Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Key to Fulfillment

What you’re about the read now is the result of having lived through extreme adversity, finding victory and then looking back to find a rational explanation. What I write about here is that rational, rearview perspective. I never saw this view from the other side, which is to say while in the midst of anxiety. The vision presented here is a retrospective.

If you study Yoga or Buddhism you’ll learn a lot about a unique perspective about why people suffer and you can sum up the entirety of this perspective in one statement: “We suffer because we don’t have a proper grasp of what genuine reality is.” Usually the response to that summation is MEGO (My eyes glaze over). Everyone who has ever lived, or will ever live, begins with the unchallenged assumption that they know precisely what reality is. They can’t explain it. They just know in some unexplained way. If pressed we can come up with a few dimensions to frame our understanding. Such dimensions as tangibility, mutual discretion and measurement are ordinarily candidates for a definition. In other words if we can perceive stuff, that measured stuff is real. But hardly anyone thoroughly examines the relationship between that understanding and suffering. We measure stuff and people suffer: two observations and these appear to have nothing to do with each other.

There was a man who devoted his life to a thorough examination of this matter and the world has never been the same since, at least for those who take the time to consider what he discovered. The man lived a long time ago (more than 2,500 years ago) and his name was Gautama Buddha, otherwise known as Siddhartha. What he discovered changed my life and the lives of millions since his time. His understanding is contained in the first of eight steps which he identified to enable anyone to find a way to solve their own suffering problem, and that first step revolves around the interrelated matters of emptiness and dependent origination—my topics for this post.

To the ordinary eye, these two matters are obscure and foreign, but when looked at carefully the way forward becomes clear. The first of these—emptiness—challenges the premise of mutual discretion: that things are different and independent from other things. For example, we regard “up” as different from “down” and are persuaded that these two are independent matters. The same goes for in/out, forwards/backwards, or anything else, which has two opposing dimensions (everything does). To the ordinary eye these are always separate and opposite, just as Republicans and Democrats are: separate and opposed to one another. Emptiness says simply that this observation is both true and not true at the same time. It is not true that any pair can be divided. Instead these exist only as pairs. Without up, there could be no down. Without an “in” where would “out” be located? Each half of these pairs is not real by themselves but real only as pairs. To acknowledge the validity of one half you must accept the validity of the other half, otherwise neither is valid. Here the rule of discrimination governs all. It’s an either/or world of compromised choices with clear winners and clear losers. In a nutshell that’s emptiness. It goes much deeper than the nut but for the moment just stay with that.

Then we come to a kissing cousin of emptiness—dependent origination. This principle says that everything is linked together (just as the pairs are) and one thing causes another, which then cascades onto other things. The water cycle is a perfect example. Every aspect of this cycle is created by what came before and then creates the next step in the cycle, in a circular feedback that never ends. So long as we remain in the sphere of relative and conditional life none of these feedback cycles can ever be avoided because everything is in constant motion. When one dimension comes into existence what follows also comes into existence. Rising, heated water vapor ultimately cools and turns into rain. Birth ultimately turns into death. These cycles repeat endlessly without a beginning and without an ending. In a nutshell that’s dependent origination.

In our physical and conditional world, these two matters—emptiness and dependent origination point to why we suffer. We do so because we try to hold onto the good parts of these changing cycles and avoid the bad parts but this is impossible to orchestrate. What brings us joy in one moment brings us sadness in the next. Nobody can stop the tides of anything, thus the conclusion that “life sucks.” And if that were the end of the matter then that conclusion would be correct. Fortunately that is not the end of the matter because emptiness and dependent origination are deeper matters.

The law of these two principles, if valid, would have to apply to everything including conditional life. Just as up can only exist with the partner of down, conditional life can only exist with the partner of unconditional life. Conditional life is empty by itself and real only with a partner. We can perceive anything and everything of conditional life because of the perceptible nature of objects, and these objects are always in opposition and in motion. The first and preliminary part of solving the suffering problem is thus to not cling but rather to savor each passing moment with the awareness that soon the savor will turn into the sour. “Be here now” is a familiar code for one form of Zen, but frankly that premise sucks. Who truly looks forward to eventual sadness? It helps but it is insufficient.

Ultimate victory comes by moving beyond the conditional and into the unconditional where discrimination and sadness cease to exist. What brought me enduring grief was this cycle of destruction. I was trapped in one cycle after another and could find no relief. I never realized until I reached the end there was an alternative. Only when I ran out of gas did I say to myself, “To hell with this,” if I can’t find a better way I don’t want to live. Then I just sat down and refused to get up until I found the key. Only when I let go, completely, of the bargain of hope did I find the other side—the unconditional side, which I never knew existed. When it happened I was dumb-founded and wholly disoriented, but I was also in a state of mind without suffering! I had no idea what had transpired but I loved it. Before it happened I was full of despair. Afterwards I was whole and pure. But since I had experienced nothing but the cycles my entire life I kept waiting for and expecting that blissful experience to pass away. It never passed and has remained a constant presence. It’s now been more than 30 years and it is still here.

Having said that, it is important to say that I’m still just as much affected by the swings as before. But no longer do the swings affect my stability. My true sense of being is now rock solid. Nothing causes it to waver. And this is what dependent origination means at the deeper level. Both sides are true together and neither side is true separately. And at a deeper level yet, is the ultimate value of Gautama’s understanding—his first step (Right View): while all of us are different, we are also the same, and neither of these truths is real separately. Conditionally we are apart. Unconditionally we are united.
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