July 08, 2009

Wanting to Not Want

I enjoy my podcasts. I download and watch or listen to a couple every day. A new favorite is Zencast out of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. So far, all the talks have been given by Gil Fronsdal, whom I enjoy. Yesterday I listened to a talk about the three paths of practice: development, letting go, and no path. It was very interesting and helpful. One thing Gil said struck me in particular, that (paraphrasing) nirvana, the absence of suffering, is the world as it is right now when we cease to want it to be otherwise.

This strikes me as very profound and yet somehow very naïve or perhaps even selfish. Indeed, I can wrap my mind around the idea, that if I can simply let go of all the habitual wants and desires that drive me, I can find peace in this very moment, this very place. But what about everyone else? What about those trapped in the midst of war, famine, and disease? The stories that Buddhist monks and nun have brought over the mountains from Tibet provide examples of how, even under the most horrific of circumstances, a measure of peace can still be found. They show us how one can have compassion even for one's torturers. This provides a glimmer of hope that even those caught within wars and turmoil can cease suffering. But how am I supposed to help them?

I must want to help them, right? So how can I extinguish my own wants and desires, thus ending my own suffering? This is the bodhisattva paradox. A friend once tried to explain that the world is perfect just as it is. I told him “Don’t you go trying to broaden my mind. You’ll ruin my career prospects.” What use is there for architects in a world that is already perfect? What drives action when desire is extinguished? The Buddha sat in meditation to achieve enlightenment, but after that he got up and did other stuff. He taught and travelled and ate and slept and probably sat some more. Did the Buddha want? I think he probably did.

Gil Fronsdal added that it is not necessarily wanting that is the problem, but our attachment to it. This I have learned as a perpetual planner. I always have a plan – what I am going to do today, tomorrow, next week, next year. I plan where I’ll go to school, what jobs I’ll apply for, what columns I will write, what countries I’ll visit. I plan how I’m going to rearrange my living room, build my new house, my parents’ house, a new college of architecture, a new retreat center, a new city, or three. What I have learned from a lifetime of compulsive planning is that it’s only a problem when I actually care about the outcome. When I plan to do my laundry today and instead find myself cleaning up after my cat who took it into her head to knock all the plants over trying to get at a bird just outside the window, I have a choice. I can clean up the mess and bitch at my cat and whine about not getting to do my laundry, or I can just clean up the mess. And usually laugh at my cat because she’s such a funny little creature.

But that’s a simple thing. What about the big things? What about wanting all beings to be free from suffering? How do I let go of my attachment to that outcome? Somewhere in the world there is a woman being beaten and raped right now, probably several, and some of them are probably much closer to where I am sitting than I’d like to think. I want that to not happen, to never happen. How do I let go of attachment to that outcome? I can work with advocacy groups to end violence against women, volunteer in shelters, even teach the dharma, teach love, peace, and compassion to both the current and potential perpetrators and victims of such crimes. Yes, I suppose I can do that. But it seems like letting go of my attachment to the desire that such things never happen in somehow a betrayal. Perhaps it is or is not, but that is what it feels like.

I think sometimes it is this paradox which freezes us into inaction. I’m not just talking about Buddhists or in regards to the dharma. I think the “But what can I do?” syndrome is a great source of apathy within our society. We want so much, for good or ill, that we become petrified by indecision. We look at this complex world and we are frightened. What can I do about health care? What can I do about climate change? What can I do about violence? These are such huge, complex, systematized problems that we can’t even wrap our minds around them, so we sit on our couches in front of our televisions and do nothing. Or in front of our computers listening to our podcasts.

A friend recently asked if I’d ever thought about the Peace Corps. I have only briefly considered it, but always turned away from the idea because I’m too much of a control freak, too much of a planner. I’d want to know where they were sending me, to have a say. And also because I’m scared. I’m afraid of being in a third world country. I’m afraid of being confronted with any amount of real suffering. What if I can’t hack it? What if I just spend every day crying my eyes out? That’s not very useful. But I’m coming around to the idea that I shouldn’t let my fear dictate such things. Do I want to help more than I want to feel comfortable and safe? Which am I attached to more? If I’m going to talk the talk, I should walk the walk, eh?

You see, architecture is a safe profession, a safe way to save the world. Yes, building energy use and climate change are important and yes, design does have an enormous impact on daily life, it can promote peace or anxiety equally. But people don’t die if I decide not to show up for work that day. And when I do show up for work, no one is starving or dying of disease or horrible violent wounds right in front of my eyes. I’m not saying that is what all that the Peace Corps or similar organizations are, but fears are seldom rational things.

And I’m thinking, I am less and less attached to this idea that I need to be in charge, that I need to plan every aspect of my life, including just exactly how I’m going to help other people. The Peace Corps is starting to sound like a much better idea. A new plan is forming in my head (it’s inevitable, really). I will apply for the Fulbright and, if I am accepted, spend a year in Japan. I should know sometime next spring or early summer. When I find out, either way, I can apply for the Peace Corps, which takes nine to twelve months to arrange I hear. You tell them when you’re available to ship out. I can either work here in the states during that time, or I’ll be in Japan carrying out my Fulbright project. The Peace Corps is twenty-seven months overseas, they defer student loans, and provide some resettlement money when you get back. And when I get back, I think that would be a long enough break from school that I would be ready to start the Buddhist chaplaincy program at U of the West in California.

Or not.


Anonymous said...

Acceptance of life as it is is the opposite of apathy. You have to accept it before you can really do anything about it, otherwise you make it about yourself. You get caught up on your own story, your own aversion to how it is, and will either turn away from it, or will respond aggressively and cause harm. The latter is why revolutions fail.

Teacher Jim said...

What drives action when desire is extinguished?

I think without our 'clouded glasses' that distort our reality, we know, just know what is the correct thing to do or not do in every moment. Without attachment and aversion, we can finally let our compassion and wisdom flow, solving both the little problems, or the big ones.

PS From my friends in the Peace, it is all very, very organized (maybe a little too much to my mind) [smile]