Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

I completed a week-long meditation retreat in August, and I would like to assure you all that everyone and everything is basically good. Or to put it in more traditionally Buddhist terms, Buddha nature is all we are and all we experience. Admittedly, my reasoning to this conclusion is more inductive than deductive, but I remain confident in the conclusion and urge you all to investigate the possibility for yourselves. Why would sitting still or pacing around in a room in Chelsea for a week with thirty or so like-minded practitioners until my back, neck, and shoulders burned, returning home only to sleep, eat breakfast, stretch, and take Aleve, lead me to surmise this?

To start with, this retreat wasn’t the struggle my last one was. I sat and I didn’t brood. I didn’t ruminate, lament, or fulminate. I didn’t rehearse, scheme, or plan. I mostly just sat there. I suspect that the change in my experience is largely the result of the nearly six years of daily practice in the interim (or, as my meditation instructor has put it, of having termites invisibly undermine the timbers framing my sense of self). Perhaps the medication has contributed as well, but I’m inclined to doubt it. I’ve suffered difficulties with extended meditation despite medication in the past, and just before this retreat, I had been struggling more than usual with my depressive tendencies. My newfound stability over that week seemed to be less a matter of a reduced propensity toward depression or anxiety and more a matter of an increased ability to accommodate those propensities.

As I sat or strolled with myself hour upon hour, I found myself more amenable to myself. (I apologize for the recursion or tautology in that sentence, but I don’t know quite how else to put it. On the fourth evening of our retreat, the Center held its Weekly Dharma Gathering in our midst, and Acharya Bower spoke on “Friendliness Toward Yourself.” After the talk, a participant raised his hand to express frustration that it was unclear who was to be friendly to whom. Whose kindness you might want–and whose amenability I was so pleased to have discovered–becomes starkly clear if you sit for even a day.) My sense of relief became comfort and then a sort of joy. Seven years into my Buddhist study and practice, it was finally going the way my teachers suggested, in person or in books, that it might. But even more than this feeling of accomplishment, the experience of something other than angst amid quiet and stillness was thrilling–I could see becoming quite attached to it. Yet in our occasional discussions, we were urged over and over to offer whatever benefit we gained to others, and being in such a contented frame of mind, I was surprisingly willing to do so. We were shown a video of a talk by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Basic Goodness given right here on the Upper West Side in 1982. In the discussion following the formal talk, a woman asked Rinpoche how she was to believe that the man who once held a gun to her head possessed Basic Goodness. That question, and his answer, animated our group’s discussion after the video ended and my meditation for the rest of the week.

Turning inward, if I’m honest with myself and disregard the tales I tell myself of my own fundamental unworthiness, I’m forced to admit that I’m basically good. This is not to say that I’m only good or even often good, just basically good. What I mean by that is that when I’m aware of what I’m doing, my intention is to do what I believe to be right. If I don’t, I feel ill at ease with myself in a way that no amount of post hoc justification can assuage (at best, I may be able to forget the matter entirely). And those attempts at justification themselves betray a fundamental desire to do, or at least have done, the right thing.

In fact, it could even be said that the very fact of caring–of preferring one outcome to another–is the outer expression of Basic Goodness. This impulse may become terribly malformed between its initial conception and its final expression, but the perpetrator of the vilest wrongdoing originally intended to make something better for someone, even if it was only himself or herself (who, after all, is no less, or more, valid an object of compassion than any other being). I say this because if I continue to be honest with myself, I am also forced to admit that there are no doubt circumstances (in which I have so far been fortunate enough not find myself) under which I could find myself holding a gun to someone’s head. Yes, Basic Goodness underlies all of our motivations, but the potential to corrupt that into aggression, whether petty or profound, exists in all of us as well, as anyone who has watched The Sopranos closely and found themselves in the troubling position of wishing a sociopath well can attest. Our primordial ignorance, the root of all of our suffering, is to see separation, distinct entities, inherent existence where there are no such things. Our Basic Goodness isn’t separate from the suffering its misguided expression causes; we aren’t separate from those we harm or those who harm us; and none of us are devoid of Basic Goodness, nor are any of us free from the ignorance that expresses it as suffering.

Less than a month after our small group arose from our week of sitting in Chelsea, another small group took their seats a little further downtown, and they have grown and remain there still. Though the timing is merely coincidence, I can’t but project a continuity between the two. The week of sitting in August so fundamentally changed my sense of and relationship with myself that I’m still trying to integrate the experience. The Occupy movement has had a similarly profound effect on my sense of and relationship with the world around me. Perhaps the way things are done isn’t the solution to the problems caused by the way things are done, and perhaps from that insight hope might arise. There’s an unmistakable undertone of alarm, panic even, to the various attempts to airily and pithily dismiss the Occupy movement’s manifestations that indicates the deeper truth about the real threat it poses to the way things are done. I often hear that same undertone of alarm when I discuss meditation with people who haven’t tried it. In both cases, I find myself offering the same suggestion: “Try it.” If you can spare the few minutes, sit quietly and follow your breath, and if you can get to an Occupation, go visit. Don’t listen to everyone else’s opinions and beliefs about your fundamental nature or the nature of the world around you, especially not mine. Go and find, or fail to find, Basic Goodness for yourself. But I bet you’ll find it if you’re honest with yourself.

Russell Sits

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