Radical acceptance of desire

Vipassana romance between two tiny figures made from cardboard boxes.

When I was first introduced to Buddhism in a high school World Studies class, I dismissed it out-of-hand. This was during the hedonistic days of the late ‘60s, and this spiritual path seemed so grim with its concern about attachment and, apparently, anti-pleasure. Buddhism seemed to be telling me to stop seeking after romantic relationships, forego having good times with friends, avoid the highs of marijuana and give up my adventures in nature. In my mind, freedom from desire would take the fun out of life.

Years later I would realize that the Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away, and that relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.

I first saw a glimpse of this possibility many years ago in what might be considered the hotbed of desire: romantic relationship. I’d been divorced for several years, and had met a man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. In our few casual encounters something had clicked and I was infatuated.

In the midst of the typical rush and excitement of such connections, I left for a weeklong meditation retreat. In the six years that I had been practicing Buddhist meditation, I’d attended a number of such retreats and loved the states of clarity and presence I touched there. But this time, instead of settling into even a semblance of mindful presence, my immediate and compelling draw was to the pleasures of fantasy. I was in the throes of a full-blown “Vipassana Romance,” as such fantasies have come to be known.

In the silence and austerity of retreat, the mind can build a whole erotic world around a person we barely know. Often the object of a VR is another meditator who has attracted our attention. In the time span of a few days we can mentally live through a whole relationship—courting, marrying, having a family together. I’d brought my fantasy person with me from home, and this industrial strength VR withstood all my best strategies for letting go and returning to the here and now.

I tried to relax and direct my attention to the breath, to note what was happening in my body and mind. I could barely complete two cycles of mindful breathing before my mind would once again return to its favorite subject. Then, with a stab of guilt, I’d remember where I was. Sometimes I’d look around and take in the serenity and dignity of the meditation hall. I’d remind myself of the freedom and joy of remaining present, and of the suffering that arises from living in stories and illusions.

This didn’t make a dent—the fantasies would take off again almost immediately. Hoping to get out of my head, I tried doing longer walking meditations on the snowy paths surrounding the retreat center. As my mind churned relentlessly onward, I felt self-indulgent and ashamed of my lack of discipline. Most of all I was frustrated because I felt I was wasting precious time. This retreat was an opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, and there I was, caught up in wanting and off in the future.

After several days I had a pivotal interview with my teacher. When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?” I was startled into understanding. For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Her question pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience. She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind. I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food, sex, love, freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena. While this isn’t easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force, and remain free in its midst.

Read More

Hold your wants lightly

Getting caught up in wanting – wanting both to get what’s pleasant and to avoid what’s unpleasant – is a major source of suffering and harm for oneself and others.

First, a lot of what we want to get comes with a big price tag – such as that second cupcake, constant stimulation via TV and websites, lashing out in anger, intoxication, over-working, or manipulating others to get approval or love. On a larger scale, the consumer-based lifestyle widespread in Western nations leads them to eat up – often literally – a huge portion of the world’s resources.

Similarly, much of what we want to avoid – like the discomfort of speaking out, some kinds of psychological or spiritual growth, standing up for others, exercising, being emotionally vulnerable, or really going after one’s dreams – would actually be really good for oneself and others.

Second, some wants are certainly wholesome, such as wishing that you and others are safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease; it’s natural to want to give and receive love, to express yourself creatively, to be OK financially, to be treated with respect, to make a big contribution, or to rise high in your career. And many things in life are pleasurable – some of my personal favorites are morning coffee with my wife, walking in wilderness, watching the SF Giants win the World Series last year, seeing kids flourish, writing these JOTs, and laughing with friends at dinner.

But even with wholesome wants and pleasures, trouble comes when we get driven about them – grasping after them, insisting that they continue, craving and clinging, taking it personally when there’s a hitch, getting pushy, or staying in a tunnel with no cheese. The art is to pursue wholesome desires with enthusiasm, discipline, and skill without getting all hot and bothered about them – and to enjoy life’s pleasures without getting attached to them.

For even the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences always end. You are routinely separated from things you enjoy. And someday that separation will be permanent. Friends drift away, children leave home, careers end, and eventually your own final breath comes and goes. Everything that begins must also cease. Everything that comes together must also disperse.

Given this truth, grabbing after or clutching onto the things we want is hopeless and painful. To use an analogy from the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah: if getting upset about something unpleasant is like being bitten by a snake, grasping for what’s pleasant is like grabbing the snake’s tail; sooner or later, it will still bite you.

Therefore, holding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing you more ease and less trouble from your desires, and creating less trouble for others – even across the world. And if you take it all the way to its end, holding wants lightly is a powerful vehicle for liberation from all of the suffering rooted in desire.


For starters, be aware of wanting inside your own mind. Try to notice:

  • The ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense or uncomfortable.
  • The emotional pain of not getting what you want. Including disappointment, frustration, discouragement-perhaps even hopelessness or despair.
  • The frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expected to get from a want, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it.

Similarly, notice that the anticipated pain from the things you want to avoid – especially things that would be good for you to open to or go after – is usually worse than the discomfort you actually feel. In effect, your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.

  • The costs of pursuing the things you want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things you don’t want. What is the cost/benefit ratio, really?
  • The ways that every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end.

Next, imagine you are observing your wants from a great distance, like seeing them from on top of a mountain as if they are down in a valley below. Let them and go like clouds in the vast sky of awareness. They are just one more mental content, like sensations, thoughts, or memories. Don’t give them special status. They are just wants. You don’t need to act on them. Usually, they’ll just pass away after awhile.

Then, on paper or in your mind, make a list of problematic wants:

  • Things you’ve wanted to get but are either not good for you or others, or come with too high a price.
  • Things you’ve wanted to avoid, but are actually good for you and others.

Live with this list. Stare at it. Listen to what it says to you. Perhaps talk about it with others (maybe a therapist). Then make a plan for what you are committing to do about it. Honor this plan; if possible, tell others about it.

Also list wholesome wants that you would like to pursue more. (Some of these may be suggested implicitly by the list above of what you’ve wanted to avoid.) Hang out with this list for awhile, perhaps discussing it with others. Then make a sincere plan for what you are committing to do about it. Your wholesome wants will help crowd out the unwholesome ones.

