When it comes to explaining difficult concepts like emptiness (sunyata) or God, Buddhanature, nirvana, or atman many religions fall back on a tried and true cop-out: “It can’t be explained in words.” It’s ineffable, beyond language, something that must be known, not told. For a long time, I was perfectly content with this explanation and diligently searched for these ‘ineffable’ things where I was supposed to, in experience, particularly religious or contemplative experiences such as meditation.
I easily recognized the limitations and fallibility of language. After all, I can barely give someone driving directions from here to there, let alone directions to enlightenment. Language is purely symbolic, after all. Even ideographic languages like Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics are just slightly less abstract symbols. Alphabetic languages like English and Arabic are abstractions of abstractions, the sound of a word written down. Sometimes the sound resembles the thing, as in ‘plunk’ or ‘sting,’ but the written form scarcely looks the part. Moreover, words are experientially-loaded, meaning that my understanding of ‘dog’ is dependent on all the dogs I’ve ever experienced. No two people share the exact same experiences.
This being true, isn’t everything ineffable? Isn’t ‘table’ just as impossible to fully communicate as ‘buddhanature?’
Surely not, you might think. She’s gone off the deep end. A table is a table. But what table is it?
If I say “We sat at the table,” what do you envision? I know what I mean because I was there. I experienced it. Did you envision a round, wooden table with a pedestal base, painted red, with an inset checkerboard? I bet you didn’t. Yet you were probably pretty certain you knew what I meant by ‘table,’ right?
What if I told my brother, “We sat at the table in Mom’s yard,” somewhere we’ve both been? Well, that’s different, then. We share an experience that makes that table very clearly ‘effable.’ But does it? If we could take a perfect three-dimensional model of my mental image of ’Mom’s table’ and my brother’s ‘Mom’s table,’ would they be the same? Would he remember the missing chunks taken out of the base where our dog chewed on it? Or that gouge in the top from that time I threw a rock at him?
Even if we could scan the table with one of those topographic lasers and take perfect photographs of it to depict the color and load it all in a computer that could precisely represent the table to others, would we then be able to fully communicate that table? How about the way it smells, like pine and new paint and mildew? What about how the top is worn rough in some places and smooth in others? Or the weight of it, about half a ton by my last estimate? And that’s just the physical table. What about all the associated memories, of backyard parties and winter storms piling up feet of snow until the red surface was completely buried, or that time it fell off the truck when we were moving? If we could somehow perfectly share all that, too, could we then somehow communicate ‘table?’ Or is that table, and every other table, actually truly ineffable?
So what about those other things? Buddhanature and God and emptiness and all that? I mean, at least a table is a physical thing. We can touch and see it. What about love and psychology and higher math and other things we can’t touch or see? What about Enlightenment and Salvation?
Well, if I can explain in such great detail in words a table that never even existed, surely we can stop saying such silly things about these loaded religious concepts. Let’s just take it as a given. Of course, they’re ineffable. Everything is. Now let’s move on and try to communicate something more meaningful. Let’s not mistake the finger for the moon, but let’s not allow the metaphor of the finger and moon to stop the conversation. There is a great deal to be learned from experience, but human beings process experience through language, which is, perhaps, the only thing that is actually fully ‘effable.’ Language is the only way that we have (presently) to learn from the experiences of others.
What is your experience of Buddhanature? What is your table? Because I want to know. Tell me.
There is a part of my mind that wants me to take it easy. “Relax,” it says, “you’ve worked hard. Watch another episode. You deserve it. You can work later.” This is my Lazy Mind. It is the home to the procrastination and ennui that prevent me from getting things done. When I listen to it, I feel good for a little while, but then I experience anxiety because of everything left undone. I recriminate my Lazy Mind and fight against it. In all my years, it’s never gone away. I’ve never won the fight.
Yet my Lazy Mind is not a ‘bad’ part of me. It has good intentions. It protects me from overdoing it, from exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout. It reinforces my self worth and shines a positive light on all the work I actually accomplish. ‘Lazy Mind’ is a pejorative label I’ve given it over the years because of the strong, Midwestern, Protestant work ethic I inherited. A kinder label might be Relaxing Mind or Self-Care Mind, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. First it needs to be tamed.
