Tuesday, September 14, 2010
10 Days of Silence: Part III
I've explained why I wanted to participate in a meditation retreat, and what the day-to-day experience was like. But what will I take away from the experience?
Speaking of all this "I" stuff, I understand the Buddhist concept of "no-self" better after the retreat. I won't go into a lot of detail, since it isn't of much interest to non-Buddhists. To state it simply: with clear insight, you begin to see that everything is created by, and therefore dependent on, a previous cause. This includes our mind, our consciousness, our selves. I'm starting to understand how the concept of my "self," as I currently perceive it, arises from experiences. I've still got a self, as you can see from the liberal use of "I" and "me" throughout this (personal) blog. But at least I understand it a bit better!
The greatest immediate change I've noticed is that my outlook on traveling, and life, I suppose, has changed. To be honest, this change started a few weeks ago, but my time in retreat has pushed my thinking and feeling. I've got new reasons, fresh motivations, and refined perspectives regarding the nomadic life. I feel more relaxed and more confident. I think I have a better understanding of what's important, and worth getting upset about, and what is quite unimportant. I don't feel quite so persecuted by the oppressive heat, the bad vegetarian food, the dishonest touts, the boredom, the environmental destruction, the loss of culture, the hordes of tourists. Even crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, in which there were at least 4 separate attempts to scam us, felt like a silly game. It's like I've got a new pair of eyeglasses, and I'm seeing just a little bit clearer.
I hope to continue practicing meditation regularly. I've now seen the difference between the focused and unfocused mind, as well as the tranquil and disturbed mind. A peaceful, focused, balanced mind improves my personal outlook and happiness, as well as how I treat the people around me and the experiences I'm having. It's going to be hard work to maintain the practice, especially when I'm waking up in a different city every few days, which is quite stimulating (or frantic, even!). But I've practiced 20-45 minutes a day since leaving three days ago, so I'm off to a good start.
The greatest obstacle for me is boredom. When I was a kid, our neighbors had a shirt made for me that said, "What are we doing next?" I'm always thinking ahead, planning, working things through in my mind. I've realized that, to me, it's actually quite boring to experience the present. Most of the time, we're not doing anything particularly interesting. It's true—even if you're traveling somewhere exotic, the majority of your time, you're looking for food or accomodation or sitting in uncomfortable transport. And meditation specifically? It's just watching the same damn thing, over and over again: BORING!
For a 10-day silent retreat, you'd think I'd experience a lot of silence. But I, like most people, have a constant inner monologue, a weird collection of stories and observations I tell myself. Even when I was meditating, I never came to a totally silent place. Quieter than usual, yes; silent, no. Try to watch your breath for 5 minutes and I guarantee you'll see what I mean.
While the retreat clarified some understandings, it also raised new questions in my mind. For example, if there truly is "no self," and our perception of having an enduring self arises from our reactions to things that happen around us, then reincarnation should be impossible. Yet Buddhist traditions recognize some sort of reincarnation or transmigration. How can this be?
Also, the Theravada emphasis on suffering, suffering, suffering seems unbalanced. Impermanence, suffering, and things having meanings different from what you believe (or no meaning at all) are only a problem if you attach or cling to permanence, comfort, and meaning. A flexible, open mind shouldn't be disturbed by the laws of nature. Of course, young novices won't stay in ther cells unless they believe that the world actually is only suffering, suffering, suffering, which influences how they teach when they are ordained, which influences the learning of their students. Dependent origination, you see?
I was a bit perplexed by the veneration of Ajhan Buddadhasa. The monks speak of him with a type of devotion that, to this irreverent American, borders on cultish worship. There's basically a shrine to him at Wat Suan Mokkh, and his picture is everywhere. But I recognize that I don't understand Thai ways, or even monastic ways. Fortunately, I've found a series of lectures about Ajhan Buddadhasa, given at the Insight Meditation Center, by Santikaro, the monk from the Midwest who became his primary translator (anyone that's been to IDH will recognize his voice!).
As much as I loved the food at IDH, at this point in my life, I won't be following the Theravada monastic approach to Buddhism. So no worries, Mummers, I'm not joining a convent!