Sabio Lantz from Triangulations wrote a somewhat lengthy and thoughtful comment to a recent post called Experiment. I decided to respond to his questions in a stand-alone post. Here find his comment and my responses to the questions he posed, formatted as if it were an interview. I hope you enjoy reading this faux "interview."
Sabio: I love your open posts. Thank you. But as 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:
Dan: You’re welcome. I don’t mind—it’s my wife’s job, the kisses and hugs. I am glad you are among the small handful of people who read this blog. While my ego is sufficiently needy to enjoy comforting comments, I welcome also comments like yours that push me to think harder about my world view. It makes blogging more worthwhile.
Sabio: Naughty Dan, you are not supposed to talk about the *benefits* of meditation.
Dan: I had thought I was discussing the consequences of suspending meditation practice. Maybe I’m making too fine a point. Implicit in my post is an argument for meditation’s benefits. I avoid talking about meditation practice too much because when I discuss it, crappy meditation periods are the result. The less I say about meditation the better.
Sabio: But wait, I guess that depends on the sect you belong to.
Dan: I don’t belong to any sect.
Sabio: BTW, what type is yours again?
Dan: I am an unaffiliated practitioner. Once in a long while I go on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County nearby. It is, loosely, a Theravadin center, but pretty loosely I would say. Jack Kornfield is an important leader there. He trained in Thailand with Theravadin teachers. Spirit Rock is eclectic. It tries to weave strands of mostly Buddhist and some non-Buddhist religious traditions together with western psychology, science, and philosophy.
For eight years I participated in “Sutra Salon” a group that discussed the major texts of Buddhism: the Nikayas, the Flower Garland Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, etc. This reading/discussion provided a foundation in essential Buddhist texts.
I now lead a group—it amounts to a Buddhist book club—called “The Society of Friends of the Buddha” that meets at my house twice a month. We employ elements of Quaker’s “Friends Meeting.” I invite you to come. We have atheists and deep thinkers like you. You could live in California instead of New Jersey?
Sabio: 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? [By the way, I know the religiously-correct way to say that, but I refuse].
Dan: Yes. If meditation didn’t generalize to daily life, I’d stop meditating. What is the religiously correct way to say that?
Sabio: 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.
Dan: I don’t think of meditation as merely relaxation. I work mostly at increasing my pathetic inability to concentrate. I am making slow progress, as I become more and more aware of just how far I have yet to go.
Sabio: Was your paddle board desire stronger than your I-pad desire and others you have written about. Serious? Your iPad and ukulele obsessions sounded pretty strong too -- I bet there are lots more.
Dan: Oh yes, lots more, and some not for public consumption! The paddle board desire never hit me at all; it was canoe lust—and the desire for the new canoe ran much stronger than feelings for iPads or ukuleles. I was losing sleep over the canoe. What got me wasn’t lust for a new canoe—the curvaceous plastic skins that form the canoe. Social connection was the hook. I was smitten with lust for the fun with friends that I imagined having a second canoe would make possible. Two canoes: one for me and one for a friend to paddle. Escape from loneliness.
I am particularly vulnerable to longing/desire for social engagement at the beginning of each summer vacation from school. In June, especially, as I adjust to summer's spaciousness, I miss teaching and it’s difficult for me. Non teachers sometimes have trouble understanding this. We teachers like to suffer, I guess!
The iPad-wanting was tame by comparison. I don’t sucker for Apple’s fantasy about how connected we’ll all become when we buy their latest gewgaw gadget. They promise so much more than they can deliver. I suspect that computer technology alienates us from—more than it connects us with—our communities and our natural world. Computer and communication technology is strongly addicting. I would guess that’s probably because we’re all so damn lonely in America.
The ukulele doesn’t cost me any sleep and it’s not an obsession. Just pure pleasure. But strong pleasure, yes, for sure. And it does connect us with each other.
Sabio: 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.
Dan: Yep. I confess. I have a compulsive side. Gee, maybe I have more than one compulsive side. Meditation does calm down my compulsiveness. I'd like to say that the half life might be something like 48 hours, but who knows? maybe it's 48 nanoseconds.
Sabio: Maybe there are many benefits from sitting: (a) daily hit of neurotransmitters, (b) practice of awareness, (c) facing inner boredom and other 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.
Dan: As I indicated above, I am reluctant to discuss the benefits of meditation, lest my ramblings send the benefits running out the door. But to answer your questions: (a) Do I get a daily hit of neurotransmitters? Yes, I think so. I missed those hits after just two days off. A second cup of coffee in the morning helped compensate. (b) Does sitting help the practice of awareness? Yes, during my hiatus, my awareness went way down. I started feeling greedy and angry and was not aware of any connection to the hiatus in meditation. You’d think that connection would’ve been obvious, but it wasn’t. (c) Does sitting help face inner boredom? Yes. But so does singing, Sudoku puzzles, board games, and paddling. I was on vacation, so I don’t really know how the hiatus affected me because it was such an uncontrolled experiment.
There are two benefits to meditation that you didn’t mention: (d) increasing the ability to concentrate; and (e) providing the opportunity to intentionally cultivate wholesome mental states like simple happiness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. I hasten to point out that there is nothing magical or mystical about cultivating wholesome states the way Buddhists do it. It’s hard work, more like weeding a garden than strolling through Eden.
Sabio: But let me risk wandering into a 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:
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 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.
Dan: I trust your good will. While, for myself, I cannot claim to be without an ounce of self-righteousness, I’m with you on this. I have met renunciants who seem to go to such extremes in renunciation as to seem seriously unbalanced to me. I don’t think renunciation is the end-all-and-be-all answer for all people. We all know and enjoy our comforts and pleasures. Lord knows I do!
