Monday, September 28, 2009

Silent Week (or I Was Told There'd Be No Math)

9/23/09 I = C

Do you know that scene in “Pretty Woman” where Julia Robert’s prostitute heart-of-gold character is standing on the sidelines watching the polo match? And Jason Alexander (playing Richard gears blood-sucking lawyer) comes onto her after he finds out she’s really a prostitute? And then she gets really mad at Richard Gere, because she wasn’t expecting to be reminded of her job, with her defenses down, when she was supposed to be allowed to be someone else for a while? Well, I’m going to go for the hyperbole a bit here, and say that that’s how I felt when, after almost an entire day and night in total silence, plus hours of meditation teachings and sitting practice, one of my students came up to me and shoved a late assignment under my nose. I was in a soft focus world of contemplation, gazing out at the misty valley, when suddenly I had crumpled pages of hastily scrawled “religious studies” content thrust in front of me. I looked at it like a walrus might look at a Mercedes Benz- what in the world is this thing, and what am I supposed to do with it? I scrambled for my mental wire-rimmed spectacle, pinch-mouthed schoolmarm persona and accepted the paper.

We had told the students before going into silence the day before that no school work should be done or handed in during the six day retreat period, yet I couldn’t quite chalk this one up to “Oh well, typical with this age group that what’s said and heard are not often the same.” Primarily because this particular meditation lineage has us focusing on what repetitive thoughts disturb our peace during meditation practice, and my repetitive thoughts have been something to the tune of “Sheesh! What’s so confusing about “Don’t do that”?! I was just trying to look out the freaking window for two freaking minutes! Why does no one listen? Why? Whyyyyy?! What if the rest of the students saw that, and I spend the next six days watching them scribble clandestinely in their notebooks when they should be meditating, so they can slip their hasty pages to me while I’m trying to connect with my divine freaking essence?! Am I not a person? When I speak, but only in a room full of young adults, do I make a sound? If I were here alone, I would SO be rocking out on this meditation thing. Obviously."

So, no use pretending the waters are calm, when our instructors are dunking our heads in the sea of our own discontent. They claim that this is in order to root out the cause of the disturbance, determine its validity, and eliminate it for good. As our sweet-faced teacher Ajay says, “One cannot be peaceful and dependent at the same time”, which is distilled into the formula “I + X= does not equal C”. “I” is me. “X” is that thing I think I need in order to be complete, peaceful, happy, etc. (e.g. students that listen when we ask them not to do something), and “C” equals completeness. If there is always an “X” factor you will never feel truly complete. You’ve got to be able to get that job done regardless of external circumstances. As Ajay says, “Over there, my happiness. This is the life of most people in the world.” Or in my case, as I stared holes through the back of the offending student’s head, “Over there my unhappiness”, secretly hoping he would feel the weight of my irritation like a pall on his post-assignment triumph.

The truth is, my difficulty clearing my mind has no more to do with student behavior than the color of my eyes has to do with the weather in Belgrade. I’ve just got a squirelly brain case, and there’s no two ways about it. (Note: This philosophical turn of mind was available to me only after I sent the facilitators a note asking them to remind the students not to do schoolwork during the retreat.) Nonetheless, I do notice some improvements from my first experience of this retreat a year ago.

In our first session, Ajay asked us to do a concentration exercise (in silence, of course). On the inhale, say “Om”, and on the exhale count “100”. Then inhale “Om”, exhale “99” and so on. Every time a distracting pattern of thought enters your mind, you’re meant to start over again from “100”. No one in the history of these retreats has ever gotten to “1”. Last year, I couldn’t even break “97”. This year however, while I never dipped below “86”, I noticed that I wasn’t being distracted by thought patterns, but just…patterns. Seriously. Calico, gingham, paisley, you name it. Because I was finally managing to keep the yammering voice out of my head, my oh-so-resourceful inner monkey went into creative overdrive and starting furnishing glorious swatches for my delectation. Each number had its own texture, colors, and shape, and I don’t have the first idea why there’s some part of me that thinks “95” is midnight blue velvet with white eyeley trim. This whole visual parade actually felt very meditative. That is, until I started trying to use the fabric- a sassy bolero jacket here, a modern window treatment there, what’s the harm? Next thing I knew, I was lost somewhere between Pottery Barn and Anthropologie. With “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman cranking in the background. Darn kids.

