PODCAST GROUP: Garret, Tim, Christian, Morgan
SUBJECT: Filial Piety
- Anonymous (student at the University of Kentucky, 1:27-15-20)
- Anne Taylor Wilson (Licensed Psychological Associate, 15:20-32:25)
- Hannah Sexton (student at BCTC, 32:30-49:25)
- Fr. Albert J DeGiacomo (Pastor, Catholic Diocese of Lexington, 49:25-1:01:30)
- Conclusion (1:01:30-1:12:40)
(drawn from PHI 343, Fall 2016, in which students studied and discussed elements of Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism)
SECTION 3: Christian Marnon
INTERVIEW: Hannah Sexton (student at BCTC)
Hi, this is Christian. For my interview I spoke with Hannah Sexton, a student at BCTC who spent the summer at the Pleasant Valley yoga sanctuary in California.
A painful experience inspired Hannah to spontaneously pack her bags and fly across the country to seek out spiritual guidance.
It took little time for her to discover that running away from pain wasn’t necessarily the ideal way to combat it.
I begin by asking Hannah how a typical day at the sanctuary unfolded.
Hannah: So I was a volunteer working in exchange for my room and board. I would wake up, and we would start and hour of meditation in a little temple then we would go out on a big deck and have two hours of yoga, then we would have brunch—and that would start my period of labor for the day: about five hours of tidying up the facility and everything and then we’d have dinner at 5 o’clock and then another hour of meditation before bed.
As I’ve mentioned, ‘pain’ is the main theme of this particular project. If you don’t mind my asking, did pain have any influence in your decision to seek out pleasant valley sanctuary?
In February my boyfriend had cheated on me , and March I bought my ticket to go out to California—June 3, the day I turned 18.
How did the guided meditation practices there help you through with what you were experiencing and what strategies did they impart to you?
I feel like it originally brought up a lot of frustration because: “Oh my gosh I have thoughts, I’m not thinking clearly”, I’m doing this wrong” you’re getting all tense because you feel like you’re not doing it right. But that’s all part of the meditation practice and I got to sit with that.
Just sitting with your emotions and pain being one of them, I guess recognizing is the only thing that helps you cope with it and therefore kind of get rid of pain.
What effect did have meditation have on your conception of self and attachment to self? Was limiting attachment to self something driven at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary?
Definitely. It was kind of a foreign concept to me. I haven’t ever dived into this really spiritual meditation practice.
They talked a lot about how “you are not your body.” Which was very strange, because your whole life you’re like: “Yeah, this is me! And you never think anything of it.” But(they said) you are not your body—your body is just a vessel.
They really talked about detaching from your physical self and really thinking and zoning in on your emotional, mental and spiritual self a lot more.
Do you think there was a threshold of fear you had to overcome to in order to embrace that?
When I was first introduced to this concept, I was really taken aback, because this is like the most—this is truly home. Your body is your true home. To say that it’s nothing…that was terrifying and such a strange foreign concept. It took me awhile to wrap my brain around it and I don’t even think I still have, but I’m working toward that because I like the concept.
So you see an ultimate reward—not in the traditional sense—but something you’ll benefit from once you’re finally able to overcome that attachment?
Yeah. The way they spoke about it, it seemed that our physical self here on earth is kind of “a thing” and “no big deal.” Previously, I thought living on earth was fantastic and an enriching experience. So, for them to say “no big deal” it sounds as if outside your physical body is the “true existence” and this on earth is not our true existence—and I hope to exist one day.
Would you divide pain into categories? And did the sanctuary you attended differentiate their strategies for types of pain?
They briefly talked about physical pain, but it was more focused on emotional, internal pain. They addressed physical pain more as an act of the mind—something that we create for ourselves to put a mask for the more internal pain going on inside.
It could be argued that desire and pain are co-dependent. The pursuit of constant pleasure can become an unattainable goal, as can the incessant desire to escape pain and hardship. What relationship do you perceive between desire and pain?
I feel like pain fuels a lot of desire and it can fuel maybe determination and it can actually resolve and reward. This was the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for myself and my soul and it came from a horrible experience, so I think it’s a constant battle. As you face pain, it’s really hard to go through the mental, emotional and internal pain. It’s always nice to sit back and just be like: “Okay, this is just something that’s going to come up. This balances out the desire, so welcome it instead of blatantly turning it away.”
A number of Asian schools we’ve explored put a negative emphasis on conceptual or abstract thinking. Stillness, more often (at least in the Zen Buddhist tradition), tends to be the remedy for overactive, destructive, or painful thoughts. How did your instructors teach you to handle the arising of thoughts?
