Tag Archives: Existentialism

To Accept “what is” or Pursue your Passion?

follow your passionIs the highest attainment in life realized when we’re able to accept where we are, without striving? Or, are we supposed to chase our dreams and pursue our passions? In my book, Buddha in the Classroom, I speak of the importance of acceptance, as an expression of our capacity to liberate ourselves from the endless chain of yearnings that characterize existence and from the resistance and corresponding angst that comes up when those yearnings aren’t fulfilled .

A snippet of that part of my book —

(Excerpt from Chapter 19—Passion; Accept, Adapt, and Abandon Hope)

The real problem with our fixation on passion is the near certainty that even a blazing fire will dim with time.

Then what?

Even when passion is pursued and found, the affair won’t last forever. Passion changes. We change. A dancer friend recently shared with me the common experience among the cast members of a famous musical. Far from reveling in prideful accomplishment for having been part of one of the longest-running shows, they’re sick and tired physically, and mentally jaded. Many are dancing on old injuries, and are scarcely able to find the motivation to go onstage night after night; yet somehow they manage to put themselves into their postures and glissade, on tiptoe, onto the stage, one more time, because it’s how they make their living. It is the same motivation that gets most of the world to work every day.

It reminds me of the ancient Greek myth about Sisyphus: He is condemned by the gods to push a gigantic boulder up a hill, over and over, all day long, even as it continuously rolls to the bottom of its own weight as soon as he gets it to the top. The gods understood the futility of wasted labor, so assigning it was the perfect, wicked punishment. In retelling the story, the French philosopher Albert Camus likens the absurdity of the task to the everyday predicament of every single one of us, pushing our rocks in our own way, as we struggle to meet deadlines, deal with coworkers and bosses, and solve the problems that are part and parcel of any workday, anywhere.

But Camus was an optimist.

Despite his fate, it is Sisyphus himself who decides to be happy. He can whistle and hum happy songs while he pushes his rock, or he can lament and endlessly curse his fate. The irony is that as soon as he realizes the power inherent in his own reaction, he is liberated. He makes his fate his own. It is he alone who decides to be happy or miserable. In a nod to our own capacity for liberation, Camus says, “We must imagine Sisyphus smiling.”

Dharma: The Lesson for Teachers

Sisyphus’s existentialist smile resonates with the Buddhist reminder to let go. Sisyphus smiles because he accepts his fate. To let go is to accept. And through acceptance, Sisyphus liberates himself from his sentence. To accept is to simultaneously stop resisting. When you stop resisting, you are able to enjoy your experiences, which is to say, your life.

Accept, adapt, and abandon hope, Zen says…

Do I still think this is the Truth?—

Yes, but it’s not the whole truth. It’s true on one level, just as, when you’re a certain age, following a rule of conduct is important, but it’s also true that this same rule may no longer apply, at another stage or moment in your life. There are different truths for different stages of our journey. Acceptance is true and passion is true.

Consider Gandhi. He had a passion for restoring justice and liberation to India, but every time they threw him in jail, his only savior was surrender. Acceptance was the rule of the hour. It didn’t mean he was giving up his broader plan. It just meant he had the wisdom to know when to act. There’s a time for everything. Thus, we can be our own captors (through resistance) or liberators (through acceptance).

There’s a time to express our passion in life. And this is what I would like to now give proper importance to.

Very simply put, if we’re interested in what we’re doing, that interest will carry us through the inevitable challenges that come along with anything. It reminds me of an oft recited quote by an unknown author:

Without enthusiasm, you’ll find any reason to quit. With enthusiasm, you’ll overlook every reason. ~unknown

Whether or not to follow our passions depends largely on the choices we have available. If we are lucky enough to live in a physical environment in which we are politically free and financially able to pursue our desires, we might consider the luxury we have been given in this incarnation and go about it with zest and gratitude. But, if this is not the case, then acceptance for the karma we have chosen for ourselves in this existence will serve us well. 

Even with this said, acceptance is a tool that serves us, even then, for no position or pursuit is all paradise, all the time. We will always deal with difficult people and occasional burnout, but when the joy and sense of purpose is greater than the misery, or put another way, when it uplifts more than it drains, we carry on, knowing that we’re serving the world through the work that we do. And again, gratitude for the opportunity to do it, will carry us. Acceptance is a great succor and support in every part of life.

A more profound reason to give voice to our passions.

Soul Speaks—

I call it Soul Speaks…as when a child shows signs of his/her inclination early on. This is a sort of magic that gives our life a sparkly quality and makes us feel we have something to live for. It is our inner longing showing up before we even understand it or know how to give voice to it. It is our soul speaking. This voice, that starts out as a little whisper—such as when we’re first attracted to some activity—may one day combine with skill, and this fusion in time and space is like the key that unlocks the door to brilliance.

