Saturday, September 13, 2014


It was a suddenly hectic week, but it promises to be a peaceful weekend.  I've kept my sanity by swimming and biking, the occasional kitty-cat-conversation-and-snuggle session, and a whole lotta knitting, so that's good.

I also read Toni Berhhard's How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013).  Bernhard was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2001, and her first book, entitled, How to Be Sick was about coping with that.  How to Wake Up addresses a more general audience, but it follows in the footsteps of her earlier work.

I confess, I've always been drawn to Buddhist philosophy, because I find its basic tenets quite fascinating and often compelling.  Like all forms of spirituality, it posits quite a few ideals that I'm not sure little old human me could ever fully attain, but unlike many forms of religious thought, it continues to emphasize the process rather than the product.

Buddhism focuses on the Path or the Way, rather than on the Anointed or the Elect.  I like that.

And in many ways, I liked Berhard's book.  Like many texts targeted for a general audience, I thought it became a bit repetitive at times, but I could also see why that would be helpful for someone trying to grasp (and potentially apply) the basic tenets of Buddhist thought for the first time.

In a nutshell--and really, this is truly a nutshell, since Buddhist thought is far more nuanced and complex--Buddhism suggests that all life, all existence, is impermanent.  This includes the world around us, the relationships around us, and our own sense of self.

Suffering arises through attachment: when we become attached to things that are, by their very nature, impermanent, we struggle and suffer.  As Bernhard points out, "In Buddhist philosophy, wisdom refers to seeing things clearly just the way they are so we're less likely to be deluded or confused about what to expect in life" (9).

What we should expect is that all things will change, both the good and the bad will pass away and new things (both good and bad) will take their place, we ourselves will change, constantly, unceasingly, and, at times, we will all suffer.

But we will all experience joy as well.  Paradoxically, however, we may suffer even in joy because of our sense of attachment.  We want to keep happiness as a permanent condition (obviously), but given the nature of the universe, this simply isn't possible.  The sooner we learn to accept that, the better.

But acceptance, of course, is a continual struggle.  It's human nature to think, "That's not fair" and to kvetch and complain accordingly, even though we know that the actual kvetching will change nothing.  We refuse to acknowledge the fact that, without our complaints, things will always change anyway, because that's the nature of existence.

One of the goals of Buddhist practice that I find particularly compelling--and particularly difficult, but therefore particularly useful--is "equanimity."

Equanimity is exactly what the word itself suggests: a state of balanced or "equal" spirit (in Latin, "animus" means "spirit")--as Bernhard notes, it is a state of "holding both our joys and sorrows 'in an ease-filled balance'" so that "when we see people going about their everyday lives, friendliness is our natural response" (188).

As opposed to getting up on the wrong side of the bed, checking email and getting aggravated, and then heading out the door to think, "Look at that jackass.  Cut me off, why dontcha, you ... bastard...".

This is not equanimity.  It is also not "metta," which means "kindliness" or "friendliness."

In Buddhist practice, you seek to cultivate kindliness or friendliness for everyone.  Yes, I said everyone.  Why not, really, if we're all suffering and all is impermanence? --this is the philosophy of Buddhism.

Again, like the Christian philosophy of forgiveness (see my previous posts, Forgiveness and Forgiveness Too), this is a concept that I find intellectually appealing, but something that I personally struggle with in day-to-day life.  But unlike the Christian philosophy of forgiveness, which I personally think is abused on a daily basis by all kinds of people looking to justify all kinds of behavior, the Buddhist concept of "metta" focuses on the process and the practice, rather than an end-result.  (Although obviously, metta is an end result in and of itself as well.)

As Bernhard points out, there is a difference between "assessing" and "judging."  While Christianity also warns against judgments that do not come from God--hence, the caution, "Judge not, lest ye be judged"--in my opinion, it tends to blur a crucial state of human conflict in a rush to push us all towards an ideal of forgiveness.

I can see why sitting in judgment on others is a bad idea--as my mom would advise quite simply, back in the day, "Mind your own business, and worry about yourself."  But it's a huge leap from that point to, "It's okay, what you did there."

As Bernhard points out, this isn't a state of wisdom according to the tenets of Buddhist thought, because wisdom comes from seeing the world and the people in it clearly, without delusion.  "Bad" isn't "good"--it isn't even "okay," actually.  It's bad.

But, that said, it's impermanent.  So repeatedly reacting to it--in short, attaching yourself to such thoughts and allowing the bad things and the bad people in your life to cause you to suffer--is futile.

This is the starting ground for metta.  As Bernhard observes, "Setting aside judgment doesn't mean we have to actively seek out the company of people we don't enjoy or who treat us poorly.  But we can decide whether or not to be with them without adding a negative judgment" (151).

Thank god, I say.  Because if one more person told me I "should" really like someone that I really just don't, I would probably scream.

No, I shouldn't just "like" them, actually.  Because when I assess their behavior, they do things that aren't kind or honest or ... kind.  In short, the things that they do have caused me to suffer.  As Bernhard argues,
There's a difference between assessing and judging.  Assessing is a neutral sizing up of people or our environment by sticking to the facts we've been presented, whether those facts please us or not.  Judging is what we add to assessing when we measure those facts against some standard we've set up regarding how we think people or things should be.  So in judging, there's an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be... (150)
It's the difference between, "Mary always says she'll call, and then she doesn't," and "Mary always says she'll call and then she doesn't, because she's immature and irresponsible."

As Bernhard points out, when it comes to our relationship with other people, "We can genuinely feel, 'I wish for you to find peace and contentment even though I won't be hanging out with you.'"  And being able to acknowledge someone's existence in that spirit is the essence of metta and equanimity.

I think I like this idea because it resonates with so many of the common-sense maxims I was raised with, like,  "Give 'em a wide berth" and  "It takes all kinds to make a world."

Metta, like all of the elements of Buddhist thought, hinges on the premise that you "start where you are"-- that what is, is.  It may not be good, and if it isn't, you shouldn't try to pretend that it is. 

Instead, you should do something to help that ever-ceasing state of existential change along because, in fact, the times they are a-changing, so you might as well do your part to try to move that change in a positive direction that alleviates suffering (whether your own, or others', or both).

As Bernhard observes, "Loving your fate doesn't mean you shouldn't take action to improve things personally and globally when that action can lessen suffering for you and for others.  It simply means that your starting point is life as it is" (197).

Put simply, it's a response of, "Oh.  Okay.  So that's what that is.  Now what?"  And the "what" that you decide on is more useful if it isn't simply a litany of complaints and criticisms about what's landed on your doorstep.

In Buddhist meditation, you practice sending metta first to yourself, then to someone you love, then to someone towards whom you feel neutral, and finally towards an enemy.

Sharon Salzburg describes an interesting scenario presented in the Vissudhi Magga: If you were walking in a forest with your loved one, your neutral person, and your enemy and you were attacked and told you must sacrifice someone, who would you choose to sacrifice?

You might think the "correct" answer is, "Myself."

But actually, it's "No one."

You cannot practice metta if you don't treat yourself kindly as well. 

That means seeing people for who they are and what they do (and not for who you wish they were or what you wish they would do or had done), acknowledging that, like you, they struggle and suffer, but realizing that this does not require that you enable them to harm you again or to continue to cause you to suffer.

Because, in the end, this benefits no one.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."