Jan 18, 2009

retreat part 3: you're nobody!

Buddhists are always talking about the concept of anatta, non-self.

Here's what I used to think of that concept:

Ugh, how horribly boring. Buddhists must think that we are all identical dolls, unpainted and unshaped, made from the same tired old mold. We're all blending in with one another, bland and uninspiring. What a depressing way to look at the world.

Here's what I think they mean now:

I am an instance of life. By which I mean, "life" is not a thing that exists outside of the beings that are alive. This is quite obvious when you think about it. But it's an interesting perspective to take. It means that I am not slogging through a chilly snowdrift of life, nor am I drowning in a bog of life, or mucking through a pit of life, constantly battling against it. Life is just living. And everything that is alive. Whatever our experience, very simply, that is life. We don't get to design a concept of Who We Are in some abstract pre-life greenroom, and then step out in to life in the character of who we want to be. It's already happening, it's already here. I think what the Buddhists mean by non-self is that we are all flickering, constantly changing, unique, beautiful apparitions of life. To hold on to an static idea of Who We Are can only be painful, because it can only change.

At first, I was really frustrated with that view. Am I not supposed to know who I am? Am I not supposed to understand myself? Am I not supposed to recognize faults and take steps to correct them? Sure seems like a lazy philosophy to me!

Perhaps it is obvious to everyone but me that discussion of Buddhist ideas often takes place on two different planes. (It took me almost the whole week to realize this!) On one level, they talk about non-self, but on another level, in order to navigate our lives as human beings, the self sure is a useful concept. I think it's all about taking ourselves with a grain of salt. We can observe ourselves, our tendencies, our strengths, our faults... all with the open-mindedness to notice when and if our tendencies change.

I think am beginning to understand why this is so important. A while ago I had a very difficult experience. A friend of mine informed me that I had not been a good listener in a conversation. I was absolutely devastated - even more so because I could see that she was correct. There is nothing I try harder to cultivate than good listening skills. I am very attached to my identity as a good listener. To have that identity shaken was very, very upsetting - I even had thoughts like "I have failed at the one thing I care most about". If I hadn't been as attached, maybe I would have been able to take my friend's comment with more grace and dignity, apologize more sincerely (instead of being so embarrassed that it was difficult to speak), and bring more awareness to the situation instead of avoiding conversation for days.

Einstein seems to have figured this out, among a "few" other things:

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."

**Discussion not included: how we are basically made of rearranged, and constantly rearranging molecules that have been hanging around on Earth for 4 billion years. It's cool to think that part of you was once probably in the tooth of a T. Rex, and that you're basically built of smashed stars and that you're breathing in molecules that were in the lung of the person next to you 2 minutes ago, and therefore we're all connected etcetera, and the geek in me loves it, but it didn't seem relevant.

retreat part 2: your own personal monster

You know how, when you have an important conversation coming up, or an important meeting, or a special moment, you rehearse in your head exactly how it will go? You plan what you'll say, and how you'll act, and even what the response will be? Well, I do that, anyway. All the time, as it turns out. And... it NEVER works. I mean, sure, sometimes you get half-way through what you were going to say before the situation throws something unexpected at you, but oftentimes, you get 2 seconds in and things are already different. I don't think I had ever noticed before just how ineffective my planning is. In fact, this is what I thought was happening: I'd rehearse obsessively for some moment. Then the moment would arrive, and unfold completely differently. I'd feel very relieved that the moment was OK. I'd attribute its OK-ness to my rehearsing. Huh? That makes no sense!

At first, I was sort of terrified by the idea that no matter how carefully I prepare, my own life - even the words out of my own mouth - seems to be out of my control. All my care and concern isn't helping! I'm some monster that will just say ANYTHING! Oh no! But then I realized - I don't do that, either. I never just say any old thing. No one does. I say things that are in line with my intention, which is usually to be caring and kind or whatever. Somehow the monster that does all my speaking for me has a pretty good idea of what I want to say, but it never reads my note cards. It just ad-libs on a theme.

Have you ever had the experience of driving somewhere, and arriving at your destination only to realize you have no memory of the last 5 minutes or so? It can cause a panic - are you really sure you stopped at those stoplights? I think most people have had this experience one way or another. I have always been very unsettled by the possibility that I am not actually in control of my actions. I recently wrote about a study that showed that a brain scan can predict which of two simple options a person will choose before he or she is aware of having made a choice. I was seriously upset by that study. I even tried to talk to a few professors about it, who didn't quite understand how unsettled I was. Isn't it a horrible thought? To think that even when you think you're in charge of your choices, and you put your heart in to doing the right thing, you're powerless?

That study still makes me uncomfortable, but less so. One thing you do on retreat is establish the intention to keep paying attention to every moment as it is happening. You decide that you want to be paying attention. Invariably, your mind will wander and do things that are out of your control, including make decisions like "itch your left foot" and "time to take another bite of food" or "time to turn around and walk the other way". But somehow, your attention returns, over and over, out of that thicket, spontaneously. The direct experience of that attention returning gives me confidence that something I am doing, something deeper than fine control, is influencing my life.

It's kind of like realizing that you've never been a very good driver. For years, you've been priding yourself on your lack of accidents, for staying on the road in icy conditions, for not running over that cat, for avoiding those potholes. But then all of a sudden you realize that if you take your hands off the wheel, actually, the car drives itself. You can un-clutch your hands and lean back a little. As long as you've got your eyes on the road, the car takes care of the details.

The catch is, if you fall asleep, the car still crashes. Don't get too cocky - the AI isn't all that great. Somehow, it all depends on your attention...

Jan 15, 2009

retreat part 1: shhhh

It's QUIET. Quiet so loud you can hear it. There were almost 100 people at the retreat, all not talking, all not reading, all not writing, all not listening to music, all being as outwardly and inwardly still as they possibly could. You sort of descend in to stillness, like going down in to a deep well. At first it was a scary prospect. I wondered if I'd suffocate down there, without words. But it turns out that the air down deep is cool and live. It's refreshing not to have to make small talk, or be pleasantly entertaining, or talk when you feel down, or explain yourself if you just feel like leaving dinner early.

I did get a bit word-starved at first. I found myself reading the label on my toothpaste over and over, without even meaning to. And of course, there were difficult moments in the retreat, when I was upset or scared, and I wished that I could talk, but in the end, I'm glad that I was on my own. I think that in a difficult moment, we all want someone to tell us that everything will be OK. It's comforting, but have you ever noticed how quickly that comfort evaporates? When there is nobody to reassure you, to tell you that you are all right, you are forced to look at your problem head on. And when you do that, it's never quite as bad as you thought.

Perhaps you can handle anything that comes your way, by yourself. Perhaps you are much stronger than you think.