Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Blood Under the Hood: Why I Don't Blog Personal

Crossed wires

On July 16 I bailed from Wat Ram Poeng to attend to incipient symptoms of depression. If this is failure, it's one I planned for--I'm practicing as a layman in Thailand in order to avoid sangha responsibilities and maintain the freedom to take care of my health as needed.

As a much needed counterpoint to my soapboxy megaphonic sabre rattling, here is a look at the bloodslime under the hood.

Here is the necessary musical accompaniment.


July 15. That it hurts my pride so much to give in is further evidence that leaving retreat is the right choice. But what if it's not depression but just the "temporarily arising condition of meditation," or the dukkha nanas? Could well be, but for once I'll err on the side of caution and baby myself before depression gets the upper hand. The negative consequences of unchecked depression far outweigh the basically negligible ones of leaving retreat earlier than I had planned. Besides, if all I need is some rest and relaxation, there's plenty of time to come back for a 10-15-day retreat with batteries fully recharged.
For three days the Cayetana song that goes "I know you really wanna make it out alive / Kid, you'll be okay..." has been on repeat inside my skullifer.
I'm embarrassed for having to bail, especially after talking big on the internet. I bet even Mahasi had to pace himself, and if not, well...F him.

What happened, you ask? Such incisive questioning! You'll make it far in this world.  What happened is that yesterday I started noticing very depressive thought patterns and a loss of hope. I don't want to validate those thoughts, but their complaints are that practice here (at W.R.P.) is designed to make you feel bad all the time, more or less, that sleep deprivation (4 hours a night, with periodic "determination" periods where you go 2-3 nights without sleeping) induces a persistent, pervasive sense of dysphoria. It's like the entire reward system in my brain had been disconnected and there was simply no chance of feeling good.
Instead of going, "Oh, I get it, there's no refuge in sense pleasure; I'll go deeper and deeper into renunciation," the effect was the opposite: "There's no refuge in the Dhamma, only pain and more pain--I'll flee into the simple pleasures of life!" So the mind rebounded towards any semblance of comfort. ...

It's worth noting that Wat Ram Poeng is exceptionally fierce in denying the meditator any insulation from "reality" (the three characteristics of reality, dukkha, change and essencelessness).  As in Okumura's "sesshin without toys," there is minimal ceremony, study or work to distract a meditator from the matter at hand. The sitting technique is, to me, very distasteful--In fact I F*ing HATE IT. Attending to abdominal movement elicits tension, tension which the WRP meditator (unlike in other techniques) is not allowed to alleviate in any way but only acknowledge. Next come the touch points. Most sittings, I'm too sleepy to get past the first few, as mindfulness quickly drowns in the deep drop-off at the first two points. Even when sati (mindfulness) is present, I find cycling through the points mechanical and meaningless, unsatisfying. And it's hard--probably impossible--to get the jhana (deep concentration) factors or the factors of enlightenment established on a meditation object that you basically can't stand.
Whereas in Zen I'm able to take heart and uplift my spirit ("gladdening the mind," in the Buddha's language) by taking in the smell of the incense and tatami, the echo of the han, even the thought that "I am a Zen monk!" there is little of that kind of beauty here. Maybe affinity doesn't count for much, but when it comes down to the wire it can make the difference.

The Buddha teaches that the jhanas (blissful states of deep concentration)  provide what he calls the "joy of renunciation." He proposes giving up attachment to sensual pleasures for something much better--not just giving them up to feel terrible. In the long run, you (I) need jhana/samadhi to keep me on the path. Because after 4 years of austerity, I am very tired. I need something sweet, something good, something beautiful.

I'm hanging a lot of hope on Pa Auk [forest monastery, Burma].


July 16

Reading Kamo no Chomei's "Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut," I'm reminded of and chastened for how weirdly ambitious I've become. Always wanting to call the shots, tight from being hurt enough. Cringing at the balled fist of the world, striking first in fear. I've gotten to believe that my margins are so narrow I can't afford a single of jot of further misfortune. So I make of myself an iron wedge--where is the Dharma in that?
These 20 days I've overspilled my cup with thoughts of "my Zen future": Daigaku, St. Louis, Hosshinji, a Japanese master, 12 sesshins a year, Burlington, Soryu, Shinzen, mindfulness in schools, Portland, grad school, Great vow, grad school (again), Olympia, Bellingham, Waldron, Anacortes, and so on....But the gist is always, "I will control my life...." Desperate, demanding, and entitled.
I hate to say it and don't yet even really believe it, but maybe even to want enlightenment is too much.
--But monastic life is just SO FUCKING HARD. How can I put myself through that year after year without any hope that someday it will become worth it? It will. Of course it will. BE PATIENT. Be diligent, kind and patient.


