Sunday, August 28, 2011

My History of Meditation

A couple posts back I did a review of a book by Livia Kohn that was about a specific meditational practice that she translates as "sitting in oblivion" and which I have tended to call "sitting and forgetting". An anonymous person asked if I would write something specific about what I have been taught about meditation, so I thought I'd spend a post discussing this subject.

The first thing to understand is that a person isn't a "blank slate" that comes to a meditation teacher to have the "wonderous technique" inscribed on their being. Instead, they come with a very large amount of personal experience. In my case, I grew up on a farm and spent an enormous amount of time working at very tedious jobs. One of them involved hoeing an absolutely enormous vegetable garden. (We raised almost all of our own food.) I found that the only way I could stand the boredom was by making a game of the work. This involved willing myself to become a "hoeing machine". That is I would totally focus on the work of hoeing to the exclusion of all other thoughts. This involved trying to become totally and completely aware of the bodily sensation of working the hoe.

Another appallingly boring job involved driving tractor---often until late at night. I got around this by similarly becoming a "driving machine". I also used to talk to myself----I would have long monologues on a variety of subjects.

These two aspects of my personal history taught me to deal with boredom by developing an "interior life". I once had a housekeeping foreman tell me that he never hired stupid people to be janitors because he found that the boredom would drive them to distraction. He said that smart people never get bored---because they always have something "in their heads" to keep them occupied.

My first formal meditation experience came about in somewhat unusual circumstances. I was at university, living in residence, and a hall-advisor had come to me to ask about another person in residence that I'd been seen with. This guy had gotten drunk the night before and said that he had a rifle and was thinking about going up on one of the buildings on campus to start shooting people at random. The police had been informed, who had contacted the advisor, who asked me.

This "freaked me out", so I sat down with this fellow in the student pub to find out about him. He told me a pretty sad story: his parents had run away on him at a young age and his sister had supported him by working in a body rub parlour (i.e. as a prostitute.) His first job had been as a "repo man" taking away things like television sets from people who had purchased them on time and couldn't make the payments.

He left the table after sharing this with me and I ended up sitting by myself feeling pretty bumbed.

At that moment a fellow sat down next to me, ordered two beers for me and introduced himself. He was one of those "hale fellow, well met, types" and we started talking about this, that and the other thing. It came out that he was a Buddhist and his brother was a monk in one of the Tibetan flavoured sects. I commented that religion was a lot of hocum and all I believed in was "science".

He responded by saying that it wasn't scientific to reject something without experimentation. I asked how someone could "experiment" with religion and he said that "meditation" was experimentation in religion. He made a good case, so I asked how someone meditated. He said that one way was to sit still and repeat some phrase over and over again. He said that what you said didn't matter, just that you repeated it.

I got home that night and thought I'd sit down, make up a mantra and repeat it over and over. So I did just that. Almost instantly I felt a very strong force from the base of my spine punching up and out the top of my head. I was having an "out of body experience".

This got me quite interested in the whole meditation thing. As a result, I spent a lot of time doing things like sitting and quieting my mind, hatha yoga, repeating mantras, meditating in the forest, etc, etc. I used to bump into the guy I'd met in the bar once in a while and he'd offer suggestions---once he said I should walk around and just focus on all the parallel lines that I could identify in the building.

I used to read all the books I could on the subject of meditation and try out all the techniques described. For example, I read all the books by Carlos Castenada (who I later found out was a complete fraud) and did things like meditate in dried-up ponds in order to find the "water spirit". I also once took a massive dose of magic mushrooms after staying awake and fasting for 48 hours (to magnify the effects, which it certainly did.)

Eventually, I decided to learn a martial art, which led me to joining a taijiquan club, which in turn led me to joining an organization led by a Daoishi. In turn, I joined a temple he founded and was initiated into his lineage. He had a brother initiate from Hong Kong who would visit Canada once in a while. He would hold meditation workshops (and initiated me into the lineage.) At these workshops all he would do is have people sit in a specific posture. He would walk around and correct our posture. Whenever we thought we couldn't handle the pain anymore, we'd get up. Everything else was a case of "figure it out for yourself".

