Against the stream

The Buddha uses the metaphor of moving ‘against the stream’ a number of times in the Pali Canon to emphasise the radical nature of his teachings. They still seem to be the most radical thing I’ve ever come across, even having read Jesus’s emphatic demand that we turn the other cheek, or read about Nietszche’s Übermensch who would be happy to live exactly the same life, with all its errors and sufferings, ad infinitum (and that one really touched a nerve when I first read it).

It isn’t that Jesus didn’t preach unconditionality, one-pointedness, and renunciation, because he did. But the way that the Buddha puts it will always feel the most thorough. Stephen Batchelor discusses the life of the Buddha, making a few leaps but also making the Buddha seem so much real, in a collection of talks called The Life and Death of Siddhattha Gotama available on Dharma Seed. He later expanded on this in his book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, but I will always remember listening to these talks again and again. Batchelor’s Buddha is a genius, tragic character, a canny politician and a pragmatic social commentator, interested in creating a culture (or even civilisation) of awakening against the ambitions of the more power-hungry kings of the time. His interest is not to disappear into nirvana immediately, but to bring his teachings to everyone who has the ears to listen. The stream is the social, psychological, neurological reality of our lives. The wiring of our brain says: feel pain, run. Feel hunger, eat. The patterns of our minds say: when angered, react. The culture of our society says: if attacked, defend. And all of these have continued on well into a modern setting in which being on the constant lookout for threats is maladaptive, has developed into an incredibly sophisticated culture of secondary gains that, the more I think about it, is quite, quite bizarre, even while it is so very beautiful. The greatest suffering can lead people to artistic endeavours that are incredibly moving, or to the most pathetic, mean lives. It’s hard not to feel that the former are those with some guiding light, and yet even those guiding lights can seem self-serving. No one is immune to it and no one can expect to live blamelessly.

Hence the desire for transcendence, really, but that can fall into ‘spiritual bypassing’: the use of gestures linked to spiritual practice to fulfil a more conventional need, limiting the space for the contemplative. Well documented examples include the fanatical following of a teacher who turns out to be human after all, disappointing the follower; the reading by a seeker of dozens of books on practice but never really sitting down to meditate; or the seeing of the fringe benefits of practice, even the most interesting ones like the psychic powers or entity work, as the meat of spirituality. In the end, nothing that gets you anything, that doesn’t completely upend your expectations, that doesn’t poke holes in the ego rather than serving as an identity enhancer, is ‘spiritual’. It will, at the sharp end, remain whatever is most mysterious, inexplicable- not what gets you a nice hat.  I do sometimes get all materialistic and think of this stuff entirely from this physiological perspective. Craving and aversion are a rather useful motivator to get you to jump out the way of noxious stimulus. That’s a good survival mechanism. But, like I said, how many wolves do you have to avoid on your way to work? The media sell newspapers that preach danger, because that’s what people expect. And what people expect, they manufacture in the landscape, as the landscape, of their own minds. It is far less likely that you will die in a plane crash than crossing a busy street and getting squashed by a hungover driver, but how many people do you hear having phobias of crossing the road compared to complaining of anxiety when they fly? The experience of flying is so much more unusual to us, so much more visceral, and the idea of exploding into a ball of flame much more horrible than your mundane old road traffic collision. To hammer the point home for the third time: the old wiring simply is obsolete. Your threat perception is creating threats. We’re hyping ourselves up because that’s the way we’re built.

In short, whatever goes against the stream, is the good stuff. That bloody annoying, difficult, subtle, deeply marvellous good stuff. There is the possibility of disappearing into a convent and not having to face much of these stimuli, and therefore never learning a vast portion of it- or training yourself out of what you have from an early age. You would not be blamed for thinking that from the way I write, that’s the best thing: saying ‘bugger off’ to a society that thinks that violence is more acceptable for children to see on television than sex, for instance. (Stealth rant is not very stealthy.) But I don’t; even living in a monastery, you are in the world, and I don’t think any monastic thinks that they have shut themselves off from it. This is why I am fascinated by the Quakers, with what Margery Post Abbott calls their ‘familied monasticism’: the desire to live in the world, but using participation in spiritual community as a way of learning to live in a less self-centred fashion. They are heavily into social action, that most worldly of concerns that can be so easily co-opted into an ego massager (aren’t I so holy?), but when they choose how to act, they let the Holy Spirit guide them. If they feel they are right, but the Holy Spirit says ‘hush for now’, the idea is that you indeed hush. Not to fight tooth and nail, even for something so important, is contrary to how I work, personally. I am used to using all the powers of manipulation at my disposal to push until I win. I’m that kind of person, really. It always seemed so justified at points. It was my power play, and I was just enjoying sticking it to someone who was one-upping me. At other points, my viewpoint was ‘the most rational’, I was being ‘the most kind’, the other person was clearly pushing an agenda. Plus ça change.

When you feel aversion on retreat, and resolve to stay with it, you are going against the stream. Everything in your body may be telling you to hate this, and yet you can be kind.

When you want that glass of beer, but you’ve decided to be dry for the weekend so you can help someone else, you are against the stream. Everything in your mind might be telling you that you could get away with one, and yet you can be wiser.

When someone else says something bloody stupid, but you decline to be the person to tell them, you are against the stream. Everyone knows anyway. How are you helping?

When you could claim credit for something you completed that was worth doing, that helped others, but you choose not to, you are going against the stream. Not to pollute a beneficial action with ‘something extra’ is a practice in itself.

When someone is being endlessly foul to you, and you choose to remember that it means absolutely nothing about you, you are against the stream. You are consciously deciding to be humble and letting the Great Artist chip another sharp edge off you, making you all the better for it.

When you could lie and get away with it, 100%, but you choose not to, you are going against the stream. The effects are there in the world and they will remain there, despite no choir of angels singing your praises.

When your practice is crap, and you feel stupid and doubtful, and someone tells you about the latest one that definitely gets results, you can go against the stream by sticking with what you’re doing.

When everyone is swarming to get on the bus but you step back a little to give someone a little space and dignity, you are going against the stream. Who cares if you get on it a second later? What battle will you win?

When your friend says something a little bit racist, and everyone laughs, and you choose to challenge it with all the patience, love and humility you can, you’re going against the stream. Whose approval do you need?

When God tells you to give away your favourite book to someone who you know will be delighted with it, that is going against the stream. Sometimes you will be gifted with the knowledge of something ending.

When you are in an argument with someone who has infuriated you, and they are so bloody stubborn that they will never ever apologise, you can do so, and that is going against the stream. They may never notice.

These are just a few examples off the top of my head, and probably not quite as profound as I had been thinking, but then it’s everyday practice we’re talking about here, every day ways of trying to be unconditional, of letting feelings be feelings. The bark is worse than the bite, after all. At some point in practice, there is a deeper calling to the unconditional, one that seems to have no ground whatsoever and is built entirely on trust. The desire to act on intuition that goes against what you’ve always thought, or precepts regardless of how they make your life difficult, or more commonly, simply the desire to stop lying to yourself and do things differently: well, you’re not paddling any more, you’re doing your fastest stroke against the flow. I pray for the grace to do that always!