Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bare Attention vs. Mindfulness: The Difference between War and Peace

The well-known and highly-regarded Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind has just published an issue focused on war and piece that works hard to stir the pot by asking whether mindfulness training for the military is justifiable. You can read three of the articles in it here

As I read the issue, I realized immediately that there are related and much more fundamental questions that need to be asked, and that, had they been asked decades ago would've made the current issue and its questions unnecessary. Those questions have to do with asking whether the definition of "mindfulness" (sati in Pali) in widest uses in the Western vipassana community and its fast-growing, highly lucrative secular offshoots (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the like), have anything to do with the sort of mindfulness the Buddha practiced and recommended. And the answer is a resounding "no."


As a starting point, have a look at these short questions and answers from a Tricycle interview with scholar-practitioner Alan Wallace: 




For the past several months you’ve been in dialogue with many Buddhist teachers on the topic of mindfulness. What prompted you to focus on this topic? For years I’ve been puzzled by the discrepancies between the descriptions of mindfulness given by many modern Vipassana teachers and psychologists who rely on them, on the one hand, and the definitions of mindfulness we find in traditional Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist literature on the other. When I first noticed this disparity about thirty years ago, I thought perhaps it was due to differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. But the more I looked into this, the more it appeared to me that traditional Theravada and Mahayana sources are largely in accord with each other, and it was the modern accounts of mindfulness that departed from both traditions.

In what ways do the modern accounts differ? While mindfulness (sati) is often equated with bare attention, my conversations with—and recent studies of works by—the learned monks Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Analayo, and Rupert Gethin, president of the Pali Text Society, led me to conclude that bare attention corresponds much more closely to the Pali term manasikara, which is commonly translated as “attention” or “mental engagement.” This word refers to the initial split seconds of the bare cognizing of an object, before one begins to recognize, identify, and conceptualize, and in Buddhist accounts it is not regarded as a wholesome mental factor. It is ethically neutral. The primary meaning of sati, on the other hand, is recollection, non-forgetfulness. This includes retrospective memory of things in the past, prospectively remembering to do something in the future, and present-centered recollection in the sense of maintaining unwavering attention to a present reality. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, so mindfulness applied to the breath, for instance, involves continuous, unwavering attention to the respiration. Mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention (manasikara), but nowhere do traditional Buddhist sources equate mindfulness with such attention.


Does the Buddha ever mention the term manasikara in his mindfulness instructions? Not that I know of. The term figures most prominently in Abhidhamma-based treatises on Buddhist psychology. In the Buddha’s practical instructions on both samatha (tranquility meditation) and vipassana (insight meditation), the terms sati and sampajanna appear most often. Sampajanna is usually translated from the Pali as “clear comprehension,” but this type of awareness always has a reflexive quality: It invariably entails a monitoring of the state of one’s body or mind, sometimes in relation to one’s environment. For this reason, I prefer to translate sampajanna as “introspection,” which here entails discerning observation not only of one’s mind but of one’s physical and verbal activities as well.

What are some of the pitfalls of viewing meditation simply as a process of bare attention? When mindfulness is equated with bare attention, it can easily lead to the misconception that the cultivation of mindfulness has nothing to do with ethics or with the cultivation of wholesome states of mind and the attenuation of unwholesome states. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Pali Abhidhamma, where mindfulness is listed as a wholesome mental factor, it is not depicted as bare attention, but as a mental factor that clearly distinguishes wholesome from unwholesome mental states and behavior. And it is used to support wholesome states and counteract unwholesome states. (underlining added for emphasis)


What, then, is the role of bare attention? The cultivation of bare attention is valuable in many ways, and there’s a rapidly growing body of research on its benefits for both psychological and physiological disorders. But it’s incorrect to equate that with mindfulness, and an even greater error to think that’s all there is to vipassana. If that were the case, all the Buddha’s teachings on ethics, samadhi (highly focused attention), and wisdom would be irrelevant. All too often, people who assume that bare attention is all there is to meditation reject the rest of Buddhism as clap-trap and mumbo-jumbo. The essential teachings are dismissed rather than one’s own preconceptions. 


More recently, Professors Robert Sharf and Donald Lopez provided this short description of how a form of meditation the Buddha never taught became Buddhism's most popular contribution to the world at large in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  As the article concludes:


"The story of how the popular understanding of mindfulness derived from modern Vipassana meditation and how Vipassana first came to be taught to laypeople in Burma in the early decades of the 20th century is told in Erik Braun’s article Meditation en Masse in the Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle. There is thus no need to retell that story here.


Armed with this knowledge, Buddhists of the world can unite in the fight against high blood pressure, but need not concede that the mindfulness taught by various medical professionals today was somehow taught by the Buddha."


How it happened and why it matters


As the Erik Braun article (and book) and the other references supplied at the end of this article make clear, the two most popular strands of vipassana or insight meditation taught and pracitced in the West - those originating with Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin and his famous student S.N. Goenka - were invented out of whole cloth, on the basis of commentarial literature and not the suttas, in the 20th century. 


