Friday, April 22, 2016

Pain Isn't the Problem

      As the morning sun peers through my window, I wake up and begin to take stock of my situation.  My arms are covered with angry scratches from the two days I spent cutting down a hedge row in the orchard.  My lower back aches from the twice-daily ritual of carrying buckets of water to the chicken coop, and my dreams are filled with images of hay, mulch, and manure.  I've learned two things this week.  First, farming is hard work!  Second, I need to get back in shape.  Over the years, I've tried to maintain a regular weight lifting schedule, but my body is clearly unprepared for farm life.  I groan like a ninety year-old man in need of a hip replacement as I sit up on the edge of my bed.  To say that I'm discouraged is an understatement.
     "Is the whole six months going to be like this?" I wonder.   I try giving myself a pep talk about the good work that I'm doing here.  I think about the people that will have healthy, chemical-free food to eat, and how I enjoy being close to nature every day.  But it doesn't help.  In fact, I honestly don't care about any of the things that motivated me to come out here.  In this moment, I'm in pain, and I want it to stop.  Period.  Suddenly, I remember a conversation I had with a friend several months ago, we'll call him Kyle.  Kyle and I met last summer when we both volunteered at an intentional community in Indiana.  He expressed an interest in Zen, so we chatted about my personal experience with the practice.  One of our conversations went like this:
Me:  I read somewhere that the key to getting rid of desire is learning to accept each moment exactly "as is".  It makes sense in theory, but I have trouble with it in practice
Kyle:  Actually, that makes a lot of sense to me.
Me:  Really?
Kyle:  Yeah, it's like I haven't taken many showers since I got here, but when I was in the fields the other day, I realized that being dirty only feels bad when I want to be clean.
     I didn't realize how profound Kyle's statement was in that moment.  But now, when I'm fighting the urge to hide in my sleeping bag in the hopes that no one finds me, I have a realization.  "Being dirty only feels bad when I want to be clean".  It wasn't the dirt on Kyle's body that decided how he felt about his situation.  It was how he thought about that dirt that mattered. When he stopped wanting to be clean, and just accepted that he was going to be dirty for a while, his outlook improved .  What if I stop wanting my body to be pain-free? What if I just accept that I’m going to be in pain for a while?  As these thoughts enter my brain, a small crack opens up in my mind.  I think back over the past week, and chuckle softly to myself.  I’ve been doing hard, manual labor for the past five days.  Did I really think that I could do that and not feel any muscle soreness?! 
     The crack in my mind expands a little wider as I ponder this.  It’s not a huge shift in my thinking, but it’s enough for me to stop feeling sorry for myself.  I stand up slowly, and my legs scream in protest.  It hurts, but it’s manageable.  As each second passes, my discomfort feels less like some kind of cosmic torture, and more like a rite of passage.  “I’m going to be a goddamn farmer,” I mutter to myself.  Through gritted teeth I bend over and pull on my jeans and work boots.  The movement helps to loosen up my back.  Next, I do some yoga stretches, and my hamstrings soften ever so slightly in response.  Finally, I sit on my cushion, and begin counting my breathes.  I have one hour before the work day begins.  I need to get ready.

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Leaving Home: An Emotional Roller Coaster

4:00am- My father is driving me to the train station.  He speaks softly, giving me advice as we travel down the empty highway.  “Make sure you give us your address when you get there, and watch your back” he says, not taking his eyes off the road.  I nod dutifully, and tell him that I will.  His lectures have become part of a ritual we go through every time I leave home.  As always, I listen closely because I know they come from a place of love.  Eventually, he shifts gears and we talk about sports, but the conversation becomes forced as we get closer to the station.  Eventually it stops completely, and the car is filled with a heavy silence.  This is also part of the ritual.  “Don’t be afraid to come home,” he says.  His voice catches slightly as he talks, and an arrow pierces my heart.  He wants me to stay home, get a corporate job, and leave the road behind. But I can’t. 

