Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"A Gradual Awakening"

I just finished reading a book by Stephen Levine, called "A Gradual Awakening." It is a book about meditation, and philosophy, based on Theravada, and Zen Buddhism. It was recommended to me, by someone who reads my blogs, and is a fellow member of the "Care Cure" online community I belong to. Curiously enough, his name also happens to be Stephen, and he has been living with paralysis since the early 80's (paraplegic- due to an arteriovenous malformation). He and I correspond, from time to time, and he thought the book might offer me some insight, and comfort, with my struggles, trying to cope with life with paralysis. Luckily, it was available in e-book format, which made it easy to read (I buy books through iBooks & the Kindle app, on my iPad- it's much more convenient than reading traditional books, because I can easily switch between tasks, look up definitions, highlight important passages, and take notes).

I've read many books on meditation, since my accident, so I was already familiar with some of the book's concepts, and practical advice. My grandpa (my stepmom's dad) has been into meditation, mysticism and dream psychology (he owns an impressive collection of books by Carl Jung), for decades, and has hundreds of books in his library (mostly religious texts [of various religions], spiritual, philosophical, and psychological in basis/theory). He has practiced meditation (and prayer- his approach is from a Christian perspective) and kept dream journals, since he was in his forties. He and I spent quite a lot of time together, as I was growing up, and over the years he told me about his studies. I always viewed his studies, as an interested sceptic. I was always open to listen, and to read through books he gave me (more so, since my accident- before I was often busy, and did, or could not make time).

I have always found religion, philosophy, and psychology to be fascinating subjects, worth investigating, pondering, debating, and questioning. Eastern philosophy, in particular has always been appealing to me, and something I have found myself drawn to, time and again, throughout my life. My fascination, for Asian art, philosophy, and culture, started with my discovery of anime (with Sailor Moon- sophomore year of high school- in 1995), and blossomed into a genuine love, and passion to study many facets of Japanese, art and culture, in particular.

In college, I took an "Art of Japan" course, as one of my art history requirements. It was through that course, that I began a serious study of Buddhist art, and philosophy. As with every art history course, I've ever taken, religion played an integral role, in the inspiration, and creation, of much of the artwork I studied. I can remember having to study, and being able to identify hundreds of varying Buddhist statues, and paintings. I learned how to "read" the symbology present (posture, hair knots, drooping earlobes, lotus flowers, etc.) in varying types, and styles of Buddhist art, and about the principles, and philosophy behind such things as, Zen ink paintings, sand mandalas, rock gardens, and tea ceremonies. I especially fell in love with Ukiyo-e wood cut prints, and can remember spending hours at the M.E.T. looking at them, and using their library to write a paper about Ukiyo-e's influence on the post impressionistic movement.

In the years right before my accident, I used to go into NYC monthly. I would sometimes spend all day, getting lost in the Asian, and Egyptian wings of the M.E.T., looking at the artwork, and making sketches. I would take trips down to Chinatown, and spend all day (in the summer and on weekends) browsing in, and out of tea shops, and buying all sorts of Asian style accessories, clothes, figurines and nick knacks. Over the years, I've amassed quite a collection of both traditional and contemporary Asian books, and art. Not to mention, my over the top collection, of hundreds of anime DVDs and Blue-ray disks (I'm an otaku, in every sense of the word). To this day, my apartment is filled with Buddhist iconography, and Asian artwork, and inspiration.

It was no surprise to me, that I'd enjoy, or be drawn towards the teachings, in "A Gradual Awakening." Like I said, it's not the first book I've read on how to meditate. Most books I've read in the past have been more well rounded, in terms of offering varying religious and non-religious approaches, and offering more direct, step by step guided meditations, or contrarily, vague techniques or generic mantras. The difference in this book, is that the author focuses specifically on the teachings of Buddah himself, and offers more specific examples Zen philosophy, with a few guided, purpose based meditations. Even if you've never read about Buddhism, and/or meditation, it is simple to understand, and pretty straightforward.