The problem with Lazy Mind is the same problem with all mind – it suffers from the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and delusion. It is attached to the pleasure of relaxation, averse to the effort or work, and deluded in it’s understanding of what constitutes right self-care. Like the rest of the mind, Lazy Mind can be transformed into a wiser and more compassionate part. It wants to be tamed, to come in from the wild.
I have written in the past about struggling to create discipline in my life. Lazy Mind has a strong hand in that. My ever-changing class schedule is also another factor. I wake and sleep at slightly different times, eat breakfast and lunch at odd hours, shower whenever, do homework randomly, and so on. Yet, I still manage to get to class on time, work effectively, and manage regular study blocks, so I must have some orderly discipline in there somewhere, despite my Lazy Mind’s opposition.
People who study the formation of habits have noted a simple pattern: cue, response, reward. Your tummy grumbles (cue), you go into the kitchen a fix a sandwich (response), and you eat (reward). They say that if you want to develop a new habit (or get rid of an old one), you need to find a strong cue to prompt the behavior and then reward the behavior.
I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of this advice. (What am I? A dog?) It seems to reinforce attachment and desire rather than eliminate them. However, the Buddha said that desire for enlightenment is a useful tool, like a raft to cross the flood (MN 22), and should be cultivated. So perhaps the cultivation of good habits are a form of skillful means (upaya)? Don’t the many forms of Buddhist monasticism and ritual deliberately cultivate diligence through the formation of good habits?
My Lazy Mind resists the formation of habits that bring diligence and order. It fears being trapped into an unsatisfying lifestyle. It has good reason to fear. The most orderly, disciplined, and habitual parts of my life (public school and the few years after) was also the least satisfying. I felt trapped and lost. It was not until I radically shook up my life by going back to the university (and changing jobs and selling my house) that I found satisfaction. My Lazy Mind resists the trap of order and diligence that it associates with dissatisfaction, with not doing what I want to do.
My lack of insight into this force at work within myself has hindered me from bringing order and discipline back into my life. My Lazy Mind needs more than my understanding, it needs my compassion and reassurance. What it does, reminding me to take it easy, protecting me from dissatisfaction and burnout, these are good things. Discipline is not a trap. It can even help me to be more at ease because I can accomplish more when my discipline is good. I will work more efficiently and leave more room for relaxation and enjoyment, free from the followup anxiety and stress.
Therefore, like a skittish horse, I will gentle my mind slowly, letting it get used to the smell and feel of the bit and saddle, so that when I need to ride, it won’t panic and try to throw me. I start with a simple resolution: I will introduce one new habit each week, using the cue-response-reward method. As I plan these carefully, conscious of where the resistance arises, and listen to honest objections and take them seriously. Lazy Mind has its own wisdom that I can learn to recognize and appreciate.
My first habit is getting up promptly. This has always been difficult for me. Getting up in the morning meant going to a school or job I hated. But I still remember doing it with alacrity on Saturdays and Christmas (at least until my teenage years), so I know the capacity is in my somewhere. My cue is my alarm. I give myself one snooze button to come gently awake. Crawling out of bed in the cold is also a problem, so I will mount a hook much closer to my bed so I can immediately warm up in my fuzzy Jedi robe. To complete the comfort, I will get a soft pair of warm slippers. The reward is a warm cup of coffee and vegging in front of my computer for ten minutes before doing anything else. This is week one. The rest can wait.
Lazy Mind, are you listening? You take care of me very well. Now let me take care of you. We’re in this together.
Note: If it seems a bit odd that I am talking about parts of myself as though they are discrete identities, please read Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model by Richard C. Schwartz or Parts Work by Tom Holmes. This is the topic of one of my classes this semester and it requires a great deal of inner work (no mere intellectualizing here!) that will no doubt continue to be reflected in my blog.
I officially left the United Methodist Church when I was fifteen. I hadn’t considered myself Christian for at least a year, but it took a little time to work up the courage to tell my parents I wouldn’t be attending Sunday service any longer. There was some yelling and a slammed door, but in the end the fallout was minimal. The high school classmates in my small town naturally noticed my absence. There were questions and lunch-room debates as I became notable as the school’s only avowed atheist.
But what really changed?