9/24/09 Complete Before Cataracts

“Freedom is the test and the gift of love”. It’s not every day that someone lays that one on you before 7am , but I suppose that’s what makes this a silent retreat, rather than a silent New York Times crossword over Pop Tarts and Sanka. Not that most of my students wouldn’t already sell their own mother for anything approaching the sugar content of a Pop Tart, even at this early stage, yet I think for the most part we are all acquitting ourselves admirably. I do worry that I may be setting a bad example by choosing to nap during the time allotted for cleanliness (the “Shower of Joy”), but my senses tell me no one’s fallen down on the personal hygiene yet, and I’m planning a dutifully joyful shower tomorrow.

Ajay and Suruchi talked about freedom a lot this morning, and what can keep us from the experience of it. According to them, when staying in the place of “I=C” (I am complete within myself) is the top priority, this is freedom, because one is not dependent upon external conditions for happiness, peace, etc. To put it in terms we debt-addicted Americanos can understand, every time you identify a new “X” factor (that thing you think you need to be complete), you open a new account. If you eventually get that thing and close the account, ten more accounts open. In other words, you pay off the Bloomingdales, and celebrate by opening up a Gap, Barnes and Noble, Victoria’s Secret, etc.

And then he said something which is still rocking my world even as I write this. Something so obvious that it’s probably on the back of a cereal box or the lid of a jar of Snapple somewhere, and yet I never really got it until now. “If the object of desire (X) is transient, so will the outcome be.” Simple as that. Hmph. When has getting something I wanted ever made me happy and peaceful and free of all wanting forever? Never. Not even when I got that killer burrito, that truly good haircut, or that job I’d always dreamed of. Nothing will ever be as good as I expect it to be, if what I expect is that it will make me complete. Tough love, but long overdue.

Then, while we were all still reeling from this early dose of gospel, they hit us with more math. If you persist on locating completeness outside yourself, then you will spend 95% of the time chasing the thing, and only 5% enjoying it. I doubt they pulled this one from the world of researched academia, yet it definitely strikes a chord in my own reality. Sometimes I’m lucky to get that five percent before I start worrying about losing the thing I just got, or if I got the best one, or if I’ll be stuck with this thing forever, whether I keep wanting it or not. So everything changes, with one exception. If you are constantly chasing after things or running away from them, your circumstances change, but you do not. You are always seeking happiness, and never really finding it. And then you die.

I can’t remember when it happened that I stopped seeing the elderly as though they’d hatched from eggs as shriveled octogenarian character actors to play the part of “old folks” in the unfolding drama of my life, and started seeing them as my eventual self. Maybe it was when someone asked me about “when I was young”, or when my friends and sisters began having babies, making grandparents of our moms and dads. It certainly wasn’t when those sisters and friends started getting gray hair. That never happened. But if I had to name it, I might identify this perceptual shift as the moment when I realized that life was slowly going to love my physical self into the ground (literally), a sort of Velveteen Rabbit made real by too much undeniable evidence to the contrary, and that it might be a good time to figure out how to be happy even when the cataracts come a’ calling.

Fortunately, this does not mean abandoning all aspirations, but only ensuring that I am not hanging my sense that all is as it should be on their attainment. That’s a lot to take in before breakfast, but the rigors of self-inquiry are relentless, so they walloped us once more before the morning porridge. “You cannot change other people. They must choose to change. People act compulsively, and you can’t take it personally.” So I get that, and yet I looked around the room at my charges, eyes squinched shut in heroic feats of mental digestion, and couldn’t deny some tiny warm squiggle of hope that in my choice to be here with them, I might play some small part in the change they are all reaching for. I’ll just tuck that little “X factor” into my pocket until November, then I’ll ditch it. Promise.

