Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A true teacher

Paddy McGrath (not my yoga teacher - yet)

I had a thought-provoking email exchange with my yoga teacher recently. It started when I complained that he hadn’t helped me with a particular problem – it emerged that he hadn’t even really taken in that I had (perhaps too subtly) been trying to draw his attention to this matter for some time. His perspective was that students were always coming to him with problems at inopportune moments, when there was no time to deal with them properly – in his eyes, my case was yet another example of this. I pointed out that if students come to him at awkward moments, this is because he doesn’t allow any time during the class to address individual issues – the way he has set things up, there is no opportune moment to ask him for individual attention. He acknowledged that this is true, and said he’d think about how to change it (resisting any temptation to throw me out of the class at this point).

In the course of this exchange, I started to reflect on my own teaching practice at university, and realised that what I do is almost exactly the same. I teach in what is generally a pretty traditional format of lectures and group tutorials. While the more confident students do ask plenty of questions and contribute their perspectives within this framework, one-on-one exchanges are generally squeezed into a few minutes before the next tutorial, so that discussion of individual issues, or exchanges with less gregarious students, are very limited. I do have a consultation hour each week when students can come to see me in my (shared) office, but few take up this opportunity. The occasional student will come to discuss an essay, but more commonly students only come at this time to ask for and justify extensions.

In some ways, this feels like a ‘safe’ arrangement – I can present material that I’ve already worked through, without too much danger that I’ll be asked to venture into areas that are unfamiliar or too personal. Similarly, if a student doesn’t feel confident to speak, they don’t have to. On the other hand, it’s also very limiting, and throws everyone back on their own resources, instead of allowing insights – or problems - to emerge within relationships built on trust. In this style of teaching, contacts with students usually remain fairly superficial – or extremely superficial in the case of the many students who don’t even turn up, now that lectures are available on line, and tutorial attendance is (more or less) optional. Teaching (and learning) in this way can feel rather lonely. As the teacher, it often seems that you’re just there to provide a product, which the students pay for and take away. Even if they write nice things in their teaching assessments, indicating that they’re well satisfied with the product you’ve supplied, the exchange often doesn’t go much deeper than that.

Toward the end of the email conversation with my yoga teacher, he wrote something that made a strong impression on me. He said, “It's humbling when you realise (as the so-called teacher) how much experience and wisdom the people attending classes have, and you realise it's as much about coming together and doing the practice together as it is about who is up the front.”

I think he’s pointing to something very important here about the process of teaching and learning, and it goes beyond the truism that the teacher has as much to learn from the students, as the students have to learn from the teacher. His words suggest that the role of teacher is one that circulates in a group of people who are learning together. There’s one person who is called the teacher – and with this title come certain responsibilities: if you have accepted the role of teacher, it’s important to carry these out well. But central to doing so is the willingness to recognise that there is a well of experience and wisdom in the group that is deeper than anything an individual can draw on alone. To do this requires resisting both ingrained habits and sometimes very strong pressures from “so-called” students for the teacher to behave as if he or she is the sole fount of knowledge and wisdom available. The flip-side of this pressure is the scathing criticism that the same students will tend to direct toward the teacher as soon as he or she disappoints their unrealistic expectations.

On the teacher’s side, it seems to me that with the role of teacher comes the temptation and danger of narcissism. If you forget that you are just playing a certain role, and start to identify too closely with the title of teacher, you can start to believe that you really are the single, superior fount of wisdom in a group – or at least to feel that you ought to be, and then to worry that you’re not up to this standard (a kind of reverse narcissism). These delusions only distract a person from cultivating the real skills of a true teacher – from becoming a true teacher of no rank, to put it in the language of zen.

Of course, the danger of narcissism is not restricted to the teaching profession – it seems fair to suppose that it might be even more widespread among blog-writers... So at this point I will restrain myself and get back to the one activity in which my teaching practice provides for one-on-one interaction (albeit of a peculiarly painful kind): marking essays.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On giving up hope

While I was meditating today, the thought came to me: “Give up hope.” Although that doesn’t sound very positive, it immediately made me feel a lot better. I’m tempted to say it even made me feel more hopeful, but obviously that wasn’t quite it. It was more that I relaxed – I stopped worrying about the future. And suddenly the present seemed to have much greater depth, into which my mind could expand. My sense of present potential became richer, and happier.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson says. It flies away. So let it go.

