Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is Meditation Good? Part 1

On Wednesday nights, I go to a program at the Zen Center, in which we do some chanting and sitting, followed by talks and Q&A with Zen Master Bon Soeng (ZMBS). One of these days, I ought to film one of these talks, and post it here and on YouTube. (Even though I'm middle-aged, maybe I can learn how to use new technology like the kids.) At the moment, I'll just have to use old-fashioned "language" to talk about it.

In the most recent such talk, ZMBS spoke about the capture of Radovan Karadzic. For those who don't follow the news... Karadzic was a fugitive, charged with war crimes for supervising the murder of thousands of Muslims during the 1990s Bosnian conflict. When he was finally captured, it turned out that he'd been living under the alias Dr Dragan Dabic, and acting as a meditation teacher and New Age health guru.

There are lots of articles about Karadzic's double-life (follow this link e.g.):
In the past week, the two lives he managed to keep separate for 12 years have been brought together – the Beast of Bosnia, one of Europe's most wanted men, and the mystic healer and zealous Christian, Dr Dragan Dabic.

For those who knew Dr Dabic, one question has dominated the past five days: was Karadzic's career as a New Age health guru just an act, or had he become a true believer in the meditation and healing techniques that he wrote and lectured about so passionately?
I don't think that Karadzic underwent a conversion experience, changing himself from Butcher to Guru. Rather, I think that both somehow coexisted in this man: the fascination with meditation etc, and the brutal killer. The article linked-to above muses, "Crucially, his new profession gave Karadzic a taste of the God-like power over people's lives which he had been able to wield during his years as a warmonger."

ZMBS brought up the matter to warn of the dangers of charisma, how we need to be very careful about "following" any teacher, based on his/her skill in talking about meditation. Even a great teacher is like someone with a flashlight. We can make use of what the light reveals, but it's best to avoid faith in the guy who happens to be holding the flashlight.

If Zaradzic could be a successful meditation teacher, and simultaneously be seriously lacking in compassion... it leads me to wonder whether we can consider the simple practice of meditating, per se, as a necessarily beneficial thing. Perhaps the practice itself is not good and not bad; it's a tool, with the effects dependent on the intention we bring to it.

Today while visiting the Guruphiac blog, I followed one of those Google ads on the page to the "Bliss Music" storefront, where they sell CDs touted to bring quick enlightenment:
...after a great spiritual awakening and many years of research into spiritual enlightenment, I found something that can make it easy for you to experience incredible states of peace and bliss, helping you move very quickly into enlightened states of awareness.
In my youth, I pursued meditation to get special states and blissful feelings, and may have been part of the target audience for Bliss Music. Now, any sort of meditation practice like this (which feeds "I want to get something" while ignoring doubt and inquiry) feels like an incorrect path.

But I dunno. Maybe even the most dull-witted stab at meditation can be better than nothing. Maybe any attempt to still the mind for any reason is a necessary first step, and stuff like contemplating "What am I? Why am I alive?" can be left to arise in due time. That's how it seemed to work in my own life, anyway.

In short, how important is the technique one uses in meditation, and how much is it all about intention? I'll ramble some more about this next time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Early Video of "Magic Mushroom" Trip

Today I learned of an on-line video from the 1961 TV show One Step Beyond:
... director and presenter John Newland ingests psilocybin under laboratory conditions, to investigate whether or not the hallucinogenic mushroom can enhance his abilities of extra-sensory perception.

View the video at this link.

Personally, I don't find the ESP question very interesting. Our ordinary everyday experience of life brings up fundamental questions: What am I? Why am I alive? Magic mushrooms etc may be one tool to examine the Big Questions. This requires no reference to special powers of any sort.

Still, this old video could be an interesting peek at early attitudes towards mind-altering substances, from a time before the modern "drug culture" had emerged. In '61, the spiritual, medical, psychological, and philosophical possibilities of 'shrooms etc hadn't yet gotten entangled with social/political issues.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Big Room with the Blue Ceiling, Part 2

A few more thoughts about the camping trip I blogged about earlier...

What was it that gave me such a different mind-state while I was camping? In the comments, Doug brought up the difference in noise, that it's "noisy in a different way, city noises vs. forest noises." (OK, where I live in Berkeley, it's not exactly a city, but compared to the State Park, it's close enough.) In addition to the sound, maybe there's something about how in Berkeley, the bulk of everything I experience is man-made, whereas on the camping trip, it's reversed.

In my "city" life, I'm surrounded by buildings, roads, cars, electronic devices, etc. I couldn't personally create any of these things... but they all originate with the ideas and plans and efforts of human beings. Their source lies in human intelligence like my own. I have at least a little understanding of how the buildings etc came into being.

On the camping trip, we had our tents and portable stove and all, but most of the environment was non-man-made. Life was bursting out all over. Trees were everywhere, and between the tress were bushes and grasses and insects and critters of all sorts. Who made all that? Where does it come from? The fundamentalists may feel differently... but for me, the source of the sky and trees etc is pure mystery. I've got no sense that the root source of these things is anything like the human intelligence I'm familiar with.

In fact, I get the sense that everything is appearing out of an unknowable source, and disappearing back to the unknown... and this "everything" includes my thinking, and the very sense of "I." It's all appearing and disappearing, like the flies that hatch in the morning and get swallowed by frogs before noon.

The human cities are no different from ant-hills, in that it all ultimately is rooted in the same mystery.

All that swirling life in the woods gives a sense of the vastness of the universe, as well as its dream-like quality. At night, we'd look up at the stars with an attention I never give them in the city. Moreso than anything in city-life, watching the stars makes all my thinking, all my personal issues... feel like a flash of lightning or a drop of dew.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Big Room with the Blue Ceiling, Part 1

I first tried camping in my 20s, spending a week hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania. Years later, I slept under the stars at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The hike to the bottom of the Canyon was at the top of my "bucket list," as was the hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.

Also during the 90s, there were some majestic hikes in the Colorado mountains with my high school friend Raul. Raul owned a couple of llamas, which would carry our tent and stuff. Leaving the animals at our base camp, we climbed as high as 13K feet.

But then one of llamas died, and it's been a few years since I've had a major outdoor adventure. This summer I hiked at Joshua Tree a couple days, but we slept in a motel outside the Park.

I haven't thought about camping for a while. I'm not one of those hippies who feel that I need to escape evil human civilization. After all, my definition of "nature" includes everything. As I grow older, inner explorations have occupied more of my interest than trekking through the wilderness. The bears and deer don't wander into my dwelling to hang out; why do I need to hang out in theirs?

So I might have given up on camping, except that my buddy Bill (pictured here) is a huge fan of it, and during this week he invited me to join him for a few days of car camping in a State Park north of Truckee. I thought it'd be fun to hang out with him there, and a good use of my free time during my (assumed temporary) period of unemployment. I didn't expect much from the camping experience itself, but it turned out to be more profound than I'd thought.

One of the great benefits of living outdoors is that it's so uncomfortable. It made me realize how much of my day-to-day attention is taken up with concerns of bodily comfort. It's not that I've ever craved luxury, but I do have my temperature-controlled apartment, soft mattress, refrigerator, and broadband net access to keep me constantly amused.

It's a different matter to wake up in the middle of the cold dark night, on the hard ground of my claustrophobic tent, with no distractions from exhaustion, scrapes, and mosquito bites. It's one of those wonderful "no escape" situations that forces me to just pay attention to the moment, due to the lack of alternatives.

I realized that the situation wasn't so different from the painful meditation retreats I put myself through every month, with the "no escape" a bit more literal. If there's anything I've learned from decades of mediation and inquiry, it's the extraordinary power of thinking. "If you want to understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future," say the Buddhist scriptures, "then you should view the nature of the universe as being created by Mind alone."

Lying there in the tent, it became clearer that it's my thinking that creates suffering. A few mosquito bites are no big deal (especially considering the vast array of pain that human life has to offer). It was my thinking that it should be different that's the root issue. Buddha's teaching in a nutshell: If you want something, you have a problem.

In any moment that I just experienced the situation as it was, letting mental desires and imaginings come and go like clouds... it was just like this, no problem. I always understand this conceptually, but it's an entirely different matter to be forced to practice like this directly.

(It's similar to what happens to me on airplane flights. Sometimes I get claustrophobic attacks while flying, and my only option is to focus on a simple mind-stopping technique like mantra. Amazingly, once thinking quiets down, the situation is transformed. These nitty-gritty life situations bring meditation practice to life, moreso than a mountain of philosophizing.)

I was also surprised by the effect of being constantly surrounded by an environment that isn't man-made. I'll ramble on about that in the 2nd part of this posting, coming shortly.