There's my bio picture over there. I'm smiling, and you see the word "Buddhism" floating somewhere next to my photo, and you might think I'm either smug, which is sometimes true, or that I'm a very kind and peaceful person who just goes with the flow, and never gets angry or scared or yells at his kids. That, also, is sometimes true.
Then there are other times when I do yell at my kids, and chain smoke, and get mad and shoot my mouth off and hurt people's feelings, and get extremely anxious about finances and relationships and jobs and where exactly my life is going, and write emails to my girlfriend about being completely without hope; and sometimes I find myself thinking it would be easier to just hole up somewhere with a bottle of bourbon and a carton of Marlboros for a couple days until it all blows over. When those times happen, I feel like a hypocrite for writing this column. Meditation is supposed to make you calm, isn't it? Doesn't it bring "inner peace?" Isn't there a Zen Happy Place I can retreat to in my mind when the above happens?
In many ways the path to developing what might be called sanity is the complete opposite of retreat. The term "yeshe chölwa" in Tibetan means "crazy wisdom," or "wisdom gone wild." Buddhism's most venerable teachers, including Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the secular Buddhist Shambhala community, recognize their own issues. By settling down, relaxing into our-lives-as-they-are with all these jagged edges, we realize how much we share them with everybody else. Compassion becomes a firmer ground for sanity than any misty mountaintop. This is the essence of Shambhala Training.
Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, Shambhala teacher, and student of Chogyam Trungpa, is a prolific writer on working with difficult emotions, without self-judgment. (If you like or are interested in her writing, every Wednesday a book club meets to discuss Chödrön's No Time to Lose at the Shambhala Center of Minneapolis). In When Things Fall Apart she tells a story from her younger years, before she was a Buddhist, about coming home and having her husband meet her outside the house to announce he was leaving her for another woman. She describes a moment of absolute calm, a moment where she experienced complete awareness of everything around her, everything she saw, heard, and smelled in the tense air of that moment. The sky, the wind, the trees, the sounds of birds. Then, as she tells it, she threw a coffee cup at his head.
More than the many pages of powerful wisdom she offers, it was that anecdote that hooked me. I knew I was about to read something very honest, and that reading it, I wouldn't feel as guilty as I do reading other Buddhist books, whose authors seem to float so far above me, impervious to anger, anxiety, depression, and lust, as I remain down here, grappling with my own human wreckage.
Chödrön writes honestly not just about her past but about the emotions she experiences today as the director of a Buddhist abbey. About how easy it is to judge, how difficult it is to receive criticism, how nice it is to have everybody like you and think you're brilliant. If a Buddhist nun can admit so freely to anger, egotism, and fear, and if, as she suggests in many of her teachings, hiding from our emotions in our Zen Happy Place brings more suffering in the long run than allowing those feelings to make their case, then maybe I shouldn't feel like such a hypocrite for cursing at other drivers or bellowing at my six-year-old for not getting his mitten on quickly enough. The ponderous question remains: if practicing Buddhism doesn't cure unhappiness or guarantee me becoming a "better" person, why bother?
Life = what happens when you're making other plans
There is nothing misguided or naïve about looking for respite from the sometimes claustrophobic experience of human sensations and emotions. Anger, anxiety, depression, and pain press in upon you, and your mind tightens up in response, and suddenly the world looks very small, and everything inside that small place looks pretty bad. The harder you look for inner peace, the more it may squirrel its way out of your view. It is a lot like trying to remember who sung that song, or who that actor was in that movie. You scour your mind; you try every tactic you can to trick the little kidnapper in your brain into setting the memory free. No luck until later, when you're driving and thinking about something entirely different altogether, and the name just comes to you.
So too might it be with the fruits of meditation. When you come at it from a see-what-happens kind of perspective, you'll be surprised by the increasing number of absolutely perfect moments you catch yourself having. But the more you cling to these moments, the less interesting the ones in between will seem. The ones in between make up most of our lives. What can make them in the least, tolerable, and at best, sort of magical?
Becoming one with everything, but not with everyone
Many of those in-between moments involve other people. It's easy to feel one with everything when you're sitting on a cushion, the light of the breaking day coming through the window, or when you're walking in the woods; even sweeping the floor or washing dishes you can lose yourself in the simple magic of just being around. But when you're sitting in a boring meeting, dealing with your boss, negotiating with your ex-spouse, or stuck in a very long and very slow moving checkout line, there's a shock of truth to the quotation from No Exit, "hell is other people." Dealing with other people is the ultimate trial of any mystical quest. Practicing Buddhism does not always deliver the cosmic experiences we think we're looking for; meditation doesn't necessarily transform you instantly into a calmer and more easy-going person with no faults. But is very likely to give you a new way of looking at other people that could just blow your mind.
About ten years ago something pretty tragic happened to one of my good friends. His mother, with whom he'd always had a shaky relationship, had gotten very sick, very suddenly, and soon after had passed away. It was a shock. I spent a lot of time giving him advice about dealing with it-different ways of looking at what had happened so it didn't hurt so much. It was typical "look on the bright side" kind of advice, but with an edge. I didn't know it at the time, but I was viewing his grief as a problem to be solved versus a feeling to be felt. I think I even saw it as a kind of deficiency, in fact.
When he didn't take my advice-about savoring the good memories, thinking about what's ahead, viewing his mother as a timeless idea that could live in his mind forever; about getting exercise and taking up hobbies-and yet still complained about being miserable and hopeless, I got annoyed. I told him I couldn't help him anymore. He didn't talk to me for a long time after that, years. I'll number this story among one of the biggest regrets of my life so far.
Can there be wisdom without compassion, or vice versa?
Here's a Zen story that was told to me by a good friend:
There was a Zen monk who, for years, devoted himself completely to attaining enlightenment. After many years, he recognized that he was old, and would unfortunately probably never attain enlightenment. So he decided to abandon his quest for enlightenment and instead devote himself to being useful around the monastery. Immediately upon making that decision, he became enlightened.
Practicing Buddhism has *not* made me totally cool and reflective. I have not become a sage, who does not freak out over every little thing. But it sold me on the idea of being "useful" to other people. All of a sudden it's as if I can step back from the edge of the narrow, claustrophobic tube through which I've been trying to see my life, and realize how invested I was in what happened inside that tiny circle, a circle I had thought was the whole world. The role of meditation in this is as a daily training in the ability to step back from the immediate demands of my thoughts, so I can later, practicing "mindfulness" (which is like meditation you do throughout the day) experience the novel magic of not-acting in certain situations, watching not only how freeing it can be, released from the burden of forcefully shaping and controlling my life, but also, seeing the powerful magic nature can work when we host rather than direct its creative force. (This is Nature in kind of a Taoist sense, the way lots of separate pieces work together to make things happen).
Because I've been sold intellectually on the idea of being useful, sometimes the thing I want to achieve or control is to help somebody out. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said compassion is, "…not so much feeling sorry for somebody, feeling that you are in a better place and somebody is in a worse place. Compassion is not having any hesitation to reflect your light on things." How fortunate that I am the way I am, sort of crazy. Not-hesitating is one of the good parts of being insane.