Thursday, March 11, 2010

Citizens of 4F, March 10, 2010

My walk-sprint to the bus stop is successful, and I arrive there several minutes before the bus arrives.

As I relax against the back wall of the enclosed shelter, and my mind becomes slow and receptive, a street appears in my experience of mind——as with all experiences, it is a mixture of sensory data coming in from eyes and ears and skin, plus memory, plus subjective feeling.

It is Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, between Third St. and Fourth St., at 5:33 pm on March 10, as experienced by myself.

This street that appears in my experience is utterly unique, and will never appear again. At no other time will the light and overcast weather be exactly the same; never again will the melting ice and snow create exactly the same sculptural shapes on the sidewalks; never again will my own mood and memory and outlook be exactly the same.

This street, utterly unique and temporary, appears nowhere else but in my mind. For no one else is this street exactly the same as the one I experience. The fellow standing next to me——although he might see a few details that resemble the details in my own experience of the street——is experiencing a different street than I am. Perhaps his emotional day has been such that the street seems terribly dreary and foreboding, not the mysterious and symbolic street that I am experiencing right now. Perhaps his hearing is much more acute than mine; perhaps he has more perceptive sense of color, and sees a more vibrant display in the reflected lights of the wet pavement.

Not only is my street unique to me, but in the very next moment, I will myself experience an entirely different street, as when the bus pulls up to the curb, there will be a glad urgency to get home to a warm supper followed by relaxed time spent reading or planning the spring garden. Slight differences in sight and sound and smell and memory and mood will create an entirely new experience. In fact, merely noticing what I am currently experiencing causes it to vanish and be replaced by a new experience.

This is the nature of all phenomena, all experiences. They occur only in our minds, they are utterly unique and belong to us alone, and they are instantly vanishing in the very same moment they first appear.

Depending on your outlook, this realization can be quite terrifying, or it can be jubilantly freeing.

That too, may change moment to moment.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Some Buddhist Basics

In the Buddhist philosophy that I follow, it is thought that human suffering is the result of the cyclical reliving of behavior patterns. The human condition is said to be one of both quiet and overt suffering, because we are trapped into repeating the same behaviors again and again. For very fundamental Buddhists, this is believed quite literally——that the human soul/personality is actually reborn again and again in subsequent lifetimes. For Buddhists of a more symbolic bent, it's taken as a comment on our human habit of reliving the same behaviors and problems again and again within this life.

Either way, though, the driving mechanism of this literal or figurative rebirth is the energy of hunger, hatred and ignorance. The cyclical, recurring problems of our existence arise because because we don't see things as they are (ignorance), which leads to either some form of subtle or obvious longing or attachment (hunger), or some form of resistance and aversion (hatred). These three problems are very intimately connected, and making progress on one leads to progress on all three. In other words, seeing things as they are quite naturally causes a reduction in grasping or aversion, and reducing grasping will naturally lessen hatred and cause us to see things more nakedly.

The principle tool of spiritual development, for Buddhists, is meditation, and the goal of meditation is quite simple: to practice the surrender of our pulling and pushing, our hatred and hunger, and thereby see things as they are. Should we ever accomplish this permanently, the legendary result is nirvana——the escape from the dreariness of cycle repetiion. Fundamentalists believe that such a soul no longer requires rebirth; more modern believers suggest that such accomplishment will cause this life to be one of peace and happiness.

To the westerner approaching Buddhism from a different culture, all this will feel pretty alien and unnatural, but very gradually almost everyone who steadily practices will see some literal truth to it. Most of us see it only in small glimpses, especially at first, but it is surely there: surrendering aversion and grasping causes you to see things much, much differently, and the result is a peace of mind that is most definitely transcendent and can be life changing.

Buddhist practice can seem to be a bewilderingly complex system of practices and lessons, but it's important to understand that it is all really about this very simple goal of surrendering hatred and longing, and seeing phenomena as they are rather than through the filters of wanting and disliking. Although there are many different schools of Buddhist practice, they all share this goal. The practices that focus on seeing the impermanence of phenomena, for example, focus on this because it automatically shows you that there is no logic to clinging to things that will vanish in a moment. Practices that focus on non-selfish compassion for others are designed to lessens our attachment to ego. The "middle way" that is so much a part of Buddhist practice is largely about applying antidotes to the extremes of greed and hatred in an effort to find the silence that occurs when they are neutralized.

