Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.
In my proposal, I had planned on traveling to Boulder Colorado to complete a two week meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center. At the last minute a business opportunity came up for me in Columbus, and I decided to stay here and visit the Shambhala Center that’s close to campus. Because of this my meditation was not as structured or as intense as I had hoped, but I still used my time to journal, meditate and read with occasional guidance from several mentors. Through this experience I developed a new view of myself and the world, and I’m immensely grateful for my taking time to focus on my spirituality and mental health.
What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
For a long time, my approach to life came with the assumption that there must be some way to avoid pain. When I heard about zen and meditation I thought this was the solution I was looking for. All the books I read talked about the bliss that comes with being mindful and raising your consciousness. They talked about the pain that it would take to get there, but these were only words on a page, so being hopeful of my future liberation, I chose to ignore them. Right there lies the problem I have dealt with. It is this tendency to ignore and suppress anything unwanted in search of perpetual pleasure. With this fantasy as my goal, a division between my mind, body and soul occurred. My soul (or awareness) lost sight of my mind as a way to navigate reality and confused the world of words in my head as reality itself. Our definitions and thoughts are useful conventions that help us communicate and stay organized, but if mixed up with the real world they can totally frustrate us. Because the truth is that our words and ideas stay fixed so that everyone can stay on the same page, but the reality and beauty of life is that it does not stay fixed. When we find ourselves in this confusion and identify with our thoughts rather than our awareness of them, then a split between mind and body occurs too. I prioritized what I “knew” in my mind and ignored what I knew in my body. I have developed a habit of overthinking, and as I poured most of my energy into thoughts, I became less and less aware of my immediate experience. The mind has evolved with software to help us remember and predict events so that we can survive. However imaginative these functions get, they are ultimately limited by true experience. The sensation in the body is our actual knowledge of something. Whereas our mind might define something as hard, soft, pain or pleasure, what it actually is is a fluid changing experience that can not be verbally expressed. This is not to say that we should abandon defining things for convenience, but if we place too much weight on the rigid structures of our minds we end up missing out on the vitality of life. The imagination of our mind and the knowledge of our bodies need to be in balanced communication, even when the experience of the body is painful. Pain is just a message from the body telling you that something is wrong. Telling you to do something else.
As I became aware of the division between my mind and my body locally, I started realizing the implications of this division globally. When the experience of the body is separated from the activity of the mind, our ideals and expectations for permanent pleasure can run rampant. So when people separate themselves from other people and when civilization separates itself from nature, our ideas of “progress” and “security” can exponentially grow without bounds. Our environment is just as much apart of us as our small intestines and childhood memories. Nature in this sense, including other species, the earth and cosmos is our collective body. Since we’ve divorced ourselves from nature using definitions of the world of words, we have gone on ignoring the messages of pain coming from the environment. In pursuit of infinite comfort and avoidance of pain, we’ve gobbled up most of our resources and destroyed ecosystems, waning the diversity of life needed for us to survive. I see this all around me in the form of racism and police brutality, hyper-masculinity, high interest rates, global warming, political mass hysteria and widespread mental health issues. For some reason we view these all as separate problems, but I believe they’re all symptoms stemming from our collective inner division of mind, body and soul. I think if we can come back into the awareness of our minds as software with powerful and unrealistic possibilities, and our bodies as hardware that eventually have to break down, we can get rid of our fantasy of pleasure without pain and the illusion of separation.
What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
Staying in Columbus made my relationship with the Shambhala Center more distant that I had planned. Had I gone to Colorado, I would have been immersed in meditation everyday for two weeks. The center here only meets twice a week, so most of my meditation had to be on my own. In part I am glad that I didn’t travel far from home, because I’m scared that if I had I would have romanticised the experience and spent my time back in Ohio trying to recreate it. However, I was not able to kick myself out of my comfort zone and actually go to Shambhala until I broke up with my girlfriend in late July. That experience forced me forced me out of my head and into my body. I had been hiding a number of things from her, and whenever she confronted me about them I would lie. When I lied there was a distinct uneasy feeling in my body that I ignored. I wanted to keep up the image I had in my head about a happy relationship, and this message from my body that something was wrong got in the way. So i lied and hid things all the way up to and partly through our breakup. At some point in our argument I broke and started being completely honest with her about everything that I was doing, and why I thought I was doing them. I was drawing this knowledge out of an awareness of my gut feeling. It was terrifying and relieving to be that vulnerable. Instead of suppressing the pain in my body, i was able to release it and tighten the division between my mind and body.
