Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Month: March, 2014

Western Buddhist Overachievers

As western students of Indo-Tibetan philosophy, seeking to understand a contemplative tradition that others around us, and we ourselves, may consciously or unconsciously perceive as somehow distanced or removed from our daily reality (i.e., as ancient, exotic, esoteric, mystical, special, rare, pure, eternal, blessed, supramundane, spiritual) we face the risks of self-deception. We may actually be attracted to the promise of escape from present reality, or of escape from ourselves as ‘converts’ to the ‘truth’. Exposed to concepts such as karma, merit, and interdependent origination, we may tend toward piety, moralism, and religiosity. A poetic and folky expression in Tibetan, such as “taming the mind,” may slide in translation toward the militant and imperative: less a florid manner of speech and more a stringent moral injunction. In short, we may find ourselves in an elaborate project to escape and reject ourselves, when, for Tibetans born into a Buddhist way of life, the point of dharma, and of contemplative practice, is precisely to become more familiar with our own minds. Arguably, for western practitioners, it may take years to question the deeply ingrained tendency to overachieve, either in a mission to ‘perfect’ ourselves or to ‘reach enlightenment in this very lifetime’. Glamorous goals may distract us from the more anonymous attention to our own tendencies in little, daily moments that, in a much more tangible way, allows us to develop compassion for ourselves and for others. Ironically, even the practice of ‘mindfulness’ has become a catchword, of late, for a kind of sharper image, a better, more competitive, more successful self.

Why My Ivy League Education Really Pissed Me Off

“Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. We do not enjoy virtue because we keep our lusts in check. On the contrary, it is because we enjoy blessedness that we are able to keep our lusts in check” Spinoza, Ethics, V, Proposition 32.

“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions, or have no Passions, but because they have cultivated their Understandings.” William Blake

As a graduate of an Ivy League college, I was required to spend nearly two years in the core curriculum, steeping myself in the western canon. I had a strong interest in eastern culture, too, which led me to courses in eastern epic literature, comparative religion, and the history of Taoism, alongside courses in British Empiricism and Continental Philosophy. The confluence of these different interests led me to focus on the poetry of the British Romantics, who continue to inspire contemporary readers with an emphasis on the artificial bounds set by reason or knowledge on the capacity for sensation. The romantics saw imagination as an alternative to knowledge, less because it involved escapist fantasy than interrelationship. Imagination does not “know” the world; it all sensation of the world to inform the mind, in ways that modify the mind. It all sensation itself to present an implicit challenge to ways in which we know the world that inadequately imagine the world.

Graduating with a BA in English, I was less interested in becoming an expert in romanticism than in learning how to imagine the world. With all that momentum of inquiry abruptly freed from any specific curriculum, I found that I could not simply go back to normal. I was no longer a good consumer. I’d become acutely sensitive to social institutions that passed themselves off as a way of life. I walked out of movies after ten minutes, appalling my friends. I had lost the taste for distraction.

What I found, when there was nowhere to turn, not even books of philosophy or poetry, was that the world, or reality, was not at all the way I thought it was. Objects did not exist the way I thought they did. “I” did not exist the way I thought I did. In short, I found myself meditating on emptiness, which involved an active peace or bliss, a sense of interconnectedness that was not intellectual. I was upset about it.

I had put all that time and energy into an Ivy League education, but not even the wise old professors who I had loved the most, some of them as homespun and full of homilies as Joseph Campbell, had even hinted that one might be able to relax one’s sense of ‘knowledge’ enough for thought, in all of its superficiality, its grasping at concepts and objects, at forms of identification, forms of permanence, to end.

Not that thought can end, but if one takes its activity to be self-centered, fabricated, arid, reactive, reifying, then it seems that mode of experience can subside enough for the basically spontaneous, selfless, blissful nature of both reality and mind to emerge. One could call it a living quality of silence. That’s just a description. Silence is just a word.

I felt upset with the superficiality, the informativeness, of the education I had received – a barrage of concepts advanced with professional confidence, a kind of assurance that never acknowledged its incompleteness and inadequacy. Did it not involve an implicit bias against, if not tacit proscription of, imagination? The “I” or identity, it seemed to me, had remarkably thorough defenses, institutional walls of the kind you only find in Blake’s “London.”

How can a university raise a billion dollars a year in funding yet fail so colossally at even hinting at an antidote to, or end of, analysis? Why was something as simple as mindfulness so ignored? Why was propositional meaning given such exaggerated emphasis? Did it say something about the links between intellect and power? I felt betrayed.

