A glimpse of Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma
September 27, 2013
"The Western world is on the cusp of a major transformation around how we understand the mind, the brain, and what to do about them. Meditation and other forms of contemplative practice, once the provenance of religion, then later of 'spirituality,' are now in the American mainstream, in corporate retreats and public schools, as a rational, proven technology to upgrade the mind and organize the brain, buttressed by hard scientific data and the reports of millions of practitioners."
That's the opening of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, by Jay Michaelson, due out in October 2013 from North Atlantic Books. Jay writes:
"The original source of these cognitive technologies is the dharma, an ancient word meaning the way, the path, or the teaching. In the most general sense, it can simply refer to the truth of how things are: the laws of the universe, and of the mind...
What was once a monastic tradition of meditation, virtuous action, and wisdom teachings (samadhi, sila, and panna) is now, depending on where you encounter it, a technology of brainhacking; a way to build insular thickness in the brain; a way to lower stress; a mystical path filled with unusual peak experiences; a way to grow more loving, compassionate, and generous; a method to get ahead and gain an edge on your competition; or any number of other things. Love it or hate it, the dharma has evolved."
This new book aims to explore the evolution of the dharma through a variety of lenses. There's history here; there's neuroscience; there's personal experience. There's also a straightforward narrative voice which is unsentimental and occasionally quite wry.
This is a story of monks and soldiers; a history as well as a tale told from my own cultural position, conditioned by my age, gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and all the rest; a narrative of maverick teachers, online communities, Occupy, self-loathing, stress reduction, religion, sex, power, and Google.
Who wouldn't want to read that?
Full disclosure: I've been blessed to work with Jay off and on for a number of years. He is the founding editor of Zeek, "a Jewish journal of thought and culture," where I used to serve as a contributing editor. I come to this book as a colleague of the author's, as a rabbi, and as someone whose own spiritual life has been strongly shaped both by Judaism and by the import of Buddhism to these shores. Those are some of the lenses I bring to bear on reading this book.
Early in the book, Jay tells the story of hiking in Wadi Rum and seeing a mountain which, through a trick of perspective, seemed to be perched right on the horizon. He set off toward that mountain. Of course, by the time he drew near, he could see that it was not at the edge of the world, but that beyond it lay more mountains. "What I thought was the end of the path was, in fact, more of the path. The scenery had changed. But after a couple of hours of desert hiking, my perspective had changed also." It is a perfect lived metaphor for spiritual life.
Meditation and mindfulness are, Jay notes, practices -- meant not merely to be read about, but to be done, and done again. There are, of course, pitfalls not only in the practices themselves but in the impulse to write about them and make meaning out of them. Here's a bit which particularly resonates for me:
I have an experience in 2013, I read a text written in 1648, and since the two descriptions appear to correlate, I take an ahistorical leap and say we're talking about the same thing. It's a problem. But the alternative is mere description; spiritual journalism, really, which I find uninteresting and so should you. I want to talk not just about sociological trends or phenomenological characteristics of the contemplative path, but about technologies that transform lives -- including my own.
I can relate: to the experience of correlating my own spiritual experience with texts written in another century, often another paradigm -- and to the recognition that equating my experience with that older experience is a kind of dangerous erasure of difference -- and to the inclination to make the leap anyway, because what interests me most is how spiritual practice can transform and enliven us and our world.
Our lives, Jay notes, are inevitably imperfect and impermanent -- not only on the grand scale, but in countless small ways, too:
On the grand scale, we will all die, and lose much of what we love along the way. Yet even in our mundane lives, we lose the battle every day -- often in ways less tragic than comic: the damn webpage won't load, the mortgage has to be paid, the boss is a jerk, I'm a jerk -- every day, the God-or-evolution-given instinct to "want it all" butts up against a reality that rarely provides it... This is the core of the dharma: the completely natural state of affairs is one in which human beings cause suffering for themselves and others.
Fortunately, the instincts to fight, flee, and have sex are not the only faculties in the mind. And so, for thousands of years, people in various religious, philosophical, artistic and other traditions have cultivated other qualities, among them capacities for wisdom, empathy, letting go, relaxation, concentration, compassion, awareness -- not to mention justice, gratitude, love, and a sense of wonder.
Amen to that. Reading that list of qualities, I'm reminded of the strings of praise so endemic to Jewish liturgy -- we laud, thank, praise, glorify, etc, etc. It can be easy for such a list of qualities to become rote. But when you stop and take each quality seriously, there's something pretty remarkable about our human striving to turn away from our worst selves and to cultivate our best selves. At its best, I think, that's a big piece of what spiritual practice can help us to do.