I know what I am suggesting here about these two lists is a big deal, much easier said than done. I’ve been grappling lately with a couple of my own items on these lists, and it’s not easy. But we can be aware of our issues forever – even mindfully aware! – while still never doing anything about them.

After you’ve stared at the garden for awhile … it’s time to pull weeds and plant flowers.

Read More

Breathe in, breathe out, fall in love

A New York Times article about the phenomenon of “Vipassana Romance” (falling in love on retreat):

At that point in my life I had never attempted a full day of meditation. I was chain-smoking my way through a series of boyfriends because I had no idea how to be alone. I hated the cold spot in the bed and the empty hangers that rattled in the closet. Which is why I started meditating. I thought I’d try wading into loneliness the way you enter the sea, easing myself into the bone-chilling cold a bit at a time — first toes, then calves, then legs.

Today would be the first time I’d plunge in all the way. I was terrified. But after meditating Vipassana-style for a few months, I also knew how to handle that terror: I would place my fear in a display case, as if it were a diamond, and shine a spotlight on it. Breath in. Breath out. And so this is what I did for hours, until I itched with boredom.

Eventually, I allowed myself to spy on the other people in the room, their shoulders wrapped in blankets, hands fallen open, faces drained of expression. That’s when I noticed him several pillows away: a lanky man in a button-down shirt, his blond hair dangling over a delicate ear. It was hard to make out his face — I was sitting behind him — but I could see that he wore wire-frame glasses that were Scotch-taped at the joint. His corduroy pants had gone bald at the knee. His wrist peeped out of the sleeve, endearingly bony and frail.

Read the rest of the article…

Read More

Barbara Sher: “We are like violins. We can be used for doorstops, or we can make music.”

Guitar lying on grass. A posy of small blue flowers has been stuck into the sound hole.

We all want to be happy, but often we’re not. Bodhipaksa argues that this is because of the way we treat ourselves as a thing that lacks happiness, and happiness as a thing to be grasped.

In a parable in the Buddhist teachings, a king hears the sound of a lute for the first time and asks to see what produced such sweet music. A lute is produced, but the king is not satisfied. He wants to know where the music is. His ministers say,

“This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It’s through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.”

Similarly, the Buddha points out, an accomplished practitioner investigates the body and mind and finds that “thoughts of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ do not occur.” There’s no suggestion in the Buddha’s metaphor that there is no self to be found. Instead, we simply let go of any identification with the body or mind as being the self. We stop clinging to any sense of the self being static, separate, or definable in any way. We cease thinking about “me” or “mine” or “I am,” and this thinking has ceased because we have ceased emotionally clinging to any idea of ourselves.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb.

In this analogy, the “self” is the functioning of the body and mind, and is therefore not a “thing.” The self is a process arising out of the functioning of both body and mind. Of course we can’t locate the self in any component of the body. Nor is the self identified with the mind or any component of the mind. The self cannot be reduced to any component or collection of components, any more than the sound of the lute can be found in any one component of the lute or in the entire, assembled lute.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb. As such, it’s not a noun or a “thing.” A process by definition cannot be a thing that we can grasp onto. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that can be static and unchanging. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that exists separately. Be definition, this kind of self arises from a myriad of things that are not the self.

See also:

Also, one of the components that makes the sound of the lute possible is “appropriate human effort.” The lute in itself is not an instrument unless it’s in human hands. Without interaction with a human being it simply is a collection of glue, catgut, and various pieces of wood. Without interaction the lute is close to being an assemblage of nouns. The lute has to be in relation to something else before the sound can happen. Thus the idea of a separate self is challenged.

If the self, in the analogy, is the sound of the lute, then the self can only exist in relation to something else. In this case the self only exists in interaction with the world and with other selves. There is no such thing as a self in isolation. The self is therefore something inherently dynamic, interactive, and relational.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

What does this mean for us in our daily lives? A lot of the time we’re caught up in thoughts about ourselves. We think constantly about whether people like us, whether we’re happy, what we can do to get more recognition. This constant self-reference is meant to ease our suffering, but actually it’s the cause of our suffering. When we let go of this kind of self-referential thinking we discover that it was the act of craving happiness that was making us suffer.

There’s nothing wrong of course with wanting to be happy. The whole Buddhist path, after all, is an attempt to get away from suffering and to reach a state of peace. It’s the way that we relate to happiness that’s the problem. We treat ourselves as a object. We see ourselves, moreover, as an object lacking happiness, as defective. We see happiness as something external that we have to “get,” and so happiness is treated as an object too. Happiness is seen as being like a “component” that we can add to our defective selves. But happiness isn’t something to be grasped. It’s not in fact a thing at all.

In the parable the king thinks of the sound of the lute as being a thing, and he expects to be able to find it by dissecting the instrument. He wants to grasp the music. He’s in a state of craving. What he doesn’t appreciate is that the music arises from the quality of the relationships between the various parts of the lute, the musician, and the listener.

Happiness arises from the quality of our relationships. Happiness isn’t a “thing” to be grasped, but the quality of experience that arises when we cease grasping. As selves that exist only in relationship, it’s the quality of our relationships — the way we relate — that determines the quality of our being, and thus our happiness. The more we grasp (even after happiness) the less happy we’ll be. The more attention to the present moment, ease, acceptance, and love that we bring into our experience, the happier we’ll be.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

Read More

Stop samsara, I want to get off!


Finding contentment in a materialistic world, or, how our author didn’t buy an iPhone, and then did, and then didn’t again.

I admit I struggle with an attraction to shiny objects, and in my mind nothing shines with quite the seductive luster of a latest-model iPhone. When I first heard that the iPhone was in the works, about three years ago, I was filled with what can only be called technolust — a powerful desire to own the latest shiny toy (which at that point was not even available).

So what’s the big deal, you may ask. Isn’t it normal to be full of craving for something you want? And isn’t craving an iPhone a pretty mild form of desire? True, it is normal to experience craving. The thing is that craving hurts. It’s painful to really, really want something. There’s an element of pleasure involved in craving, to be sure, because in our mind we see ourselves possessing the object and so we experience, in our imagination, the pleasure and joy of holding the shiny toy in our eager hand. But that element of pleasure is outweighed, vastly in my experience, by the pain of the sheer wanting.

