Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Westerner’s Journey to the East

Can Mindful Meditation
Overcome Trumpism?

            Raised as I was by a rational mother who educated herself by reading the world’s great books, I was discouraged from pursuing meditation. Paraphrasing Carl Jung, my mother believed that meditation was an eastern thing—passive and inwardly directed—whereas western man’s nature is active and outwardly directed. Therefore an American or European who meditates is as out of place in his culture as an Indian selling life insurance might have been in his.
            At least that’s the way it was before the eastern gurus began sending their best and brightest to England and America to teach we highly amped westerners how to cool our over-heated frontal lobes with the practice of yoga meditation. Exactly what western man was not supposed to do!
            But there was no turning back the hemispheric change, which entered our pop culture in the 1960s and ‘70s as a further, safer step beyond psychedelic drugs—a viable if less spectacular substitute for getting high—and best of all it was free. You didn’t have to score. You became your own supplier.
Jose Silva
            My first introduction to what I’d call entry-level meditation was an editorial assignment for a weekly alternative newspaper to cover a week-long workshop in a program called Alpha Awareness. It was a generic brand of Silva Mind Control, run by a former Silva instructor who’d in some way rebranded his master’s product without legal challenge and now traveled about offering a Silva course under a new name and a discounted price. A couple dozen people turned out to avail themselves of the bargain.
            For my part, I took to Alpha Awareness like the proverbial duck-to-water and practiced it regularly for five or six years—counting down to my “level,” establishing my laboratory with its beachfront view, relaxing completely in my own safe space, watching the flow of scenes and faces streaming by my closed eyes as I tried, according to instructions, to program my subconscious mind to manifest my desires.
            Before long I went through a career change from part-time journalist to part-time playwright and actor in my own community theater company which then evolved into hired actor and playwright working for several different theaters in our locality.
            To supplement my irregular income in theater, which was generally less than my desires, if not my needs, allowed, I found a job that required more of my attention than the deep relaxation of self-hypnosis provided. I began to work as an art school model. For the next dozen years I met my day-to-day expenses by offering my nude body to college students, many of them fine arts majors, to draw, paint, and sculpt for what was for me at the time a pretty good hourly wage.

Think This Is Easy?
            But to reach that level of success where I was under contract or on call at half a dozen college art departments, I had to pass through an initiation into radical mindfulness. Holding an interesting pose without moving for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, even up to an hour, is a practice in itself. In time I learned to breathe into all the pockets of pain developing in my body as a pose went on. I learned to relieve the aches with the subtlest of motions that, even with all the eyes of a class upon me, no one detected. This required a near-laser focus on my body in space at any given moment, rushing relief to any distressed part like a nurse on call. Emergency! Cramp in left thigh!
            Aside from addressing my muscle aches and numb limbs from blocked circulation, I spent many an hour in art class over those years in a rarefied space where hallucinations danced on the walls—wagon trains, animal faces, Egyptian princesses and African dancers, images of people I’d never met, occasionally of people I knew. It was liberating, in a strange way—to be so confined in body yet so free in my mind. It reminded me of The Hanged Man card in the Tarot deck, a paradox containing a reward worth a lot more than ten or fifteen bucks an hour to me.
           And it all came about from a fixed attention on my breath—in and out, in and out. Nothing dramatic, just a very slowly developing cumulative effect.
            In the mid-1990s I began practicing a sit-down meditation of at least 20 minutes every morning and evening, following instructions periodically mailed from Self-Realization Fellowship, an institution founded by Paramahansa Yogananda to transmit the teachings and practices of his line of Hindu gurus to the spiritually ignorant West.
Yogananda, by all accounts an enlightened master himself, came to America from India in the early 20th century and became popular as a teacher, writer, and lecturer on religious and metaphysical subjects.
            Practicing these mail-order lessons for three years left me rather devout, but the organization putting them out disappointed me for its orthodoxy. After Yogananda passed away, it seemed his breadth of spirit also passed away from the institution he’d founded. That seems to happen regularly between master and disciples.
            Following my own regimen, then, I continued meditating daily into the millennium and beyond, a practice supported when I joined a Buddhist sangha focused on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the internationally known Vietnamese monk who has spread his gentle brand of Zen Buddhism around the world.
Thich Naht Hanh
Under his absentee guidance and supported by my new Buddhist friends, I rode the mindfulness wave onto the shores of 2017, where living mindfully in the present is all the rage. Even my local TV station advertises its commitment to the Now.
            Meanwhile, after years of “the Practice,” I’m finding that meditative mindfulness, like water dripping on a stone, has hollowed out a dent in my consciousness so that I actually walk around during the day with my mind in the present a good bit of the time.
            Or, I should say, I did, before Donald Trump. Now there’s a new challenge—to stay present and mindful as the world as I’ve known it from my earliest days collapses around me. Can I survive, let alone thrive, in a world run on cut-throat business principles?
Needs No Caption
It’s a rude awakening. Change is coming down like lightning strikes bouncing along Tornado Alley from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge. The barbarians have taken the Capitol. The Age of Enlightenment is canceled.
            But I am committed to my practice above all because of a set habit going back forty years to Alpha Awareness and the forms that came after and also because, as an antidote to ease the anxiety of mortality, it works. However dire or catastrophic the circumstances, remembering to breathe—to open that mental door to the memory of the meditative state—immediately breaks the spell of doom that seizes my mind when serious obstacles loom. A second breath, and then a third, secures the shift. This simple practice brings a wider, potentially cosmic perspective to the issues that unnecessarily roil the majority population.
            Meditation helps us to see clearly through our fears. Our world never needed that more.


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