     We only get eighty years on this planet, and I don’t want to spend them doing the same thing as everyone else.  Besides, countless people have conquered corporate America.  I want to conquer myself, and I need the road to do that.  I try to tell him this, but the words get caught in my throat.  So I just nod, and say, “I won’t”.  He pulls the car into the Amtrak parking lot, and we both get out of the car.  He hugs me without making eye contact and whispers, “I hope you find what you’re looking for”.  I smile sadly and reply, “I will".  Quickly, I turn and walk towards the train station.  I feel guiltier with every step I take.  The ritual is complete

5:00am- The station is eerily  quiet.  There are lots of people here, but they hardly move and rarely speak.  It feels like someone pressed “pause” on a DVD player, and now the whole world is standing still.  I’m trapped between the home that I’ve left behind, and the new beginning that lies at the end of the tracks.  Is this what purgatory feels like?  Undoubtedly,  there is something sacred about the “in-between” times of life.  Whether it's a bride walking down the aisle, or an astronaut flying into space, people treasure life more once they've let go of the places they've been, and they’re moving towards some place new.

     Maybe that’s why I'd rather sit in a train station than a town house, or why I’m most at ease when I’m one of several anonymous passengers traveling to parts unknown.  I wonder if the people around me feel the way.  Are they excited about what’s waiting for them at the end of their journey, or are they scared?  I guess it doesn’t matter.  The train is going to come regardless.  With this in mind, I sit patiently, and wonder if the train out of purgatory will take me to heaven... or to hell.

9:00am- I wake from a dreamless sleep as the passenger car jolts, and my head slams into the window next to me.  We are heading east, chasing the sun as it rises higher in a cloudless sky.  It would be exhilarating if the sun wasn’t shining directly in my eyes.  But it is, and the curtain on the window is torn, so I can’t block it out.  “Samsara is full of suffering,” I remind myself.  As my annoyance grows I look at the thin Hispanic man sitting beside me.  He's sleeping soundly, perfectly at peace.

10:30am- A trip to the dining car has netted me a bagel, some hot tea, and a yogurt.  I wonder what the monastics of Buddha’s order would think if they could see me now.  They had to make do with whatever was put in their bowls… I get to order off a menu.  I feel spoiled, and grateful that I was born in the 20th century.

11:14am- The young man that was sitting next to me gets off the train is replaced by a woman with short, blonde hair who looks to be in her mid-fifties.  We make small talk as the train slowly leaves the station, and I find out that she's on her way to visit her son.  In the span of 45 minutes she offers me a bottled water, candy, and half of her roast-beef sandwich one by one.  I accept the first but politely refuse the other two offers.  She's being so generous... to a complete stranger.  I smile slightly as a warm, fuzzy feeling grows in my chest.  The world is a beautiful place!

3:00pm-  My train pulls up to the station, and I walk inside.  The farm owner that I'll be working with is standing near the entrance, smiling from ear to ear.  We shake hands, and then words start spilling from her mouth in a volcanic eruption of sound.  She waves her hands excitedly as she speaks, telling me how glad she is that I'm here; and how much work there is to do on the farm.  Her enthusiasm is contagious, and pretty soon my smile matches hers.  Confidently, I pick up my luggage from baggage claim, and walk into the unknown.  

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Environmentalism is Easy When You Don't Exist

     In a few days, I'll be jumping on a train and heading to an organic farm in upstate New York to assist the owner with gardening, animal husbandry, and beekeeping.  My hope is that the six months I spend there will allow me to experience a subsistence lifestyle outside of the capitalist paradigm that currently dominates America.  Additionally, by working on an organic farm I'll be able to advocate for environmental causes by directly competing with industrial farms that dump huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into the ecosystem.  In short, I'll be able to walk the walk of environmentalism as opposed to just talking the talk.  You would think that caring for the planet that we live on would be a natural thing, but there is a disconnect.  Many people think that the environment is a separate "thing" from us that is not worthy of concern.  Others think that our planet must be conquered in order to ensure human survival.  Naturally, I disagree with both of these points.  In large part, this is due to my understanding of sunyata and the emptiness of my own existence.  Let me explain: 

