Let me begin by mentioning that I’ve added a new section to the blog. You’ll find it below my profile as you scroll down the right hand side. I’m calling it Things I’m Either Doing Or Have Done In Order To Be Kinder To The Earth. My motivation for adding it is three-fold: 1) I’m convinced that human-caused climate change is on the verge of bringing unprecedented suffering to all living beings; 2) Regular readers here will know that I commonly refer to the bodhisattva vow to “save all beings” as one of my guiding principles; and 3) I strive for congruence between the actions that, in totality, make up “my” life and the principles by which I vow to live “my” life.
Now, almost certainly there will be a reader or two or three who will notice that I’m not strictly vegetarian and who will thereby be prompted to wonder about the strength or legitimacy of my vow to “save all beings” given the fact that I can’t even keep myself from eating them from time to time! Believe me, this is a matter that I do not take lightly. In fact, since my teen years my diet has varied amongst more and less strict variants of vegetarianism. Always, though, my motivation has been to balance appropriately the needs of this organism with those of others. Oh, and lest any reader be inclined to take comfort in his or her ‘stricter than thou’ dietary guidelines, I simply ask that you reflect upon what happens to all of the wildlife that has no place left to live after their woodland or grassland home is denuded of trees or vegetation, plowed under, and planted with a monoculture of corn, wheat, or soybeans. I simply ask that you consider how the burning of fuel in order to ship your favorite fruits and vegetables from all over the world to your local grocer is further increasing the average temperature of the earth and acidifying the oceans with dissolved carbon dioxide – thereby causing untold suffering. In other words, we all have blood on our hands. The only question is how much.
Some years ago I was mentoring a Northwest Earth Institute Voluntary Simplicity discussion group when one of the participants raised quite a ruckus by actually admitting to not recycling her soft drink cans! Anyway, once I’d finally managed to escort everyone to their various neutral corners we discovered that this woman bought her favorite beverage one six-pack at a time and ended up drinking on the order of just one can of it each week. Contrast that with someone slurping his or her way through a case per week – religiously recycling every single can. Who is treading more lightly on the planet? Hey, does anyone else remember the comedian who deadpanned: “Every time I go to a recycling center I just get all choked up with emotion…. I wish I could give more”?
We all have bad habits and weaknesses, inconsistent quirks and idiosyncrasies. Oh, yeah, and we all have attachments, don’t we? Have you ever tried to give up something that you really, really enjoyed – even if it wasn’t all that good for you? Isn’t it quite often the case that that which we try the hardest to throw away (figuratively speaking) just ends up sticking ever more tightly to our hands? Believe it or not, I was a smoker in my young adult years – a habit that became a seemingly indispensible part of my life over the course of some five years or so. I tried weaning myself off of them. I tried quitting cold turkey. In the end, though, it was the realization that they were standing in the way of where I really wanted to be that gave me the impetus to quit them once and for all. You see, I’d begun to go for an occasional run by then and I simply couldn’t enjoy it as much if I’d been hanging out in a bar drinking and smoking a pack of cigarettes that previous Saturday night. I couldn’t run as far. I coughed and hacked along the way. I simply didn’t feel as free as I knew I would if I just gave it up altogether. And so I did. In other words, I came to see with my very own being that the person that I aspired to be did not and could not have the habits of the person that, indeed, I was. I didn’t need a doctor or psychologist or teacher or loved one to tell me that. I didn’t need to read in some religious book that “attachments are bad” and should be relinquished. No, I simply moved in the direction that my inner compass was telling me to go, and along the way I let fall that which was ready to fall.
We all know how we try on different personae during our formative years, don’t we? So, let’s say I’m eighteen years old again and thinking about becoming a Buddhist... From what I can gather, most Buddhists believe in reincarnation, which is cool because I’m sick of all of that hell and damnation kind of talk. Besides, I think I must have been King Ashoka in a previous life – building Buddhist statues all over my kingdom. Yeah, and they’re vegetarian, too, and that’s cool, because animals are people too. And I like the minimalist aesthetic – the “Zen look”, the shaved head and all. Maybe I’ll get a little yin-yang symbol or the kanji for ‘wisdom’ or something tattooed on my neck so that everyone will know that I didn’t just shave my head because I’m going prematurely bald. And I’ll walk around slowly, and move with great deliberation; and I’ll pause uncomfortably long before I respond to any question or comment so as to appear as though I am pondering the myriad ways that truth will be revealed by my next utterance…
I suspect that we all begin spiritual practice with an abundance of ideas and concepts and preconceived notions that we’ve become attached to along the way for reasons unique to our own accumulated karma. The question, however, is how long we will cling to them. Will our spiritual practice eventually bring us to a place where the very ideas that brought us there are seen for what they are – simplistic ideas regarding who we are and what we’re doing – or will we remain for the rest of our lives in the tidy little box that we’ve constructed for ourselves?
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot
Knowing Our Karma Well, and Working With It Wisely
In this section I’d like to follow up on some thoughts from my Attachment, Sexuality, and Spirituality posts that didn’t make the final cut at the time. I’ll examine sexuality and spirituality from a number of different vantage points – no one of which will provide a perfect view of the many issues involved. However, I do hope that by considering them in total, and any others out there that I might have missed, the reader will have a clearer understanding of how to address this and other issues of attachment in his or her own life.
