American Pilgrimage #10

 Day 5

Today, in the kitchen, one of the severs said to me, ‘Isn’t it funny how one person’s presence can give you such pleasant feelings, and another gives you just the opposite?’ I agreed: once you are in the habit of disliking a person, then everything they do seems nefarious.

I have been thinking more about this. When someone likes me, I always feel good about myself; but when someone dislikes me, I feel bad about myself. So my feeling of self-worth is dependent on the subjectivity of other people; and this, in turn, depends on their perceptions, their prejudices, their experience. Clearly, this is a dangerous thing.

Afternoon meditation finishes and strong cravings arise in me. I am possessed by  a desperate need to GET OUT OF THIS PLACE! I want to drive up the Californian coast, hit dark deserted bars, take peyote, do shamanic dances in the desert. ‘You’re in California,’ I tell myself. ‘What the hell are you doing here!‘ ‘Life is out there, and you’re doing nothing!’ ‘You’re almost forty. You’re missing it!’ And on it goes.

Our teacher, S.N. Goenka, says there are five enemies:  sensual desire, aversion, agitation, doubt and lethargy. I’m not lethargic I consider, but I am assailed by the rest of them. 

It will pass.

How fortunate I am to know this, how fortunate that I have an alternative, in here, to the culture out there: ego, ambition, vanity, competition and violence.

In here what is valued is humility, simplicity, abstinence, renunciation, quietness and introspection. I consider how much more seductive, addictive and overpowering the first set of values are.


The Buddha, surrounded by enemies

Over dinner we talk about craving. It isn’t a ‘bad’ thing, we conclude, because craving is why we eat, breathe, make love, have children; why we live. But craving is also the root cause of suffering and if we want to be free, truly free, we have to liberate ourselves from it. And fighting it does not work. In meditation we learn that it’s about smiling at our weaknesses, our demons. They leave by themselves then, when they realise there is nothing left for them to feed on.


Day 6


Laa left today, one of the Thai cooks, a very sweet and humble person and we all miss her.

I talked to the oldest of the Thai ladies in the afternoon and, out of nowhere, she said this to me: ‘Whenever something goes wrong, I say, ‘It’s my fault,’ even if I know I am right. And then I surrender, and I’m free.’ There was no quixotism in her voice, not a trace of guilt or of self-flagellation; this was pure, unadulterated humility. And she was right: there is so much more freedom in this than there is in power or authority. I have resolved to try to emulate her example. I think it will be hard.

In the afternoon, Diego speaks again of his fear of going to hell or being reborn as an animal. The rest of us do not share his fears, but he is adamant about it. I say I do not know, in fact, if I  believe in past or future lives at all.

On the plane to San Francisco I met a woman who had been in a car accident. Close to death, she experienced the fabled ‘white light’. I asked her how it felt, and she told me to imagine my most happy,  blissful experience, and multiply it by about a million. Of course, there could be a neurological explanation for the white light; seeing the light itself does not prove anything exactly, so I am left wondering. My conclusion is that it is pointless to have a ‘position’ on reincarnation: either we know, or we don’t know, and so far, I don’t know.

Thomas, another one of the other severs, tells us his story. He joined an evangelical church when he was 21 and became a minister at 28. He felt out of place there, finding the congregation much too conservative, and switched to an African-American church he much preferred. Increasingly, however, he found the church’s worldview too dualistic. This was  something a monk at Deer Park also told me. He had been a Catholic priest.

Thomas no longer believed that God was up above, looking down on the rest of us. He did not like the way that Jesus was presented as divine instead of human, someone we could aspire to become like. ‘It says in the Bible that the Kingdom of Heaven is within,’ said Thomas. ‘But we weren’t taught that at church.’ Thomas began to meditate by himself, then at the East Bay Meditation Center, and then Spirit Rock, before doing his first vipassana course.

There are similarities, he said, between this meditation place and his church. In both places people sit together in contemplation, and afterwards there was a talk or difference. But he biggest difference, according to him, was that in church they were not allowed to ask questions, or question doctrine. He felt that anyone who did was blacklisted, became persona non grata.

‘What about God?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, he can still be God. But I don’t believe in some all-powerful deciding what happens on earth. Not anymore. I want to know who I am, why I’m here, and I am learning it, in this kitchen.’

I knew what he meant. Meditation enables us to move deeper, to change in the direction we want to change, avoiding passivity and disconnected worship. In Californian, this is called self-development, or personal growth. Thomas’s story is one I have heard before, and is, I believe, one of the core reasons why Americans are turning towards spiritual practice and away from religion. This is not a question of Buddhism versus Christianity; Vipassana is not Buddhism; but of inner growth versus outer worship, something our religions are failing to emphasise.

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