1. The Lifelong Lawsuit Against Reality
We must begin with how we actually experience our life. And more particularly by enquiring what it is that moves us to undertake Buddhist practice. Unfortunately our concern may be rather abstract and distanced from our self, like, what is the meaning of life? Or it may be posed in objective terms, pointing away from the self, like, why is there something terribly wrong with the world? Or, more subtly, how can this self achieve the prize of "enlightenment"?
We may fail to appreciate that, since Buddhism is about how we experience the difficulties in our life, then our inquiry must be directed inwards, into who or what is doing the inquiring? This was emphasised by Zen Master Dogen, one of Buddhism's greatest monk-philosophers:
To study Buddhism is to study the self;
to study the self is to forget the self;
to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things 1
To be able to pursue our inquiry with clarity it is essential that we become experienced meditators.
Meditation is not a means by which the self can make itself calm and tranquil. Meditation is about the cultivation of awareness, not a peaceful mind. With awareness, the latter will appear in its own time, and not by some act of will. Indeed, an excellent time in which to meditate is when our mind is agitated and even in turmoil, for at such times we can observe with greater clarity its struggles to escape its discomfiture.
It is true that if we can develop a calmer mind we may indeed be able to live without such artificial aids as Prozac, and be less easily provoked to anger by others. We may feel that our meditation has accomplished what it is supposed to do. In fact, Buddhism has never claimed that calming the mind is itself the means of resolving suffering in our life; calming the mind is not the same as transforming the mind. It is rather that the calm mind of samatha meditation is essential for enabling us to observe (in vipassana meditation), our emotional dynamics, and the physical changes which accompany them, the better to transform the way in which we customarily experience living our life. Thereby, in William Blake's words we "cleanse the [windows] of perception". When the waves of mental agitation no longer obscure the surface, we can observe the creatures that breed at greater depth...
There are many warnings in Buddhism about the dangers of becoming attached to the profound calm of samatha and the bliss of a state of trance. Ajahn Chah, a celebrated meditation teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism, has observed that "one could sit for two hours or even all day, but the mind doesn't know where it's been or what's happened. It doesn't know anything There is calm, but that's all. It is like a well sharpened knife which we don't bother to put to any use. This is a deluded type of calm because there is not much self-awareness" 2. However, we must at least establish "a modicum of tranquillity and one-pointedness of mind. Then you can use this to examine yourself. Nothing special is needed. If absorption comes in your practice this is okay too. Just don't hold onto it" 3. Ajahn Chah adds that some people may not have the capacity to develop deep tranquillity but that, if of a reflective state of mind, they may nonetheless open to wisdom. Calm and insight thus go together to give insight into wisdom and compassion.
Illumination will not come to us through thinking; it will not come to us through not thinking. In our meditation on the self and its emotional dynamics we shall not see clearly if we eschew all inquiry. Neither shall we if we pursue our inquiry with a self-conscious concern driven by our neediness, creating a dualism between self and the elusive object of inquiry. Bright and alert, with bare awareness we allow ourselves to settle into a calm frame of mind and playful inquiry, light as a feather. This is a wide open awareness in which we feel our emotions, hear our thoughts, and experience our bodily sensations. Chogyam Trungpa distinguished it from the acquisitive mentality which waits to pounce on emergent thoughts like a cat at a mouse hole.
For acquisitive Westerners meditation can too easily become a fetish, reduced to being the "technology of enlightenment". It can become just something else that Buddhists "do", something else to be somehow slotted into a busy schedule, and tarnished with the mentality of purposive busyness. Much to commend are times of mindful idleness, where the self is not affirmed by doing anything at all. How does that feel?
Sitting in meditation we may vividly experience the constant agitation of our self, anxiously proclaiming "Yes, I'm here! -- alive and kicking!" From what black hole is it struggling to escape? There is evident here a sense of existential insecurity, a deep seated unease, an inner emptiness, a sense of lack. This precariousness finds expression in the best of our literature, of which the following by Joseph Conrad, a novelist of particular interest to Buddhists, is a good example:
Life knows us not and we do not know life - we don't even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth, and beliefs shift like myths on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow 4.
The Buddha traced this angst to the Three Signs of Being: Insubstantiality; Impermanence, and Dukkha. The last is the suffering arising from the ultimately unavailing struggle to consolidate and experience a sense of self, sufficiently strong and enduring to deny the insubstantiality and impermanence of all phenomena, including us. This has been characterised as a lifelong and unwinnable lawsuit with reality.