One of the gurus, Liz Brindle…we went through a lot of Yoga Nidra, which is kind of half yoga, half sleep. So, you’re basically in the most relaxed state you can possibly be and you’re kind of just floating in that little in between line of consciousness and sleep. And she told us to just welcome our thoughts in, picture them just like clouds, acknowledge them and just let them drift out of your point of view as if you were just staring up into the sky. You would see something come into your vision, acknowledge it and say “Hey” and then watch it pass through. Eventually you will just get all those thoughts past your point of vision.
Is it all forms of thinking?
Yeah, just any type of thought—(you’re just seeking) absolute stillness I suppose.
To what extent did pain influence your instructors to become spiritual guides of some sort?
There were about four instructors: Jamie and Georgia who were married; and Liz and Robert. Georgia and Liz were both from England and they had actually been friends there. She had a terrible breakup with her boyfriend and you know she was just like: “Let’s go to America!” So she came over and actually did a volunteer job right across the street from the sanctuary and walked over. She had some spiritual training beforehand, but this really just started the path for her.
Then Liz, her boyfriend had cheated on her. She shaved her head, sold all her belongings, and took off to India and started her deep, deep spiritual training.
Robert had his younger brother die and he turned to obsessive eating and had a lot of emotional ties with ice cream, specifically. So he fell into a spiral of food and depression. He went on a 47-day water cleanse.
Jamie has always been in this environment. He started the sanctuary with Naomi, this 86-year-old who was kind of the pioneer of yoga. He’s always been on this path, but I know he acquired Lyme disease at some point in his life and that has thrown him into a lot of internal searching and healing with fasting along with spiritual-meditation practice and so forth.
It’s interesting how that commonality all pushed them toward (the sanctuary).
I never really thought: “What’s the similarity here?” but when you lay it out like that, they all had that one key painful moment that kind of switched for them.
How would you say Peace Valley Sanctuary changed you? Who was the person going in and who was the person that came out of the experience?
I was extremely focused on the future, which stressed me out to no end. I needed to have a 15-year-plan laid out in front of me with a step-by-step playbook. You don’t get that, so I had a lot of panic attacks and breakdowns throughout my time at home. So, I just wanted to get somewhere where I could have a straightforward plan of nothing. So I went and it was the first time I’ve ever been so far away, all on my own. On the plane ride there, I was like: “What do I want to be named? Pick your name, you can be whoever you want.” So I got to really dive deep and figure out who exactly I wanted to present myself as—what I wanted to be—because this is a fresh set of people. I got to kind of figure out more of what my internal soul was unfolding to be. With the constant meditation practice and the discussions about pain and emotion and how the uncertainty is welcomed—that’s kind of what I took away the most is to embrace the uncertainty. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been a lot more—for lack of a better term—more “go with the flow.” I’ve been able to calm my senses and accept that I don’t have a fifteen-year plan. I don’t even have a one-year plan. That has honestly been the most calming, beneficial factor of the whole thing. I’ve been able to just chill out a whole lot more and accept pain.
Obviously you want to pursue more meditation in the future. Is the meditative lifestyle a goal within itself, or is that missing the point?
I think this might be a question open for interpretation because there is Jamie, this 45-year-old guru who has been going through this for most of his life. His ultimate goal is to completely detach from his physical body—and he has done that. To, kind of detach and find that most blissful experience outside into the universe, attached to the divine. For me personally, I find meditation more about clearing the goals. I think setting those goals, like I did originally at the start, saying: “Oh I want to have no thoughts; I want to get into a state where I’m outside my body”—all that stuff stresses you out during meditation. To get to the point where you make those goals, you can’t have goals.
Would you say it’s more difficult to purse something like detachment from the body in youth? Do you think it’s something where you have to be at a certain station in life? What’s your opinion?
I think if, given the same time these adults have, it would be possible for children or the youth to achieve detachment from the body, but I think a lot of the training that comes along with being able to dive that far into meditation comes from the pain and experiences that you had along the way through life. You kind of have to deal with and unravel things that are happening inside you. (This) opens you up to those experiences that I think we are all going for through meditation like entering the universe and detaching from our physical selves.
It’s difficult to ignore the propulsive role pain played in directing not only Hannah, but also her instructors to this small retreat in California.
Every spiritual mentor Hannah could recall from Peace Valley sanctuary had a history of considerable pain, spanning psychological disorders and difficult breakups to debilitating physical illness.
Hannah cites detachment from the physical body as the locus of concentration for her instructors. It’s difficult, she says, to deeply internalize the idea that the self is not the body.
On the surface, this de-emphasis on the body as self seems fundamentally Buddhist. Let’s look back to the Chapter On the Aggregates from the Sayings of the Buddha:
“He does not become fixated on the idea that he is physical form, that physical form is his. “And then the physical form of this person who is not fixated on the idea that he is physical form, the idea that physical form is his, changes and alters; as a result of that change and alteration in physical form grief, pain, sorrow, and despair do not come into being for him. “
This seems to align exactly with Hannah’s conception of physical detachment. Yet, she counteracts the idea that “you are not your body,” by saying one should quote “focus on your mental, emotional and spiritual self.”
