Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Fear of Meditation and its Role in my Life - by Alisa Voll

The following piece is a personal account of a meditation experience provoked by negative emotions – an attempt to see, what Joanna Macy calls, “the true nature of phenomena,” in her book, WORLD AS LOVER, WORLD AS SELF

I feel frozen in irrationally intense anger, and I do not move as the subway train car rattles down to 42nd street where I am to meet my boyfriend. The only thing making the tension in my body bearable is the release the slight sway of the train car provides as the laws of physics force it to tilt first to one side, then the other until it is again fully parallel to the ground beneath it. Most seats are taken, one by me, and a few people are standing. At this point I no longer remember what my boyfriend did that made me so angry. Yet, my body’s anxiety persists. My mind is racing with hateful thoughts. My fingers fidget unconsciously. My breath is shallow; irregular. My heart beats out of my chest, and I feel the unhealthiness of my circumstance. I want to relax; more because of the harm my state causes my being than because I realize that it is irrational.

I close my eyes. Without considering it, because if I do I will refuse to continue, bringing my attention to the air entering my nostrils, I direct it to the lower chamber of my lungs. My belly expands and I notice that the muscles there are tense and must have been flexed for some time. My mind still races. As air continues to slowly enter, it gradually fills the lower, middle, and finally the highest chamber of my lungs. With conscious effort I exhale smoothly, attempting fluidity and calm to the collapse of my shoulders and the shrinking of my lungs. As minutes go by, time slows. Relaxed now, my stomach expands; my chest rising and falling harmoniously.

Becoming enveloped in the internal world of my mind, I hear nothing except the pace of my even breath. Since I was a child, my brother told me that I have a stable, unchanging part so far inside me that it is untouchable by anything. As I sit on the train, I finally feel it; my share of nature’s energy - my essence. It looks like a light amid an ocean of peaceful deep blue darkness. The longer I meditate, the stronger I am able to sense it and the more connected I become to it. There is only silence, except for a quiet buzz of vibrations of nature’s frequency. Time has completely stopped now. As strange as it seems impossible, I am at utter harmony with everything. I do not feel positively or negatively. Floating in the all encompassing infinite space, I simply exist, as the trillions of other specs of energy do, fitting together just right to form the universe.

The train arrives at 42nd street as I lift my lids. I am puzzled by my state as it seems as though I embody peace. This feeling is foreign to me, as usually I am unhappy about something or other. I am no longer mad at my boyfriend, and the reasons why I was no longer concern me. I had never felt such peace before and have not since then.

The incident on the train happened three years ago and was the only successful meditation I have ever had. Though my brother had suggested meditation for my goals of spiritual self-development and self-knowledge, I had always dismissed it. I was not ready to actually put in the work.

Yet knowing myself was and is very important to me. I need to be aware of not only the causes and effects of my moods, my dispositions, but also how these pathways came to be. With that knowledge I am better able to tackle my demons and to live the person and the life that I have wanted to for so long. As revered Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, taught until his death in 1986, an individual is only one in whom the outer is the same as the inner, and the inner the same as the outer. I aspire to understand every iota of my being, so that I may be able to transform my inner to be at peace, and correlate with it, the outer and vice versa.

Only recently, with the clarity that tackling the hardships of being away at college provided me, has the possible validity and role of meditation in forming who I want to be become evident. Unfortunately, my recent attempts at meditation have been unsuccessful. It seems as though I have made no progress since months ago. I am too impatient and find myself unable to concentrate on one sound or sensation of the body, switching from concentrating on the air going into my nostrils, then on my chest rising and falling, then on the air passing through my nasal passage. I do not focus on one sensation for more than a few seconds. My mind may not be thinking about random events in my life, but it is thinking about trying to focus, and throughout the last time I meditated, about how I was slowly falling asleep without noticing it.

I have not been meditating regularly. A part of the skepticism about it, or rather my skepticism about my own ability, is still there. Whenever something does not come easily to me, I reject it and find reasons for why it is unnecessary. Meditation had always been one of these things. This is why if I were more aware on the train, I would have stopped myself from meditating. I am afraid, and have been since I first learned about it, that if I apply great effort and persistence to meditation and I fail, it will be a blow to my self esteem greater than I know how to handle. Logic says that there is a better chance of succeeding at meditation if I genuinely attempt it than if I muse on it. But, I do not function that way yet, free from the bounds of dispositions and insecurities. Even if I sincerely devote myself to learning how to meditate and to learning from it, it will take years for the state of peace and harmony I felt mediating on the subway to transfer over to my daily life.