Since then I continued to study meditation. I've been to various Buddhist retreats and classes. I also went for weekly spiritual direction for years with a variety of Roman Catholic types. I've also gone through a lot of different phases. For years I had an altar that I did "sitting and forgetting" at. For other years, I did walking meditation while reciting a Buddhist rosary. Now, I focus primarily on taijiquan, reading and writing things like this blog.

In summary, my experience tells me that while there are a great many things that you can do while meditating, most of the more dramatic effects are "blind alleys". The only really worthwhile thing that a person can seek is wisdom and greater control over the different aspects of his mind. I also believe that, contrary to what many folks have told me and what I've read in most books, almost all forms of meditation are very similar. They all boil down to learning how to control the "monkey chatter" in a person's mind. There are a wide variety of methods to do this, but ultimately they come down to learning to "think about thinking". And once you've started to do this, you can see that there are various processes at work that can be changed through disciplined effort.

I hope that some of the above is of value to others. Questions are always accepted.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Transition of "Conventional Wisdom"

As someone who still finds himself attracted to the world of politics (like a fly to a venus fly trap, alas), I've been watching various different elements of the political ecosystem. This ranges from the loony American debt ceiling debate, through the municipal politics of Toronto, through the tragedy in Norway to the farce in Greece. Looking at all of these different elements together, I've come to the conclusion that they all have one thing in common: we've reached a "tipping point" in the evolution of "conventional wisdom".

People involved in radical politics understand that in a liberal democracy the terms of debate are severely limited. For example, none of the major parties will ever suggest that we need to radically change the way our government works. They all believe in roughly the same thing----a capitalist state with some welfare state provision for the poor. No one is talking about nationalizing the mines or locking up dissidents in concentration camps. (No matter what the rhetoric may suggest.) It's pretty much been this way since the end of the Second World War up until now. All debate in elections and Parliament has boiled down to seeking the percentage of emphasis----so many dollars for guns, so many for butter, so many for business, so much for the poor; and; the best means----low taxes, government incentives, strategic investment, free trade versus tariffs, etc.

This sort of stability is essential to the long-term viability of democracy. If people in parliament really did have radically different visions of what the state should do, at best this would result in procedural logjams as each fought tooth and nail for their vision. At worst, this could degenerate into civil war.

Well, I think if we look at the USA, I think that the case can be made that this government is suffering from procedural a logjam because the conventional wisdom has broken down and the Republican and Democratic vision is so far apart that it is almost impossible for them to agree on anything.

In parliamentary and municipal governments a different result comes from the same cause. Premiers and mayors work in a political system where they are not bound by the "checks and balances" that Barack Obama does. This means that they can actually make the changes that they seek without being stymied by the opposition. But come the next election they are sometimes replaced by administrations that then move to undo their work. In either case, administration of the state ceases to be effective because there is no unified vision at work.

As I see it, this dysfunction is not a long-term phenomenon but rather a specific period of dynamic chaos that exists between two islands of stability.

As I mentioned above, there has been a sort of "conventional wisdom" or "common sense" that has existed since WWII. A few parts of this consensus have been based on the idea that energy is cheap, nature can be taken for granted, there should be a sort of hierarchy in society, and, that the only viable morality flows out of the Bible.

Prior to the age of fossil fuels the cost of energy was a constant drag on economic growth. It takes a huge amount of wood to make charcoal to make iron. This puts a real limit on the amount of iron that a society can use. The same can be said about a great many other elements of our society. When the price of fossil fuels goes up, it means that money that used to flow to other things----such as wages, taxes, etc----is now used to purchase that energy. Since the price of oil by the barrel is currently around $100/barrel this means that any energy intensive activity in our society (or, damn near everything) has had to cough up an astounding $85 extra dollars for energy, per barrel, over what it did in 1988, when oil cost only $15/barrel.

All of a sudden, the cost of energy is now a part of the equation. Yet people who still adhere to the old consensus simply cannot figure this point out. That's why they constantly complain that there is a "conspiracy" by oil companies to gouge the public. It's also why they fight tooth and nail against creating a more energy-efficient society, simply because they cannot conceive that the cost of energy as being an intrinsic part of "just the way things are". These are the people who's answer to Peak Oil is the empty phrase "drill baby drill" or who make ridiculous claims about the promise of shale oil. Having lived most of their lives with energy being trivial in cost, they simply cannot accept that something so basic has changed dramatically.

