Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coming Up for Air

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
Mary Oliver, "Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches"

During my years of expatriation, I have celebrated some singular Christmas holidays, from a hotel in Morro Bay in California to a friend's row house in north London and onwards to a Christian ashram in Tamil Nadu, India (twice). Some notable experiences, however, must await my posthumous memoirs to be fully told.  This year the stores in Bangkok marked the end of severe flooding by restocking their depleted shelves and putting up Christmas decorations everywhere.  While the religious touch is missing, Santa and his elves frolic under mammoth artificial trees outside shopping centers here, not so much to lure the tourists, I think, as because Thais love festivity (Valentine's Day and now Halloween are becoming very popular).

What I didn't expect was to be lying in a hospital bed several days before Christmas struggling to breathe.

Not long after Thanksgiving, Nan and I put up the tiny fake tree we bought two years ago and festooned it gaily with ornaments.  But we wouldn't spend the holiday together since she'd been invited to go on a student exchange trip to Brunei for 10 days with other students from her university.  The night before she left I came down with a fever but kept quiet about it.  My chest had been congested for weeks.  In the afternoon I felt progressively worse and took at taxi to Chao Phaya Hospital not far away (for me, a decision of last resort).  The doctor gave me some pills and sent me home.  But I didn't improve and four days later went back.  This time the x-ray showed pneumonia and my oxygen saturation percentage was dangerously low.  I was admitted immediately, given a private room, put on a bronchodilator device, an oxygen tube stuck in my nose, and pumped full of antibiotics and steroids.

Dr. Tanasit recognized the wreck of my lungs from their causes, an asthmatic childhood, several cases of youthful pneumonia, and probably thirty years as a heavy smoker.  Both my father and his brother suffered from emphysema.  A long time ago in California my breathing was tested and I was diagnosed with "impaired lung function."  Since it didn't appear to be progressive, I put off any worries.  The current medication of choice for maintaining airways and preventing acute asthma attacks are glucocorticoids combined with a bronchodilator, and I was prescribed the Advair discus, two puffs a day.  But when I moved to Thailand in 2004, I foolishly stopped taking it because of expense (though much cheaper here, of course) and possible side effects.  I also stopped taking my cholesterol-lowering statins, but that's another story.

My first memory of asthma was being rushed to the hospital in Greensboro when I was six because I couldn't breathe.  Treatment then was an oxygen tent and a nebulizer.  Worse attacks followed and I recall the distinct relief from suffering that a shot of adrenaline (probably epinephrine) would bring.  When it was difficult to breathe, I remember sitting hunched over in a chair struggling to draw air, mom hovering by my side.  It felt shameful to be an asthmatic because it limited my sports activities and I couldn't be like the other kids.  One summer I went to camp and had an attack in the middle of the night.  I still recall clearly dragging myself up the hill to the camp counselor's office, pausing to breathe by every tree.  My father drove up to the camp and brought me home.  Despite this disability, I took up the clarinet when I was 10 and managed to pump enough air through my woodwind instruments to dream of becoming a professional musician.  Once sprays were invented, for many years I took Medihaler-Iso, a bronchodilator that contains isoproterenol sulfate, a drug like epinephrine which overstimulates the heart and simulates an amphetamine high.  One druggy friend of mine was always trying to bum a puff.  For much of my life, though, I could neglect the act of breathing and smoke, snort and swallow dangerous substances with no thought for the future.

Until, that is, I became aware of the centrality of the breath and breathing in many religious practices like meditation, yoga and, in the Christian tradition, contemplation to which I had become attracted.  The goal of some meditative techniques is to silently observe exhalation and inhalation through the nose or from the rising and falling of the stomach without interference.  I could never do that.  No matter how I tried to let go, I always found myself attempting to force each and every breath.  Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that, within limits, can be controlled both consciously and unconsciously.  Meditation remained for me a struggle between conscious intention and blissful release.  I found it easier to count the breaths or recite a mantra but, as mentioned in a recent post, transcendence of any kind from the body proved impossible.

Breathing, the inspiration of air by creatures, the metabolism of oxygen, is one of the central metaphors for life in all cultures and languages.  As I lay in my hospital bed on Christmas Eve, watching James Bond movies on TV while medication designed to keep me alive dripped through the IV line, this was no trivial fact.  Nurses wearing face masks trooped through my room, periodically taking blood pressure (out of sight from the steroids), and measuring temperature under the armpit.  While washing me with a warm cloth, a nurse's aide shyly asked , "You love the King?"  Who was I to quibble?  My blood pressure was unusually high, and a dry cough failed to clear gunk from the plugged bronchial tubes.  At night I sweated buckets and saw LSD colors behind my eyes.  I had no idea if the infection could be stopped, or if I would ever regain full control of my lungs (no thought of abdication now).  Would I be able to teach again?  Was it time to go out to pasture?   Nan was far away and the internet was not cooperative.

