Thursday, November 27, 2008

love, life, and bad habits

Graffiti in Europe is as ubiquitous and impressive as the coffee and public transportation, but the other night a very simple tag caught my eye. From my part in the Twin Oaks production of the musical Cabaret I knew that "leben" in german meant life, so when I saw this scrawled on a window I was intrigued.

Being in Berlin I did quite some reminiscing about Cabaret, which is set in this world famous (and infamous) city. The musical depicts well the astounding transformation of a decadent center of arts and music to ground zero of one of the most horrific events in world history. Berlin was and continues to be a city of extemes, and this tag, which roughly translates to "life, love, and bad habits" illustrates this well.

Berlin continues to be one of the world's most popular points for arts and music, with thriving alternative sub-cultures all around the city. It also continues to have a strong conservative-right movement. Berlin was host to the Love Parade for many years before the city shut it down because it didn't want to pay for the trash cleanup (which was much less than the amount of tourist money that came in from the event.) It is also home to the largest population of Turkish people outside of Turkey. The conflicts and tensions of the world definitely seem to congregate here, and yet this laisez faire attitude continues to permeate.

C'est la vie.

Our time in Berin was short and sweet, staying at one of the older former squats that started in east Berlin after the wall came down. Squating was quite common in west Berlin before the wall came down. Being completely surrounded by the GDR (east germany), it was not a particularly easy place to live or do business, leaving many abandoned buildings. Once the wall came down everyone in east Berlin flocked to the west, leaving many abandoned buildings in the east part of the city. In the early years there were as many as 150 buildings squated, a significant collection of which still exist, mostly now legitimized in some way or another.

K77 is one such building, which is actually the oldest building in the neighborhood. Their success came in part because the squating was done as a performance art piece. The residents-to-be made a giant heart, dressed up in nurses and doctors outfits, and made a show of transplanting the new heart into the "dying" building.

Over 100 people from other squats came to witness the event, and a lawyer was on hand to explain to the police that this was a public art piece, which has certain protections under Berlin law. The east Berlin police were also still unfamiliar and a bit mystified by the whole concept of squating (which was simply not something people did under communism) and allowed the action to happen.

Over the last 15 years or so it has been an important haven for artists and crafters. One of the three buildings on the property, and parts of the others are devoted to such activities, and it is in the mission statement of the collective that it wll continue to support the arts. Currently this includes an independent cinema, a yoga and dance studio, a pottery studio, and an art therapy practitioner.

The house has a curious approach to shared living. They share food completely, but they have no labor system to speak of, nor any requirements for cleaning or other tasks, except being part of a cook team to make dinner once a week. In part this means that the place is very dirty and messy most of the time. But generally people don't seem to mind. They are a very close knit group (they might not think so, but sitting with them at the dinner table or breakfast nook made it obvious to us), and it seems that the lack of requirements actually supports this, whereas rules or requirements on cleaning would probably just create tension.

Artists... go figure.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

technically enlightened

From stories I've heard and read, and what seems to be the common lore, enlightenment is something you sort of stumble into. There's the story of the guy who sorted fish who got so into his job that one day he couldn't distinguish between the fish and his hands and he became enlightened. There's the story of the monk who spent years in the monastery, meditating, striving, and finally gave up and left, only to go to a prostitute and become enlightened while having sex.

In one of the more depressed times of my life, I remember living in Santa Cruz, having dropped out of school and quit my job, spending a lot of time stoned wandering around the city, thinking that if only I could figure out one thing maybe I'd become enlightened, only to think that thinking that way was the one thing I needed to stop doing, which created a very tortured feedback loop in my head.

Kassia and I just sat another meditation course. It was sort of the second level meditation course in the tradition of Vipassina meditation we've been doing, with S. N. Goenka as the teacher. In the standard 10 day meditation courses Goenka basically gives an overview or a sketch of everything a meditator needs to know to go from day one of meditation to enlightenment. In the course we just did, which is only for students who have done at least three 10 day courses, Goenka spends the evening discourses translating and explaining the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. That translates to "the great discourse on the establishing of awareness." It's the discourse the buddha gave that details the practice of meditation and the process by which a meditator becomes enlightened.

So there I was, each evening, listening to Goenka explain it, line by line, step by step. And I thought, wow, I didn't realize reaching enlightenment was so technical. It's no big esoteric mystery. It's actually spelled out very clearly.

Of course, it's all theory. Goenka is very clear in his discourses that theory is secondary to practice. The theory is only there to give us a context for understanding our experience. But if the theory doesn't make sense, or if there's something we don't agree with, "doesn't matter," he says, "leave it aside."

It's very pragmatic, which appeals to me. As Goenka says, "don't accept something because the buddha says so. Don't accept something because the scripture says so. Don't accept something because your teacher says so." And in fact the buddha says the same thing. You have to experience it.

It reminds me of another buddhist story I read once. There was once a young novice who went to a great meditation teacher and said, there are some lines of the scripture that I don't understand, could you please explain them to me. The teacher said, I'd be happy to, but I don't know how to read. If you read the lines to me I will explain. You don't know how to read, the novice exclaimed, then how can you understand the meaning? The words are unimportant, said the teacher, they are not necessary to understand the truth. Say the truth is the moon, and the words are my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon, and you can see the moon without me pointing my finger at it.

So I do this meditation practice. I go and spend 11 hours a day at it for 10 days in a row. And of course I doubt, I question, I wonder, what am I doing? Is this doing anything? But by the end of it I feel so much more peaceful, happier. It's more clear to me how to lead a life that will be good for myself and good for others.

There are things I struggle with - how Goenka is as a teacher, and with how the courses and meditation centers are run. As much as Goenka speaks against dogmatism and integrating cultural tradition in with what should be a universal remedy for a universal malady (i.e. suffering) he is very dogmatic, and there is certainly culture mixed up in the teaching. But it's far less than any other religion or spiritual path I've come across. It's all about the practice.

So, I leave the things I don't like aside. Their mild enough that I can do that. And it helps that the theory, for the most part, completely agrees with modern physics and psychology, which are religions I have respect for ;0)

So, I keep at it. Now that I have a thorough theortical understanding on how to reach enlightenment, it is very clear to me how far I have to go. According ot the Buddha to reach enlightenment requires up to 7 years of constant, thorough understanding and awareness of impermanance. I'm not sure if I really have an understanding and awarness of impermanance yet, and it's certaily no where near constant or thorough. What I'm doing now, Goenka seemed to say, is simply making preparation, develping my awareness and equinimity. Basically, it ain't happenin' in this life time.

Whatever. The way I understand enlightenment is that it is when one is totally free from negative reaction patterns created from past experiences. I have moments of that, and when I'm in the middle of a meditation course I can sort of, vaguely imagine what it might be like to be that way all the time. But it's completely overwhelming, and when it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter, because it's already working.

At this point, all I know is that when I meditate I feel better and that I create less negativity and agitation in my life and in the world around me. And that is definitely good enough.