There was an interesting and sad article in the NY Times a few weeks ago regarding a funeral home in the Bronx mixing up two women’s bodies, and presenting the wrong body at an open casket viewing.

Almost all the adults believed that they were viewing the body of Val-Jean McDonald.  While most of them noticed that she didn’t look as they expected this was attributed  to her cancer treatments.  So the conditions that created the perception were the trust in the funeral home and the belief that because of how she died she wouldn’t look like herself. Of course perhaps the most important condition was the desire to be seeing the body of Val-Jean Mcdonald.   For the most part, people believed their perception and not the fact that it was actually the body of another woman.  Interestingly, the only people who were certain that the body was not Val-Jean McDonalds’s were the children.  In a situation such as this, it would seem that the children would have no strong conditions skewing their perception so they saw what was real.

This was of course, disturbing and sad because at such a time, people put their faith in funeral homes and in this case that faith was clearly mis-placed.   The situation was even worse for the family of the woman who was cremated by accident in that they did not believe in cremation and also ended up having a closed casket (presumably an empty casket) viewing.

Perceptions arise at every moment of experience and perceptions are not always (perhaps rarely) true.  Sometimes they are helpful of course and keep us out of trouble, but usually they are colored by conditions that we consider in themselves to be real.     Moment to moment moods create a lens of perception, what you had for lunch can impact perception, your last experience with a person impacts perception etc.

How often through the day are we mis-guided by our perceptions?   It may be that a prior experience with a colleague clouds our view of who this person is at that moment.  In other words, when we see this person, we are actually seeing our perception of that person based on the last time we saw him or her.  Of course, this may at times be essential if it’s someone who has done us harm we certainly may need to be vigilant, but at the same time we need to recognize what’s happening.

Then there is of course chronic stress that is often a result of the mind’s mis-perceiving a thought for reality and reacting to the thought versus what’s really true.

Mindfulness is certainly the cure for this.  In a Buddhist context, perception and consciousness co-arise.   This follows our contact with an object of awareness—and then the resulting pleasant, unpleasant or neutral experience that arises with that contact.   It is in the moment of perception and consciousness that an action (or reaction) will result.   As our mindfulness strengthens we are more and more aware of this interaction and of the conditions causing a particular reaction and in time reaction becomes appropriate response.  As well, we learn to accept that others are reacting from perceptions so that the anger we may feel from another toward us can become less personal and we can actually develop compassion for this other person.

Now back to the sad case of the mis-placed bodies.   I didn’t get the sense from either family when the truth of the mix-up was discovered that they reacted with anger.  They were certainly upset.  In the case of the family of the woman who should not have been cremated, the man said that he had to walk off his anger and digest what had happened.

There will no doubt be some financial compensation to these families, but I had a sense of forgiveness knowing that it was an honest mistake with no ill intent.  I suspect though, that the family of Val Jean MacDonald has learned something about perception.  

An Urban Meditator's Guide to Renunciation

On retreat recently, I found myself in meditation often having intense internal debates about some of the plot twists in the show “Homeland”.  I was getting very upset with the decisions made by some of the characters.   This was creating an incredible amount of proliferation in the mind and “wasting” valuable minutes of my meditations.  If I was going to proliferate at the very least, couldn’t it be about something that was “real” and from my life.  Proliferating around a fictional TV drama seemed absurd.   Now, at this moment I don’t want to open up the “pandora’s box” around whether things from my life are any more “real” than the fictional show Homeland but it would certainly have been a more practical proliferation.   What was clear was that if I renounced watching shows like Homeland or any number of similar shows, the mind would have been less occupied with this kind of unnecessary baggage.   It would have been one less object of potential proliferation.

The practice of renunciation doesn’t get much airplay in the world of “urban” mindfulness.    For those of us who live in New York restricting our sense pleasures is rather contrary to our day-to-day existence.   Living in a city of strivers where all of us are driven toward success we often find ourselves in a continual goal-oriented state.   This is also a problem in the modern world of mindfulness.  People want to learn meditation practices for very specific reasons and with goals in mind. 

In a Buddhist context, renunciation is one of the 10 Paramitas—Perfections of the Heart—and plays an important role in one’s spiritual development.   In practicing renunciation we are letting go of those things that inhibit our capacity for freedom—meaning our freedom from craving aversion and delusion.   So we discover that in letting certain sense desires go or in renouncing un-healthy relationships or even relaxing around our goals we feel a bit more lightness in our lives.  We have expanded our capacity for Freedom. 

In our media driven environment we have daily opportunities to practice renunciation.   Try not picking up your phone for an hour or while you’re eating. Try to go off-line for the hour before you go to bed. 

When we meditate we are actually practicing renunciation on a number of levels!

First we have cut out at least one if not several sense doors—the door of sight and to a degree the door of sound (and the need to make sounds!).   More importantly we have renounced the need to do.    If in fact if we find ourselves striving to accomplish something in meditation—even the accomplishment of a focused mind, or one of relieving stress--- we need to renounce this.   Just let go of the idea of accomplishing anything.    When we meditate we also renounce our identity.     If we are practicing with others,  and we find ourselves needing to “look” a certain way in meditation, then we are clinging to an identification of a meditator.   Letting go of this, we can relax into our practice. 

Outside of formal practice we might then discover many other things we can renounce.   Try a day of renouncing views!  Just take a day (or at least an hour) and do nothing!

Inevitably this brings up the question of enjoying the delights of life.   As lay practitioners we are not renouncing entertainment, or good food,  or pleasure.  We are simply recognizing the impact these may have on our path toward a more easeful life.  We may discover that we are renouncing certain aspects of our life without even realizing that it’s happened.  It also brings up questions about having goals.   We don't need to renounce the goals but can we renounce clinging to a goal. In my experience when I don't cling to a goal, I'm usually surprised by the final results.   

Will I decide not to watch the next season of Homeland?  Probably, but I’ll make sure to leave enough space between the end of the season and my next retreat!