Friday, July 30, 2010

You give me fever

There was a time in my practice when I wanted to do everything. I would meditate, chant, follow the eight precepts during an Uposatha day, design a very special shrine with all the proper objects, and read the Dhamma so I could have meaningful discussions with others about the Buddha’s teaching.

Yeah, I know. That lasted like maybe a month. And I almost gave this whole Buddhist thing up. After all, I like to drink and eat meat and I wasn’t too keen on giving those up. And sex? Even meaningless serial sex?

But I always came back to the fact that Buddhism saved me.

“Wait a minute, saved you? Isn’t that what Jesus freaks say? Born-again Christians? That’s what they say.”

You’re right, that’s what they say. But that’s not what I mean. Someday, I will go into the sordid details of what brought me to Buddhism, but not now. All that I need to say is that Buddhism did save me. It saved me because it showed me how I fucked up my own life, AND it showed me how I could fix it. It was my responsibility. And unlike the born-again Christian, there wasn’t a Santa Claus out there to fix things for me; I had to do it on my own.

Disclaimer alert! I’m still trying to fix things. But I digress.

I believe that many of us find something very special in Buddhism that immediately connects with us, and that is what draws us to the teachings. But I also understand how many get burned out by their practice. I was almost there. Because it’s easy to slip into this mode of doing everything Buddhist to the point that, by god, I’m gonna let everyone know I’m a goddamned Buddhist and they ain’t gonna give me any shit about it.

It’s very much like coming out. In my early out-of-the-closet years I wore a pink triangle lapel pin on my suits (there was a time when I dressed in a suit and tie every day for work, and let me tell you, I was very stylish!). On National Coming Out Day one year, I wore a T-shirt to work with my blazer that proclaimed “Nobody Knows I’m Gay.”

Nobody at work said anything about the shirt either.

But that didn’t stop me. I turned into a dancing circuit boy who bought all the right clothes (even if I couldn’t afford it – hey, that’s what credit cards are for) and who marched in all the right parades. I attended a vigil on the day it was revealed that Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left for dead tied to a split rail fence in the cold dark expanse of the Wyoming prairie. I gave the right speech. I spoke at an alternative school about being gay. And I wrote columns for a local newspaper advocating for gay rights. I decorated my apartment with all the right gay symbols and icons. And I finally accepted the fact that, yes, I really did like Barry Manilow.

I’m not saying any of those activities are bad or were a waste of time. All I’m saying is that I caught the fever. I caught the fever when I found Buddhism too, just like a lot of folks. And just as I mellowed in my gay world, I mellowed out in my Buddhist world too. And what happened was I began to practice in a manner the Buddha describes to Bhaddali in the Bhaddali Sutta (MN 65).

This sutta primarily is concerned with how the monastic code was developed, but within this text is the simile of the young thoroughbred colt. In general, this simile describes how a skilled horse trainer is very methodical when training a colt. The trainer takes very concrete and deliberate steps, and does not advance the colt until it has sufficiently adapted to the current step. For example, the trainer puts a bit into the colt’s mouth. The colt rebels against this initially, but eventually comes to accept the bit and calms down.

Our practice is like that. When we attempt something like meditation for the first time, our mind rebels; it doesn’t want to sit still. But with determined practice, eventually it does. And just like the unbroken colt, if we try too many things at once with our practice, we will fail, just as the colt will totally freak out and the horse trainer will be forced to give up.

So when I felt like I was being overwhelmed by my new practice, I selected a few very basic behaviors to focus on: A daily meditation practice in which the goal was just to sit for 20 minutes a day, and to do something for others. For the second part, I travelled to my new-found Sangha to help them build a new meditation hall. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Now my meditation is more focused. I’m actually at a point where I can sustain a deliberate thought. And that is an interesting breakthrough, about which I will be blogging soon.


  1. Great post Richard. I know exactly what you're talking about. When I got into Buddhism it was the same. I immersed myself so deep it had me questioning what the hell I was trying to do in the first place. Once the shine wore off I took it alot more seriously, but not so much overboard.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. I think Buddhism is all about honesty and self analysis, so we are on the same page. So how do we take our "practice" to the next level or continue to advance. What gives some people the confidence to advance in their practice and others to be left sitting on the sidelines scratching their heads? Turn me on.

  3. Interesting question Pete, but is it always "confidence" that impels one to continue their practice? Or is it pain? The desire to avoid further pain? And how much of it is just basic trust in the path as one begins to see that the path requires no long-term faith as all its steps are verifiable? I may explore this soon more fully.

  4. Either way you have my attention.

  5. I am a born-again, literally .. to some degree. Knowing Buddhism for years, been to the centres for years - just to snooze there while everyone else was meditating. Only recently that I came to really wanting to learn, and what I found has been wonderful, really opened my eyes. And I am in fever, in honeymoon period! A long-delayed fever lol.
    So I am really looking forward to your next post.

    Thanks Nate for "taking seriously but not overboard".