Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Teeter Totter

A Guest Post by Kenneth Folk

I love you./I hate you.

You make me smile./You make me sick.

I’ve never met anyone like you./You aren’t the person I thought you were.

Question: What is the difference between the first and second statement in each set above?

Answer: A couple of years, give or take.

By now, you recognize the theme. We’re talking about relationships and how they can flip-flop from love to hate. The pattern is best-known in primary relationships like love affairs. But it doesn’t stop there. You can find the same pattern in all kinds of relationships—parent/child, friend/friend, student/teacher, peer/peer. It happens the way it does because of something that is built into the emotions themselves, a kind of bipolarity that is inherent in emotion.

Think of a teeter totter. You can make one out of a long plank balanced on a big rock. You sit on one end of the plank, your playmate sits on the other, and you can seesaw up and down. But both ends of the seesaw can’t be up at the same time or down at the same time; being on a teeter totter is a bipolar situation. Emotions are like that. You can be happy or sad, angry or loving, anxious or calm. This bipolarity is inherent, both to teeter totters and to emotions. If there is stability to be found, it must lie beyond the extremes.

Now look at the rock that serves as the fulcrum for the seesaw. It’s just sitting there peacefully, holding up the whole affair without having a stake in it one way or another. Your mind has a place like that too, a place that is calm, complete, accepting, and stable. If there is peace to be found in your life (and there is) it will be found not at the edges, but at the heart.

Feel your body now, all at once. Notice that you can feel anxiety or calm, fear or safety, irritation or acceptance, impatience or patience, agitation or tranquility, boredom or interest, aversion or desire. Notice that these mind states, each of which can be paired with its opposite, has a signature constellation of body sensations. In fact, that is how you can tell them apart; fear hurts the body in a particular way, while safety feels like a soothing balm. You could never mistake one for the other, because they are so firmly rooted in body sensations.

You can also look at what underlies the fear or safety. Look at the rock that holds it all up. There is a part of the mind that is not afraid and therefore does not require safety. It doesn’t get bored, so it doesn’t rely on interest. Whether the body is reacting with irritation or acceptance, this deeper place in the mind has no problems; it’s just OK. This is equanimity.

Equanimity is not an emotion as we usually think of emotions. It has no opposite. Emotions are bipolar, always coming in pairs, but equanimity is just OK. Notice that when you are in touch with this deeper, more fundamental aspect of yourself that is just OK with things as they are, you can accept yourself and others. This is lovingkindness. When you are not distracted by your need for things to be other than they are, you can truly see another person; you can feel what it might be like to be them. This is compassion. And when you are tuned in to another person, you can share in his or her triumphs. This is sympathetic joy for the good fortune of another.

The four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes of Buddhism are all aspects of the same, simple, subjectless emotion: the sense of well-being. The bipolar emotions that see-saw back and forth over the rock of contentment will never be at rest and will never bring peace. That’s okay, because all the while they are riding on this great unshakeable mountain of equanimity.

By the way, why are you able to see your loved ones through the constantly flip-flopping lenses of love and hate? Because in either case, you are not looking at them at all. You are looking at your projection, a composite of sensations and mental impressions in your body and mind. You have invented your loved ones just as you have invented yourself. If you want to see your loved ones clearly, you must see yourself clearly...in which case you will find no one at all.

When you look at yourself and find no one, when you look at your mind and find only contentment, you are enlightened, which is another way of saying that you have found the happiness that does not depend on conditions. In order to find enlightenment, you must make your mind and body transparent in realtime. To make your mind and body transparent in realtime, you must feel your body and watch your mind.

Start with your body. Start now. Feel your body, all at once. Notice the way it is constantly contracting and releasing, holding you up, holding you steady. Notice all the little sensations that let you know you are anxious or afraid or hopeful or excited. You don’t have to fix any of this; this is your body and it knows better than you. Feel it as it is. Now see that underlying all of this is a part of the mind that doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. You don’t have to choose; it’s all here at once, the teeter totter of emotions, the body sensations, the ideas, and the equanimity. None of this is up to you. Let it be as it is.

It’s not bad that you see-saw between love and hate, happiness and unhappiness, anger and good will; it’s built into the system. You didn’t create the system and you don’t have to fix it. But you can see through it. To see through it is to be free. Feel your body now, all at once. Let it be as it is.

Explore more of Kenneth Folk's work at his web site.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Noble Ninefold Path? The Complex Ethics of Right Consumption

Cross-posted yesterday at The Interdependence Project.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century thinker most closely associated with the moral philosophy called Utilitarianism, wrote: "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."

