Monday, June 29, 2009

Fairness and Justice

In societies in which there is one overarching world view, fairness and justice are complex issues. Interpretations of the law, in Judaism, always include the minority opinion, a way of saying that fairness and justice are contingent, not absolute, principles.

In a society in which there is multiplicity of perspectives and world views, different views compete and fairness and justice can become functions of power.

Spiritual practice goes nowhere if it follows this path. Everything gets lost in interpretation, conceptual thinking, unacknowledged prejudice and bias, etc.

In spiritual practice, we have to dispense completely with appeals to justice and fairness, precisely because they are open to interpretation and dependent on position. And if we claim access to a higher truth, we are, in effect, claiming the power and the right to decide for others.

Aside: I dislike and avoid the notion that spiritual truth is a higher truth, in terms of society and the world, etc. Spiritual practice is based on a principles that run counter to many principles of society. To claim that spiritual practice is a "higher truth" is another form of prejudice. Instead, I have to acknowledge that the principles on which I base my decisions are different from the principles that a person in a social context may base his or her decisions.

I now rarely try to persuade people to adopt a specific perspective, Buddhist or otherwise. Rather, I seek to help them find what is true for them in the world they experience. As we explore this together, appeals to justice or fairness are almost always stories that hide or protect unacknowledged hurts or pains. As they open to those pains, people frequently find clarity on their own and know what to do, not because it is "fair" or "just" or "right" (these are, in the end, somewhat childish motivations), but because, when everything, inside and out, is included in awareness, often only one course of action is indicated — the direction of the present, to use Uchiyama's phrase.

In other words, the illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

clarifying oranges and deities

Three words that, clearly, should not be in the same sentence together.

An email exchange prompted by an earlier post.

The question:  
Dear Mr. McLeod, I greatly value your teaching but found the latest email about concentration not being meditation a bit odd. My experience with both shamatha and (even more so) deity practice is that they are unequivocally concentration practices. Yes it's important to drop any sense of undue struggle or will but the whole point at least for a long while is to drop (but not supress) thoughts that distract one from focus on the object and return to it. There is a clear preference for one object over all others and an ever clearer preference for concentration over distraction. What am I missing?  

And the reply:  
I'm not sure you are missing anything. My aim was to move people away from trying to bind the mind to the object by force of will and toward bringing about stable attention by resting with the object (or more accurately, in the experience of the object). This particularly applies to deity practice. Here, one is not actually focusing on an object, but resting in the sense of being the deity. All kinds of internal voices rise up against this (we experience these as distractions). Concentration tends to lead people in the direction of suppressing those voices, creating tension in the system, which undermines stability in attention. Resting in the whole experience allows the emotional material driving those voices to be experienced, releasing the emotional tension, and thus the distractions, and now one can rest more completely as the deity. This way of practicing is not what most people usually understand from the word "concentration".

Monday, June 1, 2009

Concentrate is what we do to oranges

Several times now, I've had occasion to meet with groups of practitioners whose practice is based on focusing attention on an object or observing thoughts and sensations or watching the breath. They frequently report difficulty, a kind of catch 22: either the effort they make in concentration works against stability or they lose clarity when they try to relax. They are usually trying to control their experience, to make it conform to certain expectations of how meditation should be.

All forms of practice that involve such effort, i.e., "I am doing something", inevitably reinforce that sense of separation from experience that arises as "I".

A monk sat meditating in the courtyard of a monastery.

"What are you doing?" asked the abbot.

"Meditating to attain enlightenment," replied the monk.

The abbot sat down beside him, picked up stone, and started to polish it with his robe. After a while, the monk's patience ran out.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Making a glass tile," replied the abbot.

"You can't make a glass tile by polishing a stone."

"Nor can you reach enlightenment by meditating."

Part of the problem is the word concentration. It has, unfortunately, become an accepted translation for the Sanskrit samadhi, a choice that was made about 100 years ago before many Westerners had much experiential understanding of Buddhism. And it sets up expectations, always a problem in meditation practice.

Samadhi denotes a deep level of attention, usually accessed through some form of meditation. In samadhi, it is said that the mind joins with the object of attention. But this union is not brought about by concentration on the object. That just squeezes the mind. It comes about by resting in the experience of the object.

When I suggest in these groups that, instead of concentrating or observing or watching, they just rest and open to what arises, they have a very different experience. The sense of "I" subsides naturally and they come to rest in experience, not separate from it.

We truly rest only when there is no enemy: we include everything that arises
in experience, excluding nothing. We have to build the capacity to do this, of course, but we can build that capacity through resting and opening, not concentrating or focusing.

Catch 22

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.