Monday, June 27, 2011

Experiment



While recently on vacation at Lake Tahoe I tried dispensing with my usual morning meditation practice. 
I began meditating in the mid seventies. For twenty years I meditated on and off. Mostly on: I know its benefits. But since 1996, the year my mother died, I’ve devotedly practiced every day, with very rare exceptions usually due to illness.
Fifteen years is a long time to do anything continuously. I had become so accustomed to it that I began to wonder whether the beneficial effects might accrue without actually having to sit. 
There, in the mountains with my family, I had little to do beyond enjoying the scenery with the people I love most deeply. Further, being away on vacation, far from my home alter and zafu I found myself in a suite of rooms that didn’t have a quiet place to easily accommodate my devotions. 
After a few days of ducking into the bedroom in the mornings to meditate after my wife got up, I convinced myself that I had found the ideal situation to discover what life without a meditation practice might be like. I was willing to undergo an experiment.
For the first few days I was delighted to find out that I seemed to do just fine. I could discern no obvious changes to my mood, my outlook, my temperament, or my discernment. In fact, I told myself that I was doing everyone a favor by not disappearing every morning. Instead I could join the family for coffee and conversation in the dining room.
In the middle of the vacation we rented stand up paddle boards. As we returned the boards to the shop, I saw a canoe on special sale. I really, really wanted to buy it. In retrospect, I can see now that the force of this desire was stronger than any desire I had endured in fifteen years—a desire strong enough to intrude on my thoughts even when engaging in other activities. At the time, though, my mind was so wrapped up in the object of desire that I was not aware of my rapture.
This desiring grew each day. It became almost an obsession. Then, near the end of our vacation, when we returned to our home near the coast, I found myself having to cope with something new: anger. 
I was getting peeved over small events that normally don’t even raise a ripple in the waters of my mind. I usually take in stride little things like being cut off on the freeway by an inattentive driver. Now it was enough to tick me off. I found myself taking offense  and even colorfully expressing my displeasure loudly enough for my daughter to hear. This is quite unlike me.
In the last hours of our family vacation, I began to get peeved even at members of my family!
Finally, I suspected that my heightening greed and anger might be the result of this experiment with meditation-free living. I was amazed that my discernment had been so severely impaired. 
My experiment was done. The day after my daughter flew home I resumed my practice. I got up early and sat. After a good long sit, I decided to listen to non-human wisdom, the kind you find on rivers. 
I went out paddling alone to listen to the trees, to the birds and to the murmuring waters. Their sagacity seeped slowly in. Afflictive mental factors unwound backwards, like a skein of yarn stretching out into space. Anger cooled and mellowed back towards equanimity. Family, of all people, are to be loved. 
Greedy mind loosened its tight bind on my mind. I knew I was satisfied with what I already have. My problem is that I have too many possessions! To release my belongings, to pare down, down and down some more—this is the way to approach fulfillment.
I could breathe again.  
Refreshed by my breath, my mind could relax and broaden. I could feel the truest truth: inhalations and exhalations—the simplest, deepest, and most vital of all pleasures between being born and dying. 
I came back to my breath, to my senses, to my contentment, and to the degree of equanimity to which I've grown accustomed.

7 comments:

Reya Mellicker said...

I, too, have been a meditator for decades. It has not helped alleviate any of my personal flaws, unfortunately, but makes me mindful enough to understand how to approach the day.

How lucky am I that I hate shopping or buying anything. I avoid that activity like the plague.

If you're going to lust after something, a canoe is a pretty benign object to focus on. Canoeing brings only good things. But I get your point, it was the longing that was the problem, not the object of the longing.

Welcome back to the cushion, friend!

Dan Gurney said...

Thanks, Reya. Yes, the canoe wasn't really the problem, just as you say. It was the longing...

I do credit meditation with alleviating flaws and worse than flaws. It's made a difference for sure.

I feel grateful to have been taught how to meditate by some very good teachers. I am still learning though. Plenty of progress remains to be made. Lifetimes worth of alleviation await..

steven said...

oh dan you're brave to attempt such an experiment but it's part of the journey of your work to test yourself. to find the value of the valuable and the valued. steven

Sabio Lantz said...

Dan, I love your open posts. Thank you. But always, I am going to comment in a way that is not patting-on-the-back, feel-good, kisses-and-hugs, comforting -- it is not my nature. So, If you don't mind, I will do some free-association while reading your post:

Naughty Dan, you are not suppose to talk about the *benefits* of meditation. But wait, I guess that depends on the sect you belong to.
:-)
BTW, what type is yours again?

But on a serious note, isn't one of the benefits of focused sitting time that you can more often practice different awareness states more readily during everyday life? [btw, I know the religiously-correct way to say that, but I refuse]. If meditation is merely relaxation, I could see how you could start missing it the daily hits, but if it is practice for daily shifts, I would think those would remain.

Was your paddle board desire stronger than your I-pad desire and others you have written about. Serious? Your I-pad and Ukulele obsessions sounded pretty strong too -- I bet there are lots more.

Maybe you have a compulsive side that is indeed calmed for that day by a hit of neurotransmitters with a half-life of 24 hours after meditating -- not that this is the most meditation offers, but what the hell. We drink coffee and exercise (paddle) for similar hits of happiness.

Maybe there are many benefits from sitting: (a) daily hit of neurotransmitters, (b) practice of awareness, (c) facing inner boredom and others individual mental habits. I am curious if you saw this level of complexity in your time off -- with some traits more stable than others? That is my serious question in this rambling note.

But let me risk wandering into more personal zone -- I hope you realize it is coming from someone who likes you and who feels not an ounce of self-righteousness. And forgive me if I don't cushion it too much -- I don't have much time to polish (and lord knows polishing is something I always need to do). But here goes:

You wrote,
My problem is that I have too many possessions! To release my belongings, to pare down, down and down some more—this is the way to approach fulfillment.

This is a repeating theme on your blog. This renunciation meme is common to most forms of Buddhism, but not all -- Tantric versions approach this issue much more differently. And to tell you the truth, the suppressive, belongings-adverse, struggling-discipline version of Buddhism may not be the best choice for all people. IMHO

You get a new toy, feel appropriately guilty for a while, meditate more, talk to nature more until you get enough relief. After building up enough comfort, you move on to the next acquisition and worry about not helping the poor while you live the good life in California once again.

It seems a bit odd. Not having acquisitions or pleasure, of course. The part I love about you is your epicurean aspects, the indulgences. Can awareness be had with that and indulgent pleasures? Do all Buddhisms require guilt?

BTW, Chapman just did a great (and unfortunately controversial) post on the evolution of Zen -- called "Zen vs. The US Navy". And in his post before that he talks about how protestant ideas formed what Americans today call "Buddhism" -- with all its guilt and romanticism. He calls this "Consensus Buddhism". You might enjoy reading it and recognize stuff better than I can.

Anonymous said...

I came here from The Golden Fish. I have been thinking about trying meditation as a daily practice but as always find an excuse to not do it. I hate sitting still, my mind doesn't shut up. But I guess what I'm missing is that it is practice, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Lilith

Dan Gurney said...

Hey, Sabio, I plan to respond to your comment, but I want to read and at least partially digest the Meaningness post you recommended. I hope to get to all this tomorrow. Thank you for your comment.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Dan
Thanks for the shout out. No hurry, of course. As with your blog, I am sure your reply will benefit many of us.
-- I wrote that comment in a coffee shop while indulging in the comforts of the good life while on vacation and thus filled with typos-sorry. Back into routine now.