Not much, as far as I can tell. I think this was surprising to my peer group. I didn’t suddenly become a violent, lying, drug-dealing, anarchist slut. My moral beliefs and behaviors remained stable. I did not need God or Church to tell me what was ethically wrong. It was as self-evident to me as my hands before my face. Suffering is as obvious as it is unfortunate.
My attitudes about social issues, such as sexual ethics and gender politics, remained the same before and after. Even at fifteen, I already disagreed with my parents over the relationship between sex and marriage and on the issue of homosexuality, which was something of a surprise to all of us, as we’d never really discussed them. I think they assumed I’d naturally come to the ‘right’ conclusions, but I arrived at my own judgments independent of both their beliefs and church teaching.
Scientific rationalism remained the order of the day. Thankfully, my parents never saw any contradiction between evolution, the big bang, physics, or biology and the Christian teachings. These were just the mechanisms by which the Creator worked, as far as they were concerned. They encouraged my interests in astronomy and science fiction from an early age, and continued to do so afterward. As far as I know, they didn’t blame my atheism on science, education, or secularism, which is so often the case in the public debate. They recognized it as a personal stance fueled by a simple lack of belief.
In my twenties, I gained a more nuanced understanding of things like social, environment, and economic justice. In my thirties, I’m starting to form even more complex opinions on politics, poverty, economics, education, war, and the prison-industrial complex. At some point, I did make the switch from inherited Republicanism to become a registered independent who votes Democrat more often than not. I hadn’t gotten around to contemplating such issues at fifteen, but I tend to think I would have come to similar conclusions regardless. They are in keeping with my nature.
But what really changed between the last day that I truly considered myself a Christian and the next day when I honestly admitted I was not?
Relief. I remember the feeling of relief. I had a new freedom that comes from giving up a struggle to be or do something in contradiction to my nature.
Of course, I was anxious about coming out. Atheists are one of the most distrusted groups in the United States, according to a study reported in USA Today and other news outlets. I think this was just as true when I was fifteen as it is today. Despite that, declaring myself was a great relief because the truth is that I was never a ‘believing’ Christian.
As early as the age of five or six, I remember thinking something was wrong with me because I did not “feel Jesus’ love” in my heart. I never met an angel or witnessed a miracle. I never felt “God’s grace” or any type of accompanying presence. The universe was big and mysterious and magical (metaphorically), but I loved astronomy magazines far more than the Bible.
The older I became the less rational the Sunday stories sounded. If God loved his creation, why did he kill every living thing with a flood just because a few humans were behaving badly? Who created God, anyway? And if God made me this way, he really ought to have know that I wouldn’t be a very good Christian, right? I had too many questions that “good Christians” didn’t ask.
My friend Jake used to tell me I was a good Christian anyway, because I was a good person and God is the source of all that is good. I couldn’t be good without God. Maybe so, but in my experience, most Christians don’t see it that way. Nor did I, actually.
Life went on. When I was twenty-two, I bought a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and realized I was a Buddhist. I didn’t convert, I just gained a new vocabulary.
In some ways I’m not a very good Buddhist either. I’m a Mahayana Buddhist who vows to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings, yet I don’t believe in the celestial bodhisattvas that millions of Buddhists all over the world pray to for supernatural intercession. I have no more experience of Amida Buddha than I have of Jesus of Nazareth and no more belief in the bardo than heaven.
However, I think all of this is beside the point. First, I feel as though I had the same nature as a Christian, then an atheist, and now a Buddhist. I’ve changed a lot, of course, both as a matter of time and of religion. My beliefs, habits, responses, and much more have changed, but my what psychologists might call my underlying “temperament” has remained remarkably stable. Therefore, I my reactions to experiences are very similar.
Second, I hang around with Buddhists and Muslims and Christians and atheists and pagans who, despite remarkably dissimilar beliefs, behave in very similar ways. Most everyone disapproves of violence and greed and favors love and altruism. We quibble over the details, but I’m always amazed at the vast areas of agreement on the most basic fundamentals of ‘good behavior.’
I know this may sound shocking, but I truly don’t believe ‘beliefs’ are as important as we assume. Rather, we are predisposed to think, feel, and behave in certain ways and we endorse beliefs that give meaning to those modes of being. This predisposition may come from genetics, biology, culture, or karma. (The first three may be part of the fourth or not.) Of course, this is a belief about beliefs, a theory that applies to itself. Belief does have an influence (which I hope to explore in a future post), but I’m more interested in what influences belief to begin with.
