Tag Archives: Buddha

On the Fallacy of Spiritual Perfection

Don Quixote“I’m only human,” the saying goes. To my perfectionistic Virgoan ears, it always sounded like a cliché, or worse, an excuse for shoddy work or behavior.

But, thank goodness, like many other quixotic notions I have had to let go of, I unshackled myself of this, too. Not only does it make life harder and more stressful than it is supposed to be, but aspiring to the impossible is a most subtle form of arrogance, worn in the guise of “high standards,” or worse, spiritual advancement.

Of the latter, one of my teachers in the healing tradition, calls it “purple-washing.”

Because purple—color of the crown ckakra—is thought of as a spiritual color, this expression refers to the tendency of spiritual people to think of themselves as “above” certain emotions, fancying themselves, for example, invulnerable to fear, or anger.

“How lofty of me!” She jokes.

The reality is, perfection is unattainable for three main reasons:

1. Life is change. It was the Buddha’s starting point and the keystone for the body of his teachings. If all of life is impermanent, then we are too. Thank goodness! This means that we are always evolving. Perfection implies that a resolution has been achieved, and is, as such, a frozen state. Thus, perfection and change are a contradiction in terms.

2. The fantasy of perfection is born of ego. What would perfection even look like? It’s unanswerable, since for every ten people asked, there would be ten different answers. It’s relative. And why would we want to be perfect, when we saw, in the above passage, that perfection (if it existed) means no more growth? But back to the point about the ego…by virtue of the fact that perfection is nonexistent in any objective sense, its pursuit easily slides into the realm of narcissism. As psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, has pointed out, it is not narcissistic for a person to value a quality in himself which he actually possesses…the problem arises when narcissists admire themselves for qualities that have no foundation in reality. It seems the pursuit of perfection is the ultimate neurosis!

3. We are supposed to go through emotional trials. It’s part of the game of being human, of being part of this play that the Yogis call Maya. As a teacher, there is thought to be a practical purpose to it all; we go through our own challenges to be able to show others the way through. Having traversed the rough terrain ourselves, we can then show others the potholes. And from the perspective of a healer, we can better recognize the energetic vibration of what we have come to recognize in ourselves. Besides, in every wisdom tradition, from the Kabbalah, to the heart of Yogic wisdom, emotions are thought to be a compass, giving us feedback about where we are on our own journey. So, even as we’re pulling someone else up the mountain with one outstretched arm, we’re simultaneously clearing debris from the path with our other arm. The overarching point is that there is a reason for emotions that are considered “imperfect.” As the teacher of my teacher famously said, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience,” meaning both, that we are limited by virtue of our human embodiment and the challenges that come from limited seeing, and that we are subject to the experiences that come from being trapped in this realm and the duties and interactions that go along with it

In the meantime, we forgive ourselves and others as we stumble our way through the wilds of human life, as we search in vein for the way home. Because after all, as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz discovered, and as we too will discover for ourselves…it was right here, all the time.

Internal Conflict (not desires) Causes Suffering

It is not desires that are the root of misery, angst and suffering. It is conflict of desires.

On Desires—
Firstly, many desires may be seen as intrinsically noble, such as the desire to be enlightened, or, the desire to serve the world through one’s unique skill set. Secondly, many desires are simply natural, such as the desire for the next breath. Thirdly, many desires may be classified as “neutral,” such as the desire to learn to play the violin. With all of them, problems and frustrations arise only when we don’t know how to manifest them, or when there is a conflict with another desire. It is this latter point that I will focus mostly on, below.

Of these many varieties  of desires, there is only one sub-species that I would call inherently “bad,” namely those that include causing harm to others as a motive. The others are not inherently bad, in and of themselves.

Internal Conflict—
The real problems start when we are torn and divided. This is what I’ll call internal conflict and it is at the root of all disharmony, frustration and all havoc, from benign to catastrophic. From the everyday nuisances, like wanting to eat the whole bag of cookies to the huge life-changing situations, such as divorce.

There is always conflict underneath. In the first example, there is a conflict of more than one desire, since on the one hand, you may want to eat the cookies, but on the other, you don’t want to consume all that sugar, or gain weight (so, the other desire would be to maintain your weight). And, in the second example, you may want a long-term marriage, but you also want an honest marriage. If you’re in a situation where this isn’t possible, it will likely blow up in some way, such as in a divorce.

Another example may be: you want to go to Europe for a month, but you don’t want to miss work (so, the other desire would be to continue being productive at work). Again, the internal conflict will likely blow up. Not in such a cataclysmic way, as in divorce, but in a subtler way, such as in the everyday vexations that we all experience in life.

