Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zen And The Art Of Missing The Point

When I was 19 (attending Ga Tech in Atlanta), I found a local Buddhist (Vajrayana) study group where I went for teachings and meditation.

I had read enough up to that point to build up a set of imaginative constructs involving enlightenment, higher planes of existence, and of course "the secret meaning of life".

I 'knew' the way to truth lay within. And that meditation would enable me to unlock these secrets and claim them for myself. Was it just a matter of concentrating long and hard enough? Was it just cleansing your mind and waiting for God to appear? I was determined to find out. So I read and sampled as much as I could on Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Cabbalah, and many others I can't recall anymore.

I thought I understood what I read, eating it up, one world view after another. A spiritual orgy if you will.

Achieving enlightenment seemed to be the point. But I was particularly interested in the 'technical details' of meditation as a means to expand my consciousness, which I saw as the shortcut to enlightenment.

This was the key to my spiritual goals:
  • Experience higher realms of existence
  • Understand the meaning of life and existence.
  • Live a spiritually fulfilled and inspired life.
  • Travel the path to its ultimate purpose.
  • Help others do the same (not really, I just felt I should say that to not sound like such a selfish louse).
And in so doing:
  • Escape suffering (starting with my own).
  • Attain wisdom (impress pretty girls)
  • Become beloved by all (especially pretty girls).
It wasn't just spiritual materialism; I also wanted to live an inspired life, being the best kind of person I could be.

Yes there was karma, suffering, reincarnation, attachment, the ego, etc. But they all seemed secondary, maybe even irrelevant. After all, if you achieve ultimate consciousness, you escape all that right?

My internal translator put it all together for me; All paths were really saying the same thing. That consciousness was the only thing worth considering. Only cultural wrappers make one path appear differently to another. What doesn't fit is probably superstitious bullshit anyway. I mean, c'mon, can't you see the obviousness of it all? I understood. I knew. I relished in my keen awareness of the meaning behind all teachings. I felt superior.

Occasionally there would be full weekend meditations where you sat for 12 hours a day both days.

I started meditating with a group that practiced the practice 'coming back to the present moment'. It seemed to be the most direct route.

You Are Going To Be Disappointed
At one of these meditations, a teacher of the group visited and gave a talk at the end of the 2nd day. Amongst the many points he made, one stood out, actually jumped out at me.  He said, with a soft spoken matter of factness "you are going to be disappointed".

Huh? What was that? Going to be disappointed? About what? I mean really, it's been just the opposite! All this great stuff I was learning. It wasn't disappointing, it was exciting. And I couldn't get enough of it. So what the hell was he talking about?

Still, something about what he said or the way he said it broke my state of quiet bliss. I felt the wind come out of secret glamorous thoughts I had been harboring concerning the nature of existence and my place in the world.

Magic Powers, Impress Your Friends, Or Not
Being told you are going to be disappointed is very disappointing. So was that it? OK, I am disappointed that I probably won't astral project, read minds, have godlike wisdom and impress pretty girls. So are we done?

Follow your Breath. Be Here Now. I Got It
The instructions for meditation were pretty simple. Follow your breath. Inhale, exhale. Follow your breath. When you realize your mind has taken your attention, come back to following your breath. Don't judge or engage. Don't try to control it. Keep coming back. Follow your breath.

It is much harder than it sounds. Your mind is like a monkey on acid. At least mine was.
But, eventually I did develop a knack for remembering, coming back and starting again.

The meditation practice provided many benefits, not the least of which was the relief I felt from my mind's endless activity.

So, I did this for a while. A few months. It felt good. I thought I was making progress.

And Then..I don't got it
But inevitably, the questioning began...

OK, I get it, be here now, be in the moment. Now that I'm here, what do I do? No, I mean really, whats next? I get it. What comes after being in the moment?

I was frustrated.

I mean "what a waste of time"! Lets get this party started already. After all, I'm taking the time to sit here and do nothing for hours at a time. At least something should be happening in the arena of my mind, right? I mean that's the point right? To develop your 'spiritual powers', right?

What an idiot I was. Well, maybe idiot is the wrong word, but what childish mind I had! Philosophical and religious teachings had filled my imagination with notions of fantastic, beautiful worlds, perfect beings, absolute harmony, and total awareness. And this could be mine for only an hour a day! Count me in!

My unexamined mind wasn't ready. I was annoyed by the burden of inner issues, emotional imbalances, endless negative judgements, anger, and desire. I couldn't imagine how I would ever find enlightenment when I had so many distractions!

Fake it until you fool yourself
I couldn't have imagined what really was being asked of the student. To not only practice a meditative discipline, but to actually change the way you thought, the way you feel, and the way you behave in the world.

Oh not directly. Rarely are their instructions so specific, although one can easily mis-interpret spiritual guidance with rules and regulations.

I struggled for years with what I thought was a better way of living against what I actually felt, thought and  ultimately did. I rationalized this with adage "fake it until you make it".  That really only helps you to fool others (and yourself as well) that you have actually changed, that you are making progress.

But what about what's really going on inside? Oh that. Well don't tell anybody, it would be too embarrassing, right?  Right.

When The Fruit Is Ripe, It Kinda Messy
It took years for me to come to grips with certain elements of my mind and heart.

Since that time in Atlanta, I kept the habit of 'remembering myself' several times a day.  Coming back to awareness. Coming home, being here now. To begin again.

But I think the mental and emotional forces which played out in my life had a schedule of their own. Not that it was out of my control, or that I wasn't responsible.  Its just that I wasn't ready for certain issues, until other issues had been resolved or had just exhausted themselves.

I had read accounts of people who had gone though years of therapy and had reflected upon how they weren't able to come to peace with elements of their lives, until other aspects had been dealt with.  And that once those other aspects were resolved, what they had been searching for, but unable to achieve, then became attainable, sometimes effortlessly.

I remember when I had read those kinds of things I would feel some frustration. But, I don't wanna wait until 'it's' ready. I'm ready now. Lets get to it!

Ah, but that's part of the problem isn't it. Wanting to skip over the 'small' stuff, to get to the 'main' event.

Facing Disappointment
Reflecting on my experiences over the years I can see how holding on to particular ideas, concepts, feelings and desires are the very thing which gets in the way.

It was only when I was able to internally face myself, be deeply honest about who I thought I was, how I really behaved in life, and what I actually did, vs what I imagined.

For all of these things, I was able to come face to face with the problem. -Me- being attached to ideas, often fanciful, about who and what I am. Living inside a model of the world vs living in the world.

When I would go through these periods of deep self evaluation, and face what were obviously self indulgences, I would feel real disappointment as I discarded naive notions and feelings. It was like turning to face a different direction. The old is no longer being engaged.

I remember actually feeling more sober, as if my feet were just a little closer to the ground.

Reaching For The Ground
It has been 25 years since that disappointment in Atlanta.
But I think I now understand what that means, and that's its actually not a bad thing. Its just a process of coming back, coming home, being here now. So we can begin again.

We The Egos
Still, I often catch myself thinking "OK what's next. C'mon, I've made all this progress, what do I do now?".