MEDITATION CONTROVERSY: PLEASE BUTT IN!

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[A little more than two weeks ago, I posted a piece about meditation which included a long quotation from Jack Kornfield, founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and a renowned leader of Vipassana meditation in the United States. The general response to such a long TGOB piece was quite gratifying.  However, it seems I remain Pandora after all these years. I could not leave well enough alone and sent the post through email to the most difficult (although rewarding) WordPress blogger of whom I am aware — William Eaton of Montaigbakhtinian. I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Perhaps no more than a “Thank you” by return email. 

It’s not entirely apt to say curiosity killed the cat, but my curiosity in this instance produced a lengthy comment on the blog post itself. Never one to let another have the last word if I can help it, I had to reply. Alas, the last word was not yet in sight.  A week later, my reply received a reply of its own, even lengthier than its author’s first comment. By the time I had a free moment to reply to the reply to my reply to William’s original comment, more than two weeks had elapsed since the original post, and between us we had produced a juicy intellectual to-do  — I call it “controversy,” he calls it “dialogue” — which no one other than the two of us will probably read because it’s slipped down too far below subsequent TGOB posts of a lighter, more accessible nature.

And so I present for your reading pleasure (or pain), the selection by Kornfield which many of you have already seen (and can therefore skip if you have), followed by the Eaton/Mishkin skirmish.  I’ve not included again the gracious comments on the original post from Gerard Oosterman, PreciousPen1955, Helena Sorensen, ShimonZ, Nancy and HilaryCustanceGreen, since they were all peaceable.

This will be somewhat heavier going than you’re used to on TGOB, but please slog on to the end if you can, and then speak up!  Participate! Help make it a free-for-all, fun-for-all posting experience, even though it’s already running 4194 words!]

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WHY MEDITATE?

by Jack Kornfield

Here is a story told about the Buddha shortly after he was enlightened. As he was walking down the dusty road he met a traveler who saw him as a handsome yogi exuding a remarkable energy. The traveler asked him, “You seem very special. What are you? Are you some kind of an angel? You seem inhuman.” “No,” he said. “Well, are you some kind of god then?” “No,” he said. “Well, are you some kind of wizard or magician?” “No,” he replied. “Well, are you a man?” “No.” “Then what are you?” At this the Buddha answered, “I am awake.” In those three words — “I am awake” — he gave the whole of Buddhist teachings. The word “buddha” means one who is awake. To be a buddha is to be one who has awakened to the nature of life and death, and who has awakened and freed one’s compassion in the midst of this world.

The practice of meditation does not ask us to become a Buddhist or a meditator or a spiritual person. It invites us to fulfill the capacity we each have as humans to awaken. The skill of becoming more mindful, and more present, and more compassionate, and more awake is something we may learn sitting on a meditation cushion, but this capacity for awareness helps in computer programming, playing tennis, lovemaking, or walking by the ocean and listening to life around you. In fact, to awaken, to be really present, is the central art in all other arts.

What is that which we can awaken to? We awaken to what Buddhists call the dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit and Pali word that refers to the universal truths: to the laws of the universe and the teachings that describe it. In this sense, finding the dharma is quite immediate. It is the wisdom that is always present to be discovered.

It is different than waiting for God to come down to us in a cloud of glory, or a big spiritual enlightenment, or a wonderful, otherworldly experience. The dharma of wisdom, what we can awaken to, is the truth that is right where we are when we let go of fantasies and memories and come into the reality of the present. When we do that and pay careful attention, we start to see the characteristics of the dharma in the very life in which we live.

One of the first characteristics of the dharma that shows itself in meditation is impermanence and uncertainty. “Thus shall you think of this fleeting world,” it says in one Buddhist sutra. “A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, an echo, a rainbow, a phantom, and a dream.” The more quietly you sit, the more closely you observe, the more you realize that everything you can see is in a state of change. Ordinarily, everything we experience seems solid, including our personality, the world around us, our emotions, and the thoughts in our mind. It is like watching a movie; we can get so caught up in the story until it seems real, even though it is actually made of light flickering on a screen. And yet if you focus very carefully on what you are seeing, it is possible to see that the film is actually a series of still pictures, one frame after another. One appears, and then there is a slight gap, and then the next one appears.

The same thing is happening in our lives. Because that is so: nothing in our lives lasts or stays the same for very long. You do not have to be a very adept meditator to see that everything is changing all the time. Have you been able to get any mental states of any kind to last very long? Is there anything in your life that stays the same?

