Tuesday, 5 March 2019

I spent the weekend at a Buddhist retreat

This weekend past I went on an 18–25 introduction to Buddhism weekend run by the London Buddhist Centre. I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation since October last year, and I wanted to learn more and have some more space and time. I found this weekend interesting, but not for the reasons I expected.

Vajrasana retreat, Suffolk

The location was very nice. And for many people, the idea of a meditation or Buddhist retreat might be a nice escape from their busy lives. And it was. A modern and simple set of buildings with beds, a lounge area, a dining area, and worship areas. No phone, alcohol, and vegan food for every meal. Since reading Jaron Lanier and Cal Newport I’m increasingly vigilant with how I spend time on social media, and I noticed that a few times I moved instinctively to check my phone, even though it was switched off.

The main purpose for me was to do more meditation, and meet other young people interested in this stuff. There were two main meditations, and these are part of Buddhist practice anywhere. The first is about following the breath. Anyone who’s used a Headspace-style app or done a little bit of mindfulness meditation will be familiar with this. For me it draws attention to how quickly we get distracted, and that really we have no control over what our mind churns up. It’s like Mary Poppins’ handbag, pulling up kinds of things, good and bad. Breathing meditations for me show how difficult it is to hold onto the core rhythm that sustains us — breathing in and out, and how my mind is often all over the place. With more practice, the thoughts become less frantic, more calm and composed.

Don Draper in Mad Men tries meditation

The second meditation is called (embarrassingly for the British), the loving-kindness meditation. Maybe it could be toned down to our emotional sensitivity level to calling it the “wishing others well” meditation. This is done by visualising yourself well, happy, and content. Then you visualise someone close to you — a friend or family member, and picture them happy. Simple enough and quite nice. Then you picture a neutral person, wish them well, then you move to someone you have difficulty with, and don’t see eye-to-eye, and you wish them well. After a bit of friction with this imagined person, I started to see them as a rounded person with their own happiness. They’re more than just the enemy in the story where I’m the protagonist. They also want to be happy, and they’re a person just the same as I am.

The final stage is where you picture the whole world, and all conscious beings, and wish them well. To stand on the moon, and wish the earth well. I spend a lot of time thinking about global issues, and so this one feels great for me. To capture all of these individual experiences on our pale blue dot of a planet and wish them well. This is the loving-kindness meditation, and it shows how Buddhism and mindfulness is really embedded within an ethical context.

After the sessions we broke for lunch, and chatted. The other people were fascinating — from whole range of jobs, but you won’t be surprised that lots of them have done gap years, and that they’re interested in the environment and making the world a better place. A popular conversation topic was “I’m trying to be more vegan” . It was great to hang out with and talk to other people like me. At university we have this great atmosphere of discussion and ideas, but I found that it dissipated after I left. Meet-ups more patchy, more drinking and less big chats over lots of time. I do see my friends often and am looking forward to a big weekend soon, but it’s not every weekend and there isn’t so much time to do it as when you’re on retreat.

Throughout the weekend there were talks on individuals who had decided to ‘become’ Buddhists. Meditation was faced around a large golden-coloured icon of a Buddha, and people were encouraged to light a candle, bow down, and pray. The session leader said that “it can feel nice to do that, just nice to light a candle”. All of these activities were optional, and when I elected to sit out a main candle-carrying ritual on the second night, that was not an issue. But there’s just something creepy to me about ritual and tradition.

It’s a well-known result in human psychology how we change our minds over time, and our sense of correctness is layered on further through the confirmation bias. Tradition and ritual is no justification for doing things. And if we look at some of the greatest atrocities in history, we find that social conditioning, normalisation, and tradition played a key role. What is normal is not necessarily what is right, or even reflects what is true.

The characters in Fiddler on the Roof sing how tradition rules that men must have the final say.

I was disappointed that a group based on the idea of moving away from impulsive evolutionary reactions was blind to the psychological impacts of doing things in groups. It feels good to do things in groups, and our desire for friendship and social approval can produce much stronger emotions than hunger or a headache. At the end of the second day, the speakers discussed how there were many questions outside the bounds of rationality or the grasp of humans to understand. And this then justified why we had to bow to an icon, and walk around a stupa carrying candles and chanting. It seemed like a jump. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
When the faithful are asked whether God really exists, they often begin by talking about the enigmatic mysteries of the universe and the limits of human understanding. ‘Science cannot explain the Big Bang,’ they exclaim, ‘so that must be God’s doing.’ Yet like a magician fooling an audience by imperceptibly replacing one card with another, the faithful quickly replace the cosmic mystery with the worldly lawgiver. After giving the name of ‘God’ to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorces. ‘We do not understand the Big Bang — therefore you must cover your hair in public and vote against gay marriage.’
We had group sessions where we discussed the readings and what we thought of them. These groups reminded me of the scene in First Reformed (2017), where the pastors try hopelessly to reach out to a bunch of nihilistic milliennials, and find their stories of salvation met with apathy and rejection. Going in to the groups, I wondered whether young people today have any interest in religion. And I was surprised by their reaction.

