Saturday, December 20, 2014


     This is another current events post, more or less. Much has happened since I wrote the last one—or rather, much that may be worthy of writing about has happened—so this could be a long one. We'll see how it goes.
     In the last installment of the soap opera-esque The Bhikkhu Without a Country, I was spending my 24th rains retreat at a (relatively) quiet forest monastery on the western edge of the Shan plateau, in central Myanmar. For the whole time that I stayed there, about 4½ months, I was in a state of mild depression, or contraction of spirit. My mind is somewhat like the Buddhist cosmos in that it goes through cycles of expansion and contraction, although much more quickly, and with less regularity and predictability than the cosmos at large. Speaking genetically, it runs on both sides of my family; I have a brother and a half-sister who are much more affected by "moods" and bouts of depression than I am. I have heard that what are called mental illnesses tend to be exaggerations of normal, "healthy" mental states; if so, then if my condition were exaggerated I suppose it would be called manic depression, or, as I think it's called nowadays, bipolar disorder. (Why the experts bother to keep changing the names of things like this I don't know. Too much free time on their hands, I guess, or maybe a Western mania for fixing what isn't broken.) When my consciousness is relatively very contracted, I become "hypersamsaric," as I call it: meditation becomes almost impossible, like trying to balance a marble on the tip of a sharpened pencil; reading advanced Dharma books becomes a boring, tedious chore; and I become indifferent (at best) to human companionship, often avoiding eye contact even with people I love, and much preferring to be alone. I'm still open and loving with dogs, though. When I'm very expanded, meditation seems almost effortless, and is often beautiful; overall mindfulness is also spontaneously enhanced, and I may go through brief periods of intense inspiration, even rapture, as though being flooded with Divinity; and my acceptance of members of my own species becomes much greater. Because of these cycles I can sympathize with people, possibly the majority, who live their entire lives in hypersamsaric mode, having no use for Dharma, or even being annoyed by it. And even if they do experience a rare moment of expansion and clarity, like when they are in the middle of a sneeze or are narrowly avoiding a car crash, they have no way of integrating such an anomalous experience into their perceptual Big Picture. This points to one reason why it is so important to practice Dharma even when we don't want to practice it, and to make it a way of life—Dharma practice helps to expand us, and to make contracted mental states less likely. It also provides us with good habits and a fund of experience which are very helpful when contraction eventually hits, and we become less spontaneous and more governed by our habits. Mental expansion is in the direction of YES, and contraction is in the direction of NO. Or, as William Blake's Devil once said, "Damn braces. Bless relaxes." 
     I'm not sure why my mind was contracted at Migadawun Monastery. My mother dying just a few days before I arrived there probably had something to do with it; although it might not explain why the depression began to lift as soon as I left the place. The neurophysiological explanation that it was simply a chemical imbalance in the brain is likewise not entirely satisfactory. My feeling is that there was something in the atmosphere of the place that I found depressing. It may have had something to do with the venerable sayadaw there. He moved into the monastery more than twenty years ago as a relatively junior monk, eventually became the abbot, and is often the sole resident. Some people dislike him because of the roughness of his personality and his own disdain for the human race in general; and also he has a great appreciation for material possessions, especially high-quality ones, and he doesn't hesitate to ask for them. In addition to custodianship of the Sangha property he now owns his own land, buildings, four dogs (in 2010 he had nine), a huge book collection, water heaters and electric pumps, binoculars, compasses, by his own admission six pairs of gloves, more carpenter's tools than most Burmese carpenters own, etc. etc. And on top of all this, he has difficulty digesting alms food and still likes girls. His monk life has gone stale, so to speak. He seems to have lost most of his inspiration and enthusiasm for the Holy Life—he has lost a sense of wonder. He often speaks of the possibility of his dropping out of the monkhood, and I've been told that he sometimes mentions the possibility of suicide. I suppose his best chance for getting himself out of the corner he's painted himself into and resurrecting his monkhood would be to move somewhere else and start afresh—as the saying goes, a rolling stone gathers no moss—but I suspect that maybe it's too late, and that he is too attached to all the moss he has gathered to bear parting with it. It may be that I was depressed by his whole situation there, and the resultant "vibe" in the air, because I can feel a similar potential within myself; I've never had as much attachment for material things as he has, but I can imagine myself losing that sense of wonder, hitting a Dharmic dead end, and just staying asleep. I don't think being an ordained monastic is absolutely necessary (and in the West it doesn't appear to work so well anyway), but that sense of wonder is necessary.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapt in awe, is as good as dead." —Albert Einstein
     Another possibility is that the contraction was caused by a kind of dissonance arising from a subconscious desire to be somewhere else. I don't know where it would be, though. Maybe someplace I've never been before, maybe never even heard of. I don't know. Another, similar one is that, since Migadawun Monastery is the last place at which I spent a rains retreat in Burma, in 2010, before my Great Experiment of flinging myself into the unknown in America in spring of 2011, going back to spend another rains retreat there, after three in the US, may have felt like a kind of failure, or defeat. But, it's good to consider that life is full of roadblocks and detours; it's like the D-Day invasion: no matter how many snafus and fiascos emerge, it's best to accept them and to continue moving forwards as well as one can. The only guaranteed way of failing is to give up. One may need to adjust one's strategy, however. 
"Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm." —Winston Churchill
It seems that there is never one single cause for anything; so my guess is that the semi-depression during the monsoon season of 2014 was caused by a vague jumble of all the possibilities mentioned above, plus an infinite number of other ones that I haven't thought of.
     In July I settled down to the idea of spending the rains retreat in solitude; the sayadaw and I would meet maybe once or twice a week, and, aside from full moon and new moon days, we might just exchange a few civil words and then continue on our separate ways of minding our own business. Then, all of a sudden, the Indonesian monk U Vijaya showed up, intending to spend the latter rains retreat (day after the full moon of August to the full moon of November) at Migadawun. Partly, I assume, because he comes from a close, mostly Chinese family, U Vijaya is not particularly reclusive. In fact, pretty much immediately he began coming over to the congregation hall, where I was staying, almost every day, sometimes two or even three times a day. Also, he has a peculiarly communistic approach to material property—for example, he informed me that he would use my bathroom because he didn't want to carry buckets of water all the way to his own bathroom. Once or twice I came into the congregation hall and found him in my bedroom going through my books, looking for something to read. He would cause things to disappear, without comment. One day the best broom at the congregation hall disappeared. Shortly afterwards, the second best broom disappeared, leaving me with the third best and last broom, which was broken. (To be fair, though, he didn't realize that that one was broken, and thought he was leaving me the best one.)
     With regard to his communistic attitude toward property that was not his own, although I was occasionally irritated by it, especially in my contracted state, and although the sayadaw of the monastery was also irritated by it, and would occasionally anathematize it in private conversations with me, when I would think about it reasonably, I couldn't find much fault with it. It seemed to me that he was, after all, following the Christian Golden Rule and doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. I doubt that he would have minded at all if someone started using his bathroom, or walked into his cabin unannounced and borrowed some of his stuff without asking. He was just that way. He did keep forgetting to turn off the light in the bathroom, though.
     The almost daily hanging out was a different issue. Different people have different tolerances for company and for solitude, with some people not liking to be alone for any longer than it takes to take a dump, and others, the true recluses, preferring not to associate with their fellow humans any more than is absolutely necessary. My own case seems to gravitate rather more toward the second group; and venerable U Vijaya's recommended daily allowance (RDA) of human companionship appears to be considerably higher than mine, especially when I'm slightly depressed. So, sometimes when he would come over I would adopt antisocial behaviors, like remaining standing after he had sat down. Sometimes I would pace back and forth, but he would then pace back and forth beside me in order to hang out better. Sometimes I would become almost monosyllabic; and in extreme cases, when he would enter the congregation hall on the pretext of searching the bookcases for something to read, or whatever, I would simply go outside. Apparently, if I became so antisocial that he couldn't help but notice it, he would clear out for a few days…and then I would make some casual, more or less friendly remark to him as we met on a footpath or at the dog feeding station (like, "Seven Bean Charlie offered exactly seven beans today"), and he would consider all to be well, and start coming over almost every day again. 
     I realized that in this situation also, obviously, he was doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. Even so, sometimes it bothered me; and there were many times when I was tempted to explain to him that coming over once a week would be plenty. The thing was, though, that I also realized that I was irritated when I wanted to tell him this, and I didn't want to vent irritation at him. Anything we do or say with positive mental states is positive, and produces positive karmic results, and anything we do or say with negative mental states is negative, and produces negative karmic results, regardless of how "nicely" we go about it at the surface. But then when I wasn't irritated anymore I didn't want to tell him, figuring that I should practice equanimity and be accepting of others.