It is gradually becoming easier, however, to do the things that I am uncomfortable with and that scare me - such as meditation. I have to keep moving forward. Slowly, I dispose of unnecessary conditioned responses manifested as insecurities, and come closer to embodying my essence.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Forgotten City: Turning the Wheel of the Dharma

The following extracts from WORLD AS LOVER, WORLD AS SELF , by Joanna Macy pp. 53-57, describe the Buddha's teaching of Co-Dependent Arising. This dharma---the Pali word for a teaching or law---resonates with many of Spinoza's ideas in THE ETHICS. It teaches the interconnectedness and thus the ever changing nature, or the impermanence of all things (emotions, in/animate objects, etc). It implies that the emotion-laden labels we attribute to these things (especially "bad" or "good"---the labels Spinoza stresses in his Preface to Part IV) are the result of clinging to what is ever changing. Nothing is "bad" or "good." Things just ARE; they exist and change. The excerpt is reprinted with the permission of the author.

The eight-spoked wheel that graces gateways and temple roofs throughout the Buddhist world symbolizes the teaching of the Buddha. It is called the Wheel of the Dharma, the Dharma Chakra. It also represents the central doctrine that his teachings convey: the doctrine of paticca samuppada or the dependent co-arising of all phenomena. As the Buddha said, “they who see paticca samuppada see the Dharma, and they who see the Dharma see paticca samuppada….”

This centerpiece of the Buddha’s teaching is not about a level of reality separate from our daily lives or aloof from the phenomenal world of change. It refers not to any absolute being of essence, but to the process itself—to the way things work, how events happen and interrelate. Hence it is often called the Law—the law of causality….

With fascination I studied the early Buddhist text. I read how the perception of paticca samuppada dawned on the Buddha the night of his enlightenment, and featured in his discourses. I saw how it underlay everything he taught about self, suffering, and liberation from suffering. I noted how it knocked down the dichotomies bred by hierarchical thinking, the old polarities between mind and matter, self and world….

He did not begin with abstractions or generalities, but with the existential factors of life. He named these factors of experience---ignorance, volitional formations, cognition, name and physical form, sensation, feeling, craving and so on---and pursued them relentlessly to determine how they relate to each other. Persistently he questioned, "For this factor to arise, what else must happen? For it to cease, what else must stop?"

Tracing thus the sources of suffering, he did not find a first cause or prime mover, but beheld instead patterns or circuits of contingency. The factors were sustained by their own interdependence. It was then, in that vigil, in the crucible of his attention, that the perception of dependent co-arising swept upon him.

Coming to be, coming to be!...Ceasing to be, ceasing to be! At that thought, brethren, there arose... a vision of things not before called to mind, and knowledge arose. ...Such is form, such is the coming to be of form, such is its passing away. ...Such is cognition, such is its coming to be, such is its passing away. And [he abided] in the discernment of the arising and passing away.

The process nature of reality became clear-its continual flow, the radical impermanence of all things, with no element or entity aloof from change. But the flux was not chaotic or random, for patterns of conditionality emerged. He saw how factors of existence are mutually determined, providing occasion and context for each other's emergence and subsiding.

All the factors of our lives subsist, then, in a web of mutual causality. Our suffering is caused by the interplay of these factors, and particularly by the delusion, aversion, and craving that arise from our misapprehension of them. Hence, the Four Noble Truths: We create our own bondage by reifying and clinging to what is by nature contingent and transient. Being caused in this way, our suffering is not endemic. It can cease. The causal play can be reversed. This is achieved by seeing the true nature of phenomena, which is their radical interdependence. This is made possible by the cleansing of perception through meditation and moral conduct.

Such a vision, however, is hard to convey, because it goes against the grain of both our sensory experience and our desire for security.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Spinoza's Ethics, Preface to Part IV

We have decided to follow up on the last piece, based on a book about Spinoza called BETRAYING SPINOZA, with some of Spinoza's own writing. He is often called a philosopher's philosopher, and his writing is correspondingly dense. THE ETHICS is no exception; however he also included reasonably accessible prefaces and/or appendices to its various parts, which help capture aspects of his thinking.

Summary: The world is not the top-down result of a divine purpose, but rather the bottom-up result of the interaction of natural things. The notion of good and bad, perfection and imperfection do not apply to natural things. Natural things are perfect, or what is the same thing, real, being, or essences. However distinctions such as good or bad are useful to compare the effective activity of a being relative to its potential.
(We welcome your own summary or any other thoughts as a comment.)


Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse. Why this is so, and what is good or evil in the emotions, I propose to show in this part of my treatise. But, before I begin, it would be well to make a few prefatory observations on perfection and imperfection, good and evil.

