This is Part II of the story. Read Part I here.
“Meditation: Why Bother?” (Mindfulness in Plain English, Chapter 1):
Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time; you can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back, and usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.
There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you—you keep those to yourself. You are a mess, and you know it. But you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all of that, you just know that there has to be some other way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then: you get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game. For a while, things are different. Life take on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, “Okay, now I’ve made it; now I will be happy.” But then that fades too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory—that, and the vague awareness that something is wrong.
You feel that there really is a whole other realm of depth and sensitivity available in life; somehow, you are just not seeing it. You wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really touching life. You are not “making it” again. Then even that vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old reality. The world looks like the usual foul place. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning for the heights.
So what is wrong with you? Are you a freak? No. You are just human. And you suffer from the same malady that infects every human being. It is a monster inside all of us, and it has many arms: chronic tension, lack of genuine compassion for others, including the people closest to you, blocked up feelings and emotional deadness—many, many arms. None of us is entirely free from it. We may deny it. We try to suppress it. We build a whole culture around hiding from it, pretending it is not there, and distracting ourselves with goals, projects, and concerns about status. But it never goes away. It is a constant undercurrent in every thought and every perception, a little voice in the back of the mind that keeps saying, “Not good enough yet. Need to have more. Have to make it better. Have to be better.” It is a monster that manifests everywhere in subtle forms.
Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, those brittle-tongued voices that express fun on the surface, and fear underneath. Feel the tension, the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fans in these rand. Watch the irrational fits of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth from the people that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm or team spirit. Booing, catcalls, and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty, drunkenness, fights in the stands—these are people trying desperately to release tension from within; these are not people who are at peace with themselves. Watch the news on TV. Listen to the lyrics of popular songs. You find the same theme repeated over and over in variations: jealousy, suffering, discontent, and stress.
Life seems to be a perpetual strungle, an enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the “if only” syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who really loved me; if only I could lose twenty pounds; if only I had a color TV, a hot tub, and curly hair; and on and on forever. Where does all this junk come from, and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our own minds. it is a deep, subtle, and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian know that we have tied bit by bit and that we can only unravel in just that same way, one piece at a time. We can tune up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece, and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.
The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant. Moment by moment life flows by, and it is never the same. Perpetual fluctuation is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought springs up in your head and half a second later, it is gone. In comes another one, and then that is gone too. A song strikes your ears, and then silence. Open your eyes and world pours in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and go. Friends leave, relatives die. Your fortunes go up, and they go down. Sometimes you win, and just as often, you lose. It is incessant: change, change, change; no two moments ever the same.
There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the universe. But human culture has taught us some odd responses to this endless flowing. We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow, into one of three mental pigeon holes: it is good, bad, or neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled “good,” then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, fondle it, hold it, and we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience that caused the thought. Let us call this mental habit “grasping.”
Over on the other side of the mind lies the box labeled “bad.” When we perceive something “bad,” we try to push it away. We try to deny it, reject it, and get rid of it any way we can. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces o ourselves. Let us call this mental habit “rejecting.” Between these two reactions lies the “neutral” box. Here we place the experiences that are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that we can ignore it and thus return our attention to where the action is, namely, our endless round of desire and aversion. So this “neutral” category of experience gets robed of its fair share of our attention. Let us call this mental habit “ignoring.” The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience. Then we wonder why life tastes so flat. In the final analysis this system does not work.
No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you. And in between those times, life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls all around ourselves and are trapped in the prison of our own likes and dislikes. We suffer.
“Suffering” is a big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key term and should be thoroughly understood. The Pali word is dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means that deep, subtle sense of dissatisfaction that is a part of every mind moment and that results directly from the mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance this statement seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension that no matter how great this moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die; in the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.
Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Luckily, it’s not—not at all. It only sounds bleak when you view it from the ordinary mental perspective, the very perspective at which the treadmill mechanism operates. Underneath lies another perspective, a completely different way to look at the universe. It is a level of functioning in which the mind does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but it can be learned.
Happiness and peace are really the prime issues in human existence. That is what all of us are seeking. This is often a bit hard to see because we cover up those basic goals with layers of surface objectives. We want food, wealth, sex, entertainment, and respect. We even say to ourselves that the idea of “happiness” is too abstract: “Look, I am practical. Just give me enough money and I will buy all the happiness I need.” Unfortunately, this is an attitude that does not work. Examine each of these goals and you will find that they are superficial. You want food. Why? Because I am hungry. So you are hungry—so what? Well, if I eat, I won’t be hungry, and then I’ll feel good. Ah ha! “Feel good”: now there is the real item. What we really seek is not the surface goals; those are just means to an end. What we are really after is the feeling of relief that comes when the drive is satisfied. Relief, relaxation, and an end to the tension. Peace, happiness—no more yearning.