I’ve been teaching Buddhist philosophy over the last couple of weeks, in the context of a course on philosophy of mind. I started by looking at the five khandhas (often translated as ‘aggregate,’ the pali word khandha literally means pile, heap or bundle). On the Buddhist account, the five khandhas are what make up a person. They are:

1.     form, or body
2.     feeling, or sensation, including painful, pleasurable and neutral feeling
3.     perception, which involves the recognition of objects
4.     mental formations, including volitional states of mind, and emotions
5.     consciousness, in the sense of awareness.

Bhante Sujato
Bhante Sujato has a nice way of explaining the khandhas as a series. He compares it to the development of a child. In the womb you are mainly growing as a body, a living material form. Then as a baby, sensations of pain and pleasure and relatively unstructured impressions of the world predominate. A little later, you develop the ability to perceive objects as separate from you and begin to learn language which names these objects. The next stage of development involves more sophisticated ‘mental formations’ and emotional structures: you learn to reason, and develop a sense of moral responsibility for your intentions and actions. Finally, you develop a sense of awareness which allows you to observe all the other activities of the heart-mind. This is the kind of consciousness that is cultivated in meditation. It allows you, little by little (or more rarely, all of a sudden), to undo the powerful patterns of clinging to ‘me’ and ‘mine’ that develop along with the khandhas.

This way of explaining the khandhas gives a nice sense of their logic, and how they come together to form a person. However, it could give the impression that consciousness is a later or more complicated development than it actually is. A simple sensation – of colour, for example – already involves consciousness, that is the  ‘sight-consciousness’ or simply ‘seeing’ that arises when the eye comes into contact with a visible object.

Similarly, mind-consciousness, or ‘thinking’ flares up when the mind comes into contact with a mental object. For Buddhists, the mind is one of six sense organs – it’s the one that perceives mental objects, just as the eye perceives visible objects. This is a striking difference between the Buddhist view and our usual Western way of thinking about the world and our interaction with it. Mental objects are treated as a part of the world, in the same way that visible, audible, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile objects are.

So when I said that the thought “Give up hope” came to me, from a Buddhist perspective I was being quite literal. It’s not that I thought this thought. It just arrived, and the organ of my mind took note of it, with the help of a little flash of consciousness. That’s certainly how it felt.

Where did this mental object come from? How did my mind find it? There’s a mystery here that I don’t plan to try and solve in this blogpost, but a bit of googling revealed that quite a few other people have come across this particular mental object, too. And some of them are very eloquent about it.

In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that although hope can help to get you through hardships, it can also be an obstacle to joy and to action. This is because it encourages you to look to a future that you simply ‘hope’ will be better, rather than focusing on the present. It’s only in the present that you have the power to act in a way that actually changes things for the better. And it's only in the present moment that you can find peace, joy, enlightenment, or appreciate what life is already offering you. In a sense, to hope is to reject all this. For this reason, Thich Nhat Hanh says that when he really looks into hope, he sees something tragic. I’d say that he sees hopelessness – hope seems to flip into hopelessness with alarming ease.

Environmental activist Derrick Jensen makes a very similar point in a beautiful article called “Beyond Hope.” There is a Buddhist saying, “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails.” Give up on hope and you give up on fear at the same time. For Jensen, this means he can agree that “We’re fucked” (universally the most common words spoken by one environmentalist to another) and still take enormous pleasure out of being in love with the world, and fighting to defend what he loves, such as coho salmon. Giving up hope means dying, in a certain sense, but it’s only the socially-constructed self, the self that makes you vulnerable to exploitation through hope and fear, that dies. The phoenix that rises from the ashes of that self is fearless, and much more fully alive.

One of my favourite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, presents an even more challenging version of the message in her book, Start where you are: a guide to compassionate living. She teaches the Tibetan slogan “Abandon all hope of fruition.” As she puts it, ‘You could also say, "Give up all hope" or "Give up" or just "Give." The shorter the better.’

She tells a great story about one of the first Buddhist teachings she heard. The teacher said, "I don't know why you came here, but I want to tell you right now that the basis of this whole teaching is that you're never going to get everything together." Pema Chodron says she felt a little like he had just slapped her in the face or thrown cold water over her head. But she never forgot it.

"You're never going to get it all together."