A related issue is that of global climate change. People who have lived their whole life believing that nature is an "externality" that can be ignored simply cannot believe that serious amounts of money has to be spent on preserving the ecosystem. As a result, they have fled into denial, believing that some shyster economist that they read on the internet knows more than the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists.

Probably of equal import is the way women, gays, and, people of colour have become significantly more equal. This change is so pervasive that a lot of folks don't understand what a cataclysmic change this has been in the way people relate to each other. But for people who took it for granted that white men had exclusive access to various elements of society this change must seem like a tooth-grindingly awful change for the worse. Certainly it must make many feel like they have been totally short-changed by a system that changed the rules just when they got to the age where they could reach for the brass ring.

This change is more than just that of women in executive office, of course. It also means that the nature of work has changed dramatically. For example, the idea of "service" has become an integral part of many workplaces, which makes the sort of gruff, "macho" ideal that many blue collar grew up with an actual impediment to employment.

Finally, many people grew up on the idea that morality comes from submission to a set of moral rules that were codified in the Bible and explained by their local church. The idea that people would be able to come up with alternative sets of moral rules (e.g. that it is immoral to discriminate against gays), and actually suggest that this new morality is actually better than the old, has also caused a great deal of anger.

What I'm suggesting is that the Conservatives are right, there is a "culture war" at work in our society. Moreover, I would also suggest that they are also right in feeling that they are losing that war. It might not seem that way, because their militancy has allowed them to organize and exert influence beyond the actual numbers would support. But this is just a rear-guard action. No matter how much they howl "drill, baby drill", the price of oil has nowhere to go but up. And women, gays and people of colour are not going to go back to the kitchen, closet or Jim Crow.

It comes down to the numbers. The people who support the old status quo are older, and they are not reproducing. The people who are supporting the new consensus are growing rapidly. To cite one specific example, the battle to stop gay marriage is well on its way to being over. This is simply because the polling numbers show that a growing majority of Americans simply don't believe that the government should ban it. As I see it, the problem for conservatives is that once something like this becomes legal and people see that it doesn't lead to the horrible results that they suggest (the decline of Western civilization) people simply forget what the fuss was all about. (A similar phenomenon happened with abortion. A recent poll in Ontario suggests that only 8% of the population believe that it should be outlawed. That horse has left the barn too.)

The wild instability we are seeing in our political systems is coming about because in any transition from one conventional wisdom set to another there inevitably comes a point where both points of view are roughly balanced. At that point, a shift of support one way or the other can result in a huge victory for one at the expense of the other. Fortunately for the people who support the new consensus, however, this is just a temporary situation. Eventually, the new consensus achieves large enough support that the old once simply becomes incapable of every winning any more elections. It then dwindles down to being an angry, increasingly radical rump.

These rumps can cause problems for their society. The shooter in Norway and other terrorists like Bin Laden are fueled by resentment that their vision of society is so out of date that they cannot win at the ballot box, so they seek to win with the rifle. But they simply cannot win. Their actions do nothing more than convince the other side that they are even more right that they were before. This is why the Norwegian's promise to become "even more tolerant" will probably be successful. People resent being terrorized and it usually hardens people's resolve more than anything else.

I'm trying to suggest that "progressives" should avoid despair when they look at the way Conservatives seem to be able to wreak havoc on the world around us. I think that in ten years or so they will be fundamentally a spent force. That doesn't mean that the future is going to be all rose water and white gloves. There are objective problems that people are going to have to work hard to deal with, such as climate change and peak oil. But the current time of political paralysis is, IMHO, going to pass by fairly quickly. At that point we will have a new consensus and society will mobilize in order to deal with these crises---just as our grand parents did to deal with WWII.

What does all of this have to do with the Dao? A lot of people suggest that Daoism is not much more than walking in the woods with a smile on your face. But I would suggest that it is also about learning how to see the underlying, subtle laws that lie underneath the surface. I would also suggest that it is about developing a sense of equanimity that allows a person to focus on the big picture in order to stop hyperventilating about the problems that face her here and now.