Crave On!

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Mountains of sweets for Diwali displayed at a roadside stand, Lumbini, Nepal

“Hi, I’m Jud,” he said, extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Hi, I’m Jeff.” It was all I could think of to say, thrown off by his spontaneous manifestation as I sat reading the book he’d just published. “Do you know if this is any good?” I joked, holding up the book.

“Nah, I wouldn’t believe a word of it,” he smiled, disappearing down the hall.

His full name is Judson Brewer, his title, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. His new book is called The Craving Mind, and, according to the subtitle, explains “why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.” Our sort of strange encounter took place at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness as we both waited to be interviewed for an upcoming PBS documentary about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program that was started at the Center some 38 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I recently participated in the eight-week MBSR course, and Jud, as you know, is the Director of Research at the Center… I’m imagining that he’ll figure more prominently in the documentary than I will.

It’s a pretty interesting experience to be interviewed
for a TV show. In the finished product, I’ll be one of the talking heads sitting next to a bunch of books or a plant or something, not looking at the camera, and apparently talking aloud to no one. The person that I’m apparently not talking to is the interviewer, who sits off camera and whose voice will not be heard. Her job is not only to ask me questions, but to act as a sort of silent coach from the sidelines. If I’m making a point that’s particularly relevant or useful to the focus of the documentary, she’ll smile enthusiastically, nod encouragingly, or make that rotating hands “say more” gesture.

The interesting thing is that I noticed pretty quickly that I liked the smiles, the nods, and the gestures, and that I wanted to say things that would elicit those responses from the interviewer. The even more interesting thing is that I didn’t make the connection between my conditioned behavioral responses and the book that I’d been reading. If I’m honest about my motives, my desire wasn’t principally to contribute meaningfully to the documentary; my desire was to be liked. I was craving approval like a Nepalese boy craves the sweet, sticky cashew balls in the photo at the top of this post (it all comes full circle; the Universe has no loose ends).

What was that craving all about?

I didn’t have an awareness of, or a name for, that craving for approval until after the interview was finished and I had walked out of the Center for Mindfulness. Before starting my car, I paused to read from Daily Reflections, a book of brief selections from Alcoholics Anonymous literature that I usually read from in the morning. Ironically, I had mindlessly forgotten to do so that day. Excerpted from a book titled The Language of the Heart, the reading reminded me that

“this very real feeling of inferiority is magnified by [my] childish sensitivity and it is this state of affairs which generates in [me] that insatiable, abnormal craving for self-approval and success in the eyes of the world.” [1]

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, a less-than-pleasant defect of character to face in one’s self. The good news is that I’m not alone. So common is the human tendency for approval-seeking that it’s addressed pretty explicitly in the Buddhadharma.

The Loka Dham, ma, variously translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Worldly Concerns, consists of four pairs of opposite states, among which are Fame and Disrepute. Attraction to Fame and aversion to Disrepute keeps us bound to the comfortable familiarity of Samsara, likewise with Praise and Blame, Gain and Loss, and, of course, Pleasure and Pain. In contemplating these Eight Worldly Concerns, I’ve long felt that Fame is a concern that doesn’t much concern me, as I’ve never been concerned with being famous. Lately it occurs to me, however, that the Fame that the Buddha referred to wasn’t necessarily of the variety that lands one’s face on the cover of the Rolling Stone; it has to do more generally with the desire to be looked well upon by others. That concerns me.

As an anonymous friend of mine is fond of saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Holding this thought in mind offers me a glimpse of the freedom that’s available to those who can truly stand in equanimity between the poles of Fame and Disrepute. Awareness of this karmic tendency to crave approval inches me a little closer to the center of the spectrum. Thank God I’ve never wanted to be famous. Hopefully this PBS documentary won’t bring in too many offers…

[1] Anonymous (1990). Daily Reflections, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 103.

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Together Action

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school children in Kushinagar, India

Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center.  It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.

The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea.  They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School.  It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press.  In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.

As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one).  As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment.  The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.

Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike.  He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts.  There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food.  The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant.  We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment.  He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.”  This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.

