Monday, March 30, 2009

Meditation and Fear

People often have a shaky understanding about the relationship between meditation and the martial arts. They understand that people who meditate are almost invariably men of peace---yet people who are understood as great warriors are supposed to highly value the practice.

Part of it has to do with discipline and learning the "internals" of our mind and body, but probably the greatest element has to do with learning how to deal with our fears. There is a story about the Mongols invading a Chinese Zen Temple and an officer raging into the meditation hall where he met the Master sitting in a lotus posture. When he simply sat without showing any signs of fear, the warrior yelled at him "Don't you know that before you is a man who could kill you without blinking an eye?" The Master's response was "Don't you know that before you is a man you could kill without him blinking an eye?" Since the officer valued courage, he decided to spare the monk's life and left the hall.

Zhuangzi makes a similar point in several places. For example, he describes an archer who is capable of always hitting the target until he is standing on the edge of a cliff at which point his fear of falling destroys his aim. He also makes the point that the secret of learning how to be good with a boat is to become a good swimmer---at which point the boatman no longer fears falling in the water.

For most people fear is an existential issue. But for soldiers it is a very practical problem. Most people probably don't realize this, but for most of human history courage has tended to be one of the most powerful weapon in a soldier's arsenal. That is, all other things being equal (which, admittedly, they often are not), the most brave side almost always won the battle.

This was because a man who is running from battle is a lot easier to kill than one who is facing you head on. And a body of men who is standing shoulder to shoulder can count on each other to guard their flank. Men who cannot trust that their neighbour will protect them, cannot focus completely on their enemy and will be easier to kill. Indeed, in most ancient battles where great slaughter occurred, it did not happen when both sides were facing each other in battle but after one side had turned tail and was trying to run away.

So the practical paradox of warfare is that the man who is least afraid of dying often has the best chance of not dying at all.

There is a story in Japan that the leader of the military force that repulsed the Mongol invasion, Hōjō Tokimune, meditated to overcome his fear in order to lead the battle.

Tokimune was overcome with fear when the invasion finally came, and wanted to defeat cowardice, so he asked Bukko (his Zen master) for advice. Bukko replied he had to sit in meditation to find the source of his cowardice in himself. Tokimune went to Bukko and said: "Finally there is the greatest happening of my life." Bukko asked, "How do you plan to face it?" Tokimune screamed "Katsu!" ("Victory!") as if he wanted to scare all the enemies in front of him. Bukko responded with satisfaction: "It is true that the son of a lion roars as a lion!" Since that time, Tokimune became instrumental in the spreading of Zen Buddhism and Bushido in Japan among the samurai. (Wikipedia)

Warfare has changed dramatically since the age of Samurai, but the control of fear has continued to be a significant issue in warfare. The modern approach is to use intense training experiences (i.e. "boot camp") to raise recruit's confidence level both in themselves and their group, which in turn develops a sense of group identity and loyalty to the regiment. This trains men to put the good of the group ahead of the individual. The result is very different from Zen meditation, which is very-much focused on individual insight. But it is something that can be mass-produced and which produces very predictable results. It doesn't create "realized men", but the sense of solidarity continues long after military service has ended---which is what sustains veterans associations.

Where meditation's work with fear can still be of value, however, is in helping people deal with the terrors of everyday life.

And I use the term "terror" advisedly. Our modern lives are so complex and unpredictable that many of us find it pretty much impossible to maintain any sense of "comfort" for any length of time. People who are losing their jobs; who have to constantly adapt and retrain in order to stay employed; who live from contract to contract; who live in rough neighbourhoods; who have loved ones falling on hard times; who's life is dependent on complex, constantly changing, poorly understood technology; the complex interpersonal dynamics of the workplace----all of these can create the same sort of "organized chaos" that soldiers experience on a battlefield. Add to this a never-ending sense of impending social collapse due to things like global warming, peak oil or the economic collapse we are currently living through.

While the intensity of this stress is less than that experienced by soldiers, it's duration goes far longer. And just like soldiers, ordinary people only have a limited supply of courage to draw upon. Take too much out of the reserve, and even the most stoic will eventually collapse into quivering blobs of terror---sometimes for seemingly very trivial reasons.