The fragility of self impels us to grasp at whatever may strengthen it and to reject whatever threatens it -- hence the "Three Fires" of acquisitiveness, rancour, and existential ignorance. When the mind is sufficiently still we can readily sense the constant pull of desire and aversion, likened in Zen to fleas on a hot griddle: "the fleas that jump must fall, and the fleas that fall must jump".
It is a valuable part of our transformational practice to recollect our own distinctive lawsuit - our ingrained and habituated response to our human condition over the years of our life. In this way we can each write our own existential autobiography, with which we need to become intimate - however reluctantly ! Each of us will have been dealt a different hand - by genetic conditioning, by upbringing, and (if we choose to believe it) by the karmic transmutation of past lives. Some may find themselves to be so vulnerable and fearful that their life appears as a record for the most part of quiet desperation. Exceptional people at the other end of the spectrum may have experienced a life substantially at peace with themselves, and barely casting a shadow of self need upon the world.
It is important that our existential autobiography should not be a pseudo "Buddhist" caricature of the life we have lived. For Buddha Nature is in fact the ground of our being - a naturally wise and compassionate disposition, to which we seek to awaken and which is typically clouded and distorted by "the fires" of our existential fear. Consider, for example, the commonly mixed motivation in an urge to help others. On the one hand we may be moved, more or less, by an authentic spirit of selfless compassion. But this may be mixed with feelings of self importance, in virtuously assisting another person who is in some sense inferior to us. Similarly, in seeking a more senior position in an organisation our motives may include the matter-of-fact that we do need higher pay in order to support our family the better; that we have talents the exercise of which would fulfil our potential and would be of benefit to others; and thirdly (and maybe not least) promotion would give a prestigious boost to our sense of self. Only if we have cultivated a certain detached clarity of mind is it possible to tease out the different impulsions which go to shaping our life.
Our "lawsuit" is conducted on several levels:- (a) it is driven by ingrained emotional patterns, including our favourite kinds of evasion in the face of life's discomfitures; (b) these will in part generate views and attitudes through which we make sense of our life and our world, and of which we may be more, or less, aware; (c) behavioural patterns, as exemplified, say, in our preferred lifestyle. For example, a strong sense of insecurity may translate into assumptions that people tend to be undependable and not to be trusted, and this in turn may lead to a closed-off attitude to life.
All the above "levels" are acted out in different spheres of a life -- in the wider world of work, leisure and our public persona; in the intimate world of relationship between spouses, children and parents; in our responses to the passing of time and to our ageing; in our relationship to "my body"; and finally and most fundamentally, in our relationship with this self itself which encompasses all the other spheres. Moreover the distinctive ways in which we confront life and try to come to terms with it are enacted in much the same way in the different spheres of our life. Essentially we are the same person at home, at work, at play -- in our public and in our private persona (though this may not always be evident on a superficial plane).
In recollecting in this way our life story and our present situation this, our Dharmic autobiography, reveals the characteristic of our Dharmic personality, that is, our personality as perceived in the light of a Buddhist understanding and as the indispensable subject of reflection and awareness at the heart of our practice. A variety of inquiry strategies will be found in the books comprising the reading list attached to these notes. The following exercise has been adapted from one in Vajragupta's book Buddhism: Tools for Living your Life 5 :-
How the self struggles to inflate and defend itself --
tossed between Desire and Aversion
as in the following three realms
A - Between Pleasure and Pain
We may, for example, experience much restlessness and dissatisfaction and a longing for the highs, for the red letter days, as being what our life is really about. Physical and emotional pain we commonly evade in many different ways, like denial, rationalisation, objectification, projection and self-blame.
B - Between Gain and Loss, Fame and Blame
The driven lust for gain is possessive of things, experiences, people, time, role and position, and health. All these can strongly upholster our precarious sense of self. Even an insignificant loss may be obsessively magnified in that it is felt as a loss of control by the self over its world, grounded on the endemic sense of inadequacy which many of us appear to feel.
As to fame, we may be anxious above all to be liked and accepted. We may observe ourselves jostling for attention. Conversations may become competitions, with people hardly waiting for the last person to finish before they jump in with a joke or anecdote that trumps what has just been said. We may feel put down even by well merited criticism, and struggle to reject it without either attempting to understand and appreciate it or to examine where our instant denial is coming from.
C - Between Aggressiveness and Fearfulness
Many are moved by a strong sense of rancour, just waiting for some situation to turn up which will arguably justify its expression. Anger may be so near the surface that the person becomes known as having "a short fuse" before their ready explosion. Others have such a fragile sense of self that they are easily intimidated and moved to ingratiate themselves; they have little integrity.
Note: Note that in all three of the above it is the hungry self with which we are concerned here. It is with how phenomena are experienced, rather with the phenomena themselves. For example, if we have particular talents it is natural that to want to put them to good use and natural to welcome any recognition received.
