Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Damn those Buddhists are on the ball!

Seriously, I know they have had two and a half thousand years to nut it all out, it's a long time, enough time to look at it from all angles and draft and redraft, but geez those Buddhists just have it down pat! It's amazing. I know that reincarnation is not everyone's cup of chicken noodle soup, but I personally can fit reincarnation into my own personal conceptual scheme of the universe, quite neatly. I wouldn't say I believe in it, but that goes for a lot of my spirituality - it is in that category of things I can easily grasp and understand and imagine being the case and even intuitively lean towards, but about which ultimately I have no real definitive idea. How can you? So in as much as there is never going to be any hard proof, I think I'm about as comfy as I'm gonna get with reincarnation. It's all good. For those science-worshipers who can't get their heads around it, no worries really, just act as though karma begins at birth and ends at death, and refers to the fruit you will reap as a result of your actions in this life, sweet or bitter as the case may be. Same net effect, in that you stop acting so much like an arse-hole and try to think about the effects of your thoughts, words and actions on those around you.

OK, so with the reincarnation thing out of the way (the biggest beef most people have about Buddhism, coz really, the rest is all just about how to be happy and nice), I've just gotta say how impressed and thankful I am that Buddhist wisdom is out there doing it's thang and making the world a better place for so many. I studied it pretty intensely a number of years ago (wow, almost a decade! fuck!), but became a little disillusioned with it after an unfortunate series of events involving a local Vipassana meditation group.

For those who don't know, Vipassana is a kind of meditation that has you totally focus on just the in and out of the breath (there are many many kinds of Buddhist meditation, where the focus is placed on various things), and which frequently involves extended silent retreats, generally 10 days for lay-people. Most people are really quite horrified at the thought of spending 10 days meditating silently, but from the moment I heard about it some kind of fire lit up in my heart, and I knew knew knew it was for me. And I was totally right! I just loved it. Really loved it. Did I mention that I loved it? Loved. I had, at the time, never felt more in love with the universe without the help of some good hard drugs. (Ahhhh, those were the days! *Sniff*) Gradually over the ten days my heart opened like a flower, and bloomed gloriously! I was amazed at the beauty of nature all around me, stuff most people, including myself, just walk past without noticing every day. The graceful and gentle twist in a perfect blade of grass. The seeds heads of the same grass, so symmetrically perfect, so intricate, just amazing. Grass! I was blissing out on the lawn! It was so much bloody fun, and showed me a way life could be, a way I could be, that was so beautiful, and so removed from the life of real difficulty I was leading at the time. I was not doing well at all, in many many ways, and Vipassana was truly a retreat for me, in the deepest sense. So, unsurprisingly, I offered to volunteer there, and did more retreats along the way. It became a very treasured part of my life for about six months. Then my dad died, and my world crumbled a little. I booked myself in for another retreat, knowing I really needed it this time, and packed my little granny jeep with my belongings and spent three hours on public transport getting there, plus a really long walk up a steep winding road with my jeep. Violins please! Anyway, I filled out the usual forms when I got there (they had a weird set of forms which asked all sorts of things) and to the question asking if I had done any other form of meditation or healing since the last retreat, I answered 'yes', since I had been doing pranic healing, a kind of reiki. Also, what issues I had been having, and I mentioned my dad dying. I had a private meeting with the meditation teacher, again the usual procedure before commencing a retreat, and he brought up the pranic healing. He asked who I had been working on, and I told him my dog, who had cancer. He ummed and ahhed (he was a man of few words), and then regretfully informed me that I would not be able to start my retreat. I was shocked and so disappointed, I REALLY needed this one to help me find my way in the world, I had a lot of shit to deal with and this was something I felt I really couldn't do without. He told me that until I decided to stop doing the reiki forever, and devote myself entirely to Vipassana meditation, I would not ever be able to do another retreat. Not only that, but I wouldn't even be able to spend the night there before going home, that I was to leave the premises ASAP! That my altered energies might disturb the other meditators!

To cut a long story relatively short(ish), I was really hurt and offended at being kicked out while so vulnerable. And with new and angry eyes, I saw that, despite the wisdom of their teachings, the Vipassana Centre and the way it was run was a bit cultish, and kinda creepy. I think for many years this experience turned me off Buddhism altogether. And it has taken this long for me to revisit it in any meaningful way, and to realise that despite the narrow-mindedness of one group's policies, Buddhism itself has so much to offer. My one real criticism of it that had nothing to do with any lingering resentments, and which I mentioned in a previous post, related to one of the four noble truth's being the goal of the cessation of suffering, which I thought was simplistic and didn't acknowledge the growth that comes out of most suffering and the yin/yang dualistic nature of the universe. The recent reading I have done has actually addressed this one point, and I have a new found understanding of Buddhisms perspective on suffering (well, according to one Buddhist nun anyway - Robina Courtin, in an interview with her that you can read here.) Here is the bit that shed new light for me:

Robina Courtin:
So therefore the Buddhist method then of getting rid of suffering and developing happiness is the method of learning—one, to know my mind well, and then learning through familiarity on the basis of having Buddha's model of the mind as my basis, learning to identify ever more deeply the neuroses and then learning every day—and it's the hardest job we'll ever do—to go against them, to deconstruct them, to let go of them.
So it's not, as I previously thought, aiming at just repressing all the suffering to attain the feel-good states of meditation. It's actually about digging deep into your heart, deconstructing the underlying causes of the pain (more often than not some kind of fear, if you dig deep enough), and then letting it go. So it totally acknowledges the growth and learning that suffering brings, and the analysis required to get there. I think the actual problem was that my understanding was limited, and that my own practice at the time was probably about desperately clinging to the bliss. When I think back, my life was such a mess back then, and I was going through so much pain every day, that I kind of became addicted to the blissful states I achieved through meditation, and began to cling to them. I didn't know how not to. For me back then, it would have been like asking a drowning person to not cling to the rope being offered to them. Or that's how it seemed. And one of the main lessons in Buddhism is to not cling. To not crave. No craving, no aversion, one of the most important phrases you'll hear at a Vipassana retreat!

But now, I'm a much much happier and well adjusted person. I've dealt with so many of my demons. I'm not desperate. So I think I'm actually in a much better place to really re-examine Buddhism, and look at it all again from this healthier place. Which is exactly what I have been doing over the last few days. And I have been truly delighted at the new perspective it has given me on my life. The peace, the awareness, the opening of the heart, and the thankfulness for all the little things. I have really enjoyed revisiting this old friend, and look forward to once more incorporating Buddhist philosophy into my own little eclectic collection of spiritual wisdom that I have nurtured for so many years.

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