I remember seeing a couple aquainences who had lost their last reserve of courage. These were both men who were extremely "macho" and who took great pride in living very independent lives and doing extreme work. Ordinarily, I suspect that they would be considered extremely brave men. They undertook to grow a large amount of marihuana to sell for easy money. Unfortunately, things didn't work our well and one of them was arrested and the other was terrified that he would be too. They both totally "lost it". Every last scrap of stoicism disappeared and they both descended into absolute terror. In a sense, I was watching the civilian equivalent of "battle fatigue".

And I have to admit that I too fall prey to the terror of modern life. It isn't so much that I am facing huge stressors (I've been pretty good at protecting myself), but the day-to-day struggle of having to constantly be at the mercy of other people and technology I don't understand sometimes wears me down and fills me with a vague, unending, existential dread.

And the only thing that I've found that can sustain me is to sit on the pillows and meditate---just like Hōjō Tokimune when he faced the immense might of the Emperor Kublai Khan. I may not have faith in myself anymore, or the world around me, but at least I still have some faith in the practice of meditation. I hope that this life-raft will take me past this current existential problem and carry me forward into some better place.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is Meditation?

In previous posts I've danced around this subject a fair amount without actually committing to a specific description or definition of what meditation really is. There are several reasons why I've been hesitant to do so, so I'll try to explain them before I get down to the issue at hand.

The Problem of Solipsism

"Solipsism" is the idea that ultimately we can never really get inside someone else's head. Rene Descartes illustrated this problem by making the paranoid suggestion that when we look out the window at a street scene we really have no way of knowing for sure that everyone else we are looking at is not some sort of mindless robot following the instructions of its maker. Without going that far, anyone who is trying to talk about the internal consciousness of another human being is forced to make at least a few "leaps of faith" since ultimately everything rests on the assumption that what happens in your mind is pretty much the same thing that is happening in mine.

A further complication is that even if we assume that everyone's internal consciousness is pretty much the same, it is very difficult to develop a language can clearly and precisely discuss what is happening in our minds.

The naive person may think that language isn't all that important, but they'd be wrong.

Just to illustrate how important this is, I have a neighbour who is a very skilled tradesman but who has a terrible time explaining things to people. I went to a building supply store with him once and he told me to go get a "jug" of expanding foam insulation. I looked and looked, and looked, but I couldn't find anything at all that looked like this. He started getting exasperated and eventually walked over himself and got the container, which instead looked like this.My neighbour is a really intelligent, well-read person, but he finds it very hard to express himself, which causes him problems when he is trying to explain things to people that they don't know much about. This is not a terribly rare thing amongst tradespeople, who I find often simply cannot explain what they do to lay people.

My confusion about what exactly a "jug" of expanding foam insulation looks like was easily resolved by simply pointing to an example. This sort of similar situation rarely presents itself with regard to internal mental phenomena. What can be done, however, is for a skillful teacher to try and artificially create a mental state in his student so the student can then see it in context explained by the teacher. I suspect that many Zen koans are examples of this teaching process.

For example, there is a story of a Samurai warrior who met a Zen master and asked him if Heaven and Hell exist. The master responded by insulting the warrior, who grew angry to the point of drawing his sword. At this point the master said "now open the gates of Hell". The warrior thought about this, and getting the point smiled and put his weapon back in its sheath. At this point the master commented "now open the gates of Heaven."

The Problem of Obscure Language

Another issue that needs to be remembered when we discuss meditation is that spiritual traditions have all grown out of cultures that are radically different both from each other and also the modern age. All the spiritual seekers in those cultures were forced---by the problem of solipsism---to use metaphors to point towards their very personal experience. That is to say, since they couldn't point to an object or process in the mind in order to describe something spiritual, they were forced to use analogies from the world around them.

And the metaphors these people used have tended to come directly from their religious traditions, which is hardly surprising since most of them were ordained monks. Even more confusing, most of the scholars who have translated their writings have been people who were not ordained into the same religious tradition, and who have devoted their lives to learning how to do scholarly translations---not follow a spiritual practice. As a result, the writings that they have left behind---and the translations that have been made of them---are extremely hard for modern people to understand. For example, my understanding from a lifetime of study is that the following all refer to the same key mental entity/state: "The One" (Daoist), "The Buddha Mind" (Buddhist), "The Christ Within" (Christian), and, "The Atman" (Hindu). The question for the naive reader is what exactly do these terms mean to you?