So what is this happiness? For most of us, the idea of perfect happiness would be to have everything we wanted and be in control of everything, playing Caesar, making the whole world dance a jig according to our every whim. Once again, it does not work that way. Take a look at the people in history who have actually held this type of power. They were not happy people. Certainly, they were not at peace with themselves. Why not? Because they were driven to control the world totally and absolutely, and they could not. They wanted to control all people, yet there remained people who refused to be controlled. These powerful people could not control the stars. They still got sick. They still had to die.
You can’t ever get everything you want. It is impossible. Luckily, there is another option. You can learn to control your mind, to step outside of the endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. This does not mean that you lie down on the road and invite everybody to walk all over you. It means that you continue to live a very normal-looking life, but life from a whole new viewpoint. You do the things that person must do, but you are free from that obsessive, compulsive drivenness of your own desires. You want something, but you don’t need to chase after it. You fear something, but you don’t need to stand there quaking in your boots. This sort of mental cultivation is very difficult. It takes years. But trying to control everything is impossible; the difficult is preferable to the impossible.
I’ve read these words before. They hit me different every time. This time I’m heavily primed — in Nepal, post-retreat, middle of the night, alone — and they hit me hard. The world vibrates and, with it, so do I. I feel it.
Yes, now I remember why I mediate at all. It’s so easy to forget, and misery clouds your memory and vision. Something I know can help becomes just another imposition, another thing standing between me and what I want to do right now (as if I ever really know what that is).
This is what I want. This is it.
I’m propped up against two beds’ worth of pillows. I sit up a bit straighter, pull my legs into Burmese posture, wrap my shoulders in a shawl, set the timer, close my eyes, take one relaxed breath, them another…
And thirty minutes later, I feel much better. Neither tired nor anxious. I fold my my shawl. The first wisps of daylight are peeking over the hills.
Take away anxiety and the various paths into the future become clearer. Selecting between them, and following the selection are easier too. So I grab a quick workout—100 burpees—rinse off in the tepid hot water, and I’m a brand new man by the time the kitchen opens for the morning.
Breakfast is served right outside my room on the second floor balcony. I order the fruit & yogurt—no glutenous granola today—and milk tea, and behold the sunrise.
Behind me are a set of bookcases full of random volumes left behind by travelers from around the world. I go over to look for a breakfast companion. Typical array: travel guides (mostly outdated), some topical design books (“Bed & Breakfasts in the Himalayas”), local culture, Buddhism, international best-sellers. A few titles catch my eye. Probability suggests this is inevitable, but let’s call it fate for now.
- The Godfather of Kathmandu, by John Burdett. I’ve seen this book several times already on the trip and almost bought it in Suvarnabhumi Airport last week. It’s the fourth book in the series that started with Bangkok 8, which I’d heard enough about to put at the top my [untouched] “Prep for Thailand” reading list. Ordinarily, I would start with the first book in a series, but the title of this one is too obviously relevant to postpone.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This has been specifically recommended to me a dozen times by as many people. A sci-fi classic, ubiquitous in the geeky circles I always find myself in. I’d bet 90% of people who’ve used a programming language have read it. I’ve resisted reading it because of it’s popularity and because I get more excited about “serious” books (a preference that I doubt does me any good, in the end). Time to put my money where my doubt is? Yes.
- Shopping for Buddhas, by Jeff Greenwald. Though I never heard of it before the trip, this book keeps showing up in the travel sections of bookstores in Nepal, and I keep noticing it because I kept finding myself shopping for Buddhas myself. No other trinkets interested me. I never picked up the book because it was published by Lonely Planet (in their defunct “Journeys” series), and for all the time I’ve spent with their books I never came across one that wasn’t a travel guide. This made me skeptical of its quality. Today it’s time to take a look.
I bring the trio back to the table. Breakfast arrives, and I open The Godfather of Kathmandu:
Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I’ll forgive yours, farang, if you’ll forgive mine—but let’s talk about it later. Right now I’m the back of a motorbike taxi hurtling toward a to-die-for little murder off Soi 4/4, Sukhumvit. My boss, Colonel Vikom, called me at home with the good news that he wants me on the case because the victim is said to be some hyper-rich, hyper-famous Hollywood farang and he doesn’t need poor Detective Sukum screwing up with the media. We’ll get to Detective Sukum; for the moment picture me, if you will, with a Force 8 tropical wind in my face causing eyes to tear and ears to itch, on my to one of our most popular red-light districts where there awaits a larger-than-life dead Westerner.
