Confronting the enormity of having been born

The Buddha taught that anguish comes from craving, which is the “childish and utopian thirst”* for things to be perfect. It seems to me that most religions not only encourage this craving but are, in part, an expression of it. Six years ago, while in the grip of anxiety induced by such a craving, I pulled the book “Full-Catastrophe Living” off the library shelf and was introduced to mindfulness. The title shocked and intrigued me as it seemed to command the exact opposite of what I was trying to do; it sowed the idea of peace through acceptance into my hungry mind before I even read anything about it, and although I wasn’t interested or disciplined enough to practice mindfulness regularly, the idea certainly took root and started to dissolve my utopian childishness.

This week I read “Buddhism Without Beliefs“, a short book by Stephen Batchelor, lent to me by a friend. It refreshed some of these ideas for me and, as usual, opened up some more questions. 😉

“Anguish maintains its power only as long as we allow it to intimidate us. By habitually regarding it as fearful and threatening, we fail to see the words etched on it by the Buddha: ‘Understand Me’.”

“To understand a worry is to know it calmly and clearly for what it is: transient, contingent, and devoid of intrinsic identity.”

“Just as craving crystallizes into anguish, so does understanding flower into letting go.”

“Letting go of a craving is not rejecting it but allowing it to be itself: a contingent state of mind that once arisen will pass away. Instead of forcibly freeing ourselves from it, notice how its very nature is to free itself.”

A lot of this is self-evidently true; understanding and seeing states of mind for what they are is immediately helpful, too. But my question with this has always been: wouldn’t non-judgment and acceptance of and dis-identification with mental phenomena lessen the enjoyable ones as well as the craving and anguish? And isn’t a certain amount of dissatisfaction necessary in order to make progress in anything? Maybe craving and non-craving are two end members of a spectrum of motivation levels, in which there is no ideal but the best compromises are somewhere in the middle? Or maybe it is not a matter of ceasing to want anything, but rather, seeing reality clearly enough to be able to want things to an appropriate degree, loosening the knots we tie ourselves in in our blindness, and being able to recognise that mental experiences are not us and need not be feared or recoiled away from but can simply be allowed to be what they are.

“I cannot find the self by pointing my finger at any physical or mental trait and saying: ‘Yes, that’s me.'”

“We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us. From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred billion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made: these have conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call ‘me.’ Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it.”

All of this is so clear that I have nothing to add to it other than to notice that, if taken on board, it allows truly objective self-appraisal, wipes out the religious notion of judgment and makes compassion (including self-compassion) inevitable.

Batchelor advocates an agnosticism that “confronts the enormity of having been born” over seeking consolation through contrived beliefs; meaning is constructed and relative:

“Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. … A purpose is formed of words and images. And we can no longer step out of language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies.”

“Anguish emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. In the face of a changing world, such craving seeks consolation in something permanent and reliable, in a self that is in control of things, in a God who is in charge of destiny. The irony of this strategy is that it turns out to be the cause of what it seeks to dispel. In yearning for anguish to be assuaged in such ways, we reinforce what creates anguish in the first place: the craving for life to be other than it is. We find ourselves spinning in a vicious circle. The more acute the anguish, the more we want to be rid of it, but the more we want to be rid of it, the more acute it gets.”

He makes a good point. Maybe, in doubting that we can live the full catastrophe, we sell ourselves vastly short.

* (BWB)

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7 Responses to Confronting the enormity of having been born

  1. LK says:

    If you are interested in Mindfulness I recommend The Miracle of Mindfulness by Tich Naht Hahn. Amazing book. And he is an inspiring author.

    • Sarah says:

      Wow LK, that was a quick response!!
      I should definitely read some Thich Nhat Hanh, I have heard of him positively from a few people. He has a book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” which naturally sounded interesting. 🙂

  2. susanne430 says:

    Interesting post with lots of good (deep!) comments on the quotes! So we should just be content no matter what – be non-judgmental, compassionate and just enjoy whatever we experience in life even “the full catastrophe.” Is that what you’re saying?

    • Sarah says:

      Susanne, as a non-idealist, I am not a fan of applying “should”s too generally! I think for me, avoidance and resistance and consolation-seeking deplete my quality of life, at least when it comes to those things over which I have no control. Running away from life in fear of what it will do to “me”. I can’t claim to know the full effects of standing back from one’s own thoughts and experiences and observing them non-judgmentally and with understanding. But even the idea of it is somehow refreshing to my mind.

  3. Sophia says:

    I’m reading a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and it seems to have very similar themes. I don’t have it in front of me… something about the enlightened accepting pain and pleasure as the same. I think the idea is that we tie our worry to what will go wrong and our hope to what will go right, but imagine if we felt inner joy regardless and didn’t spend all our energy on what might happen? What happens to us, our feelings, these DO matter, but they are passing things. Just as we can ignore a tickle on our skin when we are focused, we can ignore the passing emotions that cloud our judgement and hamper our joy.

    • Sarah says:

      Sophia, thanks for your comment and nice to “meet” you! I guess there must be an overlap with Hindu traditions which the Buddha would have been influenced by. Your explanation is pretty good, and demonstrates my confusion too, which is how pain and pleasure can be the same, and at the same time, our feelings can still matter. Perhaps it’s something I won’t understand unless I experience it.

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