Monday, October 31, 2011

Crazy Stupid Love

In my relaxed, post-monastic-retreat state, I’ve been more open to random experience than usual. For example, I recently decided to go to the movies and see whatever was on when I arrived at the cinema. Although I was in Newtown (ie well within my usual comfort zone), it turned out not to be the arthouse film I might have chosen, but a Hollywood movie, Crazy Stupid Love.

The plot follows a couple whose marriage is breaking down: at the beginning, the wife tells her husband she wants a divorce and has slept with another man. He responds by letting himself fall out of their moving car, a gesture that symbolically foreshadows his next step which is to go out and fall into bed with lots of other women. In the end, he renews his commitment to his marriage, and the couple decide to try to restore their relationship. There are subplots about other people, including their children, going through similar struggles to find and sustain romantic love within a culture which is more supportive of sexual conquest.

Glancing at the reviews on the internet, most people seem to have responded to this film as a sweetly romantic romcom. The few critics who took a different view have complained about it being full of falsehood and fantasy (but what do you want from a romcom?), or more subtly have pointed out that the film’s messages about the importance of lasting love and family values are somewhat compromised by the fact that “three-quarters of the cast are acting like sex pests.” Anthony Morris, the critic who made this observation, nevertheless held to the majority view that the film is basically a piece of feel-good entertainment and objected to Julianne Moore’s performance in one of the lead roles as striking a false note by being “just a little too convincing as a woman who’s lost her way in life.”

My friend Tom saw the film in Bondi Junction. He told me that the audience there didn’t pay too much attention to Moore’s interpretation of her role. They cheered and clapped at the end, behaving as if they were part of the crowd of proud parents at the school speech day that comes at the end of the film and provides a pretext for speeches made by the father and son characters about their commitment to lurve.

The fact that Moore, playing the wife and mother of the family, looks stressed and slightly hysterical in the final “reunion” shot with her husband clearly didn’t register. Her thirteen year old son seems similarly stunned at the end of the film. The object of his repeatedly declared and rejected affections, a considerably older babysitter, has just given him some nude photos of herself, shots she had earlier intended to use in order to seduce his father. As she walks away, the boy’s father remarks, “He looks happy,” blithely ignoring the actual expression of bewilderment on his son’s face.

In Newtown on a weekday afternoon, there weren’t many other people in the cinema. Naturally, we maintained a cool silence when the credits began to roll. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but to me, the interest of this film was in what I took to be its deliberate contradictions. It appeared to defend the conservative dream of life-long love and family commitment, but it also played on an equally strong fantasy about the pursuit of sexual conquest without limits. And in its more realistic and disturbing details, it suggested that in a culture which promotes both these fantasies at once and refuses to see the incompatibility between them, the result is a distressing level of confusion and anxiety. Individuals who sense that neither of these ideals matches their experience, or even their desires, face a disconcerting lack of more nuanced models for intimate relationship. In the world of American romcom, it seems there’s no middle way.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Walkin' like a wombat

It’s now nearly two weeks since the ‘rains retreat’ finished and I left Santi Forest Monastery. As my little nephew Ollie would say, “I did it!” I have survived three months in a Buddhist monastery. More than survived. Although there were a few moments when I asked myself what the hell I was doing there, now that it’s over, I find myself answering people’s questions about how it went with heartfelt exclamations of “Great!”

There’s an amazing level of generosity that makes a place like Santi possible. It’s very touching to freely receive so much support for practice. I'll start with the basics. Santi is set on a beautiful, climactically dramatic piece of bushland adjoining the Morton National Park, which was donated by a woman called Elizabeth Gorsky, who has since become a nun at Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in Perth. Accommodation is mostly in individual huts or 'kutis' - in my case, an Aussie yurt-with-verandah, surrounded by wattle plants in full-bloom when I first arrived. And although you can't eat after midday, the food is bountiful, delicious and often prepared and donated by visiting Sri Lankan, Vietnamese or Thai supporters (I developed the ability to consume quite astonishing amounts of food during the morning hours :).

On top of this, during the 'rains', we were nurtured by a steady and stimulating stream of teachings from the Abbot, Bhante Sujato, including weekly dhamma talks, sutta classes and personal interviews. And most importantly, by the friendships that develop from living together and sharing the various struggles that communal practice throws up. “Do not say that admirable friendship is half of the holy life, Ananda; it is the whole of the holy life.”

There are benefits that flow from just being in an environment like this. I’ve come out feeling much clearer and more relaxed about a lot of things. Without even consciously addressing it, a lot of emotional baggage I’d been carrying seemed to grow wings and fly away. Sequestering myself away for this time has also sharpened my appreciation of the people and places I’ve come back to. And I’ve brought back with me a stronger sense of the value of retreating – and an understanding of how to do it even in the midst of social life.

Other retreats I’ve done have all been highly structured – the challenge of learning how to retreat never even came up. The rains retreat was different, although it began in a familiar manner. First there was a (mostly) silent ten-day meditation retreat led by the Abbot of the monastery. For me this was immediately followed by two weeks of personal retreat when I was left entirely to my own devices in the seclusion of my yurt. My meals brought to a pre-arranged drop-off point, so that I didn’t have any social contact with other people during this time.

These experiences were interesting and challenging in certain ways, but they didn’t raise any particular questions in my mind about what it is to retreat or how to go about it. The container of silence meant that being on retreat was a given – a gift that I accepted with gratitude, like a thick blanket that I could wrap around myself during the cold winter of Bundanoon. I settled down inside this protective covering, overcame the nervousness I’d arrived with, and had some good meditation sessions, particularly in a lovely little cave I discovered in the national park adjoining the monastery. I also went for long walks in the bush and had some entrancing encounters with echidnas and other wild creatures.

When my personal retreat came to an end, being the social animal I am, I felt quite eager to rejoin the little world of the monastery and engage more fully with the community. This brought me into a fairly unstructured social space – apart from the teachings and meals, there were no timetabled group activities, which meant a lot of people had a lot of time on their hands. After a few weeks of quite intense and continuous social interaction, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed: I needed a retreat from the retreat! So I went to Sydney for a few days (a bit weird to “retreat” to a major metropolis, but it worked).

When I came back, it was with a different attitude. I realized that without cutting off from the life of the community, I needed to pick up that blanket of silence again and wrap myself in it more regularly. I needed to learn how to make retreating into a gentle daily habit, rather than an abrupt, total, and occasional withdrawal from everyday life. This didn’t just mean maintaining a daily meditation practice. It also meant becoming more sensitive to when it felt right to retreat from the group and go my own way, “at ease like wombat in the bush,” to adapt a phrase of the Buddha’s.

I’d definitely recommend the practice of walkin’ like a wombat, both in the metaphorical and literal senses - there are lots of wonderful things to be discovered once you get off the main trails and follow some of those little tunnel-like paths that lead off in the bush… And I must admit that I did know something about this practice before doing the rains retreat – it’s what got me to Santi in the first place.