Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On No Longer Meditating

I began meditating in 1982 and continued the practice, with some gaps, for 25 years.  But when I moved to a Buddhist country in 2007, I stopped.  The confession that I no longer meditate feels shameful and is not easy to make.  It is even more difficult to explain.  I expect disapproval, as if I'd written: "I no longer pray, go to mass or believe in God."  I know that this is disturbing to some friends.  How about: I also no longer exercise, take vitamin supplements, or do yoga, and I've stopped giving money to beggars and petting wild kittens. But I've also never been happier.

This blog post is a rumination on how meditation has lost its luster for me.  If I could say precisely why, the post would have been titled, "Why I No Longer Meditate."  Hence the philosophical underpinning.  I expect to be pitied, especially by some in the expat Buddhist community here in Bangkok for whom meditation is a sacred activity.

Lord knows I tried.  I gave away my zafu and two meditation benches in California before I left because I intended to travel light.  On settling here, I bought a couple of household cushions when I found nothing specially made for meditation.  I should mention that my knees have become increasingly unmanageable of late and I probably could no longer sit on even a bench.  During my first years in Thailand, I attended meditation retreats and talks but usually sat in a chair.  But there is something improper for me about meditating in a chair, though I do remember a meditator with a bad back in California who lay down flat on the floor for her practice.  Form, however, has always been as important as function for me.

My childhood was decidedly Protestant Christian.  I attended vacation bible school and youth camps and had a crush on the minister's daughter.  I devoured science fiction, and, when introduced to the idea that flying saucers might be real, swallowed it whole.  Those were the days when UFO were envisioned as saviors (Jung's last book described them as the metaphor for the scientific age). I encountered the many New Age ramblings of true believers in the 1950s and shared their enthusiasm for seeking esoteric wisdom. But ultimately their often racist views clashed with my passionate support then of the civil rights movement.  Along came the Beats whose writings opened the door to the East for me, the Buddhism of Kerouac and Snyder, and Asian spirituality appealed as an alternative to Christian platitudes.  But I did not try meditation until my secretary at a Hollywood record company initiated me into Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970s.  For weeks after, I recited my mantra and yearned for a bliss that failed to come (nor could I ever levitate as TM devotees claimed).

Life intervened.  In 1982 my second wife was pregnant with my fourth child.  We lived in Connecticut and I worked in Manhattan.  I was 42 and should have been happy, but all that I had was not enough; I wanted more, but I could not say what that would be.  In retrospect, it was a full-blown midlife crisis (the first of many). I began browsing the religion section of bookstores and visiting churches.  I read The Way of the Pilgrim and silently recited the Jesus prayer while riding New York's subway and buses.  At the Integral Yoga store off lower Fifth Avenue I bought a hard round cushion designed for meditating and I read Ram Dass's classic manual of instruction, Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook.  At the same time I was also reading St. John of the Cross and imagining that I was entering the "dark night of the soul." On a visit to the New York Zen Center I attended an introductory session with Eido Shamano Roshi and learned how to hold my hands while sitting and walking.  In the early mornings I sat on the floor of the living room of our New England farmhouse and tried to count wordlessly to ten while a three-minute egg timer clicked away in the kitchen.  It took me a years to get to ten without losing my concentration because of the intervention of distracting thoughts.  It was also a long time before I could sit without overwhelming physical and mental discomfort for more than three minutes.

What did I want when I scanned the sky for flying saucers, read about the Great White Brotherhood in Tibet, or sat in a half-lotus position (back in the day!) hoping for satori or at least the cessation of thoughts that might precede an oceanic feeling of bliss (as promised in the books I'd read)?  I was dissatisfied and unhappy, in my 20s as well as in my 40s, and I wanted something else; I wanted to be somebody else.  Finding the secret might do the trick, soothe the discontent.  As a middle-class American, I had never really suffered.  My angst was existential, a gift from my culture.  There were too many choices, and if I failed or was bored, I had no one to blame but myself.  Perhaps everything was a lie and the truth lay elsewhere, in the Himalayas or in the wordless insight of a koan. Religion contains the original conspiracy theories.  Life is a mystery, and maybe Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu figured it out (or their followers).  The leader of our flying saucer study group received messages from the UFOs and published them as Wisdom of the Universe.  I wanted a little of that.  And so I labeled myself a "seeker" and set out on a path to find it.  I even tried science, exploring the mysticism of quantum physics in numerous books (my real life tutors included Fred Alan Wolf and Nick Herbert).  Through it all meditation was a constant companion.

I wasn't above mixing and matching disciplines and practices.  Under the influence of the monk Thomas Merton, whose writings revealed a suppressed mystical tradition in the Catholic Church and who also argued for a turn to the East, including meditation, I converted to Catholicism.  I found kindred souls among priests and nuns, even cradle Catholics, who embraced contemplation (another way of describing meditation), and who sometimes found more in common with Asian believers than the conservative Christians they sat next to church.  Rather than seek enlightenment, Christians often want to see God "face to face" beyond words.  The experience might be similar, but the names and description Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others give to that experience varies according to the seeker's cultural and religious background.  For many, religions are so many fingers pointing at the one moon.

