Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Everyday Life ~ Battling, Living & Working With It.

I worked for a Buddhist Right Livelihood business for over seventeen years, and it did what it said on the tin, provided supportive conditions so that I could use my work as a spiritual practice. It was a simple direct way of working on myself as I worked. It could also, to be honest, be like a safe house, a place to hide away from hostile truths and unpalatable realities, indulge in being overly precious. I feel now that living in such a benevolent workspace for so long, was not entirely good for the liveliness of my spiritual practice. Any change unsettles the status quo, stirs up stagnant energy and blows the dust off aspirations that have perhaps stood still for too long.  So, now I've returned to that ordinary world of work outside, I'm finding fresh inspiration in creating ways to positively engage with it, and not approach it as if it were the supreme enemy of the spiritual life that I have to fight off.  That seems now like a rather perverse form of aversion hidden behind the well polished veneer of spiritual delicacy ~ 'lets keep that filthy decadent deluded world at arms length shall we, lest it pollute the purity of our intentions.' 

Men do have a tendency to see every difficulty they encounter as an adversarial conflict, sometimes its appropriate, but more often it demonstrates a lack of sensitivity. In terms of practice in everyday life we see the battle as between the outside world and our desire, however spiritually conceived, for control over it, It's usually clear from the start who'll win hands down, and usually it wont be us. To turn everything into a battle of wills is quite futile, only causing us unnecessary suffering. However much we might want it to be otherwise, the world is how it is, and though it does change, it's not forced into changing by strength of human will alone. We, however, don't have to be how we are and should be willing to adjust our approach in response to whatever we encounter.

So its clear where the real battles are being fought, and its not out there. It's like a man who has a headache trying to make it go away by banging his head against a wall, until both he and the wall are bloodied. Its an image often used in plays to dramatise personal torment, and they're quite painful to watch. Yet we all know the emotions that this is trying to convey. It's not everyday life that is frustrating and tormenting, it is us that is frustrated and tormented.

Having said all that, everyday life, if you allow it, will 'pollute the purity of our intentions' . We may indeed have to guard ourselves against being coerced or deceived by it, but the toughest fight will be to not become passive to it. You can't always be putting up, or learning to live with it, or be ambivalent to the effects of everyday life upon you, or treat it as somehow neutral, or take a hands off laissez fare attitude, far from it.  Not everything about everyday life is 'most efficacious in every way'. There is a need to make wise distinctions every moment of the day, a preference for the skilful rather than un-skilful in the way we act, speak or think. Practice in everyday life has to have 'be ethical' written into its DNA.

Yet, what exactly do we mean when we say 'everyday life'? It's such a generalised all encompassing term, it feels almost ludicrous to suggest we might not know what we are talking about. I'm not going to get into philosophical conjectures about whether the world outside us really exists. Lets just take it that we experience the world as having a concrete reality that we interact with and interacts with us. I could draw up a very very long list of things of what constitutes everyday life, that wouldn't be remotely comprehensive. So I'll couch it in more simplistic terms, everyday life is where events, people, environment and ourselves collide, our behaviour mediated through our responses to all four. Responsive behaviour is conditioned by the views we hold, by what we think we want from events, people, environments and ourselves, our desires and expectations of what everyday life can give us.

The Buddha thought there were three things that marred human existence, the first and primary one is a view that everything good in life, is, or should be, permanent. The reality,however, is that everything good in life is not permanent, things change,what was gained is lost, things arise that disturb our stability,we get what we don't want, this then causes the second, great frustration, anger,disillusion, dissatisfaction and despair. As this view of impermanence trickles down into the depths, our psyche tries hard to avoid the logical third consequence, that the Number One good thing - us - is not a permanent entity either. That continuous sense of our self we experience, is a falsity, a misconception, we too are a changing, shifting, transitory thing. This causes us on a sub conscious level, immense irreconcilable grief, as though a favourite pet has been stolen. Our response is to renew our efforts to find at least one thing that is permanent, we press the fulfilment of our desires into being the meaning to our life, and deny all indications and thoughts about our psychological and bodily mortality. Spiritual practice in everyday life attempts to subvert these three fallacies. Its best to start with our desires, because they're easier to spot, most quickly reveal themselves to be vacuous conceits that don't possess the meaning we attribute to them. Their sole purpose being to distract us from the meaninglessness that arises should we accidentally bump into our impermanent peril, In the light of this, the stuff of everyday life seems a very spiritually potent thing indeed. This is what we are truly battling with, learning to live more consciously with, to actively work with.

When we take an ethical decision, by what are we being instructed; by our experience, a rational assessment or a gut instinct? It might appear that this involves a tussle between all three, but Professor Paul Dolan's theories about decision making suggest, that if we are forced to make a decision quickly we mostly follow our gut instinct and construct an explanatory rationale for it afterwards. If there is more time, then it may be possible for a more experiential and rationally based thinking through of the issues to take place. Having a clear ethical framework against which to weigh our thoughts, feelings and actions, is going to be an essential tool for practice in everyday life. It's helpful if there is time to give broader consideration to all the factors impacting on an issue, but you can't rely on there always being time. We will, in most instances, have to trust our ethical gut instincts in the present moment.