However useful their techniques may be, and however strident their claims of authenticity,  they have nothing to do with the forms of meditation the Buddha taught and practiced, and are equally far removed from the classic teachings on samatha/shamatha (calm abiding), leading to vipassana/vipashyana (liberating insight) as practiced in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. 

In just the past decade or so there's been a real resurgence in interest in the path of integrated practice of concentration and insight that the Buddha did teach, and it's now okay to say the word jhana (meditative absorption) at a Spirit Rock or IMS retreat without risking expulsion from the premises, but only a handful of brave souls - from Ajahns Brahm and Sujato to the aforementioned Alan Wallace - have dared to point out that the ideas of "dry" insight, momentary concentration and all the rest are about as related to what the historical Buddha taught and practiced as chanting nam myoho renge kyo or visualizing oneself as a deity.


Secularizing a Secularization

When you read Erik Braun's book (or David McMahan's equally worthwhile Making of Buddhist Modernism) you realize full-force that Jon Kabat-Zinn's hugely successful appropriation and redefinition of the term mindfulness to mean not sati  but manasikara - came from his study with teachers whose "authentic training in ancient Buddhist meditation" - i.e. the founders of IMS and Spirit Rock - was in fact (except for a glancing acquaintance with theThai forest tradition) training in a highly secularized form of Buddhism that can trace its roots back no further than the early years of the 20th century.

A lost cause?

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the most popular forms of Buddhism and yoga in the West are among the furthest removed from the early teachings, and this is especially true with ersatz mindfulness. I've yet to meet a single teacher from IMS or Spirit Rock who even knows the canoncial definition of sati, let alone teaches it, and when you then add to the mix the huge following that the Goenka cult (there really is no other word for it) has plus Thich Nhat Hanh and the rest,  the chances of a sincere seeker encountering any definition other than "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (JKZ) are very slim.

Modern Consensus Buddhism of the sort that appears in Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun, O Magazine and the like consistently features teachers who are thoroughly invested in bare attention and morality-free "mindfulness" as the essence of what Buddhism has to offer the modern world. And make no mistake, there is serious money behind scientific research into these forms of meditation, meaning that the battle for ownership of the term has most likely already been won by those who follow the capitalist version of the golden rule (i.e. those with the gold, rule). 


Removing mindfulness from a path that starts with renunciation and requires ethical conduct before even sitting down on the cushion has obvious mass appeal. Follow that by expunging any ritual or devotional elements, replace the Buddha's radical empasis on pure process and not-self with Advaita Vedanta theism (Tara Brach's "resting in Presence," or other code names for God such as original mind, pure awareness and the like) and insist that it's all either scientifically validated or about to be and you have Consensus Buddhism in a nutshell. 

Fortunately there are still a few folks out there, many of them monastics, who still see the Buddha's eightfold path, in which meditation is preceded by ethics, as being a complete package, and the selling of any one factor within it as a self-sufficient way to liberation as a serious mistake.

Since I started this piece with a quote from Alan Wallace, I'll end it with a recollection from a retreat I did with him a few years ago on the Brahmaviharas, during which he spoke pointedly about the dangers of reducing the threefold training in ethics, meditation and wisdom to secularized mindfulness. His question for the group: "what sort of a world would you rather live in: one in which everyone practiced bare attention for an hour a day, or one in which no one meditated but everyone followed the 5 Precepts to the letter?" I know what my answer would be - and am certain that in such a world Buddhist journals asking earnest questions about whether using meditation techniques to increase the calmness and efficacy of professional killers would be a very rare occurrence.



References

Mindfulness Defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Indispensable and very, very clear.

Alan Wallace interview

A History of Mindfulness by Bhikkhu Sujato. For those with the interest and patience (it's a lengthy and scholarly book) who want to know the full story of how we got to where we are and how it relates to the Buddha's teaching and practice. The synopsis is here

A Vision for Spirit Rock by Jack Kornfield. In this fascinating piece  Jack Kornfield makes it very clear that his answer to being given diametrically opposed meditation instructions from Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah and S.N. Goenka was to create a potpourri of all of them - despite Goenka's firm prohibition against doing so and Kornfield's fear of ever coming to resemble his Mahasi teacher! Faced with similar confusion Ajahn Buddhadasa and others returned to the suttas and inquired about the lineage, intentions and results of the instructions they had been given, with very different results. 


















Sunday, January 12, 2014

Popularity vs. Profundity in Yoga and Buddhism: some reflections


Patañjali
1. Now the teachings of yoga.
2. Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
3. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
4. Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness. 
       
                                        opening verses of the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali

These four verses are the definition of yoga from what is widely regarded as the tradition's most canonical text. Not a whole lot of linkage here to Lululemon tights, "yoga butt," or twisting yourself into knots in a hot room while listening to techno, is there?