Vantage Point #1 Is our sexuality really standing in the way of our spiritual growth or are we just listening to what somebody else has to say about how we should live our lives? Might the areas of intimacy, giving, receiving, vulnerability, letting go, openness, becoming known, etc. be precisely the areas in which we have the most room to grow? Might a perceived need for celibacy really just be a protective strategy to keep one from having to work on those areas of human interaction that can be the most fearful? Yes, it’s good to question ourselves, but it’s good to question others as well.
Vantage Point #2 Take care of the low-hanging fruit first. Our sexuality is, of course, amongst the most deeply rooted of all of our karmic urges. Perhaps at some point in our lives celibacy will rightly appear as a natural next step in the direction of spiritual growth. Are we really there yet? Have we really made all the progress we can make in other areas where spiritual growth might have an even bigger impact?
I once worked as a counselor in an inpatient behavioral health facility that attempted to be smoke-free. Now, given that anxiety is a major component of many mental illnesses it might seem less than a good idea to consider going nicotine-free at the same time that you’re having a major mental health crisis. Think about how difficult it is to try to tease apart how much of the anxiety being exhibited by someone, or yourself, is due to a dosage issue (too much, too little, wrong medication) and how much is simply nicotine withdrawal?
Vantage Point #3 Taking care of others includes taking care of yourself. Maybe we’re influenced by the paradigm of celibacy allowing us to devote our entire being to something – the church, a cause, spiritual growth, saving all beings. Having worked in the fields of education and counseling, however, both high burn-out professions, I’ve come to know well the value of taking care of ourselves lest our efforts come to naught for our having lost the ability to truly care, to act wisely, to act with commitment and energy. The following quote from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander speaks to me in that regard:
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Thus, even those who devote their lives to service, even those who take vows to save all beings might better serve the world, might save all beings with greater efficacy, by considering themselves worthy as well of being saved.
Vantage Point #4 Addressing needs and urges openly takes from them the power to influence behavior in less straightforward and perhaps negative ways. This, of course, is a big problem in the helping professions where getting sexually involved with clients is rightfully considered an egregious ethical lapse. Professional relationships notwithstanding, however, consider how our lack of awareness with respect to how our actions are shaped by unmet sexual urges can lead us toward behavior of a less than spiritual nature. Thus, it does nobody any favors to don a cloak of celibacy when the body that the cloak conceals still rages with desire and longing.
Vantage Point #5 Dealing with sexuality in a straightforward way actually frees up energy which can then be more wholeheartedly devoted to spiritual practice. Probably everyone who has ever meditated for appreciable lengths of time knows how the mind can race down paths of fantasy and daydream quite literally for hours. Of course, you might also know that many of those flights of fantasy and daydream can be of an all-consuming sexual nature. However, when one has a reasonable degree of confidence that these unfulfilled “needs” will be addressed within a reasonable time frame they can be let go of with greater ease. They do not hover like the dark clouds of an existential storm; they are merely hunger pangs that speak of what the human body is like. Yes, my stomach is growling, but lunch will be coming soon enough. Yes, I’m feeling thirsty, but I can get a drink of water when we break for walking meditation. Yes, my most carnal urges are raging, but I’m confident that my lover will still want me when I return.
In closing, I’d like to revisit the number line way of thinking about aversion, attachment, and the equanimity between the two.
|Aversion Extends to the Left, Attachment to the Right, Equanimity is the Zero Point|
It seems to me that some strategies of dealing with attachment involve setting up an aversion to it of such strength as to yield the appearance of equanimity. Alas, this is not equanimity; this is merely keeping up appearances.
There is an oft-repeated story that deserves retelling here. I’ll do my best to convey its essence from memory:
Two monks are traveling when they come to a raging stream that appears quite treacherous to cross. A young maiden stands beside it clearly pondering how she will get to the other side.
“Can you help me cross this dangerous river?” she enquires of the monks as they approach.
Without further contemplation, one of the monks picks up the maiden and wades with her safely to the other side – an action that leaves the other monk fuming. The two of them walk for many miles without speaking.
“What troubles you, friend,” the monk who had carried the maiden across the stream finally asks of his companion.
“It is my understanding that we are not to have such contact with women as you had with that maiden at the river,” the companion responds.
“My friend, I put the maiden down some time ago! You, however, are carrying her still!”
Is there something in your life that stands just on the verge of falling? Is there some idea or concept or attitude, some material object or ritual, a harmful relationship or an outmoded sense of meaning that, if only you would just step away for a moment, would end up toppling of its own dead weight? Sometimes no action at all needs to be taken except to stop what it is that we're doing and let all the karmic energy dissipate that has been propping something up. When we see an attachment fall under such conditions we know that there's no turning back. We know that it's gone for good, without any second thoughts or regrets.
Okay, how about one more quote; this one from Dogen’s Genjokoan as translated in Yoshida (1982):
To learn the awakened (buddha) way is to learn the self.
To learn the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas
Yoshida, R., Eilers, J., Ganio, K. (1982). Gaku-do-yojin-shu: Collection of cautions about learning the Way.
. (Genjokoan originally published 1233) Missouri Zen Center
Balancing Rocks in
– by Susan Adams via: Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank