Being human

After all the focus on service and kindness, something in me wants to talk about the precursor to both of those: being genuine.

In my last post, I used the word ‘honesty’ deliberately instead of ‘clear seeing’ as one of the three components of mindfulness. ‘Clear seeing’ would have been more classic and canonical, and (to use that phrase that I’ve stolen from Dan Ingram) ‘in a very high dharma sense’, more true. After all, it’s about seeing things without certain distortions, such as emotional entanglements born of a lack of focus and discipline, self-centred attitudes such as defensiveness and pride, cognitive distortions such as the inability to accept paradox, and perceptual distortions that make the world seem trapping and repetitive. However, ‘seeing’ seems to be a very passive thing, almost not an act, while honesty requires the will and the effort to be honest. Obviously I am implying that seeing is not passive. If anything we choose ways of seeing, holding up particular lenses to the world- being particular lenses, really, made from nature and nurture to construct reality in particular fashions.

Which is why being genuine is an important foundation stone. If I sound like I keep changing my mind, then I have two answers: one, I am a moody git and my answers keep changing, which may well tell you a lot about me but also about the slippery nature of contemplative practice in general; but also, two, that an intelligent reading of my less intelligible gibberings will reveal that what you need to focus on can quickly change, and that all of these foundational factors of enlightenment feed into each other- are so strongly interdependent on each other as to be almost inseparable. If I can’t decide on one, that’s because they’re all facets of the same thing to me these days.

Ahem. Digressing early today. Being genuine. Because, delusion is the real culprit here. The Buddhists add greed and hatred to the list as the greatest demons, but I think that is just because lists tend to proliferate and systems tend to get complicated, until you end up with someone like a Zen Buddhist or a Quaker getting frustrated and going back to a simpler idea. Greed, and hatred, are born of confusion, another word for delusion, in terms of this active life that even passive, automatic movements of human existence have. One is deluded; one takes part in delusion. For what reason? Because of greed and hatred, of course! They’re self-reinforcing (I appear to be teaching myself as I type here today. Insight does that, using you as a channel for its ponderings).

The first example that jumps into my head is the denial of interdependence. I don’t like seeing endless posts about the bombing of Syria on Facebook, for example. It’s sad, and it seems far away, and I feel like it is not my fault. But I am aware that I partake in national politics, values, and actions, including institutionalised racism and imperialist pride, that leads directly to these people being bombed by the armed forces of the nation I live in. To change the channel is my own greed – the wish for a quiet life, which seems pathetic next to the desire, no doubt, of people not to be bombed. Any vestiges of jingoism which see it as ‘the middle east, again’ and not as a complex web of human reactions, is my hatred. Perhaps not fiery hatred or deep greed, but nevertheless, both of them, born of delusion, when I fail to be mindful of a way of seeing that shows Syria and us to be interdependent. My choice to not try and be clear on it; my choice to be dishonest when the first flicker of aversion appears and I change the channel; my choice to be deluded when the craving to feel blameless arises. The fact this turns out not to be choice, given the non-inherency of all things, might seem to complicate things, but I have a smart-arse answer to that, too. Things seem under your control, until they don’t. To the extent that they still seem vitally yours to act on, it is required of you to act. To the extent that they seem not yours, it is required of you to surrender. When the surrendering starts to seem like it isn’t yours, well, just bloody well wish to surrender. When that starts disappearing, join the bizarre club I’m in and help it along however you can, not falling into the trap of thinking you can be lazy.

There is a correlating triad of fluff and loveliness as well, of course, though. The opposite of delusion is indeed clear seeing, and that is backed up by kindness and contentment instead of hatred and greed. After all, am I going to tell myself I am a bad person for growing up in a culture where people of all kinds different to me are undervalued? That wouldn’t be kind, or productive. There has to be a certain amount of contentment in my desire to use my craving and aversion as motivators towards mindful living. In turn, that is lacking the egotistical delusion that I am doing contemplative practice to in some way beef up myself until I am a perfect pillar of saintly goodness. All I can do is ask for God to purify me, as I damn well know he’s trying to do, but I keep running away from in various ways. Feeling the sting of craving and aversion, and sitting with it because it is better than running, is the clear seeing I have to return to in order not to use my feelings in an immature way. (Yep, still working on that.) I hope it is clear that I am not blaming the feelings, or offering some kind of ‘original sin’ explanation that implies that all that I am, is base; it is more complicated than that, as good intention battles with lazy ill-will.