The Different Dimensions of Meditation

Because of the problems of solipsism and obscure language, the person who sets out to follow a spiritual path is stuck in a strange position. He may have a qualified teacher who is willing to help him along. But the teacher cannot readily explain to him what it is that he is supposed to be learning. That is because he cannot point towards a specific thing and say "this is the One", instead, all he can say is "you must hold onto the One" (or Buddha mind, Christ within, or Atman.) All the student can do is try to figure out exactly what this weird phrase refers to. So, one dimension of meditation is absorbing and learning a technical language about our internal mental processes, which will allow us to articulate both to ourselves and other practitioners what is going on in our minds.

At the same time that we are learning this new language, the seeker also has to develop a set of mental "muscles". That is to say, we have to learn not only that a specific type of mental activity exists, but that we can also learn to discipline and strengthen it. When we meditate we learn a great deal about boredom, sleepiness, depression, pain, the "internal dialogue" and so on. We don't only learn how to distinguish between them, we also learn how to control them. Eventually, some of them disappear. Others become constant companions that we can only force hold at bay for longer and longer periods of time.

These two issues would be difficult enough, but spirituality doesn't just deal with means to an obvious and simple end. People follow a spiritual practice because they are seeking answers to existential questions, such as "why do we exist?", "what is the right way to live our lives?" and so on. People who wrestle with these sorts of things are constantly re-assessing their life choices and a pretty significant life choice involves whether or not one follows a particular spiritual practice. So the practitioner is not only trying to develop a new language and strengthen her mental abilities, she is also constantly reassessing herself to see if the practice itself is worth pursuing. Any religious person who is serious about their path not only has to practice it with due diligence, she also has to submit the path itself to the same sort of rigorous examination that she is putting every other part of her life through.

Each one of these three dimensions is fraught with peril. People get tripped-up on language all the time, which can cause students to follow blind paths because they simply didn't understand what they were instructed to do. The discipline of developing the mind is also problematic, because the thing being struggled with is the same thing that you are strengthening. This means that at the moment when someone believes that they have finally gained the upper hand in the struggle with the distractions, base instincts and delusions of their mind, it can turn out that they suffer their final surrender to it! (I think that this explains why so many teachers with real attainment end up abusing their positions of trust.) And people can invest so much emotion, value and energy into a specific religious practice that they will cling to it long, long after it has proven itself to be an obstacle instead of a benefit. (And this is why so many reasonable people allow themselves to be take advantage of by those teachers who betray their positions of trust.)

A Definition of "Meditation"

At this point I will finally step out on a limb and offer my definition. Meditation is the process whereby we gain increasing awareness of our awareness.

This formulation is cribbed from Rudolph Steiner, whom I remember as having written about "thinking about thinking", which is one of those statements that I have indeed spent a great deal of time thinking about. But I have some concerns about what the word "think" really means. As a result, I'm happier with the term "aware", which I believe is a bit more immediately obvious and therefore easier to understand. In other words, the process of meditating is learning to be aware of how your mind operates.

If you put in your time trying to be aware of your awareness, you will notice some pretty interesting things. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, we live our lives as individual "islands" of self-awareness where whatever continuity we have with our past exists only as ghostly memories---which resemble fictions more than reality. This is a point that the philosopher David Hume noticed back in the 18th century. It is also a key concept in Buddhist psychology, known as "anatta". Both Hume and the Buddhists came to this conclusion through the process of careful self-examination of their consciousness, although one cannot think of much larger a cultural divide than between an Enlightenment philosopher and an ancient Indian mystic. Another example that I mentioned in a previous post refers to general rules by which we grow in insight. In the case of Ignatian spiritual practice, through careful analysis the Jesuits have realized that there seems to be a relationship between depression and spiritual growth, or as their confusing language would describe it "desolation" and "consolation". There are other insights beyond these, and they continue to deepen the longer you work at your meditative practice. Learning from them---and changing your life as a result---is why we pursue this path.

The process of meditating, therefore, is that of carefully observing your awareness in order to understand the way it operates. It has the odd characteristic, however, of being such a personal process that you literally can only "learn by doing". That is, no matter how carefully you read books on the subject, you cannot really understand it unless you make the effort to follow in the path of others and put your time into carefully observing yourself. As such, it is much more of an art or craft than it is a science. No doubt many people of deep attainment are like my neighbour the carpenter---unable to express what they do to anyone else. (Indeed, I believe that I have a specific gift in being able to express this sort of thing more clearly than the vast majority of other practitioners, which is why I write this blog.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Straw Dogs Barking at the Moon

Even though I call myself a "hermit"---and I know that that is the path I tread---I still try to connect with ordinary folks. (Perhaps this foolishness will pass if I get older.) But many times these efforts only leave me feeling even more isolated than I did before. A few weeks back I attended a Unitarian church service that brought this unpleasant truth back to me one more time.

