Becoming still

Samanthabadra: The Bodhisattva of Action

Samanthabadra: The Bodhisattva of Action

A few things are starting to emerge from the buzz of being back in North America. The most unsettling and disorienting feature of life in the fast lane is that here, every lane is the fast lane. There is no slow gear. Sitting at a stoplight is fast. Standing in line at a cafe is fast. (OK. Standing in line at the Post Office is slow.) What sits utterly still on the shelf of a supermarket is fast. The colors, the lights, the packaging, the ingredients, the portions are all gauged to contact the buyer at subliminal levels of pleasure and satisfaction and to initiate repetitive behavior of returning to this product automatically with little reflection on the contents or the consequences of these decisions. Whew! And,… do it now! Maybe I’m just noticing that my nervous system is being re-calibrated and I’m not enjoying it so much.

It’s the same with everything, though, really. I thought the ubiquity of advertising was already overwhelming in Asia. And it is. Except that it was in a foreign language so I mostly disregarded all of it or it simply didn’t penetrate my consciousness the way it does here. It was spectacle; a curiosity. Maybe life is more similar in these distant locations than I realized or am able to admit. But everything, I mean all the simple comforts and conveniences we now have taken for granted for generations, as random and disparate as they may be, are woven together into the multi-dimensional, seamless fabric of each personal and separate technologically advanced life at every level whose message is simple: This is all for you. You need this and you will not be happy without more.

The somatic experience I’m describing is what Tsoknyi Rinpoche would call excessive lung, the “speedy wind” of life altering the energetics of one’s personal field in an unhealthy way. One must become finely attuned to the internal gain and develop ways of lowering it with breathing exercises… or remembering that the Two Truths are both operating in every instant–and that neither have ever existed! Combined with the elevated lung is usually the mental/emotional effort of creating and grasping the concrete nature of life, the reification of our outlook and activity enhancing our attachment to the way things are–or at least to the way things seem to be.

For example, not that this is anything new or revelatory, but I am reminded once again how most of life in America is oriented around the car. Everything is integral to and derives from owning and driving the car; the primary symbol of personal space, status, material comfort and separation from all other beings. The car determines the scale of everything: the size, the sprawl, the complexity, the diversity of culture. Without the car, what are we? Where are we? What would we be? How would we be relating differently to each other? What would commerce look like?

To see the answers to those questions, go somewhere, anywhere, that is less dependent on the car. Again, not that this is anything new. It’s just that in order to comprehend the depth of our dependence on petroleum, one might have to temporarily extricate oneself entirely from car culture.

It wasn’t my intention when I started here to be pontificating on this topic. But when I contemplate this dependency and consider that the oil majors want us to believe that further proliferation of petroleum culture is the answer to global poverty and underdevelopment, I just about choke. For them, more people collecting the symbols and  ethics of personal space, status, material comfort and separation from all other beings is the answer for the future. An alternative to that plan is to facilitate a direct transition to renewable energy for cultures that are already less dependent on the car. The shift in consciousness for them will likely be much smoother than if they were to become more dependent on petroleum first on their way to later becoming less dependent on petroleum the way we will all soon be–if we wake up in time. But enough on that for now.

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Another thing I am very aware of is that I am homeless. It is much easier to be homeless when traveling, of course. But now I am homeless at “home.” And alone. A corollary is that I have stuff I don’t need, especially if I continue to choose this state of homelessness as a more permanent condition. This is not a transitional state. I may be trying it out for a while, but there is no in-between. One is not transitionally homeless. One either is a nomad or not. There is no emergency back-up home.

Nomad has a less pejorative ring to it though, doesn’t it? Or wanderer? Or self-possessed, wide-eyed seeker? OK, maybe vagrant. But regardless, if this is what I am, what am I doing in this place? How come I’m not, you know, packing up and going? Is it OK to just sit for a while? After where I’ve been and what I’ve been through, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to be sitting still.

