Meditation 101: empty phenomena rolling on

I am preparing myself for another post, which I intend to offer on Casey’s 24th birthday. It’s a commentary I’ve known is coming since last July, when Casey’s parents (me and Ken) sat down to hear The Apology. So this might be considered my little practice session for what I’ve been avoiding for over six months now, but which I must contend with, for Casey.

So I call this one of my “meditation 101″ posts, though I’m not sure where it’s headed. I’ll sort of jump in with some of the comments about Buddhism that my favorite commentator, Sharon Salzberg, and her partner-teacher Joseph Goldstein, have inspired. I am too much a rube to speak on my own about Buddhism or about meditation, though I am convinced enough of the truth of the lessons to plow ahead. For instance, here’s one notion that rings true, that “the great awakening happens when we realize that everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” I don’t know if that’s a better song title or bedtime mantra, “everything is empty phenomena rolling on.” Can you hear “Proud Mary” in the background, “rollin’ rollin’ on the river”? or the sound of the waves hitting the dock, “Sittin on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away”?

When I think about these “empty phenomena rolling on” in the context of “great awakening,” it’s not the sound of “rollin'” or “sittin'” that I hear. In fact, in Disc 9, Goldstein is teaching about the content of “the self.” What we think of as “I” is really a catalog of repetitions that have stiffened into something we think of as solid. We are “empty in the sense of empty of self, no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening. Everything is arising out of conditions.”

In reality (as opposed to the illusion in which we live day by day, beginning, for instance, with the idea of “time” as something we can “pass” or “buy” or “budget”–isn’t it crazy how many of our metaphors for time are related to money?) . . . as I was saying, In reality, our selves are as mutable as the ocean waves. What’s good about me, or annoying, what constitutes me as “a personality” depends on repetition, basically. I can think of a number of examples, but one comes to mind especially, and that is defensiveness, that knee jerk tendency to react, to metaphorically protect our vulnerable parts, when some judgement comes down. I remember my high school counselor telling me I was being defensive. “I am not!” I said immediately. Right.

“What we call self is a constellation of changing experience, of elements–elements of body, elements of mind, and each of these elements is insubstantial. . . . We rely on a superficial understanding of experience.”

What strikes me over and over as I listen and reflect on just how superficial our understanding (mine) might be is how similar these ancient (or at least old) Buddhist principles are to post-structuralist thought. Ever since Old Freud denied us the truth of our own feelings and Einstein denied us the reality of time, we’ve been struggling to reclaim our old certainty about our purpose here. . . .

Which, according to the Buddha, is simply to be happy. “All beings just want to be happy.”

I think a lot about that when I hear some more disgusting piece of news–another war, bombing, rape, attack, lies covering up abuses: how did that person get from “just wanting to be happy” to this or that violation? I think about this at odd times, riding in the car, listening to NPR. Or when someone acts out in a rage and we are stunned with the magnitude of what just got revealed.

It probably explains why I don’t like the news, why it doesn’t feel like a dereliction of my responsibility to feel ambivalent about knowing what’s going on. Not that bad things are just “empty phenomena rolling on” at all. They’re “reality,” some persons’ reality, and they’re hurting. There’s a lot of bad phenomena rolling on, and increasingly I want to respond by thinking instead about what great awakening might bring a little peace here, close at hand, a little peace, far away. Am I numb? Is this avoidance? or does reckoning with the reality of bad things mean in part recognizing that there’s “no one behind the experience to whom the experience is happening,” no one fixed statue of a person. “Everything is arising out of conditions.”

Another way to think of it is to consider who it is we finally are, in that last moment, when in the next we are no more. Did we find happiness? Did we give it? If yes, then maybe we are finally “empty” of self, but “great” with awakening.

Okay, time for night-night.

Compulsion to Share: on Poetry (and other things)

Since I seem to have it, this compulsion to share, I’ve been thinking about times when we humans are more likely to put it out there, what’s on our minds. I’m not sure that “compulsion” is the right word, since that suggests an urge that wells up and propels us forward. We can push it down, but like a 2-liter bottle of soda released, it will eventually spew. Even if we refuse to voice whatever it is, it will leak out. Anger may leak as a twitch, shame as a red stain across our face, emptiness as an eating disorder, fear as irrational control over minutia. But since I’m not a psychiatrist, just a student of myself, it’s quite possible I’ve got it all wrong.