Jay describes the Buddha's view as almost mechanistic: "water the garden of greed, and you get greedier; nourish the saplings of compassion, and eventually they grow instead." This is, he argues, not magic but something akin to installing a new operating system on the hard drive of the brain. It's exercise. Enter into new practices (contemplation, compassion) -- stick with them until they become habits, become second-nature -- and we can change how our brains work.
He acknowledges that in Theravadan Buddhism, the aim is not merely to build mental muscles but to exercise them in a particular way -- to cultivate understanding that transitory phenomena are impermanent, not ultimately satisfactory, and interdependent with everything else. (This is fine stuff to be reading during Sukkot.) But in the last quarter century the dharma has evolved by moving out of its original religious context; now it appears in any number of forms, ranging from secular settings to other religious contexts altogether. (There's a lot of mindfulness and complative practice woven into Jewish Renewal, e.g. -- if that's your cup of tea, don't miss Rabbi Jeff Roth's Awakened Heart Project.)
There's some good history here of the migration of Buddhism to American shores -- the transcendentalists taking an interest in the nineteenth century, D.T. Suzuki's foundational work in bringing Zen to American audiences, Alan Watts and Allen Ginsburg, eventually Ram Dass (about whom I wrote several years ago), Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh. Many of us who pick up this book will probably have had experiences with at least some of these teachers and thinkers -- if not in person, then through their writings and the impact of those writings on our lives. (I still own my marked-up college copy of Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of Understanding, his commentaries on the Prajnaparamita sutra. "If you are a poet you will see clearly that there is a cloud in this piece of paper..." -- it was radical to me when I was eighteen, and still moves me deeply at thirty-eight.)
Jay writes about the "new, Western dharma" which began to take shape -- marked, says Lama Surya Das, by "a dharma without dogma, a lay-oriented sangha, egalitarianism (particularly with regard to gender), and an engaged, simplified, pragmatic, and experimental orientation." One of the things I appreciate most in this section of the book is Jay's persuasive case that change has always been a part of these paths -- that evolution was already a part of the dharma well before it came to the West.
Naturally, there are Buddhist purists who object to the extraction of Buddhist meditation from Buddhist belief, ritual, and form. There are scholars of Buddhism dismayed at the selective and ahistorical ways in which "convert" Buddhists relate to Asian Buddhist traditions. And...there is a new generation of neo-Buddhists who are returning to precisely the forms and contexts set aside by Kabat-Zinn, Siegel, and company, refocusing on liberation as the goal, and appreciating how the traditional contexts support intensive practice.
The movement which Jay describes there -- an old and 'Orthodox' tradition, a movement toward new rituals and forms which causes some dismay on the part of the traditionalists, and eventually a new generation of neo-practitioners who are returning to the old forms and appreciating how those forms can support modern practice in their new paradigm -- is entirely familiar to me.
Contemplative practices, Jay acknowledges, are not necessarily fun:
Sitting for endless Zen sesshins or performing thousands of prostrations to Padmasambhava -- no, dharma practice is not a day at the beach, or the spa. It's the opposite, really. If a vacation banishes all cares from the mind, a meditation retreat puts them right smack back in front of you...
[That said,] there's no denying that mindfulness does work in these various new, quasi-therapeutic contexts -- that's why it's spreading, of course. And there's nothing wrong with teaching people to relax -- wasn't the Buddha interested in reducing suffering? Well, stress is suffering and relaxation is its release. So I think Orthodox Buddhists need to, well, relax.
...We hardcore dharma practitioners need to make peace with Western mindfulness practices. They are indeed adaptations of the dharma, and not the dharma itself -- but the dharma is evolving into new forms and contexts quite remote from their Buddhist origins.
Some of the material in this book has been published in other forms, though it's been polished and recontextualized in its new setting. For instance, I remember reading Jay's multi-part essay A Jewish perspective on the jhanas in Zeek years ago. But even the material I'd seen before takes on new resonance in this new context.
There are a number of places where I have scribbled marginalia -- lines, double lines, exclamation points. Here's one of them:
Letting go is not the same as not having in the first place. If you choose to pursue a career that involves arguing with people about politics, conflict is going to arise, and the mind is going to react. That is just inevitable. But what is not inevitable is how those reactions affect you: how coolly or heatedly you reply...Similarly, if you have a family, particularly one with children, you are going to go on an emotional roller-coaster ride; that is the nature of raising a family. But what is up to you is how the roller-coaster feels: the ratio of anxiety to glee, fear to release.