July 17
And how about the vast no-man's-land between a rewarding daily practice and enlightenment? That bleak area of life where you have given up everything and gotten nothing in return? [Merton knew it well.] And at some point will I be called to task, to make a life?
Relax. The bun is in the oven. Be wise.


July 19
Heard a bossa nova version of "Come As You Are" yesterday, dreamed of dear Kurt Cobain, Kurt Cobain! RIP Kurt Cobain, friend somehow in my heart, always, eyes misty.
I felt weirdly sick yesterday and spent 4 hours in bed and three more with a blinding headache. Afterwards I wandered the rainy streets and bought little gifts at the Thapae Gate market. I bought myself a blue T-shirt, so now with my salmon-colored shorts I am wearing so many colors more than black.


July 20
Went up the mountain to Wat Doi Suthep. I've been taking a lot of pictures, messing around with double exposures. Fell in love more than once, but this one Japanese girl who asked me to take a picture of her with her friend...I was mumbling, "Is this an iPhone? Wow, it's beautiful...YOU'RE beautiful...." Then she offered to take my picture with my camera. I hesitated full of shame at my dumb half-inch of hair and disgustingly scrawny monk physique. I need one of those trilby hats. That'll make everything alright....

All of this is too noisy and too busy for me by far! A hut of a house in Eugene Portland Olympia Seattle Anacortes Belilngham! To sit in a place I belong to, whose couches dent the shape of MY butt. Tea-steam rising in the slanting sunrays, mist dripping collected from eaves. Cats, bikes, blueberries, baristas....
Lord break me through quickly so I can go home!

I read a recent report of one foreigner's experience at Pa Auk. Heat, noise, bed bugs in the meditation hall! It sounds quite bad, quite unsuitable. Better to be disillusioned now, I guess... Biding time, planning travel; coffee and meals and money and things to do and buy, Oh! I'm sick of it. Noting irritability, noting annoyance....Be grateful to be supported to be on the path. Everybody feels bad sometimes.


July 22

Time passes in the land of dreams. PM Black Canyon Coffee. Even here, insulated from the piercing prattle of a thousand tuk-tuks and their ugly fumes, I'm troubled and benoised by the clamor of one hundred Chinese children! I hide into the thick synth folds of Mount Eerie, Sauna. God keep me. This town is killing me. Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
Oh, hut!
So this episode ends with me beachwrecked on the horrible sand? Really, this again, after so long? Does seniority count for nothing? Do I want too much? Is the sanity I seek unsimple and overspecified? I'm tired of the wheel, God rest me, I'm tired of the wheel! I'm tired, I'm tired!


July 23

AM BeBeez Cafe with the news grating out there beyond my earbuds. Inside here, Chris Staples and everyone good.

I shot into the sky when a girl with Norwegian eyelids smiled at me coming down the stairs. But I won't talk of happiness, which reputedly flees at the sound of its silly name.

Take what you love most:
    - love-smiling eyes, flesh
    - cool mountains rain trees
    - plaid
    - music shaking your breastbone, soaking through
    - poems
Do without, and do without again.

My point is a wayfarer can't survive so exposed--where is shelter? Monks have each other and a teacher and a home. I am tired. I can't find a way to be. I'm a mobile device, yea, with no place to charge.


See now why I yell about the importance of enlightenment instead of telling you how I'm doing?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

ATI Profiles! The Meaning of Life Walks Into A Bar Graph...

Part o/t "108 Theses" series

I just spent way too much time on retreat mulling over Shinzen Young's Three Jobs, Appreciate, Transcend and Improve. Every great thinker has weighed in on the issue of what is the one essential task of a human life. Kurt Vonnegut generously quipped, "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." (Appreciate?) For Epicurus it was sensuality (Appreciate), for Rinzai, enlightenment (Transcend), and for Marx and the like, Improvement of material conditions. I could easily generate many examples for each category. Kierkegaard looks at each style of life in turn, finally rejecting the aesthetic (A) and the ethical (I) in favor of the religious (T). Shinzen flies in the face of a couple thousand years of tradition by casually admitting not one but three essential jobs.

