It’s been almost three months since my last post. At first I was working on another writing project. When the pandemic shut down Philadelphia and Anne Mei could finish her semester online, she moved up to Quincy MA in mid-March to live in an apartment with her girlfriend Katie and to start a job at the regional mental health crisis center. I went into lockdown mode. I was not in the mood for writing, but doing lots of meditating on my own and in online groups. Also I’ve been engaging in virtual meetings and activities with Put People First, a statewide health care advocacy group allied with the national Poor People’s Campaign. Gale and I have been able to take walks once or twice a week at proper social distances.
Aside from the typical junk streaming and junk reading, I’ve also been doing some serious reading. The novel Temptation by János Székely takes place in Hungary in the 1920s and has some of the most compelling descriptions of what it’s like to be really poor that I’ve ever read. My high school classmate and fellow meditator Richard Campolucci had sent me Analayo’s Meditator’s Life of the Buddha, which I liked so much that I read his Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, an appropriate book for the time of COVID-19.
Analayo translates and comments on the Chinese versions of the suttas in the Pali canon. One of many lines that stuck with me comes from the Chinese parallel to the sutta on Aging and Death in the Connected Discourses (SN 3.3.).
There are three things which the whole world does not like to think about. What are the three? That is, they are old age, disease, and death.
The Pali version tells us that we all have to face old age, disease, and death, even those who attain enlightenment. But it doesn’t mention that we don’t like to talk or think about them.
Because the First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha is that we live in a world that is unsatisfying, stressful, and often painful, some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic sour-pusses. Far from it. Analayo has a wonderful chapter on the Buddha’s good humor and joy. Such joy does not come from avoiding the topics of old age, disease, and death, but from being openly aware of all aspects of our experience, including old age, disease, and death. Previously, I’ve described how I’ve learned while meditating that the way to deal with an itch or a muscle cramp is not to scratch it or move. Rather, after just paying attention for a while to what’s happening in my body and how I’m reacting to it, the itch or cramp goes away.
Unfortunately, I find that many of my fellow meditators do not take this approach. They are looking for ways not to think about painful topics such as old age, disease, and death. In the Summer 2020 issue of Tricycle magazine, Karen Armstrong has an article on “The Lost Art of Reading Scripture.” She makes a side comment that targets exactly what I’ve been noticing.
Mindfulness, designed to teach Buddhists anatta (“no self ”)—that the “self ” we prize so dearly is illusory and nonexistent— is now used to help people feel more centered and comfortable in themselves.
Even a more traditional Tibetan Buddhist center in Philadelphia advertises:
Live- Stream Meditations for Relaxation
Meditations to stay happy and positive all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Now the Third Noble Truth is that there is a way out of stress and pain, and the Fourth Noble Truth sets out the eightfold path towards that liberation. So, the goal of alleviating stress and pain is not what’s getting my attention. What I’m noticing is how frequently guided meditations on, say, lovingkindness, are all about being kind and gentle and loving to ME. About making ME comfortable and by the way I would feel better if other people could share in MY comfort.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest I want to turn to something I’ve learned about myself this past month. One lovely benefit of the lockdown is that I’ve been able to rejoin my Princeton Insight Meditation Group on Zoom. Following the same format as before, we begin with a reading. This month we’re reading from a book by a British monk Ajahn Sucitto about the ten qualities we want to perfect. The reading during my first return visit caught my attention.
We even need to establish a boundary around our intellectual activity, because intellectual activity can become a vast dimension that floods the mind with restless energy. There are all kinds of things that we can think about…. But you have to decide whether it’s relevant for yourself or just a distraction from more important issues in your life. … The key point is that wherever your attention gets established then that’s where your energy goes. And that energy and focus becomes your world.
I grew up in a family where religion and spiritual practice were very much intellectual activities. I’ve carried that tendency with me as I’ve migrated from Catholicism to Buddhism. Anyone who’s spent any time with this blog has endured that tendency. So I recognized myself in Ajahn Sucitto’s description of intellectual activity flooding “the mind with restless energy.”
A few days later, in the course of pursuing an academic quibble I had about something he had written, I found an essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu where he puts his finger on the hindrance I’m creating with this tendency. In describing the hindrance which is usually translated as “doubt,” this American monk put the spotlight on my problem.
Uncertainty is fed by inappropriate attention to topics that are abstract and conjectural, and … by … focusing on issues that can’t be resolved by observing the present ….
Finally, last week one of my daily Dharma emails quoted the Dhammapada to me:
Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.
Since then, whenever I feel the urge to argue with a guided meditation or to admonish someone for seeking self-centered comfort, I tell myself to pay attention to my own unskillful tendencies.
TWO FINAL NOTES. (1) I am seriously debating whether or not to continue this blog. One way or another my entries will probably be infrequent. I will let you know if I do decide to stop. (2) There seems to be some problem with making comments through the comment feature on this blog. Let me know if you’ve tried to make a comment and it hasn’t worked. My email is email@example.com.
TO ALL: STAY SAFE. STAY WELL.