Naturally, "knowing" and "doing" are two different things. While, Levine's writing style makes the concepts understandable (and approachable), it is a whole other ball of wax, to be able to apply the content, and practice the principles he describes. The book is definitely a good jumping point, to begin reflection, and offers a lot of rational, practical sense, that make the reader (namely me) want to try the theories out for himself/herself, and that can be applied to, and compliment various, existing religious beliefs, or mindsets.

In the book, Levine's (based on Buddah's teaching) overriding theme, is that the root of all suffering, is based on our (collectively) inability to be at one with the present moment. He says it is our attachment to our preconceived notion of "who" we are (as individuals), "what" WE think we should be doing, and/or "where" we should be, that interferes with our ability to be happy, and/or peaceful with our reality. He states that in order to be truly happy, to be whole, and fulfilled, we must begin by letting go of the personal "I."

According to Levine, we are all part of a bigger whole, and that through meditation, we can start to return to this natural state of feeling complete. He asserts that everyone has the innate ability to access this grander sense of truth, by honing one's concentration, through mindful meditation, and gradually awakening. He says everyone must start by focusing on the mind, as an observer, to watch thoughts, as they pass through the mind, and to begin to recognize the constant change, and flow, that is present, from moment, to moment. He warns, not to let one's self get pulled in, or get attached to any one thought, but to detach and let each moment unfold.

He briefly explains the concept of karma, as being "the perfect outcome of previous input." In other words, you sow what you reap. So, from a Buddhist standpoint, my current situation (being paralyzed) is because of some past action. From a rational, logical standpoint, anyone would agree, that my diving into a shallow pool, head first, resulted in me breaking my neck, and thus left me paralyzed. However, looking at my life, from the viewpoint of the larger picture, and the seemingly unjust nature, of how drastically one small action, has caused me so much loss, and suffering, the logical cause and effect explanation, does not seem comforting, and lacks the deeper meaning of "Why?" Levine says, that this is where karma comes into play.

From the Buddhist perspective, the karma I have in this life, can (and has been) effected by this life, as well as by actions in past lives. So, even though it might seem unfair, or unjust, for someone like me (a relatively, honest, kind, hardworking person) to have to suffer so much, for such a small mistake, it is the result of past mistakes, and it is part of a much, much bigger picture. Levine explains, like a circle, it is impossible to determine where one cause, or effect begins, or ends. He doesn't go much into reincarnation specifically, but implies, that whatever desires we have, when we die, or feelings left, unfulfilled, those grasping qualities create karma, and propel us (condition, and effect us) into our next life. Luckily, according to Levine, we each have the potential to reach "enlightenment" and stop the karmic cycle. He offers Buddah, and Jesus, as two examples of individuals who were able to attain enlightenment, through their loving, selfless, detachment, and return to their place, within the universal wholeness.

So, in my case, it makes perfect sense, to say that most (if not all) my suffering is a result of my attachments to my perceived image of myself. I feel sad, angry, and empty, because I am clinging onto the past (aka- an illusionary version on "myself") and onto an idealistic future self. Levine would assert, I am in pain, because I am not living life, in the present moment. According to him, in order for me (everyone) to find peace, I need to learn to love myself, forgive myself, practice loving kindness towards others and to live only in the present moment. He says, in order to be whole, we must let go of our egos; we must accept the present moment.

While I'll admit, the dichotomy between my "ideal" present, and my "actual" present does account for a tremendous amount of suffering, it is easier said than done, to abandon every like, dislike, preference, preconceived notion, desire, wish, dream, hope, and aspiration I've ever had, and what I believe (falsely- according to Buddah) to have been "me" as being me. From an analytically viewpoint, it makes perfect sense, that if I could let go of everything I had, and give up the dreams, and goals I had, for my future, I would be a more content person. In the book, Levine offers guided meditations, to help the reader work through the process of how to live life in the present, and ways to let go of "self."

