25 March 2010

memoirs of observer and observed: retreat

Madrone trees over the meditation yurt.
The song I have come to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my life
stringing and unstringing
my instrument.

– Rabindranath Tagore

Sitting here together, we are each watching the mind, feeling the body, living the senses. These aspects of me respond in various ways to this situation, in which we go against aeons of evolution.

When you first start, and later too, you're mostly as-if. Everything is buzzy. That's why you don't want to do it, to go against. There are disturbing creaking sounds. The body cries out to be heard, like a baby that keeps pretending to be hurt.

But everything's set up for this now. You go against—which means you just stand there, you get swept away, you recover and stand some more—then the river gives up and starts flowing the other direction. The senses lose their hunger and become a very large orchid that flourishes and dies, flourishes and dies. Hours pass.

Still, my knees send their pain message...but why am I separate from my knees? Why so far away? It creates opposition. Are my knees trying to pick a fight? Why is the situation like this? Not much happening in the way of answers.

* * *

A bright afternoon, outside, loving the tree stumps.

Things aren't more colorful or happy or what you might think of as spiritual, in fact there is a trim of sadness to all. But they are nonetheless quietly fascinating, and my mind is a sea sponge, completely drenched with lucid clarity.

When we observe something, especially something about ourself, there is usually a sense of an observer as well as what is observed. Sometimes what is observed seems to be the more 'real', sometimes it's the other way around. Say you notice there is thinking. Where is the energy, where is the life force as it were? Maybe the muscle is in the thinking process, and whatever is noticing the thoughts seems relatively weak. Or maybe what notices is vast, and the thoughts are just tiny blips in the spaciousness.

Now, here, the observer is so large and lucid and absorbent that it sort of envelopes what is being observed. Both are in a way exactly the same; they are both smaller, and more huge, than we think.

I see a motion picture of myself doing the next potential thing: climbing up that tree. My next move is projected before me, as if I am living a movie that shows short clips of my thoughts about what to do next. I can hear electricity. It's like being a child again, or an acid trip...but really it isn't like either. It's further inside, and it's the result of conscious effort, trying to stay upright in the stream, which makes it essentially different, subtler and deeper.

I begin walking and notice how soft the ground is. I think, I'm killing things here. Jains sweep their path before walking to remove insects, to reduce death. I walk a short distance; there isn't really a trail. When I turn around and stop, I hear leaves rustling. There is a small skink thrashing from side to side. I must have stepped on it under the leaves.

It's sad. I watch her thrashing. I wonder about staying with her 'til she dies. But what if she doesn't die? What if she takes a long time to die? I'm not going to squat there for 12 hours. Or even 1. Am I heartless or...sentimental? Or both, or neither? I send loving kindness to the lizard.

I contain the spectrum of responses and points of view. Each moment is very clearly either tragic, or insignificant. I cannot tell which.

* * *

Now I am drinking beer with an old friend and it is nice. I start to get a minor version of the spins, which adds another point of view. I realize everything that I want is to be aware in every moment. But caught in the habits and complexities of daily life, the moments are lost, in movement mistaken for meaning, in production, in resistances that rise and fall, noticed and unnoticed, in the idea of time that rules my days, in trying to put a patch over the vacuum, in the essentially painful chore of being someone, needing.

I guess I’m still seeing some things, seeing that this is the way it usually is. But now, it hurts. The observer is a shrunken head. The observer is no longer the world's largest sea sponge. Habits are a blue whale with a barnacle on it that observes.

I notice that when I am reading emails, emotions pass in waves, and I usually do not take time to acknowledge them. Things get tangled up. People shrink to fit inside my screen. My affection for them shrinks as well, unless I pause.

I do not like the idea, the certainty, that I will subsume myself again in the world of habits, and wait for the next retreat to release myself. But that is how it is. Not so black and white, but rather, dark gray, off-white.

See also

Cultivating the Inner Retreat

What is a skink? (wikipedia)

Photo of the meditation yurt with madrone trees. It's not a great photo actually, but seeing it in person is lovely. The upper bark of the trees is very smooth with a beautiful mustard color.

07 March 2010

A Buddhist thinking about the Bible...and The Dude

As for man, his days are like grass; He flourishes as a flower of the field,
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more.
(Psalms 103:15)
This morning, Sunday morning, I watched that king of Coen brothers movies, The Big Lebowsky. Toward the end, Walter and The Dude briefly sit facing a wall in a funeral parlor on which is inscribed the above quote from Psalms. Thankfully I could rewind the movie (as it were) so that I could read it.

Some parts of the Bible are very beautiful. A lot of this kind of stuff jives with Buddhism--in this case poetically expressing the principle of impermanence--so long as you cherry pick the lines you're quoting. The ones about a being who loves only those who fear him don't fit in so much in a Buddhist context. While the Buddha became deified to some degree over the millenia, what makes Buddhism interesting and relevant is the fact that 1) he was a mortal who used his mind to transform himself into something of ultimate and indescribable beauty, and 2) he taught others how to do the same; this is in distinction from 1) claiming to be God and/or the Son of God, and, 2) pretty much demanding to be worshiped. It's a big difference. Buddhism is entirely practical but does involve elements of ritual and nonmaterial components (because these are also practical.)

Last week I was in Orange County where finding a radio station involves listening to some evangelical tutelage, Bible study, etc. At my dad's 80th birthday party, I was talking to a couple of Mormons who are old friends of my dad's. They asked where I live, thinking I might live so far away as Tustin or Encino. But when I said San Francisco, the wife audibly gasped. It was kind of funny but I thought it best to act like I didn't notice. A close friend when I was growing up there has been long lost to the Evangelicals.

I took a Bible as Literature class in college, which was also my first introduction to the Bible. Much of it, yes, is beautiful. Here is another doozy. This is particularly interesting to me, being a devotee of the female golden Buddha Prajnaparamita (PRAG-nya-PAra-meet-AH), which means something like Perfect Wisdom. She is one of the archetypes of wisdom from Northern Buddhism.
She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared to her.
Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her. (Proverbs 3.13-18)
It seems to me that there are two approaches to Christianity. By way of warning, this may be grossly over-simplified and irrelevant to someone who actually knows something about theology, which I do not. At any rate, God seems to personify either Love or Judgement, a nurturing mother or an angry father. I suppose there is a third option which is a confusing mixture of love and irrational guilt/intolerance. A Christianity that truly conceives of God as Love will focus on living in alignment with that love, working through barriers to that love, and helping people who need help regardless of their beliefs. Even though Buddhism is not a theistic system, it has much more in common with what I would consider to be truly Christian attitude, which is concerned with being loving rather than being right.

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