Friday, March 24, 2017

Words at the Threshold

Started reading WORDS AT THE THRESHOLD by Lisa Smartt. This is a book about what people say at the end of their life. It spawned the database www.finalwordsproject.org.

I see this type of reading as facing death. What the charnel grounds meditation did for people with that option, the literature on death does that for the cerebral readers of the west. The Denial of Death has been a seminal text for me, and I wish not to defensively avert my gaze, but to see it as the larger tapestry of impermanence, conditioned coproduction. Our world is sanitized. It's hard to get close to death. There are no charnel grounds to go meditate at.

When Smartt used the phrase "word salad", it was to disparage the concept as someone who doesn't understand. She reports the metaphors of dying can elude us, but can make sense often.

Reading this book I wrote relatives and asked about last words in the family. I thought about what I'd like my ending to be like. Taking a look at it, I decided some CDs I want to listen to: Bud Powell,  Grant Green, Lester Young, Billie Holliday, La Traviata, La Bohem, Hydrogen Jukebox and Satyagraha. The books I want read to me. I'd like the satipatthana sutta read to me, the diamond sutra and other perfection of wisdom texts, the precious garland, the bodhicaryavatara, songs of Milarepa, the Lotus Sutra, the sutra of the golden light, the lankavatara sutra and the pure land sutras, a survey of Buddhism.

Sangharakshita wrote about the 6 element practice, which he learned from Yogi Chen, and how it's another way to look at dismantling, seeing that there is no essential self. Sangharakshita suggests you only really do that one on retreat, in an environment where deep practice is supported. I kept doing it after one retreat because I had a white light experience, and I started to feel like I was dying. That's the whole point, a spiritual death, to be reborn, but it calls for supportive conditions and the workaday life is not supportive. I do it a few times when I build up my practice, but I also let it fall down to rebuild again. Or rather it falls down despite my best efforts at vigilance. You can listen to a version of the meditation on the Insight Timer, lead by Bodhipoksa. Here is the free buddhist audio search. Do this practice within the community, don't do it without connecting to a tradition of your own choosing.

Then there is volunteering at a Hospice, like Norman Fisher discusses in one of his essays. I'm considering that.

May you be happy, may you be well.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

chapter 5

Alan Watts' book Psychotherapy East and West, treats Buddhist liberation as another boondoggle by civilization to tame humans. So you can imagine his last chapter is going to be a bit of a letdown. His suggestion is to dance with life, a full eroticism with all of life and not just the genitals.

He is as usual eminently quotable: "The type of human being who submits to this culture is, almost literally, a zombie." He is talking about the human who submits to technology. At times like these he doesn't nail down his insight cleanly, he is more like a continental philosopher who uses philosophy more like an art, than a logic inquiry. His statements are suggestively artistic.

In another place he quotes a 6000 year old Egyptian he quote from a Fromm book: "Our earth is degenerate...Children no longer obey their parents." Boy, wish everyone heard this. I hear this kind of statement all the time. It comes from nostalgia for a past that didn't exist, like the mother who tells her children she would never do this or that as a child, but really she did.

In the end this book is impressionistic. I can't help but think how Watts ended his life divorced from his wife, fired from his job, living like a total genital hedonist. What he actually did with his ideas does not seem to be where I want to end. His rhetoric can have a liberative feel to it, but it's target is vague and unclear, and does disentangle the bewilderment and confusion, the fog we all walk through in the world we find ourselves in. It does encourage one to believe in themselves and be bold, which might be useful to the insecure. In the end it is an interesting meditation on psychotherapy and the guru relationship, even if it fizzles out, after it gains some momentum.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Chapter 4 Psychotherapy East and West

This book seems to get better going forward. The Countergame chapter is an intense critique of psychotherapy, and presents it as similar to the guru relationship. That psychotherapy comes crashing down, implies also that Vajrayana Buddhism comes crashing down. I felt it was a strong critique of both.

On the psychotherapy front, he wonders if we can truly free associate, and if we could, why would we do that with a stranger? In the end we have conflict between society and our impulses. The therapist can be anti-society, or he can buy into "symptoms" and "mental illness". The way to get over mental illness is to accept your feelings, and when you screw up, you are not accepting them. It's hard not to get past a game of one-up-manship.

The discussion of games, made me think about Games People Play, a book that is 60+ years old, and that I read as a teenager, and found it quite bewildering. I hadn't really been that aware of social activity, but on some level the games seemed authoritative the way the writer wrote about them. I think today we would perhaps not put women into such a negative light, for some of the games, it feels dated in my memory, me reading the book 30+ years ago.

