. Any satisfactory answer, it would appear, would, or could only, be found in an unconditional state or realm free from dukkha. In other words, the meaning of life can't change (otherwise it wouldn't be the meaning of life!) and it must be universal, since it applies to all people at once. Already you can see the beginnings of an Absolute appearing.

But the problem with looking for the meaning of life outside or underneath or somehow hidden inside of life is that it subordinates life to this meaning/Absolute/God. Any view that uses life as a vehicle for meaning turns meaning into a master, and life into a slave. It puts the cart before the horse. What I'm suggesting is that we have this completely backwards. In other words, asking what the meaning of life is reduces life itself to a means to an ends (i.e., achieving the purpose or finding the meaning of life), and life should never be anything but an ends unto itself.

Let's look at the nature of meaning itself to make this clearer. What do we mean when we say that something has "meaning"? In linguistic terms, "meaning" refers to what a symbol or sign is pointing to. For instance, the word "tree" is a signifier that refers to some phenomenon or signified in the world. It points to something outside of itself. To relate back to our discussion, the very nature of "the meaning of life" implies that life is a signifier (a symbol of sorts capable of containing meaning, in much the same way as a word does) pointing to something beyond itself. As we can see, this kind of thinking subordinates life into the role of a servant whose sole purpose is to fulfill this "meaning."

The problem with asking, "What is the meaning of life?" lies in the question itself. It relegates life to a servant status. To quote one of my favorite movies, My Cousin Vinny, the problem is that "It's a bullshit question!" To ask it at all is to assume that there is a meaning to begin with. Modifying it to "Is there a meaning to life?" is no better; it's just as loaded of a question, in that the language still subtly presupposes a meaning exists, so much so that if someone were to answer "no" he would be accused of being a nihilist. The very use of the word "meaning" creates an artificial value system that does not correspond to anything in reality; for meaning is a human construction.

As humans, we commonly make the mistake of thinking that the world functions in the same way as we think. That's an egregious fallacy. The purpose of meaning, or thought itself, is functional--to help us navigate through the world. But once we fool ourselves into believing that thoughts have any sort of empirical reality, the tail is wagging the dog. It's like a machine taking control of its creator. I am reminded of an old Buddhist saying, "Mind is a good servant, but a bad master."

But let's explore this supposed meaning of life before we dismiss it completely. Presuppose for a moment that there was one, and for argument's sake we'll take the popular candidate "happiness." If the meaning of life were to be happy, then wouldn't that pit my meaning against yours?--for often times what makes you happy makes me unhappy. So whose happiness is given priority? And what happens when we're not happy, are we failing the meaning of life? The very question traps us into an absurdly impossible dualism, for there is no happiness without sadness. The same goes for any answer--"finding God" implies that you and God are distinct and separate'; "falling in love" means you are missing something right now.

So the more we examine the question, we see that asking "What is the meaning of life?" is just as absurd as asking, "What is the meaning of a rock? Or rain?" A tree is a tree; it has no meaning. It certainly has a purpose, but its purpose doesn't point beyond its own existence. In fact, its purpose is this moment--to be, to live. Why should humans be any different? What I'm suggesting is that life serves no other purpose than life itself. To see it any other way is a form of life-denial, not in the sense that we renounce life, but that we defer it to some higher reality or moment beyond this one. I can think of no greater mistake, or insult to life.

Life is it's own master. This moment, being life itself, does not point to anything beyond itself. Part of our resistance to this fact stems from confusing meaning with purpose. What I'm suggesting is that life is indeed meaningless, but not purposeless. In fact, life is its own purpose. This moment, your life as it is, is everything. So we can have purpose without meaning.

Soon the question, "What is the meaning of life?" transforms into the much more concrete, "What is the purpose of life?" The answer is life itself.

Anyone who tells you that life has a meaning is selling you something, whether it be a doctrine, a religion, or a product (all of which, at some level, amount to the same thing: something you need to "buy"). As Buddhists, we should be particularly wary of meaning--on a relative or Absolute level--in that it reeks of a self or fixed identity. The Buddha clearly challenged the notion of centrality or self-hood, so we should be cautious of adopting a worldview that subtly endorses one.

Charlotte Joko Beck tells us that we need to lose all hope. Abandon it completely. Give up the hope for salvation, that your life is going to get better, that you will ever find the meaning of life. This may sound bleak, but it's not; it's actually very empowering. What it tells us is that as long as we hope to find or change something, we're subjugating or deferring life. There is only this moment, and it's perfect. And so are we, for that's what we are--this moment. It's all we have, all we are.

That's what the Buddha taught--we are already perfect. It's the act of looking for a meaning--the assumption that something is wrong, and that the purpose of our life is somehow outside of us or this moment--that causes us suffering. To ask the question is to inflict the very dukkha that the question itself is trying to relieve! What we think is medicine is really poison--saltwater. The more we pursue meaning, the more the purpose of this moment eludes us, and thus the more we suffer. To ask is to deny life as it is and chase after some illusory panacea. For the answer is right before us. We, as life, are it.

There's a second part to Charlotte Beck's teaching. After we lose hope, we start to trust. We surrender to life itself. We stop fighting and resisting. For that's what pursuing the meaning of life really is--a denial of this moment. It's an insidious way of saying, "This can't be it. There's more to life than this." But there isn't. This is it: deny it or embrace it; it's your choice.

That's where zazen comes in. As we sit, we become the stillness, the confusion, the moment. Meaning drops off with the ego and thinking mind, and there is only life. Zazen is the ultimate life-affirming action, a way of paying reverence to the unfolding of life as this moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh poses the greatest challenge I have ever heard. "If you're not happy now, then you never will be." I'll rephrase it as a question: "If you're not happy right now, in this very moment, then when will you ever be?" To me, that's a much better question than, "What's the meaning of life?" For it actually has an answer.



"Meaning of Life" Cartoon borrowed with permission from flickr user Todd Zapoli.