Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Razor Wire Dharma

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

What could be a better place to practice meditation than prison? Many have discovered the transformative potential of doing time and exploited that opportunity to do important work on themselves. The documentary film, Doing Vipassana, Doing Time depicts the remarkable work of S. N. Goenka in a New Delhi prison. In this city of a prison, he offers traditional Burmese-style 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats. The rules for a Vipassana course are actually more stringent than those for regular prison life. The schedule goes from early in the morning to late at night with hour after hour of sitting meditation. It’s an encounter with your mind where there is “no escape.” Having the escape exits blocked, participants can see clearly into the conditioned nature of experience and the constructed nature of self. This is, perhaps, the only form of truly meaningful prison rehabilitation. The psychologist G. Alan Marlatt has also taken Vipassana to prisons in the U.S. to help substance addicted individuals. In prison, we find discipline leads to freedom.

Another form of prison dharma is found in the poignant and powerful memoire, Razor Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison by Calvin Malone (Wisdom Publications). Here is an excerpt where he describes the mundane experience of eating an apple, an apple that stood out from the usual horrible prison food he was subjected to.

“Breathing in I smelled apple, breathing out the universe. Everything there is or ever was was contained in this apple. I could see it with the wild exactness of shattered glass. The answer and the question were there in the apple. i was feeling an inexplicable joy, keenly aware. I never fore felt better in my life. I realized this moment was as good as it gets”

The Buddha’s teaching offer this form of radical freedom. That the happiest moment of your life could occur during a prion sentence. That true happiness could arise from the simple beauty of an apple, a living thing connected to everything else in the entire universe. Our usual days miss this miracle, as we move around lost in our stories and taking the apples and other miraculous occurrences that we encounter for granted. Buddhist practice and the time afforded by prison can be a potent combination for change, as Calvin Malone’s book demonstrates.

Spiritual Materialism

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

The 20% richest of the world’s population consume 60% of its resources. We in American do more than our fair share of the damage whether it is oil, food, or narcotics. After the economic downturn that followed the terrorist attacks of 9-11, President Bush urged Americans to “go shopping.” Being in such a consumer culture are we also at risk for consuming our spirituality. Is Buddhism immune from such consumption? Thubten Chodron (writing in Hooked:  Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume) warns us that “when we turn to spirituality, we may think that we’re leaving behind the corruption of the world for higher purposes. But our old ways of thinking do not disappear; they follow us, coloring the way we approach spiritual practice.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in his classic, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

We have come here to learn about spirituality. I trust the genuine quality of this search but we must question its nature. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path. This rationalization of the spiritual path and one’s actions must be cut through if true spirituality is to be realized.

Buddhism is not exempt from such concerns. Just look at any issue of the Shambhala Sun. It is filled with beautiful and enticing adds for teachings and dharma paraphernalia — meditation cushions, bells, statues, you name it. We can become attached to non-attachment. We can become identified with non-identification. We can get lost in spiritual materialism. A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine  depicts a mother and her child exiting a burning house via an emergency ladder. The mother urges, “Simon, don’t forget Mommy’s yoga mat.” The Hindu guru, Ragneesh was infamous for having over 80 Rolls Royces in his collection and Buddhist monks have been spotted wearing Gucci slippers and gold Rolexes. No one is immune from the allure of having things, the problem arises when our sense of OK-ness is dependent on having these things. We all must proceed  with eternal vigilance, as John Philpot Curran warned, if we want to be free.

Buddhism in America is inextricably entwined in marketing. Teachers must sell themselves and their services, must raise money for their centers, must sell their books and CDs. Spirituality is a product like any other product, right? We are also looking for the “best” spritiual experiences — the highest states, the rarest teachings, the coolest teachers. Spiritual materialism may drive us to strive in a desire-laced way. We may get bored with following the breath because it is not as exotic as following some terma (secret teaching). We may be afraid that we’ll miss out (see entry on FOMO). If we fall into this trap we’ve lost sight of something elemental — the Buddha worked with his breath to awaken and that practice can take us to awakening too, if we can give ourselves permission to do so. And if we do so, that awakening won’t be accompanied by fireworks. It will be an ordinary moment of clarity. It’s been said that “enlightenment is the ego’s biggest disappointment.”