I also think of Knots by RD Laing, a very different kind of book, and kind of poetic book about his therapeutic experiences, and the knots people tie them selves up in.

The Countergame chapter is bigger, more of a critique of the knots and games people play in psychotherapy. He bases the chapter on a paper by J. Hailey. When you google that name you can come up with Jay Hailey, a family therapist. A little more looking and indeed his is the author of the essay that Watts quotes in the book, and is collected in a book of collected essays.

Not sure if he is the same one because they don't list publications, only books. He seems family therapy royalty sitting next to Minnuchin. Strategic family therapy sounds like the way child welfare is done today:

A therapist employing strategic therapy must:
Identify solvable problems.
Set goals.
Design interventions to achieve those goals.
Examine the responses.
Examine the outcome of the therapy.

This also seems like a forerunner to the short techniques of cognitive behavioralism. Insurance companies love brief therapy and there's something to be said for a non-endless therapy.

Anyway, I found this chapter interesting, might have to reread this chapter again in the future.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

37 Practices of Bodhisattvas

The Thirty-Seven Practices of Boddhisattvas is from the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition that the Dali Lama is in. I have read this book before. I want to go through the 37 practices one at a time.

The first one goes as follows:

Having gained this rare ship of freedom and fortune
Hear, think and meditate unwavering night and day
In order to free yourself and others
From the ocean of cyclic existence--
      This is the practice of the Boddhisattva

There is a traditional teaching that doesn't touch me much. I don't really know much about reincarnation, and because there is no soul, or essential self, it is all contingent, then of course what ever conditions and whatnot of someone's being is passed on. A friend said to me that he found it hard to imagine all that energy would not going into anything. They also reference the 6 realms. Now The 6 realms are an interesting idea. I've imagined prison to be a hell realm, and with the greed in America I imagine it a hungry ghosts realm. I have a friend in academia and it's not a too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine it as a god realm. Of course animals live in the animal realm. I'm not sure if humans are much more than animals and the separation makes it easier to eat and exploit animals. But it's rare to be a human when there are so many other possibilities. There's a bit in the Buddhavacana. that suggests being human is as rare as a turtle surfacing after 100 years under water into a fixed yoke, where the turtle could be harnessed. That is rare.

But I don't think we need all these metaphors. I don't take a meditation class if my friend doesn't sign me up. It just happened that one order member from the TCB happened to be in NYC. In the USA the TBC has really taken off in Newmarket New Hampshire, Missoula Montana and San Francisco California. Not really in NYC. It just so happened that I was at a place in my life that I was receptive to the teachings, and being unemployed I spent half a year reading all about it. I went on a retreat at Aryaloka over Christmas and New Years on the Brahma Viharas. It just so happened that an order member taught that retreat. Since then he has gone off to live on the left coast and hasn't really been seen much since then. The retreat blew my mind, I felt the healthiest I've ever felt. I learned to love the puja. I don't think I've ever really been the same since. I was sustained in the TBC for many years. I feel that this is my root tradition and even if I meditate in a Zen tradition, or Tibetan tradition or the Theravadan tradition, I will always at base have a TBC orientation. I happened to find the one tradition of Buddhism that helped make sense of the whole tradition, and indeed all traditions of spirituality for me. All these confluences of events could easily have been otherwise. That I am healthy enough, that I am receptive enough, and that I have exerted myself is also quite lucky. So without the 6 realms and reincarnation it's a pretty amazing even. I'm lucky enough to have this translation and exposition of the teachings, the book came out in 1987. I happen to live in a time when many good English translations have come out. Fifty years ago, that would not have been true. In the history of the world, "America" is a new phenomenon. The USA is a new phenomenon. The spread of Buddhism around the world is a new phenomenon. When you read the early English language Buddhists, it seems kind of fast and loose. The quality of English translations and English Buddhism is vast now, and only seems to be getting bigger. I can read the Middle Length Discourses, the 100,000 Songs of Milarepa. The access to Buddhism is a very new phenomenon, not presented as Zen as the one true path or the other fledgling types of Buddhism replete with ethnic Buddhism. The west has actually culled out an essential Buddhism--even if it's just one Buddhism.

When you think about all these conditions coming together, it truly is a precious life, a rare life. Then you add on the brevity of human life, well, that's enough to put pressure on you. The average life span of white men in the USA is going down, but it's still into the 70's.

