I once devoted three weeks of meditation time to an exercise proposed by Ken McLeod in his remarkable book, "Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention." I had recently reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times, and in the process had learned a lot about Buddhism--and a lot about myself. Ken McLeod's teaching reflects a rigorous Tibetan training, and his book is in itself an eminently practical, no-holds-barred training manual for Western readers. It puts the attentive and conscientious reader--one who is prepared to follow the author along the demanding path of meditation exercises that form the core of the book--through the paces, learning how to dismantle those reactive patterns of the mind that control our lives without our knowing it, and create barriers between us and our happiness. (By the way, my review was an enthusiastic recommendation; those interested might want to check out McLeod's website at Unfettered Mind.)
The particular exercise I'm referring to involved sitting in meditation on the infinite number of ways in which you can die in the course of a typical day. I was reminded of one of my personal favorites (!) by the dreadful ongoing saga of those miners trapped for days now in the cave-in of a coal mine in Utah and again, with a jolt, by news of that massive 8.0 earthquake in Peru last night, coinciding with more bad news from Utah with the death of rescue workers. My visualization was of a slow and terrifyingly claustrophobic death, trapped under tons of rubble after a major earthquake--the kind that is still ominously overdue in Southern California. After three weeks of this charming exercise, believe me, I had learned a lot about my fear of death!
With regard to the Utah mining disaster, every time I read or hear about it in news broadcasts, the key word has always been "hope." As the days passed, I noticed that the meaning of the word began to shift for me. At the beginning, it was benign. When hope was somehow real, before the enormity of the obstacles began to emerge--the depth at which the men were trapped, the problem of oxygen and sustenance, the daily seismic events that caused numerous delays--there seemed to be at least some basis for holding on to it. With the passage of time, however, hope seemed to become an increasingly cruel concept. On the lips of mine officials, it began to sound more and more like a desperate means to deflect responsibility, to demonstrate good faith in a situation which, it seems to this reader-in-between-the-lines, was brought about by risky mining practices in the context of a history of neglect of safety and concern for men's lives.
I was interested in Buddhist thinking about hope, so I ran a search on Access to Insight and came across this narrative from the texts, translated from the Pali by Than Geoff. In this story, we learn that the aging Ven. Khemaka, sick and in pain, was plainly irritated by the message from his fellow monks expressing their "hope" that he was getting better and feeling more comfortable. "I am not getting better, my friend," he responds with crotchety displeasure. "I am not comfortable. My extreme pains are increasing, not lessening. There are signs of their increasing, and not of their lessening." The upshot is a sermon on the five clinging-aggregates, suggesting--as I understand it--that hope is indeed a form of clinging which brings only further suffering. The lesson made sense to me in the context of the mine disaster. The longer the officials preached hope--and the longer they clung to it themselves--the greater the potential for suffering. The loss of hope, perhaps, though painful, will come as a release.
I suppose it's natural to pay may more attention to things closer to home, but doesn't it strike you as odd that the television news will spend countless hours asking pointless, repetitive, unanswerable questions with regard to the story of a mine collapse that takes the lives of (forgive me, I don't mean to take them lightly) a handful of men in Utah, but glosses over the deaths of thousands in East Asian floods with barely a mention? Of tens of thousands in famine, disease and warfare in Africa? Why did it seem important to mention that "at least one American" died in Peru, amongst those mounting hundreds? There's almost an implication that the American death counted somehow more than all those Peruvians. Curious, no?