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Hardcore Dharma Week 10: Who Was the First Meditator, or Cave Paintings Rock

“Impermanence is the Nike swoosh of reality … omnipresent, ubiquitous, glaring at us all the time”   -Ethan

In the last regular class of this thrilling beginner Hardcore Dharma series (introductory info about Hardcore Dharma here), we talked about the Three Marks of Existence. They are:

1. Impermanence, or “Anitya” in sanskrit for all you uber-geeks
2. Non-Self, or “Anatman”
3. Suffering, though this is a muddied translation that Thich Nhat Hahn strongly dislikes, so we do too. ‘Dissatisfaction’ fits, as does “dis-ease” and the sanskrit is “Duhkha”
So the Three Marks of Existence are important and stuff, but what really got me thinking was when Ethan mused, “I wonder who was the first person to sit and do a contemplative practice, and why?” 
No joke: This kind of blew my mind.

This is, no bullshit, a fascinating question. It’s like asking, “what would’ve happened if my parents had never met and I was never born?” The mind reels. 

Who was the first person to sit and do some form of meditation (that we might recognize)? Why did they do it? How did they conceptualize their own mind, or the organ/property/sensation of consciousness that we call “the mind?” On one hand, this is an imponderable, since our notions of Self and Mind and Consciousness are products of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Internet.
It is, however, not beyond the reach of the imagination, and my first thought was not some yogi in India or an ancient Tibetan nomad or even some early gnostic in the Fertile Crescent, but much farther back to the Upper Paleolithic, between 14,000 and 18,000 years ago and the caves of Altamira, in Spain, and Lascaux, in France. 
Most people seek out meditation and, indeed, any kind of faith or spiritual/philosophical system because they’re seeking relief from something painful or confusing or frightening. We might therefore assume that the first person to say, “I’m going to sit until my mind is calm and I can see in to the causality of things” (or somesuch), was coping with the loss of a loved one or an unstable and difficult environment, or maybe they were simply gazing up into the night sky and the enormity and strangeness of it moved them to try and Figure Things Out. 
However it happened, the connection between meditation and the cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux lies in the uniquely human need to situate oneself in a complex and dynamic reality. The only difference between me and a Paleolithic 24 year-old, besides the fact that 24 in the Upper Paleolithic was probably a ripe old age, is that I have a plethora of philosophical and religious systems to choose from. Whomever painted those fantastic bison, horse, and wild boar, using charcoal and ochre and the shape of the cave walls to create a sensation of movement as you walk through each chamber, was much closer to the raw materials of wonder, confusion, and the natural world that gave rise to religion in the first place. They were painting (extremely correct, as it turns out), representations of seasonal migrations, birth and death, and human-animal hybrids, perhaps gods. 
They were, in their way, exploring the Big Questions, and while cave paintings are cave paintings (i.e., not meditation), I felt a strong connection between them and the searching quality of my own spiritual discipline. My interest in cave paintings is not artistic, though they are beautiful and haunting – it comes from a general education class I took at NYUU as an undergrad called, excitingly, “Archeology.” 
Dr. Randall White was my professor and his passion for cave paintings, and all artistic or decorative products of the Paleolithic, was infectious. Each class, he would dim the lights in the lecture hall and show images of carvings, beads, and cave paintings, much of it from his own research, his voice becoming quick and resonant as he got excited about an object. The effect was not unlike a seance, or what I imagine a seance to be like. It was Dr. White who suggested that cave paintings were not amateurish efforts at representational art, but an effort to express a spiritual understanding of the world, sacred works instead of doodles. 
So, who was the first person to meditate? I have no idea, but the urge to understand and gain a toehold of control in the overwhelming complexity of life is not new or particularly Buddhist. Meditation works for me. For my Paleolithic counterpart, it was charcoal on cave walls. 
Conclusion: The Three Marks of Existence are important (yawn) and I wish I could bison draw with charcoal.
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Rachana Suri

posted June 4, 2009 at 11:45 am
this is the article I mentioned in class, thought it was interesting with the discussion of impermanence.

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posted June 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Check out the movie, “Quest for Fire”. It’s an excellent depiction of what life may have been like for cave dwellers. A Frenchman directed it back in 1981. The movie jump-started Ron Perlman’s lifelong career as a perpetual caveman in film and TV.
What struck me in QFF was that humans did not have the same levels of consciousness—they developed at a different rate. There are 3 distinct tribes in QFF, the Cannibals, the Protagonist’s tribe, and the Advanced tribe. The protagonist (played by Everett McGill from Twin Peaks) saves the life of a girl from the Advanced tribe and in return, she teaches him how to make fire. The title of the movie is derived from the primitives’ constant search for this ever elusive energy source that is necessary for survival.
Quest for Fire still stands as one of my favorite movies of all tiime. Don’t miss the Special Features on the DVD. Jean-Jacques Annaud went through hell to get it made traveling to the remotest parts of the planet to film the pristine sequences. I think it’s the first film Rae Dawn Chong made. Annaud saw her on a beach with one of his friends daughters.
As for the first person to meditate, I think Everett McGill’s character had the traits I’d associate with a self-reflective, intelligent, perceptive early human.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 12:16 am

excellent question, to which we could only speculate an answer.
my speculation is that altered states was probably discovered by our ancestors as they test different edible plants. maybe someone accidentally swallowed a hallucinogen, tripped out, and discovered altered states of awareness. from this awareness people could “channel” weird stuff including artistry. (note that some of the great artists work under the influence of booze or drugs to heighten their awareness.)
to make the long story short, meditation is just probably an offshoot (or more refined) technology to access these altered states of consciousness without the use of hallucinogens.
so we probably owe meditation to the great shamans who were just looking for something to eat but ended up tripping out :)
my two cents.

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Mahesh CR

posted June 5, 2009 at 1:44 am

Excellent post/topic.
It would be safe to assume that the primitives of material life- like birth and death, quest for food, the exertion of the hunt, would have piqued the interest of earliest self-aware man. Dwelling on these phenomena with a passionate intensity would have caused the first absorption within, a first intensifying of mind. That in itself could be qualified as the first attempt at meditation. Attempts to produce this absorption on demand might have led these earliest ancestors to stumble upon the secrets of meditation by trial and error.
There is a scene in the movie 2001 Space Odyssey where the Moonwatcher, the protagonist broods over the death of a loved one under the moonlight. I thought the idea of brooding is but an unrefined attempt at meditation. In both cases there is the intense self-absorption

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posted June 6, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Here is this week’s drawing. I missed the class, but did the reading. This is for Impermanence and Non-self. Have a wonderful rest of the summer.
Thanks for a great class and group.

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posted June 8, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Ha! Love the drawing, Michelle!
And I second your thanks, as well.
You’ve all been a very cool bunch, peeps. : )

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