04 October 2007


Hooray for the migrating head cold! My sinuses are no longer blockaded by icky goo and I can think straight (or as much as I ever do). Unfortunately the goo has migrated down into my chest so I have a fun hacking cough. I feel pretty good, though, but because of the cough I'm cancelling going to the gym today (although really, who wouldn't want to work out on a machine some guy just coughed up a lung on?).
I rambled on in no particular direction here about the gym, cleaning the house, setting goals, the existence of God and the soul, Buddhism, mindfulness, and the elimination of anxiety. The rest of it is after the jump.

The last couple weeks I've just been going through the motions in the gym anyway. Not sure why. Lack of motivation I suppose though usually I'm pretty good at self-motivating. I guess I'm just feeling a little... well, I said "unmoored" in an earlier post and I like that word so I'm sticking with it. I've been having good thoughts about a story I want to work on, but I can't sit down and work on it. I've given myself things to do every day and for the most part have accomplished them. Maybe I need to set bigger goals. Not "clean out the filing cabinet," but rather "eliminate all useless crap from bedroom." That's a full day right there; I fear it's a full week, and I think that fear stops me trying to make it a full day. I mean, I have this goal in mind--clean out house and organize so as to enable combining of households--but that's pretty nebulous. Maybe I should set a goal for poundage of stuff thrown or given away.

I think that's the problem with my goal-setting. I haven't set any clear goals for this house-cleaning project. I haven't set a clear goal for words written or pages edited, just a "I'd like to work on that." I haven't set a clear goal for workouts, I just go to the gym. Clear goals would probably help. Then again, as Peter says in Dodgeball, "I find that if you have a goal, you might not meet it. But if you don't, then you are never dissatisfied." Unfortunately I don't think he's right...

Dissatisfaction is interesting in itself. The Buddha said all of life is suffering, but the word translated as "suffering" can also be translated as "dissatisfying." Meaning, even when we aren't suffering, for example when we're happy, life is still dissatisfying, because happiness is transient. Eventually we'll be unhappy, or less happy anyway, and so we crave more happiness and that leads to cravings for other things that we think will bring happiness. And the cravings lead to more dissatisfaction and suffering. But who doesn't want to be happy? How do you move beyond craving happiness, and why bother?

If my limited understanding is correct, you bother because while happiness is good, it is transient, and craving it leads to suffering and dissatisfaction. You can never be happy 100% of the time, and if you were, you'd start to wonder whether happiness wasn't just a sham and what you really wanted was to be ecstatic all the time. Humans naturally want more than they have, whether that be material or spiritual; Buddha's enlightenment was to free himself from that constant desire for more (tanha, craving). He lived for many years after achieving enlightenment and was thus able to enjoy happiness and suffer grief, but he was mindful of these things and experienced them without allowing them to overtake him or create cravings.

This mindfulness of emotion is what has interested me a lot recently. The thing about Buddhism seems to me to be that most Buddhists won't achieve enlightenment during their lifetimes and have no expectation of it. That Buddhism is a religion without God or a soul means that these people then, as I see it, are really quite hopeless. I suppose perhaps this is why there are so many branches of Buddhism that have adopted the ideas of spirits and Bodhisattvas and karma carrying over into new lifetimes and so forth, the sorts of things your Richard Gere-type American Buddhist gets all silly and New-Age about. Buddha cautioned against such things and, importantly, insisted enlightenment was available to all of his followers during their current lifetime. That seems to have been lost.

Unfortunately for me, after some meditation last week and this week, I determined that although Buddha insisted there was no God and no soul and further said belief in the soul was the cause of much suffering and craving, I find that I believe in God and believe we have souls. I don't know why, rationally. And I think that, in fact, may have much to do with it--on a rational level I don't understand why I would believe in God, but God doesn't want or need my rational explanation for His existence; He wants my faith. And on that level, faith, when I probe around the darkened corners of my mind, God is there. And that's all there is to it.

But I still believe--actually, I know--that my life is full of craving and dissatisfaction. And my albeit perfunctory examination of the Christian faith has thus far failed to show me how to be rid of that. Indeed, listening yesterday to a bluegrass CD I was struck by the song "Heaven's Bright Shore." A lot of gospel tunes carry this theme (this is an old song anyway):
On Heaven's bright shore
(on Heaven's bright shore)
There'll be no dying
(over there)
Not one little grave
(not one little grave)
In all that fair land
(that wonderful land)

Not even a tear will dim the eye
And no one up there will ever cry
Just singing His praise
Through endless days
On Heaven's bright shore.

That is craving, my friends, that right there. We crave to be free of grief. We crave to exist in eternal joy.