9/25/09- Deep Thoughtings

Same stories, same practices, same day-to-day routine as last year, so why aren’t I bored? Is it possible that I have more to learn about detaching from any thoughts that would disturb my inner peace? Moi? Ajay and Suruchi are very careful to make the distinction between thinking and thoughting. Thinking is to be encouraged. It is necessary, productive, and allows us to fulfill our dharma through mindful action. Thoughting is repetitive mental meandering which harps upon the same events, themes, feelings, etc. again and again with no other result than making us walking zombie prisoners of past and future, ghosts of the present.

Seems like a bit of a fine line to me. I mean, one minute you’re pondering the next phase of your professional development, doing some really quality-type strategizing, and the next thing you know you’re fantasizing about the vacation home in southern France you’ll acquire once you got this sweet-ass job, and what kinds of obscure cheeses you’ll buy in the neighboring village for your afternoon baguette. And let’s face it, some thoughts are just flat out fun- and I think you know which ones I mean. So how to reconcile the idea that through our thoughts we create our reality, and the necessity of reigning in our tendency to walk around in dreams of how life could be, rather than an acceptance of how it is?

Ajay answers this by saying that the key difference here is whether you are thinking about something because you are chasing or running from it, or because you are peaceful, balanced, and consciously creating. The kicker is, you have to be willing to attach and detach at a moment’s notice, without losing your sense of peace. Easy when it’s a song I kinda sorta wanted to hear, not so easy when it’s that person/place/thing that is in all ways wonderful and so instrumental to completing my fantastic vision for perfect existence.

Not to mention the fact that I am more than a little bit in love with my own thoughts. Granted, sometimes I feel like I’m being dragged through a field of thistles behind a herd of blind, rabid wildebeests, but I quite often enjoy the ride, if not the view. This might be the hardest point for me to swallow. I’m not saying all of my thoughtings are gushing with creative inspiration, but I am a little worried about turning off the tap entirely. Z Meditation claims that only a mind which is truly clear is truly creative, because it creates a space for inspiration to enter in. But if inspiration is not snatched from the jowels of that tangent about ceramic tiles and zucchini muffins, where will it come from? Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find out…

9/26/09 Sounds Like Teen Spirit

This morning, when Ajay began with “When you leave day after tomorrow-“, all of my warm fuzzy detachment went flying out the window, and suddenly I’m not only attached to being here, I’m scrabbling for every last moment ‘til my fingers are bloody and the only sound is the deafening “Noooooo!” reverberating in my head. So much for equanimity. How can it almost be time to go? I’m just getting started, and I only today realized the difference between the kind of acceptance where you are at peace with the way someone/thing is while remaining firmly convinced that they are in error by not being like you, and accepting something exactly as it is, no judgment, no unspoken “Poor lamb, I accept you, even though you insist on being so very wrong.” This is big. Subtle, but big, and I suspect indispensable to my sanity in the coming weeks, not to mention years. I need more, MORE I say!

Yesterday marked day four of our “silent retreat” (note the irony implied in the use of quotes), and I thought the students were holding up remarkably well. True, there did seem to be a lot of announcements by the staff about respecting the silence, but I thought these were just general, routine public service-type things. Until Ajay, when suggesting to another staff member that we might break silence just long enough to sing happy birthday to one of our number, said jovially “Why not, they’ve been talking all day anyway!” Say what? The curtains of my yummy meditation trance parted, and I was suddenly all too aware of the resounding lack of silence. The students were not flipping out by day four of silence, because the students were not, for the most part, silent.

In fact, they were gesturing at each other like frantic umpires or Marcel Marceau with gesticulatory Tourettes. They were snorting and giggling and just flat out talking, and passing enough notes and drawings to qualify for what might be the world’s longest ongoing game of Pictionary. This, despite the fact that not only were we requested to be silent, but to avoid passing notes, physical or eye contact, and any noise of any kind. Suddenly, the corridors of the ashram seemed to echo with their explosions of communication, until I had to fight the urge to hurl a plastic chair at their wildly wagging heads. Last night it peaked with an all out screech-fest over some dramatized spider-spotting (c’mon, people, it’s a spider), which ellicits a startliing Raging Bull response from my exasperated inner voice- “You want something to scream about, I’ll give you something to scream about!”
I state all of this in the past tense, not because I have, on this fifth day, ascended finally and firmly into the realm of equanimous non-attachment, but because the “gentle reminders” from the staff have become decidedly more firm, and momentarily tamed/shamed the burgeoning rebellion. Or so I hope.

