In case the Very Bad Wizards aren’t really your style, I’ve noticed that the Philosophy Bites podcast also have an interview with Robert Wright, focussing on some of the ideas he puts forward in Why Buddhism is True.
The first podcast I listened to with any degree of regularity, Philosophy Bites does a good job at presenting genuinely thorough takes on philosophical topics in a quick and accessible manner, and this ep is no different. They touch on a number of the important parts of text, with Wright doing likely a much better job than I at explicating the commonalities between modern-day psychology and Buddhist approaches to the human mind. They also discuss how these Buddhist ideas influenced other philosophers, particularly Schopenhauer, and the reasons why the apparent opposition of Buddhism-as-a-religion to the direction Wright wants to take it dissolve when you go back to the canon. Most satisfyingly, they explore some of the worries about how the Buddhist project, taken to its metaphysical extreme, might not sit especially well with the modern secular one, and why these can largely be put aside.
Philosophy Bites has been running for yonks now, and the back catalogue has plenty of interesting snippets from all over the discipline with big name guests and experts in the field. I recommend you check them out if you’re interested in intelligent conversation, in digestible portions.
Welcome back to Veganuary!
In some ways, it feels surprising that we’re here again so quickly. In other respects (political, mostly), 2018 felt like it lasted an eternity. Hope you all had an enjoyable holiday period and that your celebrations weren’t too…disruptive. Weirdly, I myself didn’t have much of an appetite yesterday, so I’ll skip right ahead to today’s efforts!
Eased in to things with an old standard from yesteryear for tonight’s supper, the vegan lasagne with tahineh and garlic sauce.
Changing it up slightly from preparations past, I included some vegan No Bull ‘mince,’ which is mostly soy. We’d tried the No Bull burgers several times over the last year and found them pretty reasonable, so jumped at the chance for a guaranteed-vegan mince substitute – unfortunately, you have to go out of your way to make sure Quorn is properly vegan, as the standard variety is made with egg. After the slightest of investigations, it seems that No Bull is a proprietary brand of Iceland (the shop, not the country), with the manufacture being done in France – vaunted British industry strikes again! Taking back control! Having not eaten beef in more than a decade now, I’m probably not best placed to comment, but I wouldn’t say that the No Bull products approximate the flavour of meat especially well – which may or may not be a drawback for you. As was, it’s nice to have some variety in the protein source, regardless of whether it ‘meats’ the standard. I used about a third of the package for the lasagne.
For dessert and more general snacking needs, my wife has prepared some banana bread. For a while, now, we’ve found it’s easier to get a consistent bake by resorting to a muffin tray rather than a loaf pan when it comes to banana bread – too wet while simultaneously being too dense to cook all the way through without singeing the edges. As you can see below, we’ve picked up a rather quirky tray recently, and put it to good effect here.
The recipe itself isn’t anything particularly unusual – a standard chocolate chip banana bread recipe with a few tweaks to make it properly vegan.
The original ingredients –
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter (or the same amount of applesauce)
1 cup Chocolate Chips
Swap out the butter for applesauce as indicated, and replace the chocolate chips with fruit of your choice. We elected for some assorted citrus, and it really shines. As for the eggs, aqua faba (chick pea water) at a ratio of 3 tbsp to 1 egg works a treat.
The original recipe calls for between 40 and 50 minutes at 350 Fahrenheit, but this may need some adjustment downwards if you’ve gone for a smaller container, as we did. Think this was about 25 minutes.
And that’s that for today! I don’t know that I’ll be posting as regularly as I did last year, no need to retread old ground, but whenever I come across something new and worth sharing, I may throw something together.
Alternate Metta Meditation
Of the various fine-tunings that came out of the second portion of my meditation course with the local Triratna group, one of the most important was the distinction between active effort and being receptive, and finding the appropriate balance between the two. Active effort during meditation can be thought of as the focus we bring to bear on the subject of our meditation, whether it be the breath or the fostering of good feelings. Receptivity, by comparison, is the ability to remain open to and recognise the experience we are having in the moment. It’s possible to stray too far towards one at the cost of the other – keeping yourself so clamped down on one element of the meditation that it becomes a source of stress, or being so relaxed in your approach that receptivity becomes passivity. When put that way, the importance of having these two in balance is self evident, but it can be more difficult to realise that in the moment, or if you’ve not really considered them as the complementary features of a good meditation that they are.
By way of illustrating the importance of receptivity, our group leader presented a different spin on the metta bhavana meditation that I’d detailed previously. As you may recall, Metta Bhavana is not my preferred meditation style, but I do find this alternative approach to be rather better than the first.
