Chapter four plunges me into the abyss of the serious questions of our existential lives. Who are we? What do we believe in? Where have we come from and where are we going? Writer Amy Dehuff Rothstein unfolds her chapter challenges in 4 weeks time that include structured mediation routines, reflections on the senses and inner self, life planning techniques, and an intense experience with the physical body and isolation. Wild Cards Agnes and Grace Lichtner test my skills with days of silence and moments of silliness. Read the beginning of Chapter four below the images or start reading here for my responses to Chapter four’s challenges.
In September, Beth and I will welcome and indulge in reflection on existential questions. In light of these questions, we will seek to both obtain wisdom and experiment with practices that may lead to a more fulfilling existence. I will also complete all assignments with Beth this month.
My old Existentialism: Basic Writings book from college cites a core existential agreement that “what is unique to humans is that their being is ‘in question’ or ‘at issue’ for them. Humans are not content with simply satisfying their basic desires, for they care about what kinds of beings they are, and they therefore reflect on the worth of things they desire.”[i]
The core existential concepts examined within this human condition are:[ii]
- “Existence precedes essence”: we exist in the world first and then determine how we want to be in the world. We are our own creations.
- We are free: we can make choices at every moment that have significant consequences.
- Life is absurd: There is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give it.
- Anxiety is part of life and is inherently part of the human condition.
- Facticity: we are who we are and cannot change our pasts; yet we still can make choices and create our future
- Authenticity: in creating oneself, we must take into account our facticity, our freedoms, and assume responsibility for conducting ourselves and our lives in a way that is constructive and true to who we are. The inauthentic self can be described as a conforming (with the masses or with the alternative rebels).
- Despair: can be the byproduct of living a life that is mundane. As Wikipedia puts it, “So long as a person’s identity depends on qualities that can crumble, he is considered to be in perpetual despair.”
Sounds dizzying, right? In our everyday lives, these concepts translate into more practical, reoccurring, modern dilemmas that result from nagging questions like:
How do we lead an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling existence?
What is the gap between what is/where we are and where we want to go/what we want to be like? How do we bridge that gap?
Does happiness really exist? How can we create it or feel it?
We will let these questions serve as a guide this month and will draw wisdom from secular thinkers who share the existential view of the human condition and from those that claim to have the answers to these questions. We will take both a cognitive/intellectual and physical approach this month. Through the physical approach we will employ techniques proven to assist in strengthening the connection between mind, body and “happiness”/that which is bigger than us (you know, “spiritual feelings”).
General rules for September:
- Eliminate expectations. We are not trying to achieve nirvana or enlightenment.
- Try to consume all things moderately: media, food, alcohol, coffee, etc.
- Identify a single location where you will privately record your reflections and written assignments this month.
This chapter theme is very intimate. It commands solitude, reflection, experiential learning, and presence. Thus, we will avoid publishing the whole month’s plan at the outset. We will post a weekly topic on each Saturday with new assignments (*excluding the first week’s theme, which will be disclosed on September 3rd). Beth can report out when she’s inspired to, but we want to avoid the notion her readers are waiting for her to have and share transcendental experiences.
Time and Awareness – Chapter 4; Week 1
The awareness that time is constantly passing, we are getting older each day, and that we could die at any moment- puts an incredible amount of pressure on us to live fully every day and spend our time on this earth wisely and intentionally. The imminence of death gives significance to living. We can get caught up in the urgency to perfect ourselves, focusing on closing the gap between where we are and where we wish to be, who we are and who we wish we could be.
Perhaps the foremost experts on acceptance and patience, Buddhists have spent centuries using meditation as a tool to experience each moment with greater depth, increased awareness, and of course, to attain enlightenment (let’s just forget about this last one). The act of pausing to meditate is powerful alone and requires a reorientation towards leading a more disciplined life.
Assignment #1: Beth and I will meditate for 15-20 minutes in the morning and at night for the whole month of September. See if you can start with 15 minutes and by the end of the month, work your way up to 20 minutes.
We will practice meditation in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. I’ve chosen this tradition because it is incredibly minimal and simple. Beth is welcome to identify and practice another form of meditation if another tradition appeals to her more.