Take each of the above pair of compulsions (A, B and C) in turn and try to recall at least two or three instances when you have been driven by them.
Do you tend to be more affected by some of the above than by others? Which?
Can you identify in yourself any other ways in your life in which the self has sought to fortify itself and any other circumstances in which it feels it has been threatened?
Can you suggest strategies for dissolving these ego impulsions and living your life more freely and authentically?
Beyond the above recollection-and-identification level of inquiry, however, lie the key awareness practices (prefigured in "Question Three" above) by means of which we can radically transform the way we experience living this life, enabling us to "turn straw into gold", as Jack Kornfield puts it. A later essay offers specific guidance for this work, focussed on "where the shoe pinches most", that is to say, on some acutely felt pain or discomfiture in our lives. This is a particularly powerful practice which I most favour for my Emotional Awareness Workshop Retreats.
Our emotional responses to the predicament of the self are cognitively reinforced by views, opinions, assumptions, and positions, which may be underpinned by elaborate rationales of ideological proportions originating in the collective social culture. We may have more, or less, fixed views ranging, for example, about "human nature" (as inherently aggressive, perhaps) to about oneself (maybe as "sinful" or simply "inadequate"). Through a complex range of views we interpret the world and our place in it. There are, however, several difficulties in identifying and working with views.
First, many of our views are simply absorbed from our social culture and are part of our social conditioning. They may appear to have a matter-of-fact objectivity in explaining our world, and may indeed have scientific and scholarly validity. However, what we are interested in here is the extent to which we are attached to them as supports for our sense of personal identity. For example, being a bien pensant liberal subjectively may reassuringly define where we stand and who we are politically, but objectively is also, arguably, an ethical and socially beneficial viewpoint.
Secondly, our views are often unexamined assumptions, lying just beyond our awareness, as in the case of much racial and gender prejudice.
Thirdly, clinging to particular views, especially if shared with others to whom we feel close, is commonly associated with conflict with those who hold opposing views, on whom we may project strong feelings which can cloud our awareness.
Donald Rothberg, in his valuable book The Engaged Spiritual Life 6, offers an exercise for "Developing an inventory of your views" (pp.121-2), of which the following is a simplified version:-
What are my strongest views (fixed opinions, positions, attitudes, &c.)?
What feelings, emotions, maybe even bodily sensations, lie beneath my expressions of these views?
Do a tend sometimes to exaggerate the evidence which supports those views?
Why is it so important for me to win the argument?
What might I learn from the other's views?
Heavily charged episodes and encounters can offer valuable evidence for reflection and gentle probing into the emotional needs and impulsions underlying our seemingly rational beliefs.
Adam Curle distinguished between the building up of a personal "belongingness identity" and the sense of identity obtainable by standing out and making one's mark on the world. How far we emphasise one or the other is a matter of personality and circumstance, but , either way, Curle urged us to work to replace them with an authentic "awareness identity" dependent on neither. Curle amusingly described the lifelong formation of an identity founded variously on belonging to something (or having something belong to us) and standing out from the crowd:-
We become what we belong to and what belongs to us: our civilization, our nation, region, family, church, political party, wife and children, school, university, neighbourhood, community, house, land, books, profession, clubs and societies, social standing, investments, tastes in music and literature, views on the meaning of life and the immortality of the soul, preferences for brands of cigarettes or gin, friends, reputation, dress, eccentricities, honours, hobbies, way with the opposite sex, pictures and a thousand other things. From these we fabricate a sense of self, an identity. It is by this that we define ourselves to ourselves. It is this form of awareness we must be emptied of in order to achieve the objective awareness of the observer" - a plain awareness identity 7.
The most favoured and more or less socially licensed ways of "standing out" have not changed much since St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century AD identified them as the acquisition of more power, prestige, wealth, and sex than the next person. Similarly, in AD 1984 the twentieth-century luminary, Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, claimed that "what every woman yearns to learn" is how to have for herself "love, success, sex, money."
John Crook has updated Adam Curle's picture with the following imagined account of what might be the Buddha's impressions if he were transported to contemporary Soho;-
Gradually he would sense the profound concern his companions had for self-rewarding experiences, their excessively ambitious workloads, their personal advertisement in conversation and their highly individualistic forms of dress and speech... Very few were concerned with personal salvation ... Most were busy enhancing material possessions and personal credentials to improve or sustain their status in the eyes of others right now in this material world of competitive buying, selling, acquiring possessions and sexual influence, all such things being markers of whom they felt themselves to be. Conversations, radio programmes, television all suggested this to be a major preoccupation of the time. Even trivial markers, the current craze for mobile phone ring tones, for example, were coming to be pointers to a young person's self-concerning individuality. He soon came to believe that behind this almost unconscious preoccupation lay a fear, a fear of being meaningless, a fear that rested upon an implicit absence of any awareness of ultimate personal value 8.
