Well, I just did it. I dropped Michelle off at the airport. For six months, we’ve known that we were going to parajump into this adventure together, but man, it’s a whole other thing when the day arrives and the cargo door opens and the leap is right in front of you. Will the parachute open?
A few up-front comments. First: the title of the ‘blog – which I’ve stolen from a comment by Alan Wallace (who's leading the retreat, and is the project's originator). I’ve never been a big fan of the word retreat – with its implications of failure and giving up, as in: “I can’t deal with reality anymore, I’m going into retreat.” That notion couldn’t be farther from the spirit of this journey, which is about running straight into reality. As Bhante Gunaratana (a leading Western teacher) writes:
Meditation doesn’t insulate you from the pain of life but rather allows you to delve so deeply into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier and go beyond suffering … [It] is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find. It allows you to blow aside the illusions and free yourself from all the polite little lies you tell yourself all the time. What is there is there. (from Mindfulness in Plain English).
In fact, Vipassana meditation, often translated as Insight meditation in fact means, by its etymology, “perceiving reality with clarity and precision," to pierce all the way to its most fundamental qualities. And a three-month journey into these depths is going to take more than a little discipline and courage. Expedition’s as good a metaphor as I know. And, as Wallace notes, the word – derived from ex and ped – implies "moving your feet from", removing them from where they’re stuck – which also gets to the heart of the endeavor (in fact, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns & Encountering Naked Reality is the name of a book by Pema Chodron, another leading Western meditation teacher).
Second, forgive the rambling ahead. Many of you have asked questions (“What in the world are you guys thinking?” for example), which I’ll try to answer along the way (I'll also add links to background information on the Project in separate posts). Also, for personal reasons, I’d like to record the journey for both of us, and so I’m going to use this ‘blog as a forum to do so at times. And, yes, maybe I’m using this exercise as a bit of a crutch while Michelle’s gone. To make things easier for those (most?) of you who want to skip the ramblings and cut to the Michelle parts, I’ll bold those. I’m only going to get half a dozen connects with Michelle until June, so I won’t bug you with too many updates in any case …
Now, to the relevant part: Michelle.
She's going off in great shape. She’s well prepared, has everything she needs (startlingly little), and most of all, she feels like she has full support from the people she cares about. That makes such a huge difference, and will be like a guardian angel in moments where the journey gets rough. Going into an intensive practice is a bit like performing surgery on the mind. Except you’re wide awake and you’re actually the one wielding the scalpel. And the complexes you’re hoping to uproot have a nasty way of hanging on for dear life, kicking and screaming. All to say, the operation can get rough, which is why the mental equivalent of a clean room – a tranquil, monastic environment – is so critical to a successful practice. The good news is that Michelle has that monastic environment. But even so, if you go in with negative reactions from loved ones reverberating in your brain, it’s a bit like bringing a nasty bacteria into the operating room. It can really infect everything you’re trying to do, and rattle around in your head and make you crazy (-er). So it means a ton to Michelle that she’s going in with all your support, and her practice will really benefit. Even people who she was a bit nervous to tell about this have turned out to be terrifically encouraging.