In English, the word “want” means both “desire” and “lack”

An interesting thing in the English language is that the word “want” means both “desire” (“I want to talk to you”) and “lack” (“I want for nothing”). What I find interesting about this is that sometimes when I “want” (desire) something like an iPhone it points to a “want” (lack) of something in my life. Back when the iPhone was just a glint in a marketer’s eye, I found myself thinking more and more that I barely even needed a cell phone. I had one, to be sure, but I was on a pay-as-you-go plan and even at a hefty 10c per minute I struggled to get through $50-worth of calls in a year. (Yes, I talk on the phone for less than 500 minutes a year. I guess you could say I’m not a big phone user.) And I already had an iPod to listen to music on and a Palm LifeDrive, which was a super-duper PDA (remember those?) that could also play music and videos as well as storing all my contacts, calendars, and allowing me to email and surf the web wirelessly. Basically all my information, media, and telephonic needs were taken care of. So why was I jonesing so heavily for an iPhone?

One obvious answer is the sheer beauty of the product itself. The iPhone is a joy to look at, to hold, and to use (my two-year-old daughter loves zooming in on photographs by spreading her little fingers, and adores swiping through screens. And so do I). And this is one problem — the continuing emergence of better and more attractive technological toys. You buy an iPod (as I had done) and find it beautiful. You just want to look at it, touch it (carefully, so as not to smudge the stainless steel), and play with it. And then after a shockingly brief amount of time a new, improved, model comes out. You look at your iPod (perhaps now 6 months “old”) and it no longer looks as sleek and attractive. It’s now apparent that it lacks the functionality that you’ve seen in the newer models — functionality you now want. And despite your most paranoid of attentions, dings and scratches have begun to dull the luster of your lovely device. Really, you now want — really want — a new iPod.

Samsara is the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire

And this cycle will continue indefinitely. You succumb to temptation and upgrade, only to find a few months later that your current model is woefully out of date. (I remember going into Best Buy to get some attachment for my one-year-old iPod only to be told that they didn’t stock accessories for “older models”). This is an illustration of what Buddhism calls samsara, or the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire. In the Buddha’s day iPods, of course did not exist, but the Buddha expressed the dissatisfactions of materialism by saying “Even a shower of gold coins will not take away craving.”

There’s a deeper level to my wanting an iPhone, though. When I crave an iPhone I’m not just wanting (desiring, lacking) a new device, I want (lack, desire) to be The Kind Of Person Who Owns An iPhone. I want to be seen as cool, hip, and ahead of the fashion curve. I want people to look at me and my iPhone and think that I’m as cool as the shiny toy I’m carrying. So I’m craving approval — approval from other people.

But wait, there’s more! Why am I craving approval? Why’s it important for me to be seen as the kind of person who’s cool enough to own an iPhone? Why do I need approval from others? Surely it’s because I don’t give myself enough appreciation. I don’t love myself enough. In the sheer busyness of life, keeping up with writing books, recording, publishing articles online, teaching in prison, doing people favors, taking care of my family, etc, I forget to pause and remind myself that I’m a pretty cool guy. I forget to remind myself that if I let go of craving I can be happy. And because I forget to do this, I feel a “want” of appreciation. And because I feel a want (lack) of appreciation from myself I “want” (desire) appreciation from others. That, I think, gets closer to the root of my painful craving. Without that factored in, whether or not to buy an iPhone is just a question of deciding what technology I need, rather than scrabbling to be seen as a particular kind of person.

If I let go of craving I can be happy

This too is samsara, the endless round of trying to fill a need in an inappropriate way. Getting appreciation from others on the basis of owning a cool gadget is another cycle, not just because cool gadgets don’t stay cool for long (or because other people are not necessarily a reliable source of appreciation), but because it just doesn’t work. Appreciation from others can never replace a self of self-appreciation. Giving myself appreciation is more reliable. It cuts right into the cycle of craving and allows me just to be.

Another way to use iPhone craving as a basis for insight is to appreciate that the object of desire is impermanent. When I find myself craving a new toy, I can visualize it gathering scratches, breaking, and being consigned to the landfill, where it is buried with old banana peels and soiled diapers. Looked at as a process and not as a thing, even an iPhone seems less attractive. (And eventually, by seeing through, once and for all, the shell game that is neurotic craving, we let go of it altogether. That’s we call Enlightenment, but let’s leave that to one side for now).

Anyway, did I buy an iPhone three years ago? No, I didn’t, because I realized that I didn’t need the phone, although it would be handy to having something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone. And then the iPod Touch appeared (something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone), and I sold my LifeDrive on eBay and gave my iPod to my wife. And it was only when my iPod Touch broke, several months ago, that I decided to get the iPhone, reckoning that the ability to check email and get online anywhere would be a handy asset, and that I could simplify the ecology of my pockets by having just one device (iPhone) rather than two (iPod Touch plus cheapo cellphone).

But now the iPhone 3G S is coming out, which has rekindled the whole “should I upgrade” question. But no, I’m not going to upgrade until I have some good, objective reason to. Perhaps when the battery life on my current model is impractically short, or when I can upgrade at minimal cost, I might then decide to get the latest iPhone. For now I’m going to step off of the painful round of samsara, or at least the part that’s involved in craving iPhones. I’ll content myself by living with an appreciation of my own merits — the good qualities I embody and the good things I do — and recalling the impermanence of my objects of desire. And that’s more fulfilling than any shiny new toy.

Read More

Bid for freedom

man playing poker

Is it possible to combine spiritual practice with professional poker, to remain detached and equanimous in the midst of a game full of bluffing, where the aim is to take away other people’s money? In 2005 Vishvapani talked this over with Andrew Black, one of the world’s finest poker players — and a devout Buddhist.

The World Series of Poker at Binions Casino in Las Vegas is down to its last five players. After eleven days at the table, little sleep, and ferocious competition, they are the last survivors of the five thousand people who each paid $10,000 to enter this no-limit hold ’em tournament. The winner will walk away with $7.5 million.

Behind designer shades and $21 million in chips sits Irishman Andy Black, nicknamed The Monk following his five years out of the game living a Buddhist life in the U.K. with the Triratna Buddhist Community. With a million in chips already bet on this hand, Steve Dannenmann, another of the five players, pushes forward his entire stock: “All in,” he says. Black lifts his sunglasses and studies the board. “I call.” He matches the huge bet on the table and the players reveal their cards.

