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.

Everything called into question

So there were two parallel transformations going on while I was in Mongolia. The first involved the putting into daily practice one of the deepest heart connections I have ever experienced with another person, and had previously had in an almost exclusively verbal and intellectual realm from afar; and the second involved seeing how simply people can live and contentedly so.

Ultimately, I was being faced with the decision between freedom and security. I chose freedom, even though it certainly felt like it was being chosen for me.

Vimala Thakar, who died in March of this year, has been an incredible influence on me in the recent past. Her writings resonate with my own experience of life and meditative inquiry in a way that really encourages me on this particular path. Recently, I came across a passage on love, and it struck me.

“Love is a state of being in which one has arrived at the humility to act without the ego; in which one does not want anything from anyone in the world; in which one does not want to use life as a means to an end, but is satisfied in living life as an end in itself. Such a person is capable of loving.”

So which one of us is capable of loving or knows anything about love as so defined? It is so far from our conventional concept of love and yet, it makes so much sense. To dispose of judging, comparing, preferring, and the desire for security that is translated into the “love” relationship, would seem to me to be the only way to truly love. But how many of us actually do that? Or even want to do that?

Although family ties are extremely strong in Mongolia, and those who follow a traditional lifestyle in the countryside live in a one-room circular home with extended family members, with no privacy and very circumscribed divisions of labor based on gender; I would still suggest that their lives are more representative of freedom than security. When one is not presented with options on how to live, it may seem that this is bondage, but I would argue that in some ways it is the incessant choice that we are provided and the fear of change that really chains us (but mostly the bondage of the mind!). In Mongolia, the livestock are free to roam and the dogs are always unleashed, even in the cities. Most of the land, which is so sparsely populated and strikingly beautiful, is considered common (i.e., not private property). These things affect a culture. I spent several days living with a reindeer-herding community, and each day was shaped by birth and death. Quite literally. How can you argue with the law of impermanence under these conditions?

Meanwhile, I am putting so much energy into getting to know and understand this other person, this person who I feel so incredibly compatible with on every level. I am truly cherishing every interaction we have (in the 24 hours a day that we are together) because of the ability the relationship has to serve as a mirror, and to reveal my reactions, my own grasping and rejecting mind. And I want it to be forever. I want this to be the person I grow old with and do the hard work with. And I want it so badly that I can’t accept any other possible outcome. But when it involves another, it is ultimately out of our control. Nothing I could do to change that.

But perhaps this ideal partnership is not my path, either with this person or anyone else for that matter. And how much self I clearly have to lose to approach a relationship with another person without that grasping and desire, with a motive of pure interest and inquiry. Free of the conventional measures of “progress” and “success” in life that are attached to concepts of marriage and family, I realized upon my return to New York that the way I had been living my life was for exactly this projected future. But what about now? What about living my life for now? Well that’s what I am going to do from now on.

While Mongolia and this brief but intense relationship were catalysts, the trajectory of this particular life has been fairly steady in fact. As the inquiry has become more and more focal to my life, and the practice of Vipassana the mechanism by which I best come to understand the movements of the mind – the insights of which I can then translate into all relationship – I realize that this is the only direction I can go that won’t make me continue to feel dis-integrated. In order to actualize love, there is no doubt that I must fundamentally change my life and discover the truth alone.

Within three days I had a plan. Quit my job, get out of my apartment lease, place my dog in the care of my parents, sell / give away my earthly possessions and return to Asia. And specifically, engage in a three-month self retreat because I don’t think any less is enough time to really discover the silence of the mind; and do so in Myanmar because, that’s where the heart of Vipassana is; and go so far away because I really want to commit to this path (with no possibility of escape) and I want to be in Asia on the other end. I am completely surrendering to the unknown and letting life move me. This is freedom.

To end with words from Vimala:

vimala“We do not know what is the movement of total energy within us. And in that silence, when energy is not dissipated, is not scattered in any direction whatsoever, the movement of that total energy brings about mutation, transformation. That movement of total energy may be called: movement of innocence; movement of ever fresh, ever new light of life. I may call it movement of renunciation: a person moves in life without wanting to acquire anything psychologically from anyone in the world. He moves without expecting, anticipating, selecting, or rejecting. He sees life as it comes. He understands life as it unfolds itself. He watches life, but does not try to impose himself upon it.”

Excerpts taken from Mutation of Mind (1972)

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