Sunday, November 28, 2010

The referees are winning the game

Over the long weekend I learned that a former colleague and friend had died of lung cancer. Dick Bolton was a photographer extraordinaire, but more than anything else, he was a compassionate human being. I worked alongside Dick right around the turn of the century while I was working at The Morning Sun, a smallish daily newspaper in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. It’s right about smack dab in the middle of the Lower Peninsula.

Dick loved to talk, but he also had a knack for directing conversations where he wanted them to go. Not because he wanted you or anyone else to reach the same conclusions he had, or agree with his perspective; in fact, Dick would slyly take positions contrary to his own personal view just to watch how you would react. Dick wanted people to communicate. He sought to understand rather than to be understood.

He was also a bit of an imp, whose sly comments at times cut so deeply to the reality of a situation or person, you could easily miss his point. Another former colleague of mine, Lisa Yanick Jonaitis expressed it best when she described a particular trait Dick had when he was out at a high school football game shooting photos for the paper. The sports writers would call him and ask who was winning the game. “The referees are,” he would reply and say no more.

Dick knew I practiced Buddhism, but rarely would directly ask me anything about it. And when he did, after hearing my response, he would lament out loud that he wished some of the Christians he knew had followed such guidance. He also had a somewhat annoying habit of talking to me about women. He would go on about something about women in a vein that was clearly the type of conversation that two straight men would have, and after he would finish, I would look at him with this annoyed expression, wondering why isn’t he talking about this with the guys at the sports desk?

My most memorable experience with Dick was on a road trip assignment he and I took to the wine country of Northern Michigan. We visited three wineries: I did the interviewing while he shot the photos. They were beautiful photos. We had a room at a tiny hotel in Leelanau that was along the river right by a weir. The roar of the water going over the fall provided a constant and soothing white noise. Across the river we had dinner at a restaurant that started off with three or four martinis and led to a bottle of wine to go with a couple of massive steaks. We barely were able to stumble back to the hotel room, which required that we walk across a walkway over the top of the weir.

The next morning, before driving back to Mt. Pleasant, we drove out to Frankfort to the Lake Michigan shoreline. The beach at a small park was empty – it was mid-September – but just to the south we saw a group of college kids – two girls and a guy – walking along the edge of the waves as they broke upon the shore. We both gasped when we saw all three disrobe to begin frolicking naked in the surf. I remember Dick saying to me, “Well now, there is something for both of us.” We both cursed the fact that we didn’t have binoculars, but we got a decent look using the telephoto lens on his camera. We sighed, then went to his van to begin the drive back to Mt. Pleasant.

It was only within the last year that I had re-connected with Dick via Facebook. That was also when I began to realize he was battling cancer. As one of the phrases in the Five Remembrances states, we are of the nature to be sick, we have not got beyond disease. And of course, this is followed with death.

Death really isn’t so bad and doesn’t worry me much. It’s the dying part that really sucks. But from my perspective, Dick Bolton managed dying very well. And that counts for a lot.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The more things change

The more things stay the same.

Thought this video had some very striking images, all of which have parallels to today.


Merry was the singer that accompanied Mick Jagger on the original release of this song.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Riding the bicycle of meditation

My understanding of what is really supposed to be going on during meditation has gone through many transformations. Initially, I interpreted the notion of “stilling” or “quieting” the mind to mean I was supposed to stop thinking at all, that I needed to turn off the internal chatter within my head. But that was only half right. The result of that was I would be so focused on my breathing in an effort to force out all other thoughts that meditation became such a chore; it was like trying to push a giant boulder up a mountainside. The endeavor was so exhausting that I often fell asleep during a sit.

Then I learned to quit fighting my thoughts, just let them pass by like a float in a parade. This helped immensely with the ever-present song or jingle that would pop into my head during meditation. In fact, I am seldom bothered any more by a song stuck in my mind while I sit. Staying focused on my breath is much easier.