Unlike the other version, which was broken down into many distinct phases, this alternate really only has two halves.
Nurturing the Self
The first is almost entirely receptive. You ease into your experience, taking note of the space around you, perhaps doing a body scan to open up your sense of your own physicality. Pay attention to the sounds of your environment. Turn your focus inwards, on your own emotional state without trying to judge it or change it – just taking note, recognising that, today, this is where you are working from.
Take note of any physical pain or discomfort you might be in. If you can, reposition yourself to alleviate it, but, if you can’t, simply observe it. Take an interest in the sensation, without allowing it to become in some way overwhelming, the sole element in your conceptual space. Try to come at it with a genial curiosity, rather than a despairing exasperation. Counter-balance this with recognition of what is already alright.
Recognise that so much of what we do is motivated by a desire to achieve well-being, peace, joy, or a state free from suffering. See that in your current behaviour, and try to connect with this healthy, entirely natural desire.
Do your best to relax.
Connecting with Others
Once we’ve gotten ourselves closer to the a place of relaxation, the idea is to begin to imagine ourselves in a place of natural beauty. A seashore was the example put forward as standard, but, having little experience with them myself, I usually elect for something like seeing the night sky above the Georgian Bay, where you can still see the wash of the Milky Way in all its glory, or, alternatively, looking out over Lac Léman from above Lausanne at dusk, catching hints of Geneva at the far side from it’s electric penumbra. Go with what works for you.
Once you’ve built up this image before you, try to experience some of the awe you know it instils. Open yourself to this. You don’t have to go all the way to a Kantian sublime – being dwarfed by what you see – but it’s no bad thing to feel yourself humbled by it.
Once you’ve achieved this – simply relax into it. No need to actively pursue metta, just open yourself up to whatever you might have naturally present already. If it is beneficial, recognise the fact that, somewhere else in the world, there are hundreds if not thousands of people opening themselves to metta at the same time, all, invariably, wishing you well in turn. This isn’t just your own project your involved with, here.
From what our group leader was saying, this is apparently closer to the way the Buddha initially described as best to foster metta, to simply open ourselves to it and assist its growth. Whether that is accurate or not, it does side-step any issues you might have well-wishing individuals you aren’t especially keen on, or falling prey to distracting thoughts about the people you’re focussing on more broadly. All I know is, this is the one I turn to when I feel like I’ve got a deficit of positivity for others. You’ll have to ask them if it’s working!
As I’d mentioned awhile back, one of the works that finally got me to commit to a multi-week meditation course was American Robert Wright’s recent Why Buddhism Is True, which I first heard about on the Very Bad Wizards podcast (something that’s worth checking out, just for itself). It’s the first work by Wright I’d encountered, but I’ve since come across more journalistic pieces that I’ve enjoyed, more within the realm he has carved out for himself. In case this is the first you’re hearing about him, as well, Robert Wright has become something of a champion of evolutionary psych, with book-length works such as The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life and The Evolution of God and plenty of shorter works.
In that vein, then, Why Buddhism looks at the overlap between the modern understanding of how the mind works and the Buddhist position, with particular emphasis on the modular theory of mind. I’m a believer in the modest proposition that past societies were not complete idiots and do have something to offer us, devoid of SCIENCEtm though they may have been, but it is still surprising just how well the Buddhist tradition syncs with this approach. And it’s not as if this was by design – insofar as I recall, Jerry Fodor wasn’t basing his modularity theory off a Buddhist psychology, and a quick scan of the Stanford Encyclopaedia does nothing to amend that.
Wright brings to bear a conservative evolutionary psychology on the issue, by which I mean he presents our psychology as being constructed by evolution, without importing any normative claims about our own behaviour or that of society’s on the back of it. Our mind, in this situation, is built up of modules that have been developed over hundreds of generation – all of which have been selected for based upon their effectiveness in continuing the genetic code they carry/arise from. Because of this, our mind, the feelings we feel, the intuitions that seem to just come about of themselves, are not necessarily oriented towards apprehending the world accurately or truthfully, especially when it would be more expedient to believe a fiction. This tendency to interpret the world inaccurately gives rise to all manner of problems on the macro level, and, on the more personal, huge swathes of time wasted in unnecessary frustration and misery. It also goes some way to supporting and explaining the Buddhist concept of dukka, the pendulum swing of life between the terrifying flight from the painful and the obsessive attachment to the fleetingly enjoyable.
