Friday, March 25, 2011

100 Books 19 - Sakyong Mipham's TURNING THE MIND INTO AN ALLY

My good friend Isoban Valian (aka Christopher Butler) has observed that meditation will make you feel like crap and I'm often inclined to agree. I first dipped my toe into these weird waters about a year ago, and began an earnest effort to practice regularly maybe six months ago, and I still don't feel like I know what I'm doing most of the time, except falling very briefly asleep and having intensely bizarre and imaginative dreams before a hypnic jerk and a guilty start brings me back to watching my breathing.

Why bother? What's it for? My mother wanted to know last visit. And I had a tough time answering her. But the title of this book, Turning Your Mind Into an Ally, given as a hostess gift by a very dear friend last summer, that's what I'm hoping for. That's what I want.

I didn't learn from this book how to get it, but then, despite the title, I didn't expect to. I've read and watched the Dalai Lama enough, read enough other books about religion and spirituality (a non-believer myself, I still find the topic endlessly interesting. Ask me about the astonishing array of Christian heresies I've studied -- but only if you really want to know) to be pretty sure that a how-to book on Buddhist practice is an all but oxymoronic notion. This is no step-by-step guide to enlightenment or inner peace or perfect accord or any of that bulldada.

What it is, is a kindly intended, gentle and slightly amusing excursis on a lot of the basic tenets of Buddhism and how they relate to the practice of meditation. A lot of it explores what it means to suffer because of attachment to things or ideas or people, because of resistance to change. Digging in your heels and gritting your teeth and trying to push against the forces of time and circumstance burns up a lot of energy and can do physical harm (ulcers, migraines, high blood pressure, actual physical energy from temper tantrums -- myself I tend toward migraines, the kind that last three days and are so debilitating my only relief lies in turning off all the lights and sitting in a hot shower in the dark -- conditions which I tend to try to simulate when I sit down to meditate. Aha!). If we can learn to let go, Mipham and his fellows advise, accept what has happened, not worry too much about what's going to happen, just focus on things as they are right now, we have a far better chance of reducing our own suffering and maybe that of others. Maybe.

From what I see in other reviews, a lot of meditation books out there are loaded with jargon and what the skeptic community loves to deride as "woo-woo." Turning the Mind Into an Ally is not one of these. Sakyong Mipham comes from a line of Tibetan Buddhist teachers who are held in great reverence by their community, but he writes like an ordinary American, friendly, familiar with our pop culture and our folkways and our struggles and fears, and relates to these as he discusses how, not to resist these blandishments and detours, but accept that they are there and try just to be anyway -- without ever resorting to a paternalistic or patronizing tone. He comes across as a patient and true friend, who may know more than we but is not going to emphasize it or even acknowledge it unless we insist.

I don't know that I'm any better at meditating than I was before I took up this book, but I'm more comfortable with the idea that that doesn't matter. What matters is I'm taking the time, letting things go and have reached the point where I look forward to doing so. No, I've never achieved that kind of high serenity that Isoban mocks in his post, but friends and colleagues have noticed that I'm a lot more relaxed and subdued and open, nicer to be around -- and I think I'm getting more stuff done in a day than I used to.

Not bad!

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