Still, it is my observation that we live in a relentlessly materialistic advertising world, a world of incessant messages that encourage us to believe that consumerism is the end-all-and-be-all answer to all our problems. These messages lead us to believe that we just need to work harder, longer, and smarter so we can make more dough so we can consume more stuff. The more we consume, the happier we’ll be. This message is repeated day in and day out in every way imaginable, both blatantly and subtly.
It’s part of my effort at Mindful Heart to point out that happiness isn’t found at the end of the shopping trip. You’d think we’d all know that by now, know it in our bones right down to the marrow. Perhaps more people are waking up to the limitations of consumerism. As for me, I’m still wiping the sleep out of my own eyes!
Sabio: 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.
Dan: I don’t know about helping the poor. We are poor in spirit in America. I’m a teacher, and have lived a life of service, so in some sense I think I’ve checked that box. Still, what you say here does sound familiar. I admit it. Life in California’s wine country is about as close to heaven as I could ever hope to live. Here I have found work I love, a wonderful, wonderful family, a large circle of friends, a community in which I’m a figure (and my wife even more of a figure, as the town Mayor/Councilmember), ukulele clubs to sing with, paddling clubs to canoe with, and on and on. I’m up to my eyeballs in grace. And I am grateful for it, grateful as I can be. I don't think I deserve it. And I cannot explain it, even to myself. But there it is. I have all the toys I want, more toys than I want. It is silly to worry about possessions, isn’t it? It is odd. Sabio: 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?
Dan: Can awareness be had with indulgent pleasures? I hope so! The more awareness we can muster, the greater the pleasure. The trick is not letting attachment, clinging get so strong as to interfere with our awareness of what is. We strongly tend to desire more, more, and still more. These desires interfere with our awareness of what is. For me pleasure is impermanent, unstable, and limited. But pleasure, still. Pure pleasure, untainted with wishing it were other than it is.
Sabio: Do all Buddhisms require guilt?
Dan: I don’t know. I sure don’t know about all Buddhisms. I’m not even sure I know much about my own Buddhism. But let me explore this a little bit.
Your question hints at something worth talking about: the many different forms of Buddhism. Buddhism is not one thing. (I know you already know this, Sabio.) When someone calls me a Buddhist he or she might imagine that I believe and practice things I don’t believe in and I don’t practice. For example, I don't think that I’m what Chapman might call a “wind chime” Buddhist. (Though I do have wind chimes outside my house.)
For me, Buddhism is closer to a school of philosophy than a religion. For me, the heart of Buddhism is learning to see the world just as it is. Through Buddhist eyes it’s easier to notice three essential qualities that seem to be almost universal, but are often hidden from view. In some sense, noticing these three essential qualities is what—for me, and not necessarily for anyone else—makes a Buddhist a Buddhist, regardless of what affiliation someone claims to have. And if you deny any these three qualities, then even if you say you’re a Buddhist, well, then, maybe you’re a wind chime Buddhist.
What are these three essential qualities?
Impermanence (Everything changes; nothing remains quite the same.)
Non-self (There’s no independently existing, permanent soul or self.)
Suffering/Nirvana (Everything exhibits a non-dual nature of unsatisfactoriness/bliss.)
Not seeing these three essential qualities, and wishing it were possible to have a permanent soul that will someday be eternally happy in heaven is childish and can lead to a lot of needless trouble and suffering.
Buddhism feels a little bit like growing up and having to accept reality just as it is. Growing up is compensated by the ability and freedom to indulge in adult pleasures. And it can be okay at times for adults to pretend there’s a God, a soul, and eternal bliss. I do it sometimes, too. (Yikes! I hope I'm not offending anyone here! Apologies if this my saying this makes you mad.)
I think Buddhism can undo guilt— mostly preemptively through observing the five basic precepts of non-harming, wise speech, not taking what’s not given, refraining from extra-marital sex, and refraining from intoxicants. Intoxicants, in my view, include toxic media and entertainment. Christians would call these "Christian" values, I suppose, Jewish people "Human" values. It's basic moral behavior, nothing fancy or particularly Buddhist. Or Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu.
I’m not sure I understand guilt and how it works beneath the level of conscious thought, so I cannot fully answer that part of your question. And, anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Thinking this hard is, well, hard!
Sabio: 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.
Dan: Thank you for continually bringing up Chapman. I spent almost two hours on his site today getting a feel for his work. I am impressed. I enjoyed the post on Zen and the Navy. I haven’t gotten to the “Consensus Buddhism” post yet, but I look forward to reading it.
As you may remember, I visited Japan to experience Buddhism there firsthand. I became aware of how much I had romanticized Zen and Buddhism. Up close and personal, it’s so much more human. It smells of more than incense. I’m sure you’ve heard of the “stink of Zen.”
I think I’ve pointed out to you before that Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is traditionally observed on December 8 each year. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in Hawaii on December 7 as far as Americans are concerned. In Japan, on the other side of the International Dateline, that event happened on December 8, 1941, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! I guess they wanted Shakyamuni to smile on their enterprise. Religion. It’s enough to make you cry.
This Pearl Harbor day business is difficult for most Buddhists I know to assimilate. I don’t think you or Chapman would have any trouble getting it. And by pointing this out I don't mean to make any Buddhists mad. If people ask, I tell them I'm a Buddhist.
Again, Sabio, thanks for your thoughtful comments.
Link to the original post Experiment.