Finding One’s Own Past Blameworthy

There are times when life is busy, lived forwards with a view to the future that drives out any consciousness of the past. Sometimes it is just the opposite and things slow down and we live in quiet days that give us space to reflect. In such moments, if there is no imagined, sought-after future ready to fascinate our attention, then the mind is free to cast backwards through our personal histories and we can relive the past. This is often thought a bad thing, perhaps unconsciously regarded as suitable only for the elderly and the severely ill – that is, for those who haven’t any future to look forward to. That way lies only nostalgia, that unseemly retreat into what may never have been and which, in any case, certainly never may be again. Why, after all, would someone with more road left ahead than behind concern herself with what has been left behind?

It is an inevitability, of course, that thoughts of the past will arise in the present. We should try our best not to torture ourselves with them, but they come naturally and, just as naturally, they go. And while it is true the retreat to nostalgia can drain life of something in the present, it can also provide much comfort if the present moment is one of misfortune. Really, this is not better or worse than living with one’s mind fixed to the future, it is only cultural biases that make it seem so. After all, both hope and despair are future-oriented emotions, reactions to merely imagined circumstances – the least that may be said of rumination upon the past is that it is, ostensibly, about what has actually happened.

This is to understate the value of contemplating our own journeys, however. For when we imagine the future we always do so on our terms: “I will be as I am, but better, richer, stronger, wittier, more beautiful, charming, and intelligent, of more subtle and refined tastes, my every project will come to fruition…” Or, alternatively, “every possible misfortune will be visited upon me: I shall lose my youthful beauty, my mind will decline, my body will go to fat, I will lose my home, business, and family…” Both versions project our assessments of ourselves and our lives as we find them into an imaginal realm that reality does not and cannot push back against. But when we look back upon the past, we also do so on our terms – and sometimes what we can see is ugly.

(I am, of course, thinking about myself here.)

We should be glad if we look back and see misbehaviour – e.g. that our dissembling was transparent, our sense of entitlement delusional, our manipulations odious. It’s not that we are or ought to be glad that we behaved poorly or that we hurt people and lost friends, rather, we are glad because we now know that such behaviour is bad and that we should not act in such a way. We should be glad because we see that, although we didn’t meet our current standards for behaviour, those standards are there now and better than they were.

Coming Back to the Cushion, Gunning for Stream-Entry

I never really stopped meditating, per se, I just wound up doing less of it, less frequently than I had done in the past. I got busy with other things and tired from the increasingly hectic pace of work – to the point where now, for now, I’m always on-call for the company. It’s hard to make / take the time to sit when you get home tired and the phone rings every half hour with some issue needing your attention (or kids, kids could be bad for it too), but over the past couple months I’ve been ramping up my sitting time and ignoring the phone more assiduously (having figured out that they’ll figure it out). And as, and as much as, the monkey-mind settles down, my motivation to practise increases.

Once upon a time, I was determined to make it to stream-entry (Theravada Buddhist talk for the first stage of enlightenment). At some point, I’m not sure when exactly, it went away. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that instead of the desire going away, it was more that the goal seemed out-of-reach, sort of like dreams of stardom are for many people. The sort of case where it is not so much that one wouldn’t love to be famous, or that one wouldn’t immediately give up ordinary life if fame descended upon her in some form, but more like the acknowledgement and acceptance that life probably just won’t allow her that experience: discouragement. Just so, I became discouraged that awakening is an experience that I could experience.

But lately – and I don’t know whether it’s the increased cushion-time, having just made it through a difficult moment for the family, re-reading old books that make it seem doable, or just knowing that my work situation is going to become both less intense and allow me lots of time to dedicate to practising – the goal has seemed so achievable. So I’m shooting for that – I’m shooting for stream-entry.

So, Starting Again…

It’s been much, much too long.

I hit that point in the lifecycle where it was just work-work-work-work-work. Which is fine (we all have to make it in this world) but it drained me out. Sometimes the idea would get in my head that I would like to write a thing and then… I would realize that there was nothing that I wanted to say at all.

