Monday, December 31, 2007

Letting go of expecations not efforts

It is easy to talk about not being attached to things when we believe we are renouncing them. But renouncing something isn't the same as non-attachment. In the episode "Burn's Heir" (The Simpsons, Season Five), Homer says: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try." All humor aside, there is some ring of truth in what Homer is saying. It does appear that we can avoid failure by avoiding whatever it is we believe will lead to failure. Hence a lot of talk about non-attachment can easily lead to non-living.

Take smoking or drinking. Just because you renounce cigarettes or booze does NOT mean you are no longer "attached" to the false views and cravings your body and mind have learned to associate with nicotine or alcohol. While in these cases it may in fact be healthier if one can learn to live without (abusing) such substances, the point is that even when one is attempting to shun something (or someone) there can still be a deep attachment that is as strong or stronger in aversion as in attraction.

Related to this are all the things we feel are our weaknesses. Now, if you have a weakness, I am not suggesting you run out in front of it like a child into a busy intersection. We should be sensible about problems such as addiction, anxiety attacks, etc. If you walk with a cane I am not saying toss it aside and try to sprint up the stairs. But there is this well-known sense we all have at times that we can deal with problems by avoiding them. And in my humble opinion this is as true for Buddhist practice as anything else. When this kind of thinking takes root in our fear of failure it can masquerade as a claim of non-attachment or non-interest.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that many (most?) of us are results oriented. Not only results oriented, but visibly, causally-linked results oriented. This isn't bad, but this perspective can distort our appreciation of the full effects of our actions, speech, and thought. That is, if there is no immediately perceptible benefit, we may think an activity is pointless. If there is no immediately perceptible injury, we may think an activity is harmless. But many insights from traditions such as Buddhism remind us this is not necessarily so.

We can appear, therefore, to be "doing well" because we don't abuse drugs or alcohol, we don't smoke, we are at a good weight, we aren't in trouble with the authorities, and we have a decent job and few close relationships. Isn't that the ideal many of us have of what it means to lead a good life and to be adequate? Yet so many people in such situations suffer. And as Buddhists we may tell them that it is because of their unhealthy attachments and cravings, or because they are concerned with themselves ahead of others, and such things may be true, but do we do with that?

Do we have to renounce our family, friends, money, job, home, public image, etc? Do we have to renounce our selfishness and foolishness (assuming we could ever really give those things up as if they were just simple bad habits)? Can we not have ambition? Is it OK to give up on our dreams by calling them the selfish delusions of our false ego-minds? Are our efforts only as good as the immediate results we can directly perceive?

As I have written time and time again, I am not a Buddhist monk or priest. Nor am I any kind of ordained minister, or some self-styled prophet or guru. I am not a self-help coach. I just share my experiences and those things that others have shared with me. And I am not saying something people generally haven't heard before, but there is hearing and there is hearing. And so as I "get" something again for the umpteenth time, I suppose I have a desire to share it with you as well.

In this case, the issue is using the idea conflating renouncing/avoiding with non-attachment and lack of goals, dreams, or ambitions with the full expression of such an understanding non-attachment. Hence we can also indulge our fear of failure as we no longer have a reason to try. It's a perfect storm of rationalized detachment and demotivation masquerading as insight and tranquility - you float in the eye and ignore the wind and surf on all sides. It's the spiritual equivalent of curling up in the fetal position and sucking your thumb.

What is much scarier, but ultimately more rewarding and useful, is to know how to be at peace even when your are in turmoil. How to find that tranquility in the midst of the storm, not despite it. That means we still try (rejection). And try (failure). And try (exposure). But not because we want to earn our peace of mind, but rather because we already rooted in it. We can't see that at first - there doesn't appear to be an immediate benefit to living our spiritual practice. But if there is, that means we aren't just "trying", we are "doing". And it means we have to face our own expectations and transcend them rather than trying not to care or pretending we don't have expectations when we try ("do"). So then we aren't letting go of our efforts, just our expectations. Not in the renouncing way, but in the being comfortable living with them way. That is, in the yup, there they are, but they don't bother as much way.

I don't know about you, but that still bothers me. As is said in a Chan Buddhist podcast on "Fearlessness" I've linked before,

The ability to neither accept nor repudiate ego - that's real guts. We can be brave and stand up to it, "Oh, I know your just smoke and mirrors, I'm not going to--not going to let you fool me, Ego, you old foe of mine." Neither do we say "I'm going to turn my back on you, so there! So you can't affect me." Neither of those takes real fearlessness. Real fearlessness is the ability to do neither...Neither rejecting ego as foe or ignoring ego as phantom."
-Shih Ying-Fa

So, since people tend to make a big deal about a new (calendar) year and making resolutions and inspecting their lives, what better challenge for now and always (do we really need the "and" there?) than to practice fearlessness. My best to all of you! Thank you all for the lessons you have shared with me.

1 comment:

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...