Focus on Change • 20 September 2009

Two overcast Sundays. On the Palisades in late morning, the ocean’s the color of the sky and the ultrafine grass is so perfect that it might be fake. Welcome to Santa Monica.

I’m up at fourish, then take four hypnotic hours in Mysore space—the first two in the dark with the doors thrown open, the silence driving my awareness fairly deep. Then at 7 the other necessary ingredients arrive and I take two more hours on the move in yellow-gold light from floor-to-ceiling windows that face in every direction, following not my own breath but theirs, letting it lull me around the room. Lucky to stay in that headspace a second shift, as the soufflé I began cooking at 5 rises and finishes to perfection, and then disappears when we roll out of the room, satisfied for now.

These Sundays, thanks to, I’ve been meditating with Shinzen or his students. People call in from five continents and put their consciousness in phonespace. After a 30-minute session of what sounds like dead air—twenty of us sitting quietly on the line in, say, Swedish forests, Scottish laundry rooms, Taiwanese park benches, South African parking lots, Santa Monican beach cliffs—he says “Good job everyone. That was really great focus.”

As if he knows, sitting out in his farmhouse in Vermont! But the thing is, he probably does. I have little doubt in the phone-space intuition of a man who his building a digital dharma successor, who speaks—like his teacher Suzuki Roshi—of emptiness and form in terms of zero and one, whose teaching reduces to equations like suffering = pain X resistance.

Are we of one mind, there on the line? For Shinzen, no problem. His consciousness has undergone several beautiful crises and now he can convert the world to greyscale on a blink. He’s seen something more meta than I can grasp with any amount of assumption-excavating philosophical contortion; his default state is a pulsing, vacant fast-blip movement of energy. Or it’s a love-nourishing void. He describes both—the zero and the one. I don’t get it, but it’s an awareness that you feel must be refined down beyond the bits—even in phone space, which to him might be no different from parking lot space or some laundry room or my irreplaceable perch here at Ocean and Alta.

Of course I am a different person here than anywhere else. It’s still all about my sense of self, which needs reference points even if it’s no longer so concrete as it was. In fact, unmoored a bit from my stories and a few samskaras, I seem to look to my surroundings now more than ever to know what I am. The physical world seems to bounce back and amplify the joy that is wanting to circulate. Never have I felt so strongly that my mind was reflection of the sky outside and whatever sounds are in it.

Two weeks gone from this place and it’s already surreally shifted. I glanced up from the gasoline pump at Federal Avenue and the crumbling corner building I’ve looked on daily for years was gone. Poof. Not even rubble. This is the problem with LA—nothing is ever as valuable as the shiny-smooth new thing you could install on top of it. You can’t walk down the same Santa Monica Blvd twice.

I told Shinzen that I’ve shifted my locus of experience away from the pelvic floor. On my first Vipassana retreat I learned to choose a place in the body where I could always take the awareness home—a touchstone for every time a conversation flew me off the handle or emotion really sucked me down. This is a great technique. I began by learning to be aware of the MB whenever I was talking to someone. Rather than dividing my attention, grounding it in the body actually made me more perceptive, a better listener, more able to catch subtle layers of interaction that otherwise would remain unconscious. The funny byproduct of this technique was that I learned to focus on movement, to meditate on a single vector of data as if it were a single point. Because after a while, the pelvic floor stops being a thing and becomes electricity. It’s like focusing on the breath: what you take to be your stillpoint expands, contracts,  disappears and surges forth as much as you can bear to notice.

This summer, I’ve shifted the touchstone from the pelvic floor to the jaw. In part, this is because 3S is working my jalandhara bandha and kechari mudra, healing old pains in the neck, and doing a number on the thyroid in a way that forces the body awareness—finally—in to the head. The head is a body part, after all—not just a brain receptacle. In a sense, it’s harder to have head awareness than pelvic awareness. I’m not all that sexually repressed anymore, but I am in a sense still at war with my brain. And I’m still carrying all kinds of weirdness in the jaw—tension I’m determined to let go.

Shinzen found the shift interesting. He loves the pelvic floor, and reminded me that in China they call it the ocean of energy. “But”—paraphrasing—“the jaw may not have the same experience of energy flow that you find at the pelvic floor. That’s fine. If you’re resting there to try to cause things to break up, you’ll fail to notice what’s actually going on. If the energy there is not moving, that's not bad at all. Just pay attention to what it is doing.”

Oh yeah. You don’t release the jaw by using determination.

By the same token, I’m hesitant to come down all that harshly on my tendency to see my self as my surroundings. It is a much easier way to be than identifying mainly with: my resumé and pedigrees, my spiritual experiences, my ambitions and plans, everything I've been through, how hard I've worked, my issues, my secret backstories, whatever I'm accidentally good at, my analytical capacities, my funny quirks, etc., etc., etc.

I have tried those and found them pretty transient, usually unsatisfying, and not actually me. Place, too, is transient; and half the time I do know that I am not my surroundings. But it may be a while before I understand this on the level of intuition.