     This kind of situation is a real dilemma, and it is one of the main causes of disharmony between people, including married couples. Maybe especially married couples. Person A does something that B doesn't like, but B doesn't want to say anything, because it's not that big of a deal, and B doesn't want to be an ass about it. So, naturally, A keeps doing it, with B being silently more and more bothered by it. Finally, A does it more than usual, and/or B happens to be in an unusually bad mood, and B just can't stand it anymore and explodes all over A, to A's surprise, with resultant hurt feelings, and plenty of bad feelings afterwards. It happens all the time. So it may be best in the long run frankly to vent the irritation right off the bat and be an honest ass; or, what may be preferable, to work up the gumption to tell the person about it after one is calm and positive and doesn't consider it to be a big deal anymore. We could even take full responsibility: "I realize it's my own immaturity or lack of wisdom, but when you do that, it bothers me," or words to that effect. Fortunately, in my own case I didn't come anywhere near to the explosion point, although some of my antisocial evasive maneuvers may have been minor versions of it. Candor and honesty are the best policy, even when they fly in the face of cultural conditioning and human nature. As Paul Lowe once said, if everyone suddenly became candid and honest, there would be explosions and chaos everywhere for about two weeks; but after the dust finally settled we'd look around and realize that we were all at a higher level of consciousness. I can't help but feel that living in a spiritual community with strong emphasis on interpersonal candor and total honesty would be an excellent experience for me. But not very many people are willing to try it.
     As I've mentioned before, I tend to avoid eye contact with other people when I'm depressed, or otherwise unhappy. For instance, if I'm in a room with other people and I'm getting bored or disgusted with the situation, I may spend a lot of time staring out the window. With U Vijaya, when I would notice this, I would make a deliberate point of looking him in the eye, whereupon I would find his frank, intent gaze looking right back at me, usually accompanied by a grin. During these moments I couldn't help but feel, intuitively and strongly, that his consciousness was more expanded than mine was at the time, which is practically the same as saying that he was wiser than me, even if he did keep forgetting to turn off the goddam light in the bathroom. That was humbling, although it's good to be humble if we can manage it somehow.
     Wisdom is not a matter of intelligence, or shrewdness, or really of mental states in general. Wisdom in a dharmic sense can be directly correlated with expansion of consciousness; thus when our consciousness expands out to infinity (and thereby ceases to be "our" consciousness), we are Enlightened. And all we have to do to do that is to knock down the walls that hold it back. And one of the main walls to be knocked down is the totality of all the things we think we know, but really don't.
     After all this writing I'm still on the very first topic of contraction of spirt at Migadawun; and since there's much more to go in recounting my adventures and misadventures after leaving the place, and also since all that is of a significantly different tone, I suppose I may as well conclude this episode of the soap opera, and continue the tale next week. But before ending this, I suppose it would be good to mention some things I have found helpful when experiencing depression, a.k.a. contraction of spirit.
     First, sleeping a little extra seems to help. It helps to give the brain a rest. Also, accomplishing something positive every day helps to spare one the feeling that the whole day was wasted, and that one is sinking into stagnation. It doesn't have to be anything very big—just cleaning one's room or doing the laundry can do it. In my case, writing posts for this blog was good "therapy"; it keeps me out of trouble, more or less, and especially after finishing one that I particularly like I feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. It may be that my posts over the past several months have been less expansive than usual, for which I apologize, with more emphasis on death and destruction, but from a dharmic perspective destruction is much more important than construction—construction usually involves the building of walls. Naturally, and maybe this one should have been mentioned first, the steady practice of meditative objectivity, that is, observing mental states without identifying with them, is invaluable. So it's not "I'm depressed"—it's more like "The mind is contracted; this is a depressed thought." Even Scientism can be useful in this respect: "It's not me, it's just an imbalance in brain chemistry." One thing I have done in the past when troubled and gloomy, although I didn't do it this past rainy season, is to read the Second Lamentation in the Bible (book of Lamentations, chapter 2); the person who wrote it had such stupendous, overwhelming troubles that I've never experienced the likes of them, and they make my own troubles seem trivial by comparison. One book I did read just a few days before leaving Migadawun, which appeared to be helpful, was Horace Fletcher's little book Menticulture: or The A-B-C of True Living, almost the sole message of which is that negativity and unhappiness are completely unnecessary and can simply be dismissed, effortlessly, if we really want to be without them. This is a very useful idea to bear in mind, even if only as a hypothesis for consideration. 
     (It may seem that I've written this post in a state of contraction also; but, although I'm not at the opposite extreme and totally manic nowadays, the impression is probably more the result of the subject matter, plus the fact that I wrote it with a massive snotty head cold—you know, the kind where your head feels like a basketball and you have to blow your nose 35 times a day. I'm feeling much better now.)
     Anyway, blessings are upon all of you.



1 comment:

  1. A sense of wonder is important. I hope you are feeling better now.