Things aren't a whole lot healthier in the secularized, dumbed-down world of what the brilliant David Chapman calls Consensus Buddhism, the mash-up of white people's versions of Theravada, Zen and heavily expurgated Tibetan Tantra that is all over Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun and Oprah Magazine. Ixnay on renunciation, death contemplations, ethics and the rest, and pass the everyday mindfulness and radical acceptance of pro-consumption nowness, please. 

For yoga, one can (and should!) read an overview text on the tradition as a whole, and I can think of nothing to equal Georg Feuerstein's The Yoga Tradition. Even if you just skim this encyclopedic work you get a very clear sense of the hundreds of yogas that exist, and of how recent - and how trivial - a part bodily contortions and fitness play in the tradition as a whole. 

For Buddhism, get hold of a copy of David McMahan's essential The Making of Buddhist Modernism (see the review by David Loy here) to get a sense of how profoundly "filtered" our understanding of the Buddha's teachings really are. 

Yoga

I'm nowhere near as well-versed in yoga philosophy and practice as I am in Buddhism, but at least I've read and practiced enough to be thoroughly humbled by the vastness of my own ignorance. Like author/translator Chip Hartranft (whose translation begins this post) I see Patañjali and the Buddha as perhaps the two greatest yogis of ancient India. The soteriological intention and most of the means to it are the same, and both teachers were clearly masters of pranayama, dhyana leading to samadhi, and liberating insight.

As Mark Singleton has demonstrated nearly all of what passes for yoga in the West is an amalgam of Western gymnastic exercises with a few introductory Hatha yoga techniques, heavily filtered through Christianity, Theosophy, and romanticism. Meanwhile the yoga tradition as a whole, of which Buddhism is one small part, comes out of the shramana rebellion against the Vedic tradition, and is distinguished by its profound spirit of renunciation and self-reliance.

On a mass-market level, yoga in the West consists of various stretching workouts, many under brand names (Bikram, Core Power, Anusara, etc.) and the content of group classes (themselves a huge anomaly) is close to 100% asana. At a somewhat more refined level we have the traditions flowing from Sri Krishnamacharya, with Iyengar and Ashtanga being by far the best-known, while his more mature teaching as represented by teachers such as T.K.V. Desikachar, A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami and Gary Kraftsow enjoy much smaller followings. The Krishnmacharya traditions are also very asana-oriented, but at least there is instruction available in pranayama and therapeutic applications, even if classes in these traditions are just as unlikely to include the silent meditation that all the asana and pranayama are supposed to be a mere prelude to.

I don't have any personal experience of Tibetan yantra yoga or the tsa lung practices (training in which is restricted in any case and certainly not appropriate for someone anywhere near my age), but my sense is that yoga practices of these sorts, that move the physical body in order to activate and cleanse the subtle body, have probably mostly disappeared from the Indian subcontinent and in any case, being part of the Tantric tradition, are certainly far removed from the Brahmanical, mostly Vaishnaivite teachers of modern "orthodox" hatha yoga.


The Buddha, Sarnath
Buddhism

I sat my first Zen sesshin (with Joshu Sasaki Roshi) at age 15 and by 17 had moved to Boulder, Colorado to study with the well-known (and notorious) Chögyam Trungpa. I was a passionate student of philosophy and psychology, East and West, and chose the Nyingma and Kagyü lineages of Tibetan Buddhism after a careful exploration of every other option for both study and practice I could find. Much earlier on - starting around age 10 - I had been sending away to far-off Ceylon for little pamphlets from the Buddhist Publication Society, but like so many others in the West I glossed over - or rather sped through - the fundamental teachings on the 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, shila, samadhi and prajña and the like in favor of pursuing the "highest" teachings.

At some point after repeatedly receiving advanced teachings in Mahamudra and Dzogchen from wonderful teachers I realized that I, along with many other students, simply did not have the steadiness of mind nor openness of heart to really put these teachings into practice in a consistent way, and I decided to set them aside temporarily and build a stronger foundation. To that end I began a thorough investigation into the earliest teachings and practices of Buddhism, as found in the Pali suttas.

What I found as I encountered Westernized, secularized Theravada Buddhism (the "vipassana" movement, or as Bhikkhu Sujato puts it, vipassanavada) was a rather amazing juxtaposition of teachings of the utmost clarity and usefulness (4 Noble Truths/Eightfold Path, the 5 Hindrances, 7 Factors of Awakening, precept practice and much more) with meditation practices featuring conflicting instructions, unclear origins and vehement insistence by famous teachers that their technique, and only theirs, was the true path to liberation, what the Buddha taught, etc.