This brings us to dharma’s second law. If we want things that are always changing to stay the same to get attached to them, we get disappointed, we suffer. Not because we should suffer — this is not something created to punish us. It is the very way things are, as basic as gravity. If we get attached to something staying the way it is, it does not stop changing. Trying to hold onto “how it was” will only create suffering and disappointment, because life is a river and everything changes.

So when we start to see the laws of nature — that things are impermanent, that attachment causes pain — we can also sense that there must be some other way. And there is. It is the way that can be called “the wisdom of insecurity.” This is the ability to flow with the changes, to see everything as a process of change, to relax with uncertainty. Meditation teaches us how to let go, how to stay centered in the midst of change. Once we see that everything is impermanent and ungraspable and that we create a huge amount of suffering if we are attached to things staying the same, we realize that relaxing and letting go is a wiser way to live. We realize that gain and loss, praise and blame, pain and pleasure are part of the dance of life, given to each of us, born into our human body. Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring for them in a flexible and wise way. In meditation, we pay attention to our body with care and respect.

When we ask, “What is the nature of the body?” we can see that it grows up, it grows old, it gets sick sometimes, and it eventually dies. When we sit to meditate, we can directly feel the state of our body, the tensions we carry, the level of tiredness or energy. Sometimes being in our body feels good, and sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it is quiet, and sometimes it is restless. In meditation we sense that we do not actually own our bodies but rather we just inhabit them for a short time, and during that time they will change by themselves, regardless of what we want to happen. The same is true for our mind and heart, with its hopes and fears, the grief and joy. As we continue to meditate, we learn to relate more wisely to what Zorba the Greek called “the whole catastrophe.” Instead of fearing painful experiences and running away from them, or grasping after pleasant experiences hoping that somehow by holding onto them they will last, we come to realize our heart has the capacity to be present for it all, to live more fully and freely where we are. When we realize that everything passes away, not only the good things but the painful things as well, we find a composure in their midst.

….You can learn that you do not have to fear that which is painful and you do not have to grasp for that which is pleasant. We have often been conditioned to believe this way, but as we meditate, it quickly becomes apparent that grasping for what is pleasant or fearing things that cause us pain does not lead to peace, and it does not lead to happiness. The truth is that things change whether we want them to or not. Becoming attached to things as they are or pushing things away that we do not like does not stop them from changing. It only leads to further suffering.

Instead, in meditation we discover a natural, open-hearted, and non-judgmental awareness of our bodies and our feelings. We can gradually bring this kind and open awareness to witness all that’s in our minds. We learn to see and trust the law of impermanence — this means we begin to see the world as it is really is. In the midst of it all, we begin to see how we can relate to all of it with compassion, kindness, and wisdom.

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[Now here are the four comments this post is about. Take courage in hand and speak up!]

WILLIAM EATON
Thanks for calling my attention to this, Nina. And best of luck with your group meditation!

That said, I must be my curmudgeonly self (and while noting that I have meditated off and on for going on 40 years now, and I’m now trying a new technique that I devised on my own). My curmudge is this: I was happy with the lines from Kornfeld and the Buddha when they were about being “awake.” And trying to be awake then might involve reading Marx or Freud (or working with a good psychotherapist), or many, many other, diverse actitivities.

But then I get to Kornfeld’s “Meditation teaches us how to let go, how to stay centered in the midst of change.” And all the stuff after that about letting go, being non-judgmental and accepting. This does not seem to have much to do with awake-ness, but rather with managing the many enraging aspects of life and managing them in a way that does not involve expressing one’s anger (something that is now taboo). Perhaps someone would say, in our rapidly changing, impersonal world, it is better to learn how to not get too bent out of shape by change than to be “awake.” That I can at least understand. But awakeness, in my book, involves recognizing that change (and mortality and consciousness and our inter-dependence) does indeed bend us out of shape!

I remember going to a yoga class on a Friday evening, and the young teacher proposed that we students begin by letting go of everything that had happened during the past week (i.e. all the “bad stuff,” the enraging stuff). That pretty much ended my yoga career (which had been offing and on-ing for 25 years or so). What did letting go of the bad stuff, the enraging stuff, have to do with being awake? It had more to do with being asleep, with not paying attention to the lives we are living, in which, of course, there is plenty of bad stuff and good (and unclassifiable).

I have also been, since adolescence, an off-and-on attender of Quaker meeting. Here’s another religion that, unfortunately, seeks to suppress anger and its expression, but, as a result, going to meeting can be an excellent way of becoming aware of one’s anger and of other people’s, and of the problems of consciousness and interdependence. An awakening form of group meditation?

This is not to say our anger and the human predicament are all we should be awake to, but rather that awakeness should be to all: to the good and the bad–the “real two,” I’ll call it, after this passage in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: “Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where to begin to set them right.”