Contemplating the possibilities took my breath away, or better, gave me some breathing room.  Air passed into, through, and out of my body (breaking wind, since the medication made it hard to poop).  Oxygen-starved blood can bring death quickly.  The Hebrews pictured God breathing the breath of life, ruach, into clay to make life; the breath returns when the mortal dies.  Sophocles wrote, "A human being is only breath and shadow." No one possesses for long this breath, called pneuma by the Greeks, spiritus by the Romans, and prana in India.  Is this metaphysical quality, beyond its gaseous substance, passive or active?  The Chinese call it qi, the Japanese ki, and French philosopher Henri Bergson named it "elan vital."  Yogis and various Eastern teachers believe we can use and direct this power to achieve remarkable deeds.  Some think that the universality of breathing affirms soul or psyche, while others believe its communal nature erases our personal attributes.  These questions made little sense at the time as I lay in bed on Christmas Eve, remembering Christmases past when I joined with fellow Catholic Christians in Santa Cruz and also in India to celebrate the incarnation of the spirit of God and the promise of goodwill to all on earth.

The doctor discharged me on Christmas morning and I felt reborn.  No one was home when I got back to my apartment but I opened the windows and let the light and air inside.  Foolish as it seems, I felt I had cheated death.  This time I got to keep my breath.  I could sing along with country singer George Strait: "Life's not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away."  Bangkok outside my window seemed paradise.  There were more pills to take and baby steps to walk in recovering my strength, to the 7-11 next door and two days later up to Starbucks.  I've learned that asthma and emphysema now fall under the general heading of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and that many of my older friends have it (my college roommate died of it earlier this year).  Nan returned to home our great double joy and the phlegm in my chest is gradually loosening, the breaths deepening.  A checkup today showed all chest infection gone.

I once again pay attention to the question above and to the challenge from poet Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life."  And I could not speak of the importance and meaning of air better than she in her wonderful poem "Oxygen":

Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice.  I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely.  You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day.  You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound.  It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation.  And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything?  Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame.  Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Long Live the King

We watched the celebration for King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 84th birthday on television.  It was a slightly muted affair because of the lingering flooding in Thailand that has caused over 600 deaths, driven tens of thousands from their homes, and destroyed crops and factories.  The King traveled in a motorcade from Siriraj Hospital (named for the Queen), where he has lived for over two years, across the Chao Phraya River to the Grand Palace.  The route lined with his cheering subjects was only a block away from our condo and if we'd known earlier we might have gone down to wave flags, and shout "Trong phra charoen!"(Long live the King!), as he passed by.   From a balcony in the Palace, surrounded by his extended family, he read a short speech to hundreds of invited guests in colorful civil service and military uniforms asking them to implement some of the many water projects he has proposed over the years to prevent such flooding.

In the evening, Nan and I went to Sanam Luang, the large parade ground opposite the Palace, to see the festivities up close.  We expected fireworks but they were apparently cancelled to make more funds available for needed flood relief.  The west side of the park, which recently had a full-scale make-over (and now bans over-night sleepovers, upsetting both the homeless and streetwalkers), was lined with booths from each province exhibiting their products and hundreds of food vendors.  The sky was filled with spotlights and dozens of khom loy (candle-lit sky lanterns). We walked to the long wall of the Palace to watch a son et lumiere show celebrating the history of Thailand and the King's life (you can see my video here. Afterwards, we joined the crowd of thousands to listen to performers on a huge stage in the middle of the grass field before walking back home across the bridge.

As is the custom, the King took the occasion of his birthday to pardon prisoners, 26,000 of them.  But this list did not include red shirts jailed for terrorism during the troubles a year and a half ago, nor the growing list of violators of Thailand's harsh lese-majesté law and the similar Computer Crimes Act passed by the military coup junta in 2007.  A few days after the King's birthday, Joe Gordon, a native-born Thai and naturalized American citizen, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for posting a web link to a Thai translation of the banned biography, The King Never Smiles (written by American journalist Paul Handley and published by Yale University Press).   That this was done while he was living in Colorado made no difference.  When he traveled to Thailand for medical reasons, he was arrested and jailed without bail.  The U.S. Embassy and even Clinton's State Department have raised mild objections.  But Gordon's only hope now is a special pardon from the King which sometimes is granted to those who plead guilty (as he did).  When dissidents are arrested in countries like China, the U.S. is much more vocal.  Human rights groups around the world have called the possibile penalties for lese-majesté of from three to fifteen years "shocking" and unacceptable.