Well, if the Buddha is right, and each of us is nothing more than an impermanent, constantly shifting, somewhat tenuous (but also amazing) collection of five aggregates, getting it all together was hardly a realistic option, anyway. Let the thing with feathers fly.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Story for Caitlin

Today, my niece sent me a story she wrote. This prompted me to write a story of my own for her. Here it is:

The Bilingual Leopard

for Caitlin Rose Baksa

Once upon a time, there was a leopard who was unusual (for leopards) in that he spoke more than one language. Leopards, as you might know, are not famous for being big talkers, or for taking much interest in the cultures of other animals. They are known for their secretive and elusive ways, and generally live alone.

This solitary nature means that as a species they have little use for foreign languages. Indeed, many of them barely seem to speak their own language, limiting themselves to the occasional rasping cough to announce their presence when they come across other leopards.

But as I said, the leopard who concerns us here was unusual. He not only spoke Leopardian, sometimes at great length, but was also fluent in the general language of the antelopes, Modern Standard Antelopian. He also had some knowledge of Antelopian dialects, such as Gazellian and Gnu.

You might be wondering not only why, but how on earth a leopard would ever manage to learn Antelopian. Given that leopards have a well-deserved reputation for hunting and eating antelopes, it would be reasonable to assume that any intelligent antelope would keep well clear of them, and would be highly suspicious of the motives of one who wanted to learn their language.

But surprisingly enough, it is actually very common for leopards to communicate quite civilly with antelopes. When a leopard wants to pass peacefully through a herd of antelopes, she (let’s suppose it’s a girl leopard) indicates this by curving her tail up so the white underside of it is showing, like a white stripe across her back. The antelopes know this is sign that the leopard is not hunting, and that they have nothing to fear from a leopard in this posture. Although leopards are stealthy and very strong, they are also extremely honourable, and have never been known to abuse an antelope’s confidence in the symbol of the upturned tail. Leopards are proud of their hunting skills and would consider it beneath them to trick an antelope in this way.

In the beginning, it was all because of a crick in his tail that our leopard, whose name was Paddy, started to pick up some Antelopian. When still quite a young cub, Paddy developed a passion for yoga (he was an unusual leopard in more ways than one). He started doing exercises that involved hanging upside-down for long periods of time with his tail wrapped around the branch of a tree. His parents didn’t approve of this odd behavior, but being typically reserved leopards, they didn’t say much about it. They hoped he would grow out of it.

Paddy in a restorative pose

One day, Paddy overdid it. When he came down from the tree, his tail curled back up and wouldn’t straighten out. It was coiled up like a corkscrew, with the white underside showing. When his father saw it, he had a coughing fit. Paddy’s tail stayed like that for just over a week.

When the antelopes saw him running towards them in pursuit, they were confused. It wasn’t the usual signal, but Paddy’s tail was showing white. They hesitated, and although he was hungry, Paddy saw their confusion and didn’t have the heart to attack. He slowed down and pretended he was just passing through.

That evening, he went to bed on an empty stomach, but he told himself that this was a good opportunity to experiment with fasting, another yogic practice.

A few days into this ordeal, Paddy was feeling dizzy and weak and was moving very slowly. Due to his unusual behavior, the antelopes had stopped thinking of him as a real leopard and didn’t even interrupt their conversations when he passed by. Unlike leopards, antelopes are very sociable creatures, and hardly ever shut up, except when there’s a leopard around, or they have their mouths full of grass and leaves (and sometimes not even then). For Paddy, it was a new experience to hear so much chatter. He found it a bit overwhelming, and wished they would be quiet and let him concentrate on his walking meditation. It struck him as undignified for an animal to talk so much, but secretly he did begin to wonder what they were talking about.

On the seventh day, just before his tail finally loosened up again, Paddy was resting under a tree on the savannah when he was overwhelmed by a wonderful feeling of bliss. He felt as if there was nothing separating his supple, spotted leopard’s body from the grasslands, and his heart swelled with a great feeling of compassion for all other living creatures. He felt very warm toward the herd of antelopes he could see grazing a short distance from him, and wondered how he could have once seen them merely as potential dinner.

