Friday, September 19, 2008

Conversation Recap for September 7, 2008


We met in Wright Park, which at 9:30 was covered with soft, thin clouds, trees shimmering in a soft breeze, almost 60 Fahrenheit but due to rise to about 67 by the time we are finished.

Check-in found many people working with the transition to the start of the school year. Many people who do not work directly in education have schedules that vibrate with the rhythms of school. Several people were able to get to the Friday screening of the film that accompanies the Tacoma Civil Rights Project.

Today we heard Tina’s story.

In the ensuing discussion we looked at one event when, quite unintentionally and obliquely, a question brought to the surface a pervasive assumption about who belongs in a community.

In these times when political life offers discouraging revelations about the country, participants said, it is good to hear stories of personal courage in standing up to nonsense. Several of us nodded our heads at a reference to situations where, later, we wished we had spoken up.

One person pointed out that racist language is coded. Public discourse is permeated with references to ‘nice people’ and similar ideas that do not need to be expanded for others to understand.

Today we heard from Callista on “meditation within chaos,” an assigned title.

Why would someone meditate? In the tradition she described (one brought to the United States by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, or for short, Trungpa), we meditate in order to open ourselves to possibilities in the world. We began with a demonstration, with people following guidance on a meditation technique—mindfulness, attention to the out-breath, letting the in-breath simply happen. If thoughts arise, simply label them ‘thinking’ and go back to attention on the out-breath. Eyes should be open with a soft gaze several feet in front.

We then discussed what people noticed during the technique.

Using this and related techniques aim at providing a stable mind—quieting the chatter that goes on in almost everyone’s brains. The chatter is a barrier to deeper insights about how one is thinking and experiencing the world. For example, we habitually move to judgment in particular situations, and these techniques can provide awareness of how our mind has these habits.

We don’t meditate in order to become good meditators. It is about discovering how our minds work.

Why do people start meditating? One experience offered to the group: There was a public meeting with members of an intentional community with contemplative leanings, and at the start of the meeting they asked for two minutes of silence. The participant saw something to which she had been oblivious—physical pain and emotional tension. It was a sign that everyday life is often obscure to us, and our responses can be more aware. Many people begin to meditate in response to particular trauma, such as the loss of someone close or a severe illness.

At a presentation some time ago Dale Asrael told a story from a book called Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach, about a tiger in a zoo in Washington DC: The tiger was in a small cage, and visitors would see it tracing the limits of its restricted environment. Some visitors organized to create a new enclosure that had features of a more natural setting. On the day the tiger was offered access to the new area, it marked out a square the size of the old cage, and it spent all its days tracing the boundaries of that imaginary small space. It was not able to live outside of its old habits.

And most of us share some qualities of mind with the tiger, and we stay with the world we think we know. The habitual cage of our own making can be left. We can step out of it. This approach to meditation aims at enabling people to do that.

When people find some value in this aspect of meditation, some people adopt it as a path. Its benefits is offered less as a one-time revelation of a different state of mind, but as a path for living that pays explicit attention to qualities of mind.

In the tradition described in Callista’s talk, there are three phases in the path. The Hiniyana (“small vehicle” or “narrow vehicle”) has one focus on their own suffering and their release from it.

The Mahayana (“great vehicle”) has one focus on the possibility of releasing other beings, all beings, from their suffering. The phase emphasizes wisdom (in significant part by becoming aware of “emptiness,” much like the tiger did not recognize the space around, the potential for other action, right action, to occur. ) and compassion (many techniques are used to develop compassion toward other beings, other people). The suffering of others is chiefly the result of ignorance, such as a lack of awareness of that emptiness that makes many things possible. It is not to be labeled as evil. Practitioners develop a willingness to live in the chaos around us, to acknowledge the confusion that we and others live in. That means, in part, not slamming others with it. One can be compassionate toward others before they clean up their act.

The Vajrayana (indestructible vehicle”) phase of the path relies on techniques that encourage “sacred outlook,” an encounter with direct experience—lie the tiger was not able to do. It is the responsibility of the practitioner to find in situations the sacred part, and find ways to work with it. Practitioners see emotions, for example, as energy, which means one tries not to judge them. They try to be open, to not have an agenda that one tries to impose on others.

For another day, perhaps: the Shambhala yana, which is a focus on creating an enlightened society.

The grounding in compassion is an essential part of this, as there is a danger that people see the techniques as a path to power. It is something that one does, as mentioned before, a path. Daily practice keeps reminding practitioners of the basics. Part of the tradition, also, is having a teacher, one who knows you and can call you on your games. Another part of it is being part of a community, called a sangha.

Several participants commented on the analysis of ignorance in this depiction of meditation. There are many facets to it.

There is no formula for how long it takes to get good at these meditation techniques—some can be good at it relatively soon, and others can find roadblocks that just stop them, teachers leave and die…. The chief variables might be the ability to clear out one’s life to find room for the work, having some personal discipline, and being in the community that supports it.

One participant reported a similar encounter with life changes—more positive to think about creating new habits than in defining one’s current practices as bad habits, and that a teacher is essential to calling one on their games, and disciplined practice to have the new habits settle into life—much like a disturbed pond whose turbid waters settle into clarity.

Starting next week, we are back to Evergreen.

V team members should expect to stick around next week to do some planning. Some fundamental things need to be discussed—who we want to be as a community, the social justice connection in what we do, as well as housekeeping matters such as time and place of meetings.

Sept 23, Kings Books, 7 pm, talk about economics of global warming.
Sept 26, Kings Books, 7 pm, a talk about Iran.
Oct 17 Steve and Christy will perform at Kings Books at 7 pm.

Yesler community center, in Seattle, 10-2, Disability Empowerment Day event, Sept 20.

Adult college fair at Evergreen campus in Tacoma, representatives Sept 13 from 9:30-1:30.

October 18, Achievement Gap Summit II, Save the Date.

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