I was exceedingly fortunate that the timing of my personal "back to basics" quest coincided with great advances in the scholarly study of Early Buddhism, by scholars such as Richard Gombrich and Rupert Gethin and a new generation of scholar-practitioner monks capable of reading the suttas in every language in which they are preserved - most notably Bhikkhus Analayo and the aforementioned Sujato. As a result of their work, we have, in just the past 10-15 years, gotten a much clearer idea of what the Buddha actually thought (the most concise summary of which can be found in a document with that name referenced at the end of this post).

If Iyengar and Ashtanga are the two best-known brands of mainstream yoga, the equivalents in modern Theravada (or rather, vipassana, a highly secularized offshoot) are the methods expounded by Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma and S.N. Goenka of India, a student of another Burmese teacher by the name of U Ba Khin. Today's best-known Western vipassana teachers (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, etc.) studied with these teachers and their leading students, along with having some exposure to the less well-known Thai forest traditions.

Jack Kornfield details the challenge of integrating diametrically-opposed meditation instructions from revered teachers in this fascinating history of Spirit Rock meditation center. More important though is what's left unsaid: namely, the fact that all of the meditation techniques being taught were invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the basis of very late commentarial literature rather than the Buddha's own words in the sutras. I'll list a couple of books by Bhikkhu Sujato at the end of this post for those who want to explore the why and how of this in more depth, but the concise summary of the invention of vipassana is here, in Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

So what we find, in both the yoga and Buddhist worlds, is that the loudest and most strident claims of authenticity are made by those furthest removed from the radical simplicity and transformative power of the traditions in question. Anyone who reads the early sutras gets a very clear picture of the kind of meditation the Buddha himself taught and practiced: samatha (shamatha in Sanskrit) or "calm abiding," using the breath as the object (anapanasati), cultivated gradually and patiently through long and intensive practice until one-pointed concentration (the meditative absorptions or jhanas) is reached, at which point the now-focused mind is capable of penetrating reality through vipassana (Skt. vipashyana), liberating insight.

What isn't found in the sutras is this: anything called vipassana meditation; any words or techniques corresponding to Jon Kabat-Zinn's out-of-thin-air recasting of mindfulness ("paying attention on purpose, nonjudgmentally, in the present moment"); mental "noting" a la Mahasi; "body scanning" a la Goenka; "dry" insight, "momentary" concentration, etc. etc.

This isn't to say that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) or the noting and scanning techniques of Mahasi and Goenka aren't beneficial to many people. Cleary they are, but the exclusive claims to validity of their proponents (I know several people who were refused entry to Goenka retreats because they'd practiced at Spirit Rock, and on the Mahasi side the abuses are even more rampant) are harmful, while more than a few who've practiced in these traditions end up unable to function in the world, or having to take up therapy and other practices to reconnect with their hearts, as Bhikkhu Sujato discusses in this short video.

So what form of meditation did the Buddha practice and teach? Bhikku Sujato gives this useful summary:

The word sati, which we translate ‘mindfulness’, means ‘memory’, and was originally used by Brahmans in the sense of memorized Vedic scriptures. To effectively recall large bodies of text, you get into a zone of clarity and presence, free of distractions. This was one of the influences in developing what we today call ‘meditation’.
The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical usage, and used sati to for both ‘memory’ (of texts) and ‘presence of mind’ in meditation.
Modern teachings on mindfulness are almost exclusively derived from a peculiar 20th century interpretation of one text, the Pali Satipatthana Sutta. This doctrine, the vipassanavada, says that satipatthana is a practice of ‘dry insight’, where the meditator, without previous practice of tranquility meditation, is ‘mindful’ of the changing phenomena of experience. This alone is sufficient to realize enlightenment.
When we carefully consider the range of teachings found in early Buddhist texts on mindfulness, it becomes clear that this doctrine does not hold up.
There are seven versions of the Satipatthana Sutta material, as well as hundreds of other texts on mindfulness. Relying on all these, not just one, we come to the following picture of mindfulness in early Buddhism.
While sati is used in many contexts, the most important is the four satipatthanas, or ‘establishments of mindfulness’. These are ‘right mindfulness’, the seventh factor of the eightfold path. The purpose of satipatthana is to gain the eighth factor, right samadhi or the four jhanas.
The word satipatthana is a compound of sati and upatthana, meaning to ‘set up’ or ‘establish’. It is the focussing and presence of awareness on an object; in other words, it basically means ‘meditation’.
Satipatthana is the ‘contemplation’ (anupassana) of body, feelings, mind, and principles (dhammas). ‘Anupassana’ means ‘sustained watching’. It is an awareness that stays on one thing and doesn’t jump from object to object. For this reason satipatthana is said to be the ‘way to convergence’, ekayana magga.
The main practice of satipatthana is breath meditation, anapanasati. One focusses on the breath, keeping awareness there, continually ‘remembering’ the breath. As the physical breath becomes tranquil, one moves from body contemplation to the awareness of the subtle feelings of bliss and rapture that arise in the breath. The mind becomes purified. Finally one reflects on how the whole process is impermanent and conditioned; this is contemplation of dhammas (‘principles’).
There are many other types of meditation that can be classified as satipatthana, but all of them follow a similar course.
The Pali Satipatthana Sutta includes a number of sections that are not shared with other texts on satipatthana, and which are later additions.
One of the additions is the inclusion of the awareness of postures and daily activities among its meditation exercizes. The awareness of postures is, in every other text, part of the preparation for meditation, not a kind of meditation itself.
Another late addition to the Pali Satipatthana Sutta is a ‘refrain’ following each meditation, which says one practices contemplating ‘rise and fall’. This is a vipassana practice, which originally belonged to only the final of the four satipatthanas, contemplation of dhammas.
The contemplation of dhammas has also undergone large scale expansion. The original text included just the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors. The five aggregates, six sense media, and four noble truths were added later.
Each version of the Satipatthana Sutta is based on a shared ancestor, which has been expanded in different ways by the schools. This process continued for several centuries following the Buddha’s death. Of the texts we have today, the closest to the ancestral version is that contained in the Pali Abhidhamma Vibhanga, if we leave aside the Abhidhammic elaborations.
Tracing the development of texts on satipatthana in later Buddhism, there is a gradual tendency to emphasize the vipassana aspect at the expense of the samatha side. This happened across various schools, although there is some variation from text to text, and perhaps some differences in sectarian emphasis. This led to various contradictions and problems in interpretation.
Nevertheless, in all schools and periods we also find presentations of satipatthana that hark back to the original meaning. For example, the great Yogacara teacher Asanga defined mindfulness as ‘the sustained awareness of the previously experienced object’.
By considering mindfulness in its historical context, by including all relevant texts, and by understanding the historical evolution of the schools, we arrive at a richer, more nuanced, and more realistic understanding of mindfulness. This not only helps us appreciate our tradition better, it gives a more useful, balanced, and authentic framework for practice.
Instruction in samatha leading to jhana in the service of insight is not all that easy to find these days, due to the prevalence of vipassana and the secular mindfulness craze, but it is available with some diligent searching (see "Resources" below). Ironically the Tibetan tradition, known for its pantheon of deities, over-the-top ritualism and secret techniques, preserves detailed instructions on shamatha and vipashyana, but aside from Alan Wallace, who's long been a proponent, it's hard to find Tibetan traditon students - Western or Asian - who give these practices more than a cursory try before moving on to ngöndro, deity practice, Dzogchen, etc. 
Summing Up
One of the explanations (excuses, really) given by Mahasi Sayadaw for omitting the samatha meditation of the Buddha and replacing it with vipassana of his own invention is that modern people don't have the time to practice what the Buddha taught. Noting and dry insight on intensive retreat were thought to guarantee "stream entry" (the first stage of liberation in Theravada), or at least a smoother ride in samsara. Alan Wallace, meanwhile, estimates that the average practitioner will need to spend about 5000 hours in meditation under secluded conditions to achieve shamathaThe Buddha himself taught samatha  and jhana to laypeople, confident that learning to find pleasure in states of profound calm generated from within was a vital first step towards renouncing the clinging to sense pleasures that is the root cause of suffering. 
There's no question that yoga-as-workout, like mindfulness for stress reduction, are here to stay and are of great benefit to many, and the same is true of the watered-down Dharma Lite that's all over the internet. Any amount of healing from pain, amelioration of illness, increased ease in body and mind, is wonderful. At the end of the day though, such uses of the "vehicles" of yoga and Dharma are like using a Lamborghini for a stop-and-go commute, and what I fear may be lost is any knowledge of what they are capable of on the open road of full commitment. 

References
The Buddha's Meditation Practices
Manual for mindfulness of breathing meditation and a treasure trove of similar resources at Dharmatreasure

Mindfulness With Breathing by Buddhadasa Bhikku (also available in paperback). Concise, classic guide from the incomparable Thai forest tradition innovator.
Listen to the audio if you have time, but don't miss the concise handout for What the Buddha Thought, the best concise summary of the Buddha's key teachings I've seen in 40 years of reading Buddhist teachings. 
Sattipatthana, by Bhikkhu Analayo. A masterful work and great introduction to this amazing scholar-practitioner. 
Mindfulness, Bliss & Beyond by Ajahn Brahm. Excellent meditation manual by a leading teacher in the Thai forest tradition.

Leigh Brasington's web site: A great resource for practice and study from a brilliant teacher who has almost single-handedly been keeping a sutta (rather than Abhidharma) based approach to meditation practice alive, teaching the jhanas in the vipassana world of modern Western secularized Theravada 
Integrated path of samatha and vipassana vs. "vipassanavada"
A Swift Pair of Messengers by Bhikkhu Sujato: invaluable resource on the Buddha's path of tranquility with insight. 
A History of Mindfulness by Bhikkhu Sujato: the subtitle is "how insight worsted tranquility in the Sattipatthana Sutta"
Meditation en masse by Erik Braun. Excellent article that details the invention of vipassana meditation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its worldwide dissemination.