All sounds pretty grim. Fortunately, by happy accident of our limited rationality, we seem to have a way to cut through some of the deception – mindfulness meditation. It’s almost enough to make you believe in the miraculous.
Why Buddhism is written from a fairly autobiographical perspective, with Wright sharing his own experiences, and struggles, with meditation whilst also unpacking some core Buddhist ideas, such as the “not-self” and the conception of “nothingness.” As he freely admits, his own attention span has always been pretty crap, so if he can learn to meditate and see the benefits in his life, just about anyone can. I found his approach – not necessarily overtly cynical, but healthily skeptical – somewhat close to my own, and so it was nice to have someone cast an appraising eye on some bold claims without coming at them as one already committed devoutly and still finding some traction. Lest you worry that terms like dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, domain-specific psychological mechanisms, or, on the other side, ‘the unconditioned,’ or ‘Vipassana,’ are all a bit boffin for you, keep in mind that Wright is first and foremost a journalist, and does a good job at situating the concepts, both scientific and Buddhist, he uses in his wider description. Indeed, the clarity and conversational tone of the prose is one of the book’s strengths.
Alongside the relating of his own experience, primarily focussed on intensive bouts of meditation on retreat and the strange and revelatory things that happen to him there, and the exploration of how (a) modern understanding of the human mind syncs with and supports that of the Buddhist approach, Wright also spends time discussing what some of the ramifications might be, should some core Buddhist ideas about the nature of the world actually turn out to be, you know, true. For this, he pulls in exegesis of Buddhist texts, weighing orthodox readings against some of the more radical, as well as the insights modern experimental psychologists and cognitive scientists have been accruing over the last century. Despite what could be some rather dry subject matter, none of this ever drags, enlivened as it is by a sense of real-world import. There are a few topics he brings up that hit particularly close to home for me, but I’m thinking that there is enough to go on there that I’ll spin it out into another post – as is, it’d be a strange shift in focus.
In summation, then, Robert Wright gives an account – personal, supported both by ancient tradition and cutting-edge science – as to how and why mindfulness meditation will likely improve your life. We need to recognise that we are creatures cobbled together through the vagaries of trial and error, and that, at no point, was this process oriented towards equipping us with an entirely truth-tracking apparatus nor indeed one that is focussed on our own happiness. The paradoxical statement ‘thoughts think themselves’ is shown to be true when we consider how the competing modules of our mind struggle against one another for conscious attention, seeming to foist themselves on ‘us’ almost out of nowhere. This leads to all manner of trouble, as these modules seldom if ever have what we would consider to be ‘our’ best interests at heart, and are inherently self-contradictory to boot. Even if this contradiction doesn’t rise to the level of intention, it still informs our actions from below (the unconscious belief “I’m the most important, which is why I’m allowed to act this way despite the law/social code/basic morality and no-one else is.” Only problem, everyone else feels this way, too – even if they are honestly, genuinely unaware of it). Fortunately, we can use meditation to reflect on these competing claims, motivations and feelings, and, with persistence, disavow them. “We” are not our thoughts, not our feelings, not the cacophony in our minds. We can hold them at arm’s length, stripping them of their immediacy and their power over us and rendering them, if not necessarily impotent, at least not something quite as overriding. It is a wonderful twist of fate that as we learn the truth about our existence, we simultaneously also find ourselves happier and generally just better, more compassionate people.
It’s Science. It’s also Buddhism.
Personal Practice – Little Rituals
The second portion of my course with the Triratna group here in Cambridge came to an end last week. Though there have been some things in my life that have prevented me from writing as regularly as I would have liked (almost entirely positive, never fear), I’ve been pretty good at keeping the daily practice going – whether getting a full session in in the morning, as I would prefer, or doing a catch-up in the evening. Part of what has kept me going is the subject of this post, the ways of separating your meditation time from ‘regular’ time, and thus heightening the importance thereof.
In this instance, something like ‘ritual’ becomes important. Which is not to say that there is some quasi-mystical affair at hand, but, rather, a set of regular behaviours, brought to bear in a way that mutually support and strengthen one another. This is more about positioning your own intentionality in a fruitful way than anything else, reminding yourself on a subconscious level what you hope to achieve with the session and your practice over-all, and putting yourself in a better space to achieve this. Ultimately, what you find works for you is the best course of action, but I can’t see any harm in relating my personal experience – take what bits you find most useful!
