46. The Middle Years
I don’t recall when I next crossed the A&P, but I know the effect it had: I suddenly needed to go
on retreats, so I did. I had done no formal meditation practice since fourth grade, knew little of Buddhism, but on the advice of Kenneth Folk, I went on a nine-day intensive insight meditation retreat at IMS with Christopher Titmuss, Sharda Rogell, and Jose Reisig in August 1994.
Backing up just slightly, some explanation is required here. I went on that retreat not only because the A&P was continuing to drive my desire to find spiritual answers, some resolution to the tension and questions that it created and half-answered, but also because long meditation retreats had visibly benefitted Kenneth, who by this point had done the three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) and then, a few months later, went to spend six months on retreat at the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre (MBMC) and then, immediately, six months more at Panditarama in Burma, for a total of a year-long retreat in Asia. We had been on the road together in a band and lived together for most of a year. Those sorts of close experiences show the various sides of everyone involved. It was quite apparent that his meditation practice had done something very good for him, though exactly what that was I couldn’t put my finger on, as this was before the phase in which Kenneth and I got into talking much about the details of practice and results. So, I went on that first retreat.
As a hopefully instructive and normalizing aside, when I started my first retreat that summer in 1994 at IMS, I quickly realized that I could barely feel my feet. It was not that they were numb, or that I couldn’t really feel my feet, but my attempts to follow the basic walking meditation instructions, “Notice the sensations of the feet touching the ground, of the feet lifting off the ground, of the feet moving through the air, the feet touching the ground again,” were nearly completely thwarted by a mind that seemed to have almost no ability to do something that would have seemed trivial had I not done the experiment and found otherwise. My ability to stabilize attention on my feet was nearly nonexistent, the sensations were vague, fragmented, confusing, and the wash of frustration, wandering thoughts, and other distracting sensations that poured in nearly eclipsed whatever data was coming in from focusing on my chosen meditation object.
Thus it went, walking period after walking period, day after day, and finally after about five days I resorted to drastic measures and started walking barefoot on the tops of the classic New England rough stone wall that lined the road. Now, I should say here that I am not sure this would be a great solution for everyone, or even for most people, or necessarily anyone other than me in that specific place and time. There might have been a better solution that I just didn’t think of or know about. I am not advocating inflicting pain on yourself so that you learn to practice well, though in truth I have done this many times; done in the right circumstances after making sure it won’t cause permanent damage, it can, at times, produce some benefits.
I must be careful here, given that the audience of this book might contain some pretty gung-ho practitioners, and it would be very easy to take this too far, which I definitely don’t advocate. That said, it worked well, as suddenly the pain rose above the din and chaos of a totally untrained, distracted, ordinary mind, and there was finally some real clarity. Now, it could be argued that there was some clarity that recognized the din of a totally untrained, distracted, ordinary mind, and we could debate the merits of that point of view, but, for practical purposes, the din had been going on for years and gotten me no place good.
There were feet, there were stones, there was pain, and lots of it. I am not into pain, just in case anyone thinks I am sounding masochistic, or that I am fetishizing pain in any way. However, it was a very strange relief to suddenly be able to notice a universe of sensations where before there had been only extremely frustrating vagueness. Every little prick, sting, burn, and scratch was experienced suddenly with a level of detail and precision that had until then been lacking and, while quite unpleasant, it felt like I was finally beginning to get what was going on, what I was there to perceive.
When I have told people this story, many have responded with statements like, “You’ve gotta write that down, as people probably think that because now you can do all sorts of cool stuff with your mind that from the beginning you were just a natural or aberration or something”; in fact, this is not true at all. I started out with the same messy, disorganized, attentionally flabby mind that most everyone going on retreats begins with. I was also very committed to changing that. When I started practicing and realized that even the most basic and seemingly simple instructions were entirely beyond my capabilities, that really rankled my pride. It grated against my dearly held vision of myself: that I should be able to follow more than three breaths in a row without being invaded by my neurotic stuff, to say nothing of being able to feel my two feet upon the ground.