     The teaching of sunyata is at the heart of Zen Buddhism.  It sets the stage for the end of human suffering, and it breaks down barriers which make things like compassion and generosity hard to practice.  My understanding of the teaching is that everything in the universe is void of an inherent, permanent self-nature.  When I first learned this, I took it to mean that I didn't exist, and that the world was a weird matrix-like illusion.  But that's not quite true.  I exist, and so do you for that matter.  We both have names, social security numbers, and bank accounts that no one should have access to but us.  Sunyata doesn't mean that those things aren't real, but it does mean that these things are infinitesimally small parts of who we really are.  I am me, but that's not where the story stops.  I'm also you, the trees, the water, the sun, and everything else that exists in the universe.  We are all part of one massive living organism!  Confused yet?  Don't be, because it's all fairly simple if you look at how mushrooms and mycelium interact.

     Mycelium is a Latin word that translates to, "more than one".  Mycelium are formed when mushroom spores settle into the substrate (soil, wood, straw, etc.) and emit thread-like appendages called hyphae to absorb nutrients.  When hyphae connect with each other in order to reproduce they form little knots called primordia which eventually grow into mushrooms.  The giant mass of primordia and hyphae which forms as a result of this is called the mycelium.  So what we end up having is several mushrooms on top of the substrate that appear to be totally separate from one another.  However, when we look beneath the substrate we see that each of these individual mushrooms are connected to one another by the mycelium.  The mushrooms can't exist without the mycelium because that is how they get nutrients, and the mycelium can't exist without the mushrooms because it needs them to release spores which create hyphae and make the mycelium larger.  Additionally, the mushrooms need each other to survive because it takes all of them working together to sustain the mycelium.  They appear separate, however, the mushrooms and the mycelium are actually part of a single living organism.

     When Zen Buddhists say that everything is void of inherent, permanent self-nature, we're saying that the apparent separateness between us and the universe (or the planet) is an illusion caused by not looking closely enough at reality just like the apparent separateness of the mushrooms is a result of not looking under the surface and seeing how they're connected by the mycelium.  Once I wrapped my head around this concept, environmental activism became a necessity.  In his book, The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, David Loy describes the ethical viewpoint that comes from sunyata:

This makes ethical responsibility for Buddhism not the means to salvation but natural to the expression of genuine enlightenment.  It is what might be called the "nonmoral morality" of the Bodhisattva, who having nothing to gain or lose- because he or she has no self to do the gaining or losing- is devoted to the welfare of others.  The Bodhisattva knows that no one is fully saved until everyone is saved.  When I am the universe, to help others is to help myself.

     It's the last line of this quote that really gets to me.  Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone thought that way?  I feel called to environmental activism because the more I practice, the more I see a part of myself when I look at the natural world.  This planet is our home.  More than that, it's a part of us.  What does it say about us if we don't work to keep it, and ourselves, alive?

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Samsara vs. Tank Man

     It seems like samsara is even more messed up than usual right now.  The GOP front-runner is a man who thinks Muslims should be banned from entering the country, and his closest rival attends conferences where people advocate executing homosexuals.  At last count, there were 270,000 tons of garbage floating in the world's oceans, and 97% of the meat that gets consumed in this country comes from factory farms where the animals are tortured and eventually killed in the name of corporate profits.  I'm not sure what is so special about today that is causing me to feel overwhelmed by all of this.  Maybe the cloudy grey skies are starting to get to me.  Maybe I watched too much political news coverage this morning.  Maybe I just didn't sleep well last night, and now I'm cranky.  I don't know what's causing me to feel this way on today of all days.  But I do know that I'm frustrated, and angry, and disappointed that in the year 2016 things like, "Don't throw garbage in the ocean," still need to be said. What's really interesting, however, is that I know how to deal with these feelings, and I'm choosing not too. 