We went for a beautiful run in the dawn mist with Samma, and then headed off to the airport. At Laguardia, a terrific moment together having breakfast in the Food Court. Maybe it was Pavlovian, but sitting here I felt like I was about to go on the journey with her. We’ve sat here together before: the day we came back from France and bounced up to Toronto, and just before we left for Cambodia last year, another life-changing journey. Before I met Michelle, I lived in the same place and worked in the same job for ten years. I guess that’s what happens when you marry into the long history of wandering Limantour adventurers (at least this time, there’s no risk of getting drunk, running aground off the coast of California and having a beach named after you) …
Yesterday, we had a terrific, quiet day together. If one of this process’ goals is to develop a deep-seated equanimity, free from destructive impulses, then it seemed to backfire a few times yesterday. Pangs of fear and sadness definitely hit, and the reality of the next few months sank in …
We were going to go out for dinner, but decided that we had to include Samma in our plans, so we stayed home. Samma is so closely bonded to her morning running partner. There’s something particularly heartbreaking about not being able to explain the whole thing to her. Over time, I’ll more or less get my brain around the concept that Michelle’s gone for three months. But as much as Michelle has tried to explain to Samma that she isn’t leaving for good, it’s not clear the words have sunk in …
Will Samma be sad? Hard to say. Out of sorts, maybe. Samma’s a Shepherd, she takes her job description pretty seriously, and we’re the closest thing she has to sheep. And each night, when Michelle comes home, you’d think by the kisses and leaps of joy and figure 8's around Michelle that she likes having her Mom around. So at the very least, Samma won’t have those moments of joy for a while. Normally, Samma sleeps up in our bedroom. If she’s true to form, she’s going to park herself in the kitchen for the next few nights, waiting for Michelle to come home.
This morning, I was happy to see that Michelle had let her hair do its natural curly thing. Whenever she works in a corporate environment, she straightens her hair rigorously every morning. When we lived in France, she let the Boticelli curls spring to life. For the next few months, the unstraightened Michelle is back.
One of her bags is this big, leather bag a scam artist in Florence sold to friends, they gave it to us as a gift. I rib Michelle about going to a Buddhist retreat with a leather bag. One of the most interesting things to me about Buddhism is the fact that it’s an ethical framework grounded not on commandments dictated from without, but on the empirical observation of direct inner experience – a direct inner experience that turns out to be universal. A good example of this ethics-from-within is Buddhism’s attitude towards all living beings, including animals. This attitude is grounded in large part on direct, inner experience. One of the first things you realize when you try to meditate is that, well, you’re crazy. The task sounds so simple – focus attention on your breath -- and turns out to be maddeningly difficult, impossible. You’re trying to attend to something that’s happening in the present, and the mind flops all over the place, into memory, anticipation of the future, all the things you want and don’t want. So they teach you a helpful technique: begin the practice with what’s known as metta, lovingkindness. In essence, you evoke an intention of kindness, directed first towards yourself, then outward in concentric circles to loved ones, acquaintances, strangers and so on, until your intention spreads to all creatures great and small. Ethics is inner practice, and, magically, this practice acts like a balm. It soothes the mind. You’re still more or less crazy, but it’s a few degrees easier to practice now. In fact, the first of the three steps towards a successful practice – before you even hit the meditation cushion – is sila, ethics. Not ethics because someone said you should. Ethics because living by ethical intention sets the condition that allows the cultivation of an exceptionally stable mind which can then be turned, like an electron microsope, inward.
At the Food Court, there were rifle-toting soldiers everywhere. None of their patches looked familiar – I wasn’t even sure they were American – and we asked one soldier who looked like he was about fourteen years old what the patch was. It’s his unit’s symbol, he explained. We thanked him for everything he’s doing, and his face lit up. “Thanks,” he said, “I don’t think many people look at it that way.”
We procrastinated as long as we could (I have to confess that a part of me hoped Michelle’d miss her plane and we could wait on standby together … ). At the security line, I almost got myself shipped off to Guantanomo for stepping across the line to give her one last kiss.
A sweet man in his sixties, grizzled hair and barely five feet tall, saved me from having to stand there and watch her fade down the security line by showing up at my side. "It's the craziest thing," he started in. "We came in for her six o'clock flight but they decided to go through all my wife’s stuff, and by the time she got through, they'd just closed the door on her." She was on her way down to her aunt’s funeral, in Atlanta. "She's only gone three days," he said. "Boy, I'm gonna miss her …” They’d been married forty-five years. He was a building contractor, she was a caterer. He talked about his life, growing up in a project in Jersey City. “Things were different back then,” he said, sounding like a cliché from a Ken Burns documentary about civil rights. Except he meant the opposite. “We used to keep our doors unlocked.” He reminisced about how everyone in the neighborhood used to know the local beat cops as friends, and now, because of the drug war, cops had to look at everyone like an enemy and come at you aggressive. He’d just been to a school meeting where they’d warned the community not to flash back their highbeams when someone flashed theirs at you. Local gangs were using that as an initiation ritual. If you flash back, the initiant is tasked with murdering you. True? Hard to know, but the fact that it’s credible enough for a school meeting is disturbing. I asked him what he thought about legalizing drugs. He saw the logic in it, and admitted that it would put the drug gangs out of business, but he said he was Christian and couldn’t condone allowing something so wrong as doing drugs to be legal.
