Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why we meditate

I have a confession to make to my digital journal: since my Sundays have been so busy that I've been unable to attend my local Sangha, I have not been meditating. At all.
I realize I've been approaching Buddhism from a very philosophical point of view, ignoring the fact that Buddhist teachers never call Buddhism a philosophy, they call it a practice. Mindfulness meditation really is the path through which all the philosophical ideals of Buddhism are put into effect in one's daily life. Perhaps it's a primitive analogy, but spending all my time reading about Buddhism without practicing meditation is quite a bit like reading about basketball without ever practicing it--I'd be very knowledgeable about the sport, but I couldn't dribble to save my life.

The problem with just thinking about Buddhism is actually a good example of why mindfulness meditation is so useful. You see, we get caught up very easily in our thoughts; understandable, given how present and real they feel. But it's all too easy to get carried away with thinking, to the point where they become more real to us than the outside world. I know I'm guilty of having entire conversations play out in my head--conversations that haven't even happened yet--that create such strong emotions that it changes the way I feel about the person I was thinking about talking with! Maybe you've never done that, but I'm sure you can think of other examples... What are daydreams, if not us getting carried away in our thoughts, away from the prosaic world around us?
There's nothing wrong with this--from time to time--but we musn't deceive ourselves into thinking that thinking is the only way to experience the world. For one thing, as I've blogged before, our thoughts can be quite misleading, sometimes. But more importantly, we have other ways of experiencing things that get too often overlooked. Our feelings, for example, are an important way of experiencing the world. Too often we believe that our thoughts are actually on a different level, different plane, than our feelings, but in fact our feelings and our thoughts are both reactions of our bodies to the outside world. Although, if we're not careful, our thoughts can be a reaction to our feelings, or our feelings a reaction to our thoughts, and we can get caught in a vicious loop of self-created feedback, totally irrelevant to what is actually going on, but still seeming very real to us.

Mindfulness meditation helps to train the mind not to take our thoughts so seriously. When you are calm and still, and can focus your attention only on awareness itself, allowing thoughts to rise and fall in your mind without grabbing onto them and letting them hold your attention, you swiftly realize several things.
You will realize that your thoughts--which we tend to think of as the ultimate expression of Self (in other words, most people would identify their thoughts as "Self" even more than they would their body)--are not actually as... purposeful as we like to suppose. You will find that thoughts rise and fall seemingly quite randomly, without your bidding them (and if capital-y You are not bidding them, then who is?). And your thoughts are almost never alone; always there are several different thoughts, rising and falling, clamoring for your attention, like a little kid who just can't stand silence.

And that's the point--our minds can't stand silence. They're not used to it. Meditation is important precisely because it is a practice; we can't just tell our brains "embrace silence" any more than we can tell our untrained muscles "dribble this ball between your legs."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"An unexamined life is not worth living" ~Socrates

Last week, Dale Neumann was charged with 2nd degree reckless manslaughter. The victim? His daughter. How did she die? Slowly and painfully, over the course of months, from a simple, highly treatable case of diabetes. Doctors said she could have been saved right up until the very end if her parents had only brought her to the hospital. So, why didn't they? Did they hate their daughter? Were they psychologically unstable?
No. They didn't take her to the hospital because they believed that God would heal their daughter. They surrounded her--family and friends, all accomplices--with prayer, right up to the moment she stopped breathing, believing that God would heal their beloved daughter.
It breaks my heart to think about that poor little 11-year old girl, dying so young of such a curable illness. But when I think about her parents, it fills me with horror--makes my blood run cold and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Because, if not for a lucky roll of the dice, it could have been me standing before that jury.

You see, I understand exactly where Dale Neumann is coming from. The vast, vast majority of Christians--even the ones who don't see the Bible as metaphor, and consider themselves literalists--will look at Mr and Mrs Neumann with a sad shake of their head; "God gave us doctors and medicine to use," they'll say. They'll recite some old adage about a man on a roof in a flood, turning down rescue boats and helicopters because he's "waiting on God to save him." God wants us to use our intellect to find cures to diseases; it's not a lack of faith to go to the hospital.
But I know what Dale was thinking. He was thinking of Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding." He was thinking of 2 Chron 16:12 "And Asa... was diseased... yet in his disease, he sought not to the Lord, but to physicians." He was praying Phil 4:13 (I can do all things through Christ...) and Luke 1:37 (Nothing is impossible with God...). He took literally the passage in James 5:14-15 (...and the prayer of Faith shall save the sick...) and Psalms 103 (The Lord... healeth all thy diseases). He believed Jesus was the Son of God and meant what he said in John 14:12 when he said, speaking of his miracles of healing the sick and raising the dead, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Then he assures all Christians, "whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that I will do." Then he repeats it in the next verse, just in case you didn't get the message!