The use of the word "unwavering" points to a kind of vigilance, that I have not fully sustained. I do think infusing your entire life with a Dharmic viewpoint is beneficial.

May all beings be happy, may all beings be well.

Friday, February 24, 2017

doubt hinderance

Sangharakshita is said that the spiritual life is caught not taught. How one develops spiritual interest and momentum is an interesting thing. For me I almost couldn't say why, except it felt so healthy to be on the path of the Buddhadharma, to open up to a spiritual life that wasn't hypocrisy and positioning for a place in society. Spirituality is a very private thing--something that is not lost on me writing a public blog.

There are times when the Dharma has faded. There have been times when my bewilderment was not disentangled enough, and I hurt people. There were times when I didn't have the energy and could not transcend the hinderance of remorse. There are dark nights of the soul when there seems to be no real benefit to the path. In the end working through those things, again and again because my hubris doesn't disappear when I see through it once or twice. It is a question on how to develop the opposite of doubt.

I once said to a friend, "how do we know there's not some unconditioned event in Alaska right now, that we don't know about, and will never really know about?" My friend asked what is really going on. I discuss some doubt I had and the question went away. In some ways doubt can be wrong view. The many different ways we can doubt are limned in the chapter on doubt.

Another is self doubt. That's all good for the Buddha, but I can't be enlightened. We live in a society that challenges our sense of self constantly, and it's hard to have real integrity, to tell the truth, to be transparent in a good way, to walk the talk. To do what you are committed to. This is no easy project, and I can't blame others for not wanting to engage, it's quite a real task. You need energy, and insight. and tough skin, and clarity and so many others qualities I'm still learning about.

Reading the chapter on doubt hinderance in Working with the Five Hinderances. I thought about how one theme in my psychotherapy was tolerance of ambivalence. The more toleration of ambivalence we have, accepting that we don't really know, the more you can be in the moment without spinning off into mental proliferation and planning. I've had many discussions with people who were offended that I took a position of not knowing. People need the security of knowing. "Knowing" is necessary for action, though you can act with the ambivalence, though there is realistically a greater delay. In a way, that's why types like House and Rita are attractive. They vigorously pursue what they know and don't know.

This is where I give my usual plug for the negative capability.

The chapter on doubt was surprisingly rich. This whole book was very rich in interesting thoughts for me. He set a good tone and warned us of modern interpretations that are off. I thought this book was well worth the time, and the only book I know in the hinderances. Thank you Ajahn Theradhamma for the gift of the Dharma.

May all being be happy, may all being be well.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Listening to myself

It's a hinderance of mine that I get excited about ideas. It's sense pleasure once again leading me away from the focus on my breath. I heard myself saying, "Even if I don't get enlightened, I have gained a lot from being on the path, and working to reduce the distance between myself and the Buddha." That doesn't take into account the dark night of the soul, The Silence, and the hope of seeing the transcendental pleasures of the path. Enlightenment is experience far experience to me, but at a certain point in my meditation today, I felt a little of the craziness churning in my mind, settle down just a little. I guess I feel that is worth it, though I think meditation needs to be beyond good feelings, because that's just chasing sense pleasures again. You just do it, in some ways, regardless of the reward, ignoring spiritual materialism, relinquish, a little, for a second, the endless project of chasing positive sense pleasures and pushing away negative experiences.

Chapter 4 Psychotherapy East and West

Psychotherapy East and West by Watts Chapter IV: Through A Glass Darkly:

The chapter starts out comparing scientific views that are experience far for humans, and that it's not going to be the road to liberation except that it does give insight into some hooey. Then he runs through the confusion between western "ego" and eastern "ego".

Watts discusses difference between Freud and Jung, and is frustrated that even though the Jungians learned a lot of eastern religion, they didn't seem to grasp it beyond psychology. Through that section, I was thinking about how Stephen Mitchell has his grand unification theory of relational psychotherapy, and that drive theory was overturned. I bet Watts would have loved Relational Concepts of Psychoanalysis. I think more about The Denial of Death, Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Fromm, existential psychotherapy, Kohut and self psychology, systems theory, interpersonal psychotherapy, and attachment theory. Freud is a reference point, but his grand theory has been debunked of late, in favor of relational psychoanalysis.

Watts seems to see how the denial of death is in play, says you can't live unless you face death. Kafka is often quoted that the meaning of life is death. Watts is also into field theory which is a close cousin to systems theory.

