Archive for August, 2011

What do you live for?

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Tree against a blue skyWhat do you live for?

I used to be able to answer that question without hesitation. Enlightenment, I’d say when asked what my life’s purpose was.

Now, not so much. It’s not that I don’t have the same answer, but rather that I pause, then answer “enlightenment” after I remember that’s what I used to say. And the reason I cast about for what I used to say is that no answer springs to mind as easily as it once did.

What happened?

A number of things, I suppose, starting with the realization that my approach to enlightenment had been formulaic: if I do so many good works, if I meditate so many hours, if I do the right combination of things, then enlightenment is bound to happen. I know, intellectually, that there are no easy answers, but it seems that spiritually I was still hoping for a to-do list of goodness.

I’d like to tell you that I grew wiser and realized the limitations of my approach to a spiritual life. But I’d be lying if I did. I actually got drop-kicked into this awareness.

I started practicing vipassana meditation in my early twenties. You attend a ten-day meditation retreat where you meditate for 10 1/2 hours each day while not talking for the entire time. After my first meditation retreat, I emerged much calmer, a little wiser, and convinced that I’d found my spiritual path.

My goal was to do a ten-day retreat every year, meditate every morning and evening, and practice lovingkindness. As far as I was concerned, I was on the fast track to enlightenment.

I didn’t follow my plan exactly. After a ten-day retreat, I’d usually meditate regularly for a couple of months, and then my meditation practice would peter out. I didn’t do a meditation retreat every year, but more like every other year. But I cobbled a practice together, as best I could.

In all, over a fourteen year period, I sat for seven meditation retreats. I believed going to them made me a better person, and I was looking forward to continuing the practice for the rest of my life.

Two years ago, I was applying to attend another ten-day retreat when I received an email asking me about one of the answers in my application. The question had to do with whether I practice Reiki. (Reiki is a healing modality. You can read more about it here and here.) Yes, I answered, I do practice Reiki.

“I am sorry,” came the reply, “you cannot come to the retreat if you practice Reiki.”

Reiki is a form of channeling energy that allows you to tap into the healing energy of the universe. With Reiki, a practitioner acts as a conduit for the energy to go from the general (the universe) to the specific (a particular person receiving the Reiki treatment). The idea is that when we are ill or injured, our energy is out of balance, and it is helpful to receive loving energy. Kind of like when you feel sad, it’s good to have a hug. When the body is ill or injured, healing energy can help.

The folks who run the meditation retreat have difficulty with Reiki because they say that practicing Reiki is manipulating energy, that the Reiki practitioner directs where the energy goes. The reason this is problematic is because the entire premise of vipassana meditation is to develop equanimity and non-attachment. You’re supposed to observe your reactions to stimulus and learn not to react. And, part of not reacting is not trying to change the condition you are experiencing. Therefore, a practice like Reiki, even with the best of intentions, runs counter to the whole purpose of the meditation retreat.

Unfortunately, I think they totally miss the boat with Reiki. Although I suppose one can try to direct Reiki energy to go here rather than there, it’s completely unnecessary. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, healing energy is drawn to where it is needed.

When I practice Reiki, my job is to focus on allowing myself to be a good receiver and transmitter of healing energy, not to make diagnostic or executive decisions about where that energy should go. For example, suppose you came to me for Reiki because your shoulder hurt, but let’s say, too, that you are very unhappy at the time because it’s the one-year anniversary of when your best friend died. The energy may well go to your shoulder, but chances are some of it will also go to your heart and heart chakra, because that’s where it’s also needed. I don’t even have to know about your sadness for Reiki to “send” healing energy to your heart, because I’m just the conduit for the energy.

I believe that since Reiki does not require or promote manipulation of energy to work and be effective, it doesn’t actually conflict with the tenets of vipassana. Therefore, no need to ban Reiki practitioners from doing the meditation retreats.

