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.

The Truth according to Bruce

Bruce Springsteen has long been one of my heroes and favorite musicians.

I love his stories, his heart, his social conscience, his identification with real life ordinary people. I love his horn sections, his no-flash style, and his growl. But I never really thought of him as a Zen type or even as weighing in on that side of things. But now I have to go back and re-listen.

His Rolling Stone Magazine interview with John Stewart (the comedian, not the folk singer) is so wonderful and filled with such insight and wisdom that I’m giving a second look to his catalog.

Maybe it’s because of the death of Clarence Clemmons, his long-time friend and sax player extraordinaire. The death of someone close creates introspection and leads to deeper wisdom – if we don’t close off to it.

There’s much of worth in the interview, but this comment seems appropriate to a meditation guide. Bruce is talking about his development as a musician and what things have impacted him, and then this sentence drops in: “Listening, paying attention, being open – that’s supposed to be the natural development of adulthood.” Stewart makes a brief joke, and then Bruce continues: “It’s supposed to be how we broaden and move into adulthood. We’re supposed to be picking up as we go – a larger experience of our world. It’s something I’ve tried to facilitate through what I’ve done – broaden people’s perspective, broaden people’s vision and assist people in seeing through to, for lack of a better word, the inner reality of things.”

This is about as good a definition of what a meditation practice is all about as I can think of.

Several of the American Buddhist teachers I’ve read – Pema Chodron in the Tibetan tradition and Joko Beck in the Zen tradition, for example – talk some about how what meditation practice does for you is helps you to become an adult. Helps you live your life in a mature, accepting, compassionate way.

And of course, it’s all about paying attention, all about experiencing that inner reality, as Bruce says.

An interesting thing about us humans, with our human processing system we call brain or mind, is that the specific conceptual context we are immersed in – surrounded by, believe in – conditions our experience of this inner reality in some way. Or so it seems. It may be that it only conditions what it is that we say about our experience.

It’s not possible in any absolute way to know what another’s experience actually is, so we must rely on what others say about their experiences, inner or otherwise, to know them. But based on what we observe others say, write, and do out of their inner experiences, it seems that those are colored by the context they bring to it. As I’ve suggested before, I tend to think that the actual experience is the same for everyone, or at least that it is possible that the experience is the same.

But it certainly seems to be true that being open to seeing the inner reality as revealed in meditation and other forms of experience affects us humans in very similar ways. And the better, deeper and less contaminated with the things we bring to it that experience is, the more profound its effect on us. Opens us up, broadens our perspective, as Bruce says.

Which is to say, the more it helps us to behave in our difficult life situations in adult ways, unselfish ways, aware ways, ways that are cognizant of our affect on others around us – ways that are the lived out version of love.

Thanks Bruce!