What Is To Be Done, And All That

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-04-24 21:00:00 No comments

A passage from The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po:

Ordinary people all indulge in conceptual thought based on environmental phenomena, hence they feel desire and hatred. To eliminate environmental phenomena, just put an end to your conceptual thinking. When this ceases, environmental phenomena are void; and when these are void, thought ceases. But if you try to eliminate environment without first putting a stop to conceptual thought, you will not succeed, but merely increase its power to disturb you.

You probably all know that cartoon where the one person says to the other "My desire to remain informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane." I think about that one a lot in conjunction with the above passage, about how we seem to be stuck in this doomloop where we can't help but saturate ourselves with bad news. We seem to think the reason to do this is to remain "vigilant", when all it does is leave us paralyzed and enervated. Clearly it isn't working.

The other thing that arises from this is how advice on self-care or what have you feels ill-advised. Forget about self-care, the conventional wisdom goes; the world's burning down around our ears! All this is terribly hard to argue with, and I suspect one reason I stopped arguing with it is because it wasn't something we were argued into to begin with. It's irrational, although not mistaken; it's just that the emotional component of the understanding has superseded every other aspect of it. The problems we face are not going to go away by themselves, but they are not going to be solved by attempting to throw ourselves onto all of them at once.

I don't talk about Zen and such because I want to act like I'm above everything that's going on. I'm as neck-deep in the trouble of the world as the rest of you. Some of us are up to our necks, some up to our eyebrows; but the trouble touches everyone. The reason I come back to Zen as a way to make sense of it is because one of the few ways I can indeed help others is by not making things worse for them — by getting that much more mastery over my spirit, and allowing that to reach others. I'm doing a lot more besides that alone, but I know if I don't take at least some time and effort to keep my own senses and spirit from clouding over, I won't be of use to anyone, myself included.

It is not selfish to do this, if only because many of the people who make things worse do not do this. Many people have the wrong idea about what personal discipline means, or how to go about developing it, and so they end up getting advice from people who have equated "discipline" with what amounts to punishment (whether of one's self or others). If self-care, or discipline, means anything, it means giving yourself the opportunity to live with yourself in a way that's constructive instead of judgmental. There is nothing easy about this, if only because just about every aspect of the world we live in stacks the deck against it. (And I do not mean "capitalism", at least not by itself; this problem predates all of that.)

I study the things I do, and practice as I do, to avoid turning into someone who will simply make things worse. From all I can see, this goal is more than many other people strive for.

Tags: Zen politics