I thought I’d share an excellent interview by the author of my current favorite book, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. As artificial intelligence becomes more normative, the elimination of low skill labor is in the near future, i.e., machines replacing humans is no longer a question of if but of when. There are many people discussing this and writing books, but few can provide the kind of historical perspective on our species in the way that Yuval Harari does. He also does Vipassana meditation retreats, like the one I just finished. (My retreat was only ten days, his retreats are two months.) If you want a sample of the kinds of things Harari talks about, here’s a great 60 minute interview he did with Ezra Klein:
There were more farts during group meditations than I can remember from any prior retreat, and from time to time they seemed to form some sort of chain reaction: one person farting, followed by another, then another. A sort of flatulent call-and-response, if you will. Then, on the seventh day, he farted. Read more
Eating while on retreat is probably the thing I most look forward to each day. Probably most mediators do, because the meals are really the only source of external stimulation that exists. There are no electronics, no Internet. Hell, it’s a silent retreat so you can’t even talk. There is no stimulation whatsoever, expect two meals a day.
Yes, we only eat two meals a day, one in the morning and one just before noon. (Evenings are for fasting.) It sounds brutal, I know, but truly it’s not as bad as it may seem. After all, sitting all day doesn’t exactly burn the calories.
One thing that I remind myself as I meditate on retreat is that meditation is biological. For all the spiritual mumbo jumbo that we use, meditation is science. It’s a neurological thing, to be precise. There’s a very important sense in which meditation is about making the brain work better. As one medical doctor puts it, “neurons that wire together fire together” (or something like that, don’t quote me). Read more
Western philosopher (and dead white guy) Blaise Pascal seems to have asked a similar question (as the one I raised in my last post), several centuries ago, because he made this statement:
Note: I am currently sitting on my ass for a 10 day meditation retreat. This post was written and scheduled in advance.
As I said in my prior post, a few folks take to meditation naturally. The first time they sit, they drop into calm serenity and/or into a state of deep concentration, picturesque, like a lovely little Buddha, they seem only a few shades away from complete and total enlightenment. Well, good for them, but that’s not me, and that’s not most of us, and in a sense, that’s not really the point of meditation.
I know the format for this particular meditation retreat, this being my fourth one. It’s between 10 and 11 hours of meditation a day for ten days. Mostly, it’s just sitting and sitting and sitting and sitting. And more sitting. And you start to feel bat shit crazy. Read more
I’m heading out on another 10-day Vipassana meditation (S.N. Goenka, for those of you into Vipassana). I leave today, and soon I’ll be completely offline. (We all literally check our cell phones at the door, and we don’t see them again for ten days.)
You’ll still see some blog posts show up, however, because I’ve done some writing in advance and scheduled a few posts ahead of time, a few simple reflections on meditation and retreats and whatnot.
It’s possible that you’re reading this, and a 10-day retreat sounds quite impressive. I’m more than happy to take any and all of your compliments and admiration, but in truth I’m only able to do a 10 days because I’ve been meditating for a very long time. When I first began meditating, I wasn’t a natural. Read more
I’ve had some epic spiritual experiences in my life, big Grand Canyon moments that changed the course of my life, but when I look back on my spiritual journey, I’d say that it’s the small things that have really made the deepest, most lasting change. Epic experiences are deeply powerful, and they’ve change the direction of my life, putting into focus what’s important and what’s not, but addressing more and more I think that it’s the little things that have helped me deal with my deep-rooted ego-issues. I’ve shed tears at the rim of the Grand Canyon, on the cusps of a major life change, but I think that there’s been more power in understanding an itch. Read more
Of course hiking isn’t all mountain top experiences or epic Facebook photo-ops. If you hike regularly enough, much of it can start to feel pretty ordinary, actually, like my hike last weekend, where I woke up in an out-of-sorts mood. It was one of those moods where the trajectory of one’s life just feels off track, yet upon further examination there’s really no particular reason to feel that way.