Some simple instruction for Zen meditation (called “zazen”) is available here, courtesy of the American Zen Association. Amy will be on-call to answer questions about meditation basics and to provide peer support as they both try to follow this new rigorous routine. (Amy has practiced zazen before but has not kept with her practice.)
What you will need:
- A piece of floor space approximately 2.5’ by 2.5’ wide, preferably facing a flat wall or door.
- A quiet room if possible, but work with what you’ve got!
- Loose fitting pants/comfortable clothes.
- A makeshift meditation cushion. For a few years I used folded sheets and towels in a stack about 6 inches tall. Your instructions will help you assemble it to the proper height.
- A silent timer. The iphone timer function is great. Set the alarm sound to something tranquil so the bejesus is not scared out of you when you are through.
It is incredibly important to be very disciplined with this routine. There will be nights when you are “too tired,” are in a weird location, or have already passed out on a couch and woken up groggy-eyed at 2:00 am thinking, “There’s NO way I’m meditating now before I crawl into bed.” It’s really important to get over that hump and just do it.
More involved readings for beginners are available. Beth and Amy will discuss a book for her to read throughout the month to help hone her practice. Two suggestions include:
- Zen Meditation: Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
- Vipassana Meditation: Mindfulness in Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana
True Zen consists of sitting quietly in the correct posture. It is not a special state, it is the normal state: silent, peaceful, without agitation. Zen means to put the mind at rest and to concentrate the mind and body. In zazen there is no purpose, no seeking to gain something, no special effort or imagination. It is not knowledge to be grasped by the brain. It is solely a practice, a practice which is the true gate to happiness, peace and freedom. –Taisen Deshimaru Roshi.
Recommendation #2: Simply make a list of the reoccurring issues that are involuntarily occupying your thoughts this week. These could be exciting things, sources of anxiety, work or financial stresses, relationship challenges, etc. You don’t have to share the list with anyone; you don’t have to work on eliminating or resolving these issues- just write them down!
Goals, Creations, Decisions – Chapter 4; Week 2
There is nothing wrong with striving to improve your life situation. You can improve your life situation, but you cannot improve your life. Life is primary. Life is your deepest inner Being. It is already whole, complete, perfect. Your life situation consists of your circumstances and your experiences. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things. The mistake lies in using it as a substitute for the feeling of life, for Being. The only point of access for that is the Now. You are then like an architect who pays no attention to the foundation of a building but spends a lot of time working on the superstructure.
– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
When I first started meditating in 2007, I was pretty “blissed out” and grounded by the practice and Zen Buddhism in general. With a job I was thoroughly passionate about, it helped me to be intentional, brave, and present at work. It felt great, until I needed to begin crafting the next stage of my life. It was time to make decisions: Should I leave Mississippi now? Where should I move? Should I go back to school? What kind of work do I want to do? What are my most potent passions? Instead of pausing everything to get back in touch with my desires, I tried to live peacefully and got by making decisions based on a blurry intuition that was once knife sharp. I tried to apply the lessons I learned in Zen philosophy and that stuck feeling… stuck around. I stopped meditating based on a hunch that Buddhism in general and meditation had turned me into a passive person- the idea of which I detested. Five years and two US cities later, I’m just now snapping out of this funk, answering these questions, and trying to understand why an ambitious and goal oriented person like myself was even in this funk for so long.
I don’t blame Buddhism, but I do blame myself for attempting to integrate its teachings into all aspects of my life. By doing so, I believe that I neglected to actively tend to my life situation. While I do believe that everything happened just as it should, I’m still intrigued by the difference between what ET (I like this nickname) calls “our life situation” and “Life”. Existentialism asserts that we must take responsibility for ourselves, continue creating our lives each day – which suggests that spending time focusing on our life situation is also incredibly important.
Over the next two weeks I invite you to pay attention to the effects of meditation on your life situation while also spending time off the cushion identifying and working on your personal goals and ambitions.