Best, Wm. (Montaigbakhtinian.com)

April 14, 2015 at 3:02 p.m.

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NINA MISHKIN
Wow, William! You sure do like to stir the pot! I have indeed read Marx and Freud (although quite a long time ago), worked for twenty-four (discontinuous) years with two good therapists, and even attended several Quaker Sunday Assemblies here in Princeton, on the representation of a Jewish acquaintance of mine that Christ would not be mentioned, which proved to be both wrong and (for me) a deal breaker. But as it was I who invited you to read this post (curious perhaps as to your response), I’m reluctant to go mano a mano with you about it.

Nonetheless, may I suggest that the contradiction you identify between both being “awake” and “letting go” is only apparent? I can’t speak for your young yoga teacher — I was always terrible at yoga myself, even at Kripalu counting the minutes until it would be over. But what Kornfeld seems to mean by “awake” is “aware” — and what he wants us to “let go” of are the fantasies and memories in which too many of us spend our interior lives, so that we can then be truly aware of what is happening now. He is not a perfect guru by any means. But I do understand him to be speaking of meditation as able to affect for the better the state of our interiority, which then affects how we conduct ourselves in the world. And it has been my experience, even without meditation, that one can recognize and deal with the infuriating aspects of the life we are living more productively and with less harm to and suffering in ourselves without the heat of blinding passion which you seem to favor expressing.

It is very difficult to develop the “wisdom of insecurity” that Kornfield advocates as a goal. It is very difficult to be non-judgmental — that is, accepting — of our mortality and the impermanence of everything we love. You seem to be saying we shouldn’t even try. I feel we have to try. It’s too painful otherwise. That said, I would be extremely interested in hearing about the meditation technique you’ve devised on your own. Is it a secret? Or do you share?

April 14, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.

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WILLIAM EATON
Hi Nina. A value of writing and of conversation is that helps us continue to advance our thinking (which is not to say to make progress, nor to say that we ever reach an end. Rather, one interpretation gives way to another, as Bakhtin pointed out.) So my next reflection (which would have to take the place of any “secret” I might have) would be that meditation these days by and large (which does not mean exclusively) serves a medicinal purpose: helping to calm us down, take a break from the action. This can certainly be useful, but, like a lot of such medicines, in doing this work, it inevitably dulls our awareness. Yes, it is good to keep in touch with the fact that we are, in the cosmic scheme of things, next to nothing, and thus that our trials and tribulations are, on some level, without significance and our judgments absurd. But I would not have this keeping in touch involve losing touch with our lives in the world of appearances, let’s call it. In this world we do indeed have trials and tribulations. We do indeed make judgments, continuously, and we have to. You write of the too-painful. Yes, that, too, is part of human life, and to seek to escape from that is to seek to live one’s life less fully, (I often find myself in contentious dialogue with a line from Dag Hammarskold: “Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible — not to have run away.” To include from the “too-painful” is what I am here proposing.)

I am also concerned that in our devotion to calming practices we are at times, and without pay, coping internally with anger that might otherwise be put to socially useful purposes: fighting the machine, we might call this. Or raging at the dying of the light, to borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas. The sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about how, with the development of the conscience and super-ego, human beings took on the work of self-control rather than this being done by external agents. (E.g.: We “beat up ourselves” more than we get beaten — or while we also get beaten.) My sense is that “the machine” now has a vast secondary machine attached to it — the machine of meditation teachers, yoga classes, spas, therapists, etc. The point is for us to work — NOT at our jobs, in our families, in our commercial dealings and political lives — but to work internally on getting rid of and not expressing our anger.

Suppose, for example, that I were working for a large bank or Internet company, and it was paying me $100,000 per year, and I was spending $10,000 per year on classes, therapy and retreats. And perhaps my employer was chipping in a little via health-insurance coverage. And much of this money was being spent so that I would be a good worker, so that I would not get angry at the angry things at my job, or would keep this anger inside. (And then go to a therapist to be treated for depression which is typically caused by repressed anger.) All this may be necessary to stay employed and keep the sushi on table, as we used to say. But I would have people be aware — yes, aware — of the system in which they were involved, the work they were being called upon to do, and were in fact doing.

Not to repeat my first comment, but it is from the above perspective that I liked your Kornfeld’s focus on awakeness/awareness, and I continue to like some of the message you report — the being truly aware of what is happening now. Though I would not have us let go of our memories, but rather explore them; nor would I renounce our fantasies, but rather have us recognize them for what they are and recognize our need for them — as a way of dealing with the “too-painful.”