Black has a pair of nines, which gives him the edge over Dannenmann’s pair of sixes and ace high, but there are two more cards to be played. The next card helps nobody. Now only an ace or a six on the last card can beat him. The dealer turns the card… and it’s another ace; Black loses the hand and his position is destroyed. A few hours later he finally exits the tournament to a standing ovation from the crowd, who have been captivated by his skill and demeanor. Black has won $1.75 million, but he has lost a tournament that was almost in his grasp, and, visibly upset, he refuses all media interviews.

 Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker, but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice.   

A few weeks after his Vegas exit, I traveled to Dublin to discover why he has returned to the game he had left behind, and how he squares it with his dharma practice. What about the manipulative mind games, the lives ruined by gambling, and the focus on winning money and defeating your opponents? What about the sheer, unabashed vulgarity at the end of the tournament, when millions of dollars were emptied onto the table and gleefully clutched by the whooping victor?

Such high-minded criticisms are a sore point for Black. The day before we met, he received a letter from the man who was to have ordained him into the Western Buddhist Order. It said that he couldn’t get behind Black’s ordination request while he was playing poker. Sitting down to talk in a Dublin restaurant, Black is upset. The thirty-eight-year-old is far from the image of reserved, poker-faced cool: his open, expressive face and expansive manner are set off by sharp eyes and a diabolic goatee. He opens a book to a quote from the ancient Buddhist scripture describing the lay bodhisattva Vimalakirti: “He lived at home but remained aloof from the realm of desire. He made his appearance at the fields of sports and the casinos, but his aim was always to mature those people who were addicted to games and gambling.”

Black looks at me with a flash of defiance. “I used to think, ‘I can’t do that because I am not an enlightened master.’ But look at the mahasiddhas. We like to tell stories about these wild, aggressive tantric masters who do crazy things. Well, they’re dead! If someone tries to do that today, you get this reaction!”

I haven’t come here to judge Black or to determine the ethics of poker: I know that competition poker is a sport, though it connects with a wider world of gambling. I can see its appeal as a contest that demands no athletic prowess and sets people against one another in a battle of minds plus chance. But I am fascinated to know, in the face of Black’s protests, how a dharma practitioner can survive in that world. I can’t help but wonder if he is simply succumbing to attachments and encouraging them in others.

One day I looked around a poker table and thought, We’re all hungry ghosts.

Black has had a long journey to get here. Growing up as a Catholic in a Protestant area of Belfast at the height of the Troubles, he had few friends, worked hard, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, to study law. Then he discovered poker. “I was submerged in poker: I would bring conversations around to it and hone my skills by trying to outwit people in daily interactions.” His early career culminated at the 1997 World Championship, where he got down to the last fourteen and was sitting at the table with Stu “The Kid” Ungar, reputedly the greatest-ever card player. Ungar lavished Black with attention — and then took his chips. Black had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. He was devastated. Four months later, he made his way to the Dublin Meditation Center. Initially he hoped that meditation would improve his game, but the teachings he encountered began to resonate on a deeper level for him.

Still haunted by his defeat, Black realized that poker was making him unhappy. “One day I looked around a poker table and thought, ‘We’re all hungry ghosts'” — the craving-filled beings from Buddhist mythology whose grasping is perpetually frustrated. In 1999, Black moved to the U.K. to live with other Buddhists from Triratna and work in Windhorse Trading, a large Triratna-run “Right Livelihood” business that offers supportive, shared working conditions for dharma practitioners. Then he spent two years going door to door asking for regular donations to the Karuna Trust, a charity supporting projects in India that help people considered “untouchables,” many of whom are now Buddhist converts. Rather than manipulating prospective donors, he found he attracted contributions by being straightforward and making a connection with them.

Black sees this as a training period in which he learned about the dharma, meditation, and teamwork. But the pull of poker remained: “I learned a lot about myself, and I was happy to be away from it. But something in me was unmet. Returning to poker, I feel that this is really my life. I’ll be honest: I’m obsessed by it, but that obsession brings a lot of focus, which you need in order to excel at anything. If I bring in my spiritual training, I believe this can be a powerful arena for practice.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling. “I intensively prepare tactics and analysis before a game, but when I’m playing I just try to be in the present moment. All poker is about making good decisions. I find I make wrong decisions when I act out of tune with my gut sense of how things are: what this person is like, their situation at this moment, and the element of chance. My experience of Buddhist practice means that I also include how I am, how I am treating the other players, and how I respond to both winning and losing. You can disregard that feeling, just like in life, but in poker you get immediate payback. It’s always the same lesson: when your actions are not in accordance with how things are, you suffer.”

Losing is one of poker’s hard lessons. As well as being highly intelligent, Black is a clearly a very emotional man. “Because of the element of chance, you can do everything right and still lose. You get hit by unbelievable body blows, which are dictated by statistical probabilities. I work with this by saying, ‘This will happen.'”

I ask what it was like to lose that hand at the World Championship. Black’s face creases: “It was so painful, you have no idea. Afterward, while I was playing, I was trying to hold the pain without being overwhelmed; to remind myself that what had happened is now the past and I am in the present. Even now, I’ll be sitting in meditation turning over the same six or seven hands. That’s my practice.”

Black saw his return to the tables in summer 2005 as a one-year experiment in combining dharma practice and poker. But his unexpected success at the World Championships has made this a high-profile adventure.

Some poker players use math, some use psychology, but Black operates on gut feeling.

In the years since Black left, the game’s popularity has exploded on the Internet and TV, turning it into a multibillion-dollar industry. His exploits were followed around the world, and in Dublin he’s a local celebrity.

Black attracted some attention during the World Championships with an unexpected display of principles. A break in play was called, and when the players returned, one was missing. The announcement of the break had been unclear, and everyone realized that the missing player had simply misunderstood when to return. But the organizers insisted that play recommence and the missing player be eliminated. Incensed, Black protested and tried to enlist the other players’ support. They shifted uncomfortably but kept quiet. Black was in tears — visible to the TV audience — as he stalled for time until the player returned.

