Thursday, February 1, 2007

Cause it's how you are supposed to feel

Well, I suppose I should start off with a list of caveats and mea culpas so that people don't necessarily think I am talking to or about them with regard to any general or specific aspect of the following touchy topic, but you know yourself better than I do and whether you could or should take any of it personally.

When I was growing up, I had a great wish to learn and know, to be fair, and for myself and the people I was around to be generally happy. That was a genuine feeling I had. It didn't rest on any particular belief system or political ideology. It's just how I felt the world, or at least my time in it, ought to be. Because of the circumstances of my life, I grew up in an area where religion was a synonym for mostly Protestant Christianity, and so this is how I first tried to follow/live up to that wish. If you have been in some of these churches, then you have seen and heard certain things. You have seen and heard people agreeing with the message or song on tap, and you have seen people responding to prayer and to altar calls (the latter for those not in the know is an invitation to come forward to the front of the church and throw yourself on God's mercy because you feel that something in the service was speaking directly to you or a situation in your life).

I never felt like answering an altar call. Never. Not once. I also didn't "feel" the presence of God or his Son or angels at the same time as other people - that is, others around me would swear aloud (in a manner of speaking, perhaps a better phrasing would be testify) about the Presence that was surround and filling them. This was interesting when the people in question were sometimes less than three feet away. Now this is not about whether there is any kind of God, or about the veracity of Christianity. So if that's where your mind is headed, reign it in and get back on track, 'cause you are off course here. It's OK, I can see why you might think that's where all of this is headed, but it's not.

The thing is, people can get good at saying and doing the right things in the proper context, such as in church around fellow believers. This can create a kind of mentality where the reinforcement of the behavior of others seems to validate your convictions, even if your own experiences are sometimes lacking. Nor is this strictly a religious phenomenon - it can be observed in political and academic circles as well. But anyway, it seemed like there was a way you were supposed to feel, and this was based on 1) the teachings you had received, and 2) the fact that reality was in accord with these teachings. The issue of whether such teachings might influence your perception and interpretation of reality aside, the bottom line was this - if you believe A, B, or C, then logically you should feel X, Y, or Z about a particular occurrence. To take a lame example, if you think dandelions cause cancer, then you should be happy to eradicate them from your yard. If you think dandelions draw angels near them and you think having angels around is a good thing, you should be miserable to find all dandelions have been eradicated from your yard. But there are, sometimes, gaps. You technically ought to feel a certain way, but you don't.

These gaps tend to happen for larger truths that are less directly connected to our everyday experience, whether they are rooted in sacred tradition or not. For example, you may in theory believe that since each moment is irreplaceable that each one should be seen as a gift, an irreplaceable treasure. Whether this gift comes from God or not is moot in this instance. But there are days you just don't feel blessed. The moment(s) stretch(es) on and on and on, and you are just not so thrilled, even though you "should" be. You then find that many of the platitudes and teachings and wise, inspirational little quotes you thought were so profound sound a little sanctimonious - they ring a little hollow. And of course, what do many people do when they find out your aren't feeling the right way? They do what you may often do yourself, and trot out the same cliched truisms you yourself are so fond of passing out like candy on Halloween.

But I find that the worth of any life philosophy, spiritual path, or sacred tradition comes precisely at moments such as these. If they offer nothing when you are down, then what they offer when you are up is just a candy-coated placebo.

Honestly, I look around now at so many Buddhist books, and magazines, and web pages, and there seems to be glib quality, a shallow casualness, to how certain fundamental truths and teachings are treated. In some cases they become co-opted as support beams for a particular agenda or position on an issue. The words sound wise and meaningful, but they are unattached to experience, to deep knowing. Which leads us back to where we came in. Even in the emerging American-style Buddhism, one can imagine (or some may claim observe) that as these teachings become less centered on/validates through living them and more of a general world-view, a similar kind of malaise can occur in this tradition as well. You ought to feel a particular way because, after all, it is consistent with the teachings you subscribe.

Now I feel at this point in order to get enough breadth, the depth of the topic (and its focus) has suffered somewhat. So, here is what I am wondering. What, in the various testimonials and dharma discussions and the like, is actually genuine? And, what does/should Buddhism or any other life philosophy, spiritual path, or sacred tradition say or offer to someone who is "down" and just not feeling it, so to speak?

So, thinking back, if there is a God, to me God would be the potential in which our reality perpetually arises and unfolds in constant Creation, but without the kind of personification commonly found in Abrahamic religions - instead God to me would be more like the Tao from the Tao Te Ching. That doesn't preclude some higher awareness, just not the kind of petty "simply a bigger more powerful version of a human mind" kind of thing. But if that is true, then looking back, I have to wonder how many people were really in tune with God during my church going days. And, you know, I would suspect, if we assume there is anything to find, that it would be generally the unassuming ones who were warm, honest, easy-to-get along with down-home folks, who were strong and caring parents, grandparents, siblings, etc, who knew just enough of the Bible but who weren't making a big show or "feeeeeeeelin' the Lord!" every Sunday, not into judgment and piousness, who were more likely to be the ones really "getting it". So now let's turn to Buddhism, and the Dharma, and Buddha-nature. How many of the people who prattle on about it, or who talk about experiencing frequently, are really "getting it"? How many just hope they are, or wish they were, or think they might be because they have an intellectual assent to the teachings and a regular formal practice? It seems to me that "getting it" is kind of an on or off thing - you do or you do not, there is no try. But at the same time, I don't think "getting it" is and end, either, but more like a constant companion and reminder that stays with us even when we are in the doldrums. Maybe that's why we tend to personify "getting it".

Yet if we can "get it" and still at times find ourselves to be out of sorts, frustrated, or discouraged, then what is our companion reminding us then? What is that message, whether embodied or transmitted through a life philosophy, spiritual path, or sacred tradition, for someone on the outs?

I can't speak for you. I can't speak for "getting it" on your behalf. The next time you are down and out, I guess you will get another shot at hearing the message yourself. So don't let what I say, or what someone else may write on the topic, "poison you", so to speak. I don't mean you won't find the same answer, or that my answer or someone else's is wrong, but rather that hearing what someone else thinks may bias your own experience at best or serve as a substitute for having your own genuine experience at worst.

Just as you are...

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