Monday, November 22, 2010

Living As a River

Sometimes I wonder what the New York Times bestseller list would look like if it reflected true quality of writing and the substance and value of important and challenging ideas, rather than celebrity, noisy political rhetoric, easy answers to complex questions, and of course the money that flows freely in commercial hype. I wrote a while ago about a novel, Driftless, by David Rhodes, a profound, thoughtful and beautifully-written book, broad in its sweep and understanding of humanity, which should rightfully have been close to the top of that list. So far as I can tell, it did not even warrant a mention. I’m just now finishing another book which to my mind should be at the top of the non-fiction list. But isn’t.

A while ago, before leaving on our trip, I mentioned the book in an entry in "The Buddha Diaries." It’s called Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, and it was written by Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist author and teacher who runs Wildmind, a site for meditation studies, and practices at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in New Hampshire. Distracted by our travels, I put it aside for further reading on our return, and I have been chewing on it slowly since then. This is not the kind of book you read from cover to cover and put back up on the shelf when you’re done. It’s the kind of book that needs closing frequently along the way; it requires the allowance of time for reflection and a practical testing of the ideas that its author proposes. You need to work them through, to see how they work for you.

That said, I have to admit that I myself did not, actually, read the book slowly enough. In my judgment, that would take a good few weeks—including the not-reading time, of which I had little at my disposal. Or else it could be the subject for a ten-day retreat, with no other commitments to divert the attention from its themes. Read properly, it is a life-changer, and is intended as such.

We are much concerned, in our culture, with what we are pleased to imagine as our selves. We spend a great deal of energy cultivating and maintaining them, too often without remembering that they are merely the fabrications of our own needy minds. Put simply and in a nutshell, this book brings our attention to the ways in which we construct these selves, how they cause us suffering when we cling to them and, most importantly, how we can live happier, healthier, more productive, more compassionate lives if we learn to deconstruct them.

Bodhipaksa’s study centers on the traditional Buddhist Six Element Practice, an analytical study of the self in the form of “a reflection specifically designed to undermine our delusions of separateness and of having an unchanging self. It’s a practice of letting go.” The first step in letting go, of course, is a clear understanding of the nature of our delusion, and Bodhipaksa brings a wealth of scientific knowledge to demonstrate, persuasively, that all of our perceptions are illusory and that everything about us is transitory. Examining each of the six elements in turn (earth, water, fire, air and, in Buddhist thought, space and consciousness) as they exist in both the external world and the internal world of the mind-body complex, he exposes the fallacy of our sense of a “self” as distinct from the flow of the river of perpetual change. The metaphor for the self to which he constantly returns is that of the eddy, which may appear to have a distinguishable form but which is in reality no more than the illusion of a form, never the same from one moment to the next and inseparable from the water whose flow defines its fragile existence.

No scientist myself, I can only marvel at Bodhipaksa’s easy dance with both the history of scientific knowledge and its most current advances. His is essentially a phenomenological study of the elemental structures of reality, of our nature as human beings in the world, and of our place in the universe; in the course of it all, he ranges happily from esoteric physics (Loop Quantum Gravity, anyone?) and biochemistry to the intimate functioning of the human body (ever wonder why shit is brown?) and the brain, and out into the cosmic view of astrophysics. He is equally familiar with a great range of current social science research and with the history of human thought from the Buddha and (who else?) Heraclitus, to this day. He amasses his evidence patiently, and brings his reader along with a light touch, clear explanations, and a lively pace.

Unqualified to judge the quality of Bodhipaksa’s science, obviously, I’m comfortable in asserting that it’s always persuasive—and enjoyable to read. And always the bottom line is the mantra to which I myself return frequently in my own meditations: This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this. (I actually learned a slightly different construction: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.) It's at once a humbling and empowering realization. When arrived at with full understanding, it has a wonderfully liberating potential, releasing us into the stream of a reality where our experience is no longer hampered by that dualistic distinction between “self” and “other” that is the cause of so much human suffering and confusion.

Had I such power, I would make “Living As a River” mandatory reading for all those whose delusional egos dominate our discourse and the direction of the world in this day and age. And that would include the vast majority of political, business and religious leaders whose self-important selves inflict their own certainties and absolutes on others, to the detriment of our species and our planet. Alas, I have no such power. But I do recommend this book to anyone engaged in the genuine search for a release from the suffering we all experience. If your goal is freedom and serenity, if you're looking for a conscious and fearless path forward toward the end that meets us all, there's no better place to start. As I said earlier, this is a book that is capable of changing lives.


kara rane said...

Hi Peter -
I completely agree..maybe the NY Times Bestseller list could benefit from a loss of self, a letting go of identity. how about the NY Times Most Valuable list....

CHI SPHERE said...

In these times I need the freedom and serenity you write about and letting go of identity certainly has got to be attained. I'll be out this morning to get "Living As a River" and find some quite place in the days to drink from its pages. I find that the landscape of reason in the American culture is suffering a drought of clarity and purpose. Thanks for offering a drink to us all Peter.