Roughly two-and-a-half millennia before Mill, Shakyamuni Buddha said more or less the same thing. The system of ethics taught by the Buddha, one of the pillars of Buddhist spiritual practice, is based not upon a rigid moral code handed down by a god or authority figure, but upon the principle that actions that bring about a positive effect and result in well-being are inherently virtuous and worthy of being cultivated, and actions that bring about a negative result and lead to suffering or harm are inherently unvirtuous and worthy of being abandoned.

The noble eightfold path, part of the Buddha's earliest teachings, is a step-by-step plan for bringing all aspects of one's life into alignment with the ethical goal of harmlessness -- living in a way that doesn't create harm in the world, but only brings benefit. Living in this way creates the conditions and the good karma that will not only make oneself and others happy, but will support one's path to liberation.

The Buddha's prescription for an ethical life did not shy away from the nitty-gritty: for example, right livelihood, one of the eight parts of the noble eightfold path, includes specific suggestions on which careers it would be best to avoid due to the amount of harm they typically involve. Many butchers and prostitutes are really very decent people, but the Buddha taught that being a butcher or a prostitute probably isn't the best career choice for someone who wants to follow the spiritual path as he taught it.

In the time of the Buddha, people's lives were harder in some ways, but also much simpler. The brutal facts of life and death were on display in a more harsh light -- but by the same token, the choices one could make on a day-to-day basis were also more straightforward. As our lives have become more comfortable and secure, they have also become more complicated. Ours is a highly globalized and interdependent world where the simple choices we make in the supermarket or on the street or in our homes have ethical implications that stretch thousands of miles and impact thousands of lives.

Peel a banana and eat it, and you create ripples that go outward and circle the planet. You cannot divorce the enjoyment of that banana from the realities of economic oppression in the banana republics of Latin America, or the environmental costs of industrial-scale monocropping and toxic pesticides and preservatives and petroleum-based transport. Through something as seemingly simple and even innocent as growing, selling, buying and eating bananas, we are all complicit together in a system of production and consumption whose ethical implications boggle the mind.

And this is not to single out bananas for journalistic abuse. Pretty much anything and everything we enjoy is steeped in the suffering of other beings. Patrul Rinpoche, in "Words of My Perfect Teacher," wrote at length about the unfathomable amount of suffering that goes into producing a simple cup of tea. Want something more complex to chew on? Pick up your iPhone, if you have one, and contemplate the recent string of suicides among iPhone factory workers in China (or AT&T's massive contributions to Tea Party candidates in the recent midterm elections).

If the Buddha were living in today's era of global commerce, I suspect we would have a noble ninefold path, and the ninth aspect of the path would be Right Consumption. Surely how and where you spend your money is just as important as how and where you make it. If you're contributing your dollars or euros or yen to a product or a system or a company that does more harm in the world than good, that's something the Buddha would probably advise you to look at.

Yet, making the right choices in today's world is not always an easy or straightforward proposition. When there are conflicting interests, how do you judge whether the harm outweighs the good or vice versa? Much of the time, it's difficult for us to even know what impact our consumer choices might have. The facts are not always available to us -- and even when they are, many consumers prefer not to know the facts.

The ethics of consumption in today's world is not something on which I pretend to be any kind of an expert at all. I find it incredibly difficult, and I think the Buddha would find it difficult too, if he were living today. Even by withdrawing to a monastery and living in relative seclusion from the world, you can no longer extract yourself from the global matrix of consumption. (You can trust me on this one, as I'm currently living in a very remote monastery, miles and miles away from anything.) Your carpets are still made of petroleum products, your tea and coffee and bananas still come from impoverished countries on other continents, your stove still runs on natural gas, even your Internet service uses the same orbiting satellites as people all over North America. The days when you could get most of what you needed from your neighbors, or you could build it or grow it with your own hands, are gone. Some people are trying to get those days back, or at least minimize the damage, but it's not a simple proposition to put the genie of global commerce and industrialization back in the bottle when we are all enjoying the genie's magic conjuring tricks.

We sentient beings were never truly independent of one another, or of our global environment. The Buddha knew that almost 2,600 years ago. But the real fact of our interdependence is now more plain to see for anyone who cares to look. And when we see the extent of our interdependence, we realize that the ethical repercussions of even simple, everyday actions and choices stretch further in space and time than we could have previously imagined. Edward Hubbell Chapin said, "Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity."

When we begin to realize how much harm is created through everyday consumer choices we ordinarily take for granted, we might feel a sense of paralysis. How can we do anything or consume anything without creating harm? On the other hand, we might become very self-righteous and think that we've got the correct moral choices figured out, and everyone else should just get with our program and the world would be a better place. Both of those extremes are crazy-making. We either become despondent about our ability to bring about any positive outcome and therefore give up caring , or we go to war to save the world, determined to convert everyone to our way of thinking and our particular ideas about right consumption.

The Buddha, as always, would probably advise us to follow a middle way, avoiding both extremes.