It seemed to me that about one third of my group liked the retreat but had no engagement with the religious aspects, one third were on the fence, and the final third were caught hook, line, and sinker into the group ritual and enjoyed the warm fuzzies of being part of a group and community all doing the same thing. That third felt a sense of community, belonging, and order that perhaps is missing from a contemporary world of lost connections, Trump, Brexit, and anti-social social media. There is no structure in our contemporary reality, and religions, rules and lessons calm us by providing order.

Huxley’s Brave New World

At the retreat I finished the dazzling Brave New World, and I reflected on how structure and rules are needed for stability. And at the retreat I could see that people like the rules: remember the five this-es, and the six-fold that. Our poor primate brains are poorly adapted for trying to grapple with the complexity of global supply chains, or the uncertainty and the confusion of physics and morality. We like simple guidelines.
“Stability,” said the Controller, “stability. No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability.” His voice was a trumpet. Listening they felt larger, warmer.
I was genuinely taken aback that about a third of the group were really drawn in by nice chanting, consistent suggestion, and the social draw of feeling like they belonged to something. And I admit, it is a sticky honey trap for them to fall into. Maybe Huxley was right — our craving for order, as I saw on the retreat — could lead us into a Brave New World.

Perhaps I could be a Buddhist, as I think the Buddha was mostly right about a lot of things we covered. Suffering seems to mostly be about the difference between what we want and what we have. Clean living is a good way to be healthy and prosperous yourself. As a vegan I’m pretty much sold on living the five precepts. While I’m not fully there myself, I’d even back precept number five on the grounds that alcohol causes 3.3 million deaths each year, is a huge drain on public health spending, a massive drag on productivity and happiness (and it totally ruins my ability to sleep now I’m 26). Just because it’s normal doesn’t make it right.

I think that practising the principles of right speech, right action, and right livelihood is a really good way for Western society to pull itself out of the nihilistic tailspin it sometimes seems to be in. And of course, everything is perceived through our own mind, and consciousness and reality are very slippery things. I agree with all of this, and could quite happily live an Alex Honnold-esque lifestyle.
Yeah I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve never liked the taste. Basically I’m Mormon, except for the God thing, you know. In terms of clean living and like, being wholesome.
As a reasonably confident atheist, I’m happy to go with the purpose of reducing suffering and trying to promote the flourishing of compassion and creativity. In my work on animal welfare, and my interest in tackling global problems, I find that I can use reducing suffering as my ethical north star of navigation. Of course there are many questions that fascinate and puzzle me, and which I don’t pretend to know the answer to. What is consciousness? How will AI affect humanity? Will we survive on Earth? Are we alone in the universe? Can there be anything outside the universe?

Ke Jie, the top ranked Go player in the world, is beaten by Google’s Deepmind artificial intelligence

Our brief and jumbled coexistence with the entropy of reality remains a wonder and a puzzle to me. It’s clear to me that my own primal brain puts me on a hedonic treadmill. Humans eat sugary foods, and leap from shopping purchase to purchase, because our brains are geared to go for gratification. And businesses are only too happy to satisfy it in order to raise further profits. Our ability to challenge this through arts, discussion, and culture has led to radical improvements in our conception of how to live our lives. I am deeply thankful to Varsjana, the London Buddhist Centre, Buddhism, and all the humans contemplating these questions around the world. But when we substitute one set of stories, routines, and conditioning, for another set of unquestioned and doctrinal instructions, have we really moved forwards?

The UN Climate Change Conference COP 23 in Bonn, Germany

My hope for humanity is that we can harness some of these evolved tendencies to constantly want more and fight each other. Maybe they’re good for the groups we evolved in but not good when we have nuclear weapons, and we need to shift energy production to renewable sources. Our rising technological power has not been matched by a rising wisdom. In order for humanity to survive coming centuries we need to cultivate that wisdom in our institutions and in ourselves as individuals. We need to be less distracted by passing thoughts, more insightful, and more compassionate towards others. And on that topic Buddhism has a lot of wisdom to offer us.

I believe that the story of humanity can flourish in incredible ways in the future. I hope that we do, and so it is for that reason that I will be sitting down tomorrow and the day after, and doing the breathing and the loving kindness meditations.

My reading list

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