When a man has purposed to make a given thing, and has brought it to perfection, his work will be pronounced perfect, not only by himself, but by everyone who rightly knows, or thinks that he knows, the intention and aim of its author. For instance, suppose anyone sees a work (which I assume to be not yet completed), and knows that the aim of the author of that work is to build a house, he will call the work imperfect; he will, on the other hand, call it perfect, as soon as he sees that it is carried through to the end, which its author had purposed for it. But if a man sees a work, the like whereof he has never seen before, and if he knows not the intention of the artificer, he plainly cannot know, whether that work be perfect or imperfect. Such seems to be the primary meaning of these terms.

But, after men began to form general ideas, to think out types of houses, buildings, towers, etc., and to prefer certain types to others, it came about, that each man called perfect that which he saw agree with the general idea he had formed of the thing in question, and called imperfect that which he saw agree less with his own preconceived type, even though it had evidently been completed in accordance with the idea of its artificer.

This seems to be the only reason for calling natural phenomena, which, indeed, are not made with human hands, perfect or imperfect: for men are wont to form general ideas of things natural, no less than of things artificial, and such ideas they hold as types, believing that Nature (who they think does nothing without an object) has them in view, and has set them as types before herself. Therefore, when they behold something in Nature, which does not wholly conform to the preconceived type which they have formed of the thing in question, they say that Nature has fallen short or has blundered, and has left her work incomplete.

Thus we see that men are wont to style natural phenomena perfect or imperfect rather from their own prejudices, than from true knowledge of what they pronounce upon. Now we showed in the Appendix to Part 1 that Nature does not work with an end in view. For the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature, acts by the same necessity as that whereby it exists. For we have shown, that by the same necessity of its nature, whereby it exists, it likewise works. The reason or cause why God or Nature exists, and the reason why he acts, are one and the same.

Therefore, as he does not exist for the sake of an end, so neither does he act for the sake of an end; of his existence and of his action there is neither origin nor end. Wherefore, a cause which is called final is nothing else but human desire, in so far as it is considered as the origin or cause of anything.

For example, when we say that to be inhabited is the final cause of this or that house, we mean nothing more than that a man, conceiving the conveniences of household life, had a desire to build a house. Wherefore, the being inhabited, in so far as it is regarded as a final cause, is nothing else but this particular desire, which is really the efficient cause; it is regarded as the primary cause, because men are generally ignorant of the causes of their desires They are, as I have often said already, conscious of their own actions and appetites, but ignorant of the causes whereby they are determined to any particular desire.

Therefore, the common saying that Nature sometimes falls short, or blunders, and produces things which are imperfect, I set down among the glosses treated of in the Appendix to Part 1.

Perfection and imperfection, then, are in reality merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from a comparison among one another of individuals of the same species; hence I said above, that by reality and perfection I mean the same thing. For we are wont to refer all the individual things in nature to one genus, which is called the highest genus, namely, to the category of Being, whereto absolutely all individuals in nature belong. Thus, in so far as we refer the individuals in nature to this category, and comparing them one with another, find that some possess more of being or reality than others, we, to this extent, say that some are more perfect than others. Again, in so far as we attribute to them anything implying negation--as term, end, infirmity, etc.,--we, to this extent, call them imperfect, because they do not affect our mind so much as the things which we call perfect, not because they have any intrinsic deficiency, or because Nature has blundered. For nothing lies within the scope of a thing's nature, save that which follows from the necessity of the nature of its efficient cause, and whatsoever follows from the necessity of the nature of its efficient cause necessarily comes to pass.

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

Nevertheless, though this be so, the terms should still be retained. For, inasmuch as we desire to form an idea of man as a type of human nature which we may hold in view, it will be useful for us to retain the terms in question, in the sense I have indicated. In what follows, then, I shall mean by "good" that which we certainly know to be a means of approaching more nearly to the type of human nature, which we have set before ourselves; by " bad," that which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in approaching the said type. Again, we shall say that men are more perfect, or more imperfect, in proportion as they approach more or less nearly to the said type.

For it must be specially remarked that, when I say that a man passes from a lesser to a greater perfection, or vice versa, I do not mean that he is changed from one essence or reality to another; for instance, a horse would be as completely destroyed by being changed into a man, as by being changed into an insect. What I mean is, that we conceive the thing's power of action, in so far as this is understood by its nature, to be increased or diminished.

Lastly, by perfection in general I shall, as I have said, mean reality in general --in other words, each thing's essence, in so far as it exists, and operates in a particular manner, and without paying any regard to its duration. For no given thing can be said to be more perfect, because it has passed a longer time in existence. The duration of things cannot be determined by their essence, for the essence of things involves no fixed and definite period of existence; but everything, whether it be more perfect or less perfect, will always be able to persist in existence with the same force wherewith it began to exist; wherefore, in this respect, all things are equal.