It was supposed to be a service devoted to the idea of "social activism". When I heard the people talk on the subject, however, what I heard was not too much more than a statement about ego gratification from the individuals involved. The folk singer talked about how he used music to promote the "good". The retired nurse talked about her "second career". The therapist talked about how to avoid "burnout". And the young woman Muslim talked about how it is to be a visible Muslim in the public eye.

No one talked about working to fix the world's problems.

Afterwards, the congregation formed a circle and people spoke of their reactions. Mostly all I heard was people's excuses for doing so little to get involved in the world. The visiting speakers mostly spent their time trying to make these people feel good about themselves. At one point the folk-singer said that "anyone who signs a petition is an activist".

When the microphone came to me and people asked for my reaction, I simply said "I have nothing to say" and passed it on.

What else could I do? If I had said what I really thought it would have created a riot. I could have said that it is absurd the these upper-middle class people with good jobs, vacations and fine educations didn't have time to be more involved in their communities. That all the privileges that these people have been given only make sense if they are used to help others. Or that they have so devalued the concept of "citizenship" and "personal responsibility" that they are reduced to the level of being not much more than irresponsible children.

It occurred to me, however, that the visiting activists, the discussion circle afterwards, and the church itself had absolutely nothing to do with making the world a better place. Instead, it was about forging the emotional chain that is essential to building a strong congregation. Indeed, even though I felt repulsed by the whole experience, everyone else remarked about how much they enjoyed the service. And why wouldn't they? It had turned into an exercise of relieving the guilt that many of these people feel for living in a world that is palpably going to pot without their having made any significant sacrifice in their own lives in order to solve its problems.

All of this comes down to the way people confuse their feelings with the world around them. At its simplest level, people indulge in the so-called "pathetic fallacy" and act towards inanimate objects as if they were sentient beings. For example, I had a neighbour who used to get so angry with his appliances when they didn't work that he would throw them out and smash them on the driveway. Other people swear at their car when it won't start, and so on.

What is at work is the idea that human consciousness exists in a stew of emotions---both within our own minds and when interacting with others. Indeed, emotional cuing is an essential form of communication. I first became aware of this fact while watching a very cheesy, Jerry Bruckheimer television show titled "JAG". This show pushes the stereotypes of American conservatism (the gruff, yet fair authority figure; brash and daring military hero; the brilliant, yet nerdy young support figure; the supportive, nurturing woman; etc.) It also uses very blatant musical cues to manipulate the emotional reaction of viewers. In particular, a trumpet solo is used repeatedly in all the episodes as a mechanism to alert viewers when some sort of patriotic appeal is being made by one of the characters so they can react appropriately.

One might think that using such creaky devices wouldn't work on a cynical, educated viewer like myself. But in actual fact, I respond just the same as the cheesiest worshipper of Ronald Reagan. The difference is that after the fact my conscious mind "kicks in", analyses what has just happened, and makes sure that I don't do anything foolish based on these emotional cues. But that is because of my own particular "kung fu" of trying to understand my mind through contemplation and meditation. The people in the Unitarian Congregation---who after all are not Daoists---do not do this sort of thing. As a result, they simply fly wherever their emotions take them.

The Old Masters who wrote the Dao De Jing understood this issue. That is why they say in Chapter Five:

Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane;
He regards the common people as straw dogs.

The point is that everything that exists is totally indifferent to our feelings. There is no loving God up in the sky who cares about how we feel. Our sense of outrage against injustice, our sense of guilt over our many weaknesses, our love for the people in our life---none of that has any more value in life than the rage a person may feel when their computer crashes in the middle of writing an essay or when their car won't start on a cold morning. And all the good feelings that people felt towards each other in that Unitarian service will have zero impact on global warming, the war in Afghanistan or any other important issue facing our nation.

And as someone who aspires to being a sage, I have to learn to have zero concern for the feelings of those people. Something I am still far from achieving.