Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Commit to Sit": meditating a month at home

Perhaps you share my unease lurking within. You want to get away from it all. But bills must be paid, commitments fulfilled, and timeclocks punched. How can those of us not blessed with an inheritance or a calendar free of obligations find time to listen to ourselves, in peace and quiet? Our spirits keep knocking at our minds, reminding us of the need to recharge and remotivate, but the opportunity in daily life appears to recede, and even a few minutes for one's self seems often impossible.

"Bo" over at "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" on my blog short-list (invitation-only so I encourage you to join; see samples at "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie") mused lately he needed a break from the Cambridge infighting, timewasting trivialities, and endemic malaise that in an academic hothouse may afflict many sensitive plants. He posted this link to Tricycle magazine, the Buddhist site, for their 28-day guided retreat-at-home "Commit to Sit".

I find it may be helpful to adapt or reflect upon. I've not been the only one down in the dumps. It's been a difficult year-- or two in my case--financially and personally. Perhaps it's Seasonal Afflictive Disorder? Even far from Cambridge's shadows, or torrential rain inudating my Irish friends, it's been a gloomy duration. While the sun shines intensely on me today in seasonless Southern California, I've been -- along with my wife as she notes under "Put Upon"-- staring down domestic "acedia"-- a spirit's weariness, a "noonday demon"-- lately.

A former co-worker of my wife's-- with no kids, no spouse, no time-clock-- manages as a freelance writer to get away for (to us) bewilderingly long silent retreats. We are not sure where he goes or what he does; he tends towards taciturnity also in public. I've never pried. But I am curious. (I think of Leonard Cohen up at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, thousands of feet above the very town I grew up in, away for years until legal battles and lissome lasses drew him back into the spotlight in El Lay.) As a writer, I also wonder how my less-famous acquaintance can afford it, although I suspect his costs are minimal and its comforts spartan. I've heard of those who do this regimen for three years. I wonder where they get the cash, time, or freedom.

Buddhism from its start, as James William Coleman's sociological study emphasizes, appealed to idealists and intellectuals. The need to sit and stay apart from distractions day after day does mean it's hard for a "normal" person to attain insights that may come only after utter, hushed attention. Monastics, as later in Catholicism, got to benefit most from separating themselves from society while being supported by the necessary labor of lowlier castes in humdrum trades. Mary gets to sit at the feet of Jesus and pour expensive ointment on them, and for this largess Christ praises her, but I've always felt sorry for put-upon Martha, scurrying in the kitchen, fixing up a homemade hummus for the rabbi's visit to Bethany.

Often, Western Buddhism as with other "alternative spiritualities" gets rightly castigated as a pursuit for the affluent, the self-employed, spousally supported, or trust-funded "creative classes." Maybe it's like golf, if for those more anxious about the fate of themselves? I confess I am flummoxed about how the rest of us tethered to computers, commutes, people we must serve face-to-face, with two weeks of vacation manage to pursue the higher joys afforded those soulful adventures alighting in ashrams, monasteries, or whatever you call a sylvan or alpine retreat house in another denomination or manifestation. "Commit to Sit" for a no-cost, at-home, assisted meditation structure following a four-week self-analysis of Breath, The Body, Emotions & Hindrances, and Thoughts, may appear suited for many harried, constrained, impecunious seekers.

Of course, being in Tricycle, it expects that its audience accept the concepts of dharma. This may be a stumbling block for many outside Buddhism, hostile to it or "religion," or devoted to another form of spiritual discipline. Yet, I'd counter that most people today, at least in the West, can mix its teachings with their own religious or secular backgrounds without compromising their core tenets. Buddhism famously expects one to test its affirmations against one's own reason before acknowledging them as useful for one's own orientation and incorporation. (This did lead, as I witnessed on a Facebook thread started by an Irish practitioner, into a spirited discussion of what "avoidance of intoxicants" meant in such a lived context...)

The program on line begins with one taking up "the five precepts" of morality taught for 2,500 years as "skillful means." It follows the Vipissana model that many people who gravitate towards therapy and psychoanalysis in the West have found most compatible, compared to the more visually rich Tibetan or more austerely stripped Zen traditions. As with psychiatry, the point's not to chide one's self for failures, but to inspire a more disciplined, charitable, and good-hearted approach to improving one's own life and that of those around you. The CTS immersion gradually intensifies, mirroring what a retreatant would find who has-- or has not or has not been able to do successfully-- been trying to meditate before the month.

I'm curious if any of you have ever gone on such intensive retreats, or found in a daily regimen at home some true progress towards inner peace. That's the most elusive of goals for me, and the one that I've expressed as most desirable for me. I hope nobody whatever their creed could find this humble ambition, approached by meditation in whatever form may fit best your own perceptions, unenlightening.

Illustration: From a Facebook quiz: "The Intelligence Type Test". I got the result ► Intrapersonal Intelligence! (One friend told me he'd imagined "interstellar," another mis-read it initially as did I as "interpersonal"-- which panicked reticent me. I figured a cross-legged adept in silhouette fit today's topic well.)
You possess the gift of self. Intrapersonally intelligent people like yourself best understand the world from your own unique point of view, using introspection and self-reflection. Those who are strongest in this intelligence are typically introverts and prefer to work alone. You are most likely highly self-aware and ...capable of understanding your own emotions, goals and motivations. Often times you learn best when allowed to concentrate on the subject by yourself. There is often a high level of perfectionism associated with this intelligence. Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, writers and scientists.


vilges suola said...

Since reading about Commit to Sit on mark's blog I have been thinking about starting meditation again after some twenty years off, in the hope of losing the crushing sense of pointlessness and repetition my job and daily routine are causing me these days. I always found zazen made me very groggy, like someone who's been woken up at two in the morning, very far from the clarity I expected it would produce. Maybe some people are just not made for it?

Layne said...

It stymies me what people without kids or jobs really have to retreat FROM. I also note the fortunate friends returning from such indulgences don't seem particularly better centered or chill. No retreats for us down the pike but I'll take a minute in your arms over a thousand monastaries.

Fionnchú said...

VS, the grogginess of zazen may be a sign of one's reluctance to wake up out of the suspended state, given the "pointlessness" one either returns to or realizes anew. This counts as a zen breakthrough or a realization of the true futility of all vanity. A lesson either way.

Layne, I agree. I wonder why a single person needs to escape, as for harried marrieds home is a retreat enough, at least when the rest of the family's occupied or away! After a couple nights in the old dorms of Maynooth, despite the fireworks bursting in the Halloween air, it's more inspiring to be back at home, even if I cannot make the covers to your exacting household specifications. Back to a tiny bed & $11 porridge?

tamerlane said...

Thich Nhat Hanh has been teaching walking meditation for decades, and holds a monthly walk in Griffith Park.

I teach a seminar on the "zen of grooming." I never get groggy, or develop cramps in my legs LOL, while curry-combing, or brushing an horse's tail.

angel said...

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