I’m not sure this distinction she’s making may be considered fundamentally Buddhist. The entire Chapter On the Aggregates seems dedicated to deconstructing all conceptions of ownership and/or unitary identity. The practicing Buddhist acknowledges that the body, consciousness, conceiving and feeling do not belong to him/her. Perhaps this may be considered an issue of technical accuracy, but it seems Hannah has been taught that her emotions and consciousness are hers, which seems to be a point of differentiation with the Buddhist text we have read.
It would be unfair to characterize detachment from the body as a mere form of escapism from physical and emotional pain. As we’ve learned from Hannah, Peace Valley Sanctuary did not enable her to flee from her pain. Rather, she told me the meditation exercises caused her to face pain directly.
Hannah says she was encouraged to sit with her thoughts, good or bad, to acknowledge them, and to finally let them drift beyond the periphery of her conscious mind. Rather than batting away painful thoughts like flies, Hannah embraces stillness and lets thoughts pass through like clouds of vapor.
This practice conjures Laozi, who says the Still rules over the agitated. A deeper component can be detected in Hannah’s strategy through observation of Zhuangzi’s Discussion on Making All Things Equal. He writes: “What is acceptable we call acceptable; what is unacceptable we call unacceptable. A road is made by people walking on it; things are so because they are called so. What makes them so? Making them not so makes them not so. Things must all have that which is so; things must all have that which is acceptable. There is nothing that is not so; nothing that is acceptable.”
Through this complex jumble of sentences, we can detect a palpable concept that approximates the mechanics behind Hannah’s thought exercises. For Zhuangzi, the experiences of pain and pleasure become desirable or not desirable because we will it that way. In labeling or internalizing a thought “painful” or “pleasant” we grant it an emotional weight that affects our state of being.
By holding a thought, and then releasing it, Hannah abolishes the influence of the thought, whether it stimulated pleasure or pain. To use Zhuangzi’s term, the thought is no longer “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” It enters the threshold of consciousness and exits soon thereafter.
One can easily perceive the allure of this strategy in coping with pain. The meditative practitioner diffuses pain by refusing to grant it authority as something “unacceptable.” Strip pain and pleasure of their categorization and “acceptability” and perhaps authentic peace of mind will reveal itself.
The experience of pain invites a reorientation of the sufferer. Pain awakens us to our limitations, yet this recognition can motivate us to break away from destructive habituation. Garret’s interviewee willfully altered a deeply ingrained pattern of behavior to ameliorate the pain he felt for hurting his sister. While in the oblivion and torpor of drug addiction, he lost sight of the damage he inflicted not only on himself, but those closest to him. In redirecting his life, Garret’s source had to engage in a process of reduction—severing his dependence on prescription pills and hallucinogens. Perhaps it’s an innate tendency of humanity to look upon reduction as punitive, or painful in itself, but if we reflect on the numerous Asian texts we’ve read throughout this semester: reduction paves the path to liberation from pain.
Father Dijagamo, in responding to Tim’s question regarding the conception of suffering between Buddhism and Christianity, says both doctrines share a fundamental spiritual teaching: That inordinate attachment renders the person “unfree” and unfreedom causes unhappiness and suffering.
Similarly, discovering true “self-nature” for the Buddhist must be achieved through subtraction. Attachment, whether it encompasses carnal pleasure, material accumulation, egoism, conceptual thinking or notions of ownership, anchors us in pain. Although uninhibited access to desire may appear to be total freedom, the Buddhist (and someone like Thomas Merton) would argue that the underlying attachment to these pursuits imprisons, rather than frees us.
The Buddhist practitioner must be receptive to the idea that stripping away the layers of material and ontological ownership will yield liberation. Huang-po in Transmission of Mind writes: “mind is like the void in which there is no confusion or evil, as when the sun wheels through it shining upon the four corners of the world. For, when the sun rises and illuminates the whole earth, the void gains not in brilliance; and when the sun sets, the void does not darken. The phenomena of light and dark alternate with each other, but the nature of the void remains unchanged.” Students of the Way, Huang Po says, must recognize that there is “only Mind Source, limitless in extent and of absolute purity.” The phenomena of pain and pleasure flicker upon the face of this root source—perhaps what Buddha would call the “deathless.”
From our own selection of sources, there seems to be this recurring theme that pain shouldn’t be treated as an isolated phenomena, but moreover as a manifestation of attachment. Attachment carries the specter of loss, which prolongs the potentiality of pain arising throughout our lives.
Even if I doubt my own capacity to limit attachment to the degree of a committed Zen Buddhist, the ideas gleaned from this project have forced me to re-evaluate what it means to be liberated from pain.