Monday, April 07, 2014

Monstrous

I went a couple of weeks ago to Michigan because my mother was having more joint-related surgery, and just to visit. The night beforehand, a friend told me the place where he works was hosting a gathering of anarchists, if I was bored that evening and had nothing to do. Normally I wouldn’t go out the night before traveling—the flight was at 7 a.m. and SuperShuttle was therefore coming at 4:30 a.m.—but I was curious to see what these anarchists would look like.

I thought they’d all be older men, unshowered (that much we’d have in common), sporting scraggly beards, of grim demeanor, and spouting boring political rants. Not at all! The anarchists were of all ages, including many in their 20s and 30s, and a good percentage were positively sprightly in manner, smiling and happy. So that solves the mystery of what anarchists look like.

I made a point while in Michigan, as I’m trying to do all the time now, of doing what I do when I am seated in meditation practice: to return my attention as many times as needed to a chosen physical object (I use the area of my heart) and also to keep an eye (as it were) on my mind, noticing if thoughts are occurring or not, and if they are, what kind they are.

Basically, sitting practice consists of noticing some form of thinking, noting “thinking,” and returning my attention to the chosen objects, over and over and over. Quite a number of thoughts are planning thoughts, of what will happen when: “planning.” Thoughts of wording an email or something I plan to say to someone, another form of planning, get the note “drafting.” Thoughts of the (imaginary) future get the note “future.” Thoughts of random situations unlikely ever to occur get the note “imaginary,” or the all-purpose
“thinking.”  These are applied silently, just a whisper in the mind.

In the seconds between thoughts, there are glimpses of the spaciousness and peace that are always present, just usually obscured. At those moments, we are not lost in a story whose vividness makes it seem true when in fact it’s just an imagining that arose by itself and will depart by itself. Noting over and over what kinds of thoughts are arising provides a good look at customary preoccupations, which can have a big effect on our lives and happiness, for good or ill. As a teacher at the Zen Center said, “What we take to be real is real in its consequences.”

This is more challenging to do when walking around and doing things than when sitting quietly on a chair, but my intention is very strong at this point, and it’s proving to be very beneficial, eliminating lot of the stress and misery that come from all those zillions of thoughts taken to be the truth. I even suspect it’s going to help with lucid dreaming. I’ve already noticed dreams becoming longer, with storylines sustained over more twists and turns, and I really observed a difference on my recent trip to Michigan: many fewer excursions into the past or the future. Everything just seemed so simple. There’s just so much less going on when much of the imaginary exits the picture. Like, almost nothing.

In addition, instead of thinking, “One day my parents won’t be here, and that will be so sad,” as is my custom, I thought from time to time, “One day my parents won’t be here, and I’ll wish I could see them again even for just one moment, walking, talking, smiling. Well, right now, here they are! Walking, talking and smiling! How miraculous!” This does not constitute employing bare attention to notice chosen objects, but was wonderful nonetheless. I felt a strong sense of appreciating what is here, now.

I think it also helped that instead of bringing along a stack of novels and memoirs, I brought along An Unentangled Knowing, by Upasika Kee Nanayon (translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu), which I don’t necessarily recommend (it’s very repetitious), but it did keep my mind focused on my intention. She really hammers it in about observing the mind and body. She was a Thai woman born in 1901, the foremost Buddhist woman teacher of her era in her country. She started her own meditation center. Here are my two favorite sentences from the book: “The defilements [greed, hatred, delusion] have monstrous powers for burning the mind in the twinkling of an eye,” and “Sensory contact is our measuring stick for seeing how firm or weak our mindfulness is.” I like the first because of its lurid quality, and it certainly is true that a single thought or two can take us from peace to anguish in no time at all.

My mother was in the hospital from Monday morning to Wednesday afternoon, with my father and/or I present at all times (well, not in the operating room). I slept in my mother’s room Monday night on the fold-out chair, and my father did the same on Tuesday night. As before, the surgery seems to have gone really well, though my mother said this one was more painful than the first.

My sister came over a couple of times, and I had lunch with Ginny and Amy, separately. It was a really nice visit and I have a few more things to say about it when I post next, which should be middle of next week or so.
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