The loss of the taste for distraction, for knowledge and experience in all of its countless forms, goes hand in hand with non-distraction. It’s not something one can do. It’s an ending of doing, of hoping.

Admittedly, I speak of an institution as it existed in the past, which may have changed in ways of which I’m not aware. And, I don’t miss the irony that it was in fact learning to analyze and think critically that pushed me into an attentiveness that had lost its taste for distraction.

What really struck me as false and unjust was that until then I had supposed this sort of thing was only possible if one either was a yogi, monk, martial artist, or Zen practitioner. Really, there were two stance one could assume: one stance was to style oneself as an Asian person trapped inside a western body. One could start eating with chopsticks, change into slippers when one entered one’s apartment or house. One could sleep on a futon and even buy a tatami. Alternatively, one could be a born again New Ager. One could ‘wake up’, remember one’s soul-purpose, listen to the crystalline hum of synthesizers, eat organic food and let the light in one’s eyes show everyone that one had consciously chosen to incarnate at this vibrational level in this time of the earth changes. Om. Growing up in suburbia was a just an illusion, and underneath one’s mundane identity was a member of the Rainbow Tribe emanating from an immortal Soul Ray to help humankind evolve to a state beyond violence.

The choice was tough, because these two sides of the “me” generation – the ascetics and the hedonists – disliked each other. I still think it’s probably better to sit still for hours on end at risk of social humiliation should one fart or fidget than to believe, heavens forbid, in the insult to even a ten year old’s intelligence implied in the “law of attraction.” Anyway, it’s all hodgepodge, all borrowings and mishmash, whether you like the hard Zen road or the soft New Age road. There’s always a grain of truth in all of it, and the person you should trust the least is the person who sounds like they can tell you what the nature of the mind really is. Maybe that’s why the university just doesn’t go there.

But that creates its own problems. Big problems.

Adventures in the Spirit World

I haven’t been able to write for a few weeks, because I’m still going through the academic hazing process, or what I think of, when I’m feeling dramatic, as the Inquisition. It’s not that far-fetched for me to think of it that way – my grandmother knew Ernst Bloch, who in turn knew (and saved the works of), Kafka. The other day, too, I discovered a reference in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to a rich man who married his housemaid, which could, based on time and place, be a reference to my great-aunt and her husband, a scion of the Raphael Tuck and Sons greeting cards dynasty, sort of a British version of Hallmark, or something like that. Probably not.

Word is the family disowned them, wouldn’t lift a finger later to help them get out of Nazi Germany. We do have this weird family pattern of disowning each other. My mom’s youngest sister disowned her, for which my eldest brother never forgave her, but then he disowned me. All of this on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Forget all that.

Today it’s all about adventures in the spirit world. Not that I’ve been having many, unless this world is the spirit world in some bizarre sense. No doubt. But this is, and must be, part of my confession: I have had such adventures, and most of them completely without herbal assistance. Actually I find I’m not in the mood to talk about it. Let me just say this. If one really relaxes, one will see rain in the air where there is no rain. It’s like rain. Listen: there’s a wonderfully soft sound to it. I’ve been reading about the new proof of cosmic inflation, and learned that matter and light are thought to have parted company I think around 400,000 after the Big Bang. Well, I don’t know what that energy dancing in the air is. Spirit seems a possible explanation. If you haven’t noticed it yet, why not relax your preconceptions and see for yourself?

Mindfulness: Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

Recently, over the past two decades, and now as a kind of verified fad, people have been talking about mindfulness, usually as a means of becoming more effective, successful, and fulfilled. It seems to me that we still cannot talk about meditation as simple, accessible bliss. Intellectuals can complicate it if they want, but in reality that adds little or nothing. Complicating it seems an evasion. Why is this still so external to our way of living and thinking, in the university and outside of it? What if we could start from this understanding that all the answers to our questions are self-evidently indivisible from the nature of awareness itself? If inexpressible or inconceivable bliss is the simple and immediate nature of our minds, why do we go in these crazy loops? Why do we give people degrees for memorizing old knowledge or producing new knowledge, instead of giving degrees to people who practice the dissolution of the knower? Why don’t we seize upon bliss right now? Why do we put it off in time? Why doesn’t every undergrad have to solve the Blakean Koan?

“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

In Buddhism, this attachment to knowledge is explained in terms of the “four faults”:

(1) The mind is too close to be recognized (2) The experience is too profound to comprehend (3) The true nature of mind is too simple to believe (4) Enlightenment is too wonderful for us to accept.

Emily Dickinson, a skilled parrhesiastic, had her own way of putting this:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –