Friday, August 24, 2012

A Strange Experience on the Street

     Recently I was walking down one of the main streets in Bellingham on my way to a friend/supporter's house to obtain some very important dental floss and instant coffee, when I caught up with a young man strolling along the sidewalk. Before overtaking him I noticed that he occasionally waved his arms about in a symmetrical manner (with both arms synchronized, like mirror images of each other), but aside from that he seemed nothing out of the ordinary. He looked to be in his late twenties, and wore a rather dirty-looking orange T-shirt, baggy pants, and white sneakers, with a tattoo sticking out above the back of his collar.  
     As I passed him he glanced at me and said something like, “Hey Bro, what is that apparatus you're wearing?” I explained that it was a monk's robe, and that I am a Buddhist monk. Then he asked me to slow down (I was walking faster than him) and engaged me in an increasingly strange conversation, the likes of which I had never participated in before. He said, “I've seen them in movies, in shows, in plays, and so forth, but what is a Buddhist monk? While I was considering how to answer this question he did not wait for the answer and said something along the lines of, “That is not a monk's robe---that is Buddhism. You are not a Buddhist monk---you are Buddhism. Buddhism means that you don't have to take shit off anybody.” Then he began meandering in the general direction of Comparative Religion, often inventing words as he went along, like “disattachmentality” and “religiousment.” He almost totally monopolized the conversation, and I listened. Before a minute had passed I realized that he was very far from the mainstream, psychologically speaking.
     It was rather interesting hearing him talk, and he seemed friendly enough, so I continued walking with him. After a few blocks he asked if we could sit and talk for a while, pointing to a low curb nearby, so I pointed out that right across the next intersection were some benches. We went to the benches, but neither of us sat down. There he spoke at length about subjects so arcane and personal to him that I could hardly follow what he was talking about. Much of his vocabulary was invented improvisationally as he spoke. Sometimes he would ask me leading questions, like “What are the three things that all Buddhists are against?” I replied that a Buddhist shouldn't be against anything, whereupon he grinned as though slightly embarrassed and said, “That's one,” holding up two fingers. He then explained that all Buddhists are against “free exercise of will,” which did not include “sexual exurgencies” (I am unsure about much of his wording). Shortly thereafter he assured me that although he had been a “gangbanger”---presumably meaning a member of a gang---he was not a crook because he was not a sex offender. He placed much emphasis on this.
     Before long he began asking if he could spend the night with me in prayer. Considering that he seemed mentally ill and quite irrational this seemed like a bad idea to me, and I honestly told him that I was a guest myself at the place where I was staying and couldn't invite him there. He was insistent that I had powers that he needed immediately, and at one point began weeping in earnest as he pleaded for my spiritual assistance. I told him that he would get what he needed and that my “energy” was with him---but this was not enough for him: he needed to spend the night with me. At one point he tried to explain some of the secret religious reasons why immediate interaction between him and me was absolutely necessary, but fearing that others would overhear, asked “Do you read lips?” and then silently mouthed his more or less incoherent reasonings. He thanked me more than once for my patience, shook my hand, and seemed really to like me. I can't say for sure whether I liked him, but I certainly felt for the guy. Once he intended to explain some important truth to me and warned, “I may speak Arabic,” then with a deadpan expression made a number of incoherent sounds, ending with a loud clicking noise. After about twenty minutes of participating in this strange conversation I politely informed him that I had somewhere to go, and wished him well. The evening prayer issue not yet being resolved in his mind, however, he asked if he could follow along with me for a while. Politely yet reluctantly, I told him it was OK. I wondered, with true wonderment, what kind of strange karma was coming up.
     As we cut through a grocery store parking lot he told me with much agitation that _____ (I didn't catch the name) had tried to murder him. I calmly reassured him that only the body can be murdered, which he seemed to appreciate. Before reaching the far side of the parking lot he asked me to stop; told me that even if someone like me blew his brains out with a gun he couldn't be killed; then requested that I look at his shadow, not at him, and demonstrated in pantomime himself shooting himself in the face. At that I turned and continued on my way. He continued to follow. One statement he repeated more than once during this time is “I am not God.”