I definitely agree with A LOT of what the book discusses, from a logical perspective. That might sound strange, given the fact the author is proposing radical ideas on being completely selfless, to the point, where the reader must choose to accept concepts of multiple lifetimes, collective consciousness, and universal oneness. I'm not sure if I'm sold on the idea of karma, to the extent of believing in past lives, or even that the present moment in my life (as I write this) as being perfect and correct, but it does make COMMON, practical sense that clinging to ideals, memories, or even hopes, IS a recipe for suffering. One undeniable truth, throughout this book, is that life changes. From the birth of this moment, to the death of the past moment, life is a continuous flow of change, of beginnings and endings, of causes and effects. The more you resist change, and fight, or try to escape the present reality, the more you hurt yourself. That is basic, powerful, truth.

While I continue to try and let go of my past, accept my reality, and work on being the best person I can be, in the given moment, it is extremely hard. Change, while difficult for everyone, is inescapable. However, most people have the luxury of being able to adapt to change gradually, as it slowly unfolds. My reality, was brutally, abruptly turned upside down, literally overnight. I had no choice but to let go (in a physical sense) of most of my acquired skills, and abilities, in the matter of minutes, because they were forcefully stolen from me, by my paralysis. Contrarily, many new, painful, realities were thrust upon me, like having to accept help (for everything), having to expose myself, needing bowel program, a catheter, and medications. Paralysis did not afford me any time, to ease into my new life, or grant me a transition period. I went from being one person, with one life, to becoming a new person, with a new life, overnight. To make matters more difficult, I have EVERY memory of my old life, and the shadow of the old "me" looming over me.

In a figurative (and literal) sense, paralysis has forced me to consciously experience my own death, and rebirth. While, it is an interesting theory, to explain this present life (my life post spinal cord injury), and my very real physical pain, and discomfort, as a product of past karma, it is not comforting. Even if I accepted the principle of karma as truth, it still doesn't give me the explanation of what actions I did, to create the karma I'm experiencing, right now. I suppose, Levine (and perhaps Buddah) would say, my past actions, and even my current situation are irrelevant, except for the opportunity my present situation affords me to grow, and learn, and of how I choose to act, from this moment forward.

The book is clearly written with the average person in mind, and not aimed at the severely disabled, or terminally ill people. He touches briefly, on dealing with physical pain, but focuses primarily on the psychological pain, and negative feelings, and attitudes, that hold people back. It has certainly given me some food for thought, and some concrete strategies, and techniques, for beginning to work on my emotional pain, and psychological wellbeing, but leaves me with many questions, about how to deal with the physical limitations, physical pain, and chronic illness that are also part of my present reality. Even if I am able to let go, of everything, including my ego, my body can't escape the physical limitations, and discomfort.

I suppose, the hope, or goal, would be that this pain, and physical suffering is only temporary, and ultimately, by becoming enlightened, I could potentially ensure that this lifetime is the last time I have to experience it. The thought of letting go of all desires, seems like an impossibility, and thus dooming me, to forever repeat my mistakes; never feeling satisfied. In this regard, the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim promise of an eternal heaven, seems much, much more appealing. Although the thought at a second chance, to experience the things I can't/couldn't in this life, sounds tempting, the thought of having to experience the drastic, abrupt change that I have had to endure, in this lifetime, has been intense enough to never, ever want to repeat it.

I'm curious to read another book Levine wrote, entitled "Healing Into Life and Death," which focuses more on situations of chronic, and terminal illness. I'll be sure to write a review, if/when I finish it.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. There is much to study of the Dharma, taking refuge in The Three Jewels... Even the basics like the Six Sences puts our fundamentals in question--there are more than five? You came to the idea of "clinging" through this book. It is the central problem identified by Gautama. I wish you dilligence in study and meditation-- Al Somma

  2. hey chrissy, got another link for you:

  3. I have read similar books and they have led me to Free Guided Meditations, it really helps me get centered.