For the last 10 years, I have attended Catholic mass and meditated in countries around the globe, from Mexico to Guatemala and Argentina, and from India to Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand.  I fully expected that my religious practices would continue when I moved permanently to Thailand.  But that did not happen.  My experience with Catholic worship services in Bangkok was not encouraging.  Priests tended to be aging and conservative in a country where Christians are a tiny minority and Catholics have only a historical edge.  In my second month in Bangkok I discovered a Buddhist group just forming for expats and tourists and I took an enthusiastic part in organizing talks and retreats.

At the same time I wanted to understand what Buddhism meant for Thais and to learn their rituals and practices.  The differences sometimes are huge.  For Western Buddhists, meditation is the core of their practice.  They take pains to describe Buddhism as rational and even scientific, a philosophy or psychology more than a religion in the Christian sense.  It is a path they choose to take.  For Thais born into a deeply religious culture, with Brahmanism and Buddhism mixed together with animist beliefs and practices, their religion is all-consuming and unquestioned.  More than the most fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., they take they whole socio-cultural package as truth, the way it is.  Their rituals are primarily devotional transactions involving gifts and donations which result in happiness and protection from harm.  Rather than salvation, the goal is well-being, freedom from suffering.  The Thai Buddhist cosmos includes ghosts, devas and a plethora of spiritual beings to the surprise of most Westerners.  Few Thais meditate.

During my visits to India I was always impressed with popular piety, the faith of the people, even though it superficially resembled the devotional Christianity that would put me off in its fundamentalist form.  In Asia, however, "religion" is an insufficient term to describe the worldview from within.  I have been attracted to this total faith even though I am sure I will never understand it deeply or be able to emulate it.  Still, it seems an alternative to the stripped-down Buddhism of the West with its focus on meditation.  I no longer understand the objectives of this meditation, and perhaps this is one reason why my incentive to practice it has withered away.  I go to the temple with my wife on wan phra days and on special occasions like the King's recent birthday, and we light candles and incense and present token gifts to the monks (necessities purchased in plastic buckets at the supermarket).  During the exchange we receive a blessing, and also offer blessed water to the shrubs outside the hall.  This procedure, as my wife has been taught, makes her happy and she believes it contributes to the merit of both the living and the dead.

So I no longer meditate.  Perhaps it's partly because my aging body cannot observe the proprieties of position, but even more it might be because the experience of thoughtlessness I once sought is no longer my spiritual objective.  Sure, mental reflection prevents stress and calms the mind's incessant preoccupation with self.  But how can you drop the ego while trying to change yourself?  I remember my friend Diana being astounded and then appalled to hear that I wanted to give up my ego in the pursuit of mystical enlightenment.  These days I think her reaction was proper.  Is the meditator a better person because of this experience, kinder and more compassionate?  Much Buddhist teaching (like its Christian counterpart) is about renunciation and the rejection of worldly things.  I am no longer convinced this is a desirable goal, at least for me.  I prefer a loving engagement with the world, one concerned with improving it and helping as much as possible to eleviate the suffering of others (for me teaching has become the tool I can use).  I no longer think of myself as a seeker; this life is it, this is what I've got, so I hope to appreciate and even love it  Much of my previous spiritual seeking came from a desire to change myself, a refusal to accept myself, warts and all.  If I renounce anything it is this fruitless goal.  If I have gotten one central message from the teachings of the Buddha, it is that refusing to accept things as they are only creates suffering.

Meditation today is as accepted as apple pie (to use an American image).  Speaking against it is unforgivable.  I do not want to imply in any way that it's bad, or harmful to health and sanity.  How can you go wrong sitting quietly, alone or together with other meditators?  For me, however, my motivation from the beginning was misguided.   Now I am content to be as I am, without seeking any change.  Rather than disparage or renounce the world, I would rather take a Walt Whitman-like joy in it, celebrating the life cycle eternal.


Janet Brown said...

Much to chew on in this essay-thanks!

Anonymous said...

a mingled spirit is still useful to exercise.

nipon said...

Can you be content when you are sick and dying? Only real meditators can do that because they are content to die and are able to detach themselves from their body.

dikvipreal said...

Thank you for sharing.

E said...

I searched politics, sex , religion, income and found your blog. I work in corporate and am not satisfied with not being able to bring a holistic and authentic me because of these sensitive topics. I grew up in China, a country used to have this mixed belief as you described in Thailand but recently was washed blank. Then capitalism came into this country. I then studied Baha'i Faith in China, moved to Canada and started to learn about Christianity. A long journey and different direction. I feel I am the only one in the world who is experiencing this - a feeling of pregnancy and going to give birth to something new. It's always helpful to find some space for such a discussion. Thank you!