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During the first part of May my wife and I took part in a ten day Vipsassana meditation retreat hosted by the Alberta Vipassana foundation.I sat for the same course last year. Meditating for 11 hours a day was not easy. Not talking was even harder. But, as one fellow student said “ This is the only time you will truly get to spend with yourself. So use it wisely.”
At the end of the ten days I had never felt so calm, peaceful and clearheaded . There was a great energy and happiness with the group. Even though you never actually talked to anyone, you went through meditation boot camp together. That sense of accomplishing something together fostered a great deal of positive energy, cooperation and gratitude for such an experience. But, as the year wore on and my practice was less than consistent, I let the demands of the world intrude into my mental space. I had hoped that by repeating the course I could regain some measure of peace and calmness.
This was not to be. A few days before the course started I received a call asking if I could serve on the course instead of participate as a student. I reluctantly agreed even though my stomach was churning. I was disappointed and a little bit nervous. What had I gotten myself into ? A server I talked to last year had said that there was a great deal of work to do and sometimes things got tense in the kitchen. A server would have between 3-5 hours of meditation a day. While this was more than I was doing, I hardly thought this was enough time to develop a deeper practice.
We drove to the 1 1/2 hours to the meditation camp, each of us pondered if we were doing the right thing. My wife was worried about the physical demands and not talking . I wondered if I could handle a totally new situation, immersed with a new group of people for an intense ten days.
When we arrived at the camp, most of the setup had been completed. So it was just a matter of us registering and getting our gear into the assigned cabins. I was still nervous about the whole thing, and then I ran into Mark.
Mark was driving across Canada and had signed up for the Vipassana course on the way to Ontario. He had in infectious sense of welcoming. He told me that the best times that he had were while serving. If you had a good crew things went really well. He thanked me for the service I was about to render. Funny how you can sometime meet just the right people at the right time.
Ten days of service were different from my first experience. Because we usually meditated three hours a day as opposed to eleven, our practice was not as deep. However, the act of serving to a group of people who could not talk was strangely rewarding and liberating.
Work was done as service and not for any rewards or accolades. Those we were serving neither knew who we were or what we had done to help prepare the meal. Our reward was to see as few leftovers as possible. The things that mattered were, cooking good food, getting the food out in time, and getting everything cleaned and put away and preparing for the next meal. Each person on the crew had a job to do and whatever needed doing was the job that you did.
This is one of the few times that I have put the concerns of strangers above my own for a prolonged period. It felt good working with such an excellent crew. There was no need for competition or recognition. There was only a job that needed to be done and disappointed and hungry people if we did not complete the job. Everyone took care to work as a cohesive unit, because what was important was maintaining the well being of the students. Any individual differences within the crew was trifling compared to this paramount concern.
This was an insight into the real meaning of community. People coming together to assist in meeting common goals and concerns. But, it went deeper than that. Because of the nature of the meditation retreat, peace and cooperation were the unsaid and underly tenets of our actions. This helped to change our focus from our own difficulties to the work that needed doing. Complaining internally or externally was not going to get the work done and why hold a grudge against need. It wouldn’t get the work done any faster.
I have never been in a group where there was not some sort of selfish motive (on my part). It was liberating to be in a situation where empathy and service were placed above self interest. It is this lack of self interest I think that truly defines a community. Self interest dissipates in the knowledge that by working together, everyone benefits.
In the grand scheme of things, spending 10 days serving was not particularly arduous nor did it accomplish something grand and wonderful. But, I hoped I helped some people learn something about themselves. I know I gained a great deal more that I gave.
I felt I was doing my part in the community and for mostly unselfish reasons. I learned a bit about myself, the difference between tolerance and acceptance, and the futility of making judgments. But, mostly I felt that I was part of something greater and that I was making a small but real difference.
Modern life tends to gut any connection to the land, to the people and to any real culture. I usually spend my days at work and when at home I like to read, write, take photographs, watch TV. I know the names of a few people in our neighborhood, but rarely do I talk to anyone apart from a brief acknowledgment. My volunteering tends to be inconsistent . My involvement in our town usually extends to going out and voting. We don’t have any children so we do not participate in any town activities to any great extent. I do not think we are that much different than any of our friends. This is the great summation of modern life – a life lived alone in the masses.
