Thursday, September 15, 2011

Not Working on Myself

The old man in the elevator shook my hand and asked my age.  When I told him, he said: "I'm 81."  As I walked Nan to the bus stop, our daily ritual, he said to her in Thai that he did yoga every morning.  As he strode off in front of us to buy the morning newspaper, his strong legs moved agelessly under the shorts.  Nan went to class this morning feeling sore from a half hour on the treadmill in the gym yesterday.  She was happily sweaty when I came home from teaching yesterday, proud to have exercised by herself in the small facility three floors below our apartment.  Any urge to do something for my body is missing in inaction.  I move slowly between couch and refrigerator, computer and toilet, noticing the stiffness in my bones.  Decades of a guilty conscience whisper incessantly in my ear but I ignore the advice.  I've retired from all self-help regimens.

Of course the alternative to not working on one's self is a slow death.  I give it maybe 85 years (the old man looked pretty spry).  That's enough for one lifetime.  My last wife was addicted to fitness, and I think it's a fine thing to want to improve yourself, body and/or mind.  I even tried African dance with her until I injured my neck and couldn't turn my head for weeks.  She lifted weights and I bought some not-so-heavy dumbbells to keep in my office.  But they gathered dust.  I did take up jogging in my 30's and bought a subscription to Runner's World.  I ran in some races and got up to 11 miles, thinking I might train for a marathon.  But when my favorite columnist died of a heart attack while running, and work forced me to run before or after dark, I gave it up and resumed smoking.  I was heedless in my youth.

My brother has been obsessed with his health.  He's up on all the latest diseases, conditions and treatments and is regularly checked for newly discovered ailments.  He's very knowledgeable about vitamins and popular supplements and when my mother was in her 90's he did his best to change her diet.  The food he bought sat unused in her refrigerator and on her shelves while she consumed sweet and fatty items that the natural foods press claimed would kill you.   We ate ice cream and cookies together on my visits, read the National Enquirer and watched trashy TV shows.  There was lots of advice in the supermarket tabloids on how to live a long, healthy and blameless life, but we ignored it.  She broke her hip in a fall, went into the hospital and never came home.

Reading books, joining gyms and listening to self-help gurus of every stripe is a preoccupation of the well-to-do.  People for whom living is a struggle, like the illegal Burmese in Bangkok who beg on the pedestrian bridges and work on construction gangs building the high-rise condos, have no time to improve themselves.  Psychotherapy and meditation (which seem to have blended together in the modern mind) are luxuries indulged in by people with money and time on their hands.  They've come to think that something is not quite right and they must act to correct the problem, whether physical or mental.  Behind the urge to change is a feeling of lack or incompleteness.

This is not to excuse myself.  I acknowledge a certain laziness when it comes to correcting my faults.  My father was a big man and he did not move in my memory very fast.  Outside of the swimming pool, he was slow and deliberate.  His favorite position was reclining in a big overstuffed chair in front of the TV set.  My brother, on the other hand, was short and shy.  At an early age he set about remaking his body and was quite successful.  He's taller now, more muscular, and he can even grow a better beard than I can, a source of some resentment on my part.  I was persuaded to climb the rope on the gym team in junior high school, but I enjoyed coming down more than going up, and my only reason for the effort was to earn a letterman's sweater I could let my girlfriend wear.

We all have our goals, and mine from an early age was to penetrate mysteries with my mind.  I was a voracious reader and it stood me in good stead, eventually, after some false starts, getting me into the university where I set about becoming an intellectual.  Now, at the other end of the search, I've read lots of books, and people even think I'm a smart and deep thinker (that's been said to me twice lately), a perception I don't particularly share.  For me it's easy to read and scatter my inquiries broadly, but it's difficult -- nay impossible -- to keep my body youthful and my spirit at peace.  After twenty years of meditation practice, on and off, after coming to Thailand four years ago I got up off the cushion and quit.

Is meditation just another form of self-help?  That would be a justification I'm not yet ready to make.  What I can tell you is that although I was able to sit for over an hour at times, I never experienced much peace and quiet.  I've tried Theosophy and Transcendental Meditation, and gone to India to an ashram -- four times!  Always the thoughts intruded, and focusing on my breath only served to make breathing laborious.  The fault, dear friends, of course must be mine.  Most of the famous meditation teachers today began after I first sat many years ago with an egg timer and Baba Ram Dass' little meditation book.  Unlike my hesitant and insufficient practice, however, they kept at it and achieved...what?  I've yet to meet what I could unequivocally believe was an enlightened being.  Many teachers and authors have the gift of gab.  Alan Watts was a master at speaking of the wisdom of the East.  But he died an alcoholic, forgetting or unable to follow his own advice.  So I failed at meditation.  I couldn't give up my thoughts, was unable to sit in the proper position, and during the lecture missed the crucial instructions needed to become an arahant.

As my mother would say, no use crying over spilt milk.  I'm pretty comfortable with the fact that I will not become enlightened in this lifetime.  I'll also never be able to sit in a full lotus position (now I require a chair rather than a cushion to sit at various lectures on Buddhism).  And of course I can't bench press 200 pounds, run in a marathon or play Bach on the piano (I did want to play sax in Stan Kenton's band, but never fulfilled that dream either).  Americans growing up are encouraged to excel at something, and I took the advice to heart.  But I never became an actor or musician, and my attempts to be a published writer came to nought, except in these pages.  I restarted my academic career too late to become a tenured professor.  But now, here in Thailand, I'm a teacher, an ajahn, and I experience the most profound satisfaction from interacting with my students who are eager to learn English and transcend their humble beginnings.  They tell me I help them and I see the gratitude in their eyes.

I've changed my mind about spiritual matters many times over the years and doubt that I'll ever really have a settled position on what we label "religion" (which indicates that I don't think much of that label these days, though I respect the cultural beliefs and behavior it often maligns).  But I do think this:  We don't need to work on ourselves.  What we need to do is love one another and take care of each other.  Everyone makes mistakes: acknowledge them, forgive them and move on.  If I were a self-help guru, I might say: Change is unnecessary.  What's past is done with.  The only moment that counts is now.  Of course we will fail, get distracted and hurt someone.  Humans do that; no one is perfect.  But I feel very hesitant about offering any advice.  We all have different paths, different contexts, different genes.  I can only blabber about what I do, and don't do.

Tom Pepper has written an excellent article on Buddhism and psychotherapy, prompting some of these thoughts, which you can read here.


Dion Peoples said...

good words...

Janet Brown said...

I am so grateful to you for the pieces you write here.Too much to respond to in a comment--will get a letter to you (in email form) soon--

Anonymous said...

when will you come back home?