No Escape

[Continuing with the theme No Hope, from the last entry]

In the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, and the presentations on those teachings that we have from his student Pema Chodron, one of the great themes is that an essential element in walking the ‘spiritual’ path, the path of radical compassion, radical acceptance, as it has come down to us through the centuries from those who have followed and interpreted the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, is that there is no escape.

The first noble truth of classical Buddhist teachings is “Life is suffering.” Though this idea is widely misunderstood by most of the Western translators and interpreters of the Buddha’s teachings – the sense of the original is better translated as “All clinging to life involves or creates suffering” – it is essentially just an observation about the reality of human experience: we can’t escape these feelings of dissatisfaction, this sense of lack that permeates our lives.

This is the “hopelessness” that Pema holds out as a positive thing, much to the dismay and confusion of most of us. The reactions I get to suggestions that hope is not something to cling to range from shock to outright anger:

What? Give up hope? Never! Hope is all we have! Never give up! Believe in the ultimate wonderfulness that we can achieve and never stop hoping for better, more, never abandon the quest for perfection.

That may be overstated, but it catches up much of what passes for wisdom in popular self-help psychology. And it sells. For some, it seems to work, at least temporarily. But it misses some really profound understandings of our human situation.

What we tend to do when things get tough, when things aren’t going the way we should like them to, is look for some escape from this unpleasantness. Much of what fills the world today, materiality, activity, religion, philosophy – any realm really – is nothing but some highly refined and developed effort to escape from reality, to fill that void with something.

We seek sensual and intellectual pleasures to escape that gnawing sense of dread, and we find all manner of sophisticated means to avoid the pain that comes from too much reality.

But in the end, there is no escape.

Whatever we do, it always ends. There’s always something happening that we wish would go away, or something we wish would happen that just won’t. And when we get something we want, we know that it could be lost in a heartbeat.

This is the truth of life that the Buddhist teachers speak of as “impermanence” or “emptiness”. The Buddhist path involves, at heart, being willing to bang into that truth over and over again until it comes clear to one that this is the nature of our life. “Sampajanna” is the Sanskrit term, which means something like ‘constant and thorough understanding of the truth of impermanence.’ Everything changes. It’s an obvious truth that we spend most of our energy denying.

It is this sense of no escape that is intended in the teachings of hopelessness, in the idea that our only salvation lies in giving up hope. Radical acceptance. Coming to terms with reality.

There’s nothing wrong with the hope that lets us undertake a new journey toward a goal that is clearly and simply a way to get beyond some thing in one’s life, or in society at large, that is problematic. When you see a problem, you address that problem in clear-eyed ways, and the ‘hope’ needed there is simply to see that yes, it is possible that I can do this. It’s not some unrealistic goal, and there aren’t insurmountable obstacles to realizing it. It’s possible. That’s a positive, human kind of hope.

It is when hope is used as an escape from the reality of our lives that it becomes a block to development of contentment and joy. It is when hope becomes an unrealistic quest for lasting, permanent security and grounding that it leads us down a dead end road.

Impermanence is a fact of life. It is as unavoidable as death itself. Finding any kind of contentment in this life necessarily involves acceptance of that truth, else we go from disappointment to disappointment, careening along leaving a trail of disasters, and never find peace.

8 thoughts on “No Escape

  1. erikleo says:

    As a Buddhist who struggles with depression, I am well acquainted with hopelessness. However, the Buddha alao said there is an Unborn, uncreated and undying. Also too much focus on dukkha can lead to pessimism. There are the moments of joy in life such as listening to a blackbird singing etc etc. The path can be both one of joy and awareness of suffering and impermanence.

    • John Eden says:

      Yes, agreed. I suppose one further disclaimer I could add to the essay is that I’m not saying the hopelessness associated with depression is a good thing. Just that being able to abide in the truth of the ultimate hopelessness of the “permanent fix” project is where we find contentment and joy. Being able to enjoy that singing blackbird without the dukkha of wanting it to last. I do appreciate your feedback, as this has been a difficult piece to write, especially as it is mostly to try to articulate this for my wife and friends who tend to think I’m just crazy!

