(This article first appeared in Yoga International.)
It begins with your family
but soon it comes ‘round to your soul
— Leonard Cohen
On April 22nd, 2012, Ian Thorson died in a cave in the Arizona desert.
The Cochise Country coroner ruled the cause of death as dysentery-induced dehydration. But members of the cult that effectively chased Thorson into the wilderness without the psychiatric help he needed still search for his cause of death in the garbled neo-Buddhist jargon of their leader, Michael Roach.
Due out tomorrow, journalist Scott Carney’s tangled probe into the tragedy points in a different direction: towards the dangers of spiritual striving. He begins A Death on Diamond Mountain with the question, “How much should someone strive to know their own soul?”
Full disclosure: I broke the news of Thorson’s death to the global media on May 4th with the first of three hasty, mostly accurate, and highly emotional polemics against the cult of Roach. I worked from local news reports, Roach’s deflective justification for the terrible decisions that drove Thorson to his cave, and my own vivid memories of the three years I spent in Roach’s community. So for me, reading through Carney’s book is like seeing old photos from novel angles in an album that I didn’t assemble, reading captions that stray from my own narrative just enough to make me doubt my recollections and illuminate the agendas that form them. This I know for sure: I’m too close to the story and too embroiled in how it has unfolded to have cleanly approached what Carney has succeeded with here.
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Some thoughts in progress, in preparation for a practice seminar in Edmonton. Perhaps the skeleton of a future book. Any and all feedback from meditators is most welcome.
If I don’t count the cathedral daydreams of a very Catholic childhood, I began meditating in 1995, when I was twenty-four. First with Tibetan Buddhists, through lam-rim (beginner) and then kye-rim (Tantric initiate) forms. Then I meditated with a charismatic Course in Miracles group, which was a total trip. After that there was a lot of mantra meditation while I was studying Ayurveda and Jyotisa intensively. Next came vipassana training. I’ve also done a lot of reading in zen, which like many traditions might be cool if a person gets lucky with a non-creepy teacher. But by the time I picked up Suzuki and Dogen I wasn’t a joiner anymore.
So under the auspices of several religious traditions, I’ve cycled through the four meditation categories that researchers in clinical psychology and neurophysiology have broken down for distinct study: “focused attention”, “open monitoring”, “self-transcendence”, and “compassion-based”. These days I sit almost every morning: never for too long, liking it, not liking it, and not quite sure of what I’m doing or where it’s taking me. Feeling like a beginner pretty much always.
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Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch.
— Uposatha Sutta, 5.5
I’m looking forward to September’s release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris. When an “acerbic atheist” (to use the phrase of ABC’s Dan Harris in his mini pre-review) who has done so much to open up discourse on faith, reason, cognitive science and ethics comes out of the closet about his personal practice of meditation and proposes to evaluate his experience in terms of neuropsychology, it’s some good times. But a number of details from this recent dialogue with the same Dan Harris give me pause. (If he has modified these claims somewhere I haven’t come across, I ‘d be happy to know.)
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An excerpt from a long poem of the same name (consisting of 108 “beads”) that explores the memes of beads, strings, and primal sounds.
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