Thursday, June 24, 2010

Idiot Devotion

Devotion is one of those mysterious things Buddhists are always talking about; but when pressed to explain what it is, nobody really seems to know. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the experience and practice of devotion towards the guru or teacher is regarded as one of the main qualities that brings the student to awakening. As one famous chant in the Kagyu lineage puts it, "devotion is the head of meditation" -- the guiding and driving force behind the student's movement towards awakening. The expression of devotion opens the door for the teacher to transmit the full blessings and instructions of a lineage of enlightened beings that reaches all the way back to the Buddha himself.

Devotion is essentially a quality of longing or desire; and like all forms of desire, it has the potential to be either wise or neurotic. In its wisdom form, this longing or desire is for enlightenment itself -- our own and that of others -- which we see reflected in the teacher and the lineage of awakening he or she holds. In its neurotic form, devotion might manifest as a baser emotional longing and desire for the person, or for some kind of validating intimacy and relationship with the teacher. With time and the proper conditions, the student's devotion may grow from its early, clinging, neurotic and instable form into a more refined, unconditional and open type of trust and commitment.

The expression of devotion takes as many forms as there are students who feel it; it is an intensely personal and individual path. It is expressed in our commitment to meditation practice and following the instructions of our teachers. It is expressed in the diligent study and contemplation of teachings and texts that describe awakened mind and the path to its realization. And it is expressed in doing various kinds of work that support the teacher and his or her mandala of activity.

In an ideal world, these three "wheels" -- the wheels of study, practice, and activity -- are kept in harmonious balance in each devoted student's life and path. Through study one gains knowledge and understanding, which deepens one's experience of practice, which in turn supports one's activity and efforts on behalf of others.

In the imperfection of real life, on the other hand, the three wheels often get out of balance. We might fall into a pattern of wanting only to study the Dharma, underemphasizing the importance of practice and activity, which leads to a dry and academic understanding of the teachings with little experiential realization. Or we might become practice addicts, avoiding study and activity like the plague, just wanting to sit quietly with our minds all the time. Or we might become activity junkies, keeping ourselves so constantly preoccupied with Dharma-related projects and work that we rarely have time for formal practice and study.

A Cultural Frame of Mind

This latter type of dysfunctional devotion -- the neurosis of activity junkies -- is common among Western students of Buddhism. Maybe it's because we tend to have very busy minds to begin with, and we naturally bring that same mindset onto the spiritual path. Our predominant tendency is to always be doing, planning, scheming, dreaming, acting -- and quiescence does not come easily to us. It's much more familiar, and perhaps more comfortable, to get caught up in a lot of activity that seems to be for a good cause and keeps us busy all the time.

Our Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage has instilled us with a strong work ethic, which can play into our tendency to overemphasize the wheel of activity. "The devil," we've been told, "will find work for idle hands to do" -- and so we dare not let our hands (or our minds) be still for long. We also measure ourselves against the higher standards set by others, and sometimes we even guilt-trip ourselves when we come up short in comparison. Look at So-and-So, we might think. He's more devoted than I am, that's why he's able to do so much more than I am and to have his finger in so many different pies. How does he do it? In our efforts to be more like So-and-So, we might fail to notice that So-and-So is so chronically overextended and stressed out with all his activity that he is suffering migraines and catching a cold nine times a year.

We might even feel a compulsion to say yes to everything we are asked to do on behalf of others -- because we feel that's what devotion to our guru means, or what being a bodhisattva means. "I say yes whenever I can," says Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. But if we're listening with our habitual mindset we might conveniently fail to hear those last three words: "whenever I can." Automatically saying "yes" to every invitation and request that comes our way is what might be called "idiot devotion." Sometimes the more skillful and compassionate thing to do is to say "no" to involvement in one project in order to be able to properly focus our energy and attention on another -- or to simply have enough space to deal with our other obligations in life. But if we have that Judaeo-Christian guilt trip going on, saying "no" to involvement in any project that has a beneficial, spiritual aim can feel scary and even humiliating. And pity the Dharma student who has underlying control issues and wants to do everything, or be involved in managing everything, herself. There are myriad factors like these that can subtly color our expression of devotion in a neurotic tone.