     I know that all I need to do is kneel in front of my altar, sit silently in meditation, and bathe in the absolute.  Afterwards, the problems that I listed above wouldn't be fixed, but the voice inside of me that keeps screaming, "WHAT THE FUCK", and asking why people aren't breaking things in protest would get quieter.  In short, it would make me feel better.  But what if I don't want to feel better?  What if on today of all days... just for a second... I want the world to BE better.  What if I want humanity to live up to the basic goodness that lies within each of us; the same goodness that put a man on the moon, and helped Janis Joplin moan and growl through songs in a way that gives me chills 40 years after her death.  Could someone please make that happen?  If not, I'd settle for someone telling me when Zen practice stops being a useful tool for engagement with the world, and instead becomes a way to hide when things gets scary?  Because right now it feels like the latter.

     I don't know the answer to that last question.  That's why I've spent the last two hours surfing the internet instead of taking refuge in the three jewels like a good Zen student.  That's also why I stumbled upon the story of Tank Man .  The short version is that on June 5, 1989, a day after the Chinese government violently cracked down on protesters in Tienanmen square,  a column of T59 tanks were sent in to crush what remained of the protests.  The only resistance they encountered was a single man standing still in the middle of the road.  He didn't hold a sign or shout slogans.  He just stood there.  The only time he moved was when they tried to go around him, then he moved in order to continue blocking their path.  You can watch video of the incident here.  It's pretty incredible.  But what's really interesting is that no one knows exactly who he was or why he did what he did.  Was Tank Man a manifestation of Guanyin sent to teach us about nonviolent direct action?  Or was he just an angry young person who had finally had enough? Is it possible to be both?

     Sadly, the story doesn't have a happy ending.  After a standoff that lasted several minutes, two unidentified men came out of the crowd and dragged Tank Man away.  He was never seen again, and most people think he was executed.  When he was gone, the column of tanks fired up their engines and continued into the square as if nothing had happened.  I feel like there is a lesson somewhere in his story.  But I don't know what it is.  I just know that on June 5, 1989 samsara was even more messed up than usual.  And in the face of impossible odds, one man didn't back down.  I like to think that his actions made the world a better place... even if it was just for a second. 

     With this in mind, I'm going to take a walk in the woods.  I'm going to listen for a few hours as the birds sing sutras in the trees, and I'm going to pay attention to the lessons of the river.  After that, I'm going to drag myself kicking and screaming to my cushion.  I'm going to kneel in front of my altar,  sit silently in meditation, and I'm going to bathe in the absolute.  Because on today of all days, when it feels like the suffering of the world is charging at me like a column of T59 tanks, the only thing I can do is be still like Tank Man; and hope that it makes a difference.

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

What I Learned From Zen Practice and Video Games

       Why did I give away my car and volunteer to spend the next six months of my life on an organic farm?  More importantly, why should you care?  Truthfully, you probably shouldn't.  I'm not going to say anything on this blog that hasn't been said before by people far more intelligent than me.  My primary goal is to improve my understanding of Zen, and hopefully convince my friends, my family, and myself, that I haven't gone insane.  I think the best way to do that is by briefly discussing what got me to this point.  Why am I doing this?  Why did I quit my secure, well-paying IT job?  Why did I stop eating meat?

   Three years ago I was suffering from severe anxiety and depression.  Some of that was the result of a bad break-up, and unresolved issues from my time in the Marine Corps. But I honestly can't think of a time in my life when I didn't see the world through a fog of melancholy.  Either way, I tried dealing with my problems in the typical fashion (e.g. drinking, partying, and working long hours).  But that was expensive, and going to work with a hangover isn't all it's cracked up to be.  So on a whim I read Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner and began a daily meditation practice.  And it worked... to a certain extent.  My depression hasn't gone away entirely, and I don’t think it ever will.  But life hurts a lot less than it used to.  And I handle difficult situations much more skillfully that I once did.  So what does this have to do with me quitting my job.  I'm glad you asked!