I’m nearly there. With a little urging my motorbike jockey drives up onto the sidewalk to avoid the massive traffic jam at the Soi 4 junction with Sukhumvit, weaves in between a long line of cooked-food vendors busy feeding the whores from Nana Plaza who have just gotten up (it’s about eleven in the morning), slaloms between a mango seller and a lamppost, returns to the tarmac with the usual jolt to the lower spine, and now we’re slowing to swerve into Subsoi 4. (Should one add the two fours to make the lucky number eight, or should one accept the stark warning: two fours mean death twice within the Cantonese luck system, which has taken over the world as a vital component of globalization?)
One page in, and I’m already feeling an unusual amount of resonance. Sukhumvit is one of the biggest roads in Bangkok, and it’s where I spent most of my time in the city three weeks ago. Near the Nana MRT stop, no less. I never got anywhere near Soi 4/4, but I have some experience with Chinese thoughts concerning the number 4:
Back in ’06 I spent the summer studying Mandarin in Beijing. Early in the program, I went to buy mobile phones with some classmates and we found that phone numbers without any fours were much more expensive than phone numbers with fours. Why? The Mandarin words for ‘four’ (四, “sì”) and ‘death’ (死, “sǐ”) are homophonic, just with different tones. So fours imply death. One four in the phone number took more than 50% off the price. Two fours were 70% off. Additional fours did not merit additional discounts, suggesting that two fours is all it takes to be maximally screwed. I’m anti-superstitious, so I took the discount.
The way I see it, superstition is wrong because luck isn’t a property of the objects we assign it to, it’s just in the mind. But ever since reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld, in which a character is brought on a risky voyage because she comes from a long line of lucky people (like sole survivors of major catastrophes), I’ve definitely allowed for the possibility that luck is real — just because we can’t perceive it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. So say there is luck out there in the world, the likelihood that our superstitions correlate with the actual distribution of luck is vanishingly small. Therefore, if lots of people are avoiding certain objects or events because they’re “unlucky” (Friday the 13th, walking under ladders, black cats, etc.), that means there are fewer people competing for whatever luck that is there. So that’s the easiest luck to get. Nobody else is going for it. I’ve been consistently anti-superstitious ever since my first kiss on October 13, 2000—a Friday. Stray cats and ladders are my jam.
Four is easy for a math major to love too. Besides being a square (2^2) and the first non-prime even natural number, it’s x^x where x=2. By itself, that’s unimportant, but I’m 27 years old—x^x where x=3. Wrap your mind around that!
I laugh at the impertinence of my thought patterns, but the conclusion is obvious: 4 is my number today. I’m going to read the first four chapters of these books. If it kills me. I hope the chapters aren’t too long.
I take four bites of yogurt and four sips of tea, and forge on. In Chapter 4, we meet the title character, a exiled Tibetan lama of Western parentage who is trafficking drugs to fund the war to free Tibet. Monk, businessman and freedom fighter—this is a guy I can get behind. The book is great. I’m reluctant to stop at chapter 5, but rules are rules.
Next up: Hitchhiker’s Guide. It flies by quick and easy, and doesn’t really grab me, but I enjoy seeing the source material for so many things I’ve heard of in other places (e.g. the Babelfish, Trillian, “mostly harmless”). It’s like driving around L.A. for the first time after 20 years of seeing movies. Favorite quote: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” Makes me want more breakfast. I order another milk tea.
Now for Buddhas. It begins with an epigraph from DeLillo’s White Noise, which I read on the adamant recommendation of a girl I met in Florence on my previous open-ended journey.
I was one of them, shopping, at last.
The book tells of how the author ended up in Nepal for lack of any other clear direction, having rejected out of disgust the obvious career paths at his feet. Sounded familiar. He fell in love with the place and ended up returning on a magazine assignment, but ended up writing part of a novel, flesh out a first book comprising letters he wrote home describing the place. Sounds like something I could do. I’m starting to like this guy.
I don’t give much weight to the coincidences I notice, though I luxuriate in them. My major advisor at Williams, Ed Burger, has some excellent points on the topic in his book Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz:
Coincidence surprise us because our intuition about the likelihood of an even is often wildly inaccurate…. Simply put, the underlying principle is that if we have many opportunities to witness some rare event, then it is extremely likely that eventually we’ll see it.
One of the keys to putting coincidences in perspective is to realize that we usually haven’t decided what type of coincidence we are seeking before we happen to witness is…. Finding coincidences among millions of possibilities is an entirely different proposition from looking at just one question.