     When we reached the house of my supporter I told him that I would spend some time inside, and that since it wasn't my house I couldn't invite him in, hoping that with his short attention span he would eventually lose interest and wander away. Also I hoped that my supporter wasn't home, but she was. As she opened the door for me her response on seeing my companion was like, “Oh, who's your friend?” with my response to her being an intense look and a slight shaking of the head signifying “No---Don't invite him in.” As I explained the situation to her inside the house and we discussed what to do, he didn't go away, but doggedly alternated between standing and sitting crosslegged on the ground as though in meditation.
     By now I was sweating, although that was largely due to the fact that I had just walked a mile or so on a hot August day; and also I was shaking a little, not so much from fear as from the intensity of the experience---I had never been in such a situation before and was not sure what to do. Calling the police seemed to be a desperate last resort. I really wished that I could help him, although not enough actually to spend the night with him.
     After a little while both of us went out and met with him on the front porch. My friend gently asked, “What do you need? What can we do for you?” He vehemently replied, pointing to my robe, “I need a sheet like his!” At this my friend's eyes lit up, and she knew exactly what to do: she went inside and got a set of regulation Burmese monk's robes that she had stored in the house, and came out and gave them to him! Then he said that he had to be “cleansed” before putting on the robes and performing whatever ceremony would follow. (He obviously used the word “cleansed” in more than just a physical sense.) I tried to persuade him to go home and take a shower, but he ignored this idea, so my friend told him that there was a garden hose in the back yard that he could use to wash up. He went into the back yard with the robes, stripped himself, and hosed himself off naked on the lawn. While he was doing this, my friend and I went back inside and conferred some more.
     I got an idea which seemed like a good one at the time: A few weeks previously I had found near a river what looks like an old native American spearhead; so when he came back to the front door dripping wet with the Burmese robes on, I offered it to him, saying, “This is an ancient spearhead. Go with it until you feel energy emanating from it. That place will be safe for you.” As it turned out though, he immediately refused to accept it, and when I offered it a second time he said, “You know where you can put that?” and began snaking his hand around in a peculiar manner, so that I suspected it would wind up in an obscene gesture, but perhaps tangential thought got the better of him, and he was distracted into another direction. He asked if it was necessary for me to see his tattoos before we started. I said no, but he showed them to me anyway. He had several. A large one on his back said “Liberty or Death.” On one part of his body he had a rather erotic, scantily-clad female angel that he said was his guardian; and on the corresponding part on the other side he had a demonic-looking Grim Reaper, reminiscent of something from an Iron Maiden album cover, that he said was his deity. He began speaking animatedly of the Dark Carnival, a conspiracy in which Jesus Christ is endeavoring to destroy the world, with the Devil and his followers trying to prevent this. Again I told him firmly that I had done what I could, that he would get what he needs, and that my energy was with him, but he became more agitated, even annoyed. He repeatedly insisted that he was in “disarray,” and did not want “discontinuation,” meaning of course that our business together was not finished. As he became more angry I kept glancing at a large pair of hedge clippers lying on the porch near our feet; I considered nonchalantly putting my foot on them just in case he got worked up enough to use them as a weapon, but figured that he might be offended by my lack of trust and become even more worked up.
     He claimed to be a murderer, but without sin, as he was not a sex offender. He repeatedly referred to his father with increasing anger, sometimes calling him Chico, sometimes Samsonite, sometimes other names. He repeated that he himself was not God, but was descended from an obscure yet powerful native American spirit. Then he furiously declared that he would kill a blond, blue-eyed fathead bastard named David Meyer, or Miller (I didn't remember the name, but afterwards considered that I should have). I'm not sure why, but at this point I began standing before him with my arms extended downward and outward from my sides with the palms open and towards him. I still wonder about why I did that.
     He furiously insisted that I had been observing him and his father, that I knew all about them, and that he and I must be together now. I said “We are together now,” whereupon he replied, “Not now, now now, without discontinuation,” indicating that we still had urgent spiritual work to do together. Around this time he heatedly said something about a goat with three horns, and then, “There is no goat retard. Gort! Gort!” His eyes took on a certain intensity when he said “Gort,” as though he were making a particularly salient point.
     My friend/supporter then opened the front door and looked out at us to see what progress I had made. Our guest informed both of us that he had had no heartbeat for six months, and had had no food for five---although he assured us he was by no means hinting for a meal. Then he asked if he could feel our spines, but I refused. Then he asked us to feel our own spines. My friend looked at me and asked in a quiet voice, “What should we do?” and not knowing what else to say I silently mouthed to her, “Call the police.” She closed the door and called 911.