My personal meditation technique is of minor interest, just a gimmick really, but I would close with this basic point. Americans are caught in a problem-solution view of life and of “ethics” (how to live). At one extreme this involves us in various approaches to death (and to medicine) that seem to have as their implicit goal immortality. But mortality is an aspect of the irresolvable human predicament. (Become immortal we would no longer be human.) There are other aspects of our predicament besides mortality. There are the challenges of being a social animal, dependent on others. There is consciousness, having to live with an overlarge brain. There are more transient “predicaments” such as capitalism or the multivarious weapons, military and otherwise, of modern technologies. For me awareness must include being aware of these things, and of the unanswerability of our most fundamental questions, the unrealizability of our most fervent dreams.

Perhaps someday I’ll post in Montaigbakhtinian an old essay, “There is No Solution.” For the moment I’ll close with these three bits from a favorite book, the British sociologist-psychotherapist Ian Craib’s “The Importance of Disappointment”:

(1) “This kind of illusion is often bound up with a kind of counselling or therapeutic evangelism: the not-quite truisms of ‘it’s good to get things off your chest’, ‘it’s important to have somebody to talk to’ and so on. Talking [AND BLOG POSTING & COMMENTING!!] can clarify, can replace impulsive and possibly destructive acting out, it can be a medium for making decisions, but it is not an alternative to conflict and suffering.”

(2) “There are, then, a number of aspects to integration that can make it a not-so-attractive prospect from the point of view of those who see psychotherapy as offering solutions, happiness and satisfaction. It means becoming aware of and suffering conflicts; becoming aware of and putting up with what I have described as authentically bad aspects of relationships, and of the self; and it means coming up against and recognising the limits of one’s abilities and the very real fear of disintegration that that can bring.”

(3) “The movement towards external and internal reality makes life both easier and harder; energy involved, in this example, in denial is released . . . and can be put to other, more productive purposes. The price is experiencing a real and appropriate fear; perhaps the best description of this dimension of psychotherapy is of learning how to suffer.”

Yrs. in dialogue, Wm.

April 20, 2015 at 1:48 p.m.

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NINA MISHKIN
Hi again, Wm. After some reflection, I’ve decided to respond once more, although I must confess I don’t believe we are still “in dialogue” — if we ever have been. You have now written an interesting short essay, at some remove from the original post, which takes as its springboard a few words in my reply to your first “comment” (about what may be too painful to bear) and then soars into a stratosphere of your own concerns, which seem to focus on preserving anger and misery at the human predicament. I would point out that Dylan Thomas, who you reference as urging us to rage, rage against the dying of the light (and as far as we know did not meditate) medicated his own pain with such an excess of alcohol that he was dead in his thirties. I might also observe, as I did in my earlier reply, that we engage more effectively with the “predicaments” of being — as you say — social animals or of capitalism and the dark side of modern technologies when we are calmer and less the victims of our own “monkey minds.” Which is what I take Vipassana meditation and Jack Kornfield to be about for rank beginners like myself.

I agree “there is no solution.” On the other hand, we have to live (as best we can) with what there is. I also agree that happiness is not the goal of psychotherapy, but neither is a steady diet of suffering (except perhaps for very strict Freudians). If I were making $100,000 a year doing work promoting ends of which I did not approve and were unable to find another way of earning an adequate living (that would support and educate my children, for instance), I would consider $10,000 a year well spent to keep me enjoying what there was to enjoy in those parts of my life left over from the wage-earning (such as sushi, and posting essays in Montaigbakhtinian).

In some ways, despite the impressive range of your reading and vocabulary, I find you to be rather an esprit simpliste in your responses; it has to be all either black or white. I too have been called that in my salad days but I’m trying to rectify this attitude towards what I’ve experienced and observed while there’s still time. Not to make bad jokes about the fifty shades of grey one can achieve by mixing black and white, but surely learning how to suffer is not the only thing life must be about.

Finally, I ought to point out that we are typing away here some two weeks after the original post, with the result that you and I are probably alone by now in reading what we have each been at such pains to write. Perhaps I should now open it up to those few followers of TGOB who may have the patience to put up with us and maybe even want to join in. If I re-post our friendly skirmishes, aka “dialogue,” It would be interesting to see what sort of comments we might get.

April 26, 2015 at 11:42 a.m.

AND NOW — IF YOU’RE STILL WITH US — IT’S YOUR TURN! DON’T BE SHY. TELL US WHAT YOU THINK.

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24 thoughts on “MEDITATION CONTROVERSY: PLEASE BUTT IN!