It is this sense of belonging and making a difference that is desperately missing in modern life. In the process subdividing the workload to ever more specialized groups of experts, we have divorced the people from the land, from collective music and collective sports and from each other. We are strangers living in arbitrary cookie cutter communities. There is no connection to the land, no connection through common work or even collective goals. The people in towns, cities and countries are tied together by an accident of geography. The last vestiges of the commons – our forests, water, air are being sold to the highest bidder and we are celebrating in an orgy of movies, television and the celebrity culture.
Human society was not built on the nuclear family; we work better in extended families and tribes. In modern times, we have forgotten this. In our collective, capitalistic frenzy we have forgotten that it is people working together that has brought our bounty. Money and oil disguise the human input and the human cost of this system that requires ever more cancerous growth.
Greed is the underlying principle in our materialistic world. Somehow we still cling to this outmoded thought as the basis for our economic system as if ensuring corporate self interest will also benefit the workers. Greed and self interest do not foster a community, despite dogmatic faith to the misrepresented words of Adam Smith.
In times past self interest was mitigated by a respect for the land, the limits of natural bounty and a mind for preserving value for future generations. Then sometime after WW II, enlightened self interest transformed to greed. Post war economy demanded ever increasing amounts of consumption to guarantee our lifestyle. Simple production and ravenous consumption at whatever cost became the motto for modern living disguised by words like progress, and modernization. The purpose of growth became growing.
In the process of meeting the needs for growth we have fundamentally changed how human regard each other. We have made the act of interaction as impersonal as possible. Instead of seeing each other as individuals each with our own problems an concerns, the world is converted to functions, and services first,people second.
Britain gives a warning of where modern life may head – a disenfranchised youth, awash in alcohol and drugs, facing a future of increasing costs and fewer prospects…
The first stirrings of major intergenerational conflict are already being noted. The basic rights of the recent past – a safe job, free education and healthcare, secure homes to raise a family, a modest but comfortable old age – have slipped quietly away, all to be replaced by a myriad of vapid lifestyle choices and glittery consumer trinkets.
But, people want to be good and connected. We can’t help it.
The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
We are wired to help each other. But, the desire to help can conflict with self interest. In Western culture, this self interest is paramount. Where enlightened self interest should end at a point where it is a detriment to the general good, in Wester Culture it is given precedence and this greed underlies all economic interactions debasing any real meaning of community. The Compact in San Francisco provides the contrast for the community based perspective and the ‘normal” view of capitalism.
“I think a big part of
our consumer culture has to do with being independent, not asking people for
things. But with the Compact you have to borrow a lot, and you realize it’s OK.
The sad part of what I am writing is that it is a revelation to me. I have never experience true community. Not the insular us versus them type of community but rather a community that values its members, realizing that survival is dependent on the contribution of all members. A few generations back this would have been an obvious statement. A few generations back you had to depend on your neighbors and family to get you through the tough times. But, in our increasingly mechanized and diversified world we have lost sight of our own interdependence and whittled away the family and community into functional units – connected enough to produce more workers and consumers, but pale shadows of the rich interactions people are capable of.
In modern culture we have anesthetized ourselves with a diet of TV, movies, celebrity news, email and websites to keep at bay any thinking and face to face relating. We need to fight this trend. We need to know the name of the clerk at the gas station, we need to find our doctor’s first name.
It is in this recognition of our basic connectedness not only of all humans, and animals but the web of life, our greatest community will the ignorance of cancerous economic growth and alienation of modern times be stripped away. In returning to an older and wiser framework , we can make wiser choices of how we want society to develop.
Stretching across time, space, and culture, modern civilization’s bond to the doomed Easterians cannot be denied. Their moais are our skyscrapers, cities and highways, their battles over scarce food and wood our aggressive and petroleum-driven foreign policy, their arrogance and insatiability common to all human societies, and their island’s natural resources just as limited as the entire world’s.