     Meanwhile, he and I had some disagreement about ravens. He asked me what sound they make, and I said they caw. “No! It's crows that caw! A raven is not a crow!he retorted. “Oh, yes, ravens croak,” I answered, knowing he was leading up to the quote “Nevermore” from Poe's famous poem. (He had already mentioned it once before.) He turned around and asked me to feel his spine, asserting that it had no discs between the vertebrae. I felt it. My friend opened the door again and said quietly, “I called,” and within a minute or two he lost interest in us, went to the back yard, took off the monk robes and put his old clothes back on, and went away, leaving the robes neatly folded. Perhaps criminal instinct, or perhaps plenty of similar experiences in the past, cued him to leave at last, before the police arrived. Afterwards I was sorry that we called the police, as though we had betrayed him somehow, and I was glad that he left before they showed up. Actually, the police never showed up. They called back about an hour later and asked a few desultory questions. Apparently mentally ill people wandering the streets and threatening to kill people are so common as not to be taken very seriously by the Bellingham Police Department.
     I have little doubt that he was the most mentally disturbed person I have ever met. I've met people with schizophrenia before, and people whose mind was pretty much absent through severe mental retardation or the extremity of old age, but nothing quite like this. He did not appear to be intoxicated, nor was he faking it. His mind seemed broken, fragmented, with a few predominant themes, like obsession with his father, stringing it together. One remarkable thing was that there was no revealing wild, staring, or haunted look in his eyes, as one sometimes sees in people who would be diagnosed as “psychotic.” Just looking into his eyes was not sufficient to let one know that anything was wrong with him. It seemed that his human “spirit” was still intact. I also have little doubt that if he had lived in Palestine during the time of Jesus he would have been declared demon-possessed. In his furious insistence upon my help he hinted more than once, but did not actually say, that some force or forces---not some person wanting to murder him but some malevolent spiritual influence---was causing his “disarray.” I suppose that if Jesus or the Buddha were in my position they might raise one hand and in a voice of authority drive out whatever influence was afflicting him. At the time I was with him I was thinking in terms of Western psychology and schizophrenia, but afterward I kept thinking of demonic possession---for some reason he reminded me of “Legion” in the New Testament, who lived in a cemetery shrieking and cutting himself with sharp rocks. For days after meeting him I was in a rather bleak, foul mood, with a weird readiness for a fight, as though his state was somehow contagious. I will say that if my foul mood was in any way a symptom of some of his turmoil leaving him and entering me, I was quite willing to take the hit for his sake. I had a strange feeling of helplessness and humility not being able to do much for him, even though I'm supposedly an authority on spiritual matters, at least on Dhamma. I do hope his interaction with me helped him in some way. I blessed him silently again and again, and still do. If anyone out there can bless him better than I can, please do so.
     I still wonder about the strange karma that suddenly brought him into my life that day. I certainly could never have guessed when I started walking that within two hours I'd be ceremoniously offering a stone spearhead to an incoherent demon-worshipper dressed in monk's robes! I have considered that many people who see me walking through Bellingham with robes on, bare feet, and a shaved head simply see a lunatic. Truly, Buddhism teaches that anyone who is not fully enlightened is insane. It may be significant that for perhaps half an hour he and I were probably the only two beings in town wearing the Theravada monk's cīvara. Ah, life is strange.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Is Shame Appropriate?

     Recently my benefactress, “business manager,” pagan priestess, and friend Danielle and I had a rather intense conversation in a forest about whether it is good to feel ashamed after doing something unskillful. She was of the opinion that it is, and I was of the opinion that it is not. In order to clarify the issue I will attempt to explain the two points of view. I will begin with Danielle’s, and I hope I will be able to do it justice, considering that I see things somewhat differently than she does.