As if they could sense his good will, a couple of antelopes came closer and started feeding on the very tree he was lying under. In between leafy bites, they carried on a conversation about the weather. One word came up again and again, “baillo.” Paddy softly tried saying this word to himself. The antelopes immediately stopped talking and stared at him (antelopes have excellent hearing). Paddy just smiled beatifically and said it a couple more times, “Baillo. Baillo.” Then the antelopes both started talking at once (not an unusual occurrence for them). They seemed delighted when Paddy responded by nodding and continuing to repeat, “Baillo.”

Later, he would learn that “baillo” means “beautiful” in Antelopian. It was the best answer he could have given to the flood of questions the antelopes were firing at him, “Oh my god, do you know our language?” “Beautiful.” “Do you like antelopes?” “Beautiful.” “What do you think of our stretch of the grasslands?” “Beautiful.” “Nice day, isn’t it?” “Beautiful.”

And that was how a leopard started to learn the language of the antelopes. 

(With thanks to Patrick Gleeson, for inspiration.)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Artist is Present

The Melbourne Film Festival is on. It’s quite a fashion display. You may be disappointed by the film, but never by the show in the foyer.

Last night, I wasn’t disappointed by the film either. It was a typical film festival film: a documentary about a Serbian, New York-based performance artist, Marina Abramovic called “The Artist is Present.” Although it briefly covered the artist’s career, and afforded a few glimpses into her private life, which also seems to be a continuous piece of performance art, for the most part it was really just about one retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This involved a group of young performance artists recreating some of her ‘historic’ performances, plus one new piece of work. In this she sat almost motionless in a chair every day for three months during the gallery’s opening hours, and members of the public queued to sit opposite her and gaze into her eyes.

So to sum up, it was a film that mainly consisted of shots of a woman sitting still, looking concentrated and fairly impassive while New Yorkers got emotional in front of her. It should have been completely painful. Instead, it was intriguing.

Abramovic’s performance was an impressive piece of ascetic practice. Sitting still for very long is painful, and she was in pain, although the pain eventually gave way to what she described as a state of compassion and beauty, feeling very light, with no boundaries between her body and her environment. This reminded me of my ten-day retreat experience of Goenka’s vipassana meditation practice (aka “bootcamp” for meditators). Goenka’s system similarly involves keeping the body very still, and working through the pain that results (physical, mental and emotional). Such discipline can be rewarded by experiences of blissful feeling, and a sense of the ordinary experience of the body dissolving into something much lighter and clearer.

To this Abramovic added the dimension of public performance and silent interaction with a seemingly endless stream of people eager to take part in the piece. There were some striking shots of people running in when the gallery opened, pushing each other aside to secure a place in the queue to sit in front of the artist, like eager shoppers at a boxing day sale. By the end of the three months, there were people who never left the gallery: they camped on the pavement outside all night. The atmosphere was bordering on the religious. Many approached the performance artist as if she were a saint (or a martyr), who could confer blessings by her silent presence. MoMA was converted into a minimalist-style secular chapel. There was a lot of teariness. 750,000 people came to worship, or wonder.

But unlike in most religions, there was no doctrinal content, no teachings, and only one very simple ritual. Did this make it pure, human contact pared back to the essential of the raw capacity for feeling and consciousness, and the direct recognition of this between two people, without the complexities and deceptions of language? Or did it make it empty, a display of how a charismatic individual can gather a devoted audience of followers whose desperate need for attention connects with her own, generating blind enthusiasm untethered to any content, and consequently able to be easily manipulated? It wasn’t easy to decide.

Abramovic is wealthy, famous and surrounded by a little group of modern-day courtiers, all male, who are clearly not her equals. She is unusual: a performance artist who has managed to move from the margins of cultural production to receive recognition from the centre. Her early work, when she was practically penniless, was more typical performance art – defying conventional values, creating happenings that exposed the more painful and disturbing sides of human nature. Now she could be seen as a high priestess of capitalist culture.

The turning point came when she was betrayed by the love of her life, and discovered that buying outrageously expensive Parisian haute couture was great therapy. She hasn’t looked back since - although there was a poignant shot in the film when she reflected on how long a road she has travelled since the days when she lived for her art, with no money, very simply, making no compromises.

Abramovic was 63 when the documentary was made, but looks much younger. My friend Dorian, who saw the film with me, commented appreciatively on her appearance, and put it down to the fact that she has followed her passion. She’s doing exactly what she wants to be doing. I didn’t disagree, but I said I suspect she also has access to some excellent skincare products, and that her evident capacity for discipline might also be a contributing factor: she clearly takes care of her appearance.