    • I don’t know if Nina met her match, Helena. But I sure know I have. I slogged through it as requested, but I’m pretty certain I don’t want to go to mano a mano with either William or Nina! I would lose a match with them before uttering one semi-coherent thought, and now I’ve also learned that I wouldn’t even be able to go to a yoga class to properly cleanse the experience. 😉

      Well done both of you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nina… I see that you still be breathing… by the volley of comments since I last visited this post. And in reply to your query… I must query: “Does one plan how long… when it comes to savouring?” If I missed your point… I would prefer to defer to Marty’s comment and save the last word for you. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Rita Stewart

    I meditated a great deal on both of your very long,
    complex analysis– and this intellectual scrapping on
    what seems to be a dialogue on enlightenment. Having been a practitioner of both Chi Kung and Tai Chi for over 20 years
    ( forms of moving meditation) it seems to me that
    the amount of verbal discussion ad infinitum, is contrary to what its all about. In various forms of meditation, whether moving or not…the mind is freed up and able to
    just BE. When I practice, I am in the experience, and
    not tackling anger, mortality, or intellectually ruminating
    on what I am doing. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading
    the “dialogue”…it seems to be more an exercise on
    figuring out how to suffer in a better way. Have you noticed how depictions of the Buddha often show him smiling with
    his eyes closed? (He’s probably amused on how Western
    ideology has to analyze everything!) Namaste!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hm that’s an interesting question that I am meditating on at this very writing! I think it helps the coping mechanisms a great deal. When I’m in the process of practice and when I’m with a student, I am really PRESENT and feel wonderful afterwards!

        Like

  2. This is an impressively erudite–“discussion.” (A discussion is what I would call it.)

    I will weigh in only to say that neither Buddhism nor the Quaker faith are for me. They don’t have good music! I was so disappointed when the funeral of a Waspy, Episcopalian-born friend was Buddist –seems she had converted. No hymns. Much contemplation. And Quaker meetings can be entirely silent, if no one is moved to speak. Another friend said her son’s pre-graduation service at Haverford (a Quaker college) went on for hours as people took ages to share.

    Like

    • Then meditation is not for you, Martha. But if quiet mindfulness is not your thing, how do you manage to keep all your balls in the air? (I was going to say ‘the polluted air” but that would have been a mixed metaphor, and we writers can’t have that, can we?) Thank you for the “impressively erudite.” I did try to keep up my end.

      Like

  3. I am sure there is lot there, but as a critic on Mozart’s music once wrote; ‘far too may notes’. May I suggest ‘far too many words?’
    I am sure that many Americans (and some Europeans) love of psychotherapy has a lot to answer for. I love reminiscing about the past and have never thought that seeking happiness would be a worthwhile aim or goal to pursue. There is nothing as healing than overcoming a deep and thick depression.
    I do think that putting words down on WP or internet is as good a therapy and a lot cheaper.
    But,… keep it snappy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I might in this instance agree with your first paragraph, Gerard, I should also point out that “keep it snappy” is odd advice from one who is my most determined commenter (according to WP) and one of the lengthier (according to me). Moreover, have you ever observed that your own posts could often be tagged “long form” themselves?

      Like

  4. The controversy reminded me of an old yiddish joke. There was this rabbi who used to sit in his living room, listening to questions regarding religious law, and providing answers. On occasion, he would sit in judgment when two or more members of the community were in disagreement. While he served the public, his wife was usually cooking in the kitchen, where she could hear most of what was said. One time a husband came to complain about his wife. The rabbi listened at great length, and finally said, ‘you’re right’. The husband left triumphantly, only to be followed after a short while, by his wife. She told the other side of the conflict. And when she was done, once again, the rabbi said, ‘you’re right’. As she went out to tell the news to hubby, the rebbitzin (rabbi’s wife) came out from the kitchen, and gave her husband hell. ‘What kind of answers are you giving people?’ she asked. ‘You haven’t helped at all. They’re going to keep on fighting forever now. You’ve only made things worse!’ To which the rabbi responded, ‘you too are right, my dear’.

    And as for the controversy itself, I believe that meditation can be a tool for reaching a wakened state. It’s not the only tool, but it can work. A possibility for seeing everything in proper perspective. But that demands commitment and integrity. For those who are tired, it might be a good way to go to sleep. But it’s no good to sleep forever. And it’s no good to be awake forever. We need both. And if we’re chased by monsters, we need professional help. And if we’re anxious about anything and everything, we need more than symptomatic relief. My best wishes to all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Enjoyed reading this skirmish. Having been a Quaker, tried psychotherapies during difficult times and meditation; I found none answered all of my questions… Living life with more awareness and wakefulness remain important to me.
    I guess I did get bamboozled with some of your friend’s intellectual rant. Life to me becomes happier in its simplicity.

    Like

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