     Much or even most of her spiritual development in this life has been a reaction to feelings of “ickiness” sometimes verging on self-loathing when reflecting on her past behavior, especially when that past behavior has contributed to another person's suffering. Her inability to feel comfortable with herself, with the feelings she experienced after being selfish, manipulative, etc., pretty much required her to introspect, carefully examine her motives, and “clean up her act,” so to speak. If it were not for feelings of shame and guilt, and her desire to avoid their causes, she would not have made the remarkable progress she has made in her life, from a confused, unhappy teenager artificially conforming to an unspiritual environment to the really praiseworthy spiritually-oriented woman she has become. Her own main spiritual teacher, a person named Marianne, also progressed in this way. It is mainly because of this principle of shame acting as a catalyst for improvement that she considers it to be valuable. Here are some of her own words, in response to a first draft of this article:

To experience shame is as natural as feeling sadness or grief when it arises and when it is appropriate. To feel it authentically would not just make a person more well behaved externally, it would change him/her from the inside out if whole-heartedly felt. As one evolves (especially if from major dysfunction) there is a moment when a person can look back and think, "Holy shit, I did that! What on earth was I thinking...." Instead of just dismissing it, or noting it (like the Buddhists say), one experiences the FEELING of the past action (just as one would cry thinking about a beloved friend who passed away many years prior). Feeling it is release; also it allows for spontaneous compassion to develop for oneself for being so dammit foolish, and also for the millions of people who are still stuck in any particular negative behavior. Plus, it is humbling and can create a desire to apologize, which tends to be hugely healing for the victim of the abuse, ill behavior, etc....

     On the other hand, my Buddhist training has taught me that there are two kinds of shame, or rather two Pali words which are sometimes translated as “shame”: hiri and kukkucca. Hiri means moral scruples or pangs of conscience which arise before one has performed an unskillful act (or failed to perform a skillful one), and is always a skillful mental state---good karma”---especially when it actually dissuades one from misbehaving. On the other hand, kukkucca refers to moral scruples or pangs of conscience which arise after one has done the deed; the word is also sometimes translated as “regret,” “repentance,” “remorse of conscience,” “anxiety,” and “worry” (it can in fact apply to other kinds of worry, including worry about something as amoral as the weather). Consequently, to feel regret over past deeds or omissions of deeds is always an unskillful mental state, and thus best avoided if possible. The idea was stated in Christian terms by Miguel de Molinos (the founder of the Quietist movement, who was persecuted by the Jesuits and the Holy Inquisition and subsequently died in prison in 1697) as follows:

When thou fallest into a fault, in what matter soever it be, do not trouble nor afflict thyself for it. For they are the effects of our frail Nature, stained by Original Sin....Would not he be a mere fool who, running at tournament with others, and falling in the best of the career, should lie weeping on the ground and afflicting himself with discourses upon his fall? Man (they would tell him), lose no time, get up and take the course again, for he that rises again quickly and continues his race is as if he had never fallen....
(---Quoted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience)

     Of course, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that we have acted unskillfully and resolving to try harder in future not to do the same again. This is fully endorsed by the Buddhist texts as well as common sense. Not feeling remorse for one's misdeeds is not necessarily the same as callously, flippantly remarking, “So what. The bastard had it coming. It serves him right,” or excusing it by saying “Oh, at least I'm not as bad as So-and-so.” Not at all. But stewing in remorse of conscience may ultimately be just as bad. It may be much more likely to make us a better-behaved person externally, but it can also result in a habitually and unnecessarily tortured and contracted mind, which will certainly have non-uplifting effects on others as well as on ourselves.
     If feelings of shame arise spontaneously and unbidden, then the correct course from the Buddhist point of view is to experience these feelings fully, without wallowing in them, identifying with them, judging them, or thrusting them away. Whatever arises, pleasant or unpleasant, should be experienced and understood as consciously as possible in the present moment, and then let go, without attachment. In this way one doesn't stew over the past, and present insight can arise much more easily. I think dear Danielle also can accept the value of this approach, at least in some cases. For example she has said,

What I notice a lot in humanity is people "try" a whole bunch to do things differently with little success at best, but when one can truly FEEL the negativity of one's actions (embarrassment, shame, etc.) it is incredibly motivating to change rapidly because of how uncomfortable it is. What mostly happens is some degree (or a big degree) of denial, justification, comparing oneself to another (“well, I'm not as bad as so and so,” etc), or stuffing it with things like overeating, alcohol, or another project. My point is this in a nutshell---we cannot get away with s-h-i-t. Bad behavior haunts us whether we want it to or not. However, in a society that allows for as much distraction as possible, it is super easy to stay unconscious to the effects of one's negative behavior, at least for a time. Owning it is empowering and catalyzing. Not owning it often creates a less than desirable life, often some confusion, and lots of projections.