After the breakup I decided to go to Shambhala for the first time. There I got instruction on how to meditate properly with a few different techniques. Specifically how to sit comfortably and keep my eyes open. Up to that point I had meditated with my eyes closed and my back against the wall. This way I would usually end up falling asleep. However getting used to meditating with my eyes open has made it easier to stay mindful during everyday activities. But what really helped me was a book that caught my eye as I walked out on my first visit. The book was Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and it was the perfect text to illuminate the division I was dealing with. Trungpa explained spiritual materialism as the comfort we find in going through the motions of a spiritual practice. He says that we pat ourselves on the back because what we’re doing looks good on the surface, but we haven’t made any true sacrifice to identify with the spiritual path. This is definitely true about my life. I read a long list of books about spirituality without examining my selfish nature. I would imitate the effects of zen without really feeling it. This is true of my relationship too. I wanted to act like the loving boyfriend on the surface without sacrificing the thrill of chasing other girls. After viscerally feeling the truth I was avoiding during the breakup, Trungpa’s words cut deep. All the other books I had read made me feel like I understood what others didn’t and just boosted my separated ego even more. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism made me deeply contemplate how surface level my practice actually was. After reading it and feeling it on a bodily level, I was able to revisit the other books I had read and understand them much more clearly. Specifically The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. He writes about how we live in an age of anxiety, and how most people are living for a distant future where all the desires of their mind become a secure reality, and they miss the point of life everlastingly. Ultimately Watts explained that even though our sense of “I” behind the scene of our experience seems permanent, it is actually in constant motion like the rest of reality. Since it doesn’t stay put, there’s nothing to secure. This means that trying to have pleasure without pain is impossible and meaningless.
Another experience that illustrated this division in an instance outside of my personal experience. A Birth of a Nation, a movie about Nat Turner’s slave revolt was just released. The movie has been surrounded in controversy because the director, Nate Parker, was accused and acquitted of rape at Penn State in 1999. People suggested boycotting the film in order to not support rape culture. The Wexner Center for the Arts premiered this movie and hosted a panel the day before to discuss the controversy. The moderator asked the panel of OSU professors whether they would see the film and if they would be torn in the process. All three of the panelists essentially answered yes and yes. They all asked the question, how and under what circumstance can we divide a piece of art from the artist who made it. One woman even divided herself, not sure if she would see the movie as a black person, a woman or an African American historian. Right there and then I thought to myself, “Why not all three?” Why can’t all three of those perspectives fuse together even if some of them seem to oppose each other. I think they should inform each other like the body does the mind and vice versa. It’s all the same spirit of division; separation and purposeful ignorance to uphold a golden appearance. I’m not trying to act as if I’m above this division, I’m just trying to say we need to be aware of it so that we can slowly begin to reintegrate. To start feeling pain as a good thing, as an opportunity for growth.
Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
Becoming aware of this division within myself and how it plays out all around me is valuable to my life because I can start to practice true empathy. If I understand how unrealistic the demands of my mind are, I can focus more on taking care of my body and well-being. I’ll also be able to understand a little better why people are selfish and act nasty towards others, even when it’s unintentional. I think this will help me be more patient and show the love to other people that i would want shown to me. I’ve also realized how many bad habits I’ve accumulated by trying to avoid pain. Whereas before I wanted that silver bullet that would take care of all my problems, I know that I have to work bit by bit everyday to reverse those habits. When I fail and relapse into them, I won’t be as hard on myself, because that will only worsen the problem.
I’ve taken some time off school to figure all this out and work on replacing my habits with better ones. I think this new perspective which has drawn me ultimately to pursue love, will help me come back to school and finish my degree. I used to look at earning a degree as a selfish thing. Something to improve my own life. However, now I see it as a gateway to help others feel the love that I’ve neglected to show myself.