The incident prompted admiration and discussion about sportsmanship in poker. The game includes bluffing and deception, but does that mean that, within the rules, anything goes? Black believes that ethics still apply, but not simplistically. “There’s a line, and you know when you step over it. You have to look at each case individually, examine your own motivation, and you still need dialogue and communication to help you understand. I assume that even so I am still making mistakes and engaging in all sorts of rationalizations, but I think that’s a realistic model for trying to act well. It’s different from the view that you should withdraw from the world and purify your motivations before engaging.”

Black’s Buddhist sensibility clearly comes into play in his response to abusive players. “Sometimes people try to upset you by being aggressive and insulting. I will say, ‘There’s no need for that.’ The next stage is to say, ‘Is this doing you any good?’ If there is the slightest element of judgment in me, it doesn’t work. I have to connect with the person, and not come from a higher position. I have to genuinely feel ‘I’m concerned that this is doing you no good.’ When I do connect with people in that way, I see their relief that they don’t have to be like this.”

Central to Black’s plan for maintaining the practice dimension during poker tournaments is sharing the experience with his friend Donal Quirke, whom he knows through the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Dublin center. “I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey. I can’t do that on my own. I respond to the image of the Buddha’s disciples heading off two at a time, connecting intensively with each other and going through things together.” In Vegas, Black and Quirke meditated together in the mornings and sometimes read dharma texts during breaks in the tournament.

I want to succeed at poker, but most important is the spiritual journey.

Where Black is an exuberant, commanding personality, Quirke is steady and quiet. He was with Black in Vegas, acting as coach and confidant, discussing the day’s play and how Black’s game could improve. He plans to accompany Black on the World Poker Tour, that will culminate in the 2006 World Championship. As a man clearly steeped in dharma practice, what does Quirke make of the world he is entering? “Vegas is a challenging realm, suffused with ego and greed, and I found those aspects of me were heightened. In the breaks, reading dharma aloud with Andrew, just hearing the words, ‘Thus have I heard,’ was like diving into a pool for both of us. I know it had an orienting effect on Andrew as well. But poker’s fascinating: coming back from Las Vegas, I was watching it on latenight TV. Though of course, you could ask, is anything gained by a group of people sitting around trying to take money off each other?”

I wonder if Quirke thinks Black will be able to sustain his attempt to make poker a practice? His answer is surprising. “There’s my friend Andrew Black, who I’ve known over the years. But in the poker world there’s another person called Andy Black. I think dharma practice is about not trying to control and manipulate, but that isn’t how you win poker tournaments. You need to want to win, and Andy Black is a master of control. But it’s complex. Andrew’s karma has given him an incredible talent for poker — on his day he’s one of the best in the world — but he also has a genuine calling for spiritual practice. I don’t think he can just forget Andy Black. He needs to meet this guy, honor him, play the best poker he can, achieve what he can, and then let it go.”

You can’t help liking Black, and I found myself envying him — not so much the money or success, but the intensity of his engagement. As he told me: “One approach to the spiritual life is that you renounce things. Another is to place yourself in the middle of attachments and purify yourself there. We’re all imperfect beings struggling along the path, learning as we go. At some point I’ll find I’ve gone as far as I can in the poker world, but at the moment it’s incredibly exciting. Lets see how I’m doing in a year.”

Read More

Mark Twain: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol…”

Mark Twain

Bodhipaksa explores the relationship between hats, iPods, desires, and needs. And also figures out what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” is. Oh, and he also offers a radical approach to dealing with distraction in meditation.

In a piece called “What Is Man?” Twain wrote: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment.”

Twain argues that when you find yourself desiring, say, a hat, it’s not actually the physical object that you want but something else: perhaps something like the admiration you’ll get from your friends for having such a fine hat. If it turns out that your friends don’t like the hat and think it makes you look stupid, then it’s likely that you won’t think the hat is so splendid after all. The hat hasn’t changed, but its meaning has. (Another possibility, which Twain doesn’t point out, is that you might ditch your friends and stick with the hat, which has now become a symbol of how rebellious and independent you are.)

Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.

Twain’s is a valid point, and I recognize the phenomenon in myself. I’m not just a person who owns an iPod Touch, I have an iPod Touch because I want to be the kind of (cool) person who owns an esthetically pleasing, well-designed, practical accessory like an iPod Touch. I’m not so much interested in approval from others; even if no one else ever saw my iPod Touch I could take pleasure in knowing that I’m cool enough to own such a wonderful piece of hardware. In fact that self-validation is more important to me than any admiration I might get from other people. Every time I take out my iPod I’m confirming my sense of self; I’m reminding myself of who I think I am and who I want to be.

The “contentment of spirit” that the iPod offers me is strictly temporary, of course. Sooner or later something better (even just an updated version of the same device) will come out and make mine look old and shoddy. Or it’ll simply keep accumulating dings and scratches to the point that I’ll notice it’s flaws more than its marvelous abilities. In fact, right now my iPod is behaving strangely, with odd flashing lines appearing on the screen, and I’m already thinking that I need a cooler, more up-to-date model. Sic transit gloria technologiae.

The things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs.

I’d go further than Twain, however, and argue that even the non-material things we crave are symbols. Say I do get approval and admiration from my friends because of my wonderful hat (or iPod). Why is that approval important to me? I’d argue that it’s just another symbol — this time a symbol for a number of deeper needs. I have a need for connection with others. I have a need for love. I have a need to love myself. The admiration I receive because I have a new hat/iPod stands in as a replacement for those needs. I feel connected to others when they admire me: and after all admiration is easier to attain than genuine communication. Admiration may not be love, but it still feels good. When others give me admiration I like myself more because I reckon that if they like me I must be worth liking. And while that’s not me loving myself for who I am, at least it’s something.

So these things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs. An unmet need creates a kind of “thirst” (what’s technically called trsna in Buddhism), and that thirst looks for satisfaction. Unfortunately, because we’re deluded we’re often not very conscious of our thirsts, and we don’t understand what it is we really need. We may need to like ourselves better, but we end up with a new hat!