     As I see it, the vital point is that regret is essentially non-acceptance of the way things are, and is therefore a barrier to What Is, and thereby also a barrier to Enlightenment. If one has some sensitivity one may experience moral scruples before making up one's mind to, say, kick the dog, or may feel the anger and contraction in one's mind, and the dog's pain in one's heart, while the kick is being delivered, and one may use this information to reform one's behavior. As Krishnamurti has said (and Danielle also may say), when one finally really sees and feels that one's behavior is harmful, then it is effortless to change that behavior---one simply outgrows it, and it drops away. Another profitable course, which is endorsed in the spiritual literature of more than one tradition, is to confess one's questionable actions to a wise friend, and seriously to consider any feedback she or he might give. The path to Enlightenment involves a Middle Way between “I'm horrible” and “It's her own damn fault.” Non-acceptance of anything, even non-acceptance of the appearance of evil, is separation from reality and divinity.
     Acceptance does not necessarily exclude voluntary change. For example, if one's tire is flat one doesn't say, “Well, I accept that the tire is flat, and so I'll just sit here by the side of the road”; instead we accept that the tire is flat and also accept that the thing to do now is to get out of the car and get the tire changed. Non-acceptance doesn't help. It just makes things worse. Thus, don't worry about the future; don't grieve over the past; just do the best you can from moment to moment, forgiving yourself for your shortcomings while still learning from them.
     Yet there are many people, including my great benefactress, who have reformed their lives and greatly benefited from reacting to chronic feelings of guilt and shame. If one does not have the training and/or the presence of mind to avoid remorse and bad behavior, then a moderate amount of kukkucca may serve as a means of “fighting fire with fire,” of replacing a probably harmful ickiness with a possibly beneficial one. But, like a carpenter using a small peg to knock a larger one out of a plank, and then tossing both pegs aside, these feelings of remorse must also eventually be tossed aside, and not only after some ideal state of moral perfection has been attained. Moral perfection will never be attained so long as we close our heart to our own very human behavior. As the great saint Ramana Maharshi used to say, one of the main causes for our unenlightenment is the belief that we are unenlightened.
     May we all stop believing that we are unenlightened and imperfect, have compassion for ourselves and for others, and Wake Up soon.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Barefoot Trips

     I remember when I was a boy my father told me that the natives in places like Africa go around barefoot so much that the soles of their feet are as tough as shoe leather. So, when I started going mostly barefoot more than twenty years ago I figured that would happen to me too, but it didn't. My feet are still relatively tender. I suppose from the scientific point of view it's a genetic thing---my ancestors wore shoes for so long that the potential for shoe-leather feet isn't there anymore. On the other hand, I am able to walk around barefoot much more easily now, just about anywhere. This is because I've learned how to walk barefoot carefully. I would guess that just about everyone has latent barefoot instincts that gradually become activated when one goes without shoes long enough. One of the great advantages of going barefoot is that it requires one to walk more mindfully. Walking itself becomes more of a meditation.
     One of the main reasons why I go barefoot is that there is a rule of monastic discipline which says a monk is not allowed to wear shoes in public (sandals actually---other kinds of shoes are always forbidden), unless he has a health problem which requires it, like an injury on the sole of the foot, or perhaps a path strewn with thorns or broken glass before him. Even so, most monks disregard the rule and wear sandals in public anyway. Often I would hear people in Burma saying things like, "The foreign monk isn't wearing shoes!" as though it were something really remarkable, like a special ascetic practice. I remember once the chief medical officer of Amarapura Township near Mandalay asked me why I didn't wear shoes. I told him that there were rules of discipline with regard to wearing shoes in public. Then he pointed out that the abbot of my monastery (a large school monastery where I lived for a year) wore sandals in public. I didn't want to explain to the doctor that the abbot didn't follow the rules very strictly, so I took a different tack---I said that the Buddha himself didn't wear shoes, the implication being that if going barefoot was good enough for the Buddha it was good enough for me. But then the chief medical officer of Amarapura Township, an intelligent man, remarked, "Yes, but the Buddha didn't need to wear shoes because when he walked his feet didn't touch the ground." That is in fact the traditional view, and at that I was stumped and remained silent.
     I did some hiking in Burma, and have done lots of it since returning to America, but two days ago was one of my crowning achievements thus far: A friend and I hiked Cascade Pass in the North Cascades mountain range, and I did it barefoot. It wasn't just being shoeless that made the trip a good one; there were glaciers, waterfalls, lots of wildflowers in bloom (I especially like the wild columbine), and marmots, plus we were approached by a group of mountain goats. The goats in particular were rather auspicious for me, as they are more or less my "totem animal." I collected tufts of their fur from bushes they had rubbed against as a way of collecting "relics." Considering that the top of the Pass has a trail consisting largely of broken rock, and that there were two patches of snow to be crossed, walking it barefoot was hardly uncomfortable at all. Moving from rock to rock carefully and smoothly was a really nice meditation, and of course feeling the bare ground against my feet causes more of a feeling of connection with the earth, and more of a sense of the sacredness of nature. One has no choice but to be more awake when one walks in a forest barefoot. Ironically, probably the most uncomfortable part of the walk at Cascade Pass was going through the gravel parking lot at the bottom.
     There may be something symbolic in that, as rough concrete and artificially strewn gravel are usually harder on my feet than the ground in a wilderness. My feet start getting sore after about two miles of concrete; and yesterday morning, the day after hiking Cascade Pass with unscathed feet, on my way to receive my daily meal I scuffed my foot against a perfectly flat sidewalk here in Bellingham and bloodied one toe (the little piggy that stayed home, on the right side). Wildernesses are often kinder to monks than cities are.
     Cities can be kind to barefoot monks too though; on my way back from receiving the meal I passed by a grocery store; and before reaching it I noticed two Asian women waiting at the corner of the parking lot looking a little flustered and excited. When I reached them they animatedly told me in English that was hard to understand that they were Thai and Buddhist, and that they live on Orcas Island, a longish drive from here. One of the ladies said that when she left Thailand she thought she would never see a monk again, and the two of them very enthusiastically gave me a bag of groceries they had bought for me at the store. I blessed them sincerely and continued on my way. Westerners are often generous and friendly too of course, but it's generally Asians who are really overjoyed at the opportunity to make an offering to a monk and to receive his blessings. It makes me feel good when someone appreciates what I am doing with my life.
     After that foray I made one more barefoot trip out onto the concrete yesterday; I went to the local Dharma Hall for the group meditation, and to announce my upcoming Dharma talk there (entitled "Breakthroughs," describing how insight and enlightenment often come in spontaneous, unexpected bursts, especially if one happens to be at wit's end) and the second annual Forest Fast scheduled for later this month (we'll go into a forest, meditate, and live on a diet of creek water, with a Dharma talk around a campfire every night, for at least four days, five if people are really into it). Shortly before I left for the Hall it started raining, and by the time I was out in it for ten minutes it started thundering and lightninging and raining in earnest---during August, the only reliably dry month in the Pacific Northwest. I didn't have an umbrella and was wet in the rain, much like I'd been wet in the rain many times before in Burma during the monsoon season. (Monks aren't supposed to use umbrellas in public either.) Despite my extensive experience with being rained on, and the fact that it wasn't very cold, when it started raining harder I would occasionally find myself saying things like, "This sucks." I also got some kind of splinter in my foot. Finally I made it to the Dharma Hall in a rather moist state, picked out the splinter, and sat among Westerners who don't consider me to be much of a teacher, or a monk, or a holy man, but just another person. One of them generously gave me a ride home afterwards. My toe is still a little sore.
     Maybe my next blog post will be more profound than this one. I don't want to be too top-heavy.

Before Buddha statues were invented 
the Buddha was usually represented in sculpture by 
a footprint, a bodhi leaf, or an empty seat to signify that 
he was no longer in this world

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Value of Discomfort

     When Christianity first came to America it took root in a condition of strength and vitality; the first Christians in this country were in a sense rebels against society because they considered a spiritual life, or at least a religious life, to be more important than the relative comforts of worldly conformity. But as Buddhism comes to America a few hundred years later it displays a radically different orientation. Instead of the culture being modified to fit the spiritual system, as was done by the early Puritans with Christianity, and the medieval Burmese with Theravada Buddhism, nowadays the spiritual system is being modified to fit a spiritually destitute culture. Consequently, two of the outstanding characteristics of modern American Theravada Buddhism are materialism and lukewarmness. I'm really not trying to complain here, but these outstanding characteristics do seem to fit the case. It is true that there are many sincere seekers in the West; but many do not know where to seek or what it is that they are seeking, and so they follow along with the majority...who also do not know. As a general rule, especially in spiritual matters, the majority is always wrong.
