23 January, 2020

"Serenity Now!" and Other Meditation Myths

The venerable Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thubten Chodron advises practitioners to set a particular time of day to meditate. She suggests mornings, when the mind is uncluttered by the events of the day. She isn't the only one. I've encountered this advice in a number of places, coming from a number of teachers. I'd love to follow it by setting a specific time for myself to sit in single-point focus. There's just one problem: I often literally can't.

I've ranted many, many times about the inconsistency of prison life. A guy just can't get settled. It's Murphy's Law: precisely when you think that you've got things figured out and have yourself a plan is usually when the rug gets pulled out from under you. The best you can do is to start with good intentions and roll with the punches.

Jeff and I aren't just cellmates, we're also both practitioners of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Neither of us is likely to graduate to bodhisattva status in this lifetime, but we do what we can. Funny how I ended up not only in a wing with four of ERDCC's other seven Buddhism practitioners, but living with one as well. It's an agreeable arrangement.

At last Thursday's service, I asked everyone in the group to name a single way in which his practice fell short. As each member of the sangha took his turn, we discussed practical tweaks to potentially remedy his shortcoming. Jeff and I were among the four who lamented our irregular meditation. I suggested to Jeff that we set aside a specific time every day, when we're both in the cell, that we might use to meditate together. By using the buddy system we might improve the other's practice while improving our own. Surprisingly, he doubled down: instead of one time, Jeff suggested two — a fifteen-minute session in the morning and a thirty-minute session after the 10 PM count. It sounded great, in theory.

We were quickly reminded that theory and practice don't always intersect. My head was half dream-fogged; I wasn't focused. I'm clearly no longer the night owl I used to be. After three days of staying up half an hour past my usual bedtime, I threw in the towel. If I'm being realistic about it, anything after 9 o'clock is too congenial to my nodding off.

We compromised by swapping the nighttime sessions for midday ones. Starting at 11 o'clock each morning, the prison spends about forty-five minutes under lockdown for a custody count, which seemed ideal — in between any activities, prior to eating lunch, and without the ruckus of the wing's seventy other residents. Our plan was to listen to a series of guided meditations on CD by the aforementioned Venerable Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron during that time. In that way, our practice might benefit from both analytical mediation and the fixed-point variety that I usually do. Yesterday was the first attempt.

It definitely could've gone better. About twenty minutes in, the wing's loudspeaker squelched and blared static for no apparent reason. Then came the slamming open and closed of someone's cell door. Next, a deafening announcement was made for one of the kitchen slaves to report to work as soon as the yard opened. Then a guard came in, keys wildly jingle-jangling, to slam the fire door. Count seemed to clear ten minutes earlier than ever before, because our door lock unlatched and the door exploded halfway across its track before either of us could fully open our eyes. We stuck with our meditation through the shouts, hoots, whistles, screeches, and reverberating clangs of the other prisoners emerging from stasis. Finally, at the early announcement of lunch (which we had no plan of going to eat), Jeff and I simultaneously burst out laughing. It was ridiculous, this expenditure of effort in the face of the world's absurdity. The world's a noisy place, but damn. This is true adversity we're up against.

Undeterred, we'll try again today, and the day after that. And if it doesn't work after a third attempt we'll try again, just at a different time. I'm not about to be deterred by a little scheduling conflict. I'll get up a half hour early every morning if that's what it takes to build my practice. I'll find what works. There's a reason it's called "practice," after all.

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