Riding public transportation in a metropolitan area can be at times – how shall we describe it? – interesting, to say the least. In Chicago, my most frequent mode of public transportation is the Brown Line. The majority of my rides are exceedingly uninteresting. But there are occasions when even I, my dear reader, have to shake my head in dismay.
Recently I boarded the Brown Line at Rockwell on my way to Lakeview. As I was perusing some of the notifications on my iPhone, I became aware of the fresh scent of beer. I looked over to my left and sitting across the aisle from me was a middle-aged man slurping beer from a quart bottle. I glanced at the time on my iPhone and thought to myself, “Well, I guess it’s not that bad. He waited until after 11 a.m. to start drinking.”
Perhaps my beer-drinking fellow passenger had a poorly developed sense of virtue.
On another Brown Line ride a woman boarded while speaking on her cell phone. A plethora of expletives tumbled out of her mouth with an ease that would shame the feistiest drag queen dealing with a broken heel on her pump while traipsing through the rain in Uptown. As I eavesdropped on her conversation – she was speaking so loudly on the phone that it was difficult for anyone in that car to ignore her – I began to learn that she was speaking to her son, who apparently didn’t want to go back to school (I’m presuming back to college). As she cursed her “encouragement” for him to get off his lazy effing ass and go to school to “make something of himself,” I heard her then admonish her son for using the F-word with her. “How dare you talk like that to me,” she said with complete seriousness.
I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of the irony that such a fine role model of a mother would be offended by a son who used the F-word. Perhaps she had a poorly developed sense of discernment.
Last night was perhaps the best Brown Line ride in a while. After I had finished my workout at the gym (lost 12 pounds so far!) I boarded the Brown Line at Belmont for my return home. Oh joy, there was a nut case on the car I boarded waxing ineloquently as he admonished his captive audience, ridiculing them for ignoring him and being heartless during this most wonderful time of the year. With a heavy sigh I took my seat and with eyes cast down, pulled out my iPhone to do something, perhaps slip into the gay first jhana where I find rapture and withdrawal in directing my thought to who’s on Grindr right now.
He went on and on about how everyone on the car would be enjoying Christmas, opening presents, while some friend of his – who must have been hospitalized – was facing certain death because of the overwhelming lack of generosity of those of us on the train. He even had photographs.
I bit my tongue, because the Buddha said that even true speech should not be spoken if such truth will likely lead to a – how shall we say? – more uncomfortable situation. I wanted to tell this idiot that not everyone on the train was going to be opening Christmas gifts or was even buying Christmas gifts and that, oh, by the way, we all are going to die, and you know why? Because we were born.
Nonetheless, I remained silent, thinking about how this kook had a poorly developed mind.
My, aren’t I the queen of all that is perfect and good! Because here I am, dealing with my own poorly developed mind, my poorly developed sense of discernment, and my complete lack of virtue.
Well, maybe I don’t have a complete lack of virtue, but saying my virtue is poorly developed would be an understatement; it would be like saying the Pope was merely a confused man.
But I digress.
The point is that we face constant distraction in the world around us and everywhere we turn, we see ourselves as we are now, or how we might become, if we lose sight of the three basic goals of Buddhism: the development of virtue, wisdom, and concentration.
Some of us may get overwhelmed by all the lists, rules, gathas and discourses within the Buddhist canon and think, “Whoa girlfriend! This is bunching up my panties, I can’t deal with all this! I need to de-stress with a cosmo.” But as the Buddha suggested to monks who were becoming overwhelmed with all the rules in the Pātimokkha, everything can be boiled down to three essential trainings.
The Buddha explained it again to a group of Brahmans, saying that if we pay attention to how we act, how we speak, and how we think, we can avoid a lot of problems later on. Evaluating our selves under these three areas is really what Buddhism is all about. The key, however, is to develop our virtue, wisdom and concentration simultaneously so our practice is balanced.
Think of a three-legged stool, where each leg is wisdom, virtue or concentration. To develop concentration (focus in meditation) our mind needs to be free from distraction, which is accomplished by being virtuous. But to be virtuous, we need the wisdom to know what is skillful and unskillful. But to have wisdom, we need to have the concentration to investigate phenomenon to be able to discern how things really are. And on and on.
If we over-emphasize one of the legs of the stool, we will metaphorically fall off our perch, like a barely-legal Boystown newbie who slides off his barstool after trying out his first Long Island Tea at Sidetrack. Yet I see many practitioners go running off toward jhana like a dazed mo with his first credit card dashing across Michigan Avenue toward the shrine of Ermenegildo Zenga.