He introduced himself, Al was his name. He held up a plastic grocery bag half full with change. "She had this in her pocket book.” Every time she sees her grandkids, she always gives them change. That’s why she couldn’t get on the plane.
“Flying’s a little different than it was a few years ago, huh?”
“Yeah, flying’s not so fun these days,” I said. There was something touching about the sweetness and naivte of a pocketbook full of a nickels and quarters, juxtaposed against the sinister reasons for the heightened security.
That led to a discussion about what a big contributor airplane pollution was to climate change, and how with flying such a pain and things like free videophones, maybe people will choose to fly less (scout’s honor – it wasn’t me who brought that one up). Al was convinced that we’d have much more fuel efficient cars if it weren’t for greedy oil and car companies lobbying against it. “Everything’s so different today,” he said. “When I was growing up, people went to church, they feared God. There was a sense of community. Today, we’ve made God dead, and things, I don’t know, they go downhill when you do that. I mean, growing up, my father, he was home every night. I found out – I mean long after I was married – that he had some things going on the side, but I mean, he was there every night. He was a real father, you know?”
Michelle was out of sight now and Al watched his wife disappear through the metal detector. “She’s a perfect lady for an imperfect guy,” he laughed, shaking his head. “I’m busy. I’m workin’ on two jobs. I’ll just get my work done these next couple days, I guess.” Amen.
Michelle called. She made it onto her plane. Damn. I mean: good for her. Al and I said good-bye. It was nice talking to him, I was thankful for a buddy in that moment.
The first stepping stones into Buddhist philosophy are known as the Four Noble Truths. The Pali and Tibetan languages are to mental states and philosophical concepts what Eskimo languages are to snow. When original texts get translated into English, subtle gradations are invariably lost. A classic example, as Wallace and others note, is the first of these Noble Truths, often translated as: “Life is suffering.” A more accurate translation: “Tainted (i.e. unenlightened) experience includes dukkha (i.e. a broad range of unpleasant elements, from mild annoyances all the way up to the grand afflictions of sickness and death).”
I drive home. I hit a half-hour dead stop at the Triboro tolls. The rumor going up and down the line as people got out of their cars was that a prisoner had escaped from a nearby institution. Wow.
So there it was. To my left, Manhattan. A pile of money has fallen onto this town in the last twenty years, everyone seems stylish and on the move, and every twenty feet, a fancy boutique or cafe has opened. Today began with Michelle, a sunrise run through morning mist and a blissful breakfast moment and, as she left, a chance connection with a kindly stranger. My belly's full and outside, fifty degrees and clear blue skies, the first glimpse of spring. Even on the Triboro, you can hear birds chirping. Not yet ten o’clock, and already the day has brought hints of: delusion, in the form of an unfounded Hollywood-sounding belief quickly accepted by a cranky group of commuters waiting for tolls to open; war; adultery; gang murder; corporate greed; addiction; a prison population that’s off the charts relative to other countries; a climate of fear and security searches created among other things by a gaping disparity between extreme wealth and extreme poverty and rabid fundamentalists in the Levant traditions. And a husband missing his wife. As beautiful a morning as you could imagine, and, nibbling at the edges, hints of Dukkha.
I come home and turn the key in the door, a lump in the throat. I'd signed up to moderate a panel discussion this afternoon on climate change at a local community center, which I was grateful for. Like Al, my goal is to keep myself as busy as possible while my morning running partner's away ...