If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you directly to your purpose. ~unknown

Power Spot—

The power spot is another little expression I have to describe this kind of brilliance…such as when Pavarotti sings. When you hit your power spot, everyone around you feels it, although they may not know what to call it. It is felt. A pop phrase for this inexplicable phenomenon is the “it factor.” A person is shining in their craft, doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. And their radiance glimmers like a shining gift to the world.

Is there such a thing, metaphysically, as “purpose?”—

Which opens up another question. And this is what it all hinges on…do we really have a purpose? If we did, who gets to say what it is? How will we know what it truly is? Do we have only one? Can we choose to do something else?

It all comes down to trusting our own feeling. No one else can decide for us. It is not an intellectual decision, that can be decided by a list of pros and cons, as we were taught to do in school. We will know our purpose because it feels right. And yes, that purpose can change, just as our relationships can change. Just as some relationships are karmic in nature and are finished when the karma has been played out the and lessons have been learned. Our purpose at one time can shift into a new direction after we have served in that area and our time there is finished.

More about “feeling” it—

When we’re not doing what we’re “supposed to be doing,” everything in our life just feels “off.” We feel drained, rather than uplifted and satisfied. Everything feels much more laborious than need be.

Life is not supposed to feel like drudgery, anyway—this is an outdated and misguided belief based on guilt. When we’re on the path that is right for us, everything falls into a flow, what one of my teachers calls effortless effort. This is the law of abundance; everything will fall into place when we trust and when we align ourselves with our heart.

The Way of Efficiency—

Besides being in tune with what feels right, there’s a sense of efficiency and capacity that becomes evident when we are in the “right place.” Not only do we tend to thrive, personally, but our performance has the potential for excellence. Although we might like to give some activity a fair chance, for the sake of curiosity, we may or may not be any good at it. I remember when my father gave dancing the good old college try for the sake of pleasing my mother, but a Fred Astaire this scientist was not!

Along these lines, we may consider a tree or a houseplant. Although it can adapt to different environments if necessary, it simply does better in “the right” environment, and will produce better fruit. Some plants need more light, more water, etc. In human terms, we call it “being in your element.”

Or, consider a car. You may eventually get to your destination on subpar gasoline, or low oil, but it will do better on better gas and more oil. In human terms, it’s our choice—we can waste energy or work more efficiently, by being in tune with our soul’s purpose.

Establish your passions on a day to day basis. Whatever you attach your conscious and undoubted passions to will manifest. ~Guru Singh

In spiritual teachings, it is said that this is how we know when we are going the right way or not. God…or, if you prefer…higher wisdom, or angels, or the universe…will assist us and give us signs when we’re going the right way, and lay down hindrances when we’re going the wrong way. Sometimes they may give very loud clues if we’re deaf or daft and are not getting the message! Does this mean we should give up when too many obstacles befall us? Not necessarily! This is the art of walking a line only we can walk for ourselves.

Again, it comes back to the necessity of being present in our bodies, so that we can recognize the many ways that information that is felt, rather than intellectualized. So that we can know on a deeper, more intuitive level. So that we we can trust in our sense that it is not just a challenge, but a sign of something awry.

This connection to Self opens the door to personal joy, which we then shine like a lighthouse out to the world. It is why another one of my spiritual teachers once told me to “follow my bliss,” for when I do, I then bring that de-light to everything and everyone I touch.

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Reconciling Free Will with Destiny (and how about fate?)

free-willIt’s hard to imagine Pavarotti or Maria Callas not ending up as singers. It’s as if they came to uplift, inspire, heal and delight the world with their voices. Each soul is incarnated to fulfill its destiny, according to Yogic philosophy, and when we awaken to that purpose, we are living according to our destiny.

A poetic expression of this idea is found in this passage:

Your mission is to vibrate higher in your vessel so you awaken completely to your sacred purpose. ~Dror B. Ashuah

This awakening is the key to our sense of fulfillment. But it is a huge challenge in a society, which would tempt us, left and right, to seek fulfillment from external sources and all things pinned to appearance—from the allure of a sexy body to the amusement of a new gadget, to the promises of the perfect dream vacation. Profit is made by keeping us trapped in a cycle of codependency and separateness. The tragedy is that we are kept from our own inner power. The result is a never-ending cycle of unrecognized addictions of every sort, in which, fueled by a vague neediness, we go on supporting this infrastructure—a mega-system that thrives on our insecurities.

How can we wake up from this codependency and align ourselves with our destiny? This wisdom, this sense of knowing is already within. It is the little spark of light that shines forth from within. But because the fog of our emotions and obsessions is so thick, we often miss it. But when we pause for a moment to let the fog settle, we find it. And we delight in its warmth. And sometimes we summon the courage to trust that light and let it guide us along our path.

Where does free will fit into this?