Consider all the moments in your life. If we model time using Plack’s interval there are 10^43 moments per second. If we model it using film speed there are 24 moments (frames) per second. Other senses can perceive smaller timescales than vision, but let’s go with this conservative estimate. There are more than 2 million moments per day, 3/4 of a billion per year. With all those moments, a pattern recognition system like our minds will find a whole lot of coincidences. As Burger writes:
How likely is it that there would no coincidences… among this blizzard of possibilities? The likelihood that there would be no coincidences is essentially zero.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera has some excellent thoughts on the subject of what coincidences (“motifs”) we end up seeing:
Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. Co-incidence means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.
Early in the novel [Anna Karenina], Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
What begin as essentially random observations become reinforced by our attention to them. Might as well be conscious of your own complicity in the process — it makes the work of building a life (a story) much more fun. Especially if you recognize that your past, your memories, are nothing but stories you’ve written, edited, and retold for yourself and others. Meaningless, yet meaningful. Or, we could say that all of the meaning we create in our lives amounts to nothing. So teaches Buddha.
In Chapter 4, Greenwald explains his selection from the myriad variations of posture and hand positions you can find in Buddha statues:
A Buddha is not a simple thing to shop for. He comes in infinite sizes, a full spectrum of colors, and a daunting variety of postures and poses. The postures — standing, walking, reclining, or sitting in meditative bliss — are called asanas. Then, to complicate matters even further, there are the mudras: hand positions. Sometimes the Buddha’s fingers are intricately linked in the tongue-wrestling pose of dharmachakrapravartana mudra: ‘Turning the Wheel of the Law’. Or with his right palm raised; ‘Fear Not’. Both hands up, palms facing outward: ‘Calming the Ocean’. Once a temple in Thailand, I think I saw a gestures called ‘Forbidding His Relatives to Fight with One Another’.
Fortunately, I knew from the very beginning which asana and mudra I wanted. The pose is sometimes called ‘Subduing Mara'; but the more familiar title, which I prefer, is bhumisparsa mudra: ‘Calling the Earth to Witness’.
That pose seemed to embody the state of mind that would fix me up once and for all — it spoke of an approach to life and to work that I needed to be reminded of constantly.
Why? Well, I think it has to do with an unconscious fear of success: a very contemporary (and peculiarly American) malaise that, much like chronic fatigue syndrome, you never even realize exists until your lover or your analyst uses it to explain what’s been wrong with you all these years. Then the indisputable accuracy of the diagnosis washes over you like a hot tide, your face burns with the sugar rush of catharsis, and you are filled with the giddy conviction that you can make it all happen after all.
And why not? I mean, if the problem is fear of success, and you can somehow eliminate the fear, then all that’s let is success: gleaming out there on the horizon like an illuminated skyline, brilliant, inevitable, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.
So why not another pose, like ‘Fear Not’? Well, if the only thing to fear was fear itself, then that ‘Fear Not’ pose might be enough. But this is not just plain, ordinary fear of something like death or rotten shellfish. This is fear of success, a far more insidious foe. It elbows its way into every situation, from table tennis to romance, and takes many strange and terrible forms — not the least of which, as any writer knows, is a relentless, demonic distraction.
On the surface, this distraction may manifest as a simple desire for a pepperoni pizza or cup of espresso. You know the technique: momentary diversion. What the demon really wants to do, of course, is snatch the page right out of my typewriter carriage, read it with a sneer, and howl, “This really stinks, boy! It’s the worst kind of amateur drivel! What makes you think you can get away with inflicting this gibberish on anyone with brains enough to avoid it? What gives you the right?”
Bhumisparsa mudra is the gesture that Siddharta Gautama made at the moment he achieved enlightenment. Mara, Lord of Desire, had just laid all the temptations of existence before him and he had resisted them all. Mara’s final challenge, as Greenwald dramatizes it, was:
“Okay. So you can’t be tempted…. Just one last question, though. What I wanna know is this: who gives you license to sit here and decided that what you know, what you think you know, is worth hearing, let alone worth teaching? Where do you get off, claiming that you could be the Enlightened One? What gives you the right?”
Siddharta reached down with his right hand and lightly touched the earth.
The earth is my witness. Existence is my witness. No more is needed.
And so I am convinced: this is the pose I want. My friends can attest that I’m no stranger to the fear of success, and for the time being I’m nothing if not a writer living in Nepal. Greenwald’s analysis fits me well too.
End chapter 4, book three. I crack open a bar of dark chocolate. The sun has cleared the roof and shines on the balcony. It’s the perfect temperature for late morning in the mountains—warm enough that my fingers aren’t cold but cool enough that the chocolate doesn’t melt on them as I savor it.
Chapters 2-4 of Mindfulness perfect the morning’s symmetry: four books, four chapters per book, four hours, and four squares of chocolate. (I confess, there were four cigarettes too.)
I surge forth into the day. It’s time to go shopping.