In the past, this melancholic frame of mind might really throw me off, leading to a variety of interrogations: perhaps I’ve not got my shit together in life, or maybe I haven’t been meditating enough, or perhaps I’m in hte wrong place, doing the wrong thing, and on and on, trying to locate what’s wrong or what’s off.
I don’t really take my feelings very seriously anymore. Does that sound drastic? I don’t know, maybe it is, but the mind and the heart are a bit crazy and seem to me to be so very random so much of the time. Frankly, it’s hard for me to take it all too seriously these days.
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. ~ Pascal
In last week’s Hump Day Homily I talked about the hack that is my own spiritual journey, the convergence of Christianity and Buddhism. My formative years were exclusively Christian, and I continue to benefit exponentially from the teachings and stories and mythology within the Christian Bible, particularly the life and teachings of Jesus. (Perhaps more than any other biblical figure, Jesus has needed to be extremely sanitized for use in churches and public sermons.)
When I hit my mid-twenties, though, I realized that my ego had been running me up into some walls, and I’d been crashing pretty hard. It seems like this is kind of a thing that happens to many homo sapiens when we are at a certain age, in our mid-twenties to early-thirties. (I’ve heard it referred to, astrologically, as “the return of Saturn.”) We realize that the way we perceive the world is narrow and limited, and we begin to suspect that it’s our own fault, that these limitations largely exist to protect our ego.
I just concluded another round of listening to Joseph Goldstein’s 3 volume extended commentary on the satipatthana sutta, Abiding in Mindfulness, which I worked through at a pretty slow pace, listening to it for maybe like 15 minutes each morning before I meditate. (Taken in total, all three volumes are something like 30+ hours of dharma talks.)
The satipatthana sutta is the Buddha’s discourse on mindfulness (sati = mindfulness), and Goldstein summarized the sutta and all of his dharma talks by saying that the great message of the Buddha was simple:
1) The mind can be trained and
2) It’s just a matter of time
The key is to just start (with a meditation practice), and then after that, just keep going, sort of like, yo, just start walking down the road, dude, and eventually it will take you there.
How can I give love when I don’t know what it is I’m giving? ~ John Lennon, How?
Before I meditate in the mornings I usually listen to an audiobook with some teaching on the topic of meditation or mindfulness or spirituality. It gets me in the right frame of mind, especially since I meditate first thing in the morning, when my mind often feels very shifty, jumping about from one very random subject to another. One of my favorite teachers to listen to is Joseph Goldstein. He was one of a crop of young Americans who studied meditation overseas in the 60s and 70s and helped bring Buddhism to America and into the mainstream.
This morning Joseph Goldstein was discussing Meta practice, which is the mindfulness practice of loving-kindness and compassion. For Joseph, the idea of a practice of “love” always seemed quite abstract and lofty. It’s a bit intimidating. His suggestion was to make it practical and specific, as in to identify something specific about love, like kindness. Read more
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, And I found all three.” — William Blake
One of the central insights from Jesus’ teachings was forgiveness, and the central insight of forgiveness is its power to liberate us. To forgive is to let go, to release the anger and resentment that poisons the mind.
Metta is a basic quality of awareness itself
I was recently listening to Joseph Goldstein’s teachings on Mindfulness (Abiding in Mindfulness), and he said that “metta [loving-kindness] is a basic quality of awareness itself.” For me, the implication is that the Buddhist emphasis on mental awareness combined with the Christian emphasis on love and charity compliment each other, and perhaps are, in fact, simply different nuances of a luminous mind and an open, liberated heart.
It is a bright afternoon: what am I going to do? I am going to work with my mind and with my pen, while the sky is clear and while the soft white clouds are small and sharply defined in it. I am not going to bury myself in books and note taking. I am not going to lose myself in this jungle and come out drunk and bewildered, feeling that bewilderment is a sign that I have done something. I am not going to write as one driven by compulsions but freely, because I am a writer, because for me to write is to think and to live and also in some degree even to pray. ~ Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton, September 27, 1958