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.