A belief can give hope, provide resilience, and enhance optimism in the face of terrible life circumstances. However, if we are already predisposed to have hope, resilience, and optimism, then we will naturally find a belief to explain these things. Likewise, a belief can let us feel hopeless, worthless, and cynical about our circumstances, even when they aren’t that bad. But yet again, the affect comes first. We already feel hopeless, worthless, or cynical, so we tell ourselves a story about why this is or ought to be so. This story becomes a belief that reinforces our natural tendency. Buddhist teaching endorses this idea in an explanation of six personality types and their underlying tendencies.
In their ability to reinforce and perpetuate existing affective states and cognitive concepts, beliefs can be either helpful or harmful. Each personality type is often paired with corresponding practices to help bring balance and relieve afflictive emotions. These practices are based on cultivating beliefs in contradiction to one’s natural tendencies. For example, if one is naturally cynical and quick to anger, meditations on loving-kindness, compassion, and the essentially good nature of all beings would be the antidote. New beliefs supplant existing beliefs that arise from the nature, or temperament, of the person.
In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer spends a lot of time describing the experiences of people who believe they have encountered angels and aliens, had out-of-body or near-death experiences, and endorse psychic powers or supernatural forces. Shermer clearly labels himself a skeptic, which is not to say he has no beliefs, only that he believes these things are impossible rather than possible. His book is a good source of information on some of the latest brain science, describing in detail laboratory experiments and brain disorders (either through injury or chemical imbalance) that may explain these otherwise fantastic experiences. I take the book with a healthy dose of salt, yet it does shed some light on my own experiences.
Shermer describes many states that I have also experienced, such as lucid dreams, hallucinations, deja vu, and curious bodily sensations. When a person has an experience like this, they tend to form a belief to explain it and then stick doggedly to that belief. Where my personal natural tendency comes in to play is that I have no need or desire to interpret these experiences mystically, spiritually, or supernaturally.
For example, I only recently realized that many of these types of experiences belong to what Buddhists describe as nimitta (read more here). I often have them while on the verge of sleep during meditation, when my mind blends samatha with moments of lucid dreaming on the borders on hallucination. This never particularly bothered me and I felt no need to explain it (which is why it took me so long to associate them with this conceptual category my meditation professor went on and on about). Likewise, my life-long habit of vivid dreams, often kinestheic and/or in third-person, has never particularly needed explanation (although I have learned to be mindful of what my dreams tell me about my waking stress level).
This tendency is indicative of a personality trait that could best be described as a higher than average level of comfort with ambiguity and/or a lower than average level of need for certainty or explanation. I see this tendency expressed in other behaviors, such as a lack of competitiveness, willingness to explore new places, and try new things, but also a calm disposition that eschews excessive risk-taking or thrill-seeking behaviors.
Therefore, I don’t believe beliefs are that important because I’ve never particularly needed them to explain things. This also means that I don’t particularly mind when people believe other things. Belief in God, Jesus, Ganesha, Avalokiteshvara, Amida, or any other deity or supernatural being is no skin off my nose. After all, God is just as plausible as an explanation for the origin of the universe as the big bang is, given that I have no personal experience of either. I’m much more interested in what other people do and belief only comes into play when it influences behavior. I judge beliefs by their utility, rather than veracity, seeing as “The Truth” is such a hard thing to come by anyway.
So what changed when I became an atheist? I had more free time on Sunday mornings, more interesting debates over lunch, and I felt better about myself. That is all.
What would change if tomorrow I suddenly became overwhelmed by a belief in God? Well, I’d have less free time on Sunday morning, another set of interesting debates over lunch, and I’d probably, once again, feel better about myself for an entirely different reason. But that is all, because I’m essentially not a belief-driven person. (I do have strong beliefs; I’m just not that interested in whether they are ‘true.’ Again, more on this in a forthcoming post.) I’m not claiming that this is or would be the case for every type of religious conversion for every person.
I no longer describe myself as an atheist. I am at best a non-theist. I think the entire question of God is simply the wrong question. And with so many fascinating questions out there, I’d rather not spend too much time on that one.