  2. Simple logic: There can be no permanent anything whatsoever of any kind in an impermanent world. This world is obviously temporary, so why look for a permanent solution for anything? The only enlightenment is that there is no enlightenment that will permanently prevent pain & suffering. Death is the only escape and that’s not even a solution given this dream has already been dreamt and is now being lived out in the flesh. In other words, because this dream is pre-destined, death will only happen when it is scheduled to happen. Until then, friends, we will laugh & burn. Thank goodness the pain does not last permanently. Thank goodness the joy does not last permanently.

    • John Eden says:

      Thanks for your perspective. The ‘predestined’ idea is questionable to me, as it all seems pretty random. But who knows?

      • Yea, pre-destiny is fairly contentious given that it is an extreme affront to the ego. But you have to ask, Who planned your life for you? Who made the decision to experience this mortal existence? Why would someone or something else plan your life for you? Why would you enter a temporary life unplanned? In order for everything to work out; in order for the stories to be lived until their completion, we had to collaborate & collude with each other. We had eternity to work out the details. If this mortal existence had not been planned & destined, our rage & greed would have caused us to kill each other off a long, long time ago. What you have trouble getting your head around is the idea that you destined the pain & shittiness in your story. You ask, Why would I destine pain for myself? Because it makes the story, the drama, more interesting. The pain does not harm you spiritually. Nothing does. The pain is a contrast to the okay-ness and painless times. There is no relief without pain. There is no joy without sorrow. The pain cannot be avoided. It is never a mistake. There is absolutely no thing and no thought and no event that is random. We are perfect eternal conscious energy and are more than capable of authoring & manifesting dreams that make us feel small & vulnerable and anything but what we actually are: Perfect eternal conscious energy. You can verify this for yourself by taking a heroic dose of mushrooms or MDMA or DMT. Or you can ruminate about it the next time you smoke marijuana. Without drugs, you will not break out of your conditioning; you will not be able to see beyond the box of illusions & lies that you have grown up with. But don’t worry: It isn’t necessary to come to any of these realizations. You don’t have to break out of your box. You are gonna suffer from time to time no matter what you realize.

      • John Eden says:

        As I said, ‘who knows?’ I don’t rule out any of that, but much of it seems highly unlikely. Done my share of drugs and done lots of pretty intense meditation, so I’m pretty done with illusions. Except maybe that one! 🙂 I’m kinda the ‘only don’t know’ strain of Buddhist, tho not sectarian, as I’ve been thru so many many variations in the practice/theory departments. I do enjoy the discussion, however!

      • Philosopher Newport says:

        “Seems highly unlikely”. Well it would, wouldn’t it? If you knew you were gonna forget your perfection & eternalness in order for the dream to seem “real”, then it would seem preposterous whilst in the dream that you are merely dreaming. The fact is, most seekers sincerely do not wanna find the truth. They enjoy the seeking. There’s only a tiny few of us maniacs who pursue the truth like detectives and find it and see that it’s no big deal. It doesn’t prevent any pain & suffering. Seriously, if you had truly wanted to find the truth, you would have found it. You’re amusing for reckoning “where” you’re at now is illusion-free. None the less, you feel & seem like you’re coming from a nice place. You still find it easy enough to be nice to strangers. Cheers for the chat!

      • John Eden says:

        Just for reference “pretty done with illusions” doesn’t mean I think I’m illusion-free… more like I’m trying to be aware of my illusions and not attached to them, letting them slide along. As I said, “except for that one” which is my way of suggesting that I know that no one is illusion-free. I like the “am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man” analogy from Chuang-tzu or somebody… From whatever perspective we look at experience, it’s pretty clear that no formulation we can, or could, come up with is reliable beyond just being a simple description of what we’re experiencing at the moment. Beyond that, it’s all supposition, could all be a hologram created by the quantum phenomena at the edge of the universe, as Hawkins (?) suggests recently.

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