Much intellectual discourse is tilting at windmills. Nowadays in NYC most of the psychotherapy is done by social workers, who have a kind of curious and supportive approach, and few have further training. Maybe they have read The Drama of the Gifted Child.

Positive psychology is just starting out, not just about the deficit model. We have a long way to go. The conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle is something I think a lot about. Watts sees the double binds of cultural institutions is at the heart of the ishkabibble. The teachings of the Buddha are a way to enlightenment and liberation!

Then he shifts to existential psychotherapy. That is not going to understand the Buddhist project either. Watts is very quotable: "The stereotypical attitudes of a culture are, of course, always a parody of the insights of the more gifted members." Creating a meaningful life is a better project than a happy life, to me, but liberation is something different all together.

He explores the idea that we in the west must be anxious, guilty and insecure. Protestantism infects our thinking whether we're protestant or not. Everything in modern society conspires against liberation. He has a dim view of history, almost likens it to a hoarder of strings and rubber bands and whatnot. Every moment is a rebirth of possibility to be creative and not reactive.

Watts describes one of the fetters: that life is nothing and life is eternal are two ends of the spectrum that are to be avoided.

He seems to know about Sullivan and Frida Fromm-Reichmann, a contemporary psychiatrist of Freud from Germany, who emigrated to the USA during WW2. When you think of it, Watts is pretty well read for someone who is not a psychotherapist. I'm warming to this book as I read it, and get used to his style of writing. Next blog on the book will be about the rest of the book.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Alan Watts reprint of 1961 book

The First Half of Psychotherapy East and West:

In the first chapter of Psychotherapy East and West he skates along big ideas, and typically in academia you're supposed to get into smaller chunks to make sure you've got it right. In some ways Watts is kind of refreshing and there are interesting insights, like that you're going to have to get into social commentary in psychotherapy.

The second chapter is a mash up of physical theories, Wittgenstein and anthropology. The question whether good creates evil was raised, that was my favorite part because it reminds me of the movies MegaMind and Watchmen, who have that theme as well.

Parts of the chapter, I was scratching my head as he switched from topic to topic without transition sentences. It's a kind of riff, and you could see why he was popular in the counter culture when that type of writing was more acceptable. He had some interesting theological views, that in the book of Job, the devil is an adjudicating angel. And he notes he could never get angry at Judas because he just followed Jesus' orders. He thinks schizophrenia is caused by double binds, strong pulls in opposite directions. When the mother tells the little boy, "you don't want to play in that muddy puddle," when the kid really does.

The third chapter on liberation is a kind of history of eastern religions. Watts takes Madhyamaka as the form of Buddhism he is taking about when he generalizes about Buddhism, Vedanta and Taoism. It's an odd choice, when he's speaking in a kind of perfection of wisdom way of Chan.

Watts talks about the caste system of Hinduism, but forgets to mention the "untouchables", the Dalits who have used Buddhism as part of their liberation theology in present times, since Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Ambedkar died in 56, so the movement had been going for 5 years at least. And yet I don't think right or wrongness in his generalizations and characterizations touches his arguments much, such as they are. Watts' style of writing is a kind of challenge in every statement, a kind of interpretation of a philosophy that is at once hard to evaluate, and bold sounding.

The liberation chapter could almost break the chapter up, because he goes on a long riff about reincarnation which is fairly interesting. Watts suggests that all the magic and miracles are for the weak minded. He points out that westerners see reincarnation as a good thing, where as in the east it is meant to be liberated from.

He compares Taoism and Confucianism, then compares Taoism to Rogerian psychotherapy. He looks at the influence of Ch'an Buddhism from Taoism. Then he throws in a dash of neuropsychology. It's a heady brew to gulp down, but occasionally there's an interesting sentence, and a new way of looking at things.

Many times I find myself asking about a statement about Jung or the other topics, "Is that really true?" I have no way of verifying many of the wide claims Watts makes.

I like the concept of distance of excessive reverence: The further away the prophet, the more reverential there must be, and thus a vibrant tradition "dies of respectability."

The question of sexuality is discussed, but he quotes Vedanta, which I'm not as interested in. The Mahayana is supposed to enter the world and therefore one is more likely to be married as a Mahayana Buddhist.

A tour de force is what they call these kinds of books, because it assumes a lot of background and interpretations on that background which are hard to know how true they are. There's a large grand comparison of liberation east and west, which is what the title is, so there you have it.