Consciousness & happiness

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Play's the Thing: The Lighter Side of Meditation

In 1978, I sat a nine-day silent vipassana retreat with the then-89-year-old Cambodian Thervadan Buddhist monk, Bhante Dharmawara--who went on to live another 20 years. One day deep into the retreat, we were standing on the grass outside the dining hall awaiting the bell that would tell us our afternoon snack was ready. Bhante was sitting on a plastic chair when suddenly one leg sank into the soft ground, propelling him backwards into a rosebush. He lay there with his orange robe akimbo and legs in the air, looking undignified to say the least. As we all rushed to help him, horrified that he might be hurt, he burst out laughing. Thirty years later, I can still see him flat on his back, giggling, a modern incarnation of Budai-Hotei, the Laughing Buddha.

I’m not sure most people would immediately think of laughter in relation to Buddhism. Starting with the first Noble Truth, much of the philosophy of Buddhism is concerned with the inevitability of suffering (dukkha) and what we can do about it. Given Buddhism’s overt preoccupation with suffering, it seems to me that we sometimes forget about dukkha’s opposite, sukha, usually translated as “happiness” or “bliss” (or perhaps, “chuckling while lying on your back in a rose bush”).

Newcomers to our practice, on the (rare!) occasions that they return after their first session, have often told me they’re intimidated by the formality and solemnity of our practice. Those black zafus and zabutons and robes, the bowing and deference, the general air of earnestness and correctness, all promote a general sense of gravity. I know what they mean, since I’ve certainly been guilty of taking the practice very seriously, which really means taking myself very seriously.

Two years ago, I had tea with an old friend, now a Zen monk. We were discussing our experiences of Zen practice, and found ourselves in disagreement over whether there were any rewards. “After all these years of playing around with meditation,” I said, “I’m not sure there’s anything to actually get out of it.”

He looked surprised, and frowned: “Maybe if you had taken it more seriously, instead of playing around, you might not feel that way now.” We agreed to disagree, although I realize now that part of our disagreement was semantic—while I take my commitment to the groups I help lead seriously, I take the practice itself lightly--especially when it comes to talking about future rewards, which I believe are nebulous at best. As they say in the investing field, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

The way I see it, Prince Siddartha, before he was designated the Buddha--the Awakened One--didn’t go back to his five self-denying friends and say in a grave voice, “Greetings, oh monks, I have something very serious to impart to you that I’m calling the Middle Way...” No, I think he ran to them chortling: “Hey guys, guess what! It’s not what we thought! It’s not about being ascetics! It’s not about being anything! We don’t have to do a damn thing, it’s all right here!”

I know, I wasn’t there at Sarnath. Maybe the Big Guy was more of a dour John Calvin type than an exuberant Mahalia Jackson…but to me, it makes sense that he’d have offered a joyful, playful message to his fellow ascetics—after all, they already knew how to be serious. I’m guessing that they resonated right away to what he had to say because it was fun, because he was fun.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years or so. To paraphrase Sophie Tucker (among others), “I’ve been playful and I’ve been serious: playful is better.” It’s not either/or, of course, but I find now that approaching meditation with a generally playful attitude simply feels better. We all know how to play--it came naturally to us when we were kids. Grief, sorrow, loneliness, anger and the other “darker” emotions still come up for me, of course. But approaching meditation with a light heart means that when they do come up, they don’t have the same grip on me as they did when I approached it with more earnestness.

Perhaps I can best explain my present point of view by trying to put into words the sort of experiences I typically have during meditation:

OK, here I am sitting on my zafu, trying to concentrate (I can’t type that phrase without smiling), pretending that it matters exactly how I hold my fingers, how I breathe, even how I think (“I think I should be thinking something else”), putting effort into my sit, going along with the notion that equanimity is some quality that can be achieved (--as if!), that sitting is cumulative and that my thousands of hours on the mat actually count for something.

…And then, seeing how I’m clinging to all that, affecting an attitude of, This, now, is all there is…

...And then I take that to mean something…

…And on and on, until the sheer silliness of all my thoughts and ideas and beliefs floods in. I realize that this sloppy trillion-neuron-brain can never make sense of itself and that illusion is my natural condition. This self will never consent to its non-existence (duh!).My desire to be free of desire is unquenchable and my hope for change will never change. My own liberation is accepting my incarceration. OK, got it! That’s how it is! So now all I’ve got to do is…

…and the bell rings. Oh god, it’s so stupid! I’m so stupid! It’s hard not to laugh out loud. After all that, how can I possibly take any of it seriously?!


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