Applying an ethical framework to life decisions becomes second nature. Any positive habit will over time and repeated application become a 'conscious competence' The skill is in preventing our ethical standing from becoming unquestionable,  hardening into a fixed like or dislike. This may mean we just stopped actually weighing up issues in the present moment, so our behaviour is almost predestined. So whilst there are definite benefits in holding ourselves to an ethical standard, this will cease to be a practice alive to the prescient individual character of each moment, if it ossifies into a rule, of what you shalt and shalt not do. If this happens then something is beginning to go ethically awry. Ethical practice has a flexible subtly nuanced nature, yes, it is informed by past experience, but its also responsive to present conditions and circumstances. There must always be a possibility to think, say or do things entirely differently. If ethics turns into a prejudiced opinion then it takes us away from any clear eyed objective assessment, towards a more subjective view, that's becoming entangled in our pride and self identity,  As Sosan Seng-ts'an in his Verses on the Faith Mind puts it:~

"if you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind." 

To take every day and myself exactly as they present themselves, is one way to define the approach I'm currently adopting to my practice. I take my past experience with me, as practical tools stuffed into my backpack, but what the nature of the territory I'll traverse is, well, that unfolds with every day. For example, I don't even know how I will be when I awake. I have osteo-arthritis present, to a lesser or greater extent, in most of my joints. The depth and length of time I sleep can be dependent upon the level of discomfort I experience over night. This sleep deprivation, how cold or warm the room is overnight, how much or little I ate before bed, how heavy the work was the previous day, the type of weather and atmospheric pressure, are all events that affect how my body feels as I awake. Then there is my response to that feeling. My joints can be stiff and achy as I walk about at 3 am, and my state of mind can be correspondingly stiff and achy too. Experience tells me that physical and emotional states tend to live together in a sort of dysfunctional marriage. So my early morning practice is in not allowing how I'm physically feeling at the start to set the emotional template for the entire day. If I'm in a grumbly, resentful, despairing, self-pitying state of mind I have to be kinder throughout the early morning, not push myself too hard, cut myself a bit of emotional slack. At some point my psycho-physical being does rise above the turbulent thundery cloud layer. If I'm actually quite bright, sharp and alert, its worth enjoying it, but need to temper my enthusiasm so I don't become unbearably peppy, or so intoxicated by the energy I have that I try to do everything, crashing exhausted by the end of the day, How I am of a morning I treat as a conditioned, but impermanent event. If I manage not to gorge on my despair or my delight, the day might have a more steady emotional tone, and at best a touch of equanimity might turn up.

To do this means remaining alert, aware and actively engaged. To work better with, not just  lifes limitations and frustrations, but also its everyday opportunities and joys. Even then, things can change and we not notice they've changed; what once was challenging a tendency in yourself, morphs into a stoical accommodation of it. Actively practising along with, turns into passively putting up with. Which isn't to say learning to live with pain for instance, can't be a practice, it can, but the emphasis has to be on remaining alert and active in your responses, adjusting your approach according to both pain, mind and emotions. You can't sign off on a practice, and it remain one.

There is a constant game of tug and war going on between worldly and spiritual desires. Quite frankly,at times it can be difficult to tell which one is pulling you, because whether they succeed or fail, both can leave you with your arse caked in the excremental mud. Maybe that's the point really; right or wrong, skilful or unskilful, positive or negative, success or failure, things do get incredibly mucky. There's some value in being confused for a short while, it places you on the cusp, so things could swing dramatically either way. Humiliation on the one hand, insight on the other. Practice in everyday life often means being prepared to get our hands, mind and heart dirty, because in the middle of the filth we may discover something of greater value ~ a jewel of insight, not just buried in the shit ~ it is the shit itself. As Sangharakshita tersely expresses it:~

"You have to really wallow in it before you know its muck"

Hakuin recounts an incident in his life as a disciple, where he has thoroughly convinced himself that he's not only had Insight, but that he was really fully Enlightened. So he goes to visit his teacher just to have him rubber stamp it, to garner official approval for a Master. However, Hakuin is mistaken in his spiritual self assessment, his teacher rebukes him and sends him away with a flea in his ear. Despondent, and humiliated he trudges home, his mood reflected by the torrential rain and the path ahead of him that is treacherous with deep puddles and slippery mud. He trips, loses his balance and falls face first into the largest and muddiest of puddles. Drenched and dirty right through to the skin, he pulls himself back up. As he does so he finds the whole thing intensely amusing, and starts laughing uproariously at this apposite indignity life has served up for him ~ what a fool he has been - and in that moment he has a realisation, the very profound Insight he mistakenly thought he'd had earlier.

This story demonstrates that self deception, status seeking, arrogance and conceit can be as present in a Buddhist, as they are in anyone. Its tragic, but actually all too common. However ,though we may fall for our own self- delusion, everyday life has a tendency to throw the crap back at us, like flotsam washed up on a beach. These resounding slaps to our ego, mirror our vanity back at us, providing an opportunity for real insight should we see it and then chose to take hold of it. Awareness, when clear of the obstructions we place in its way, will naturally be drawn by experience of suffering into areas where we don't normally look, to where those delusive desires and wrong views about self and permanence hide themselves.

There's a traditional Zen phrase that goes as follows:~

"No one has fallen on the ground, who has not risen without using the ground."  

Battling, living and working with everyday life is sort of like that.




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