Out Of Mind

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-11-23 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

As proof of life, a post. (Lots going on in my life right now, don't expect this to be too profound or funny.)

One of my favorite lines from Huang Po goes like this: "If you will conceive of a Buddha, you will be obstructed by that Buddha! And when you conceive of sentient beings, you will be obstructed by those beings."

The hardest lesson I've ever had to learn about life is one that lies at the center of Zen and Buddhism: the idea that our ideas about things are not the things themselves. But we've spent our entire lives being given all these incentives to confuse the two, so it's no wonder we can't disentangle them. Our ideas about ourselves aren't what "we" are, either. So one of the reasons for practice is to learn to distinguish between what we think about things and the things themselves. Easier said than done, yes.

I've been practicing for [counts on fingers] about 17 years now, and I still have trouble with this. It's not something you overcome all at once, but something you need constant work to keep into perspective. Part of why I haven't posted much lately is because I've been juggling a whole bunch of things happening in my life at once, many of which are deeply taxing — exactly the sorts of things one would need practice to disengage from. I've not done the best job with it, but at least I haven't been totally paralyzed. Still, my creative projects have all been shelved for a few weeks while I get this dealt with.

If there's one mistake we make most consistently with our ideas about things vs. things as they are, it's having the idea that all we have to do is fix this and that thing in our lives, and everything will be fine at last. Innocent enough wishful thinking; we all do it. But if we don't confront this delusion, it stands to be a greater source of misery than the problems themselves. Earlier in life, I confronted this by simply willing away the problem, which never works; all it does it make you feel bad when your will isn't strong enough. Now I understand better how practice — which kinda side-steps questions of willpower — makes this kind of confrontation possible. Practice helps you see firsthand what your thoughts are as opposed to reality.

Another useful teacher in my practice, Pema Chödrön, is big on the idea of getting comfortable with uncertainty, with finding strength in the ability to say "I don't know." I don't know when I'm going to die, or what kind of shape I'm going to be in before then, or how it's going to happen. I don't know if I'm even going to be able to go on that trip to the grocery store I have planned on Friday! (Well, missing that wouldn't be such a heartbreaker.) None of that means plans are pointless, or that we can't enjoy making them — just that we only ever make plans for the future in the open-endedness of the present. And the more we look at our own minds in a structured way, the less these things hinder us.

I think now back to all the times when I was certain life was going to mess up some relatively large plan I had. Most of the time it did not, in fact, mess things up. Sometimes it did, and sometimes those mess-ups had nothing to do with my ideas. My worries about whether or not things would get messed up were a bigger time and emotion sink than the thing itself.

Case in point. I recently canceled a trip to visit part of the family because I was dealing with some of the aforementioned busy-making things, and on the day after I canceled the trip I found out I wouldn't have been able to go anyway because a storm pre-empted all the flights I had booked. But no one was angry about it; none of that was a cause for blame. (The great mistake of our lives is how we invent morality plays for things that never call for them.)

Overall, we could stand to worry less about what is going to happen to us — the options get distinctly more limited over time, anyway — and concern ourselves more with how to cultivate what we have in the face of such inevitabilities. People talk of "resiliency" (or, worse, "toughening up"), but most talk around such things is discompassionate or psychologically illiterate. It doesn't revolve around giving people the tools they need to look into themselves nonjudgmentally, and to undo the default confusion they typically walk around with. Very little in our lives, and in our culture, do that for us. It falls to us, unfortunately, to make the space and time to do so.

Final note. I hope to get back to posting regularly, and giving you project updates, in a few weeks. I have a few things that must be waited out first. Wish me luck.

Tags: Buddhism Zen