Live Bodies

In Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das addresses the problem of “meditation with mosquito.” He’s simply referring to the moment when we are deep in mediation practice and a mosquito, or any other irritating distraction, appears buzzing at our ear.

What do we do? Of course our natural instinct is to swat it away or simply become upset at our distraction by it. Lama Surya, however, suggests simply focusing on the buzzing as a “vibration in your eardrum. Buzzzz. . .” Development of this response cultivates mindfulness, “where awareness saves you from responding to the mosquito, or anything else, with a knee-jerk reaction.”

While Lama Surya’s main teaching is centered on this idea of mindfulness, what I feel most inspired by is how he suggests a Buddhist saint might respond: “A Buddhist saint might wish that the mosquito finds a tender juicy spot, has a decent meal, and a safe flight home.”

Not only do I respond very heartfully to this notion, but I find that it’s not so very out of reach in the viscerality of my imagination. Now, if only every distraction in my life could be transformed into that mosquito buzzing in my imagination’s ear…


Anthropologist Catherine Lutz considers emotions, not as personal and natural physiological states of the body, but as public indexes of cultural relationships:

“The concept of emotion plays a central role in the Western view of the world. While words like ‘envy,’ ‘love,’ and ‘fear’ are invoked by anyone who would speak about the self, about the private, about the intensely meaningful, or about the ineffable, they are also used to talk about devalued aspects of the world–the irrational, the uncontrollable, the vulnerable, and the female.

“Both sides of what can be seen as an ambivalent Western view of emotion are predicated, however, on the belief that emotion is in essence a psychobiological structure and an aspect of the individual. The role of culture in the experience of emotion is seen as secondary, even minimal, from that perspective.

“Culture or society can do little more than highlight or darken particular areas of the given psychobiological structure of emotions by, for example, repressing the expression of anger in women, calling for smiles to mask natural feelings of fear in certain situations, or emphasizing shame in one society and guilt in another.

“And while emotions are often seen as evoked in communal life, they are rarely presented as an index of social relationship rather than as a sign of a personal state.”

Pema Chodron identifies three kinds of laziness: comfort orientation, loss of heart, and “couldn’t care less.” Comfort orientation, in particular, she describes as our tendency to over accommodate our physical needs, such as by turning up the heat at the first sign of brisk weather, and by doing so, we “dull[] our appreciation of smells and sights and sounds.”

It’s interesting to think of “comfort” in this way–because, for example, it’s possible to actively create comfort for ourselves in lighting scented candles, opening a window to let a cool breeze in, baking cranberry-apple crisp in the oven. These creations of comfort actively stimulate the senses instead of dulling them.

However, the kind of comfort orientation that Pema Chodron is referring to is that which is not active. We might seek comfort by sleeping in late when it’s too stimulating to shock the body into its awakened state or comfort by staying inside instead of jogging to avoid exhaustion of the lungs. Both modes clearly point to comfort by remaining static, by avoiding ignitions of the nervous system and engagement of the body.

In making a clear distinction between these two kinds of comforts, we might better care for our bodies and souls. To realize when staying in, staying put, and therefore becoming static is a kind of deadening of the senses and deadening of life experience–rather than a kind of resting nourishment–can enlighten us to when we avoid living and the “rawness of emotional energy.”

Of course Teufelsdrockh’s Philosophy figures clothes – in one way at least – as the invisible fabric of society, but this passage – with its crude literal denunciation of clothes – does indeed convince us to desire a “world out of clothes,” though our German philosopher would have us believe we are nothing but an “air-image” in this “so solid-seeming World.”

From Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored) [1832-3]:

“While I – Good Heaven! – have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! Day after day, I must thatch myself anew; day after day, this despicable thatch must lose some film of its thickness; some film of it, frayed away by tear and wear, must be brushed off into the Ashpit, into the Laystall; till by degrees the whole has been brushed thither, and I, the dust-making, patent Rag-grinder, get new material to grind down. O subter-brutish! vile! most vile! For have not I too a compact all-enclosing Skin, whiter or dinger? Am I a botched mass of tailors’ and cobblers’ shreds, then; or a tightly articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?”

Classes began today. I’m teaching an introductory survey of English literature, which I’m calling “Painting the Inner Life: A Journey into the Physical, Spiritual, and Social Dimensions of Selfhood.” Here is the course description:

“Never judge a book by its cover.” A simple truth, and yet, our culture is driven by its obsession with creating “image.” Magazines and television shows teach us hair, styling, and exercise techniques directed at further shaping this image of ourselves, an image that will presumably reveal the “real you,” but nevertheless a reality that remains on the surface of the body, on the “cover.” Similarly, when we think about identity and the individual, we might create a mental picture based on one’s personal style, professional identity, leisure activities, or, at a more sophisticated level, cultural markers of distinction (race, class, gender, sexuality). But even as we attempt to invoke representations of a deeper nature, our perceptions of the individual remain largely externalized. We rarely invest ourselves in the machinery of the inner life of the individual.

What kind of portrait might we paint that imagines the breathless fears, pulsating desires, and remorseful thoughts that mark the inner spirit of the individual? One of our most coveted desires as human beings is to witness the soul of another human being; one of our greatest fears is that someone other will catch a glimpse of our own. One of the appeals, then, of reading literature is that it provides access to the hidden and complex inner life of the individual. In this survey course, we will examine texts that enjoin the spiritual and mechanical spirit of the age with a dynamic exploration of selfhood. As critics, and as individuals, we will piece together a portrait of the inner lives we witness and also experience.

The reading list includes:

  • Thomas Carlyle. “Signs of the Times” and Sartor Resartus.
  • Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.
  • George Eliot. The Lifted Veil.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.

“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. . . . Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. We are out walking and we see someone in pain – right on the spot we can begin to breathe in that person’s pain and send out relief. Or we are just as likely to see someone in pain and look away. The pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion. So on the spot we can do tonglen for all the people just like ourselves, all those who wish to be compassionate but instead are afraid – who wish to be brave but instead are cowardly. Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”

South Park Buddhism

My greatest weakness is my inability to listen and comprehend. When I listen to someone speaking, my mind tends to follow the music of the voice and gets distracted from any notion of the content being shared. When I taught reading comprehension for Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes one summer, we used a method that stimulated the child’s ability to visualize each part of a story. Since then, I try to visualize in the same way when I’m listening to a story or a lecture, yet I can only keep it up for so long before I become conscious again of the music of the voice or simply of consciousness itself.

While I continue to strengthen this faculty, I rather appreciate visual animations of voice recordings, which is what I have found here. These three voice recordings by the Buddhist scholar Alan Watts have been animated by South Park team members.

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