January 31, 2009
Recent readings: Living with the devil in the Maine woods
Living with the Devil, A Meditation on Good and Evil and Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor:
I got into Batchelor's writing because I was attracted to the cover of Living With the Devil (human being, check it out). What I found inside was, as much as I hate to resort to cliche, a revelation. Like Brad Warner, Batchelor espouses a version of Zen Buddhism that doesn't so much strip away mysticism as make realism magical. In LWtD, he begins by explaining the importance of learning to "encounter the raw, unfiltered contingency of life itself":
...Contingency reveals a chaotic freedom at the heart of of causally ordered events. However tempting it is to invoke the hand of God, karma, or destiny to inject a hidden order into what seems random, embracing contingency requires a willingness to accept the inexplicable and unpredictable instead of reaching for the anesthetic comfort of metaphysics.
The opposite of "contingency" is "necessity." No matter how ephemeral and insignificant I recognize this human life of mine to be, I cannot shake off an intuitive conviction that, deep down, my existence is necessary in the scheme of things. By paying close and sustained attention to the contingent nature of experience, the practice of Buddhist meditation challenges the instinctive feeling that we are, in the words of Milton's Satan, "self-begot, self-raised / By our own quick'ning power." In eroding this sense of our own necessity, we come to see how the unprecedented and unrepeatable person we are emerges from a sublime matrix of myriad contingent events-- no one of which need have happened either. Insight into the emptiness of self is achieved not by eliminating self but by understanding it to be contingent rather than necessary.
In BWB, he takes this freedom from necessity further by applying it directly to Buddhism and stating that "the dharma is not something to believe in but something to do." The book begins with one of the most definitive of quotes from the Buddha's Kalama Sutta:
"Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering it over or with someone else's ability or with the thought 'The monk is our teacher.' When you know in yourselves: 'These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,' then you should practice and abide in them."
Both books encompass so much more than their titles suggest, and both have become manuals of a sort for me to use in navigating the pitfalls of both life and my own nature. Most concretely, Batchelor's meditation instruction was what it finally took for me to get my ass on the mat and begin a daily practice (well, almost daily. Let's say every other day). Settling my monkey-mind has been a serious challenge, as it is for so many others, and focusing on the breath has been more a distraction than a means to open into emptiness. The light bulb went off while reading LWtD, though, when Batchelor wrote:
The trick is to remain fully aware of the breath without awareness impeding its natural ebb and flow... One way to do this is to wait for the breath to happen. After each inhalation and exhalation, there follows a brief pause as the muscles change gear, as it were, before releasing the pent-up air or drawing a fresh breath. The self-consciousness of breathing is most pronounced at these two moments: suddenly it feels as though "I" must inhale or exhale. To dispel this sense of agency, during each pause remain a disinterested observer, curious to notice when and how the muscles will engage of their own accord to initiate the next inbreath or outbreath. Just wait for the next phase in the breathing to kick in: with no expectation as to when it should start, no preparation for it to be deep or shallow, no anticipation for it to be forceful or gentle.
I still often find the breath to be like Schrodinger's Cat-- being conscious of it does affect its nature, no matter how long I wait for that inhalation. But Batchelor's advice is something specific to practice, and that has made all the difference.
The change in my mood and equilibrium since finding these two books has been subtle yet profound. As Batchelor himself puts it, "life [has become] less of a defensive stance to preserve an immutable self and more of an ongoing task to complete an unfinished tale." And that's tremendously freeing.
(My impressions of Brad Warner's books can be found here, for anyone who's interested.)
A Year in the Maine Woods, Bernd Heinrich:
The linked review is an excellent summation of this book, but I disagree strongly with its criticisms. I just re-read AYitMW for about the fourth time, and the elements that so disturb the reviewer are exactly what I love about it. It's to the point that, like Inman in Cold Mountain, randomly opening up his copy of Bartram's Travels and finding peace within the pages, I can open Heinrich's book to any page and become immersed. I did this recently when I found myself between books and unsure of what I was in the mood for, beginning sometime mid-winter both in the book and in the real world outside. When I reached the last page at spring-time, I went back to the start and continued into the beginning of summer. And all the while that I read about the return of song-birds and blossoming of leaves on trees, it was bitterly cold outside my window (thought nowhere near the minus temperatures Heinrich experienced in the Maine winter). The fact that the narrative follows the seasons rather than a linear story-line gives the book a circular quality that easily allows it to be read in this way, and Heinrich's descriptions are so explicit that the reader is transported and doesn't even realize the amount of scientific information being digested and tucked away. Anyone looking for a deeper connection to the natural world would do well to pick this one up.