But I’m changing life circumstances and hopefully this dried-up-well situation will come around of its own – or maybe not and I finally toast this blog entirely.

Alive and With A New Project

Well, more than a year since my last post and now I’m back.  Clearly, I’m not to be relied upon for blogable entertainment.  The thing is that I simply ran out of steam in the worst possible way – there was just nothing that seemed like it needed to be said.  Also, I got a new position at work.  Also, maybe some other things I don’t think I’ll tell the whole world about.  In any case, so it was, so it is.

But I have of late decided that there is something that would be interesting to do.  Interesting to me at least, hopefully interesting to others as well.  Indeed, I think it would be even more interesting if I were able to get some participation from others for this little project.  So if anyone out there is reading this and thinking that it sounds like it might be a fun thing to do, please give me a shout.

The short version of the project is this: methodically undertake a particular course of meditative practise and philosophical/psychological investigation and make a daily record of my own progress/outcomes (including my failures, of course) in order to try and effectively design a course of study to efficiently get people to a condition of ‘xxx’[1].  Enlist other interested parties (*cough* ‘guinea pigs *cough*) willing to engage in the program in order to properly evaluate its effectiveness and make tweaks… so if anyone out there is reading this and thinking that it sounds like it might be a fun thing to do, please give me a shout!

What is the background on this?  Well, I had just returned (this was two weeks ago) from a very fruitful retreat and I was giving a friend of mine (who I consider to have been very successful in this ‘xxx’ business[2]) the run-down on the retreat.  This led into a conversation about just why it is that there are so many Buddhists and yet so few Buddhas, so many advaita vedantins and so few… whatever you might call them.  There were a few reasons we batted about, but poor instruction struck us both as an important one.  Indeed, I think that this is particularly important because there is both a ‘stupid’ way to go about practise and a ‘smart’ way – and I have been very stupid.  I no longer want to be stupid and I would like to see others be less stupid as well.

Also, there are so many other practices that I think could be of value but which I’ve never investigated or investigated in any methodical way.  Hopefully, putting up a record and comparing my own experience with those of others will make a difference!

So, the logs begin tomorrow (though I’ve already sort-of chosen the plan of action and started yesterday) and the supplementary posts will follow.


[1] This is to be defined later on.  Needless to say, I have a particular idea of what this means and this is based upon thought and practise that took place over the course of my internet absence for which I will have to fill in the details.

[2] Again, don’t panic!  I’m definitely not saying anything too outlandish about him, as you’ll all see when I get around to finally putting forward something that I consider to be a workable and realistic notion of what fills in the space marked ‘xxx’.

Been a while…

So, I’ve been absent from blogging for, oh, about a month now. The reason is simply that I’ve had nothing at all to say.  Or, to be more correct, I’ve had nothing to say that wasn’t stupid sounding, even to myself.  Also, work is picking up for me (and might be even more, should I happen to be chosen for a better position I’ve put in for) and I’ve also been getting out of the house at night more frequently.  Turns out that when you’re a shut-in you’ve got more time for things like: writing.  Also, I made the terrible mistake of reading some completely immature and hilarious fiction.  John Dies at the End (he doesn’t – he dies at the beginning!) and its sequel, This Book is Full of  Spiders: Seriously dude, don’t touch it.  A pair of comedy/horror novels about what would  happen if two complete slacker-idiots had to save the world.

So yes, that’s what happened.  Turns out that sometimes we haven’t the time for everything that we want to fit in.  Oh well, at least I’m still getting a bunch of daily page hits because people are looking for “enso pictures” on the internet.  Somehow the pic on my blog wound up third-place on Google image searches for ‘enso’.  Funny world we live in.

Hopefully I’ll be having some more content up soon, but then again, I might remain mostly stupid for the forseeable future.  It’s hard to say.

Despite My Previous Anti-Christian Assertions…

A Google search on christian buddhism brought me to this and this and this.  There’s both a lot of relief and negativity in evidence in the comments to these articles.  Personally, I understand both sides of the equation.