I’d much rather pass the time soaking in Suruchi’s radiant Mona Lisa smile, marveling at Ajay’s lashes, thick as push brooms where they hover atop his plump cheeks during meditation, and watching lightning play around a tangerine sliver of moon hanging above the valley in the early evening. It’s much easier to stay anchored in my mantra-induced serenity when my mind is occupied with nothing more complex than the phenomenon of the moths that begin to swarm around the lampposts a full thirty minutes before they are switched on at night. Mother Nature, caught in the act of living for the future! Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

9/27/09 My Silence

Silence is a construct, like a nation or a relationship. You can’t touch it or dress it up for Halloween, or put it in a hermetically sealed container wrapped in electrified barbed wire, encircled with fifty-foot watch towers, and patrolled by Dobermans and unstable men named “Bubba”, and “Pain Train”. If silence were a thing, I could call it mine. I could recognize it by sight and smell, and carry it around in my backpack wrapped in a fleece jacket to prevent breakage. It turns out that silence is more like air- air which can be polluted by the noxious exudations of others like second-hand smoke. If someone is a scratcher or a throat-clearer or a helpless giggler or involuntary moaner (now I know they exist), then those become the soundtrack of one’s life, if one wishes to live among others and not, in fact, in a hermetically sealed box.

And yet something in my mind persists in thinking of what I have cherished so deeply about this week, and felt so ferociously protective of, as My Silence. When someone chooses to break Their Silence, they also make a decision about My Silence, and its right to exist. This is dramatic, as has been my response to the second-hand sounds of others. It makes me want to wring my hands, draw a chalk outline on the floor and keen while tearing out my hair- “Look! Just look at what you’ve done to My Silence! My beautiful, broken Siiiiilence!” Operatic emotions of Betrayal, Frustration, and mostly Intense Irritation become my great golden excuses to dodge the work of mind-clearing and digging out my lazy mental patterns. But after a week of “deal with yourself” boot camp, I now let myself have my Scarlett O’Hara moment, take my bows, and hunker back down over my own business.

We leave tomorrow, back to India with all of the demands on our energy and integrity She will make, and I feel like I’ve found a new orientation to this job and these incredibly noisy young people. Of course they are jabbering and hugging and grimacing grotesquely at each other, despite all requests to the contrary. At that point in life, the dominant questions seem to be “Who am I?”, “How do others see me?” and “If no one sees me, do I even exist?” It’s all about socializing, learning yourself through relationship to others and the world. How to know anything unless it’s been trotted out in public and reflected in the gaze of one’s peers? It is a particularly tricky joke we play on them to bring them here during their second week in India, and ask them to divest themselves of all of their conditionings and beliefs. Most of them are just now hatching into a stage in life where they can identify their own beliefs, apart from those of their parents/ hometown/ religious background/ etc. So if their resistance looks to me like derision and sarcasm, it likely feels to them more like being allowed to choose your own name, then having someone tell you you have to go by “Mr. X” instead. Not o.k.

I am bolstering myself with these types of compassion exercises in preparation for our first group circle after breaking silence tomorrow. I’m feeling a bit tender about the edges after all of this psychic excavation, and am just hoping that I can keep grounded in the comforting law of impermanence. No matter what mini-quakes this week sends rippling through the group, I know it will pass.

I remember when I lived in L.A. after my stint in the Peace Corps. It was an incredibly sad and difficult time (Note: Don’t move to L.A. after your stint in the Peace Corps). I used to walk in the hills of Will Rogers State Park looking down at the city, and feel completely convinced that things would always be sad and difficult, because everything I could see from there was infinitely sprawling L.A., and I couldn’t imagine that there was anywhere else to go, or anything else to feel. In the end, it turns out that all I had to do for the landscape to change, was keep walking . In the moments where the shrapnel of a student’s overwhelm and confusion is hurtling at my softer parts, I hope I can remember that even those razor-edged shards (and the collateral damage where they land), will pass.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, Juls. Do I have to pay you for this?