Not that I am the epitome of Buddhist practice. I am far from it. But isn’t Buddhism about living rather than thinking? Isn’t the practice about how we behave rather than what level of self-absorption we think we have achieved and brag to others as if it were a bhodi badge of spirituality?
Perhaps the path is like riding the Brown Line in Chicago, filled with opportunities for self-reflection.
The single life can be so dreary and stressful at the same time – alas, what is a poor gay boy to do? Striking the right balance can be so difficult. Endlessly checking Grindr or Jack’d for new cute faces more frequently than not leads to disappointing meetings and meaningless hookups that, when looking back, really weren’t very satisfying.
It’s enough to make you renounce the dating life altogether and retreat to the solitary life of, what? Perusing Internet porn? Watching episodes of Glee? Fantasizing that you’re in the Amazing Race? Maybe there’s a new Vietnamese restaurant I could check out. I got it, I’ll go buy something!
It’s like being on the dance floor between songs, during that period when there is no real melody and the back beat is transitioning. Do I just stand here and wait for the song to start? Do I dance a bit to the backbeat, uncertain of where it might go? Do I just go get a drink?
Actually, I think it’s more I am like a guitar with strings that are either too loose or too tight, never playable or in tune. Wait, that sounds so familiar, like something the Buddha would say.
Don’t faint or start thinking that I’ve lost my mind. I know what you’re thinking: What has the Buddha ever said about the gay dating scene? Nothing specific perhaps, but if you take a look at the Sona Sutta, the Buddha uses a very interesting metaphor.
Sona was a monk who exerted himself so intensely in his meditation practice that one time he had done walking meditation for so long that the soles of his feet were cracked and bleeding. He sat for some more meditation when the thought occurred to him something like this: “You know, I’m not getting much out of this monastic scene, there are still so many things I want. Why don’t I just chuck it all and go back home? I can still support the Sangha, plus enjoy a more comfortable life.”
Well, the Buddha became aware of this so he teleported himself to Sona’s side where he asked the monk, “Dude, what are you thinking?”
The Buddha then uses a metaphor involving a vina, a stringed instrument, to help Sona understand how to balance his efforts. If the strings are too tight, the instrument is unplayable. If the strings are too loose, the instrument is unplayable. Only when effort is exerted to find just the right string tension will the instrument be playable.
If you noticed, this sort of Goldilocks state of tension with the vina strings is right in the middle: not too tight, not too loose, but just right.
OK, I know what you’re thinking – what has this got to do with finding a boyfriend? Probably not much. Or maybe everything. But the real point is when our lives feel out of sorts, it may be from a lack of proper concentration, and to regain proper concentration, we must put forth the Right Effort.
Wow, aren’t I clever? I managed to turn the topic of gay dating into one about the Noble Eightfold Path!
But seriously, just about every time I feel like my life is a bit disconnected, I can trace the problem back to my meditation practice. While I seldom have gone to the extreme of meditating so much that my ass is sore, there are times when my practice becomes so lax that I go for days without even getting 10 minutes in. And what the Buddha was telling Soma was the right method, the Right Effort, was in the middle.
The notion of Right Effort is part of the concentration group in the Noble Eightfold Path. Among the key elements of Right Effort are the Four Right Efforts. These are:
1. Develop skillful actions that one does not already possess
2. Further develop skillful actions one already possesses so they become more refined
3. Abandon unskillful actions one already has
4. Prevent the development of unskillful actions that one does not have
In other words, strengthen whatever qualities you have that make you a decent person and a good date, work on developing other qualities that would make you an even better person and date, work on getting rid of those qualities that annoy people, and make sure you don’t develop any new negative qualities that limit your dating prospects.
Think of it this way: if you’re not aware of the things you do that bug people or make you less attractive to people, you’ll continue to lose on the dating front. And on a more serious note, if you’re always worried about what you do, how others perceive you, or continuously worry as to why people don’t want to date you, then you will be distracted and restless whenever you attempt to meditate.
Right Effort is required to develop disciplined concentration, and our most serious impediment to our efforts at concentration is all of the unskillful things we do that bring us regret or confusion, or just plain restlessness. It goes back to thinking about our practice as if it were a three-legged stool: each leg represents either Wisdom, Virtue, or Concentration. We need to refine our virtue to be able to concentrate during mediation without distraction by the things we’ve said or done, and when we achieve proper concentration, we start to develop wisdom that helps us further strengthen our virtue. Of course, before any of that is possible, we need at least wisdom enough to know what virtue is and how to get started.
So it’s back to the cushion for me with a bit more regularity. Remember, overdoing it can be just as bad as not doing it at all. And finding that balance in anything takes effort – the Right Effort.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.