I used to travel a lot on my own. Spring break would come around and I’d pick a destination, a place I’d never been or somewhere I’d seen a dozen times before. I would be like a ghost in that place, drifting past other people who scarcely noticed I was there.
I always wanted to see what was around the next corner, so I would walk a lot. I watched the people move, the squirrels play, the flowers turn their faces to the sun. I’d listen to the wind in the trees and feel the cold or the warmth or the fog; it didn’t particularly matter what the whether was. I was just collecting the experience. I’d come back with photos of trees and clouds, vistas and buildings, gardens and castles, but scarcely a person in any of them.
I might share a “Good morning” or “Good evening” with the odd passerby, or even sit down for an entire conversation with someone I only knew by their first name. At the end, I might know their greatest dreams and deepest fears, where they grew up and who they loved, but I never needed more than a first name. And I’d go back to where I’d stay the night, alone again and happy for it. Like one of the Buddha’s disciples, going forth into homelessness and forgoing all attachments.
I haven’t traveled like that in a while. There is a restful simplicity to it. Solace in being like a ghost. One can come and go as one pleases, eat and be and do as one wishes. No one ever expects anything of ghosts.
Life became busy. I left my home and came alone halfway across the continent, but it was different this time. I wasn’t a ghost. I was trying to build a new life, full of new classes and friends and teachers and coworkers. This change of location came with a host of new obligations, not fewer.
I have a relationship now. When I travel, he goes with me (and vice versa) as often as we can manage, and I love him for it. We’ve had great adventures together. But it’s different. I couldn’t even have explained how until a moment ago, when I realized I missed being like a ghost. Hard to be ghosts together, always worrying if the other ghost is okay.
For many months, I’ve had this aching desire for simplicity. It would sneak up on me, between worries about homework and housework and everything else. Between the mental clutter and visual clutter and insane schedule, I’d wish for the vital simplicity of a tiny cabin in the woods, bereft of possessions, and without neighbors for miles about. I’d long for hours of solitary walking, in city or mountains, it didn’t matter, just to be free of other people’s expectations.
But my life has never been like that, as much as I’ve occasionally wished it would be. I actually like the clutter of my little home, the jam packed bookshelves and familiar mementos. I like the friendly clutter of my social life, seeing my friends and classmates and coworkers everyday, feeling like I’m part of a community. I like coming home to my partner every night, spending Saturday afternoons out together on our little adventures to the zoo or backpacking or trying a new restaurant.
So why this new urge to radically simplify my life?
But it’s not new at all, I’ve realized. In fact, it’s something I’ve been doing for almost a decade. Every three to six months, I’d pack a bag and set off. I’d spend a week in San Francisco or Boston or Chicago, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or Sandhills of Nebraska. Somewhere, anywhere, but no matter where, life would be simple for that briefest moment. Somehow I lost it without even noticing I’d ever had it.
I realize now, this habit started far earlier than my twenties. That’s only when I began to do it for myself. When I was a child, I remember spending a week or two on my aunt’s ranch in central Nebraska, running around in the trees with my cousins. It was a different way of raising kids, just tossing us out of the house in the morning to fend for ourselves, trusting we’d return tired and covered with dirt at meal times. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Then I’d go up to Valentine to stay with my retired grandparents. My dad grew up in this tiny town where a busy day involved a trip to the grocery store and the library. My grandparent’s place was on the edge of town, the last house on a two-lane highway heading west over the sprawling prairie. I remember pulling carrots out of my grandfather’s garden to feed to the horses that came to the barbed-wire fence separating their pasture from the house. I remember the wind that never stopped, the grass like an ocean, and the thunderstorms that roared through and dropped golf-ball sized hail on a ninety-degree summer day.
After that, I might go to church camp or 4-H camp or both. We’d tromp through the woods and canoe along the sandy-bottomed rivers. I never felt the slightest bit of loss at the friends I left behind at the end of each adventure, even though we’d spent the week practically glued to each other. It never occurred to me that goodbye was a sadness. The flashing moment of such friendships cut all the anxiety social strings entail.