The principles I’m outlining here have helped me enormously in my meditation practice. Every time we close our eyes to meditate, up pops a flood of thoughts about things we desire to have or to happen and things we desire not to have and not to happen. And some of our thoughts just seem random, but they’ve hooked onto some object or other. I believe that all of these distractions are the “thirsts” generated by unmet needs. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • One time I was leading a meditation and I happened to notice my Palm Pilot in front of me (this was a few years back). Before the meditation I’d been reading a Buddhist text out loud to the retreatants and I’d placed the Palm Pilot on the little stand that held the meditation bell. Then I found myself wondering what “Palm Pilot” would be in Pali. I was just coming up with a possible answer (talanāyaka) when I came back to mindfulness. And so I wondered what need might I be trying to meet by wondering about such a ridiculous thing. My intuition told me that what I was getting out of this speculation was fun, and that what I needed was to have a sense of playfulness. Having identified what I needed, I was then able to bring more of a sense of playfulness and enjoyment into my experience by relaxing my effort and appreciating the wonder of the present-moment. And I was able to go back into a state of enjoyable concentration.
  • Another time I kept finding my mind turning to critical thoughts about some bad driving I’d witnessed. And a few moments’ reflection helped me realize that my need to feel safe and secure had been violated. What’s more, I hadn’t been empathizing with my own needs, and instead of wishing myself well I was wishing others ill. So I turned my attention from thoughts of the driver who had almost hit my car to the sense of pain I had in my heart. I offered lovingkindness, warmth, and protection to my heart, and soon I found that I felt secure and safe and that the fear and anger had gone.

I could offer a hundred such examples. I don’t think I’ve found a simple instance of distractedness where I couldn’t identify some need that was not being met, and where I couldn’t find some other way to meet that need from my own inner resources. I don’t want to suggest by this that we never need look outside of ourselves in order to get our needs met. Some of our needs, for example for support and for closeness, involve other people. Some needs you can fulfill from your inner resources, while in other cases you need to find the inner resources to seek the fulfillment of your needs from outside.

But I’d suggest you try thinking about your thoughts and feelings as being merely symbolic. Not just symbolic — they point towards our true needs. If we’re prepared simply to sit with our distractions and see what we can learn from them about ourselves, those distractions become teachers. We can follow the trail of our thirsts back into the less-conscious part of ourselves where our needs reside. This takes a little skill and practice. We need to learn not to react to our distractions: not to judge them. We need to learn to identify what our needs are (and the insights of Nonviolent Communication are very useful here), and we need to learn or find ways to meet our needs. But I believe that this approach to meditation offers a powerful tool for finding inner peace, and for letting go of the idea that there is some “thing” we need that will bring happiness. Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.

Read More

Blaise Pascal: “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room”

Blaise Pascal

Everyone is prey to distractedness, to seeing solace in activity as an escape from experiencing ourselves. In fact this is one of the major obstacles to a meaningful life. Bodhipaksa argues, however, that the force underlying our distractedness is a creative one, and that properly channeled it can take us all the way to enlightenment.

I’ve always been fond of this saying from Pascal’s Pensées, which reminds me that not being at peace with ourselves is a human condition rather than a uniquely modern one. All people at all times have suffered the pains of boredom, self-doubt, loneliness, irritability, restlessness, and anxiety that come from not being at peace with ourselves. I’ve experienced my fair share of that.

Like many people I have an ideal of being at peace and of enjoying rest. I struggle in my life to live and even sometimes to accomplish something meaningful, and all the time with the idea that sometime in the future — in a few weeks or perhaps next year — life will be more spacious and restful and I’ll have more time for meditating and reflecting, and for doing things that I find truly meaningful. And yet when by some rare combination of circumstances I have some free time, I find that I soon start to think about what I can do with it. And then I’m back to square one.

It’s part of the human condition to be restless.

It’s part of the human condition to be restless, to be seeking something better than we have at the moment. The Buddhist word for this is tanha, which literally means thirst. We all have a sense of thirst at the core of our being, a dissatisfaction that drives us to find meaning and happiness. But all too often we don’t actually move in the direction of finding meaning and happiness. We just move. Without self-awareness we are inclined simply to find diversion (the word “diversion” usually means “distraction” but its root meaning is “to turn away from”). We fill our lives with busyness, with distraction. And having done so we are temporarily released from our thirst. In the white heat of activity we are less aware that we are suffering.

Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are.

Inevitably though, we crave a lull in activity, being exhausted of or bored by the activities we’re engaged in. Running around pursuing happiness can be exhilarating, but it fails to address our deep-seated longing for meaning and happiness, and in the midst of busyness our thirst re-asserts itself, driving us towards stillness. And so we cycle through activity, a craving for respite, a brief experience of rest, and a renewed desire for activity.

When we pause and reflect — assuming we can find enough time and mental space in which to do so — we can become aware of this cycle and become dissatisfied with it. We can decide to make a break with our habitual avoidance of our real needs. And so we can decide to make a more conscious effort to find real meaning in our lives. That’s where meditation and mindfulness often come into our lives. We get to the point where the same-old-same-old looks tired and worn out and unattractive, and we intuit that we’ll really have to work with ourselves if we’re going to make a real change in our lives.

Inner restlessness is a powerful force within that drives us onwards.

What is meditation (or, more broadly, mindfulness) if not learning how to sit quietly in a room? Often the first thing that happens when someone begins to meditate is that they realize how distracted they are. And that’s the first opportunity to learn to be at peace with ourselves. When we see the inner tumult of our minds we have a choice: to become frustrated or to be forgiving with ourselves. It takes time and practice, but we can learn to accept that the mind is restless. Paradoxically, realizing this brings a measure of peace because we are less caught up in fighting with ourselves.

Our tanha — the inner thirst that drives us to look for a more satisfying way of being — now has a sense of direction and clarity. We develop more of an instinctual sense that the way to happiness is through facing ourselves rather than running away from ourselves. We realize that we have to transform states of mind that lead to unhappiness and cultivate those that lead to a deeper sense of fulfillment.

J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées

We learn simply to observe our thoughts rather than to get caught up in fantasies; our mindfulness deepens. We stand back from our thoughts, just noticing them; our patience becomes stronger. We find it’s possible to let go of anger and develop kindness. We find that the mind becomes less restless and that there’s a greater sense of calmness. Rather than being caught up with inner conflicts we are more at ease and happiness arises. We feel a sense of direction manifesting in our lives and we experience greater confidence.

Ultimately, Pascal points out in that same passage in his Pensées, our desire for diversion is an avoidance of the sense of our own mortality. Our “weak and mortal condition” is a “natural misfortune” that afflicts us and renders us inconsolable. Our being, he points out, is contingent (we might never have been born had circumstances been different) and impermanent (it’s certain we will die). And thus there is a deep-seated fear of non-existence, to which the ego tries to blind itself by embracing diversion and removing any possibility for deeper reflection. Meditation helps here as well.

