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.

No Hope, No Fear

Hope.

We all need hope.

Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.

But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.

Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.

Hope, however, is highly overrated.

I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.

I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.

First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.

It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.

The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction. Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.

As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”

For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.

So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’

No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.

A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.

Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.

So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.

In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:

To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

A little further on in the book, she says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.

[I will continue with a second installment on this theme in a couple of days — I hope! :)]

[And I have! Hope rewarded! Next]

The Need for Silence

Reading a disturbing essay by Andrew Sullivan this morning, shared by my wonderful friend Melissa Stiers Kretzschmar, that articulates so well why we need meditative silence. Published in New York Magazine, his new venue I think, the essay is titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

Whatever we may think of Sullivan, (must say I’m not really a fan of Andrew’s, as he has been a leading conservative, neo-con, libertarian, neoliberal – God knows what he is) he’s an astute social observer for sure, and this account of his personal experience is telling. It’s also a chilling exposè/analysis of the dangers of the wired world… I say as I sit here blogging.

So this is not to be taken as the final word, but as food for thought. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to measure and mediate my own interaction with the news & culture media stream, and I’ve found, as Sullivan articulates in great detail, that it’s hard. Once you slip back in, it begins to grasp you more and more. Though I am staying pretty clear of the political aspects that tend to really stress me out. Didn’t even watch the debate last night. Won’t read about it. Can’t deal with it…

But I do find what Sullivan says about how meditation and retreats helped him to be very interesting. This is not a guy you’d expect to hear these things from. He’s a gay, British Catholic conservative writer, so not someone I’d ever think would do a 10-day retreat… but apparently he did.

The article is long but well worth the read. A few excerpts on silence:

Among these meditators, I was alone in silence and darkness, yet I felt almost at one with them. My breathing slowed. My brain settled. My body became much more available to me. I could feel it digesting and sniffing, itching and pulsating. It was if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn. …And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. … Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace.

He also weighs in strongly in favor of a disciplined meditation practice:

I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.

I’ve experienced much the same decline in my practice, probably due to these same influences he describes, and lately I’ve been making efforts to get my practice re-established. But it may be that I have to make a cleaner break with the media stream to actually make this work.

I’m working on a new approach to both media and meditation… I’ll try to keep blogging through this process… but it may fall by the wayside also. A conundrum.

That wrecking ball…

“And wouldn’t time seem so kindly,
if every bright-eyed girl could be
more like you, and
shelter me
from that
wreckin’ ball… that wreckin’ ball.”

–Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange)

Ah yes, we look for shelter in every corner, every thought as we feel the onrushing of impermanence, shunyata filling every experience. Such a human thing.

But though it seems helpful, shelter in the long run is itself part of the damage we do to ourselves, part of the grasping for the pleasant rather than the difficult, part of what Stephen Batchelor calls “the default habit of seeing the world as being hostile, desirable or boring.”

In his recent book After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Batchelor translates tanha, understood in the Dharma as the cause of suffering and usually rendered as ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, as reactivity. Letting go of reactivity – or creating the conditions under which release may happen, which is really all we can do – comes from understanding, he says.

To release oneself from the hold of this behavior [reactivity] requires coming to a mature comprehension of one’s mortality, of how each fragile moment rests on the pumping of a muscle and the drawing of a breath. [p. 78]

Though I’ve only read a bit of this book, which my teacher introduced at a recent retreat, I’m finding it full of profound new insights and very helpful as I continue my lifetime effort to understand the Dharma and live my life in an authentic, integrated way.

A fine way to die

When I was about six years old, my maternal grandmother died.

I remember the ride from Valdosta, Georgia to Dixie, Georgia for the funeral, with my mother crying and my father quiet and serious. I remember that we passed a cemetery as we were leaving town, and I realized that the two things were connected, though I wasn’t sure just how.