It was the same for my older brother, except that we often went separately, the relatives swapping us out mid-summer. I realize now that this enabled my parents to spend several weeks together each year child-free. And we were happy, away from the city, spending almost all our time outdoors, no schools or teachers or even any chores to make demands on us, something new to discover behind every tree or in every mud puddle. I think that is when I learned to be a like a ghost, renouncing my life to go alone into unfamiliar places. This was a gift my parents gave me without even knowing it. A gift I accidentally lost.
I miss being like a ghost. I think I should like to leave my life behind and find again the simplicity of not worrying about what is around the next corner, the next bend in the trail. Sometime soon. But only for a little while.
Needless to say, December was a very busy month. Final papers to turn in, final exams to grade, a large project for work, lots of travel and family obligations, and then, to start the new year off right, I got seriously ill for the first time in three years. I’m honestly glad to have had such a long healthy streak. For a change, being sick didn’t create a major catastrophe in my schedule because I was otherwise ‘on vacation’ with my family in Nebraska. Of course, my vacation became suddenly very mundane. I didn’t leave my parents’ house for five days and I called my partner and told him not to come out and join me over the weekend as planned. Today, I’m home in southern California, still hacking and coughing but overall feeling much more human. I just wanted to drop this short note to stay, yes, I am still alive, and there will be posts forthcoming on the blog shortly. These are merely the perils of being a one-woman operation. Hang in there with me.
Intense. Not in control. Loud. Blind, with flashes of light. Pushed. Pulled. Shaken. Fast, fast, fast. Dropped, falling. Too much. Too much. Too much.
Too much stimuli crashing against my senses. My amygdala going haywire and flooding my body with adrenalin. Nothing for my neo-cortex, my reasoning brain, to latch on to for reassurance. Emotional overflow and absolutely no self-regulation.
“Oh my God, I broke you girlfriend!” she exclaimed, her jaw dropped in almost comic horror as we trotted up the exit ramp almost at a run.
I wiped my eyes and desperately tried to stay ahead of everyone else until I had myself under control, but it was too late. My boyfriend’s youngest cousin and self-avowed Disney devotee (and employee) easily kept pace with me despite her shorter legs.
“Are you okay?!” she sounded shocked.
“Yes, yes,” I waived my hands in front of my face, half-laughing, and trying hard to smile. It really was a ridiculous situation. I choked out the words as the overload subsided. “I’m just overstimulated.”
We reached a lobby area at the top of the ramp and the rest of the herd gathered around, Colin and his aunt and uncle, his other cousin and her boyfriend, thankfully distracted by the photos from the ride. Everyone looks like they’re having a grand time, with big smiles and hands in the air, while I grip the rails for all I’m worth, eyes tightly closed, teeth exposed in a face contorting grimace. Kindly, no one comments on that.
They ask if I’m okay again. Everyone looks concerned as I wipe my eyes one last time and reassure them. I really am okay. Or about as okay as anyone who just touched the equivalent of a mental tazer can be.
I excused myself for the ladies room and headed for the farthest end at a determined pace, passing a dozen empty stalls. Once inside I let out a long sigh, reassured by the closeness of the thin walls, my ability to see my entire surroundings, the relative quiet (compared to the ride), and the complete lack of flashing lights or other people within my field of vision. I blew my nose.
How ridiculous! But not entirely unprecedented. I felt caught in a flashback. I was eight years old again and had just stepped off the very first roller coaster of my entire life, the Oriental Express at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I had been entirely unprepared for that ride and came off shaken and bawling. I refused to go on almost every ride there for most of what remained of our two day family vacation, except for a couple very gentle ones where I could see everything that would happen before I set foot on the machine. Eventually, I did go back and conquer my fear of the red roller coaster, riding it and several others in succession, and moved on to even more intense ones after that. But none of them had been in the dark, literally without any ability to see the next corner coming. That all seemed a very long time ago now. I hadn’t even thought of it in years, not even just moments before, when we boarded Space Mountain.
I thought it would be the crowds that got me, with all their movement, and noise, and pressure. They were very stressful, but I’m used to. I could manage. Space Mountain took me entirely by surprise.
Colin and his family love Disney, both -world and -land. They love everything about it: the rides, the parades, shows, fireworks, costumes, characters, sets, shops, restaurants, pins, traditions, secrets, history, facades, and even how well they handle the parking.