In thinking about it now, it strikes me that in spite of her charisma and beauty, there was a flatness in her emotional range, especially for a Serbian. She also cried a lot during the film. I think she genuinely connected with the pain she saw in many people’s eyes over the course of her three month performance, but not necessarily because she has transcended such suffering in her own life, or has anything to offer that might truly alleviate it.

But this is not to deny her authenticity as an artist, or the dedication of what she did at MoMA. With great will power, Abramovic made herself into a blank slate, or screen, and opened herself to projections from the public. The result was both touching, and revealing, exposing a desperate hunger for emotional connection and some kind of spiritual focus in a wealthy, secular society.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Transit of Venus

On Wednesday I watched a segment of the transit of Venus at the NSW State library. The astronomic event was projected from a telescope in Hawai’i onto a large screen at the front of a darkened auditorium. The image of the sun filled almost the whole screen, while Venus was a small dark disc, fairly near the perimeter by the time I got there.

I had to push a heavy door open to get into the small auditorium. Inside, I found a handful of people, scattered across the rows of seating. The atmosphere was hushed and respectful. One couple conversed a little in whispers, but mostly we were silent, gazing at the screen, where no discernible change was taking place (at least I couldn’t perceive it). I felt as if I were in a church (or possibly a Woody Allen film – although there didn’t seem to be any romances surreptitiously developing).

At one point a woman walked in, and having experienced the struggle with the weight of the door, declared, “Oh, we’ll have to keep this door chocked open.” She did so, and then proceeded to carry on an enthusiastic and clearly audible conversation about the transit with a man who had come in with her. They didn’t (even!) sit down, but stood in one of the aisles. With the door open, the chatter from the café directly outside also drifted into the room. From the other occupants of the auditorium, there was a mute, but palpable sense of distress at this disruption. The woman was sensitive enough to pick up on this, and upon leaving asked whether we’d like the door closed. It was duly shut, and the hushed atmosphere of awe and mystery descended again.

When my friend Jason arrived, I made a whispered observation to him about the religion of science. Thinking about it later, though, the atmosphere of devotion in the room could equally be seen as a kind of pagan worship. After all, we weren’t making any measurements or carrying out any other kind of scientific activity. The achievements of modern science made it possible for us to watch the transit of Venus in this manner, but all we were doing was gazing at an image of the sun and watching as a small dark planet, about the same size as the earth, moved (extremely) slowly across it.

As a visual spectacle, it was uneventful to the point of evoking the early film work of Wim Wenders, and yet there was something compelling and lovely about sitting in the dark with a quiet group of strangers, united in our wonder at the workings of the solar system.

The first recorded transit of Venus in 1639
Although ancient cultures knew of Venus and recorded the planet’s movements, it appears that its transit of the sun was a discovery of early modern science. Since the seventeenth century, astronomers have known that the transits occur in pairs, about eight years apart, separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. The whole pattern repeats every 243 years. In 1627, Kepler was the first person to predict a transit of Venus, by anticipating the 1631 event. However the first scientific observation of the transit of Venus was not made until 1639. The movement of Venus we observed on Wednesday was only the eighth transit to be predicted, and only the seventh to be scientifically observed.

Learning these facts made the modern period of history suddenly seem much shorter and more intimate to me. Watching the screen in the State Library, I felt a kind of astronomical camaraderie with Captain James Cook, who observed the transit of Venus in 1769 from Tahiti on his way to Australia. To observe this event also made the solar system seem more familiar in spatial terms, as if the transit of Venus were the cosmic, scientific equivalent of a local festival designed to encourage a sense of belonging to this particular solar system, as “our place” in the universe.

Some people say that to gaze at the stars gives them a powerful sense of their own insignificance. This can be liberating, but it can also tend towards nihilism, a sense that nothing we do really matters. I don’t know what it says about the state of my ego that this episode of star- and planet-gazing seemed to have almost the opposite effect on me – it made me feel at home in the world.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Good People and Gadamer

David Lindsay-Abaire
A couple of months ago, with my brother, Gav, and friends Jasmina and Donna, I went to see an excellent production of Good People, a play by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. The play is a very recent work, first produced in 2011. We saw it at the Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in Melbourne.