Transition – Setting Up
If you’ve tried meditating, you’ll know that what you experience during meditation, the focus and attention on things, is quite distinct from what you have going about your normal business. Part of getting our attention where it needs to be for meditation comes from those parts of a session like an initial body scan, drawing the mind to parts of the body and feelings that it might be less likely to to heed in regular life. Even before this, though, it can be helpful to put ourself in the right frame of mind by preparing our external space. I meditate in our office, so this often includes putting a sign on the door to let people know not to disturb me, throwing down the yoga mat and grabbing my stool and cushion, and, though not always, setting some incense alight. Going through these motions gives me a moment to reflect on what I’m about to launch into, as well as marking a boundary between whatever I was doing before and what I’ll be doing for the next half hour.
During the Meditation
Obviously, the primary focus at this stage is going to be the meditation itself, whatever you’ve elected to go for – mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, a guided meditation or something else. However, there are things you can do before that you can bring to mind to support yourself during, such as considering a work of poetry you then bring to mind later, or finding something in your immediate surroundings that instils some positive emotion. During one of our sessions at the Buddhist Centre, we were asked to select from a large assortment a postcard that spoke to us. We were then to bring the postcard home and place it somewhere close to where we meditate – as a visual link between what we were trying to achieve overall, and the benefit of having a group experience and access to the calming space at the centre itself. This is the one I picked –
It shows a detail of a work called Pilgrims on the slopes of Mount Fuji by Shibata Zeshin, from 1880. It’s a nice image in and of itself, and obviously topical, but I thought the scene it evokes to be a useful reminder when it comes to meditation more broadly. We’re all trying to climb the mountain, whether it be towards a more equanimous perspective or enlightenment full-stop. However, the way up isn’t a straight line – it’s going to involve cutbacks, dead ends, and a struggle, which is well expressed by the zig-zag line of the pilgrims. Also, some people will be higher up the climb than we are, and there are some people who are better positioned to lead the way up than we might be ourselves. The trick is to not get frustrated by momentary setbacks, bad sessions or lapses in practice, but to keep on climbing. Not a bad thought to have when we might be struggling.
Transition – Setting Down
Coming out of a meditation session can be something of a startling experience, so it’s best not to make it too abrupt if it can be avoided. I know that leaving a buffer of ten minutes or so between my scheduled finish time and whatever I have to get myself on to next is beneficial. There was a period where I was experiencing a relatively ragged finish to the session, with the last stage or portion subjected to mounting anxiety or distraction as I was thinking about the immediate future, so leaving myself a small portion of time has been a good idea.
Quite a few of the sangha members at the Buddhist Centre would finish their meditation with an obeisance towards the shrine in the room. Obviously, this isn’t especially appropriate if you’re self-conscious about that sort of thing, or if you’re just in it for secular reasons, which is sort of where I’m coming from. However, the way our group leader explained her own position is hard to find fault with. The action, while signalling an end to the meditation itself, is less about submitting in some way to the Buddha, or to the statue you see before you, than it is a salute to the intention behind the meditative practice overall, a recognition of what is trying to be achieved.
Another thing I do in closing off my session is to take some time to reflect on how it’s gone. Every week during the program we would be given a sheet with space to write about that day’s meditation, as well as useful tips or aspects to focus on for that particular session. Though this was useful, I found the space somewhat limited, with only a line or two allowed for each day. Back in October, I started keeping more detailed records in a converted diary I had lying around. It’s already laid out in a daily format, which is great to provide for a single session, but it has more space than the previous multi-day affair. Taking a few moments immediately afterwards allows me to put down while still fresh any particular struggles or successes I may have experienced, and keeping a record allows me to notice commonalities between sessions and subtle ways I’m improving that I might otherwise miss.
The second type of meditation we’ve been focussing on in the course is the ‘Metta Bhavana,’ which is Pali for, loosely, Loving-Kindness Cultivation. Unlike the Mindfulness of Breathing method, Metta Bhavana has several different permutations, which each then have subsequent stages that focus on different people/groups. It’s likely best to experiment with each to see what works for you, but don’t be overly quick in judging one to the exclusion of the others, as it can take a bit to see much of a result from any, and some may prove more effective at different moments in your life than at others.
We were provided five different ways to approach the development of Metta:
– the use of phrases, most traditionally ‘May you be well.’