I could go on for paragraphs quoting more verses like this. I know them, because I used to pray them, too. I was taught to believe that the Bible is THE Word of God, and that everything in it is capital-T True. These verses are not talked about in most churches, because if they were, it would have to be explained why Christians go to the doctor and why the church elders aren't anointing anybody with healing oil (that actually heals anybody). It would have to be explained how we could know that THOSE verses are meant metaphorically, or are actually talking about something other than what the plain reading would suggest (which is usually the test for Biblical literalists). So, they're largely ignored.
But not all the time. Some Christians desire to go deeper than their Sunday lessons, and they realize there's a lot their pastors left out. Some branch out on their own and start their own churches, preaching "everything" the Bible actually says, not just the traditional Protestant parts. And that's when things become dangerous.

I was one of those Christians. And when my daughter was only a year old, she had a febrile seizure. My wife and I totally freaked out (as any parent would). We called an ambulance, which took her to the emergency room--all sorts of worse-case scenarios running through our heads. We were there for hours, spending most of our time, as is typical, waiting. Waiting, with a feverish, cranky one-year old, I might add.
Turned out, after spending our entire day there, running our daughter through some terrible tests, and then having to pay way more than we had to the hospital so that we had to ask my parents for money (we were quite poor)... that everything was ok. They gave her some tylenol, sent her home, call us if there's any changes. All she'd had was a rather high fever, which the sharp temperature changes of getting out of the bath had aggravated. There was nothing wrong with her.
It was a sign. We knew it. We knew those verses I quoted above (and more), we professed to believe them. But when our daughter was in trouble, we took her straight to "the physicians," and our terrible time of it was God showing us how it doesn't pay to be unfaithful. Isn't that obvious? It was to us, anyway, the same way little coincidences are obvious Signs From God to most casual Christians. We resolved, from that point forward, that if anything were to happen to Eva--anything at all--we would not call the doctor. We would not call 911. We would not seek any treatment aside from what the Word of God recommended--prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.

The same way Dale Neumann and his wife treated their little girl. I'm terrified to even imagine what would have happened if my daughter had gotten badly ill or hurt back then.
Everyone's heart breaks for little Kara Neumann. Most people are angry at her parents, even literalist Christians. "Why didn't they just see this verse, or this verse, that would have told them it's OK to take their daughter to the doctors? It's obvious to me!" But I understand Dale Neumann's faith, and I understand his pain. Because, even now, sitting in that jail cell, Mr. Neumann believes he did right. He believes he put his faith in God and not in Man, and so he'll be rewarded after he dies. He has to believe it--it would be far too painful to question it, now. You see, Kara Neumann wasn't the only one that was sick. Her parents have a mind virus; a set of ideas that passes from one person to the next and protects itself by saying, "Never doubt! Never question! Doubting Thomas questioned, and look what a fool he was! Adam and Eve questioned, and look where it got them!" "Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has," said Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation. That blind faith, that avoidance of reason, is what kept Dale Neumann from questioning whether his interpretation of the Bible was right or not; and it cost his daughter her life. Ironically, that same blind faith, that same avoidance of reason, keeps those Christians who snub their nose at the Neumanns from questioning whether ~their~ interpretation might be the one in error. After all, with a belief that proposes "We won't know until we get there [meaning heaven]" as an acceptable answer for difficult questions, how could any interpretation ever be questioned? Only by reason, that whore, that enemy; thine own understanding that is scoffed at in Proverbs.

I believe Dale and Leilani Neumann deserved their conviction--their daughter died through their inaction, and the law must be followed. But I don't for one minute believe that I am better than them; that four short years ago I wouldn't have done the same thing. And if any of you harbor any beliefs--no matter how small or innocuous--that you do not constantly subject to reasoning, thoroughly examining them without hesitation or trepidation, do not imagine yourselves better than the Neumanns, either. Your beliefs may not result in anyone's death, but beliefs become actions, and actions have consequences, both for yourself and for others.
I look at the Neumanns, and I feel sorrow and pity, but I also feel a powerful need to examine my own life, my own assumptions. Because I know that there, but for the luck of the draw, go I.