     When I refer to materialism I don't mean chasing after money; I mean taking for granted the assumption that whenever Scientific Realism disagrees with Dharma, or simply can't explain it, Science is right. Miracles don't happen, karma is a metaphor, and Nirvana, if it exists at all, is simply a psychological attitude. Buddhism upon arriving in the West has in some ways degenerated into little more than a kind of secular self-help system used to relieve stress and enhance the quality of worldly existence. Certainly, these are absolutely not bad or wrong in themselves, but when the primary, fundamental purpose of Dharma, full enlightenment in this very life, is downplayed, ignored, or even rejected by Buddhist communities, then something fishy is going on. (Sometimes I am haunted by nightmarish images of American Buddhist magazine articles like "How Intensive Insight Meditation Can Enhance Your Sex Life" and "The Satipatthana Diet: Improve Your Mindfulness and Take Off Pounds Fast!")
     Buddhism, originally a tough, radical yogic system, has been liberally watered down and converted into something social, easy, and comfortable. It is true that Asian culture has done something similar, but it was without obscuring the radical ideals of austerity and renunciation. Most, or at least many, American Theravada Buddhists, as far as I can tell at present, listen to Dharma talks or go to retreats largely because they want to feel good about themselves (in contrast to most Burmese Buddhists who do such things mainly to earn "merit," and may be indifferent to the actual content of the talk or retreat). They want to be told, or to tell themselves, that they are moving in the right direction, even though they might actually be moving sideways and making little if any significant progress. Americans tend to prefer feel-good Dharma talks and feel-good retreats. Discomfort, for various reasons, is avoided.
     This is of course radically different from the instructions reportedly given by Gotama Buddha to his most serious disciples. People intent on Waking Up were advised to follow a Middle Way by renouncing the world; by wandering homeless; by sleeping under trees, in haystacks, in caves, or under the open sky; by owning no money; by silently begging for their food in the streets; by patiently enduring heat and cold, hunger and thirst, sickness, pain, and enmity; by contemplating death and decomposing corpses; etc. This was the Middle Way between luxury and self-torture---which of course is way into the Very Unacceptable range to all but a very tiny minority of modern Westerners. Some allowance should be made for the fact that we have not been brought up in an intensely spiritual culture and have been living in a state of relative luxury and self-indulgence for most or all of our lives; but to reject the value of accepting discomfort is rather much, almost tantamount to rejecting significant spiritual growth.
     A certain amount of discomfort, cultivated or accidental, seems to be instrumental in the awakening process of almost everybody. Without discomfort, and a close, hard look at that discomfort, we settle into a rut of habit and continue doing what keeps us unenlightened. It is an instinct in the human animal that we rely upon a habitual way of going about life; and so long as it keeps us going, even though it might be unpleasant and stressful, it is good enough, and we deeply resist changing it. But if things get bad enough that the system starts to break down and our habitual way no longer works, or if we look deeply into our minds and clearly see the unhappiness and "stuckness" lurking in there, then we are much more likely to let go of this accumulation of half-baked, unexamined mental habits and to accept something much better. 
     One major obstacle to this in the West is the myth that our happiness and unhappiness are mainly dependent upon external circumstance---the idea that wealth causes happiness and material poverty causes misery, for example. (Some of the happiest people I have ever known live well below the poverty level by American standards, and do not even own a cell phone, much less a car.) Another obstacle is the idea that discomfort is synonymous with unhappiness, and that we should avoid it whenever possible. Doing what is difficult makes us stronger, and involves some discomfort; thus avoiding what makes us feel uncomfortable results in spiritual flabbiness.
     Most of us can hardly be expected to wander around homeless and contemplate rotting corpses, but there are plenty of opportunities in the lives of almost all of us to experience sufficient discomfort to nudge us out of our ruts. In fact just about all of us encounter unpleasant situations many times a day. Usually we put the blame on the situation for its unpleasantness and fail to benefit from it, but any unhappiness we experience is caused by our resistance to the situation, not by the situation itself. Consequently a careful examination of arising resistance and unhappiness---anger, impatience, fear, disgust, regret, boredom, etc.---can illuminate life-long habits and help us to become free of them. If we avoid these situations whenever possible we have little opportunity to observe our semiconscious and unskillful reactions to them. We also have little opportunity to learn our spiritual limitations, as it is only when things go wrong, when we are "triggered," that we can know how wise or otherwise we are, or someone else is. Living so much in the fast lane that one is overwhelmed by turmoil and distraction is not going to work, but hiding out in a hermitage surrounded by a 20-foot-high stone wall wouldn't work for most people either. A new kind of Middle Way may be appropriate for modern Westerners, and whatever Way it is, it will probably involve some simplifying and slowing down, and also a fair amount of voluntary discomfort.