As we continue to observe the mind we realize that all of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise in our experience are impermanent. Within ourselves we can find nothing that is unchanging and enduring. Everything is in flux. All is change. Where then, is the “self” that we fear will die? With continued examination we begin to realize that “death” is happening in every moment. To change is to die, and change is taking place in every instant. And if that’s true, then rebirth is also taking place in every moment. As something changes, it becomes something else, and that “something else” is born. Looking a little deeper, we see that there is no “thing” to change. There is just process. The ego, upon examination, simply ceases to exist (at least in the way we used to think about it). There’s no permanent self to be found in our experience. And since the ego has ceased to exist we no longer have to fear its destruction. Death has lost its sting. Life has found its ultimate meaning. Contentment has been victorious over restlessness.

I have to keep saying “no” to distractions in order to say “yes” to my dreams.

Our tanha is not something to be seen as “bad” or even (in Buddhist terms) “unskillful.” It’s actually a powerful force within that drives us onwards. Without awareness it will drive us in circles where we make the same mistakes over and over. With awareness it leads us on to greater fulfillment and happiness.

In my own life I’ve found that I’m managing to live out my dream of being a full time writer. It takes discipline and mindfulness. I have to turn away from seductive diversions — even diversions like teaching that I find fulfilling and enjoyable in their own right. But I have to keep saying “no” to distractions (even to creative opportunities) in order to say “yes” to my dreams. And it’s challenging: the scary thing about the prospect of living your dream is that you may, when you get there, discover that it’s not what you want to do after all — and then where would you be? But it’s also rewarding and nourishing.

At the same time I have to bear in mind that no career — not even writing — can bring me true happiness. For that I have to face up to the “natural misfortune of my weak and mortal condition.” I have to cultivate insight. I have to learn to be able to sit — not writing — in a quiet room.

Read More

Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I once had a disturbed young man come to a meditation class I was teaching in Edinburgh. As we’d gathered and during the meditation instruction I’d noticed that he was unusually intense and that he had noticeably poor personal hygiene, but in most ways he seemed like a fairly typical young man.

In the discussion following, however, his conversation started to veer off into more bizarre areas. He’d had “cosmic” experiences during the meditation session — experiences whose details I no longer recall but which sounded very off-balance. His girlfriend was apparently an Iranian princess. He was being shadowed by various security forces. Later still, as we were winding up and preparing to leave, and he was able to talk to me more or less alone, his conversation became more delusional still. He had developed special powers through his spiritual practice and could make things happen in the world around him. As we talked a housefly smacked noisily into the glass door we were standing beside. “See!” he said, excitedly. “I made that happen.”

He was obviously ill and suffering, and I experienced that pang of knowing that there was little or nothing I could do to help.

I’m no mental health professional, but his behaviors reminded me of what little I knew about schizophrenia and so I suggested as kindly as I could that he might be misinterpreting his experiences and that he might want to talk to a doctor about what was going on. He was clearly having problems with his mental health, but here’s the thing: according to the Buddha, so were the rest of us. “All worldlings are mad,” he said.*

“Worldling” is a translation of “putthujana,” which is simply anyone who isn’t enlightened. That’s me, and you. The Buddha had his own ideas about what constitutes mental health, and by his definition anyone who isn’t well on the way to Enlightenment is insane. Quite how literally he meant it when he said “All worldlings are mad” is hard to say, but when he looked at ordinary people like us going about their daily business he saw a world out of balance — and a world that by necessity is out of balance, because it is composed of those same off-kilter individuals.

He had a term for this imbalance, which was viparyasa in Sanskrit, although the less-well-known Pali equivalent vipallasa is a bit easier on the tongue and the eye. Vipallasa means “inversion,” “perversion,” or “derangement.” Specifically, in using this term the Buddha was talking about the ways in which we misunderstand the world we live in, and the ways in which we misunderstand ourselves. Just at the young man at my meditation class was constantly misinterpreting what was happening (“See! I made that happen”) so too do the rest of us live in a virtual reality of delusion, confusion, and distortion.

What’s more, we largely share the same delusions, which means that we don’t even realize that our minds are disturbed. And thus, as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.

When I think of the vipallasas in modern life I’m overwhelmed by examples, but the one that springs most to mind is to materialism. We keep thinking that the answer to our sense of existential dissatisfaction is to buy more stuff: more stuff, and better stuff. I guess I notice this most with gadgets, but for other people it’s houses, furniture, shoes, clothes, or cars — none of which I care about at all. I get a new gadget — the shiny MacBook Pro I’m writing this article on, for example — and I feel a sense of pleasure just looking at it. It’s better, faster, prettier than any computer I’ve had before. But then what happens over time? Newer, better, faster, prettier computers come on the market, and I start comparing my machine unfavorably with them. My gadget starts to look a bit old-fashioned (after only six months!), less cool, less capable. It feels less fast. And I’m no longer so happy with it. I now start to hanker after something new.

And I’ve been through all this craziness before. (Don’t they say that insanity is doing the same time over and over and expecting a different result?) Even knowing that I’m on a materialistic treadmill doesn’t entirely blunt the craving for a new computer, although to give myself credit I live without a television and rarely make impulse purchases. But on some level I really believe that the answer to the discomfort of my cravings will arrive in a box carried by a UPS truck.

I work with these cravings in my meditation and in my daily life, because the Buddha suggested that there was a better answer to the problem of craving. His advice was that we need to look deeply at our craving itself, and to realize the many levels of delusion that come packaged with it. The new gadget (or pair of shoes, or that lovely sweater, or sexy car) doesn’t contain a magical ingredient that will make us happy. The object of our craving is impermanent and therefore incapable of giving lasting satisfaction.

Our craving itself is impermanent! We can watch cravings arise and pass. As we watch them come and go, choosing not to act on them, they begin to develop an unreal appearance. As we start increasingly to see through them we no longer take them so seriously, and they become weaker and less frequent. And in the end we come to see what the Buddha himself saw, which is that the answer to the problem of our cravings is not acquiring the object of our cravings but letting go of craving itself.

