Monday, February 24, 2014

Yeah, Sure, if I HAD a Couch

I was reading in the Chronicle about protesters interrupting Google’s presentation at a recent tech conference, unfurling a banner that made reference to the evictions in the Mission. Mindfulness training is offered at Google, and the Google person on hand at the conference has evidently been a recipient because he (or she) completely ignored the protesters and their message, instead saying something like (paraphrasing here), “This can be an opportunity for practice. Notice how you’re feeling. How does it feel in your body when you have one point of view and someone else has another?”

I was aghast. On the one hand, yes, that’s an excellent approach to take in many situations: what is really going on? How does it feel, in detail? But what is really going on doesn’t stop at the boundary of our own skin. To ignore someone else’s very obvious distress in favor of noticing how we’ve been affected by having to be near someone in distress seems grotesque.

That evening I left two lengthy diatribes on Howie’s answering machine. The first was venting my reaction as alluded to above. In the second, I said that I had gone on to think: Haven’t these people heard of engaged Buddhism, which responds to real-world issues, to social and environmental problems? But, no, why should they have? They aren’t learning Buddhism, they’re learning mindfulness, which is great, as far as it goes.

Once I went to a presentation at the Zen Center by a Stanford neuroscientist on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, which are measurable, and the friend I was with got very exercised, raising her hand to grumble about mindfulness being taken out of the context of Buddhism, something I didn’t care about at all: if people weren’t interested in the teachings of the Buddha, beyond meditation, but found mindfulness helpful, how could I object to that?

The father of the mindfulness movement, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is himself a Buddhist (I believe I’m correct in saying that) but rightly perceived that the mindfulness part alone could be extremely valuable to a lot of people. I have a close friend who has been learning mindfulness and who reports that it has been very beneficial. We were discussing mindfulness versus Buddhism and I said I imagine the ethics that are an inherent part of the latter sneak in even if you don’t want to be a Buddhist. I think if you genuinely notice what’s really going on often enough, you’ll eventually perceive that it doesn’t feel good to speak to another person with contempt. You might tune in to the content of your thoughts and how that shapes your world. Maybe you’ll clearly see the suffering going on all around you.

At Howie’s last Tuesday night, when we were setting up the chairs, he asked if I had a topic for his talk that evening. I said I was struggling, again, with the class issues in the Mission and undecided whether to practice bare attention and noting, or lovingkindness. I said that the latter can feel forced, whereupon Howie reminded me for the umpteenth time that in that situation, one does not send good wishes to the object of one’s resentment. One sends good wishes to oneself.

It may not have been intentional, but Howie’s talk did seem to be about my problem. It was about how happiness does not consist of enjoying one pleasant experience after another. Even if we can manage to get things set up so that we have non-stop agreeable experiences, that’s still not the same thing as happiness. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, because it strengthens the habit of wanting, which is not at all a good feeling.

Afterward, L. gave me a ride home. On our way to her car, we passed the enormous and dazzling new place at 15th and Mission, right across from the same seedy apartment buildings that have been there for years. I paused to stew at the sight of the gorgeous common spaces, giant TVs, and an actual well-to-do person using an app on her smart phone. L. was mystified. “Why would you want that? Why, you can lie on your couch and read a book anytime you want!”

I explained that it isn’t a case of wanting that (I don’t think) but of indignation regarding all the people who have been displaced and how the neighborhood is transforming. It kind of made me feel better to know this isn’t bothering L., because it means it’s possible not to be bothered by it, and that maybe someday I won’t be bothered by it. Although on our way home, I had her go along Mission St. between 21st and 22nd, so she could see the massive condo development rising ever higher as construction proceeds, and she was agog in a not-admiring way, so maybe if I keep working on her, she can also be bothered. Potential solidarity!

I am absolutely convinced that the beautiful dwelling spaces and fancy cars and endless expensive meals aren’t bringing the new Mission residents happiness. But, unfortunately, their lives don’t take place in a vacuum. While they learn, or don’t learn, how pleasure relates to happiness, others are genuinely suffering, longtime residents who are being evicted to make place for all this luxury living.

This is not just a Mission phenomenon, of course. Worldwide, our, also meaning my own, endless search for more and better is on the verge of making the planet literally uninhabitable, so this will all be moot sooner or later, speaking of Wally Periods: All we had to do was put off living in a sustainable manner until the planet would no longer sustain us.
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