On a very practical level, I have found that there is a tangible physical sensation to this surrender of longing and aversion. At meditative moments when I momentarily know myself to be in the zone, there is an almost cellular sensation that an energy which normally grips us, like magnetic charges either attracting or repelling, suddenly falls silent. The feeling can be a bit unnerving and ungrounding, and can even frighten you at first. But if you can come to trust it, you find a delicious sensation of peace and calm within it. A frantically spinning hamster wheel suddenly falls silent. I think that my own practice, whether it involves one lifetime or many, will be to gradually trust this sensation and rest comfortably in it more and more often.

And progress doesn't require any kind of massive accomplishment, but rather just an ongoing surrender of the habits that interfere.

Obsure But Wonderful Film

In our quest to see as many of the Oscar nominated films as possible, my wife and I made our way to a distant suburb to see a collection of documentary short films last night.

There's one little film that perhaps you'll run into on HBO or available through Netflix that you really owe it to yourself to see.

Music by Prudence is one of the most uplifting little pieces of 35-minute movie-making you'll ever want to see. It's about a group of very seriously handicapped young adults in Zimbabwe, who suffer from physical problems so disfiguring that initially it causes you to wince slightly. This is a part of the world where physical deformities are regarded by folk legend as signals of witchcraft, so these young men and women are quite seriously ostrocized by their culture, in a country that is among the very poorest on earth.

Yet to a man and woman, these are some of the happiest people you'll ever see, and the key to their happiness is music. The lead character, Prudence, leads a small group of musicians and singers who put together absolutely angelic performances. The interactions between these people are some of the most loving and creative moments you can imagine.

This is one of those stories that will quickly put your own minor life complaints into complete perspective. See it if you can.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Replying to Michelle....

My friend Michelle, at Full Soul Ahead, asked an interesting question to my previous post: "Re the depression, how did you climb out?"

At least here among my blog friends, I've made no secret of the fact that two pretty serious bouts of depression & anxiety have visited me twice in my life. When people ask me about how exactly I beat it, though, I agonize a bit over what to say. I fear that people may take my experience as a prescription for their own course of action, for one thing. Each person's experience is different, and I worry that people will assume that my method will work for them. Everybody is different, and I most assuredly don't want anyone assuming that my way is for everyone.

But for what it's worth, I will tell you what salvaged me:

• Chemistry counts. I know people who steadfastly believe that they can and should pull themselves out of depression by their own bootstraps, without the benefit of medical help. They see it as a moral failing, and insist that moral strength is the only prescription. I"m not one of those folks. Refusing all medical help for these things is a bad as seeking medical help indiscriminately. In my case, medicines did help me both times, but I did quickly learn that I was helped by doses that were far smaller than what is normally regarded as therapeutic. Even at the smaller range of normal prescription levels of an anti-depressant, for example, I became exceedingly irritable. At one-third of that small dose, though, I found that strong feelings became muffled just enough that I could recognize and deal with what I was feeling. Beyond this, I became aware that the types of foods I ate had a dramatic effect on my mental world, and as I ate more carefully, I became less susceptible to depression and anxiety. Whether it's Prozac or garlic, I approach these substances somewhat in the spirit of alchemical elixirs that offer benefits if used carefully.

Chemistry, though, turned out to be part, but certainly not all, of my emotional well being.

• Surrender. This is certainly something I hesitate to recommend broadly, but in my own case, I eventually found that an enormous amount of my unhappiness came about because of trying desperately to avoid my own unhappiness. Turning directly into it, the path of least resistance, finally was the only option left to me, and ironically was what led me out. I'm not a traditionally religious person, but there was certainly something like "turning over to a higher power" at work here, where acknowledging the depth of misery was crucial to coming out the other side. I came to understand that these dark nights of the soul existed for a reason, and that, well "resistance is futile." Because depression can and does kill people, though, I think that one cannot go down this path unless you have some kind of good teacher or therapist watching out for you as a safety net. In some regards, my depressions were normal life events that had to extinguish themselves before I could move on, and I'm well aware that some form of higher power or buddha-nature helped me in this.

• A mystical lifestyle. That might be putting it too radically, but I did come to realize that a highly rational, scientific outlook wasn't a good fit for me in the long run. In the periods before my depressions, I was living in a pretty rigid manner, while in reality I was much better suited to a "more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in your philosophy" kind of life. When I woke up and became aware of an archetypal, symbolic style of living, I found that my depression and anxiety lifted, and that both the inner and outer world began to make sense to me. At the point where my life has become exceedingly literal/scientific again, I run the risk of more depression and anxiety. When I stay open to other interpretations, I'm far happier. So it's not Carl Sagen and Stephen Hawking that does it for me, but Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. For me, anyway, the traditional Western lifestyle feels like living in black & white, while technicolor exists in the world of Black Elk, and Tibetan Shamans, and the bhagavad gita.

Perhaps this all just makes me sound flakier than before. Still, Michelle did ask....