The original lese-majesté law dates from the early 20th century and, while common in other constitutional monarchies, is punished more severely in Thailand than anywhere else.  Critics say it is now being used politically to attack opponents, and some believe it harms the monarchy more than protects it.  David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lese-majesté (Routledge, 2011), says 478 known cases had been submitted to the Thai Criminal Court since the coup, and 397 cases between 2006 and 2009 compared with an average four or five a year in the preceding 15 years.  The conviction rate, Streckfuss says, is currently 94 percent.  Anand Panyarachun, a former premier and senior statesman, agreed with criticism that the law is misused, and said, "The harshness of the penalty should be reviewed."  Last month a 61-year-old grandfather with cancer, got 20 years in prison for sending four text messages to a government official deemed offensive to the Queen, the heaviest sentence ever handed down for a lese-majesté case.  Now called "Uncle SMS" by the Thai media, and protestors who have made him the poster child for the campaign to revoke the law, the man denies sending the text messages and says he doesn't even know how.  He wept in court and said, "I love the King."

It's impossible for a foreign expat to understand the depth of feeling on this issue and risky to speculate.  As a admirer of the red shirt movement and the Pheu Thai party it backed, which was overwhelmingly elected in the last election sending a rebuke to the Democrat party that was supported by the country's elite, I hoped to see significant changes when exiled formed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck took power.  But the new politics looks a lot like the old.  Certainly the disastrous floods threw a monkey wrench into any planned changes, but it doesn't explain Yingluck's current coziness with the military nor her government's ongoing attempt to shut down internet sites and even threaten freedom of expression on Facebook and Twitter.  What's going on?

A major problem with lese-majesté laws is that the details of charges and evidence in favor of them remain secret.  Even questioning a court's decision is against the law. Since the public is unaware of the limits of free speech, all reference to the monarchy must be carefully censored.  If you believe the last two governments, nasty talk and images directed at the monarchy are rampant on the internet. Tens of thousands of web pages have been blocked.  Those who believe the King is universally beloved by his people might puzzle at this.  As a dedicated user of the net, however, I have never seen anything that could be construed as defamation or an insult (which is not to say all references are benign). Perhaps they are only in Thai.  I know of several sources that argue Thailand should become a republic and perhaps this kind of thing is the target of the laws.  The effect of blanket suppression of speech, however, is to make any discussion of the future of Thailand almost impossible.  The succession will be a critical transition for the country and no one is publicly talking about it.  In a Buddhist country where impermanence is a major component of the Buddha's teaching, Thais often act as if the present is forever.

My first memory of the King of Thailand was hearing that he played the clarinet and had jammed with Benny Goodman.  What a cool guy, I thought.  When I first arrived in Thailand, driving into Bangkok from the airport I saw his huge portrait on the side of many buildings.  Since then, I've been in homes in different parts of the country and his picture is everywhere, and not for show either.  Thais appear to respect and revere their King as much as a demi-god. From the 1950's onward, he established himself as the people's king, traveling throughout Thailand to learn of problems and propose solutions.  His proposals have usually had self-sufficiency as their goal and his focus has been on agriculture and the water necessary to grow crops without destroying them in floods (his suggestions too often ignored by governments).  In times of crisis, his intervention has sometimes served to calm opposing sides.  While religion can divide (Thailand's largest minority are Muslims), the reign of King Rama IX for over sixty years has been the touchstone for Thainess, the core of the Thai citizen's sense of identity.  What comes next and his legacy are too important to ignore.

Addendum: Pravit Rojanaphruk has an excellent analysis in today's conservative English daily, The Nation, on how the metaphor of Thailand as a family strengthens resistance to eliminating the lese-majesté laws. "The tradition of obeying the father at all costs has a negative effect," Pravit writes.  "Any doubts or questions from some of the 'children' are treated as something 'incomprehensible"'or even 'horrendous' by their 'siblings'. Severe punishment under the lese-majeste law is therefore a 'sensible' and even 'just' way of dealing with wayward 'children'."  Shawn W. Crispin, writing in Asia Times Online, thinks that "Yingluck's anti-democratic tendencies, in the name of upholding the monarchy, have disenfranchised many of the genuine pro-democracy activists in Thaksin's camp." Crispin thinks increasing use of the lese-majesté laws is because some monarchists want them upheld "in the run-up to what is expected to be a delicate and potentially destabilizing royal succession."  The big question: Is open discussion harmful or helpful?  Who benefits and who loses by preventing free expression?

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.