– using memories to conjure up an attitude of kindness, and then directing that as appropriate
– using the imagination to picture your subject as happy or content
– attending to sensations in the body, such as relaxation, warmth or elation, that can run concurrently with the expression of loving-kindness
– more intellectually considering the situation, focussing for example on the truism that everyone wants to be free of suffering, and allowing this to inspire a compassionate response
The actual meditation takes the form of a multi-stage affair, irrespective of which of the above approaches you should choose. The idea is that you should start with yourself as the focus of the loving-kindness, and gradually move further outwards to eventually encompass everyone, with the aim that this then changes your approach to and interaction with the world. Each of these stages should probably take five minutes or so. Before jumping into the first stage, it is best to take stock of your current emotional state and prepare yourself in the same way covered in the Mindfulness of Breathing piece. A short body scan is a good way of putting yourself in the appropriate position, coming to terms with where your body is at in the moment.
Stage 1 – Yourself
Stage 2 – A Friend
Stage 3 – Someone you feel ‘neutral’ towards
Stage 4 – Someone you feel, or whom you suspects feels towards you, slight animosity
Stage 5 – Everyone
Using whichever approach you’d decided on, or whatever combination of them, the idea is take time considering the relevant stage’s subject and trying to foster a feeling of good intention towards them. This is (generally) easiest done with ourselves and our friends, people we are usually well-inclined towards to begin with. Using the momentum built up in the earlier stages, we move on to a person we don’t really have strong feelings about one way or another, perhaps putting ourselves in the place of their friends, and imagining the feelings they might hold for this person. Next comes the most difficult. Really, this is meant to be a full-blown enemy of yours, but that can be a particularly tough person to feel anything but resentment towards, so it might be more fruitful to start with someone who you only have a slight aversion to until you get a better grip on the method itself. For the final stage, you are meant to do your best to equalise the feelings you’ve fostered for each person thus far, and then extend it out to all people in the world.
As I’d mentioned in the piece on Mindfulness of Breathing, Metta Bhavana isn’t my preferred of the two, and I’ve found it to be much more of a struggle. There’s a running joke amongst some of us in the program that this says something rather unflattering about who we are as people, having difficulty maintaining a well-wishing attitude, but of late I’ve been thinking that there is something else afoot. I’ve been experimenting with my approach, and I think I’d been too focussed on the mechanistic procedure (or lack there-of), to the detriment of actually fostering the feeling, which is the true object of the meditation. Through emphasising different aspects of the meditation, I’ve been able to catch glimpses of this feeling, though it is still a work in progress.
There’s slightly more to the intentionality of the Metta Bhavana practice than the mere focus on your body of Mindfulness of Breathing, more theoretical material to chew on even in this rough-and-ready presentation, and I’ll likely be writing more on it to come. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty more to Mindfulness of Breathing than what I laid out – more going on psychologically, neurologically, and theoretically – but Metta practice necessarily carries with it more of the overtly-Buddhist worldview, and this presents some interesting flash points. I’m still trying to get my head around it, but, when I’ve been able to articulate some of what I’m working at, I’ll post it here.
Mindfulness of Breathing
Might as well start with the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation, given that it was the first one we were taught through the course, and was in fact the meditation I did this morning.
Before getting into the meditation itself, a few quick notes.
A successful meditation session, especially starting off, is in large part about attitude. When I first told some of my friends that I was taking part in these courses, quite a few of the reactions I got went something along the lines of – ‘wow, I can never stay focussed,’ or ‘I often just get bored, sitting there.’ So, two things:
First, your mind is always going to wander, unless you’re some kind of steel-trap, 10,000 hour, meditating monster. The important thing is how you react to it. Generally, when we seek out something like meditation, it’s in an effort to acquire a bit of calm, or to improve a mood or disposition. A sure-fire way to fail at doing this is to beat ourselves up when we’re going through it. If you find your mind wandering away from whatever you think you ought to be focussed on, simply note it, maybe consider what it is you’re thinking about for a second, and go back to the meditation proper.
Second, not every session is going to be an all-enlightening affair. Most, in fact, will be a bit of a struggle, especially as you start out. A good analogy is exercise – if your body is out of shape, it’s going to take a few weeks of effort to get comfortable lifting/running/whatever. In a way, you can consider meditation to be mental exercise, and, if it’s not an attention you’re used to spending, it can be difficult – you’ve got a flabby brain. However, it will improve. And a good way of getting yourself there is the focus you bring to bear when meditating. There’s a lot going on in our bodies that we usually remain unaware of, whether because it’s autonomic or because other, more pressing things are taking up our attention. Come to it with an attitude of curiosity – take an interest in what you’re feeling, or even the absence of a felt experience. Zen.
I’m sure there are any number of guided meditations available that detail the Mindfulness of Breathing, it being a core Buddhist style and a fairly easy one to get in to. The way we were presented it, there are several distinct phases, each with a differing focus. The meditation itself, in full, usually takes about half an hour, which can definitely seem like a lot when you’re starting out. For the first few times, you may just want to stick to the initial step.
