Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I have been getting up to a lot of meditation lately. I found a little outfit called the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, and have been going there a lot to sit on a cushion and watch what happens in my mind and await the emergence of my true nature, also known as my “Buddha nature”.
I have visited some other centers around town, but I have been going mostly to Against the Stream. It’s fairly close by, always important in this town, and I like the community a lot. The flavor of Buddhism that the Center espouses is called Theravada. My previous encounter with Buddhism had been with a different, later tradition, that of Zen. But at Against the Stream they are very open and even regularly have teachers in from other traditions to teach. So it works well.
Without wanting to get too much in the weeds on the differences, let’s say that the Theravada has a rationality and a sobriety to it, a clarity, whereas Zen tends to rely more on paradox, attempting to “hit” the mind into awakening to its true nature. There is more emphasis on intuition in Zen, whereas the Theravada offers more of an analytical framework. There are Four Noble Truths, an Eightfold Path, Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Being a recovering Catholic, this kind of enumeration is very familiar to me.
I was listening to a Dharma (“teaching”) teacher at Against the Stream last night elaborate on one of the components of the Eightfold path, Wise Intention, or Right Intention. As I listened to him describe the Eightfold Path, the Law of Cause and Effect, Right Intention, Karma, the criteria for another piece of the Eightfold Path, Right Speech, (Four questions: is it useful? is it true? is it timely? is it kind? ), I found myself wondering who could possibly live that way. It seemed like the Buddha was asking us to walk around in our heads all the time, scrutinizing everything we say, do, intend and interpret. The teacher even sardonically described the Buddha as a “control freak” for recommending all of this.
Where was the spontaneity? Where was the flow? Did we really need to watch ourselves so carefully and analyze everything we did? It sounded torturous.
Then, in a moment of Zen reversal, I realized that the look on my face must be the same as that of many first-time students of mine in the opening weeks of my ten-week class: a dazed expression of doubt and apprehension. Is all of this really necessary?
We’ve all seen movies, and movie stars make it look so easy. It seems like what they traffic in is stuff that we all know from our everyday lives. I could do that. How hard can it be? But the skill of the actor in the movie, and the skill of the director and editor and writer and a thousand other people have contributed to that appearance of ease. The reality is quite different.
Hence the framework of objectives (plot and underlying), actions, the Who-am-I, the path, destination, investment, particularization, etc that I present in the class. I understand that it can seem impossibly onerous, and my experience at the Dharma talk last night reminded of that, gave me a firsthand experience of just how daunting it can seem. But the truth is that some kind of framework is necessary, whether it is the one I present or some other approach. Stanislavsky said that acting is the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique. Technique means “do it like this, not the way that feels natural or intuitive to you right now.” Remember, the way it feels natural to you right now is a product of your conditioning, your socialization, the mark that traumas past have left upon your being. Technique is your ticket out of that. It’s a bummer, it’s onerous, and it’s the truth.
So what about spontaneity? Impulses? Buddha nature? Flow? Does all that go out the window? No, but that stuff has to be worked for, as I have written about previously. Freedom lies on the other side of technique. True spontaneity, authenticity, the free flow of expression, these are things that we have to cultivate and work for.
How much are they worth to you?