I went to the Common Ground Meditation Center tonight in Minneapolis, where the guiding teacher, Mark Nunberg, gave a talk on the Seven Factors of Awakening. I've been reading recently about the monks of Burma who are protesting the repressive government of Myanmar (Burma) by marching by the thousands in the streets, and refusing to take alms from government officials. I went to Mark's dharma talk listening for points of connection to what's happening on the Burmese streets.
The Burmese monks' protest seems like an ideal case study in engaged Buddhism. After all, Buddhism in Burma is one of the original sources of the Theravada/Vipassana style Buddhism that is growing fast in the United States; that is taught at the Common Ground Center; that I personally study and follow; and that is focused on a simple practice of finding peace in one's heart and mind. What would cause monks who live out this practice on a daily basis to rise up in such an overt political action?
Mark's talk offered several points of illumination, which made clear why, if a political protest is carried out skilfully with wholesome intentions, it is no different from doing anything else in life. For example, Mark talked about how important it is to be aware of attachments that arise in meditation. This can be subtle and a difficult skill to master. For example, it's relatively easy to see how attached we become to positive phenomena -- good food, money, the praise of peers, etc. But we can also equally become attached to subtle spiritual longings as well -- happiness, joy, peace, calm.
When Mark said "attachment to calmness is craving," I saw one connection to the Burmese monks. By taking to the streets, those monks have abandoned that attachment, big time. They were giving themselves up to their experience completely, come what may, positive or negative. Presumably, they had also checked their intentions before they walked, to be sure they were acting from compassion towards the military government and not from hatred; and also had resolved, to the degree humanly possible, not to act on any violent urges that might arise during their marches.
Mark then dived into a really deep teaching that is hard for people to believe, if they haven't experienced it personally. And it opened another channel for me to the Burmese monks.
Mark was talking about mindfulness and pain. The two simply cannot coexist, he said, because the one cancels the other. For example, if you are experiencing pain and you bring mindfulness to the pain, the degree of mindfulness you muster, is the degree of pain reduced. The mindfulness chips away at the pain in degrees. For example, at first, you simply notice that with physical pain comes a raft of mental activity that is counter-productive, such as worry the pain will continue forever, that you did something wrong to cause the pain, that your life will be ruined thanks to the pain, etc.
The moment you realize this, the opportunity arises to let go of all that useless thought, simply because you see it's useless and there's no need to keep grasping to it. Then other, deeper layers of pain may be reduced by mindfulness. Just watching the actual physical pain for a while, paying close attention to it without exerting the slightest effort to relieve the pain or fight it, itself creates a healing effect. In my experience, what happens is the pain tends to atomize, to break into small bits, so that the overall pain becomes much less monolithic, and much more a phenomenon of twinkling bits of sensation through which awareness can flow like water through a gorge.
In the Common Ground mediation room, reflecting in this way, I remembered a time in my life when I was bedridden for several months, dealing with severe pain during all of my waking hours. I remember how hard it was to deal with the pain. I was able to do it, but only by basically meditating all day long. Every time my mindfulness slipped, the pain returned, and I was reminded to get back in the moment, back to seeing things the way they were right now. I had mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, I was intrigued by the experience and the wisdom I seemed to be gaining. On the other, since my life at the time, including the people around me, weren't set up to support a person basically meditating all day, I felt like a fish out of water. I could put my ambivalent feelings into the same meditative hopper -- "this is the way it is right now" -- but I never felt fully reconciled.
In any case, as the hour of meditation progressed this evening, I felt more and more open, rawer and rawer as time went on. All of this remembering of pain, and of the mindfulness I mustered to counter the pain, was making me feel painful and open. This deepened my feeling for the monks. To a new depth, I felt I could understand how those monks are feeling in their heart of hearts, and it can't be easy for them. They are surely feeling big pain. They are surely trying to muster big mindfulness to counter that pain, but they must be feeling ambivalent too, and struggling with that.
Tomorrow, I'll sign and send onwards an Internet petition that's going around, and I'll send a fax of protest to the Burmese embassy. When my own sitting group meets tomorrow night, I'll suggest that we reflect on the monks of Burma, as a possible prelude to further action. But whatever I do, I know I'll act with greater compassion than before, because this is what arose when I brought mindfulness to the pain within myself. The gap that opened between myself and pain, was suddenly filled with compassion. For myself, yes, but for others too.
Figuring out how to skilfully recognize, accept and direct that compassion, seems to me my next task. We'll see what happens.