Saturday, September 15, 2012

Embracing connections and limitations

Our planned two-week trip to Washington State to see family turned into a month-long odyssey. Erin's father had a major stroke (on top of others and more than a decade of serious health problems) the day before we were due to fly back to México, and we ended up staying through his dying process and a memorial service. 

While there have been plenty of deaths in our families, for both Erin and me this was our first time to actually sit for hours and days on end in a room (the living room, in this case) with someone actively dying. I won't try to capture the full range of emotions, which in any case will be better and more profoundly known by many readers, but I will share a quote from one of my very favorite books of all time, Rodney Smith's Lessons From the Dying, that kept popping into mind both during and after her father's death:


In one of the Buddhist discourses a Brahman asked the Buddha if all mortals fear dying. The Buddha responded that not all people are afraid to die. He said, “Only those who thirst after sense pleasure, or thirst after the body, or perform a lifetime of unwholesome deeds, or are confused about the way things are, fear death.” That probably covers most of us. How we handle the daily deaths associated with loss and change tells us a great deal about the problems we will face when we physically die. 


When we left San Miguel for the U.S. we already knew that the serious air pollution problems there coupled with its inescapable urban intensity meant it wouldn't work as a long-term home. That knowledge combined with having moved four times in four months since being there, on top of so may other moves in recent years, was then leavened with having to move constantly while up in Anacortes, Washington where Erin's folks live, in order to make room for ever more family members coming to visit during her dad's final days of life. The net effect of it all was a sense of groundlessness and homelessness that probably made us about as empathetic as anyone could be with a dying person going through the process of becoming a disembodied consciousness without a body - truly ultimate homelessness!

We've spent so much time since prematurely exiting the world of full-time employment trying to find outer circumstances where we could survive financially and hopefully thrive in other ways, knowing all the while that what was needed on our part was far more digging in, acceptance of limitations and focus on spiritual work. Without a doubt the time has long since come for our primary focus to be on what we do every day, not where we do it. Wake up each morning and say: here is today - I'm not guaranteed another - how will I spend it? And at the end of the day, review, reflection, aspiration, really knowing in the body that there's no guarantee of waking to see another sunrise.

Since we had to cancel our return plane tickets we decided to return to México via Guadalajara rather than Mexico City - far easier routing from Seattle plus a chance to revisit Lake Chapala with fresh eyes. Since being here we've had a chance to enjoy the lush beauty of the rainy season, visit old friends and check out the housing market.

Given the horrific violence here in April and May and the ongoing reality of drug cartel activity there's no danger of any new "move to paradise" real estate sloganeering in the near future but newfound maturity and lack of naiveté about such issues was probably long overdue anyway. The north shore of Lake Chapala remains a place of great beauty, near-perfect weather and affordable living that's graced with a pretty extraordinary expat community. We feel at ease here, and there's something about being near water that soothes the soul like nothing else we know. Far more important, we have friends here and know the ropes, the trails, the shops, the seasons. Those things are increasingly important for a couple who have moved far too many times, who are homebodies at heart who want to be periodic adventurers but who have no appetite (or talent) for the "perpetual traveler" (or more accurately "perpetual mover") lifestyle.

As for concerns about crime and violence in the area, the killings here involved entirely random targets - innocents picked up off of the street in a Guadalajara-based narco cartel turf war. We're no more afraid to walk the streets here than we would be to, say, go to a late-night showing of a Batman movie in a Colorado theater. There's no doubt that bad guys and crime are around - but the same would certainly be the case in any city we'd be living in in the U.S.

There are small but vibrant Buddhist and contemplative Christian communities here, and lots of hunger for spiritual practice and teachings (along with the usual flakiness, commitment-phobia and perpetual comings-and-goings that seem to characterize every community of expat retirees we've been around). These groups and others provide all of the opportunities for service work and building community one could ask for.


entrance to the house-turned-sanctuary of a member of the local sangha

Our choices as we saw them as we got on the plane to return to México were to either return to Lake Chapala or throw in the towel on expat life and return to the U.S. Having gone through the huge upheaval of selling car, house and possessions in order to make the move it seems beyond foolish not to give life down here our best long-term effort. At a bare minimum it's clearly prudent to be here through the Presidential election cycle and 2013. If we wake up to a Romney/Ryan administration come January that pretty well slams the door on any desire to live in a country boneheaded enough to let that happen, while on a more personal level it would also probably mean the end of the Affordable Care Act and with it any chance for us to access affordable health care back home. 

More positively, there's an ease and simplicity of life here (as in San Miguel, but even more so) that provides lots of support for the ways we want to spend our time. We've found a tranquil and spacious house to rent with plenty of room for yoga and massage. The best supermarket in the area is a two block walk away, as is the bus, and we can walk to our meditation groups in 10 minutes or central Ajijic in 20, on wide, lightly-trafficked tree lined streets awash in bougainvillea, orchids and jasmine. When the need arises, as it's sure to more and more frequently, to get on a plane to visit family, the airport is 30 minutes away and flights are affordable. 