My family, on the other hand, despite our three or four amusement park vacations when I was young, never once contemplated going to Disney. It just wasn’t our thing. Too expensive and crowded and contrived and very far away. You were more likely to find us in a national park or a natural history museum or, heck, just wandering around town to see what was there, but always staying away from the crowds. If there was a line, we didn’t go.
Since Colin and I have been together, Disney has been a sore subject between us. He wants to share one of his favorite things with me and include me in his family. I understand. But I also want him to understand and accept that his thing he loves so much is very difficult for me.
“It’s okay,” he says. “We’ll just go for a half day.”
I feel relieved. Maybe we can compromise. Maybe he gets it.
“They close at midnight and we won’t even get there until noon.”
I feel like he just slapped me. Twelve hours is not a ‘half day.’ I was thinking six hours or less. I’ll never last for twelve hours. I’ll start freaking out and he’ll be disappointed, and anything that was fun up until that point will be tainted.
“You’re always talking about the power of the mind to change situations,” he protests. I don’t really think he understands how I can object so strongly to somewhere I’ve never been. “I’m an introvert, too. But I just filter all those people out. Why can’t you do that?”
Why can’t I do that? I went hunting for an answer. I learned a lot about introverts and highly sensitive persons and self-monitoring and genetics and neurology and biochemistry. What it all in my head? No, and yes. I used that to explain that our brains are wired differently. I can use the power of my mind, but I’m working against a neuro-biology that he’s never had to deal with. (Probably. I’m not a doctor and I’ve never had an MRI, so I can’t confirm this, but it all fits with the research.) He sort of gets it, but I can see the doubt.
I think all that doubt got erased on Space Mountain. Although Colin can filter out strangers, he’s always well attuned to the people he cares about, including me. So he gives me a hug and lets me bury my face in his neck. He stays close and holds my hand and keeps checking in with me to see if I’m okay.
The other cousins go trotting away and we follow, zigzagging through the teaming crowds under a million miles of twinkling Christmas lights, past the Christmas parade in full swing, from Fantasyland through Frontierland and into Adventureland.
We end up on Indian Jones and I can feel that overwhelming sensation staring to build. So I do something different. I meditate.
Well, not exactly. I can’t even manage a trance state on a cushion, let along a raging roller coaster that hurls giant boulders at you. I just center myself on my breath. Breath in, fast curve, breath out, bats in the dark, breath in, big drop, breath out (shout a little), giant bolder, breath in, big plunge. I stayed focused on my breathe rather than letting my focus become shattered and overwhelmed by everything that was happening around me and to me. I laughed and gasped and didn’t cry a single tear.
“You okay?” Colin asked as our carriage pulled back into the station.
“Yeah, that was fun.” I gave him a thumbs up. He looked confused. “I meditated,” I told him.
He laughed. He didn’t push me to stay longer when it was time to go. I think he understood that five hours was a long time for me now that he’d seen me do it. And there’s hope for that to increase in the future.
Now that I know I can center on my breath, I want to go back on Space Mountain. I want to put monks on space mountain and hook their brains up to machines. I want to meditate more and see what else I can do. I don’t think I’ll every love Disney, but maybe we can at least be friends.
I am convinced that if people just took care of one another, the world would be a better place. I am convinced that we don’t take very good care of each other because we are afraid. I am convinced that only by taking care and being taken care of can we find our way free from fear. And I am convinced that only freedom from fear will allow us to take care of each other the best way we can, the way that will empower everyone to make the world better. The world can’t be better for any of us unless it’s better for all of us, because when one person has reason to fear, he or she will instill fear in others. Nevertheless, making the world better by taking care of just one person makes it better for everyone, because then he or she will have less reason to do harm and more reason to care for others.
Care comes from an intention of goodwill. In Buddhism this is called metta, which is often translated as loving-kindness. However, it is not care if it remains merely an intention. It must be active in our relationships with the world, active through compassion (karuna, sharing suffering) and sympathetic joy (mudita, sharing happiness). Care is a twofold relationship. One person gives care through her words or deeds. Another person receives care through his recognition of the caring act.
