The Lull

There seems to be a gathering malaise in the world, with unemployment climbing, banks failing, wars raging… and this set of circumstances reflects back into our individual lives, even if things remain fairly stable in our immediate environment.

There is a spiritual concept known as the Dark Night of the Soul which places the inevitable difficulties of life into a “higher” perspective.

I thought I’d discuss it over at the new place, if you’d like to check it out. Please comment if you feel inspired to do so!


Why Meditate?

This past weekend I led meditation and did astrology readings for a Rocky Mountain Contemplative Writers retreat up near Granby, Colorado. This was my fifth or sixth retreat with my friend (Best Man in our wedding, actually), David Hicks, who handles the “writers” portion of the program. David has been incorporating bodywork into the retreats, as well, bringing his favorite massage therapist up the hill for the first day.

The idea is, I “crack ’em” with meditation and readings, David “scrambles ’em” with individual writing consultations, group writing prompts, communal dinners (everyone has to provide one meal throughout the long weekend) and a concerted effort to establish lasting bonds between retreatants, who must ultimately use their writing as a sort of “poor man’s therapy” to deal with what inevitably comes up during the proceedings. We encourage retreatants to “write the most difficult thing,” so you can imagine the stories having to do with cancer or other physical ailments, sexual abuse, death and random acts of violence. What you may not imagine is the power that comes through this writing. A common feedback we receive is that retreatants never knew they had it it ’em, and that it is such a surprise to realize that “this is how real writing feels.”

After everyone arrives on Thursday evening, settles into their rooms and puts on their night clothes, it’s my job to lead the first meditation session. I have a standard speech stating that, when the idea first came up for us to do these retreats, we thought it would be great to combine a writing retreat with a Theravada meditation retreat model — i.e., establishing Noble Silence from beginning to end, meditating upwards of five or six hours a day, no food after noon… the whole bit. “I figured we’d attract a bunch of meditators who happen to write,” I tell them. “Instead, I’ve come to realize that we’re getting writers who are open to the idea of a little meditation, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of writing.” Laughter and nods all around.

That being the case, I encourage everyone to be as relaxed as possible. They can try sitting in some variation of the lotus position, like me, or they can sit in a chair or couch, they can lay down flat, they can stand, do walking meditation, shift whenever a pain sets in — whatever they need to do in order to keep from dreading meditation. I ask that everyone keep a notebook beside them to capture writing ideas, bits of dialogue or whatever else that may pop up from the silence and seems right for their current work. We’ve gone from lots of meditation to a bare minimum: one hour at seven a.m. (instead of my preference of five a.m.), with a half-hour bell for those who can’t do a full hour; a half-hour at four in the afternoon, and a half-hour before bed. I make myself available for anyone who may want to sit longer or more frequently (never happens, but since I do it on my own, I may as well open it up to everyone), or who have questions regarding the nuts-and-bolts of meditation, or the specifics of what comes up for them during silence.

Finally, I utilize some hypnotherapy induction techniques (progressive relaxation, visualizations and prompts using present-tense “-ing” language) to guide retreatants into their sits, so that they’re not left to battle those initial moments in isolation.

It occurs to me now, a week after the retreat, that I missed an opportunity to go into the question, Why meditate?

I mean, beyond the obvious reasons — relaxation, sitting in silence as a group — what does meditation bring to a writer’s retreat? How does sitting still, bringing focus to the breath and dealing with random thoughts, feelings and insights help the writer write better?

I could probably come up with many, many benefits from meditation for the writer, but one stands out above all others, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a cumulative effect that becomes established after a couple days during these retreats, even with the minimal amount of sitting that we offer. This accumulation has the quality of saturation, or even absorption, as though meditation continues into the time between formal sits. Focus and concentration undergo a subtle shift, so that one becomes focused and concentrated, rather than having to work for it. There is an emotional rawness that develops, as well, such that those “difficult things” we’ve been avoiding as writers bubble up to the surface, as if they’ve just been waiting for the right circumstances in order to express. There is something about sitting in a group according to a firm schedule, entering the silence together and maintaining that space, that deepens our experience of life and brings greater meaning to everything we do, whether it be cooking a meal, walking through the woods or sitting down to work on a story.

By Sunday (which comes too quickly, alas) the environment is rich with emotion and artistic passion, even as friendship bonds have established a level of trust and safety unmatched at your typical writer’s retreat. Meditative saturation has taken hold, and for some of the retreatants this constitutes a “religious experience” they’ve never known — and we hear promises of continued meditation practices all around.

I hope that they follow through. I hope that they consider what happens in a little three-day retreat, and that they extrapolate these effects out over several years of thrice-daily sits. What would happen in their writing lives if they came into such a depth of saturation?