But I have not yet become fully still. And how will I even know when that is true? When I’m completely comfortable where I am? Or when I begin to feel the urge to move again? Do I belong to one place, or to all places? Is each place already all places- as any single person   is also all people? Being grounded and present is a quality that doesn’t have a place of its own. And every person is a potential friend with whom intimacy awaits beneath the thin veneer of social convention, natural guarding, culture and geography. I will be free to move again when I am renewed in my resolve to be present and available regardless of location–or the person in front of me.

This being alone, however, is a recurring feature of being the nomad. Something Tsoknyi Rinpoche said in a past retreat echoes here: Loneliness is a product of the belief in the separate self. I’m not even sure I’m talking about personal loneliness. I have missed a certain kind of companionship. The question for me now is, how much do I trust myself to navigate the territory of relationship, which requires an even greater awareness of the interplay between the different ego-voices within each of us? Writing permits the externalization of the internal process, but its reflective capacity is limited. It doesn’t make personal observations or point out the flaws in one’s view. One must self-correct. If that’s what I intend to do (as I’ve been doing all year), I need reliable instruments of inquiry. Fortunately, I believe I have the ones I need.

Finally, having experienced the first pass through different countries and cultures over a long enough period to get more than a superficial taste, I have learned a few things about travel and what kind of traveler I want to be. One, I don’t need as much stuff. Two, I need the right kind of stuff. Three, I want more flexibility for moving or standing still. Four, I am not just a sightseer and likely never will be. There must be something to do, something that will draw me deeper into the context. I’m not sure what that looks like the next time around. But I’m entertaining all options.

10 thoughts on “Becoming still

  1. Gary, Beautifully written as always. After coming back from Spain and Europe after 6 months, I had some of the same feelings you expressed (and I know Patty does too). The fast paced driving, large uncalled-for portions of food, excessive status building based on how much money you have, and an isolationist mentality about world events and cultural norms that differ from ours. The return was a let down that took me awhile to re-accept, although I miss the more simple life there in the countrysides of Europe. It was the same when I returned to the states from Libya as a twelve-year-old.

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  2. Good to hear from you and our experiences over ‘there’, I’m also over ‘there’ at the moment, but my ‘there’ is Aberdeen and heading to Glasgow today. I recognize this compulsive ‘speed’ of everything in the outer and inner environment. It’s reverse culture shock, I’m just holding on to things, you could say, because it’s all going at such a rate. And I’ll be back in Delhi end July, then to Chiang Mai. Maybe there’s ‘speed’ going on there too but, as you say here, I’m insulated from most of it because the language is too hard to follow.
    Hope all goes well with your plans and travels from here on
    T

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    • T- I know you are traveling and I’m sure you take refuge in knowing you will be returning “home” before too long. I’m drawn back to Chiang Mai as well. Just not sure when. We’ll stay in touch, I’m sure. Safe travels.

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  3. thanks for sharing your insights…..transitioning is always an interesting state from which to notice the more complex and often contradictory interplay between who we are when we aren’t here and what we slip back into when we return…particularly where you have returned from…sitting can be a positive space to be with these conundrums. :.))

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  4. I think I read it in a news article or another blog recently that there’s a new kind of Buddhism. Corporate executives are learning how to meditate and considering it a fast track to Nirvana. I found that to be quite an enlightening commentary on our society.

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  5. Yes. Nirvana. Like money. Another thing to achieve. We can have a Nirvana Index, like the Dow. And then every year we can calculate how many hedge fund managers exceeded the Nirvana industry average. LOL.

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  6. I Love sour description of the car culture. As a German who has always been living without a car, even without drivers license, I’m cycling in the US day by day. It’s very interesting to feel the difference here compared to Europe. I’m usually cycling alone between cars and I’m usually NOT seen. In our cities in Germany we are thousands who cycle and often when we are not seen there is a conflict right there or even a crash or a police car. Here might appear to some of the “car people” like an alien on my bike in all kinds of weather and (special) clothing. Inside myself it feels more like being an outpost of a more natural way of living in a culture that is able to populate vast areas of this continent because of gasoline:)

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    • Not knowing where you are exactly, I imagine you are in a less dense semi-urban environment. Much safer for cyclists. Here in Thailand, there are almost as many motorcycles as cars. Faster and more manoeuvrable than bicycles, but still very vulnerable to injury, especially at higher speeds.

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