Lurking underneath what Buddha called dukkha, or suffering, you will find that there is an unacknowledged secondary desire. It is just a matter of digging a little deeper in your contemplation.

As a final example, imagine you were a homeowner who wanted very much to get going on the construction of your house. It is taking too long, and if you had it your way, you’d simply call a contractor and tell him to “make it happen.” But real life is more complex. You have to wait for your spouse, who is too busy with work priorities to share in the planning and expenses. So, you have to wait. In this case, we can say that underneath the desire to continue with construction is the pre-existing desire to keep peace in the household.

If it were as simple as wanting to build a room, with nothing standing in your way, you’d simply manifest the desire and move on. The desire, alone, would not be the problem. When something is standing in your way, such as lack of funds, or bad-timing, as in the play-out above, the obstructed desire transmutes into an unhealthy attachment.

As such, it is the internal conflict, caused by discordant desires, that causes suffering.

Why Meditation Works

morning meditateWhen I was growing up, it seemed everyone was impressed with those who could fix computers or who were technologically savvy in some way. They’re so intelligent, they’d say. And then there was always that family superstar who could answer the questions on Jeopardy before the contestants. Everyone would ooh and ahh, admiringly.

But, from the point of view of our soul, we are not here to fix computers or recite historical data.

Philosophy was impressive, too. While I wasn’t the one you’d call for a hard drive on the fritz, nor the one yelling out the answers to civil war trivia, I could talk about free will or argue about the existence of God. Of course, I didn’t choose this line of study in order to impress people, but as a girl in my twenties, I could already count on the type of reaction I’d get when asked what I’m majoring in.

That is…until I went to a real Zen monastery.

When I was in my 20s, I was already drawn to the eastern traditions—I knew about Zen and emptiness. I had read Alan Watts and even knew about koans. And for the first time, no one cared.

The bald man in robes, who they referred to as “Roshi” spoke that day. He said we were all there because we were “neurotic.” No words were ever truer! None of the brilliant papers I’d written seemed to matter at that moment. I still had my hang ups, just like everyone else. Because I still had that head of mine. All the studying in the world doesn’t seem to do much when it comes to true transformation.

That was when it dawned on me: Even the geniuses are screwed up! It’s like this passage:

Have you seen all these people who drink, who search for a partner, and who look for drugs? They start the search in earnest, or have the urge to do it, after 4 p.m. Why do they need drink? Why do people feel they need to take drugs?  They do all that out of an instinct to seek stimulation. At those times their biorhythm has gone down, and they feel irritated. They cannot exist like that and have to have a change…The root cause is that your basic biorhythm of energy, your mental projection and strategy are not reflected in a unisonness of character. Those zones are natural times that shift your energy level, your mental projection, and your performance. That is the time you must direct the mind, refine it, and create a consolidated unisonness of character and projection. ~Yogi Bhajan

The point is, what we are really here to do is guide the mind rather than let it be guided. Guided by what? By our own emotions, by other people’s expectations, by traffic, by disappointments, by the media…by endless, daily provocations (the worst of these being our own thoughts). Neither techie skills, nor historical data, nor a big bank roll can do this for us.

To me, it all boils down to this question: Are you a sanctuary for yourself?

Can you be still in your own solitude? We become a refuge for ourselves only when our mind is at peace. And only then is it remotely possible to be a source of peace for others — because our mind is the wellspring of every word we speak, every decision we make and every action we take.

How do we become our own sanctuary? When we discover our neutral center—the crowned sovereign over all the noise, the judgments, the neurotic outbursts and the incessant tug of war between positive and negative. The neutral channel is the balm that quells the drama that turns people’s lives upside down.

That neutral eye sees right though the drama. Thus, this quality creates vastness of character. This is true greatness. And this is what we’re here for.

If you have not established some vastness in your attitude, then your habits and facets, your fears and pettiness will betray you. ~Yogi Bhajan 

What is meant by “vastness?” No matter what spiritual tradition we’re speaking of, it all comes down to union, or, said the opposite way, letting go of the illusion of separateness. Where is that illusion kept? In the mind. Zen calls it the small self. Yoga calls it the finite self. No matter what we call it, this ego-based identity is what drives the pettiness in our lives, which in turn, makes spiritual union impossible. This is why governing the mind is the first task in any spiritual practice.

How do we refine the mind, in this way? It’s too bad you can’t just take a 6-week course, or a workshop, or an intensive. The old masters weren’t lying when they said you have to sit. There’s no way around it. It’s not as easy, of course, as taking a course and sticking some degree on your wall, but that’s also why there are so few truly enlightened beings in the world.