If we think about times when we share, it’s impossible not to recognize that all this is quite thoroughly culturally constructed. How often does the condemnation “inappropriate” appear when the “leak” occurs outside of the socially approved and legislated expression of what’s inside. A man can cry when someone he loves dies, but not at the movies. A woman, conversely, can cry all the time, but raise her voice in contradiction to “the man” and she is “out of line.” Children of tyrants are never, never to share their pain, and teachers, bosses, and ceo’s must always “be in control.” In fact, things get pretty interesting when someone breaks one of these rules. There’s something liberating about that. Often heroic.

And yet . . . there are those tmi moments when someone seems not to have learned the boundaries that keep some things in that we’d just as soon not know about. So, when to let the dog out!?

In counseling. Finally, someone has to listen. Paying them takes a load off, in a way, and if they’re very good therapists, they can help you see things a little differently, which may be all you need, a chance to finally see the forest and not all those individual trees. Talking your way to the “aha” moment can help you leave, if you must, or change your part in whatever dance you’re stuck in. At the bar. I’ve heard that bartenders hear more secrets than anyone else. You can go into a strange bar, and loosened, anonymous, tell it like it is (or for that matter, how it isn’t), get back on the plane in the morning. No one knows you, and that bartender will never see you again, never tell on you, except as another story of what happened at work today. With a friend, especially when there’s that magical connection of trust. After you’ve been caught–nothing else to do but tell the truth.

But there are other ways–like poetry, like art, like music, where we mold an idea, an experience, a feeling, a conviction, into a container, create a shape for it . . . externalizing the thing that wants out as something it isn’t but also is. In the end, nothing we say or create is ever identical to the living. It’s an expression of, but it is not the thing itself. But perhaps that’s close enough–I can’t be you, can’t live in your head, but I can, through empathy, walk beside you.

The other day in a meeting about faculty awards, someone said something about the unfair advantage that English professors have in articulating why they’re deserving. I jokingly said I wasn’t so sure about the writing abilities of some English professors, and a geography professor said, “too poetic.” I would like to have said, “Don’t blame poetry,” but didn’t think of it at the time. It was only later, when the comment kept coming back to me, that I wished I had come to poetry’s defense. Again, we’ve been taught that there’s a way to share in academia, and poetry ain’t it. By implication, we must extract the metaphor, the symbol, the compression of language, the heart of experience, we must never say “I” and instead, if need be, refer to ourselves as “the author.” Hogwash. I’m also pretty sure that what “too poetic” really means is “too flowery.” Don’t blame the flowers, they didn’t ruin that passage.

Audre Lorde wrote, in particular to Black women, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” but her words speak for all of us under someone else’s boot heal. We need more poetry, more expression, more listening. One good place that we don’t usually think of as poetry is music. Everyone knows that joy of busting loose in song–perhaps at that moment, singing (in the shower or alone in the car or dancing on the dance floor) at the top of our lungs, we are embracing the poet within. Maybe (if you want to survive) you’ve got to “lose yourself in the music / don’t ever let it go-go-go” (Eminem).

I wrote poems like a mad woman in the two or three years after Casey was killed–less now, though I have you, O Blog. I know lots of people grew up without a mother, or a father, or any idea whatsoever that they could fulfill themselves according to their own heartbeat and not be rejected. And many of them climb out of that dark place to re-create themselves, to heal. I truly believe we need someone external of ourselves to help us believe in our own worth and beauty. For many years we’ve had a poster hanging on our son’s bedroom wall, with a picture of the bunny-bird hovering in the sky and the mother rabbit morphed into a green leafy tree, reaching her arms toward her bunny. It’s a profoundly beautiful story for children, telling them no matter what they do or become, their mother will be steadfast–she will re-create herself for them. It could easily be a papa bunny, since the point is to show how powerful that unconditional love is. Here is a poem, then, based on the famous children’s story, Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.