I’ve been mulling over a new definition of meditation that came to mind a few months back. Meditation is a bit of a tricky practice to define, but here’s what I got so far: Meditation: an intimate encounter with one’s own life
It was August of 2010. I saw the lights of Anchorage from the seat of my plane as we prepared for landing at Ted Stevens International Airport. My family had lived in Anchorage for a few years when I was very young but at age 32, this was my first time back in Alaska, as an adult. This trip had begun in my imagination, about a year before, as I walked around the Indianapolis Zoo. I was fascinated by a placard about grizzly bears, located nearby to a rather sad looking, caged Griz. The placard told of how a woman was attacked by a grizzly bear, in the city of Anchorage no less, while out for a jog in the park. For some reason that resonated with me. It wasn’t a sadistic thing, I don’t take pleasure in the suffering of joggers. I was just completely enchanted by the idea of a state like Alaska, where bears and moose made their presence felt, even in the biggest of cities. It was strange, that moment, but …
I recently came across this little homily from one of my favorite spiritual teachers, James Finley. He’s been called the spiritual teacher that spiritual teachers listen to when they listen to spiritual teachers…or something like that… In any event, what makes him compelling has nothing to do with needing some kind of esoteric or highly specialized knowledge. It’s that he’s just had a mature presence, the picture of someone experienced, i.e. he has suffered, but he is also relaxed and calm, which always gives me a sense of reassurance, because when someone who is serene and light can talk about the deepest most difficult shit that we have to endure, then it means something. [Footnote: my auto-correct keeps changing “spiritual” to “Doritos.” I change it back, but I’m quite certain that there are Doritos teachers who are also fans of James Finley. There is no doubt in my mind.] In any event, if you have ten minutes to watch the homily, let me know what you think. [Note on photo: that’s early 2012, when I …
I’m back in the game, I’ve got a few weeks of public accounting under my belt, and tax season is underway. Thankfully it isn’t too crazy yet, we won’t be swamped for another week or so, which is good because it gives me time to adjust to my re-entry into the atmosphere of public accounting — and thus far it’s going pretty well. I did my homework before starting this gig, to refresh my memory and get myself up to speed on the new clusterfuck of changes that are the Trump tax cut, and in the process of my research I came across a ranty but funny article on public accounting by a disgruntled former CPA worker: …These people live, breathe, eat, and sleep accounting. They’re the accounting equivalent of Ultra-marathoners in a world of 5K bumper stickers…. My own journey into and out of (and now back into) public accounting has been an interesting one, and probably not typical of most public accountants.
I’m 48 hours into my fast. It’s been 2 days since I last ate. That leaves another 24-30 hours remaining. I haven’t done much by way of fasting in my life, but the little that I have done has been pretty beneficial. Mostly I fast for physical reasons, to cleanse and to give the digestive system a chance for some repairs and maintenance. I’ve been having digestive issues over the past several months, so this fast was prompted by a desire to let the digestive system rest and perhaps balance out the acid levels. After my fast, I’ll reevaluate my diet.
I have an office job at a small lodge in remote Alaska, and one of the hats I wear is HR Manager. I recently put this poster up on the wall next to my desk. It’s as close to a self-help/inspirational/motivational poster as I think I could get away with out here in the bush. It’s also not a bad summary of my spiritual philosophy.
I don’t usually meditate with sounds, like music or guided meditions. I’ve had some good experiences with them — once in a while there will be a guide I really connect with, like Joseph Goldstein (Buddhist) or James Finley (Christian/Buddhist) — but for the most part medition sounds feel like additives in food. Additives can be good if done skillfully by an experienced chef with real cheffing skills. I’ve nothing against additives, per se. So, if one were to listen to this as an additive, I’d have to say that you would probably get a lot of bang for your buck…or whatever happens to be the market value of five minutes and seven seconds of your time.
The North Fork Vipassana Meditation Center is located in the foothills of the Sierras, just south of Yosemite. Not a bad place to do a retreat. I wasn’t, in fact, sitting for this one, though, just serving. 10 straight days in the dish pit, though, was enough to leave me feeling just a bit not my self, which of course is somewhat of the point of the path of the Buddha, the no-self thing, etc. So a service retreat is sort of its own form of growing process. We had some wacky weather: snow, sleet, heavy rains, and even a bit of thunder storm. All that plus a good soaking of sunshine. The place was starting to green up and will soon be popping with spring colors, what with the mix of rain and sunshine.
One thing that was unique about my last meditation retreat: I carpooled with three other guys, also fellow meditators. It was unique because we had a chance to chat about the retreat on the way there, and then on the ride back, we debriefed. Even so, conversations don’t always dwell solely on the topic of meditation. I said something about my summer job in McCarthy, and I mentioned my favorite bar in the whole wide world, The Golden Saloon. Suresh, a Bay Area consultant, was sitting beside me. Normally the most reserved in our bunch and the last one to speak, he cut me off and enthusiastically began to extole the virtures of a bar. By his second sentence, he was getting philosophical. Hospitality, he said, is the supreme act of creativity.
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: https://art19.com/shows/the-ezra-klein-show/episodes/261857d5-9ee4-43fa-b8a9-afed18e74d4b
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.
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).
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.