Good People is about a middle-aged man and woman who grew up together in a rough neighbourhood of Boston. The woman is single, still living in “Southie” and struggling to hold down a job and support a disabled daughter, while the man has moved up in the world. He is a doctor, living in middle-class comfort with his beautiful, much younger, academic wife and a healthy child. As the plot unfolds, the audience is led to make an unstable, shifting set of assumptions about why the lives of the two teenage lovers have turned out so differently.

A central theme of the play is the question of responsibility for an individual’s worldly success or failure. Is a person’s social and economic standing a consequence of personal choices and hard work or laziness? Or is it a matter of “luck,” reflecting a complex set of systematic societal influences, over which an individual has little or no control? The play doesn’t limit itself to this right-wing/left-wing alternative; it also suggests that where personal choices play a role, those that lead to worldly success are not necessarily worthy of respect or emulation, since they may involve adapting to systems that demand and thrive on ruthlessly selfish behavior. But stereotypically “good” self-sacrificial choices are equally laid open to interrogation: are such choices really good if they leave the individual who makes them in a miserable situation, and saddle the successful with a corrosive burden of guilt? What is missing in this portrait of a society dominated by the rhetoric of personal choice (and its shadow: a vision of total subjugation of the individual to impersonal systems) is any reliable possibility of mutual care and trust, or political solidarity across differences of class, race and gender. This absence seems to make any convincing form of personal goodness either simply unattainable, or incompatible with worldly success.

Despite the weighty issues at stake there are plenty of laughs in this play, as the characters make clever digs at each other and themselves. But even while you’re laughing, you can’t help noticing that suspicion, resentment, insecurity, and self-loathing seem to form the consistent emotional backdrop to this contemporary liberal drama of personal choice.

Olga Makeeva, Andrea Swifte and Jane Montgomery Griffiths in Good People
I was recently reminded of this play and its message while thinking about a very different approach to the question of how to assess or give meaning to our lives and the way they unfold. In his theory of understanding, twentieth-century German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer gives a lot of emphasis to the notion of “play.” As he describes it, playing involves abandoning any strong sense of personal choice or control, since play “fulfills its ‘purpose’ only if the player loses himself in the play.”

‘Purpose’ is placed in inverted commas here, because for Gadamer, playing is a purposeless or non-intentional kind of activity. It is an activity, but one that shades into passivity: “all playing is a being-played. The attraction or fascination that a game exerts consists precisely in the fact that the play tends to master the players.” This carries a risk which is also a lure: we may become so engrossed in the game that our identity is transformed. Such transformation is not a matter of personal choice or responsibility, since the action or agency of play is located not “in the player, but in the game itself; the game is what holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there.”

For Gadamer, human play finds its “genuine completion” as art. In engaging with an artwork, or allowing it to play upon us, we experience a lucid form of play, a bit like lucid dreaming. We know we’re playing, but we also continue to play, or be played.

What if we were to think (lucidly) of our lives, or episodes in our lives, as games or artworks, in Gadamer’s sense, rather than the rational, inevitable working out of personal choices for which we must bear responsibility? Particularly when things go wrong, either for us or for people who are connected to us, we tend to think or feel that this is a product of choices we made earlier and could or should have made differently. This way of seeing things seems to give us the power to act differently in the future, but it can also lead to a powerful sense of self-recrimination. We can add a lot of intensity to our suffering with these kinds of thoughts.

Mightn’t it be kinder, and closer to experience, to suppose that our lives are shaped not by isolated personal choices, nor by impersonal social systems, but by the games that attract and fascinate us, the different forms of play in which we lose ourselves and are transformed, for better or worse?

Most games are social; you can’t play on your own. That’s why you can’t control or take complete responsibility for the outcome of a game – responsibility is shared. And it is the game, rather than the players, that determines the possibilities of play. On this way of seeing things, if we really desire change, we need to find or create space for a new game to play (or to play us), rather than letting obsessive concern with personal choices keep us blindly involved in the one that’s currently got us in its grip.

As my little niece Scarlett often says to me, with the insistent wisdom of a two-year old, “Let’s play!”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Meditation for Fiona

This photograph was taken by Tom Sangster, a new Melbourne friend of mine. Among the many lovely images he captured while travelling in Spain, this one especially caught my eye.

A solitary chair stands against the high wall of a cloister with well-defined shadows creating a frame for it – an architecture of light and dark that speaks of gateways between life and death, and a moment of reckoning, or contemplation at the point of passage.