We'll miss a lot of aspects of San Miguel, starting with a handful of incredible friends, but for our needs and priorities Lake Chapala clearly makes the best home base. We're going to do our best to make it home and make a difference. Given our track record we realize we'll have to stay put for years for anyone (including ourselves) to believe we'e changed our peripatetic ways. Here's hoping. 


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lake Chapala & San Miguel revisited

Having gushed so enthusiastically about many aspects of life in San Miguel de Allende, I feel obliged to share some of the dark side, so to speak.

Air Pollution and Urban Intensity


Of course it's all a matter of perspective, and ours is shaped by moving here from an isolated, beautiful small town (population 10,000) in the mountains of New Mexico, with clean air and endless trails for hiking and biking. Before that we lived at Lake Chapala for two years, and while the carretera (the highway that is the only way into or out of the area) is heavily trafficked, the lakeshore villages themselves are mellow and walkable, while being on water and a small population keeps the air reasonably clean.


Recently it's come to our attention that there's a substantial cluster of brick making ovens located all around the periphery of San Miguel, with the biggest concentration just south of the city limits. These are illegal businesses that survive because they provide much-needed employment, but the fumes they produce, especially with the truckloads of computer parts, plastics and tires that city-owned and operated trucks have been delivering to them, are very toxic. Here's a video shot by a local group trying to address this issue:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISqd85i88tw&feature=youtu.be



Unlike Mexico City, where sophisticated air pollution measurement is in place (thereby allowing one to know that every day spent there is the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes), air pollution in San Miguel is hard to quantify. Anecdotal evidence from friends and local doctors is not encouraging, and for my part long-standing sinus issues have certainly gotten worse since we've moved here, while my wife, who rarely has so much as a cold, has experienced frequent headaches and coughing.


Brick ovens aside, we lead an exceedingly urban existence here without a car, due to the unique layout of San Miguel and its tremendous growth in recent years. We avoid walking on the major streets when possible, but often that isn't possible and even the back streets have traffic at all times of day except for very early morning or very late at night. The streets here are also all cobbled, uneven and full of gaps, holes and protruding objects, while sidewalks are so narrow that two people can't walk side by side and passing often requires stepping out into the street and dodging traffic. You have to be on your toes and looking down and around at all times. It's far more demanding than Lake Chapala or anywhere else we've been in Mexico - closer really to Bali or Chiang Mai in terms of intensity and need for constant vigilance. There are a couple of pocket parks in town and the wonderful botanical gardens a steep half-hour hike away, but that is it for relief from traffic, buses spewing diesel fumes and dodging people and vehicles while walking around. So while greater San Miguel is less than 200,000 people, it has an intensity of "urbanness" that's easily the equal to, say, Paris or New York, albeit in a uniquely third-world way.


The expat community: a world of well-heeled coming and goings




San Miguel is even more transient in its expat population than Lake Chapala, with people coming and going not just for high and low season but constantly. "Long term" in rental ads here means 3 months or more (vs. a year + anywhere else we've lived), and easily half the people we've met thus far are just back from trips to the U.S., Asia or Europe or gearing up for them. 

The commitment phobia we got used to at Lakeside for any sort of scheduled or recurrent activity, from book groups to meditation, yoga or other classes, is even stronger here, and that plus all of the coming and going has a profound effect on one's emotional investment in potential friendships. All in all, what we're seeing is that the expat groups here and at Lake Chapala are far more similar than they are different. 

Preliminary conclusions

I've said before that the snowbirds (and "sweatbirds" - those who come to the highlands of Mexico during the rainy season to escape the heat of Texas, Arizona or Florida) have it right, and I still think that's the case, at least for us. That said, being able to afford to have two home bases, and dealing with the attendant costs, is a huge hurdle for many, including ourselves. 

The choice between San Miguel de Allende and Lakeside boils down to opting for a bustling city with plenty going on (far too much, when it comes to pollution and traffic), vs. generally pretty sleepy villages with perhaps too little activity, choice of food and restaurants, culture, etc. but where one has a sense of living in a calming natural setting,  yet with easy access to an airport and a city of 6 million with every urban amenity imaginable. From my point of view the ideal would be to spend time in both of these places, never own property in either, travel light and keep one's options open. Regarding the much-publicized dangers, I'm a lot more concerned about breathing the air in San Miguel than I am worried about the statistically miniscule chance of being a victim of narco crime either at Lake Chapala or here. Heck, it's the prospect of heading back to the U.S. that really terrifies in that regard (remind me not to attend any midnight movie showings or visit any Sikh temples.....), while the real terror sets in when I think of the prospect of negotiating the health care and insurance systems. Those very real fears notwithstanding it seems clear that if we can find a way to be U.S. based visitors to Mexico we'll be far happier in the long run. 

















Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What a difference two weeks makes!

It'd been two weeks since our last visit to the local botanical gardens, and while we'd noted much greening up back then, today we entered a verdant fairyland of wildflowers, flowering cacti and rushing water.

 could be a trail on the Olympic Peninsula!

 Wildflowers everywhere

 Two weeks ago just green grass, today a lake

 Erin standing next to one of the giant agave used to make pulque



These gardens, called El Charco del Ingenio, are a steep half-hour walk from centro. Since we don't have a car they are the only sizable natural area that's easily accessible to us. Much as we appreciate San Miguel it's a busy and intense urban environment, especially for people like us who've always lived in places in the U.S. with many hiking and biking trails. We clearly want to be up here several times a week, and we also need to get busy befriending more locals who make the trip to the nearby Picacho mountains for hiking. It feeds our souls like nothing else.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Another comida

Our daily walk today took us to our trusty local DVD dealer (Breaking Bad, Season 1) and from there to the wonderful Ignacio Ramirez mercado for fruit & veggie shopping and comida. Our normal fonda was closed for its one weekly day off, so we tried a new place:



The drink is an agua fresca made from small, ripe strawberries, while my platillo is albondingas (meatballs) in a spicy tomato/vegetable sauce with frijoles de olla and rice. Not show is Erin's pollo in mole Colorado, which consisted of a small leg and part of a thigh in rich sauce with the same side dishes. 

Everything about this kind of food is so far removed from what passes for Mexican food in the U.S. For starters there's the just-right portion size - though it'd seem shockingly skimpy to anyone used to N.O.B. Tex-Mex. Then there's the matter of flavor (far spicier);  freshness (nothing canned - and in this case everything on the plate came from within the market we ate at) and last not least fat content: no chips, no guacamole, a dusting of queso fresco vs. mounds of gloppy faux cheddar and Monterey Jack back home. 

It's all too easy to get used to. Total price today for the two of us including the drinks and tip: 100 pesos ($7.50). 




Sunday, July 8, 2012

Simple living

I was looking for my keys the other day and realized it's no wonder they're easily lost, since all that's on the chain is one house key, a small key for our travel Pac Safe and a tiny flashlight. That kind of minimalism characterizes our lives down here, and it's quite a change from what we used to think of as frugal simplicity in our former lives as "high class trailer trash" in New Mexico.

We're in a comfortable but certainly not luxurious two bedroom apartment, and though we've had to buy kitchen stuff, a coffee table, TV and DVD player and such, the big basic items (applicances, bed, dressers, etc.) are provided. Rent is $500 a month and that includes electricity and (non potable) water. Gas (propane) runs around $20 a month at the moment, though that's sure to double or triple in winter. The TV, internet and phone service bundle from Telecable costs us 499 pesos (about $38) a month. Botttled water for drinking runs about $14 a month.

Missing from these fixed expenses are a bunch of items we took for granted back home: all things car related (plates, insurance, gas & maintenance), homeowner's insurance and umbrella policy, high-deductible health insurance policy, property taxes, sewer and water bill, trash bill, Netflix, on and on.

Food and meal preparation have also gotten very simple. In isolated Silver City NM I maintained a large pantry with staples bought on infrequent trips to Costco and Trader Joe's in Tucson (3.5 hours away), plus a freezer full of grass fed beef and green chile. Here we have a small fridge that's more than adequate for our needs, since we can buy just-picked fruit and veggies as needed year 'round.

We usually eat breakfast and a light dinner (e.g. soup and salad, or quesadillas & nopales) in and have our main meal, comida, out. That's probably the biggest change from home, where even the cheapest restaurant meals were a strain on the budget.  Here, in contrast, is yesterday's comida, eaten at a great little restaurant two blocks from here:

 Chicken in mole negro with rice, beans and handmade tortillas

Erin's platillo: shredded beef in chipotle chile sauce

Total cost for this meal (including a drink, tax and tip): 90 pesos, or about $6.75. 

Lest I come off as an unabashed (or uncritical) Mexico booster, let me say that there are many, many things we miss about the U.S., and we're by no means sure that living here will be viable for us long-term. We never wanted to be full-time expats, and the nearly three months we've spent here (which feel like six or nine months, given the stressors) haven't changed our minds.

We're here primarily for economic reasons, and I think you can see from this post how much easier it is to live on a Social Security level income here than in even the cheaper parts of the U.S. Interestingly the few folks we know who do manage to live with a similar level of joyful frugality back home do so by living in a sort of informal cohousing that I believe was common before the post-WWII consumption boom. These are people who live in the same mobile home park or apartment complex who share vehicles, Costco memberships, shopping runs and major applicances. When and if we do return to the U.S., we'll be looking for that kind of community to join.