-Starting out, you take your position, however you want to spend the meditation, whether sitting in a chair or on the ground, and get a sense of your mood, maybe dwelling for a moment on your intention in meditating so you have something of a ‘mental target,’ and taking notice of the sounds around you. I think it’s something of a common mistake to believe that meditation is about turning inwards, when, really, it’s about finding a more grounded position for yourself in the larger world. Following this, you perform a ‘body scan,’ examining each part of your body in turn, from your individual toes up to the top of your scalp, taking notice of tension or pain, relaxing things where you can. Often, you won’t be able to discern particular feelings for certain parts of your body, which is totally fine. Spend some time at it, then move on.
-Transitioning to the breath itself, you may want to take a few deep breaths to get a sense of the things to be looking out for, sensation-wise. The first proper breathing stage is a counting one, where we count, 1 through to 10, on the completion of the exhalation, repeating the count when we hit that final digit. This, and each of the following stages, should take about five minutes each.
-The second breathing stage is the converse of the first, where we now count at the start of the inhalation. If you’re a musician, you can think of it as akin to syncopation, putting the emphasis on a different part of the beat, to try and suss out different, unseen aspects of the experience. After a few sessions of this, I found that the act of counting itself was becoming the focus, and so I dropped the numbers out, whilst still keeping the attention on the appropriate aspect of the breath. You can do what you want – it’s your meditation!
-The third stage does in fact drop out the counting, where we now want to focus on what the body is up to more generally as we breathe – the rise and fall of the stomach, the spread of the ribs, the changes in tension in the shoulders, throat and neck. Just relax into it, seeing what’s to be seen.
-The fourth and final stage is more pointed, where, as best we can keeping an awareness of the body more broadly, we focus on the stream of air as it is pulled in to the body and pushed back out. A good point of observation is at the nostrils – you can usually feel the cool air as you breathe it in, though exhalation can be a bit more tricky.
And that’s pretty much it, at least to start with. You might want to give yourself a minute to readjust to the world, limber yourself up, before you break your pose, but, yeah, meditated. Well done!
For myself, I find the Mindfulness of Breathing to be my preferred form of meditation, but not everyone takes to it right away, and if you’re not keen on it, that’s alright. At this point, I’m in the process of relaxing my approach to the breath itself, trying to allow it to come naturally, rather than a rigidly controlled fashion that I have complete control over. The point, of course, is to be relaxed, rather than micro-managing the whole experience.
It’s inoften that I’d use one now, but, until you get the hang of it, a guided meditation is probably a good way to start, to give you something to follow along with and remind you where you’re meant to be at.
Getting Theroux to the Truth about Polyamory
Documentarian Supreme and Unlikely Male Sex Symbol Louis Theroux has a new series out on BBC 2 called ‘Altered States’, and we caught the first ep last week – Love Without Limits.
Polyamory is a weird one. Straight dude, happily settled in a monogamous marriage, it’s not something that’s really on my personal radar, though I discuss the concept fairly often with my wife and I’ve a few friends/acquaintances that lean that way. Trying to keep up with the kids, I guess.
We, my wife and I, are generally agreed that there’s nothing wrong with it in principle – though we’re married, we don’t hold any great stock in the so-called sanctity of marriage (it’s an economic pact for goats, land and healthcare coverage, people) – but we can’t help but feel that the execution is where things get messy. Having never done anything like it, it seems like it’d require a group of exceedingly mature individuals to come off successfully, navigating the thorny emotional maze of jealousy, possessiveness, respect, dignity and what all else. To steal my wife’s insight, there’s something inherently late-stage capitalist about the whole thing, as if the transactional nature of time sharing couldn’t have come about without the assistance of Google Calendar or the like. On top of that, though my sample size is exceeding insufficient, it seems like people who opt for it as a lifestyle really aren’t the best, most well-rounded candidates to begin with. However, it’s not like any relationship – straight, gay, monogamous or open – is a walk in the park. All require heaps of effort if they’re going to be successful, and all are going to have their rough patches. Also, everyone always-already comes equipped with baggage. We’re all broken sacks of crap, so it’s not like polycules are going to be any more fucked than binary relationships, really. And so, I remain ambivalent. Did the documentary do anything to change my mind? Let’s find out!