The three-leafed pattern stenciled in strong sunlight at the top of the photograph evokes the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but it also calls up more pagan associations especially since the angle of the photo has slightly elongated the lower petal of the trefoil, or triquetra. If this shape were scrawled on the wall by a graffiti artist, rather than produced by the decorative elements of monastic architecture, it would let us see the fertile force of sexuality present even in this orderly, peaceful place.

Triqutra on one of the
Funbo Runestones in Sweden
This seems appropriate since the triquetra is originally a pagan symbol. It appears on ancient runestones in Northern Europe, and is used by contemporary Germanic Neopagans and Wiccans to represent the division of the world into the realms of Land, Sea and Sky. They also use it as a symbol of triple goddesses such as the Morrígan, goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty.

These associations led me from this luminous image to thoughts of a friend of mine, Fiona, who died in January, just before I went on the yoga retreat which preceded my impromptu flight into the desert. It was a violent death: she threw herself in front of a train. For years she had struggled with mental health problems, which were exacerbated by the side-effects of medication she took in attempting to overcome her suffering. Her death brought back memories of another death that greatly troubled me, that of a young woman who did a doctorate in philosophy at the same university as me. This woman, Mairead, threw herself off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like Fiona, she was highly intelligent, attractive and sensitive. She was also suffering from side-effects of medication which had been prescribed to help her sleep.

On the morning of the day I left for Alice Springs, I felt I faced a turning point, or a decision like the one demanded of the reader at the bottom of each page in a choose your own adventure book. Each option is equally available, but will lead to quite different versions of the story. I had three possibilities. I could take an early flight and arrive back in Sydney in time to attend Fiona’s funeral. Or I could catch the afternoon flight I’d already booked and paid for before hearing the news of her death. This way I would miss the funeral, and simply continue along the pre-established track of my life. Or I could embark on an adventure that would take me across a vast, almost shadowless landscape, and give me a sense of opening myself to the intense pleasures, if also the dangers of life. I could live for a few days like a mythical goddess, traveling in a great white chariot, driven by a stranger who fortunately turned out to be a capable and trustworthy charioteer (albeit one who was highly dissatisfied with his chariot, but that’s another story).

I thought that Fiona would have approved of my selection of this third option, or at least empathized with it. But no doubt it was, to a greater degree than either of the options involving air travel, a form of flight. Eventually, I would need to stop, find a seat in a quiet, sunny space, and let myself face the fact of my friend’s death and the difficult emotions it provoked in me.

This finally happened over the Easter long weekend, when I did a meditation retreat at Vejjasala, a healing centre in the Southern Highlands. This is a lovely, tranquil place, recently opened by the Association of Engaged Buddhists, led by a wonderful monk and very dear friend, Bhante Tejadhammo. On this retreat, the first to be held at the centre, one of my fellow retreatants happened to be a psychologist who specializes in grief therapy. At one point we had a discussion about grieving. What I took from it was the idea that to grieve properly, or to help someone else to grieve, you need to let yourself feel the suffering caused by the loss. But to do this without becoming overwhelmed or reacting against the suffering requires a certain amount of equanimity, or peacefulness.

Peacefulness is what we are seeking when we turn to drugs to pacify our anxieties, but I doubt that drugs can ever produce real equanimity. Too often they only dam up the pain, which then accumulates to a point where it must eventually break the increasingly fragile barriers that hold it in, sometimes with terrible results. Equanimity, on the other hand, gives you the strength to let yourself feel the pain, and let it subside, or give way naturally to the next emotional weather pattern.

Bhante Teja mentioned that one of the Buddha’s images of equanimity is that of a mountain standing in the sea. Whether the water is moved by ordinary tides, churned into crashing waves, or unusually serene, the mountain continues to stand there, accepting whatever comes, never running from or refusing any experience. To cultivate this kind of solidity and ability to stay with whatever is happening is a central goal of meditative practice. It is the necessary support for the other practices of love taught by the Buddha: loving-kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy.

This suggests another interpretation of the triquetra, which is often shown with a circle entwining the three interlinked petals. The circle would be the profound peacefulness and solidity of equanimity, which allows the three more active aspects of love to flourish in response to the pleasurable, painful and ordinary conditions of human life and death.


A Gaelic Blessing

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.

R.I.P. Fiona Gwynne, 1970-2012