- Continue meditation morning and night (this will continue until the end of the month). I have urged Beth to follow traditional zazen form/instruction at least half of the time she sits so she has the opportunity to inherit the tried and true wisdom alive in that practice. The other half of the time, we agreed that she may do more of a free form meditation that she creates on her own. (Be aware that traditional meditators would tell you that your made up routine is not meditation at all. It’s just your own crunchy, earth mother spirit, dream catcher floor routine.)
- Begin identifying your personal short-term goals (1 year), mid term goals (5 years), and lifetime goals. Consider any/all aspects of life that are most important to you right now: work, relationships, income, place, health, etc. Let yourself think big. A good way to stimulate this thought process is to finish the sentence: “If I were to die in a year, 5 years, 10 years…”
- If you are unclear what your goals are and you are out of touch with your desires, pay attention to your needs, your slightest preferences in every circumstance- no matter how slight. For example, “You know what, I do have a preference for what we eat for dinner, I’m really not in the mood for sushi…” Begin acting on these slight desires and preferences and slowly you will become more aware of your larger preferences.
- When you define your goals your fears will surface immediately. Fear is an inevitable during times of change and while trying something new. Try to get comfortable with the fear, make friends with it a bit- sort of like your list of reoccurring issues from last week. Try envisioning yourself not overcoming your fears, but working towards your goal while feeling the fear. Envision what that would look like and feel like.
- If you are inspired to begin taking steps on a personal goal, take some steps and get started.
The Body – Chapter 4; Week 4
One of the core agreements of existentialism is that being human means we will experience anxiety. There are countless sources of anxiety, but comfort seems to be its opposite. To access feelings of comfort when we would normally be anxious seems to be a truly lofty goal. For the last week I’d like us to look at how we access and experience comfort and discomfort in our bodies out-and-about in the world.
Assignment #1: I urge Beth to be mindful of her breath, body/extremities, movements and actions this week. Try to remain aware of your breath, your body, movements, and actions throughout the days this week.
- Start after your morning meditation at home with some mundane tasks like cleaning or making your bed.
- Work towards doing this in public, while you’re in groups and in social situations.
- Identify how your body reacts to stress or anxiety. Start to observe your body in different situations and emotional states.
Assignment #2: Come to New York City for some isolation! Beth is coming to visit me in New York. On Saturday, Sept. 28th we both have separate 60-minute appointments in the floatation isolation chamber at Blue Light Floatation. For more information on what the heck that is and what to expect, visit the Blue Light website here: http://www.bluelightfloatation.com/floatation.html
My daughter and I have finally agreed on a wild card. It was through much deliberation on my end to come up with an enhancement for this month’s theme as Amy has thoroughly covered all areas, which I fully commend. My daughter, Grace, on the other hand knew right away what she wanted for Beth to do this month. Leave it to children and their “free” minds to celebrate an opportunity. We know Beth is going through a lot of changes in her life at this time so we believe these requests are reasonable and beneficial for her. So here they are…
Grace says – Beth must wear a mustache every time she meditates. Now since Grace and I saw Jim before he left for St Croix today, and will be meeting up with Beth, he promised to pass on to her a pair of glasses with attached mustache that Grace insisted upon. Stick on mustaches just wouldn’t hold up and these glasses are more like wearing a disguise or a hat. It’ll definitely keep her in the moment of her meditating. These “must” be worn anytime she meditates, even if it’s in front of others. Testing the strengths of limiting distraction.
Aggie says – each week Beth needs to take a “day of silence”. Beth is able to choose which day but these days must consist of no talking…at all. Only communication with others will have to be by notes – handwritten or typed emails are acceptable. The objective is to pull within to the extreme of recognizing what truly needs to be expressed, overcoming expectations of others and self and exercising will power. It’s very easy for us to speak without thinking and reacting to our environment, thus this will give her the time to silence her being, mind and allow clarity to come forth for the true desired expression. Beth is encouraged to write down or log any thoughts which occur on a day of silence that need to be discussed at a later time but they must be succinct by the time she is ready to speak them.
OK that is it! Grace & I hope Beth enjoys the rest of her month’s living chapter and that these are attainable without being stressful wild cards. Let us know if any elaboration or clarity is needed and thanks again for the opportunity!