I’m pretty sure my parents explained to me that Ma-mama had died, though how they explained that I don’t remember. She was not very old, in her early 60’s I think, she was not sick, and her death was unexpected. She went out to get a bucket of coal for the coal grate one night and never came back into the house.

She was very dear to me, a kind, sweet woman with long silver braids that she usually wore coiled on her head. I only remember seeing her with her hair down once, standing in front of her mirror brushing it out before bed. I think I remember it so clearly because she turned and looked at me, smiling as I watched her brush her hair, a smile full of the warmth and love that defines her in my mind.

I don’t remember what she said to me, but I remember well the soft voice speaking my name, ‘Johnny!’

I also remember very clearly Ma-mama in her casket. It is one of the transcendent experiences of my life, perhaps a seminal experience in my emotional development.

In the way of things in those saner times, Ma-mama lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse where she had lived most of her life, the house my mother and all her five siblings were born in, and all her family and friends were there together. When we arrived, my parents I suppose were swept into the crowd there, leaving me standing there alone looking up at the casket. The casket was surrounded by a brilliant white light from the white-curtained windows behind it, a light that in my young mind was the light of very God himself shining down on my grandmother.

I had always, as a child, thought that the striated rays of sunlight shining through broken clouds – the phenomena many of the old folks called Jacob’s Ladder – was God. I’m not sure what parts of my religious experience in the Sunday Schools of the Southern Baptist Church had created that notion in my young mind, nor am I sure when it was dispelled, but it was an a priori belief for me.

So clearly, the light around my grandmother was God. That seemed quite natural and proper to me, as she was probably the most Godly, saintly, Christian – in all the truest senses of those terms – that I knew. And somehow, because of that light I was able to accept my grandmother’s death, despite being surrounded by the sadness and sense of tragic loss that filled the room.

Though the memory is not so clear, I know that my parents lifted me up and let me gaze into the casket, into the gray and lifeless face that even in death was as sweet as any I’ve seen, and that also helped me understand what was going on there. Helped me understand that, as my young son said when his great-grandmother died, “She can’t talk anymore.”

I have just today finished reading a powerful and life-changing book, Die Wise by Steven Jenkinson, and all through the reading I have had this growing sense that somehow, my upbringing, my experiences, had given me a wider perspective on death than seems to be common, at least based on his characterizations of how our culture views death.

As I’ve mulled over that, the clear sweet memories of my grandmother and her dying came to me, and I realized that from that early age, I was allowed to be in the presence of death, allowed to look at it straight on, rather than shielded from it and protected from the knowledge of its universality. Though my parents surely ascribed to the “better place” mythology their religion taught them, they never let that become denial of the reality that the person who dies is gone, never resorted to the total euphemisms that seem to be prevalent in our society.

When someone died, they said so, and I understood what that meant from earliest consciousness. I think that has stood me in good stead through the many deaths that I have seen in my life, and I hope that it will continue to help me walk into the ever closer deaths that advancing age brings my way.

I hope that it helps me learn to live, for the remainder of my years, in a way that will allow me to die wise.

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from Arobuddhism.org)
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”

Barbara Ehrenreich on mystical experience

This is an interview with Barbara on her recent book _Living with a Wild God_. The interview is wonderful, can’t wait to read the book!

“Well I think the tragic thing about monotheism—and also about science, as I lump them together here—is they require that the rest of the world be dead. There’s this famous quote from Plutarch where a ship is going by and they hear the cry, “The great god Pan is dead,” and that marks the fact that the pantheon of the Greek gods has now given way, or will give way soon, to the risen Jesus, to this one-or-sometimes-three-part god. So, monotheism, all the other spirits and gods—done. And science! The Cartesian worldview is that the world is dead, except for human consciousness. It was only in the last twenty years or so that science began to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of animals. And creativity. So I find the two kind of similar. As compared to a worldview more like my own, where it’s not all dead. There’s a lot going on. It’s a happening place.”

The online magazine is interesting also.

http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/witness/its-the-world-thats-strange/