Minding the mind

So, I’ve escaped for a morning to Skype my sister on her birthday (just barely…roused her from sleep at 11 PM) and to do a little grocery shopping. It’s the beginning of week 9 here and it’s the first time I’ve left the center other than two short trips by foot to the village to buy fruit and cookies. Amazing how time flies when you’re doing virtually nothing.

It occurred to me that the work that we’re doing here, it’s really like rehab for the mind. Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches continuity of mindfulness, with an emphasis on watching and understanding the mind and how feelings, perceptions, opinions, and thoughts influence and reinforce each other. It’s certainly no quick fix. When you take a good look, you find there’s a lot of bad mind habits (which manifest particularly in the form of greed and aversion). Meditation is the work of developing good qualities of mind. Easier said than done. Old habits die hard. As anyone who has struggled with an addiction knows, it’s the craving for the object of desire and the remorse or shame that results if we give in to that desire that causes us to suffer. We have these same mind habits around almost everything we feel, sense, perceive, remember, project, experience period. So I’m here de-conditioning, un-training, and re-wiring the mind so that I can suffer less and hopefully naturally cultivate loving-kindness, generosity and wisdom while I’m at it.

The unfortunate thing is that while I’ve greatly simplified my life in coming here and removed so many of the distractions that I have been known to have unhealthy relationships with, I cannot remove the mind! And the mind is the problem. It’s also the same tool that can see through the delusion it has always suffered, but it is unwieldy and the patterns of behavior so entrenched that one must be very patient and willing to persevere many setbacks.

If “meditation is the science of the mind” as Ayya Khema put it, then it’s probably the most difficult thing we’ll ever study. Even though we can investigate and know the mind in every moment of every every day with right effort, this kind of thinking and understanding is so far from what are minds are wont to do. I realize it takes a lot of faith in the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teaching or reality) to keep at this. Even though my mind is only just starting to calm down, so many weeks into this full time, I understand so much better how much I value solitude; because it is only in quiet, still reflection that we can build up the strength of concentration to truly be mindful and to learn about the way we experience and judge everything that touches our sense doors. We keep so busy in modern life that we rarely have any insight into what’s really going on inside. And I think for most people it’s scary, because there’s a lot ugly stuff that might get uncovered. But the thing is it’s not personal. We all have the same mind. It’s just nature, as U Tejaniya says.

The contrast of the life I’m leading now to the one I lived in New York is so immense, so extreme. I cannot imagine going back to the running around, constantly working and internetting, entertaining, producing, consuming, etc., of that urban life. At the same time, Shwe Oo Min is not a really strict place, and there are plenty of opportunities to slacken in the practice and many distractions. There’s quite a bit of socializing, which is good practice because for me this is all meaningless in the end if I cannot integrate it into relationship with others and into a more worldly life.  It does make it harder to establish a relaxed state of mind, but that’s reality. As is this dark internet cafe in a strange shopping plaza in Yangon. But I’m thinking it would be nice to get back to the other one, so that’s it until the next installment.

Almost forgot to mention that I’ve put in a request to extend my visa so I may be with similarly intermittent communication until February or March. May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering!

On the way to Myanmar

anchorage_sunriseI’m currently in Bangkok, the third stop in a grueling journey to Myanmar. Taking a few days out here, ostensibly to recover from jet lag before taking the plunge into my 90+ day stretch of silence. Of particular note in the series of flights I took was the sillouhetted mountains against a blood red sky as I took off from Anchorage, AK at 5 AM. I haven’t yet figured out my new camera and know little about digital photography anyway, so couldn’t capture an image, but I’ll borrow the one to the right, which gives you an idea of what it looked like.

I’m not sure there’s any way to ease into monastic life, so I’m shacked up at a quasi-luxury hotel eating far too expensive food–relative to what it costs on the street–and sunning pool-side. [Aside: unfortunately, my very fair skin is mottled and poisoned as a result, despite wearing high SPF and limiting exposure...Even odder, here, blogging in an internet cafe above an Indian restaurant, which currently is over-populated with young male teens who are playing commando video games and discussing their exploits in a rather rambunctious way.] In some ways, the ultimate hypocrisy. Knowing I’m up for some serious deprivation, and I’m not particularly interested in sight-seeing at the moment, however, it seemed prudent to go for the nice digs.

Last night I had dinner with a long-time expat and resident of Bangkok who was a classmate of my mother’s in elementary school. He has been here long enough to really have seen the way Thailand has changed culturally as it’s developed; and he mentioned one sign of this in the fact that, where once all young men would retreat to a wat for 3 months at some point in their lives, now, an employee will lose his job if he asks for time off. It didn’t even occur to me to ask for a sabbatical (kidding)! Having been in Myanmar in the not too distant past, my host also indicated that in contrast to Thailand, the country has remained very close to its Buddhist heritage since monkhood is still possibly the most attractive option.

Shortly before I left, I ran into the book Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement but did not have a chance to purchase or read it. It seems the premise of the book is that the people of Myanmar are finding freedom through vipassana and a silent resistance movement has formed. In a place where there is so little personal choice, it’s interesting that a practice that emphasizes simplicity and is austere in its vows of celibacy, no meals after noon, and so on, would be “liberating” in the way it seems to be. The contrast with modern western society (and now the developing world too) is so much greater, and therefore perhaps the liberation potential as well. Imagine learning that we don’t actually have to solve anything, that everything is already actually as it should be…What bliss!

Well, I suppose it’s the deprivation that makes this thing I’m doing seem so crazy at first glance. Though I am just one person in a long, long line of people that have committed to a sustained meditation practice for months or years at a time. Particularly here in a Buddhist country, where it is hardly unconventional even now; and in looking at those who have influenced me in the West, most teachers have engaged in some serious retreat at some point, if not on a regular basis; and so it seems very appropriate to be doing this. Although I am giving up familiarity and creature comforts in order to have this experience here in the East, I also recognize what an extraordinary privilege it is to even be able to do this at all. My goodness, Burmese people cannot even leave their country while I can leave everything and arrive in theirs with a backpack and box full of toiletries and voilà, they take me in as one of their own. At least, that’s what I’m expecting…

I’m not looking at this time as anything in particular. It’s certainly a break from the stressful way we live our lives and the real or imagined pressure to be something, someone with specific accomplishments and life goals met. It’s also a frightening confrontation with my own mind. It’s an opportunity to simplify my life greatly, without having to pay bills, shop for groceries, prepare food, or care for anyone else. But it means having no choice of what I eat or when, being seriously alone (although greatly supported by the other meditators), and not being able to indulge the sense pleasures at all. Although I’ve traveled halfway across the world to be in a place steeped in dhamma, the reality is there is no journey to be had, no place to go. I said it to my dear friend K yesterday when we happened on a brief chat while I was in the Taipei airport. In response to her saying “it has begun”, I said, “yes, timelessness, pure presence, just being.”

With that, a communication hiatus until late November or so. Tune in then for updates. Thanks for reading.

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