Shaila Catherine’s ‘Focused and Fearless’ (2)

Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless with a look at Chapter Two, titled “The Joy of Seclusion.”

We’ll practice according to some instructions that she calls “Setting Thoughts Aside:” Imagine thoughts flying at you like baseballs. Catch each one and roll it back. Don’t pocket it. Just look at it, know what it is, consider it for a moment and toss it away. Repeat the process again and again.

* * * *

Shaila opens Chapter Two with a poem by Rumi:

Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands,
Or your own genuine solitude?
Freedom, or power over an entire nation?
A little while alone in your room
Will prove more valuable than
Anything else that could ever be given to you.

The Buddha described the transition from ordinary consciousness to the altered state of profound concentration and absorption that characterizes what’s called jhana in the Pali language of ancient India: “Secluded from sensory pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, one enters and abides in the first jhana.”

Most of us resist the idea of retreating from worldly activities that engage us in meaningful work and play with other people. We don’t want to miss out on news, gossip and fun or to fall behind in our e-mail or social networking. We tend to associate withdrawal from society with self-denial, repression, alienation or loneliness. Newspapers report scary stories of social misfits and psychopaths who plan heinous crimes in isolated cabins. No wonder we doubt the benefits of solitude.

Not everyone I know understands why I choose to participate in month-long silent meditation retreats. Members of my family have asked me, “How can you live so long without books, cell phones, computers, T.V., movies, and especially without talking?” On the eve of one retreat, a skeptical scientist at Yale University warned me, “Without outer stimulation, your brain cells might start to die off.” He was surprised when I returned full of enthusiasm about all that I had learned in Noble Silence.

As Shaila points out, the seclusion that supports meditation practice is rooted in wisdom and clarity. When I enter a retreat, my goal is to liberate my mind from greed, hatred and delusion so that I alleviate suffering—for myself and others.

According to the Buddha, “If by giving up a lesser happiness, one could experience greater happiness, a wise person would renounce the lesser to behold the greater.” He described three kinds of seclusion: physical aloneness, mental seclusion, and detachment from the root causes of suffering.

Firstly, physical seclusion involves temporarily leaving behind ordinary distractions and activities of daily life. The Buddha suggested seeking out “a secluded resting place: the forest, the root of a tree, a mountain, a ravine, a hillside cave, a charnel ground, a jungle thicket, an open space, [or] a heap of straw.” Currently, we in this sangha also have the option of attending retreats at centers like Margaret Austin in Texas, Spirit Rock in California, or the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts.

The Buddha balanced periods of seclusion with periods of compassionate social interaction. Each year he and his monks interrupted their itinerant teaching to spend rainy months of the spring season in retreat. Similarly, many modern lay practitioners alternate time for inner retreat with time for engagement with career, family and social concerns.

Retreats provide opportunities for letting go of anxieties and distractions that preclude inner peace. A friend just sent me the transcript of an imagined interview with the Buddha. His response to the question, “What have you gained from meditation?” was “Nothing.” However, he went on to say, “Let me tell you what I’ve lost: anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, and fear of old age, sickness and death.” In the seclusion of retreats, I feel as if I’m emptying out the extraneous garbage of my mind, performing a kind of inner Feng Shui cleansing.

It’s true that the concentrated states that I cultivate in Noble Silence depend on protected retreat conditions and fade once I face highway traffic on my way home. But insights that arise during deep concentration have an enduring positive impact on my life. One of those insights is that I need very few possessions in order to live happily.

This week Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of Mimimalism, are visiting Houston’s Brazos Bookstore on a promotional tour for their second book. The Houston Chronicle reports that when Joshua was 27, he was earning six figures as the youngest director in his company’s history. Then his life fell apart: his mother died, and his marriage ended. He reminisces, “Looking around at the stuff in my life, I was ostensibly successful, but I felt miserable. The things in my life weren’t important, and it was the first time I questioned…conspicuous consumption. I had all the trappings of success: a big house with more bedrooms than people, nice cars, luxury clothes, but…I had heaps of debt, and even though I was making a lot of money, I was spending beyond my means. I was working 70, 80 hours a week, trying to reach a place where I would be happy, but the closer I got, the further away it was.” Joined by Ryan, an old childhood friend, Joshua fundamentally changed his lifestyle. In 2009, he shed 95% of his possessions, sold his condo, and quit his telecom corporate job to become a fulltime blogger and writer. Ryan and Joshua weaned themselves from addictions to technology and to television and Internet entertainment. Now they focus on what feels meaningful: their relationships, their time, and their passions. Their blog has created a cultural movement, attracting more than 2 million followers. This story echoes the Buddha’s quest for happiness.

Mental seclusion is the second kind of solitude that the Buddha recommended. During intensive meditation, we strip away our habitual personality masks, social rank and self-image. As we repeatedly investigate the nature of our thoughts, we witness (without acting upon them) the classic hindrances of desire, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt. We see stories about the self arise and pass away as empty thoughts.

Unlike the strategy of Vipassana or Insight meditation—“practicing near suffering” by meeting difficult mind-states directly and illuminating them with wisdom—the strategy of samadhi or profound concentration entails disengaging from hindrances as soon as they are detected. Because energy is preserved for purifying the mind in wholesome states, the deep absorption of jhana is considered to be “practicing near happiness.” While a meditator dismisses distractions again and again, the mind settles, and the hindrances lose their charge until they eventually stop arising. The secluded mind is separated from unwholesome states.

On Saturday I used the technique of repeatedly identifying and discarding doubts and focusing on positive thoughts. With heavy hearts, Mark and I unhooked our dog Marisol from intravenous fluids at our local veterinary hospital and drove her limp, unresponsive body to Hockley, Texas to consult with Dr. Patricia Baley, a Chinese herbalist and animal acupuncturist. After an hour and 1/2 exam and 10 minutes of needles in key meridians, Marisol perked up, ran outside to pee, and when we arrived home, she ate ravenously for the first time in a week. It was like a resurrection. Mark and I are delighted that she seems to be with us for a while longer. I’m sure that our own positive, healing prayers and those from family and friends are making a difference.

The third and culminating form of seclusion described by the Buddha goes beyond a quiet, wholesome state of mind. It is characterized by freedom from attachment to past, future and even present perceptions. As Shaila explains this state, “The very constituents of personality are seen as utterly empty. There is nothing there to hold, and no one to try [to hold]. Awakening is a realization that is unshakable; it occurs to no one, requires no confirmation, and attains nothing…With no place to stop, ease is limitless, happiness is unbounded, and freedom is realized.”

Ultimately, seclusion leads to separation from suffering. Physical and mental seclusion creates conditions conducive to deep investigation. The seclusion of jhana is like learning to ride a bicycle with training wheels. Concentration states help maintain balance during practice until it’s possible to ride without the support of any conditioned states. The Buddha described realization beyond the support of jhana, as freedom “from form and name, from pleasure and pain”—essentially the end of suffering.

Although we lay meditators may never reach this culminating stage of seclusion, we can reap numerous benefits from practicing physical and mental seclusion.