In order to find a viable pool of candidates for investigation, our intrepid Louis travels to that mecca of American alt-liberalism, Portland, OR (because, of course). There, he focusses in on three groups of self-described poly-people: one set of more (temporally) mature individuals, somewhere in their late-40’s early-50’s, one ‘throuple’ – a combi affair of two men and one woman, and one swirling mess of millenials, all co-habitating under one roof, with a baby on the way. He spends time interviewing them individually and in groups, posing questions aimed at unpacking the situation for all of us normies who aren’t quite hip to it, as well as joining them for meals and social events, showing what their lives look like on something approximating an average day. If you’ve seen any of Theroux’s previous work (have you been living under a rock?), you’ll know how skilfully he inserts himself into situations like these – he’s got a fantastic aptitude for putting people at ease and generally avoiding offence while still putting hard, intimate questions to them, and this doco is no different.
So, with the answers he teases out, do I feel any differently about polyamory? Not really, I’m afraid to say. In each instance, it seemed as if there was either active abuse/advantage being taken, or an otherwise gross imbalance in power/attention.
The first set I mentioned, the older ones, are, on the face of it, two distinct nuclear families, living separate lives – two parents, multiple kids. However, the wife of family 1 and the husband of family 2 are, additionally, in a relationship. Wife of family 2 is…visibly irate with her husband, though she says that their marriage is troubled due to other reasons, and she supports the poly affair. So long as she is able to moderate it to her tastes.
Husband of family 1 is adamant that he is a poly individual as well, despite never having been in a relationship outside the one with his wife since they began their poly lifestyle…a full decade ago. Thou dost protest too much, mate. I actually felt rather sorry for him in a few scenes – his wife is quite domineering, and it’s difficult to take anything away from what’s seen other than that he is on the losing end.
Meanwhile, Wife 1 and Husband 2 carry on as if they’re a bunch of hormonal teens.
What about the Throuple? Everyone is equally involved here, right? Unsurprisingly, that’s complicated.
The two men are in a relationship with the woman, so it looks a bit like a water molecule, if you like. I think there might be hydrogen peroxide joke in here somewhere, but I can’t quite wrangle it. Suffice it to say, the stable water molecule affair was not the original configuration. And not everyone seems to self-describe in the same way. To hear the original guy call it, he counts himself as monogamous, but it just happens to be that the person he is monogamous with is poly. The woman describes her history of anxiety and depression (and lets be real here, who hasn’t got some of that going?) and it seems like the effort by both guys is to try and assist her needs. Or, at least it would be, if we heard more than 12 words from guy 2 in the whole doco – he’s always in-scene, just keeping mum.
So, what about our final group? Surely they’re alright?
As I’d mentioned, one of the group is pregnant, and this is going to understandably put a strain on any relationship. The woman who is pregnant had earlier mentioned that she’d been burned in a poly relationship previously – married, only to have her husband nicked by their mutual, female, partner. Which absolutely sucks.
But it also just adds to the mystery as to why she’d pick now – fit to burst – to take on a new male partner. In one-on-one interviews, you can see that her baby-daddy, as much as he puts on a brave face, is struggling with it. He does, of course, say that this is part of being poly, that you can’t expect to have control or privileged access to another person, which is commendable (and a good standard in any relationship – consent is important folks), but, the bigger question, why choose now to start a relationship? It strikes me as disrespectful, not wantonly so, but by way of negligence. And, get ready to have no time with your new squeeze when the kid arrives, unless you bung all rearing duties on baby-daddy, which would be even worse. I don’t know – perhaps this is just my decrepit monogamist brain failing to get it.
It’s worth pointing out that, quality as Theroux may be, he’s still here making a product, for a specific audience. When the status quo is set, and your audience is of said status quo, the way you cut your documentary is going to lean in a very particular way. While the situation as presented on-screen definitely tells one story, we as the viewer have little access to the way in which it was edited, little access to what the broader circumstances may be. There’s always going to be a salacious angle to a topic like this, and seeing things go a bit sour adds a frisson of drama. Much like the recent, very well-crafted adaptation of Wanderlust, I can’t help but wonder if this whole thing was slanted from the start, designed to appeal to semi-conscious biases of those just liberal enough to take an interest, but still, secretly, disapproving.
A good remedy for this might be a documentary created with the same amount of craft as shown here, but by someone who is poly themselves. Not a hagiography, but something that takes into account the peculiar struggles whilst also truthfully displaying the positives that an outsider might miss. If something of the sort does exist, please let me know.
As ever, check it out for yourself, make your own mind up.
Also, check this out, because it is so friggin on-point. Chris Fleming is a modern prophet.
