Because I love puns here are some literal fabrications–constructions of fabric.
A quilt that I made for Merlin’s big kid bed (and Merlin’s room, which is boss). Also I just checked my own blog to see if I mentioned we moved into a new house and discovered A blog post from 363 days ago that covers much of the analytical content below. Plus ça change.
Anyway this post is about the other kind of fabrications, or sankhara. Specifically verbal fabrications, the way that we talk about the world to ourselves and others that in-turn shapes our reality.
I went on a ten day silent meditation retreat at Dharma Treasure in SE Arizona last May. I was initially hesitant a) because it is a meditation center started by the guy who wrote The Mind Illuminated (a meditation guide that I did not care for overmuch) and b) because they spell it Dharma (from the Sanskrit rendering) rather than Dhamma (from the Pali rendering). At least one of those reasons for hesitancy is very silly.
Rather than give you a full run-down of the retreat, which would be boring and an exercise in storytelling I am trying to avoid (see below), here’s a couple of quick takeaways:
Thai forest school monks are basically the special forces of Buddhism. I went on a 12 hour night hike and dhamma discussion with him through a canyon. We covered maybe 11 miles of very rough terrain (it’s about a thousand feet up from the base of the canyon) and when we returned to the meditation center at dawn he said “okay I am going back to the caves” and basically sprinted back into the wilderness as I blearily set about making breakfast.
It occurred to me later that this monk ate a meal every couple of days, slept maybe 5 hours a night (except for the weekly all night vigil, when he didn’t sleep at all) and could easily hike 30+ miles a day in oversized thrift store running shoes in the high desert. Also he could navigate by the stars and calculate sunrise and moonrise and knew facts about most of the rocks, plants and animals we encountered.
The last time I was on retreat there were other retreatants and I had to spend a lot of time quieting self talk around the perceptions of others/observation of others. This time I was the only person on retreat. I assumed this would make meditation easier, and I suppose it did in the long term but I spent about 30 hours of meditation and observation trying to get the narrator in my head to stop. (this is actually what the post is about but bear with me for four more points)
A couple of days into the retreat I ended up camping under a rock after an evening dhamma talk and Henrik, the resident yogi, offered to bring me food if I wanted to live in a cave for the rest of the retreat. I agreed and spent four days meditating in a variety of caves and going on long meditation hikes. Henrik brought me “monk food” (“it’s basically whatever’s in the fridge, all in one tupperware”) once a day and for the last two days he brought me two days of food to split across. I am proud to announce that I ate half, waited an entire twenty four hours, then ate the second half. And didn’t get food poisoning.
I spent somewhere between 100 and 120 hours meditating, mostly Thai style breath meditation as taught by Thanissero Bhikku. I have spent about a year doing breath meditation but I think I prefer TWIM (what I started with) for now.
On the second to last day I started experiencing automatic movement during meditation and I decided to see what would happen if I didn’t intervene. My body started doing insane, violent yoga (like, if I had been trying to do this stuff intentionally I would have very much injured myself), things like slamming my chest into my thighs repeatedly, letting out very long exhales as if I were a lizard, swinging my torso in crazy, high speed circles (interestingly, I was meditating under a rock with very little clearance while doing this and even though my eyes were closed I never ran my head or flailing arms into anything).
I spent some time after this crazy meditation walking in all sorts of weird ways and windmilling my arms at very high speeds. I discovered that the lower back pain and sciatica that I have had since a rock climbing accident when I was 19 just…..fixed itself. My spine re-curved and I have no passive/chronic back pain. My gait is better and my hamstring and calf in my left leg aren’t constantly engaged and in pain. Bizarro stuff.
Anyway it was a very unexpected and positive experience and one of the upsides is an ongoing line of inquiry into self-talk. Not like “there’s a bridge” or “that red bird might be a cardinal” but revisiting old conversations or observing things as if you were talking about them to someone else or having a conversation about them at the future. I divided this sort of self talk into two broad categories, “past”–i.e. revisiting things I had said in the past or things that had been said to me in the past, and “future”–turns out I was spending a lot of my time narrativizing my experience with an eye towards talking about it later (mostly to my friends Sam and Aurora, who I was crashing with in Tucson after the retreat) but also general cocktail party talk.
I discovered I said “in my defense” an absurd number of times in my head, then observed the self talk and noticed how much of it was not just a performance, a construction of identity, but an apologetics for the persona I was trying to present. Not exactly creeping horror, but certainly creeping distaste–who wants to live like that?
Whenever I notice that form of constructed self-talk I note it as either “past” or “future” then dismiss it to return to whatever I am currently observing. It turns out not subconsciously planning out what you would say about whatever you are experiencing makes it much easier to experience things. I certainly listen better and am much slower to open my mouth in response (this is a very good development for me).
This line of inquiry brought me to two separate prongs re: blogging:
1) Any diaristic/epistolic writing can be a form of turbo-fabrication. It’s identity reified, performance in posterity. And I’m trying not to identify with my fabrications, thank you very much. So how does one write without performing? Is it even possible? How do you share what you are excited about without bragging or being a show-off? If I wanted to floss on my lifestyle I’d still use instagram with all the other olds.
2) I don’t want this to be a self-help blog and I am very much trying to decondition myself from offering unsolicited advice. While I am overwhelmingly interested in a very specific ser of self-improvements, I don’t want to inflict that on others.
So I simply haven’t had much to write about. Occasionally I’ll start writing on some topics but they don’t feel ready, or they fall into the “vacation slides” or “here’s how I learned the true meaning of patience” format. You can find better versions of either of those with way fewer words elsewhere.
Bonus Merlin photos for enduring this long post. Here he is modeling a quilted jacket I made for him, along with a truly fabulous mullet.
I promise more about Merlin and less about my ongoing religious conversion next week.