As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within.  Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings.  Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…

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Leaving Lexington

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“Leaving Lexington…” I’ve texted this phrase a hundred times if I’ve texted it once, but on New Year’s Eve, I sent this message for what will likely be the last time. Packing the last of my belongings out of my bachelor pad and into my car, I headed a couple of towns west to move into my wife’s home. It isn’t a far move, but the distance isn’t the point. In a small way that’s significant to no one but me, it’s the end of an era. I am the last member of my family to inhabit the town that my grandfather immigrated to from Ireland in 1915. As he put it in “The Girl From Donegal,” a poem legendary to a dozen or so surviving family members, “I hit the road for Lexington, that place of great renown; no brass band played and no parade did welcome me to town.” I can honestly attest to a similar lack of fanfare upon my humble departure 100 years later. But it isn’t simply family history that makes this move interesting. It’s something more than that… something deeper. Buddhist Stuff. Namely, attachment and impermanence.

I like to think of myself as someone without strong material attachments, but the process of sifting through the detritus of my past sketched a slightly different picture. It’s a curious experience indeed to physically handle every single object that one owns. I was faced with artifacts of life phases gone by that have survived move after move after move. Books. I’m speaking primarily about books here. I’ve tried to travel light, and over the years I’ve instigated periodic purges, donating or selling books to try to lessen the load, but some are more difficult to part with. Spiritual books, mainly, books by teachers who have told me what I’ve needed to hear when I’ve been ready to hear it; Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, Steve Hagen, Joseph Goldstein… the usual suspects, really, for American spiritual seekers of my generation.

I’ve read and reread all these books and would likely read them again, but in contemplating the prospect of moving hundreds of pounds of paper yet another time, I had to consider what I was really clinging to. I had an interesting conversation once with a young person who grew up downloading all his music. He suggested that the reason we oldsters are so into our albums is that we feel a need to somehow “own” the music rather than to simply experience it as it plays. There might be something to this theory. Perhaps I subconsciously want to own the teachings contained in the dozens of books on my shelf, to display them like trophies, or like souvenirs from far off places I’ve visited. Ram Dass reminds us in Grist for the Mill that “the Dharma belongs to no one.” He found this point so important that it’s the first line of the book… before the page with the table of contents… so I sold all his books to a metaphysical bookstore in Cambridge.

Interestingly, however, I hung onto my albums. I’ll probably get rid of them eventually, but not today. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan… the usual suspects for American spiritual seekers of my generation. I haven’t actually owned a turntable in close to twenty years, but these old records fall into a category of belongings that is so common, so legitimate, that it was recognized in print by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous: stuff that I can’t let go of YET. Although Bill Wilson was referring specifically to “defects of character” or mental habits when he wrote that “even the best of us will discover to our dismay that there is always a sticking point, a point at which we say, ‘No, I can’t give this up yet,'” the psychological mechanism of mental attachment is very similar to that of physical clinging.[1] Hence the tremendous power and effectiveness of ritual.

Ram Dass speaks of an Indian fire ceremony in which participants ritualistically place whatever they want to get rid of inside a coconut and toss it into a fire.[2] In 12 Step Recovery parlance, this is known as “letting go of old ideas.”[3] In my case, the process also involved letting go of old relationships, or at least loosening my grip on them to let them slide into their proper place in the past. It occurred to me as I looked over all of my stuff that, just as I’ve clung to books and albums that are physical artifacts of my life, I’ve dragged along physical artifacts of other people’s lives, as well. People who are no longer alive. A father, a brother, a past girlfriend… It occurred to me also that these things are more than just mementos; they, like gravestones and monuments, represent a desperately futile attempt to create permanence. We can fool ourselves for a little while, but eventually, everything must go. Ourselves included. I thanked each one of those departed individuals as I dropped their stuff off at the thrift store, placed it in a donation bin, or simply threw it in the trash.

Attachment involves a lack of acceptance of impermanence. Throughout the process of downsizing my belongings, not only have I come to accept the impermanence of loved ones, I’ve come a little bit closer to accepting my own impermanence. I am not these hundreds of items that I possess, nor am I this body. What am I? Don’t know. I do know, however, that at some point in the not so distant future, someone will be sifting through my stuff after I’ve died. Maybe they’ll grab a memento or two, or pick up a piece of my writing, smile and say, “I’ll probably get rid of this eventually, but not today.”

REFERENCES
[1] Anon., (1952). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 66

[2] Ram Dass, (1976). Grist for the Mill, Harper Collins, p. 53.

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