Triratna; or, The Group Formerly Known as Friends of the Western Buddhist Order
Before diving in to the nitty-gritty of my nascent meditation practice, I thought it might be worthwhile to say a bit about the spot I was taking these courses.
Cambridge is home to a number of faith-based organisations (you can hardly go half a kilometre without tripping over at least three chapels) including The Cambridge Buddhist Centre. Located in the extreme east of Market Ward, the Buddhist Centre is affiliated with what is now known as the ‘Triratna Buddhist Community’, formerly the ‘Friends of the Western Buddhist Order’, before the name was changed in 2010.
Triratna, under the original name, was formed all the way back in ‘67 in Britain, and has since spread throughout the world and ranks as one of the largest Buddhist groups in the West. It was founded by a Brit by the (adoptive) name of Sangharakshita, after he returned from Asia with the mission of spreading Buddhism to the West, in a modernised form. As such, though full members are said to be ‘ordinated’ after having undergone requisite training, the membership of Triratna is neither lay nor monastic in the usual sense of a Buddhist order, though they do take the ten precepts common to Mahayana Buddhism (I’m thinking it might be useful to whip up a quick “Buddhism Primer” to pin down all the terminology in one space, though I’ll get to that at a later date). So, no saffron in evidence, though I’m told that there are members of the Sangha, the community, who live on-site, so there is a bit more commitment going on than just a formal study group or the like.
As I had said, I’ve already made it half-way through the second part of the meditation course. The first part, a six week course with an additional mini-retreat ‘training day,’ focusses on acquainting the beginner with two types of meditation, Mindfulness of Breathing and ‘Metta Bhavana,’ the Pali terms for ‘Loving-Kindness Cultivation.’ I’ll comment on each of these in later posts. The second, six-week course, rather than introduce new meditations, is aimed at fine-tuning the initial set. I’ll also write on some of the ways in which we’ve been doing this, likely with follow-ups as more techniques are presented. Sessions are set on Monday evenings, lasting about 2 ½ hours, with a break in the middle. Each session is overseen by an ordained member of the Group, assisted by either two or three mitras, depending on the size of the group. Due to little more than a trick of scheduling, I’ve retained the same ‘team’ from one part to the next. There was a good crowd at the start of part one, though this whittled down as we progressed through the Autumn. There are only six of us in part two, all continuants from part one. It’s not a bad set-up, as this allows us more time interacting with one another and the Group members, talking about our own practice and ways of improving it, which wouldn’t be as feasible with a larger number of people. At £125 and £95 for parts one and two respectively, the course ain’t exactly cheap, but, at least to my thinking, it’s fairly good value for money – 12 weeks worth of classes, with guided meditation recordings and worksheets available for use at home – less than 20 quid a week. Plus, broken creature that I am, putting some money towards it means I’m more likely to invest the time and effort outside of class to make it worth the while.
The Centre, alongside the two-part meditation course I’m taking, also offers to the public introductory courses in Buddhist theory and culture, yoga, tai chi, and mindfulness, with more advanced tuition reserved for mitra members, those who have committed a stronger affiliation with the group. There are also retreats, free drop-in sessions and sporadic art events. Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from outside, half of the building houses an Edwardian-era theatre, first opened as the Barnwell back in 1814, which is in good nick. Really quite impressive.
It would be remiss of me not to note the somewhat troubled past of the Triratna group, which is part of what prompted the change in name. Back in 1997, the Grauniad published allegations that the aforementioned Sangharakshita had been less-than-chivalrous with his sexual behaviour through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Allegedly, he used his position within the community to coerce ostensibly straight men into homosexual relationships. In counter-point, it is claimed that all relationships were entered into in the belief that they were welcomed and desired. Much as we’re seeing with so many other faith-based groups, every big (Western) Buddhist sect seems to be riven with sexual misconduct: just this summer, the leader of the Shambhala community stepped down over it, and it’s not like they don’t have a long lineage of that already (case of start as you intend to go on, seemingly). Anyway, irrespective of whether Sangharakshita’s sexual advances were nominally welcomed, the abuse of power in targeting lower-ranking members of the society is way out of line, and, to their credit, the Triratna group recognised this formally.
All that said, everyone I’ve met thus far at the Centre seems sane, and I don’t know that I’ll be spending much more time with them than the current session. I should also mention that Sangharakshita died not half a month ago, on the 30th of October at the age of 93. Alongside whatever sexual malfeasances he may have made, we should remember his work building an international community aimed at human improvement, and, more than anything else, his staunch and continual support of the Dalit (Untouchable) community in India. A morally grey individual, but then so are we all.