Many people consider pride and having a vision of ourselves being a specific way as antithetical to spiritual ideals such as humility and dissolving any sense of a self at all. It is not that humility isn’t a very good thing. Dissolving any sense of an observer, controller, or doer is a very good idea and basically most of the point of all of this. However, in relative terms, having a vision of yourself in which you aspire to have a well-trained mind, well-developed attentional control, and strong sensate clarity are of such inherent and fundamental value, in my view, that any positive hook that gets you some strong fingerhold in that territory (or even a good glimpse that you can remember) to keep yourself motivated to practice enthusiastically and well makes that hook skillful.
It is very important to identify your own personal skillful motivators and work with them, allocating their energy for practice. What drives you? Why are you into these things? Most of us are into strong practice for a mix of reasons, most of which are common, but each of us has our own personal story, our vision of ourselves, the demons we are wrestling with, our dreams and goals that get us out of bed in the morning, our own great archetypes of mastery that call to our deepest longings and aspirations. If we know what those are and can draw on them to keep going and keep on pushing ourselves to continue to transform our hearts and minds in truly amazing ways, we will likely do much better.
What are the recognized hooks that compel people to practice well? I have already mentioned one of them—pride. I do not mean the afflicted variety that is synonymous with conceit, but that positive quality by which we have set a high standard for ourselves of what we are capable of accomplishing and perceiving. I value the ideal of having a mind that is clear, bright, easily directed, nimble, quick, steady, broad, deep, inclusive, powerful, and that directly perceives the truths of experience as its baseline. I value the ideal that we can be kind, compassionate, mature, poised, equanimous, and doing good in the world. I value the ideal that we can be a people with a vast range of capabilities, with profound and nuanced understandings, and a great ability to help others, as well as the openness and realism to accept the cold, hard facts of being born a mortal mammal. Call it skillful vanity, enlightened self-interest, confidence, divine pride, or whatever mixed term acknowledges the pitfalls of this point of view while recognizing its great potential to inspire skillful striving that can transform our own and others’ lives in very positive ways.
Pride, as distinct from its shadow aspect of arrogance or conceit, was one of my primary motivators and a strong one. Many have pointed out that they detect—in addition to the pride I have taken in practicing well and sharing the fruits of these explorations with others—an arrogance verging on hubris in this work. Their point is clearly valid. That said, arrogance is something that I am called upon to work with daily in my job as an emergency medicine physician, and all I can say is that this profession has served as an antidote to arrogance, as the facts of mortality and the suffering inherent in the human condition are uniquely humbling, but which thankfully do not dampen my enthusiasm for either meditation or medicine.
About six days into that first retreat, after various episodes of back, neck, and jaw pain, as well as the discomfort in my feet from walking on stone walls, I was just sitting there, and suddenly I noticed that my body was not solid, but instead made of zillions of tiny particles of energy, all moving around, zipping in and out of reality, and my body exploded, everything flashed black and white, and I felt as if I had been dropped back onto my cushion from space.
After that I was hyper-energetic, hyper-philosophical, and yet convinced that philosophy as I knew it held no further answers, but I had no idea what to do next. No one told me what had happened or what the stages that follow the A&P could do to you, and shortly thereafter I quit my electrical engineering undergraduate program and went to India for about a year to meditate and do some volunteer service.
I had been getting straight As in that electrical engineering program and loved it. I also hoped it would get me a better job than my English BA had gotten me. Further, when I got to differential equations, I felt like I was staring in wonder at the language of God. Differential equations describe lots of systems uncannily well, but they are particularly apt at describing systems involving the oscillation of potential and manifest energy, as well as any other vibrating system. To me, it was like the deepest philosophy, the key to the essence of what was really going on. That differential equations do their magic using a number that doesn’t exist, the square root of negative one, interestingly called “i”, was unusually profound to me at the time. I attribute that profound appreciation and remarkable ease of understanding of the deeper meaning and uses of differential equations to having crossed the A&P.