I don’t think it’s possible actually to be a 50/50 Christian-Buddhist or Buddhist-Christian, even if you are one of the mystical sorts of Christians.  Fundamentally, Buddhists and Christians differ pretty strongly in respect to that which is of transcendental concern and the differences between the two families of views cannot really be papered over.  Buddhism generally denies a metaphysical ground or source, which denial marks a huge non-starter for anything that reasonably could be categorized as ‘Christian’.  Having said that, however, there are some Buddhist sects that view the ultimate reality as being Mind (huge contentious discussion, I know, but let’s not get into it now) and so actually approximate something like the theism that they are doctrinally required to reject – even so, their ultimate reality of Mind is worlds apart from the God of Christianity, even in His more mystical articulations.  For instance, the Buddhists’ ubiquitous Mind/Awareness/etc. remains decidedly impersonal, while even the mystical Christians’ God has elements of volition, personality, etc. (granted, of distinctly different kind than those of humans).  These are particularly sticky problems and cannot simply be brushed under the rug.

Stained glass Padmasambhava (click to embiggen).

Moreover, there is obviously a lot of hurt that motivates the negative comments on these posts.  People who perhaps had bad experiences with Christianity or its representatives but who retained their spiritual hunger (which is being fed by Buddhism) would, quite naturally, view the entire religion with a jaundiced eye (indeed, most atheists are of this sort too).  Then there are those who simply have great distaste for what is familiar or a mild-to-extreme valuing of what is foreign, whatever the genesis of these feelings (see la wik: cultural cringe, oikophobiaxenophily, xenocentrism).  To such people, any attempt to forge a synthesis or bring Jesus into Buddhism pushes all the wrong buttons – Buddhism was supposed to be their escape from all that.

And then, of course, there are fervent, fundamentalist convert Buddhists as well (Namdrol of E-Sangha comes to mind).

Tibetan-ish Jesus in Gethsemane (click to embiggen).

But the negative comments seemed also to be missing the point of what the author was getting at, which really wasn’t that Christianity and Buddhism ought to merge into some perfect synthesis of the two.  Rather, his point (which I thought was fairly obvious) is that as Westerners we will have some degree of resonance with the morals, myths, and cultural containers (e.g. art, architecture, music) of our heritage and that this is something that Buddhism will have to accommodate itself to if it is truly to become rooted in Western soil.  I fully agree with that thesis even though I, raised in an atheist household, do not and never did believe Jesus to be God or any of the other stuff that goes with Christian belief.  Still, as an archetype of forgiveness and compassion, Jesus speaks far more powerfully to me than Tara and John the Baptist may speak to some Westerners as a more appropriate meditational figure for purification than Vajrasattva.  Nor does the process necessarily need be entirely about Christianity, either.  I have elsewhere expressed some interest in buddhizing Halloween (which I have been meaning to do a follow-up on).  And the Grim Reaper surely must be capable of being put to meditational use?

I love this so much, my print looks awesome on the wall (click to embiggen).

The ironic thing about this is that both certain Western xenophiles and Asian cultural conservatives will fight tooth and nail against such a process taking place, even though it is exactly the same process (insofar as history does not repeat, it rhymes) as the synthesis of pre-Buddhist Tibetan folk-religion with Buddhism or of Kwan-Yin’s transformation from goddess to Bodhisattva.

My Conversation With Kenneth Folk

Today I had the good fortune of spending several hours shooting the breeze with Kenneth Folk. He just happened to be in town and was game to have lunch with me and a fellow dharma geek (though lunch got long). If I had had the presence of mind to think ahead, I probably would’ve made a point of taking mental notes, but (alas and alack) I did not!  But it was a most fascinating and enlightening (ha!) conversation, ranging from fMRI studies of meditators’ brains, to meta-models of enlightenment, to our individual practices (thanks for the advice, Kenneth!) and much else besides.  It’s not every day that an opportunity like that crops up.  I haven’t much to say about it right now – I need to give time to my subconscious to grind away until something good comes out of it – but I think this will provide fodder for this space, in any case.


EDIT: I posted this before I was finished, so I added a little more.