27 Mar

The Spiritual Journey: Invincibility to Vulnerability ~ Michael Scott

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Invincibility.

In one word, that is what I expected meditation to give me. I wanted a practice that granted me some sort of spiritual armor to protect me against the moments in life that I deemed unacceptable—or, as I called it once, the “bullshit” of life. I wanted to be someone that, since he could not control the change in his life, was unaffected by that change. I envisioned myself as becoming, sooner or later—but preferably sooner—this sort of mentally invulnerable, blissful Zen master who had removed himself from the more “worldly” elements of human existence. And, to be completely honest, I thought being a Buddhist would make me cool.

I’m very grateful to say that not only did I not get what I wanted, but that the complete opposite happened: my armor was stripped away, my vulnerability was exposed, and my life started turning into something worth living. The word “liberation” gets thrown around a lot in Buddhism and contemplative circles, and while I was seeking that concept when I began, I had no real clue what it truly meant. I thought it meant freedom from life, not the freedom to live. I had to lose one to gain the other, and it was not a realization that came quickly, easily, or comfortably.

Although I didn’t become a regular member of the Refuge Meditation Group here in Shreveport until December of 2009, the story began for me in July of 2008. A friend posted her intention to attend a Wednesday night meeting via Facebook, and considering that I was going through a vicious identity crisis, I thought it would be the remedy I needed. To those who practice, meditation can definitely be that remedy—but the practice itself wasn’t what I primarily sought. It was the new identity I could forge from being a Buddhist. So I went to the meeting and meditated for the first time in my life.

I sat, in silence, for 20 minutes. Nothing happened.

I left thinking, “that’s it?” I thought that I would get at least a taste of this so-called “enlightenment.” Where was the insight? Where was the all-consuming sense of bliss? Sure, I was smart enough to know that none of that came immediately, but some part of me wanted at least a quantum of insight. After all, I was now dead-set on adopting this new spiritual identity, and I would need something to talk about in order to convince everyone that my now-Buddhist self was, in fact, legitimate.

So, I decided to go again the following week. And again nothing happened – at least, nothing that I could use to further my own ego-driven agenda (which, looking back, was—and is—precisely the point of the practice). With nothing to use, I left the group more or less rejecting the practice itself while diving headfirst into being a Buddhist.

Ironic, no?

I certainly didn’t see it that way. Buddhism was now the Emperor’s New Clothes—a new tenuous “self” I could wear, since the old one had worn out and gotten me nowhere. I looked to fully embody what I thought a Buddhist should be, so I turned to the one place where I knew I could find answers:

The Internet.

I think I should note that mine is a very academic mind—for years, I equated knowledge with experience, and this was no exception. I sought articles on Buddhism, teachings on enlightenment; really, anything to do with spirituality, in my mind, was fair game. Just not Christianity or any other “mainstream” forms of religion. If I could read and intellectually know what spirituality looked or felt like, I could fake it enough to trick everyone into believing I was such. I had an arsenal of quotes from Krishnamurti, Wilber, and Watts. I wore a mala around my wrist and began growing my hair out. I went vegetarian because Buddhists “must respect all life” (said the Internet). I refused to kill a bug if someone was looking, and beat myself up if I did it when no one was around. I gave up beer until I found some half-assed way to make it okay with my idea of a Buddhist. I rejected the label of Buddhist, because Buddhists don’t adhere to labels, only to realize that the rejection of a label was merely the labeling of myself as someone who rejects labels. Sound convoluted and ridiculous? It should, because it was!

Not surprisingly, my problems still persisted. I still got angry at people. I still argued with my wife. And I still found myself with the same sense of pervasive dissatisfaction that led me to meditation in the first place. What went wrong? I’m spiritually aware! I thought, “This shouldn’t be happening!” The problem was that I thought the knowledge was key, and that the practice was just supplemental—something to do if time allowed, or when life became unmanageable. I was talking the talk and talking the walk—engaging in full-blown spiritual materialism—with my meditation practice being infrequent at best. I went to the group on occasion, if only to prop up my identity further or to demonstrate to myself that I was, in fact, a “spiritual” person.

This continued for a while—about a year or so—until it quit being cool. And throughout my posturing as someone who was spiritual, my occasional practice bore a seed—something untouched by the pretension, something that quickened the process of my dissatisfaction with my new identity. It put me right back at square one. But instead of realizing why I was there, I turned it into another ego game—if I was to truly be a card-carrying Buddhist, I needed to surround myself with people who were on the same journey. To do so meant practicing more regularly so I would have something to relate to these people with—or perhaps show a sort of spiritual “one-upmanship” to newcomers.. It was a new identity: no longer was I just a Buddhist, by God, I was a practicing Buddhist. So in December 2009, I became a regular member of the Refuge Meditation Group. That’s not to say that my attendance was perfect, or that I’ve been an ideal member. But I now had people around me who supported my practice, answered my questions, and cut through the bullshit. I also, thankfully, had people who held me accountable and demanded responsibility. It began with something as simple as setting up the cushions for the Wednesday night practice, which more or less forced me to attend each week. I couldn’t be a member when it was convenient, as it had been for over a year, because now others depended on me. And whether I realized it or not, I depended on them. It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t convenient. Convenience has no place on the spiritual path, because life is by no means convenient. Nor is it comfortable. I often tell my English students that a life of comfort is a life unfulfilled, an insight gained through both practice and my membership in the Refuge Meditation Group.

And it’s only after years of practice can I confidently and honestly write this. I still wrestle with bouts of indifference and self-centeredness, a lack of discipline at times and perhaps quite a bit of living “between my ears.” I still argue with my wife occasionally and get angry with people. But despite all this, I practice. And while my story seems ridiculous, mainly because what I was doing was, well, ridiculous, I doubt I’m the only one to experience such a journey. Everyone who comes to meditation does so for his or her own reasons, but one thing is true: no one, as Ben {director of the Refuge Meditation Group} likes to say, comes to the practice if everything is perfect in his or her life. But those beginning their practice shouldn’t take this article as condemnation for engaging in the folly I did—I look back on it fondly, because it was both essential to my development and a requisite for taking the practice seriously. Those beginning the practice should share in the knowledge that they are the same as those who have practiced for years —we all stood at the threshold, seeking something. Perhaps it is relief from addiction or aggression. Or perhaps it is simple dissatisfaction, the knowledge that there is something more to life than waking up, going to work or school, and being what we think we ought to be and not what we are. The practice of meditation brings us back to life: one meant to be lived, joyfully toiling in the trenches with dirty hands, not observed from a glass tower far away. One of pure humanity that refuses to be hidden or ignored.

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