The minute we come to center, we find ourselves nourished. Like drinking from the nectar of our own internal fountain of bliss, we feel full. Those things on the outside seem to lose their appeal. We realize that what we tend to call free will, is but a confused mix of desires shaped by others and meant to mask insecurities. We have taken the reins of our life. But this requires the choice to wake up from those things that have held us hostage for too long—the things on the inside, like unhealthy emotions and insecurities, as well as the things that keep us wobbling around on the outside. As soon as we stop believing that there’s a quick fix “out there” in the world of pills and thrills, we begin to take steps on our true path. And we begin to resist those things that take us off our path. This is the beginning of waking up.

So, what is fate?

Fate, according to Yogic wisdom, is the black hole of other people’s opinions and ideas. It is the nowhere land, in which we get lost in the web of expectations and pressures set by others, be it society, parents, or personal delusion. These pressures drown out the voice of the spirit and over-ride our own sense of self-authority and purpose.

Every time we come to center, we have made a choice. We have honored our commitment to align with our sense of purpose. This is free will.

Walking our path, guided by our ever-brightening inner light, we encounter our karma (which doesn’t mean punishment). Think of karma as the residue of our actions, either in the here and now or in the here to fore. It is everything we have inherited, assumed, absorbed and adopted—from our DNA, to our zodiac sign, to our first kiss, to our first break up. It’s the record of all the patterns and habits that are embedded in our mental, physical and psychological selves, right down to our very cells. Why bother about it? Because that which would transform has first to be exposed.

And this process of transformation is strengthened by our moment-to-moment commitment and through the tools of practice—which we may call “spiritual,” since the desire to come back to center and to wholeness is a spiritual one. These tools include, but are not limited to, the uplifting presence of community, meditation, movement, and especially, intention.

Waxing philosophical.

Am I, as the western philosophers would say, pre-supposing the existence of free will? To that, I extend a brief summary of Sartre’s position, that as conscious beings, we are innately free. Where I differ (and where I differ from my earlier position, as expressed in my book, Buddha in the Classroom), is on how this relates to destiny. Diehard existentialists, like Sartre, reject any suggestion of a deterministic universe, one which would open up a world of easy excuses that render us helpless, like puppets on the strings of our inherited tendencies. Typical of the western tendency to polarize beyond repair (and even more typical of an existentialist like Sartre, who was allergic to any species of God-talk), destiny and free will are seen as irreconcilable.

But, what if we instead, look upon destiny as a flexible journey, in which my will and God’s will (or universal will…or divine will) are one and in sync?

To be clear, free will, as it is typically defined, is the ability to choose from among genuine alternatives. In the world of eastern mysticism, we go further here, too; while existential freedom describes our conscious choosing, the Yogis were more interested in our state of consciousness, itself.

The difference is subtle but immense, since it is our state of consciousness that structures what we see as choices, in the first place. What most people think of as freely choosing is nothing more than habit patterns and uncontrollable desires for things that aren’t necessarily good for us. The more conscious we are, the more inclined we will be to investigate those ingrained tendencies (what the Yogis call samskaras), and the more adept we will be to change what we can and reconcile ourselves lovingly with those we can’t. This happens through those Yogic tools and through all meditative practices, which temper our reactive mind while taming the twin dragons; fear and anger.

Ultimately, the more conscious we are, the more freedom we have.

True Freedom Is More than Free Will

“It might sound funny coming from a guy in prison, but never before have I felt so free.” ~Denzel Washington in Flight

The kind of freedom the philosophers talk about in the west is quite different than the freedom of the saints and mystics and Yogis.

The philosophers speak of defining our own purpose and identity through the choices we make, of carving out our own paths and therefore, living an authentic life. In philosophical terms, it means rejecting the traditional notion of destiny and the corresponding idea that things are inevitably the way they are, set and fixed, in a pre-planned, determined universe.

Existentialists like Sartre—so called, because our very existence is ours to shape—would famously ask, where is this plan? The very idea left too much room for excuses, he said, since it would then be all too easy to pawn off our actions on circumstances, falling back on such clichés like It must have been in the cards, or That’s just the way I was made. And so, the urging was to use our free will, the natural byproduct of being born as a conscious human being.

Is this the same as the injunction, in the eastern mystic traditions to wake up? To actively shape our own Karma by making conscious choices and to reshape our plethora of long-established, unconscious habits through mindful awareness? Insofar as we are to create our own lives, with all the responsibility that goes along with this freedom, there is a parallel.

But existential freedom has more to do with conscious choosing than one’s state of consciousness.

For thinkers like Sartre, consciousness is the source and spring of free will. But, this unyielding and often rigidified consciousness is exactly the source of trouble from the point of view of Buddhist and Yogic teachings. Existential freedom (free will) is an ability to choose from among genuine alternatives that exist in the world, whereas the freedom the Yogis speak of refers to an awakened state of mind that shapes what we see as choices in the first place.

* For more on this topic, see my book, Buddha in the Classroom (Chapter 19. Sartre and Buddha—True Freedom is a Settled Mind)
* The next post will expand on this theme, exploring the differences between spiritual development and traditional methods of self help.