The sheer abundance of teachings that are now available in the West may be both a blessing and curse. The blessing is the accessibility of the dharma in unprecedented ways, including the Internet. The curse is that such abundance may encourage conusmerist attitudes. We can find ourselves dining at the spiritual smörgåsbord, taking a little of this and a little of that and creating a pastiche of teachings that serve our ego’s needs and not the needs of true awakening. Instant gratification can be a trap. We don’t have to work hard to get to the teachings. We don’t need to walk across a high Himalayan mountain pass; we don’t need to sit outside the gates of the Zen temple for days waiting. We are consumers with spiritual “dollars” and we can spend these dollars wherever we choose. In urban centers the choices can be dizzying and the customer is always right. The danger is that if we don’t like what we see in ourselves working with one teacher, we’ll just go down the street to another. We love to idealize and the honeymoon period can be ecstatic, expansive, and promising, But just like a good marriage, to get any spiritual attainment we need to stick around past the idealization once disillusionment sets in (and it WILL set in and if it doesn’t we’re not really paying attention). All teachers, including the Buddha, are human.

Convenience is another consideration for spiritual materialism. In a sense, our entire consumer culture is designed to make life more convenient or more of something (faster, cooler, healthier, etc.). It is said there are no atheists in foxholes and we may be the equivalent of fair-weather friends, except in this case it is foul-weather practice. When we are in distress we may recognize the increased need for practice, but can we sustain this commitment without a crisis? Let’s face it, meditation is hard. It takes time and if we practice for prolonged periods can be physically uncomfortable and mentally make us face things we did not want to face. There is no quick fix and we need to be careful about seeking short cuts.

And if we do put in the effort, a final aspect of spiritual materialism to consider is what might be called “spiritual olympics” or “the one with most spiritual toys wins.” We can identify with how prodigous we are sitting, how many retreats we’ve been on, how many vows we’ve taken and teachings we’ve received. Is this any different than showing off your BMW to your neighbor? Is this any different than keeping up with the Jones’s? Thoreau warned us not to identify with the “clothes” of
any new activity but to try to be different in how we engage with activity. I’ll leave you with his words, “beware of any activity that requires new clothes, rather than a new wearer of clothes.”

Yoga Sanga: The Yoga Online Magazine for Texas on Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

Yoga sanga.gifI had the pleasure of being interviewed by Rocio Morales the founder and director of Yoga Sanga: The Yoga Online Magazine for Texas. My book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants was also reviewed (you can read it here). 

You can listen to the interview here (about 20 minutes)

Money Sex War Karma Series (Money)

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

David Loy graces us with a book of essays, provocatively titled with a compelling cover design presenting the four big human hang ups: money, sex, war, karma. (Money, War, Sex, Karma: Notes for Buddhist Revolution, 2008, Wisdom Publications). In his essay, “Lack of Money” Loy reminds us that money is a symbol. In an of itself a dollar bill can’t do much for us, unless we use it a signatory of value. The problem is that we look to this symbol to fill some perceived lack within ourselves, our “emptiness.” He cautions that we wind up knowing “the price of everything but the value of nothing.” If we look to money to fill our sense of lack, we’ll be in trouble. If we mistake the symbol for reality, then we’ll really be in trouble. Ironically, we are not too materialistic but not materialistic enough because we are in love with a symbol. “Because we are so preoccupied with the symbolism that we end up devaluing life itself. We are infatuated less with the things that money can buy that with their power and status.” He also sounds a note of caution regarding debt, how it has become the basis for our economy and by doing so, “the social result is a generalized pressure for continuous growthand expansion, because that is the only way to repay the accumulating dept. This constant pressure for growth is indifferent to other social and ecological consequences.” His final warning is to, “Those who use it to become more real end up being used by it, their alienated sense of self clutching a blank check–a promissory note that can never be cashed.”

I think he is dead-on in these observations. Money has become a proxy for worth. And it goes beyond worth to the very sense of our ontological status. “I am because I have a lot of money” (or “I am less than because I don’t have a a lot of money”). Descartes would be rolling over in his grave, “I spend therefore I am.” Of course this leaves us feel rather empty as you probably already know from your latest jag of retail therapy. Hedonic adaptation predicts this. The shiny new car gives us pleasure for a while because it is, well, new and shiny. However our brains adapt and that newness wears off, probably before the new car smell. It’s only a problem if we look to the car to do something for us other than to take us from point A to point B and back again. If we look to the car to make us whole or real, it won’t work. Such pursuits just reinforce our sense of a solid self independent of everything around us — that sense of self that “owns” the car. It also encourages greed because we can never have enough. And, of course, it flies in the face of impermanence because whatever desire we have now will change and whatever things we have now grow old, get sick, and eventually die. Just like you and me!

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