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October 9, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

Guest Post: Mindful About Mindfulness I

Bariloche

Bariloche, Argentina

I met my friend Andrew Overby, whom I’ve written about previously, three years ago on a daylong bus ride from Bariloche to Buenos Aires.   Our conversation was a fitting coda to what the greatest journey I’ve ever taken by every literal and figurative measure I’m aware of.   We largely dropped out of touch until he emailed me last year to ask for advice about his current multi-year journey and I learned we both practiced insight meditation.  He’s kindly agreed to write this story of his meditative journey, made particularly timely with the recent passing of S.N. Goenka, the teacher in whose tradition he practices.  This is the first of two posts, you can read the second one here.  The rest of the words, are his, as is the wonderful blog happy ride.

Mindful About Mindfulness: Part I

Isn’t the intention of all our actions to attain happiness, either now or at some point in the future? In what ways do friends, family, societal structure, and culture shape our intentions, for good or for ill? Can we understand our intentions, our actions, and the impact of the external environment upon us in such that we may lead happier lives that are good for ourselves, and good for others? Even if a perfect understanding may never be attainted, we should all try. What else is there to do?

Perhaps I’ve taken contemplation to an extreme in my own life. My name is Andrew Overby. I’m thirty years old, and I’m retired poker player. While I don’t have the funds necessary to maintain a life of leisure indefinitely, I have, at the very least, decided to take some time off to analyze life. I spent six years as a professional online poker player. During that time I also discovered the unparalleled ease of life on the road. I love backpacking, and I love ultra-budget travel. Using travel as a platform and poker as a means, I discovered the world as I discovered myself.

I quit poker about two years ago, and I’m currently in the midst of my most ambitious trip ever, a several-year long motorcycle ride from Cambodia to (hopefully) South Africa. I’m currently in Nepal, and will try to circumnavigate most of India before exiting through Pakistan, riding through Central Asia, and onwards into either Europe, or Turkey, and then ever onwards to the next logical place. This trip is a marked departure from the simplicity of my previous travels. It entails certain bureaucratic nightmares, and is wrought with even more uncertainties than usual. It is also more costly than I’m used to. However, I think most people would be surprised with how easy such undertakings can be.*

On the road, I’ve had the benefit of considerable free time; time for reflection, time for action, and undoubtedly time that I have wasted in idleness. Nevertheless, I plod ahead. Based on experience, I have reason to trust in the transformative power of exploring the world, and exploring the self. One of the most transformative experiences of my life has been the often difficult process of building a meditation practice. My search for enlightenment began in a decidedly modern fashion. I started with little more than Google, and a predilection for all things secular. I was raised atheist. Rather, I was raised by a Christian in-name-only mother, and an agnostic father. The selection of a spiritual path was expressly up to me. After some contemplation, I choose to remain an atheist.

***

With no prior training, I attended my first Vipassana meditation retreats, as taught by S.N. Goenka, offered by dhamma.org. I liked the explicit emphasis on secularism and rational inquiry. The donation based model made sense to me as well, for it speaks volumes about the product. The centers can be found around the world too. After the initial decision to do a retreat, I quickly found myself on a train to Georgia. The train was an Amtrak, and I was headed from New York’s Penn Station to Jessup, Georgia, U.S.A. – a lesser known bastion of tolerance and enlightenment.

That was three years ago, and it marked my first foray into what could be called – for lack of a better word, in my opinion – the world of “spiritualism”. I took to the practice fairly quickly, but was admittedly unsettled by some of the formalities at the beginning of the retreat. I was a stalwart Atheist; and a bit of a prick about it if you really got me going. There were other things I found patently hypocritical about the Goenka retreats. First and foremost was an assertion – albeit framed in the context of an opinion – of the non-existence of God. I was outraged, and I think hardline Atheism committed me to such outrage. How, in good conscience, could an institution claiming to be secular and non-religious make such a claim concerning God? More upsetting was the realization that I could not, in good conscience, recommend such courses to my Christian friends. In addition there was a smattering of unfalsifiable claims made throughout the course, but thankfully the rage they inspired was more than quelled by ten days of calm.

I left my first retreat as much atheist as ever, but I had acquired considerable composure and insight. I had experienced the wisdom of how utterly useless anger is; of how it is generally wrong to be a prick about anything, ever. Also, I realized for the first time what the spiritual life was. I had numerous beautiful experiences, some of which changed my life. I took my mind to unprecedented levels of calm, and quiet. I experienced a level of tranquility and peace I didn’t even know existed.

I also had several insights about compassion; about what it means to truly love and understand another person. I was gobsmacked with a realization of how important it is to live a Christ-like life. The irony is not lost on me. How could a bold atheist so affirm and understand people’s desire to lead Christ-like, Christ-ish, or strictly Christ-ian lives? Although I realized that there was no need for me to abdicate any of my rationally held beliefs, it became obvious why I needed to change how I related to some religious people. They too were my fellow human beings, and I now had a compassionate understanding of what they thought might be taken away from them if they didn’t hold certain beliefs. My beliefs remained the same, but my compassion and understanding increased immeasurably.

Do I think a man named Jesus literally died from my sins? No. I don’t think that causality works that way, and I have good reasons for believing that causality works the way I think it does. Do I think there was once a human being, born of a virgin, who died, only to ascended bodily into the clouds? No. I don’t think physics, biology, or chemistry work that way, and there is good reason to believe these things too. However, I experienced the unparalleled beauty of selflessness as seen in the story of a guy called Jesus. If I ever come to die by the hands of others, yet am overflowing with compassion and forgiveness, I will consider mine a life well lived. Meditation – in fact my very first meditation retreat – led me to realize the importance of striving towards more compassionate and ethical behavior.

However, it also lead me to intuit what I later saw the controversial figure, Sam Harris, state quite succinctly in a lecture: “In order to live wholly ethical, and deeply spiritual lives, we need not believe in anything based on insufficient evidence.” I suppose one can believe in certain things based on evidence that falls short of knowing with literally certainty. However, it would then become important to recognize how such beliefs lead to either good, bad, or neutral behavior. Nevertheless, I realized, via my direct experiences during meditation, why it is not necessary to have such beliefs in order to attain a fully spiritual experience.

There is a Zen phrase which sums up how I like to think about spiritual life: “Never confuse a finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.” Spirituality is an experience; is “the moon” in this case. Yet, there is considerable argument – sometimes in the form of wars, genocide, murder, and torture; but more often in the form of yelling matches at the dinner table – over the multitude of fingers which attempt to point the way. We go mad debating that which supposedly leads us to sanity.

I think it is fairly obvious that all pathways to the spiritual experience cannot be equal in their efficacy. Being non-judgmental, or loving your enemy will likely lead one to experiencing compassion. However, viscerally hating someone because they happen to be gay, or wanting to kill someone because they do not believe in a particular god will most assuredly move someone away from any states-of-being which might be called divine.

* –  For those who are curious, I’m hoping that when all is said and done my average per-day cost is no more than $40 USD. This figure should include the cost of health insurance, averaged depreciation of the motorcycle, average repair and maintenance costs of the motorcycle, all paperwork costs (Carnet de Passage, visas, etc.), and all other travel related costs (food, lodging, fuel, fun etc.). To achieve this mark, I rigorously try to spend less than half this amount each day.

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