By James Atlas
June 23, 2012
Why was I in a tent in northern Vermont? Much less a tent in the woods at a Buddhist meditation centre, reading Sakyong Mipham's Turning The Mind Into An Ally by the light from my Smartphone?
If you really want to hear about it (to borrow a phrase from Holden Caulfield), I was on retreat. Perhaps I should say I was in retreat from a frenetic Manhattan life, hoping to find the balance and harmony that have formed the basis of the Buddhist tradition ever since Siddhartha Gautama discovered enlightenment around 2, 500 years ago while sitting under a Bodhi tree in northern India.
The fundamental insight of the Buddha is this: life consists of suffering, and suffering is caused by attachment to the self, which is in turn attached to the things of this world. Only by liberating ourselves from the tyranny of perpetual wanting can we be truly free.
Not that I am ready to renounce this world, or its things. "I am still expecting something exciting,” Edmund Wilson confided in his journal when he was in his mid- '60s: "drinks, animated conversation, and gaiety: an uninhibited exchange of ideas.” So do I. But I need a respite from those things, too.
I wasn't eager to end like the Buddhist couple who went on a retreat in Arizona and turned up, one dead, one nearly dead from dehydration, in a remote cave. But I am far from alone in my choice of spiritual nourishment. The Vermont retreat was so oversubscribed that people slept on futons in the Shrine Room. (I was lucky to get a tent.) Dr Paul D Numrich, a professor of world religions and interreligious relations, conjectured that there may be as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States by now.
Professor Numrich's claim is startling, but statistics (some, anyway) support it: Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the United States. More Americans convert to Buddhism than to Mormonism. (Think about it, Mitt.)
Many converts are what Thomas A Tweed, in The American Encounter With Buddhism, refers to as "nightstand Buddhists" - mostly Catholics, Jews (yeah, I know, "Juddhists" ) and refugees from other religions who keep a stack of Pema ChOdron books beside their beds. So who are these - dare I coin the term? - Newddhists? Burned-out BlackBerry addicts attracted to its emphasis on quieting the "monkey mind”? Casual acolytes rattled by the fiscal and identity crises of a nation that even Jeb Bush suggests is "in decline”? Placard-carrying doomsayers out of a New Yorker cartoon? Uncertain times make us susceptible to collective catastrophic thinking - the conditions in which religious movements flourish.
Or perhaps Buddhism speaks to our current mind-body obsession. Dr Andrew Weil, in his new book, Spontaneous Happiness, establishes a relationship between Buddhist practice and "the developing integrative model of mental health". This connection is well-documented: at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, researchers found that Buddhist meditation practice can change the structure of our brains - which, we now know from numerous clinical studies, can change our physiology.
The Mindful Awareness Research Centre at UCLA is collecting data in the new field of "mindfulness-based cognitive therapy" that shows a positive correlation between the therapy and what a centre co-director, Dr Daniel Siegel, calls mind sight. He writes of developing an ability to focus on our internal world that "we can use to re-sculpt our neural pathways, stimulating the growth of areas that are crucial to mental health". I felt this happening during my four-day retreat.
Reading Buddhism In The Modern World, a collection of essays edited by David L McMahan, I was struck by the pragmatic tone of the contributors, their preoccupation with what McMahan identified as "globalisation, gender issues, and the ways in which Buddhism has confronted modernity, science, popular culture and national politics". Their goal is to make Buddhism active.
As I drove out of the parking lot on the last day, ready - sort of - to return to what passes for civilisation, I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to any of what I had learned - or if I even knew what I had learned, or had learned anything at all. Perhaps it was simply the lesson of acceptance - and the possibility of modest self-transformation. A teacher had said: "Don't fix yourself up first, then go forth: the two are inseparable.” To enact, or "transmit", change in the world, we need to begin with ourselves and "learn how to have a skillful, successful, well-organised, productive life". That was a lot to ask from a four-day retreat, but at least it was a start.
My phone pinged. I could check it later.