The light is failing early again. A kind of death seems present.
Essay one in Chödrön’s collection When Things Fall Apart starts with this sentence: Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands.
Later she assures us:
Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion—not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.
When Things Fall Apart
Good thing, because otherwise we might bristle at a contradiction that appears over and over in essays on Buddhism: what are we to make of stories? Yes or no? Good or bad? The explicit verdict seems to be in the negative: don’t tell them. Pay attention only to the present, drop all stories. What’s more, the self is a fiction, and you ought to stop it telling it. It’s our stories that confuse us about reality. Reality doesn’t tell stories; we do. In this same essay, Chödrön observes,
During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earth-shaking revelation that we cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time! It sounds pretty obvious, I know, but when you discover something like this for yourself, it changes you.
But, hiding in plain sight, is another message. Stories are ubiquitous in these essays. Hardly a principle is offered that is not delivered by a clever episode. In this same essay, she tells a wonderful, vivid story about a man who sits up all night, terrorized by a cobra. It ends in what appears to be his enlightenment. Why tell it? It’s not for us to emulate the hero? Is the story not pointing towards a path? Why are we told the story of the Buddha? Each suttra, as far as I know, is framed in a narrative structure. Why is the whole tradition not simply a series of instructions, with no characters or narrative?
Besides stories, are the various Buddhist traditions opposed to critical thinking, the socratic method, reason and experimentation? What do you think? If it’s true that every time a thought comes to mind when you are meditating, you are supposed to note it and return your attention back to your breath, what’s the Buddhist attitude towards cogitation? And if throughout the day, you are to mindfully address 100% of your attention to what is right in front of you, when are you supposed to reason? What would Socrates do if he met Siddhartha? Meditating on a koan isn’t reasoning, is it?
Of course, when we ask it this way, we are pointed to the answer: clearly it’s more complicated than this. It must be both. A place for stories, a place to drop them. Stephen Batchelor describes his experience in the Tibetan tradition studying, translating, and debating finer details of the practice. And in his recent work Secular Buddhism, he addresses this topic directly. He answers that there is more than enough time for intellectual pursuits in diligent a mindfulness practice. But why did my reading of other authors leave such a strong impression that their diagnosis was that I was thinking too much? I was an even poorer inquisitor then. If I were to read them again, these questions in mind, would I find answers?
If only someone were always there to remind me to inquire and to investigate, I wouldn’t be left looking back at my tracks in wonder. But what a dismal story if only is.
So what are we supposed to do with stories, then? If not distract ourselves by telling them to ourselves throughout the day, should we engage in experimental fiction?
Absorb the stories our parents tell us, and then we try to tell our own?
But, being the hero, we have to learn the story as we go.
We can’t be always telling it.
Premeditation, meditation, and postmeditation.
Periodically, when our eyelids are getting heavy, or while we are on a familiar path to and from work, we can contrast our character with that of the hero. Is our story growing more like theirs or less? Are we living a story that will someday be worth telling? Are we even trying to?
On this Shunryu Suzuki, the Stoics, and John Dewey all share a common message: strive to develop your character, to become different than you are, but always wholly accept who you are in this instant. It’s who you are now that you have to deal with. This is the brain that has to take the next step, to ask the next question, to investigate. Attempting to reject the present self in favor of the future self probably isn’t much more effective than rejecting what you could become in favor of what you are now.
Chödrön conjures Christian imagery when she advises us to be nailed to the present moment. Earlier on, she says:
There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding onto ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.
But how do we do that? And are we sure this is the right approach? In his book The Time Paradox, the eminent psychologist and author Philip Zimbardo found in his research that those who are the happiest and most productive spend a significant amount of time in their memory. Though he explicitly states that his research of people’s perspective of time is Western-centric and does not consider the elongated present that advanced meditators experience, his battery of orientations is very similar to the negative-positive dichotomy of sensations, though his is towards temporal modes:
Another present-oriented time zone can be called the Holistic Present. It involves training to live one’s life in the present moment and to include past and future in an expanded state of focus on the present. Such a time sense is central to Zen Buddhism, and Zen meditative practices are one means of achieving this unique state of consciousness. Because it is less common in western than eastern cultures and is rather vague in its components, we did not include it in our […] assessment.
Philip Zimbardo, John Boyd
The Time Paradox
Zimbardo’s research found that people who were the happiest and most successful were highly past-positive, moderately present-hedonistic, and moderately-high future-oriented. What struck me most about this book was how much our attitude toward the past affects our success in planning and engaging in future-oriented behavior. And isn’t a story a mode of memory?
But what does Chödrön mean by “step forward a little” and “the courage to die continually”? I’m sure these metaphors point to innumerable phenomena, among them literally stepping forward—say, at a party, or in a confrontation—or literally risking your life. The ones that seem most apt lately have to do with inquiry and experimentation. In that instant, you are putting a frame where there is no picture. You are stepping forward where there is no ground. Questions are inherently future-oriented. One can end with a statement. A statement can stop a conversation. Questions carry us forward. Speakers who end with a question are, in a way, not ending. They are spinning off. Asking questions is difficult, so you must reinforce the behavior. After you ask the question, after you investigate, after you experience the frustration of facing what you don’t know and struggling to finding out, you should reflect approvingly on the behavior. Observe the whole process. See how you went from ignorance to edification. Celebrate it, and set that as your standard for future challenges. This is, of course, the PDCA cycle. It’s also storytelling.
And it isn’t all sunny. What will we do when the aquifers run dry? We could desalinate seawater, but using what energy source? Will we effectively replace carbon fuel with renewable energy before the former run out? How hot is it going to get, and how soon? Will there be air conditioning? And when is this capitalism religion going to wane? And what will replace it?
I think the reason for the recent surge in popularity of Stoicism, besides Christianity being on the decline and people looking around for a philosophy of life to replace it, is people sense that we’re going to need some grit in the coming years. The self-indulgent dysphoria and ennui we developed in the last half of the twentieth century is going to get us killed in the twenty-first.
And even then it doesn’t completely work. Chödrön claims
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it.
And yet how is life a good friend to the billions of humans who live short, miserable lives? What is it teaching them before it kills them? And what’s the point, when they’re dead before they had a chance to make use of the lesson? J.L. Schellenberg, in his philosophical attempt to find a way in which a religious perspective on life could be worthwhile, observes that there is no way to say that life is inherently meaningful if there is no afterlife of some sort, because of the billions of people whose life is simply too short and brutal to conceivably meet our standards of what meaning could be. If significant soteriological redemption is available to all sentient beings, there must be some kind of rebirth or afterlife, because it’s plainly not made available to every human.
So, say Chödrön is right. Say life is a good friend. That must mean except when it isn’t, and it must mean that we are responsible for one another, because if I see people suffering in a way that prevents them from engaging in the behaviors that I think are necessary for life to be worthwhile (having meaningful work, some free time, some creature comfort, books, the ability to talk things through with friends, an understanding of the Logos) then that means I should try to intervene. Not that I can do it in time. Not that billions won’t be born and die in misery meanwhile. Some friend. Maybe I need to rethink what the word means? It’s not a human friend, after all. And if life is a good friend, what kind of story is this?