     One major side effect of meditation is that it changes the brain in ways which make practitioners feel greater empathy and compassion towards others.  The science behind this is actually pretty cool, and you can watch this video if you want to learn the details.  For my part, as I continued meditating I began to notice some of the pain that I was causing to the people around me.  This sucked, and I almost quit at this point because I really didn't like what I was seeing.  Had I really done those things to people?  How could I be such an asshole?  The bright side of this experience was that I finally recognized that a lot of the pain that I'd experienced over the years was a direct result of pain that I'd caused others, so I started working to make amends with the people that I'd hurt, and life continued to get better.  But how do you make amends with someone who lost their job as a direct result of you doing yours?

     As a business analyst, my job was to oversee projects and write programs that increased efficiency for my company's clients.  In the corporate world, increased efficiency almost always equals layoffs.  To be honest, it makes good business sense.  Why would you pay thirty people to do a job when you can install a computer program and just pay ten?  The ten people who are left standing will work harder for fear of losing their jobs AND you increase department revenue because the salary from the twenty people you're no longer paying goes straight to the bottom line.  Plus the people who are laid off get to go somewhere that will actually appreciate their talents.  Everyone wins!  At least that's the lie I used to tell myself.  But the more I practiced Zen, the more terrible I felt each time I sat in someone's cubicle, pretended to be their friend, and took notes on how I could automate their job out of existence.  So I quit.  It felt awesome, but it left me with a new problem.  How am I supposed to feed myself without being a slave to the corporate machine?!

     The answer came to me when I happened upon GTA Pacifist.  Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a game in which players are encouraged to make money and pursue pleasure in the absolute worst ways possible (e.g. killing prostitutes, robbing convenience stores, shooting it out with the cops, etc.)  But Goldvision changed the whole game up by creating a character, Fernando, who lives his life by egalitarian, pacifist principles.  In other words, he lives in a world purposely designed to cause suffering to its inhabitants, but he chooses to ensure that he himself is not a cause of said suffering.  For example, he street races to earn money as opposed to committing robberies.  And he purposely doesn’t carry a weapon (something that the game makes surprisingly difficult to do) in order to refrain from killing other players.  He even refrains from littering!  From what I can tell, Goldvision isn't a Zen practitioner, but I'm at a point in my practice where I see Zen everywhere I look, so stick with me.  You see, at the heart of Buddhist practice we have the four noble truths which state:    
  • Samsara is full of suffering
  • Suffering is caused by desire
  • The way to end suffering is to end desire
  • The way to end desire is the eight fold path
      The third patriarch, Sheng T'san summed up the four noble truths by stating, "Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional."  In other words, both the video game world of GTA and the real world that I'm living in are designed to be painful places.  There is no getting around that.  However, I can live my life in such a way that I'm not a cause of that pain; thus lessening the suffering of both myself and others.  In other words, I'm going to take the experiment that Goldvision is doing in a video game, and try it out in real life!  With this in mind, I'm going to spend the next year doing the following:

  •  Maintain a daily practice which includes a minimum of 30 minutes seated meditation and a chanting of the heart sutra
  •  Refrain from owning a car, and utilize a bicycle, car pools, or public transportation to fill my travel needs
  •  Eat a vegetarian diet
  •  Provide myself with food, water, and shelter in ways which are both beneficial to the planet and useful to my own needs
  • Limit my worldly possessions to what I can comfortably carry on my back

     My hope is that living by the aforementioned code will allow me to deepen my Zen practice, provide for my own basic needs, and minimize the suffering that I cause to others which will in turn minimize my own suffering.  To put that more concretely, doing the aforementioned items on a daily basis will lower my carbon footprint for the year by 7000 pounds of CO2, increase my ability to empathize others, save the lives of approx. 400 farm animals, and decrease my overall consumption of the planet's resources.  Wish me luck!

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