It’s through abandoning craving that we will finally find peace, that we’ll come back to our senses, stop seeing things in a distorted way, and find true health and wellbeing. And having done that, to whatever degree, we can look around at the imbalance that surrounds us — really seeing it — and then compassionately reach out to others so that we can help them bring about their own healing.

* I’ve since learned that this quotation is not from the Buddha, but is ultimately from the commentator Buddhaghosa. You can read more here.

Also the quote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” seems to be a condensation of something Krishnamurti said in his “Commentaries on Living, Series 3” (1960): “Is society healthy, that an individual should return to it? Has not society itself helped to make the individual unhealthy? Of course, the unhealthy must be made healthy, that goes without saying; but why should the individual adjust himself to an unhealthy society? If he is healthy, he will not be a part of it. Without first questioning the health of society, what is the good of helping misfits to conform to society?” Thanks to reader George Coyne for supplying the full quotation.

The condensed form used in the title of this article seems to have first been attributed to Krishnamurti by Mark Vonnegut in “The Eden Express” (1975). Misattributed or inaccurate quotes abound on the internet.

Read More

George Bernard Shaw: “A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

george bernard shaw

Are you addicted to busyness? Do you have a sense that your life could hold more meaning? Bodhipaksa discusses George Bernard Shaw’s provocative quotation, and draws out some important lessons about how taking the risk of going deeper into our experience leads to greater fulfillment.

A classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, and yet our lives are often characterized by repeated actions that cause us suffering and bring suffering to others as well. We get stuck in patterns of behavior that are destructive, or at least unhelpful or unfulfilling.

For example, I often find myself at the end of the day, after my parental duties are over with the baby tucked up in bed and my work filed away, surfing the web, reading the news. It seems like a harmless enough activity; after all, many people make more questionable use of the internet. But so often there’s a sense of restless compulsion to my endless browsing, as if I’m looking for something that will bring a sense of satisfaction. And no matter how many op ed articles, news reports, or blogs I dip into, no matter how late I stay up, that sense of satisfaction doesn’t come. And the reason it doesn’t come is because I’m looking in the wrong place: outside of myself. The satisfaction I’m looking for arises — I realize in my more mindful moments — by breaking out of the cycle of compulsive seeking and instead connecting with myself, going deeper into my experience.

When I turn my attention from the stimulation that I am craving to the experience of craving itself — when I turn my awareness to the sense of longing, to the feelings in my gut, to the underlying sense of dis-ease that I feel — I start to regain a sense of completeness once again. And if I start to reflect on my day, on what I’ve accomplished, on what I’ve learned, on the little things that I can now appreciate more fully, I begin to experience a positive sense of wellbeing.

So much of the time what we need to do is to stop doing and just experience ourselves. But this sounds, perhaps, paradoxical. After all, didn’t Shaw just disparage “doing nothing”? The problem is that we can’t take that phrase too literally. When Shaw talks about doing nothing he doesn’t literally mean that we’re disengaged from any activity whatsoever. We can never really do nothing. Even when we’re vegging out watching TV we’re still breathing and metabolizing and processing sound and images in the brain. What he means is that in our lives we can end up doing nothing of any consequence, doing nothing creative, nothing that leads to us being better, happier, wiser, more compassionate people, or to the world being a better place.

It’s perfectly possible in fact for us to “do nothing” and yet be intensely busy. The 11th to 12th century Tibetan teacher and founder of Kagyu Buddhism, Gampopa, talked about three kinds of laziness. The worst kind of laziness — gross laziness — involves “being attached to non-virtues such as destroying enemies and accumulating wealth.” To put this in more contemporary language we’re grossly lazy when we expend all our energy in pursuing status and materialism. Status and material wealth are inherently unstable things. “Past performance is no guide to the future,” as they say. “The value of your investments may go down as well as up.” So what happens when we’ve invested our sense of well-being in status and material possessions and something happens that sweeps these things out from under us? How are we then? That’s when we find out what lies deeper.

And just as for Shaw, doing nothing is not “doing nothing,” so making mistakes is not simply “making mistakes.” He’s pointing here to a life of creative experimentation in which we strive to find true meaning and to make something of our lives that’s more than just the “gross laziness” of climbing the career ladder and gathering a pretty collection of consumer goods. He means that it’s honorable to spend our lives engaged in a search for what is truly meaningful, to live an examined life, to see life as a creative endeavor with ourselves as the raw material for the creative process.

Such a life inevitably involves making mistakes, but the only way to create is to make an effort, fail, and learn from those failures. Many of us, when we first try learning meditation, inevitably bring along a consumerist mentality as we look for a quick fix. In the modern mind it seems there is no problem that we can’t buy our way out of or pay someone to fix for us. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because we all come to meditation with mixed motives and because meditation can help to broaden those motives as the doors of perception are opened.

But we come, sit awkwardly on the floor, and then discover that our minds are chaotic, unruly, full of unwanted thoughts and stray images. We may come back for the full four or six weeks of the course, but often we haven’t found the fix they’re looking for. We may decide that we have “failed” or that the technique has “failed” us, and so off we go looking for a better, quicker, easier tool to sort out the stress and lack of meaning in our lives. It doesn’t always work out like that, of course, and some, realizing that they have encountered a goldmine, begin furiously to dig. But many simply give up.

If babies were like adults none of us would be walking now. We’d have tried walking, fallen over, and then decided that walking isn’t for us. We’d have decided that crawling’s not so bad after all: “I’m just not the walking type.” “Walking? I tried that once but it didn’t work out. I’m into rolling now.” Fortunately children haven’t yet internalized our mental frameworks and so they pick themselves up after a fall and joyfully throw themselves forwards, falling again and again until finally they crack the mystery of moving forwards while remaining upright.

That’s how we need to approach meditation, and life generally — with a steady determination to live life better than we have done in the past, with faith that this is possible, and with the attitude that falling (or failing) is an inevitable part of the learning process.

Those who adopt this attitude not only live “honorable” lives but are frequently very “useful” people. Those who are determined to succeed frequently do so in spectacular fashion, and they are often highly effective individuals, shaping not only themselves but the world they live in, and leaving a legacy that gives them something approaching the immortality that Shaw himself has found. This kind of life requires that we always be prepared to “go deeper,” seeking self-knowledge and a more satisfying way of being, seeking the sanity of a life that doesn’t repeat the same mistakes over and over but instead seeks to learn from each and every experience.

Read More