So how does it work?

Consider this car analogy: Before driving off to work in the morning, you warm up your car for a few minutes. As the engine warms up, a distinct alteration takes place within the engine that affects the oil pressure and viscosity, which prevents wear and tear on your car and gives you a smoother drive. In a similar way, it is through meditation, that we “warm up” our systems by better preparing our minds to handle the stress of daily living, to make the choices that need to be made and to navigate our way through our own doubts and anxieties. Through the refinement process that only meditation affords, we give ourselves a smoother drive.

Not only is there an alchemical process taking place, via the glandular system and the nervous system, but by coming to stillness, we develop a capacity to stay present even when things seem unpleasant. This translates into less reactivity and more patience in the “real world,” as we interface with difficult people and everyday dilemmas.

Through meditation, instead of simply reacting at once, we create space around every stimulus, whether pleasant or unpleasant and whether internal or external.  Our minds challenge us at every turn, like a toddler pulling at our pants for an ice cream, but as we persist, we become solid. We become a witness to the ways of our own minds, which is what Buddha meant when he urged us to study the Self.

To be sure, being a witness does not mean being passive. Nor does it mean being narcissistic. Not passive because we retain our intention to cultivate our awareness even when we get up off the cushion. Not narcissistic because as spiritual warriors, we know all too well the effect of one mind on the world at large.

We know that even a few minutes of warming up our engine daily, will shape every decision we make, in every area of our lives, from relationships to work. This is why it is the highest form of self betterment—because we are getting to the root of our being.

But, What if the New (fill in the blank) Makes Me Happy?

buddhaMy students and I were talking about the aging cover model in the story, how she was willing to go into debt just to get her neck done. In her warped sense of reality, maintaining the appearance of youth and the false promise of hope that she might have a second spin in this harsh industry, it made perfect sense. This story is part of a grouping of short anecdotes, called The 10 Houses of Suffering, that I wrote to give a better idea of what Buddha really meant by Dukha—the root of human suffering.

Then one student asked a reasonable question about our right to spend money on whatever makes us happy:

Student: Isn’t it our right, as mature individuals, to buy things as we like? I mean, what if the new BMW…or the new iPhone…or the new Kobe shoes, makes me happy?

Me: In a practical sense, yes.

But don’t miss the subtle implications of what you’re being asked to consider. If, as the Four Noble Truths go on to explain, our deep-rooted discontent and enduring lack of fulfillment is caused by incessant desires, then those desires must either be inherently wrong or else misguided. And our equally ingrained tendency to cling to stuff, must derive from some confusion on our part, about what it is we’re looking for. Whether it’s the new techie gadget, hairdo, nose job, your college admission letter, or something more intangible, like your idea of what life will be like once you get to UCLA, desires crop up like weeds, with a new one popping up to replace the old one, just as quickly as it’s satisfied.

So we fasten our grip, time after time, around some new fantasy that we think will fix everything. So the pickle we find ourselves in, is about more than the consuming. It’s about the wanting. It’s about what we’re looking for and the ways we go about finding it.

The drug addict (one of the 10 Houses) has the right to dope himself up one more time, for that quick fix, the instantaneous thrill and quick-lived sensation of gratification. But from the outside looking in, we see that he’s sedating himself into a half-dead stupor, an action that he’ll repeat until his death. Unless he wakes up.

This is the shadow-side of all attempts, in fact, to find happiness through external means. They are interminable and our desire for them is insatiable.

The more profound question is whether we are akin to this fellow.

For millions of people, turning on the TV is automatic. But consider the message that is relayed, the minute it lights up: if we wear Chanel No. 5, you’ll find ecstasy; if you lose 10 pounds before the holidays, life will be perfect; if you’re a bald man and you suddenly grow hair, five bikini-clad 20-year-olds will come and sit on your lap; if you win the lottery, you’ll live happily ever after; if you party in Las Vegas for the weekend, and lie to your partner about your whereabouts, your problems will disappear, and it will be your secret.

I would like to clarify a common misperception about spiritual disciplines and desires. We’re not talking about just any desires, but rather, the desires for things that we think will make us happy.

And that’s the crux of it…those things then become conditions of our happiness.

10 Houses of Suffering

Intro: These stories originally appeared on my old blog–I wrote them to illustrate the many ways that ordinary people, living seemingly ordinary lives, make themselves suffer. And in virtually every case, it is some particular shade of mental angst-a particular varietal of suffering, although none the less…ordinary. And in virtually every case, as my students quickly recognized, it has arisen because of the unwillingness to come to acceptance with the inevitable changes of life.  I recently used these in class (lecture recorded on Youtube) to introduce Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which summarily present the madness of the human situation, namely, this inability to accept the inevitable and the pain we cause ourselves in persisting to look everywhere else but within for our peace of mind.