An Organizational Neurosis

Dharma organizations, like all nonprofits, are in perpetual need of skilled and enthusiastic volunteers. Once word of our talents and energies spreads within the organization, we begin to find ourselves pulled this way and that way. Drip by drip, we become involved in one project on top of another, one committee after another, until we may find ourselves having fallen completely overboard with activity -- struggling to keep our heads above the water and meet all our obligations to family, career, and life while juggling the many balls of our Dharma projects. We might be working a full-time job (with overtime), rushing from work to the Dharma center for local sangha leadership meetings and classes in the evenings, spending the better part of the weekend on conference calls and planning sessions for national committees -- and wondering how to find time to do our laundry and cook meals and visit with friends. Having failed to make discerning choices and set appropriate priorities and boundaries around our involvement in the wheel of activity, we slide gradually but inexorably towards total burnout. Inevitably, we arrive at a moment of panic and have no choice but to withdraw from some of our activities -- or continue pressing forward and making ourselves mentally and physically ill.

Perhaps I should be speaking in the first-person voice rather than "we," because this crash-and-burn, boom-and-bust cycle of involvement in the wheel of activity is something I've personally experienced several times -- and maybe, at bottom, it is just my own neurotic pattern. But I've observed the same patterns enough in other people to suspect that I'm far from alone in having suffered from it. I've even known people who withdrew altogether from their involvement in particular Dharma organizations because of this type of burnout on the wheel of activity. It is, of course, up to each of us as individuals to manage our own time and commitments; in most cases, there is no one else who is watching out for us and will tell us when we're about to go overboard. But from an organizational management perspective, overtapping people and burning them out and driving them away altogether is not, to say the least, a skillful or compassionate use of human resources -- and in order to mature as Dharma organizations, we need to confront that. Learning to hold the three wheels of practice, study and activity in proper balance is a challenge we must face both as individual Dharma students and as communities.

Learning from Our Mistakes

"It is really important to have love for yourself," said Mitra Tyler Dewar at a recent retreat I attended at Nalanda West in Seattle. "It will bite you in the ass if you try to have devotion to a teacher without love for yourself." Similarly, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni said in one of the sutras that you could search the entire universe and you wouldn't find anyone more worthy of your love and compassion than you yourself.

One of the ways we need to show this love and compassion for ourselves is through understanding and respecting our own limits. When we bite off more than we can chew, we burn ourselves out on the spinning wheel of activity. For each of us, finding the balance and walking that line is a personal journey; what is skillful and balanced for you might be crazy-making for me, and vice-versa. To make matters slightly more complicated, that line, for each of us, is not a straight and narrow one; it is always shifting and changing course as our life circumstances evolve and as we progress along the path as students. We always have to intelligently consider all the variables and determine what we are able to do skillfully now, which may be more or may be less than what we were able to do last year or last week.

As Mitra Lee Worley said at the same retreat in Seattle, compassion and devotion seem to share a common root. We feel devotion towards those who are enlightened, and compassion towards those who are suffering -- but at bottom, it is the same energy of mind expressed in different directions. Wise compassion and wise devotion (unlike idiot compassion and idiot devotion) should not be a drain on our energy. When we nurture and work with these noble qualities of mind skillfully, they are the very sparks of energy and inspiration that will carry us to enlightenment.

Our devotion, the wellspring of our enthusiasm and commitment to everything we do on the path, is a beautiful and sacred quality of awakened heart and mind. But like compassion, generosity, and other noble qualities, we must learn to apply our devotion with discriminating wisdom. The blind, forward rush of idiot compassion, idiot generosity, and idiot devotion all create stumbling blocks to our progress on the path. Then again, it's also true that we sometimes learn the most from our mistakes -- as long as we don't keep repeating them.


Belinda G. said...

I like it! Definitely check out "Buddha at the Apocalypse" for some interesting thinking on the Judeo-Christian roots of our compulsions, and how those inform our view and practice.

Dennis Hunter said...

Thanks, Belinda. That book does look interesting -- I will check it out.

Jonna said...

Extremely well said Dennis. I struggle with this involvement/burn-out cycle and always question whether my burn-out is just ego attached to maintaining my little agenda or a lack of healthy boundaries.

Dennis Hunter said...

Thanks, Jonna. It seems like those two threads are often mixed up together. It's sometimes hard to tell which is which, isn't it?

Jonna said...

Nine months later.. I needed to read this again. This struggle is very familiar and will continue to be.