     Voluntary acceptance of discomfort for the sake of spiritual development---feeling comfortable with discomfort---is the essence of ascetic practice. If one can learn to be happy even when one has an empty belly, a stomachache, three hours of sleep, two dozen mosquito bites, wet clothes on, little or no money, no friends to hang out with or offer encouragement, and no fun to be had, then one can be happy pretty much always. 
     Also, simply not doing what we want to do, i.e. self-restraint, is uncomfortable; so breaking bad habits (and ultimately all habits are obstacles to enlightenment) is a very useful ascetic practice as well as a skillful renunciation of "the world." 
     One of the very best ways of experiencing unpleasantness in a way conducive to Awakening is through spiritual friendships. It is significant that in at least one famous Buddhist text (the Upaddha Sutta of the Saṁyutta Nikāya) the Buddha declares that having a good spiritual friend is the whole of the Holy Life. (It may seem odd that someone who has been a hermit for most of his adult life is giving this advice, but even so…) If two or more people are sincerely intent upon Waking Up they may give each other feedback which is unpleasant but invaluable. It is of course not pleasant to be told that one is being smug, or proud, or greedy, or insensitive, but it may be what we most need to hear in order to see ourselves objectively, as others see us. Nowadays in America it seems to be the fashion to be "nice" and polite and avoid saying anything that may ruffle anyone's feathers, but this sort of approach is not very helpful in spirituality. Often what bothers us most is what we are most in need of hearing; we don't want to change, or to see that change would be most suitable for us. That is why it bothers us. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be seekers of Truth usually are seeking evidence in support of what we already believe, or additions or refinements to it, and are more inclined to make minor adjustments than seriously to investigate whether the whole attitude is in sore need of an overhaul. Consideration of critical feedback is one of the best ways of seeing the truth about ourselves and seeing our limitations, where we are stuck.
     The trick is that it should be loving feedback. Anything one does or says with positive mental states is positive ("good karma"), and anything one does or says with negative mental states is negative ("bad karma"). Indignant or angry complaining, for example, lowers the vibration of the interaction, plus it is a handy rule of thumb that the more upset person is usually the one seeing the situation less clearly. It is better to wait until the feedback can be given calmly; but if it can't, then it is the responsibility of the recipient of that feedback to remain calm and prevent the interaction from escalating into a messy argument. If the recipient feels that the criticism or advice is unfounded, he/she may ask for the other's reasons instead of closing off or immediately retorting in self-defense. Sometimes differences in thinking or verbal expression can obscure real wisdom in another's feedback. 
     Often if people love each other they may hesitate to give important feedback for fear of hurting the other's feelings. But if both people are intent on spiritual development, which of course is an ideal situation, then it is almost always better to speak up, even if it really does hurt the other's feelings to some degree. As I said before, this kind of discomfort can lead to real cultivation of wisdom; and the relationship will likely be stronger, more conscious, more respectful, and more loving afterward if the people involved really are sincere about wanting to Wake Up as soon as possible. In loving relationships like this, which admittedly are rather rare, one can make faster spiritual progress than if one were living alone in a cave. Of course two people interacting in such a way need not be biological mates; they may be fellow members of a spiritual community, or even recluses living as brothers or sisters in caves next door to each other. But from a really spiritual point of view, from the point of view of seekers wanting to Wake Up in this world, a relationship like this would be the most valid reason for being physical mates. 
     One more important point to consider for those wishing to be in such a relationship: Love is acceptance. One should accept and respect another person before, while, and after giving potentially unpleasant feedback. It helps to keep the vibration of the interaction uplifted, and thus more likely to have a positive outcome, plus one of the greatest blessings there is in this world is for someone to know you well, knowing all your limitations and shortcomings, and to love and accept you with all their heart anyway. If everyone had someone like that in their life, the world would wake up a lot quicker. Yet we have to show who we really are before another can love and accept who we really are. So be yourself; it's the one thing in this entire universe that you are guaranteed to be able to do absolutely perfectly.

A hard look at oneself may be uncomfortably intense