Lead-in: Imagine a row of ten houses facing a creek. Each one is big and beautiful, except the last one – the tenth one – which is smaller and needs some upkeep.

Inside the first house is a man who suspects his wife is sleeping with somebody else. He spends every minute of every day, in a state of paranoid suspicion. Right now, listening to her phone conversation, creeping along, crouching under the row of expensive paintings in the long corridor, he hopes the floor doesn’t crack with his sneaky footsteps, giving him him away, betraying his jealousy.

Inside the second house is a 25-year-old woman with an eating disorder. At least five days of every week are spent alternately binging and purging, and taking no pleasure from the compulsive acts. Her throat, her teeth, and her stomach are destroyed, and she lives with the fact that she is killing herself, and can’t stop. The other two days are spent in isolation, hunger, and vile self hatred.

Inside the third house is a mother too afraid to answer the phone, yet simultaneously too afraid to stray too far from the house, because her son is in Iraq, and news of her only son’s status might be delivered at any moment.

Inside the fourth house is a 33-year-old aging cover model, losing jobs to 18-year-olds. She curses at her face in the mirror, and doesn’t have any more will to get out of bed in the morning. She owes 20,000 dollars in debt from lost pay, yet just accepted one more credit card offer to schedule plastic surgery on her neck and eyes, in the hope that it will make her better and that it will make her like herself better.

Inside the fifth house is a heroin addict. He is missing out on his children’s young years, but can’t stop. Making it worse, is his wife, who calls him a loser, taunting him daily for his weakness. Every time he tries to give it up for good, he gets violently ill, and gives in to the urge to shoot up again, even though he knows it is only a temporary pleasure. It’s gotten to the point where he stands to lose his job, his wife, and the house. He no longer enjoys being sober because of the agonizing guilt that eats him alive.

Inside the sixth house is a 60-year-old woman who has just been diagnosed with incurable cancer. She knows her body will soon start to break down, and that she will have to soon face her death. She will have to come to grips with the fact that she will never see her grandchildren, or her husband, or her dogs, again.

Inside the seventh house is an 85-year-old woman who lost her husband five years ago. Having lost her will to live, she lies in bed all day long, surrounded by the dusty antique knick-knacks she spent her life collecting. Her social security checks go entirely to the illegal caretakers, paid to help her go to the bathroom, and take her to the doctor. She refuses to leave her home and go to an elderly home.

Inside the eigth house is a 19-year-old boy with agoraphobia. Stepping outside of the house is like hanging off a bridge, sweaty fingers slipping, no one to catch you. He takes his xanax, and sits in front of his computer, wearing the mask of his artificial identity, chatting in forums, witty and sarcastic on screen, hating himself all the while on the inside because he’s lonely and bored, and it never goes away.

Inside the ninth house is a 30-year-old ambitious office worker, who just missed out on a promotion due to the fact that his scheming female colleague in the next cubicle claimed his idea as her own, taking all the credit and the rewards. He takes his seething hatred out on other women, in the form of abusive relationships that leave him feeling more empty and worthless, rather than potent, and valued.

Inside the tenth house – the smallest house on the block – is a newlywed couple who bought this fixer-upper because it was the only house they could afford, given their loan qualifications. Because their house is at the end of the street, they are forced to drive past the other more glorious houses every day, going to and fro work. He imagines his neighbors’ luxurious lives, Saturday barbeques, and big TV screens; and she is filled with increasing bitterness toward him, for promising a new kitchen, plumbing that works, bathrooms she can decorate in coordinated colors, like in the magazines. Yet the months go by, and still her husband has done nothing to improve their house. Their relationship is quickly turning bitter.

To Reflect On
-This is the meaning of samsara (life sucks, but only if mind sucks.)
-This is the meaning of the expression, where ever you go, there you are (all is perception.)
-This is why it makes no sense to covet (addiction is an everyday affair.)
-This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness on the outside (pleasure is not happiness – it has a dark side)
-This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness at all – it’s not a thing to get! (it is a by-product of presence.)
-This is why the masters say to wake up to what is (to accept.)
-This is the meaning of the saying, you don’t have to believe your thoughts (thoughts are kind of like, secretions.)
-This is why monks meditate (meditating is dealing with what’s in front of you.)
-This is why you have to put out your own fire first (you create the world.)