To Every Thing, There Is A Season
Many philosophers have settled on an answer that is both singular and static. There is one thing to do, at all times. This is not, however, the way life usually works. It's helpful to look for an answer that is plural and dynamic, dynamic meaning that it interacts with other facts of life and changes through time. Life Stages models do this well, the best example being the classical Hindu model: Youth is devoted to pleasure (A); maturity to wealth, power, family, and responsibility (A and I); and old age to spiritual practice. (T)

Appreciate this Chiang Mai street art. 

(A Digression on) The Myth of Static Balance
So we want to Appreciate, Transcend, and Improve. I don't know if it's a contemporary American thing or more widespread, but the instinctual response these days is, "We must balance them. If we can balance the three, we will be happy." There are two problems with this though. The first is what I'm calling the Myth of Static Balance. Google "Zen" and you will find a hundred photos demonstrating the myth of static balance--perfectly smooth river rocks stacked just so, forming a beautiful, elegant tower. And we want our lives to be like this, all our ducks in a row. Problem is, our lives are not rocks, and only dead ducks stay put. Movement and change are a part of life, and as long as we are alive we will never experience that kind of balance.
As far as balance goes, we need a more dynamic image. Picture a surfer, alive and moving in harmony with forces infinitely greater than herself. In other words, verb that noun: It's not balance we need, but balancing. We need to keep balancing.

Please, not this.

Unfortunately even this tweak to our notion of equilibrium does not answer the question of how to live a life of Appreciate-Transcend-Improve. The second problem is that a balanced ATI Profile will never break through to Transcendence.
It's a matter of concentration or focus of force. You can't use steam or liquid water to puncture a balloon, but freeze it into a needle-pointed (single-pointed, ekagatta) icicle, and you are in business. Just so, a flat profile won't do it; you need to spike the T to break through. That means a period of min-maxing. A period of min-maxing, that's a crucial point. A period of time, not a lifetime of min-maxing.

Your Crackerjack prize!

ATI Profiles
I've been plotting the three dimensions on a three-point scale, being cautious not to let precision outstrip accuracy. Off the top of my head I get numbers like these: Rinzai (131), Theravadan Monastery (133), conventional life in consumer capitalism (101, considering the difference between frantic consumption and appreciation), academic religious studies (300), psychotherapy (203).

Warning: May contain graphic sexual imagery

What's the Use?
ATI Profiles are a big picture, zoom-out tool that make it possible to talk about something slippery and to make very generalized comparisons. It's questionable as to whether something as seemingly obvious as ATI Profiles will be of any help in the future, but they have already helped produce four insights, the latter three of which are closely related.
1. That a party may avow one profile and practice another. Certain spiritual communities I know adopt the prestige-language of Transcend but actually practice community-oriented self-help. This points to a serious problem with Transcend language, namely that it is sexy: A teacher who can speak Transcend will go far.
2. That profiles differ amongst different roles and stages within a given system. For example, a master's profile is dramatically different from a student's. We can't talk about a "Zen ATI Profile" without taking into account these differences (not to mention the dramatic differences between Soto and Rinzai approaches).
3. That different stages in life and learning call for different profiles. Specifically, that it's good to work on A and I before T, and even better to work on them after. A caveat is that you don't want A and I to be neglected for so long that your mental health, social skills emotional intelligence and so on actually diminish. It's okay to set these concerns aside for a few years, but it's not okay to damage yourself.
4.Temporary min-maxing (producing a spike in one area) is necessary to produce enlightenment, at least if you want it in less than thirty years. Any real practice monastery will have a spiked profile. In most monasteries you'll also find a periodic spike within the spike. Sesshins or meditation retreats really really really set aside Appreciation and Improvement in order to focus wholeheartedly on Transcendence. Why? Because it works, of course! It ain't pleasant, but it works.

"The Glory of God is man [and woman] fully alive." - St. Irenaeus

What's the point of Transcendence again?
I could give all kinds of overly clever answers, but in this context it's simply that having completed the stages of the T task, a human being is free to Appreciate and Improve fully, making a vibrant 303. The Zen arts--perfection in painting, poetry, archery, tea ceremony and so on--represent such a flourishing in the Appreciate realm. When applied to Improvement, it can look like the selfless, literally divinely inspired activism of figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. It's astonishing to consider that we all have this potential within us. All we have to do is liberate the pent up life force that is currently getting leeched in enormous quantities by the background processes of creating and defending an indefensible, imaginary, separate self. Are you up for it?

On the horizon...
"Kicking Ladders and Cutting Ropes: When Not To Listen To Your Teacher"