The funny thing is, I’m not really an active Reiki practitioner. I don’t practice Reiki on others nor do I teach it, although I could do both. I learned Reiki almost twenty years ago, and it’s kind of integrated itself into my everyday life. I am pretty much always aware of energy in myself and my surroundings, and I know I can tap into it whenever I need. It’s become second nature.

When the people organizing the meditation retreat told me that I could go on the retreat if I no longer practice Reiki, I was faced with a dilemma. First, I can’t not practice Reiki, because the energy is always present. Second, since I fundamentally disagreed with their decision, no longer practicing Reiki would seem like… selling out (which is a super odd feeling to have when you’re trying to be more spiritual).

But, I really, really wanted to go on the retreat. (It was my chosen spiritual path, after all.)

So I decided to say I wouldn’t practice Reiki anymore. After all, I reasoned with myself, since I’m not an active Reiki practitioner, I won’t lose anything by officially stating I won’t do Reiki anymore. In fact, I argued, since I don’t actively practice, maybe I don’t actually “do” Reiki. I can’t miss what I don’t have, right? (Does this argument sound as hollow to you as it does to me?)

But… I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t pretend for longer than five minutes that Reiki wasn’t important to me. I couldn’t use argument and reason to change something that was so integrated into my everyday life. And, I thoroughly disagreed with the assessment that practicing Reiki interferes with practicing vipassana meditation.

I was at an impasse. I couldn’t go on the meditation retreat without giving up Reiki, but I couldn’t give up Reiki.

Result: rupture.

I was stunned–what I had seen as my spiritual path, my road to enlightenment was closed to me. Finished. Gone.

I was bereft.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a big deal–there are other meditation styles, after all–but I’d hung my hat on this particular meditation as the way. I don’t mean that I thought meditation was the way, or that vipassana meditation was the way. What I had settled on was that this specific meditation, vipassana meditation, practiced in this specific way, was my key to enlightenment. And now it was gone.

I think I was in mourning for a little over a year. As I write this now, it seems hard to believe that I was so caught up in my recipe for enlightenment success that I’d lost sight of the fact that enlightenment does not (cannot) depend on one particular doctrine or methodology. But at the time, and perhaps it’s an issue of ego, I felt lost, as if I’d lost my compass and map and could never recover them.

I was lost because I didn’t know how to answer the question, how would I become a more enlightened person if I didn’t have this meditation process as a tool?

Now, two years later, I’m still finding the answer to this question. My first signpost to follow was related to the very lay rigidity I had cultivated about my spiritual path. Much of my distress at not being allowed to continue the meditation retreats stemmed from my strict belief that this was the way I needed to practice my spirituality. I realized it was my own attitude that created the difficulty, not the rule itself.

Eventually, it occurred to me that my rigidity was not a kind or useful trait. By being so strict, I was limiting my ability to be responsive to a changing world. (This is ironic because one of the main tenets of vipassana meditation is that everything is impermanent.)

Although I like to think of myself as a kind, caring person, I must admit I have a rigid, puritanical streak that is a mile wide. The rigidity I’d experienced with the meditation was a natural extension of this puritanical side of myself. Obviously, it was a limiting attitude.

Therefore, I resolved to be gentler with myself. Instead of looking for an explicit set of instructions for how to live my life, I decided to listen to myself more and allow my heart to guide my gaze. Instead of following a set of rules outside my life, I decided to let my intuition and insight guide my steps. I decided to trust myself more.

And I do trust myself more. I believe that door closing to me was beneficial, because it allowed me to see how attached I’d become to a particular practice and methodology. And it allowed me the freedom to explore other ways of walking a spiritual path.

If you asked me now if I would go back on the vipassana meditation retreats if I were once more allowed, I think I’d answer no. At least, I’d answer no until I am sure that I am no longer susceptible to my old, rigid attitudes.

What do I live for, now?

Gentleness. Compassion. Lovingkindness.

What about you? What do you live for?