Friday, October 20, 2006

Get settled and shake things up

Settling what is agitated and agitating that which is settled. How difficult is that? In other words, there are some things we keep fretting about or keep picking at, things which we worry over, that we need to let be, to accept, to be at peace with. But we find it so hard. On the other hand, there are things we must always be open to, with graciousness and without preconception or prejudgement, rather than being satisfied with our efforts or knowledge or understanding.

But this isn't one of those wise-sounding contradictions. They are both symptoms of the same problem. Imagine, for example, a student in a class who thinks about the material being taught strictly in terms of passing tests to finish the course. This student isn't very confident in his abilities and tries to focus on "getting by". His course selections are made based on this mindset, avoiding any challenges, as are his study habits. Assignments are burdens and new material is an affliction. This student has a fixed view of who he is and what he can or should do and it focuses on limitations and risk-aversion. Contrast this to a student who sees classes as an opportunity to learn. While adequately concerned about passing, his interest and effort generally translate into decent scores and evaluations. Because he has taken challenging courses, he is confident when beginning a new class and has developed good study habits. While assignments can be tiring, they are not usually causes for panic or frustration. Taking this as a generic example and pushing it to a greater extent in each direction, the "good student" is settled in the process of course taking. He doesn't know what will happen in each course, and he may be facing totally new content, so he must be open to new possibilities and willing to learn, as per the popular analogy about "beginner's mind". Despite his previous lessons he must guard against assumptions and arrogance, but because he has been through this many times, he is tempered in that regard. Hence he is confident even in the face of the unknown, anticipating the novel challenges that lay ahead. The student has a deep understanding and is settled.

In a similar way, many "spiritually mature" people have the same kind of quality. They are open to change, new perspectives, and not attached to labels, yet they are settled. In fact they can be open because they are settled. This doesn't mean they never have problems or challenges, but they see them in a different way. They are settled in ways that most of us are agitated while remaining in flux for things others are afraid to question or challenge. Like our student in the example, they see the happenings of their lives as irreplaceable opportunities, and tests as par for the course. They are diligent in their practice, and while they may have always had great potential, they have developed and reinforced good habits to realize that potential. This isn't an argument for what Shin Buddhists call "self-power", or what a Christian might think of as saving oneself though one's own efforts. Nor is it an argument for "other-power" (i.e. grace). I am not saying how one becomes properly settled and unsettled. I am not saying the student analogy holds in all cases. That is something for you and I to discover, or perhaps something to simply accept.

(Or maybe discovery and acceptance aren't always mutually exclusive.)

So get settled and shake things up, or, for some of you, shake things up so you can get settled!

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