Of course, we can also give care to ourselves. We must give care to ourselves not merely as a means of making ourselves able to care for others, but because we too are intrinsically worthy of care. All beings, ourselves included, experience suffering (dukkha), seek freedom from suffering (nibbana), and possess buddhanature. We must recognize our worthiness and, further, our basic need for care and then find ways to take care of ourselves and allow others to take care of us.
Whether it involves one person, two, or a thousand, there must be the intention to give care (metta), the act of caring, and the recognition of the caring act to be truly effective. This is skillful (upaya, or kusala meaning wholesome) care built upon wisdom (panna). Sometimes care may take a harsh form, such as cutting an addict off from his drug or putting a person in prison to prevent her from harming others, and the receiver will not recognize the act as care. It is no less care, but it is less effective than it could have been. When we learn to recognize care given to us, then we can learn to care for others.
When we take care of others we must do what is in their best interest and we must do it in a way that they can recognize as care. Of course, we will fail at both the first and the second task. This is why it is important to have equanimity (upekkha), so survive the ups and downs of our struggle, when all the goodwill in the world isn’t quite enough. But if we do not try, then we can never take care of anyone and no one (maybe not even ourselves) will ever take care of us.
That is what we fear: that no one will take care of us. We fear the failure and we fear that it will make us incapable of being in true relationship with others. We fear a loss of or lack of connection.
People respond to threat in different ways – some with anger, some with hatred, some with avoidance (all forms of dosa) – but all reactions to threat are based in fear (also dosa, aversion). We feel threatened when we are not able, or feel we may not be as able, to take care of ourselves and the people we love. Sometimes this threat is real. Billions of people face threats of starvation, personal violence, and repression each day, even in so-called developed nations. However, even where these threats have largely been eliminated, we still perceive threats and respond with fear. Our brain is wired this way for our survival. It is not something we can turn off just with wishing. No matter how safe our lives become, we are still bound by our evolutionary karma.
If we cannot turn off the fear, we can be curious about it and put that same brain to work on it. We can make it an object of mindfulness (sati). Where does it come from? How does it work? What does it do? Fear loses some of its power in the face of questions. Eventually, through the cultivation in insight (panna), we can relinquish fear, as well as greed (lobha) and delusion (moha). I believe that fear, most of all, interferes with our ability to care.
When we are curious, I think that we will most often find that we fear a loss of connection, which can also be a loss of self. We wish to remain connected to the people, places, and things we love for our entire lives. We wish to remain connected to a self we can easily identify and constantly reify. Of course, this cannot happen. We will be separated from the people, places, and things we love by change or death (anicca, impermanence) and we ourselves are a constantly changing constellation of aggregates with no fixed identity (anatta, non-self).
We want to spend our time and energy caring for these connections, for this self. They have to be continuously maintained and shored up in the face of inexorable change (anicca). We are afraid of what will happen if they are lost (anatta), so anything that threatens our ability to care for them – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or socially – is cause for extreme reaction – anger, hate, fear, aversion (dosa). These are all words for the outward variations of the same deep response. I name that thing fear, because that is my strongest manifestation and it is a response to threat, but I am comfortable if some name it otherwise.
A Better World
When we can start to be brave in the face of our fear, to step out of our worries of how we will care for ourselves and our connections (without actually ceasing to take care), then we can start to build better lives and better relationships. Fear actually hinders connection. It builds walls and barriers for defense, but also for disconnection. Freedom from fear is the freedom to find unlimited connection. More connections help us make a better world.
Better means a world with less suffering (dukkha), a world with more peace, happiness, contentment, wisdom, and equanimity. A better world is one where fewer people are paralyzed into inaction or provoked into harmful actions by fear. A better world is one where more people can be brave enough to take care of one another, to make new connections without the fear of losing old ones. When we take care of one another, we mitigate fear and amplify bravery.
Eventually, when everyone takes care of each other as easily as breathing, then I think we will be able to live in a world that no longer needs bravery because it will no longer have fear. I believe it is possible to live in that world even now (nibbana), though I’m not yet sure quite how to get there. I am convinced I can get there, though, and so can you.
I am convinced of these things. I have watched and tested and waited for a long time to say so because for so long I was not sure and for longer than that I did not have the words. Now I am sure and I have the words.
Take care of each other. Do good and be good. Be brave in the face of fear so that others can be brave. This will make the world a better place. It will make all of us better people, too.