That second example -- the family one -- is the one which made me draw marks of recognition in the margins. Just ask me what goes through my mind in the morning when our almost-four-year-old refuses to put on daytime clothes so we can get out the door to work and to preschool! But what Jay says here is right on: the roller-coaster is a part of every day. What's up to me is how the roller-coaster feels, and how I choose to respond to my kid when he's pushing every one of my buttons. Or, as Jay writes a bit later, "'What's wrong?' you might ask, 'I'm doing all this work, but I still get pissed off at my mom!' Well, sure, welcome to being human." Cue the rueful laughter of readerly recognition.
Jay offers a terrific metaphor for the mix-and-match quality of spiritual life for many people today. Remember when one used to acquire music by going to a store and purchasing a physical artifact, a record, created and curated by experts, which each of us might consume? Today, in contrast, we're accustomed to a world in which participants (not passive consumers) buy, stream, download, and/or trade music. We create our own playlists, often privileging diversity over stylistic uniformity. We assume that when it comes to music, each of us is capable of co-creating her/his own experience. The same is true today, Jay argues, when it comes to spirituality. He writes:
All identity, but in particular "spiritual" or "religious" identity, is similar. The dharma is evolving in a multi-identity world -- we live in the age of iSpirituality, no less than the age of the iPod. As with music, everything is now available all of the time. Participants (formerly parishioners, consumers, or target markets) expect, not as a matter of au courant hipdom but simply as a matter of course, that they will have a role in constructing their identities and experiences -- and that they will do so from a variety of different sources, in their own distinctive ways. Top-down curation, unformity of program offerings, and mono-identity are as outdated as those old 33s.
In today's paradigm we presume that we are co-creators, not consumers -- and we assume that we will create our identities and roles by drawing on a variety of sources, traditions, aspects of our selves. As a rabbi I know that this impacts how people "do Jewish" in the world today. Of course it also impacts how the dharma is experienced and articulated by its practitioners -- even those who wouldn't necessarily call themselves devotees of the dharma or walking its particularized path.
Later chapters in the book will touch on other facets of the dharma as it evolves. On this reading I'm particularly struck by some of the material on the intersection of Buddhism and queerness. Jay writes, "I'm interested in how queering the sangha problematizes the ways in which patriarchy is perpetuated...and how Buddhist notions of non-self call all of us who work in 'identity politics' to question how we may be reinscribing oppression by defining our identities in response to it." My own relationship to identity politics is a complicated one, in part because of this very tension which Jay articulates here. I'm glad to see his exploration of this stuff.
Jay also offers valuable perspective on the intersections of contemplative practice and justice. Once contemplatice practice has opened one's eyes to injustice and one's role in causing or perpetuating injustice, that same contemplative practice demands that one stop causing or perpetuating the injustice. Or, in Jay's more elegant words, "You can't see clearly, cause suffering, and be okay about it." Later in that same chapter, he observes, "There is, seemingly inherent in political life but amplified by our current social and technoogical structures, a tendency to praise anger, to defend 'righteous indignation,' and to reward brashness and zeal." I've noticed that too, and it challenges me. A lot. But, Jay argues, if we can be more conscious of the movements of our own minds, we can steer our own impulses toward generosity. "These small movements of the mind are, to me, the reasons contemplative practice might really save the world." What we need, he says, is "to install better cognitive software in people of all political persuasions."
For me as a reader, the most powerful moments in the collection are the small ones where Jay speaks about his own spiritual practice and how it's changed him. He writes that his spiritual life really "took off" when he stopped looking for a guru -- and recognized that his spiritual life was inevitably going to be as multifaceted as he himself is. "I realized that there was not going to be anyone who would 'get' all of me: the Jewish, the Buddhist, the queer, the earth-based, the plugged-in, the geeky, the freaky, the square, and the shy," Jay writes. Reading that line, some part of me wants to wave my hand in the air and shout "me too!" (Granted, my matrix of qualities isn't exactly the same as Jay's -- but it's not dissimilar, either.)
Near the end of the book, Jay quotes Lama Surya Das, then continuing in his own words:
'We have to occupy the dharma, occupy the spirit, not just leave it for the one percent, the Dalai Lamas and Thich Nhat Hanhs. Ocupy the dharma -- that's the Buddha's intention.' The dharma is not unattainable, not just for saints and mystics -- you can do it.
Or, in the words of the Jewish tradition which Jay and I share, "This mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not too wondrous for you, it is not too distant. It is not in the heavens that you should say 'Who shall go up to Heaven and bring it to us so that we can hear it and keep it?' It is not over the sea so that you should say 'Who will cross the sea and get it for us, so that we will be able to hear it and keep it?' It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may do it." (Deuteronomy 31:11-14) Here's hoping that it really is that reachable -- and that we'll reach out and take hold.