Selfish selflessness

The very popular S.N. Goenka style Vipassana retreats are taught around the world by video dhamma talk, and are a consistent 10-days of silence, starting with three and a half days of anapanasati (breath awareness) instruction and the remaining days introducing the body-sweeping technique as originally taught by U Ba Khin. Actually, my first long retreat and longest retreat to this day (about to change!) was also in this style. I have since explored other teachers because I found the technique as taught by Goenka quite rigid and because it’s very important to me to have a teacher that is teaching in an individual way, to exactly where I am now. That’s hard to do by video.

My friend Z has been on three Goenka retreats over the years, and he and his girlfriend have said their friends and family call it “silent selfish camp”. Today, the Tricycle Editor’s blog referred to an article that ran in The Vancouver Sun about meditation’s ill effects – in particular narcissism or an inflated sense of self-importance; and just last week this video showed up all over the Buddhist blogosphere, criticizing spiritual materialists. While there may be some truth to these critiques, is it possible that with right intention and a good teacher those who pursue the spiritual path may actually be contributing to society in a truly altruistic way, even if they separate themselves from society for a time?

Dōgen said, “to study the self is to forget the self”. For some reason, this has always made sense to me theoretically, at least since the first time I read the Shobogenzo Genjokoan as a 20 year-old. Practically speaking, it’s much more difficult to arrive at true understanding of this statement. Perhaps even harder is trying to explain this to someone else in any sort of conventional way. When I talk about anattā, no-self, as such a fundamental component of Buddhist philosophy, it really doesn’t compute for those people in my life who don’t have a meditation or spiritual practice of their own. Even just describing what meditation is has been excruciatingly difficult at times, although I’ve recently amassed a small collection of wonderful quotes on what it is, which may help.

If meditation is being aware of just this, exactly what is, then identifications with “I”, “me”, “mine” do tend to fall away. If someone says something that can be perceived as a criticism, but we don’t take it personally, then it’s just a factual statement and nothing more. There is no ego to get in the way and react. As Vimala Thakar says, meditation is then a way of life. It’s not something we go do by ourselves and then leave on the mat. It’s how we relate to everyone and everything in our lives, it’s how we eat, sleep, work, drive, interact, etc., if everything is done with heightened awareness. The point of this? Acceptance of things as they are, but also, more importantly less “me” to get in the way of honest relationship.

Toni Packer puts it this way:

When the deeply habitual self-referencing–the comparing whatever is perceived in others to ‘my’ performance, ‘my’ idea, ‘my’ accomplishments–begins to slow down and clear the space for simple awareness, a new way of seeing and hearing unfolds. Everything seems to have changed, yet nothing has really changed, except that all of oneself is open, receptive, present and truly loving. This cannot be practiced–it springs into life as whole and complete being.

So can I explain to my seven year-old nephew that I’m going away, not because I don’t care about him or don’t want very much to be a part of his life, but because I know that this practice helps me move away from these conditioned ways of thinking that cause me and all those I come into contact with to suffer? No, not really. Can I explain this to my parents? No, not really. Can I explain it to you? I don’t know. Can anyone understand any of this other than through direct experience? Probably not. Do I believe that radical transformation is possible through this practice? Yes, quite definitely. Is it for everyone? No, but at least this is one more person with the faith and commitment to move towards self-lessness, liberation, transformation.

For more on radical transformation, one individual at a time: See Krishnamurti piece on The Mirror of Relationship and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article on Laying Down the Rod.

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