I mean, on the one hand, God would presumably want us to crave an eternity in Paradise, hence to obey His commandments; why else give commandments and create Paradise? But how much of the form of God-centered religions--Christian, Judaism, Islam--is created by humans to direct human behavior? Created by humans, not by God? I mentioned in my earlier debate after the dream that I don't understand why all our conceptions of hell only involve things that would harm a human body; similarly, our conceptions of heaven all involve eternal bliss, the one thing we'd like to have down here but can't get. It smacks of salesmanship, crafty salesmanship at that. Do what I say and when you die, you'll get what you wish you could have right now. I don't know, something strikes me as manipulative if not downright evil in that notion. This is how the fanaticists get people to sign up as suicide bombers, is by promising them things in the afterlife, and any slope that leads to suicide bombing is slippery indeed. Why not promise something good in this life?

Buddha doesn't offer a lifetime of bliss, nor does he claim that such is even possible. But if we are mindful and rise above craving and learn to live in the present, we will realize that there is joy in many things we currently overlook, and that pain and suffering are as transient as ecstasy. In this way we find that we are capable of having satisfaction all the time, regardless of our situation. Satisfaction is not happiness nor should it be confused with it, but it is certainly better than dissatisfaction.

So I like this idea of mindfulness and living in the present. Buddha notes that when we are mindful we realize that we are not the only ones suffering and dissatisfied, and therefore we discover that we must have compassion for everyone, and therefore we will work to reduce suffering in the world. That's a good thing, too. If living in the present causes that we should all do so.

But I'm an American; we don't live in the present. The present is an annoying pit stop on the way to a future we will never actually reach. Some people call this the "Protestant Work Ethic" or the "American Dream." It's craving. It built this country. But we are an overstressed and undersatisfied people, and living in the present needn't prevent us from having ambition and goals. But I still have a lot of trouble with it. It's something I'm working on. I can do it from time to time--indeed, it's been mentioned that we all live in the present in those first few moments in the morning when we are enjoying lying in bed, before we start thinking about the day ahead. But I need a lot more practice.

Mindfulness is another matter. I mentioned the Eightfold Path in the dream post; Right Mindfulness is the seventh element thereof. It is grounded in bringing your consciousness back into the present, which allows you to notice not only the sensations you are experiencing, but to recognize your mind's commentary on your present experience--and by recognizing, to treat the commentary as just that, and free yourself from judging experiences as good or bad.

I've been thinking about that. The Eightfold Path is not necessarily meant to be taken as a course of eight steps, but the last two, mindfulness and concentration, ultimately are I suppose the most difficult (and generally are seen are being part of meditation). But there is an aspect of mindfulness that has interested me:
(ii) He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves ... ardent, aware, and mindful ... having already put aside worldly desire and aversion.

So I haven't managed the last part of that. But the first part, focus on feelings as things in and of themselves, seems valuable no matter how far away from enlightenment one might be. I have anxiety, fear, anger, these things in spades some days. How nice it would be to be able to medititate on these feelings as feelings and thereby remove their sting. I may not eliminate anxiety or anger, but I can separate them from myself and examine them as feelings, apart from their proximate causes, and thereby reduce the power they have. For example, yesterday I got stuck in traffic going to pick Smittygirl up from work, and it made me angry and frustrated. You can't meditate in traffic, but if through meditation I learned to recognize the anger and frustration as things in themselves, perhaps I could pull those lessons into traffic and calm myself when the sea of brakelights beckons.

I tried it last night. I wasn't tired. I got up and read for a while, and when I went back to bed, I was terribly anxious. A couple things have been bothering me lately; I won't go into detail, but I couldn't stop thinking about it, worrying about it. Worry is living in the future, fearing the future; it is clearly not mindful, but right mindfulness might allow me to decouple from my worry and examine it as a thing. I considered that.

I stopped thinking about the cause of my anxiety--which was anyway in the future and not something I could affect while lying in bed at midnight-thirty--and instead focussed on the anxiety itself. What did it feel like? My blood pressure was up. I felt warm. I noticed that the fan was blowing cool air on my leg and my leg did not feel warm. I associated the warm feeling with the anxiety, so I threw off the sheet and let the fan counteract it. I then examined what anxiety felt like in my mind. I isolated three areas in my head where I felt the anxiety. I noticed that all three of them were on the right side; one was a narrow finger above my temple, the next was a wider area between my temple and ear but separated from the first area, the last was another narrow finger at the back of my head far removed from from the others. I probed this feeling for a while, which was interesting. Was my anxiety being produced by my brain in these areas, or was this feeling just something that was being created as a response to my examination? I don't know. I considered whether the creative part of my brain might suffer this anxiety without the logical part of my brain being involved. As I thought about that, I noticed that I was no longer warm, and my blood pressure had come down. I realized I wasn't experiencing anxiety any longer. I noticed the cool breeze from the fan. Fairly soon I was asleep.

I don't know what happened. But I intend to do that again the next time anxiety keeps me up at night. Meditation is surely preferable to Xanax.

1 comment:

Melinda said...

Interestingly, Jesus never promised a life of complete happiness and prosperity. Rather, he said there will be times of suffering (look at what the disciplines went through after Jesus's death), but there is comfort in knowing that, with Jesus, we will never walk through life alone.

Call me. I miss you.