But it just doesn’t seem like I’m getting anywhere. Some of my most satisfying sits involved some very specific thinking going on in my mind. It wasn’t when I was floating in the absorption of my breathing. In fact, this buoyant state of my mind remaining aloof from other mental activities was bringing on the sleepiness problem I had in the past. Rather, my most insightful moments in meditation actually involved me fixing my mind on a thought or concept and following that thought through in what seemed like logical increments. On the rare occasions when this occurred, I reached a level of understanding about whatever it was I had been thinking about that was very satisfying. I might even say it was euphoric.

Having said that, my mind does tend to grasp onto thinking paths that are self-indulgent and irrelevant. Yet, increasingly I have become intrigued by how the Buddha describes the first Jhana, as a state of “deliberate and sustained thought.”

And then I read this extraordinary post at the Theravadin. He uses two very vivid – for me – metaphors to describe the functioning of meditation.

In the first metaphor, the Theravadin uses a common behavior to describe how we develop the mindfulness necessary for effective meditation: learning how to ride a bike. When first learning to ride a bike, we are very focused on maintaining balance so we can move forward, so focused on this single element that often – at least I remember doing this – we aren’t looking ahead at what’s coming and we run into other objects, like curbs or trees. But with persistence, we develop the balance necessary to keep our bicycle upright. When that happens, we ride with ease, able to look around us at the scenery as we peddle along. We’re still riding the bike, we’re still doing everything we need to do to maintain balance, but we are no longer “aware” of that – it’s automatic now.

It’s such a brilliant metaphor because developing the balance necessary to ride a bicycle with ease is very much like developing a fixed mind in meditation. Finding the balance needed to ride a bicycle with east is just like remaining fixed on a meditation object, such as the breath.

“Developing the jhanas is like learning how to ride a (mental) bike. When learning how to ride a bike there are two important things involved: First of all, you see others on the bike and see how much fun they have. You want that too. Secondly, almost everyone you see did learn it, so you are thinking: I can do it too. Third, when you are up on the bike, you learn to intuitively avoid falling – but that takes lot of practice. You know now, that the falling was actually part of the game, and it taught you how NOT to fall. In order to develop the skill to keep your balance your mind had to learn to avoid extreme movements away from the center. You also realized that eventually, once you started to keep going, the balance was easy to hold and the fun bike ride started.”

And what do we do when we have learned how to balance ourselves on a bicycle? We ride along and enjoy the scenery, never “forgetting” what we need to sustain doing to keep our bicycle upright.

Then the Theravadin introduces another powerful metaphor that really got my mind alert. Imagine being carried along by the powerful currents of a wild river. Out of sheer luck, you are able to grasp onto a rock. What are you going to do? You are going to cling to that rock with every ounce of energy you can, and if you are able to, you will pull yourself out of the raging river onto the rock.

“The attainment of the jhana, according to this simile, is achieved by a “not-floating away” or “not-drifting-away”. This is similar to a person in a wild river pushed along by the current who would try to hold on to a stone – long enough to pull himself out of the water and step on that stone. Such a temporary break (because he has not yet crossed the river but is still caught in the middle) on the steady rock in the middle of a wild river means also that no effort is necessary to maintain that calm position and one feels calmness and aloofness while the river/stream of the senses retreats.”

Once up on that rock, what would you do? You have a moment of relative ease to collect your breath, re-focus your thoughts and contemplate your next move. You can’t stay on that rock forever. At any moment, the raging river could send you a wave that will knock you off your perch. But it is, temporarily at least, a safe haven that allows you to determine how to extract yourself from this predicament.

So developing concentration is vital to meditation, but it isn’t the end. Once you learn how to ride the bike, you need to learn how to enjoy the ride. And once you’ve pulled yourself out of the river onto the relative safety of a rock, you must contemplate your escape to complete safety. Standing on that rock forever is not the solution. It is merely the vantage point.