I could tell them, of course, but it’s much better to find out for oneself.

“Simple Ain’t Easy”*

* [Famous quote by Thelonius Monk.]

No, I’m not talking about the profound religion of Jazz.

I’m talking about the Thai Forest Buddhist Tradition, exemplified during the past 50 years by the Venerable Ajahn Chah.

My teacher, while acknowledging the apparent attainment of meditation masters like Ajahn Chah, has a problem with their teachings, in that they do not come right out to affirm the Buddha’s actual instructions on meditative absorption. They persist in mystifying the subject, sometimes demonizing it (though Ajahn Chah has not gone that direction), almost always diluting it to conform with a made-up meditation technique called “vipassana.”

Nevertheless, Ajahn Chah is an example of how the Buddha’s monastic ideal has been preserved over the centuries, and his teachings are very much worthy of our consideration. I feel that his was a skillful and rigorous meditation practice that produced great spiritual fruit. Perhaps he taught his closest followers from that place of gnosis, thereby “protecting” the rest of us from the “dangers” of meditative absorption.

The cat, however, is out of the bag.

Nice Gig If You Can Land It

Some monks are socially engaged in all the right ways.

From David Rosenfeld’s journal:

Buddhist monk offers teachings with tea

Special to The Oregonian

Almost every weekday, Adhisila sits under a tent at Northeast Tillamook and North Williams, carving tiny Buddhas from soapstone and offering tea and snacks to bicyclists on their afternoon commute.

Adhisila — Adhi for short — may conjure images of the sadhus of India, holy men who sometimes sat at crossroads awaiting spiritual debates with passers-by.

But he’s different. “There’s no challenge here,” he says with a laugh, his voice soft and welcoming. “Just have a cup of tea.”

Adhi — whose only name means “high morality” in the ancient Pali language — is a Buddhist monk, a rarity in Portland. Rarer still, he’s among a handful to carry on a tradition that dates back thousands of years: asking for alms. Adhi feeds himself, one meal a day, through donations, mostly from 30 to 40 Thai restaurants in the city.

“I help the monk with food because he’s a good teacher,” says Sirilak Promprasert, a Thailand native and owner of downtown’s Bangkok Palace. “He does his job to heal people and to make peace.”

By relying only on offerings, a monk learns to temper desires, a key Buddhist doctrine.

“I don’t need very much,” says Adhi, who’s fed himself through alms for 10 years. “I may give them a blessing and maybe a small teaching about how to relieve their overwhelming suffering.”

Dressed in red Nike high-tops and red Adidas exercise pants under his robe, Adhi is approachable and unpretentious. To stay warm, he wears a 26-year-old wool Marine Corps overcoat, issued during a four-year stint in the early 1980s. He joined so he could play in the marching band. Sometimes he wears a button in support of Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to fight in Iraq.

Adhi is as surprised as anyone to find himself in Portland. Born Owen Evans in Ashland in the 1960s, he discovered Buddhism at age 8 when his dad studied Zen. He became an ordained monk about 10 years ago at the Dhammapala Monastery in Fremont, Calif.

Three years ago, Adhi, a self-proclaimed forest monk, was living in solitude and meditating in the Siskiyou Mountains when friends persuaded him to move to the city.

Now he draws support from a network of Portlanders who appreciate his teachings. They might give him money, donate clothes or provide shelter. When he’s not living at the Young Sahn International Zen Center in Beaverton, Adhi house-sits. He also teaches at various places, including the Chinese Miao Fa Chan Temple at Southeast 17th Avenue and Madison Street.

Ian Timm and his wife, Sally, host one of Adhi’s meditation classes every Friday night at their home in Northeast.

“Adhi’s teaching is not encumbered by a lot of ritualism,” Ian Timm says. “It’s more practical suggestion. He teaches as the Buddha did that people are responsible for their own causes and effects in their lives.”

Adhi also makes Buddhist teaching videos at a warehouse and community kitchen next to his tea tent that he shares with Sky High Productions, a video production company. He helps pay rent on the 3,000-square-foot space with donations and income from teaching. He hopes to make more videos and to rent out the space for community events.

Back at his tea tent, Adhi sits on a folding camp chair. Wisdom flows from him like water from a mountain spring.

“People work maybe too hard and think they need too much,” he says. “If you get down to the bare essence, maybe what we need is more love, more compassion and more peacefulness. Those are invaluable resources, and we don’t tap into them enough.”

Good job on this story, David. I’ve stolen the whole thing here, but I’m not getting paid for it!  It’s for educational purposes only, should any of my four visitors read it all the way through….

Makes me want to move to Oregon immediately.

Then again, I’ve always wanted to move to Oregon at the first opportunity. Knowing that it’s a monk-friendly place just adds to my desire.