On the subject of mobile phones as a new support for precarious existential identity, the reclusive hero of Philip Roth's novel Exit Ghost, returning to New York after a long absence, remarks as follows:
For one who went frequently without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to ask what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a phone preferable to walking about under no one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses ... For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequences be?
What is at issue is not necessarily a lifestyle itself, a particular pattern of behaviour, but what meaning it may give to our lives and how it may daily sustain that meaning. Two people may lead almost identical lifestyles, to all superficial appearances. For the first their lifestyle is an existential prop. The second is simply responding wholeheartedly and with active clarity to what life requires. How things are is how things are, and if they can realistically be bettered she will do her best to better them. She delights in its pleasures and weeps at the sorrows it can bring. She enjoys sex and she enjoys ice cream, because sex and ice cream can be enjoyable. She laughs but is not carried away by laughter; she weeps but is not carried away by grief.
Depending on personality we build, more or less, a fortress-like life of defensive (and aggressive) emotional habits, within a framework of self-sustaining views, reflected in the behaviour patterns of lifestyle and how we endeavour to shape our lives. It is designed to deal with a wide range of threats, all of which however originate, more, or less, in the tap root of existential "lack" - whether it be interpersonal difficulties at work, failure in intimate relationship, or chronic anxiety.
This ego fortress is most evident, physically as well as emotionally, in very neurotic and rigid personalities But it is, more generally, a self-created prison, whose "mind forged manacles" ( as William Blake put it) prevent us from achieving our full potential. It recalls the story of Pinocchio, where one night the creations of the puppet master come to life and enslave their master.
The Planetary Lawsuit
Socially engaged Buddhists maintain that the restless greed and anger arising from the frustrated and fearful human condition have been socially expressed in the murderous folly of human history. Reviewing the human record of greed and general bloody-mindedness Nietzsche observed that "madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, peoples, ages, it is the rule."
These emotions are embodied in society's structures, institutions and cultures, which take on a life of their own, and in turn supercharge and legitimise personal delusion as to the underlying nature of our human condition. Today the so-called "developed" world is an emotionally hungry place, insatiable in its wants and recklessly exploiting both the rest of the world and the planet itself. Acquisitiveness is institutionalised in the consumer culture and the unfettered capitalism which drives it; aggressiveness is institutionalised in a wide-ranging militarism; and existential ignorance in rancorous, sensational and inflammatory mass media.
Individuals seek refuge in a belongingness identity, in our race, our nation, our belief system or whatever, and project their fear and frustration on some other group which is seen as alien and threatening. Ideology adds a heart- warming righteousness to this reassuringly simple picture. Hence the savage warfare and the economic exploitation of the mass of human kind (and other species) by powerful and greedy minorities which make up so much of history. And hence the ease with which neighbours and workmates have killed and tortured one another in the Balkans and elsewhere on the slaughter bench of history. This is also an easy way to win elections, especially now that "terror" has been officially installed as a constant factor in public life. Such antithetical bonding extends the ancient Buddhist diagnosis of the individual condition into the social sphere. The whole story is exemplified page by page in any issue of The Sun or The Daily Mirror.
An historic, overarching lawsuit is being pursued by human civilisation against the finite reality of planet earth. It is by now clear that an economics and politics founded on seemingly endless material growth, and the consumerist lifestyle which it promotes, will soon be no longer sustainable. We shall need to manage our world on the basis of very different core values from those of the present dominant culture. This requires a bigger shift than the most radical politics; it goes to the heart of what our lives are really for. It requires an existential shift to a steady state people with steady state minds sustaining a steady state culture. Only this can maintain an ecologically sustainable economy in which quality is the only significant kind of growth. And steady state minds are what Buddhists specialize in. Herein lies the ultimate purpose of the work we undertake to opt out of the delusive "lawsuit" in our own lives.
1. Genjo Koan.
2. A Taste of Freedom, p19. Thailand: Bung Wai Forest Monastery, 1980.
3. Bodhinyana, p156.
4. Letter to Robert Cunningham Graham.
5. Buddhism: Tools for Living your Life, London: Windhorse, 2007.
6. The Engaged Spiritual Life, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006
7. Mystics and Militants: A Study of Awareness Identity and Social Action, London: Tavistock, 1976, p41.
8. From the draft of a book at present with the publishers.