To be genuine means to be honest about what your thoughts, feelings and emotions are. For example, there is no point in me pretending that I am not hugely judgemental (I am), as I will turn that into a club and beat myself with it, or worse tell others I am not, and be a big dirty liar. I can practice with judgement though; when I notice a particularly nasty automatic comment in my mind, I can tag it as it flies through (often at the moment simply with the word, ‘note’). If there is a reaction of guilt to that judgement, I can take a different tack and just rest in a little wordless patience, or kindness, rather than get into a tagging frenzy. The first dart of pain is all I’ll put up with, these days; the second dart of recrimination jabbing me seems unnecessary, even indulgent. It is utterly usual to think and feel a wide range of things, and just as usual to want to get rid of the ones we don’t like and to hold onto the ones that serve out purposes.

 

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However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t do better than that. If I’m in a place where I am able to tackle my craving and aversion head on – and even if I’m not, but I’m blessed by God with the will to try – I can. David Lynch’s wonderfully gothic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune includes a scene (pictured above) in which the protagonist, the son of a Duke in a feudal science-fiction future, has his humanity tested by the quasi-mystical adept of an all-female secret society, hoping to find transcendent qualities of insight into space and time in him (a nice little metaphor for awakening in the contemplative sense). The test of his humanity? A poisoned needle is held to his neck which will kill him instantly if he moves, and he has to keep his hand inside the green box, which is a torture device. The implication is that while the animal cannot help but act on its craving and aversion – the craving for painless experience, the aversion of the experience of pain – the human has a capacity to refuse to submit to them, in order to experience a greater reward later. While in reality I’m very leery of the division between humans and non-human animals, seeing more and more their emotions being much like ours, and their abilities to defer pleasure being not so different, there is a point to the scene in the film.

There is something very transcendent about the concept of human here if we bear that reality in mind- that it is more than the flesh and blood that we share with animals, but implies something about the ability to realise a spiritual element within us. I am not arguing about whether animals have souls; I am talking about humans passing through the reflexivity of self and out the other side, going from clever games around selfishness to a more pure altruism. I’m not suggesting you push yourself to the limit with self-inflicted pain (though I do know one rather hardcore practitioner who has done that sort of thing, and Rinzai Zen are known for it) as there is quite enough suffering in the world. If you start trying to live life in a non-delusive way then that’s going to be right in your face at all times. That is something that you can work with skilfully. I’m saying that however much you seem to be craving something, you don’t have to act on it. You just don’t. There is immense power in recognising that unconditional ability we have. People seem to think they’re going to go mad on retreat, or explode from longing- because you haven’t had a cigarette? That isn’t fatal. Tough, and worthy of empathy and kindness, but not lethal. If you really want to practice in an ‘all-in’ way, then you’ll ride the edges of that craving and aversion in ways that are reasonable, prepared-for, safe and humble. Conversely, if you’re just self-destructive, or egotistical, you’ll leave out one of those and crash and burn multiple times. (Yep, still speaking from experience. Yep, still working on practicing what I preach.) Be genuine about what you can take. Be genuine about what really scares you. Be genuine about what you want from your practice. It’s all grist for the mill. The desire to be honest can be your prayer, when that honesty is itself clouded by delusion and hides the most obvious things from our (my) sight.

Without a real sense of honesty about why we want things that borders on an acceptance of our complete inability to be truly altruistic, then motivation is always going to be polluted. Accepting fallibility could be a perfect time to pray for God’s grace in a humble fashion. Noticing huge amounts of craving and aversion around something that you really know you shouldn’t be doing could be the perfect time to sit right down on the ground where you are, and do vipassana until the feeling passes. Feeling rage but knowing you’ll regret letting it out of your mouth and fists sounds like a superb opportunity to practice metta under fire- and most practitioners will tell you that this is the best time to practice, not when things are easiest. Maybe reclaiming humanity as something sacred and something we could be proud of would be a very blameless way of taking warranted and encouraging pleasure in our own achievements- noting it as the spark of the divine that exists in us all, and honouring it, knowing that it could not possibly be greedy or hateful on its own.