Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Joko Beck Talks Without Saying Anything

Thanks to the Ox Hearding blog for pointing me to a fine interview with Zen teacher Joko Beck. It's from a Shambhala Sun article: True Stories About Sitting Meditation. Click the link to see the original Sun article. For the benefit of those too lazy to click, I've copied Beck's interview below:

Donna Rockwell: How old were you when you started meditating?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Thirty-nine, forty, somewhere in there.

Donna Rockwell: Did you have any realization through meditation?

Charlotte Joko Beck: No. Of course we have realizations, but that’s not really what drives practice.

Donna Rockwell: Will you say more about that?

Charlotte Joko Beck: I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, “Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?” Otherwise, they get stuck there. It’s not the important thing in practice.

Donna Rockwell: And may I ask you what is?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.

Donna Rockwell: There seems to be a payoff, though, because you feel alive instead of dead.

Charlotte Joko Beck: I wouldn’t say a payoff. You’re returning to the source, you might say—what you always were, but which was severely covered by your core belief and all its systems. And when those get weaker, you do feel joy. I mean, then it’s no big deal to do the dishes and clean up the house and go to work and things like that.

Donna Rockwell: Doing the dishes is a great meditation—especially if you hate it…

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, if your mind wanders to other things while you’re doing the dishes, just return it to the dishes. Meditation isn’t something special. It’s not a special way of being. It’s simply being aware of what is going on.

Donna Rockwell: Doesn’t sitting meditation prepare the ground to do that?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Sure. It gives you the strength to face the more complex things in your life. You’re not meeting anything much when you’re sitting except your little mind. That’s relatively easy when compared to some of the complex situations we have to live our way through. Sitting gives you the ability to work with your life.

Donna Rockwell: I read your books.

Charlotte Joko Beck: Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?

Donna Rockwell: Give up reading your books?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, they’re all right. Read them once and that’s enough. Books are useful. But some people read for fifty years, you know. And they haven’t begun their practice.

Donna Rockwell: How would you describe self-discovery?

Charlotte Joko Beck: You’re really just an ongoing set of events: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, one after the other. The awareness is keeping up with those events, seeing your life unfolding as it is, not your ideas of it, not your pictures of it. See what I mean?

Donna Rockwell: How would you define meditation?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Awareness of what is, mentally, physically.

Donna Rockwell: Can you please complete the following sentences for me? “The experience of meditation is…”

Charlotte Joko Beck: “…awareness of what is.”

Donna Rockwell: “Meditative awareness has changed my life in the following way…”

Charlotte Joko Beck: “It has changed my life in the direction of it being more harmonious, more satisfactory, more joyful and more useful probably.” Though I don’t think much in those terms. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m going to be useful. I really think about what I’m going to have for breakfast.”

Donna Rockwell: “The one thing awareness has taught me that I want to share with all people is that…”

Charlotte Joko Beck: I don’t want to share anything with all people.

Donna Rockwell: Who do you want to share with?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Nobody. I just live my life. I don’t go around wanting to share something. That’s extra.

Donna Rockwell: Could you talk about that a little bit?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, there’s a little shade of piety that creeps into practice. You know, “I have this wonderful practice, I want to share it with everyone.” There’s an error in that. You could probably figure it out yourself.

Donna Rockwell: I think that’s something I need to learn.

Charlotte Joko Beck: You and I know there’s nothing that’s going to make me run away faster than somebody who comes around and wants to be helpful. You know what I mean? I don’t want people to be helpful to me. I just want to live my own life.

Donna Rockwell: Do you think you share yourself?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Yeah, but who’s that?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Analyzing Avatar

I was of course blown away by the 3D effects of Avatar. It's quite a clever way to get us back into the communal experience of movie-going. I've got Netflix and a good TV, so for years I've been far more likely to watch movies in my own apartment with a friend or two, rather than going to the theater. The 3D phenom will draw me back a little... at least until they come up with holographic TVs. I'll probably go to the IMAX to see Alice in Wonderland, maybe even Dragons.

Few would argue that the plot of Avatar is as impressive than its technology. It struck me as simplistic in its Spiritual/New-agey "message." The heroes of the movie are the Na'vi, a native tribe presented as superior to humans, because the Na'vis are all about Oneness. They're literally "connected" to each other, to their ancestors, and to the plants and animals in their environment.

The movie's sensibility tends towards Eastern perspectives. All of creation has just one substance, so all people, all beings, all phenomena... are connected. A Yogi or Buddhist is likely to consider, e.g., that animals are fundamentally equal to humans.

To a Judeo-Christian, though, a human has a "soul" that animals lack. There's a God who's separate from creation; some souls are on God's Side more than others. This makes good and bad, heaven and hell, spiritual and mundane... distinctions which are seen as real, objective, impossible to discard.

(Why, after all, do fundamentalist Christians have a problem with Darwin? It's because the teaching of Evolution shows our connection to all other beings, threatening the separate special status that Western religions grant to humanity. It's the same reason that in the past, the Church was so fiercely opposed to recognizing that Earth isn't the center of the universe.)

The one line of Avatar that I really liked was when the big battle was about to take place, and our hero is talking to the Na'vi's great Goddess, asking for Her help in defeating the human enemies. His girlfriend overhears him, and explains that their Goddess would never take sides. The Goddess doesn't favor one being over another; She only cares about the balance.

That was a neat moment... though overall, the spiritual stuff got a bit sappy and heavy-handed. In Avatar, the spiritual people were the good guys, and the businessmen the villains. That itself is dubious, as in the real world, it's just as often the case that commerce is of huge benefit to beings, and religion the source of conflict.

And while Avatar has a lot of fancy words about Oneness, it all culminates in a Us vs Them shoot-em-up, so the message is decidedly mixed. The plot would have been more in harmony with the Message if it didn't so clearly divide Good and Evil, if the conflicts had more shades of grey, if the characters were a bit less (heh) two-dimensional.

All that being said, I was struck by how, at least superficially, Avatar was pretty Buddhist-flavored for a mainstream blockbuster. It takes the perspective of Oneness and Equality as a given. But how much does that matter?

Seeing Avatar made me remember decades ago, when Shirley MacLaine's Out on A Limb was one of the first books (and TV mini-series) to present to a wide audience a New Age perspective. Many of us Into the Spiritual Thing were excited; we thought this meant something big to society.

I'm not so sure that works like Avatar or Out on A Limb have that much effect on the culture (though maybe they reflect how the culture has already changed). Maybe things don't change so much from the top-down (i.e., influenced by a hit movie or book), but more from the bottom-up (i.e., to the culture at large from the changes made by countless individuals).

Newsweek recently ran a piece called We Are All Hindus Now. The point was that there's been a huge increase in Americans considering themselves "spiritual but not religious," seeing Truth as present in all paths, not restricted to One True Way. Even though few Americans would describe themselves with the word "Hindu," the Eastern world-view is stealthily taking over in the battle of philosophical ideas.

My Zen teacher used to say, "Jesus came to spread love to humanity; Buddha came to bring peace and compassion to the world. How are they doing?" I think his point was that we can't expect compassion to come down to us from some great powerful leader (much less a blockbuster movie). It's always up to us, it always comes down to how we as individuals act in this very moment.