Vipassana

By the late ‘90’s I had realized things were not what they seemed.  There needed to be a change, things had gotten stagnant.  Not being very good at self-delusion, I knew there had to be an alternative.  Historically, I had been an imperfect student to an imperfect teacher.

My mom was like the mom in “The Glass Menagerie.”  As a kid, I resented her alternating perkiness and morosity.  Perversely, I guess I resented the perkiness even more.  During my teen years, she’d wake us siblings up early on weekend mornings and make breakfast.  She’d bop around the apartment singing and uttering silly things.  There was disdain in the air, and it was coming only from me, for I thought we should all be depressed.  In my mind, we weren’t “successful,” and I felt a hot embarrassment that would flare up hotter the happier she would get.   As I’d clamber out of bed I’d often mutter, “I’ll rise but I sure won’t shine.”

I was tired of us being broke (we had a small apartment and were always just ‘getting by’) and would interpret those moments of happiness as acceptance of failure.  As I got older I learned to verbally espouse a dogma of “keeping it real,” while all the while trying to build for myself my own fantasy world where I could be happy.

My mom was a dreamer, quite given to the get-rich-quick scheme.  She grew up a child of the depression and constructed for herself a little world that resembled the plot lines of depression era comedies like those imagined by the Bowery Boys.  For her the struggle itself was the goal, she always had a ‘racket’ going, and was never happier than during those times when she was waiting to see if something would catch on.

She created several kitschy gift shop items over the years and even wrote a really long novel.  She sought homemade careers in tarot card reading and genealogy.  Nothing ever took, nobody ever seemed interested.  It’s almost like every episode of idea-execution-hope-waiting-failure was a self-contained plotline in itself; and like any Hollywood story, sad endings were more bittersweet than outright tragedy.  The she’d perkily move on and do it all again.

I only saw the failure, and judged her harshly for it.  Children can be shortsighted like that.

Reality is not for everyone, and for those to whom it does not appeal, there are many levels of accomplishment.  And my mom was accomplished, a real pro.  As I indicated, I was not a pro.  There were limited tools at my disposal.  Born utterly without ambition, I had no stomach for get-rich-quick (or even slow) schemes.  So my main methods of escape were Self-Medication and Ignoring.

Both of those ended badly, with Ignoring being even more painful.  After all, overdue bills HAD to eventually be paid.

In the late ‘90’s my mom died.  Her last self-delusion turned out to be the most costly of all because it involved her failing health and the rapid advance of cancer.  Her death bothered me beyond ordinary sadness and I was very angry.  It all just seemed like a waste to me.  Why couldn’t she just for once see things the way they were?  Just once, about her health?  Maybe she’d still be alive.

And why was I refusing to see things the way they were?  I had even been delusional about the efficacy of my self-delusions.  Well, at least I had gotten sober by then.  And right before my mom succumbed to the Tareyton Monster, I had also quit smoking.

After her death I felt empty, I cast about unambitiously for a solution.  I felt pursued by grief and wanted to slow it all down.  Why not just sit down?  Couldn’t I just sit for a moment?

A friend had given me a book called “A Path With Heart.”  It was about meditation but it was also really about sitting still and allowing.  It was about the importance of paying attention.  I was at a place where that idea was finally appealing, for I’d accepted the ultimate failure of personal self-delusion.

In the summer of 2001 I decided to take a beginning meditation class.  The meditation was of a tradition called Vipassana.  It basically asked the meditator to sit in silence and allow all thoughts and feelings to come and go as they wished, all the while paying attention and using something steady (like the breath) as an anchor, a place to return to when delusional thought had washed one right out of the room.

I liked it immediately.  It made me feel….ambitious.  I cared about being good at meditation, for I could get some real peace and calm for myself.  Every week that summer I’d drive across the floating bridge to Stonehouse Bookstore in Kirkland, Washington and happily listen to the instructions of the teacher, Sharda.

I felt like I was doing something different that no one had tripped to.  I liked that.  I also liked that most of the students were older than me, it made me think I’d made a wise choice in doing this and was already ahead of the game.  Maybe I’d “get there” sooner.  Vipassana was traditional within the realm of Buddhism but very non-traditional in the world of our culture.  In Seattle I could be hipper than the hippies.

I was delighted to know as my classes ended that there was a sitting group located right in North Seattle that had its own residential teacher.  I could do this all the time!  I could be a Buddhist and cast aside my failed self-delusions and finally “get real.”

One Tuesday night in August I drove over to Keystone Church and joined the line of Zabuton-toting urban Buddhists filtering in through the front door.

I knew that Sharda had moved to California that week so she wouldn’t be the teacher.  There was unease and trepidation over my having to make a change.  What if I wouldn’t like this guy, this Seattle Insight teacher Rodney?

Making my way, sans shoes, to a clearing, I dropped my Zafu and plopped down.  I saw a tall, slight guy at the front who had a real easy laugh.  He seemed interested and delighted by what he was being told by the man he was talking to.  I knew that if that was Rodney I would like him a lot.  And of course it was.

I sat Tuesday nights the rest of the year with SIMS, the Seattle Insight Meditation Society.  Rodney was a real intellectual, so there were some things he said that seemed too complex, I couldn’t quite grasp.  But he also always spoke from the heart, and I always appreciated and understood that.  So there were evenings where I left that place not really getting it, but knowing in time I would.

We would sit together for 45 minutes in silence and then Rodney would give a dharma talk or field questions from those of us seeking clarity on some part of their sittings.  At the end of his remarks he would always say, “Can we just sit for a moment?”

The more I sat with the group the more I found there were delusions of increasing subtlety that could be revealed (in fact I’m still finding them).  I guess my first meditation delusion was my ambition to “be a successful Buddhist.”

By the way, the word ‘delusion’ does not have quite the negative connotation in Vipassana as it does in “the real world.”  I always pictured the word as one of the last insults hurled between fighting spouses, as in “You’re crazy, you’re delusional!”  In Buddhism it just means not seeing or understanding something clearly.

My not-seeing-clearly was my goal to get somewhere in meditation.  It is one that is shared by almost all beginners.  It inherently interferes with the attitude of allowing and non-judgement that is the real goal (if one can even use a term like ‘goal’).

As I sat more, over the weeks and months, at home and at SIMS, I started to accept myself with more compassion and much of the grief and anger I carried for years kind of dropped away.  I know it’s hard to make these kinds of statements without sounding like a Missionary, like a converter.  But there is none of that in me.  In fact, that kind of behavior is frowned upon anyway in Vipassana and as such it dovetails nicely with my own lack of ambition.  As I understood more clearly what I was doing with this “Buddhism thing” I uncovered the element that attracted me to it in the first place.

Being such a failure at self-delusion, I found that reality was for me after all.  In time I started to think more about my mom, gone almost 5 years by then.  I saw her own embrace of delusion as equally vital to anyone else’s (mine) attitude of reality; for as it now worked for me, it apparently was what always worked for her.

I thought about her perky weekend breakfasts and saw them for the displays of love and affection that they really were.  I guess a breakfast was just a breakfast. Her dreamy world became her own reality and my own understanding of reality helped me appreciate it, even if only in retrospect.  I also learned to appreciate her understanding of the happiness that comes about by process; that the way you pick your path to somewhere is the real achievement in itself.

1 reply
  1. Laura
    Laura says:

    Wow! Very insightful and thoughtful. I can see both of your views, yours and Mom’s. I think the schemes, the happy breakfasts were also a way to keep her head just above the waterline of giving in to the situation and feeling that depression.

    Thanks for this wonderful piece, Jeannine Wooten would have read it over many times!

    Reply

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