Looking Back – First Week of the Buddha Challenge

It’s remarkable how quickly your body and mind reward you for paying them some attention – the good kind.  The system responds as it should from an evolutionary perspective; it reinforces what makes it function better.  And feeling good is one of the system’s main ways of reinforcement.  I’ve seen it before – with exercise, with diets, with getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, etc. And yes, during my last attempt at spiritual practice precipitated by my mental breakdown and aided by serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  What do all these have in common?  They felt really good at first.  It was always also very easy to fall off the wagon (or is it on the wagon? – somebody find me that Seinfeld episode).  Anyway, that was one of the reasons for the 49-day commitment.  I knew just about anything can be done for a week.  Seven weeks takes at least a little bit of determination.

I am pleasantly surprised that what thought would be the hardest part, the limit of one drink per day, has actually been very easy.  Studying the teachings has been easy – I’ve gone way over my 20 minutes per day.  Meditation has been so-so.  I haven’t been setting a timer for the sessions as I should, and so I’m no really sure how much time I have spent.  I’ve decided to move to the morning, as I’ve found meditation in the evenings is very difficult as I just become drowsy.  I’m not complaining about being utterly relaxed and peaceful at night, but the point at this stage is to develop concentration.  Once one develops concentration, then one can begin to use the mind as a tool to tame the mind.  Neat eh?  But so far, especially at night, my wind wanders much more than I remembered from my last mediation sessions.  Today was the first morning session, and it went a bit better.  I’ll stick with that.

I caught myself about to smash a couple of insects around the house out of habitat, a spider in the bathroom, an ant or two, and some sort of flying creature.  Thinking of the teaching against violence and killing, I wished them peace and happiness and let them do their thing (well, I did use a cup to eject the spider from the shower – sort of like I wish you peace and happiness but not in here with me at this moment).  No, it’s not silly to wish an insect happiness, well at least not if you believe in reincarnation or rebirth.  And I don’t necessarily yet…but I’m moving in that direction.  Conceptually, I’ve always liked the idea better than the one-life-and-done of the monotheistic religions, but I’ve always thought that liking things doesn’t make them any more likely to be true.  But…if it is true, it sure does explain a lot of the most perplexing questions we can have.  More on that some other time.  The Buddha teaches that once we are far enough along in the practice, we can see the truth of rebirth for ourselves.  Until then, we just have to accept it is as a potentiality worth investigating.

I’ve been making an effort to smile and say hi to people that I encounter rather than my usual practice of more-or-less looking right through them (hey I’m a loner…I look right through the because that’s what I want done unto me.  Oh wait, I can’t do that today.  Buddha teaches do unto others what they would have you do unto them…unless it is harmful to you or them or others.  Crap.  So I say hi and smile, cause that’s what most people want).  And I try to wish them peace and happiness at the same time.  I think it actually does make a difference.  If nothing else, it does seem to open one’s heart, which should lead to one being more compassionate, kind, and generous in the future, which benefits yourself and other beings (a common theme in Buddhist teachings is that because we are all interconnected, what is good for you is good for others, and vice-versa).

I did do one thing that was a fairly big breech of the precepts.  I won’t go into details, but…I feel bad about it and resolve to do better in the future.  It was something harmful to myself and possibly to others, not sure.  Anyway, probably not a good idea.  I knew it, but I did it anyway.  On a positive note, I completed my timesheet on time for the first time in as long as I can remember.  I’m not saying excited about doing something that I should do anyway, but it is an improvement and I think I did with good intentions.  Perhaps that somewhat counteracts that other thing?  Where’s Earl when you need him to explain the workings of karma?

All that said, I’ve been doing more than drinking coffee, reading Buddhist teachings, meditating, contemplating and wishing people (and insects) well.  I’ve been having some fun too.  This weekend I have been for a couple of local hikes, cycled 19 miles one day, kayaked for several hours, and been swimming in the local lake.  I’m not sure why, but getting outdoors and Buddhist practice seem to go hand-in-hand.  Amy Leigh has been along for some of the fun, although we’ve had to watch it as it was over 90 degrees both days and she tends to get overheated.  But she loves to go outdoors, so I try to just be smart about it.

So where is all of this headed?  There came a time before when I thought about getting more serious about my practice.  But I knew that meant giving up some things that, well, I just wasn’t quite ready to give up.  I have written about some sort of “hedonistic Buddhism”, and I tried to make that work.  The truth is, it didn’t work that well.  Following Buddhist teachings doesn’t mean that you have to give up everything you enjoy and just sit around meditating all day, unless maybe you are a monk or a nun.  For the rest of us, it doesn’t mean that we have to give up all worldly pleasures, but we do have to give up the ones that cause harm to ourselves or to others.  The thing is that when you really sit back and take a look at it, a lot of what is out there that seems more or less innocent (or can be twisted quite readily to make seem that way) is really not.

I’ll give you an example.  I got hooked on “Black Sails” on Netflix.  It is basically a drama centered on an island of pirates.  It is filled with violence, theft, greed, drunkenness, and of course since it is on cable channel, gratuitous sex and nudity.  Sounds like fun, eh?  Sometimes I would watch a few and stay up too late, and then be tired the next day.  The thing that a Buddhist, even one that is not a monk or nun, has to ask is: does watching this program tend to contribute to my well-being or the well-being of others, does it tend to contribute to my suffering or the suffering of others, or is it neutral with regard to well-being suffering?  While I’d like to say that it is neutral so that I can keep watching it, it clearly has much more potential to be harmful than helpful.  The Buddha taught something to the effect that we are what we think.  If we focus our attention on unwholesome things, how can we expect that our thoughts will not follow?  It’s like eating fast food time all of the time and then wondering why one has gained weight.  So, I suppose that if I was following this path for real, beyond the 49 days, it would have to go.

That’s one reason for the 49 days.  To really have time to digest this.  Because I kind of want to be serious about it, for a longer period.  But I know what it means.  It means giving up some things that I enjoy (or use in an attempt to try and keep myself feeling sane and normal, which is a very very hard thing) for the sake of something bigger.  As I’m writing this, I’m coming to an important realization.  It’s something that has bothered me for a very long time and while it has expressed itself in numerous ways, I never realized what it was exactly.  But all of a sudden I just got a very clear glimpse of it for the first time.

* * * * *

I had been thinking about and was just about to write that the reason I quit the spiritual practice before was because I wasn’t ready to give up these things.  But I just realized that was an excuse, not a reason.  The real reason I gave up was doubt.  Doubt that the practices would actually lead to the place the Buddha said they would.  Doubt that letting things go and giving things up leads to a greater happiness than they deliver.  Doubt that there is, in fact, any way out of the endless cycles of suffering inherent in all life.  And perhaps even more importantly, I just realized why I had that doubt.  And what a driver of my life that doubt had become.

I have to back to my teenage years.  Well, even a little bit further.  My parents had both been forced to go Christian churches as they were growing up, and they decided that they would expose me to those ideas but wouldn’t force me to go.  They figured that I would investigate and try out things if and when I felt the need.  And I did.  At 16 or 17, I started attending a nearby Methodist church where a bunch of friends and people from band attended (including my girlfriend).  It all seemed well and good.  I attended, I said the sayings, and sang the songs, and prayed the prayers.  I never really and truly believed though.  I wanted to have faith, but I couldn’t make it happen.  I decided to have myself baptized, thinking that this would bring the “Holy Spirit” into my life.  I went to youth bible school, went to some sort of summer retreat (where mostly I played basketball), and did all of the “stuff” you were supposed to do.  And for the most part, other than that girlfriend and I ripping off each others ‘ clothes the moment we were out of church each Sunday (can I get an amen!?), I was a pretty good kid (not that I think that kind of thing makes you a bad kid, but you know how tense the Christian folks are about pre-marital “relations”, so I figure I will count it as bad as we were both trying to be good little Christians at the time).  I always had generally been a pretty good kid.  Weird, certainly, but for the most part, I didn’t harm others and tried to be helpful when I could be.

Then came the big decision when it was time to go off to college.  Would I be a music major or do something else?  I was torn; I didn’t know what I should do.  Even though I didn’t like the idea of turning my life over to a god that was supposed to be there but yet I couldn’t find any evidence for, even within my own feelings, I prayed and prayed to Jesus and the Christian god to show me a sign, to point me in the right direction, etc.  But every time I prayed, I felt more and more confused, more and more distant, more and more alone.  Enter the doubt.  Enter the non-belief.  Enter my middle finger sticking up at the sky, where it would stay firmly planted for the next twenty years or so.  I know that sounds like a little bit of an over-reaction, and maybe it was, but the truth of the matter was that I don’t think I had ever asked god for anything for me – I always asked for blessings for others.  And this time, all I wanted was a little nudge in the right direction, but there seemed to be nothing but silence coming from the other end of the line.  It seems that so many Christians talk about having a relationship with god.  I couldn’t figure out how to have a relationship with a being that didn’t seem to have time to pick up the phone.  There seemed to be two options – either god wasn’t real or he didn’t care.  I didn’t really care which one at that point, but I knew that I was through chasing after him.  I mean we all have called someone over and over again to talk or hang out.  Eventually, if they don’t answer, you give up and quit calling.  Well, I gave up, not just on god it seems, but on any sort of spiritual life or ideal.  And maybe my being drawn to science was as much of a revolt against god and Christianity as anything.

And I started drinking and smoking cigarettes and once at college, taking drugs and screwing around.  I still tried not to harm people (although I did a lot through carelessness), and I figured that you have a right to harm yourself if you want to.  So harm I did.  But underneath it all, I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted.  Still, what I wanted (for the loving god everyone else seemed to find so easily to find me too) seemed impossible.  And, the whirling cycle of samsara was firmly established and spinning.  I craved something that I could not get, found unhealthy ways to release the frustration and anguish, harmed myself and others in the process, and then wanted something bigger to come along and help and make it better, which it never did, leading to cycle repeating etc.

Over time, I got less angry at god.  I went from being ticked off to just not caring.  In between the ups and downs of depression and having fun and accomplishing things like getting a master’s degree, there was this never-ending suffering.  I even got to the point that I enjoyed depression, and honestly I still sort-of do.  When you can’t truly be happy, depression at least reminds you that you’re still alive.  Some of the best art that has ever been produced, particularly in music, stems straight from depression.  Most of my favorite musical artists suffered from depression.  Some committed suicide, some overdosed. The best kept just a sense of hope around, clinging to it against all odds, like I did.  We survived because of that glimmer of hope.  And some of them are treating depression and coming back to a full life as I am.

* * * * *

Anyway, even though I didn’t realize it, part of the point of this 49 days is to take on doubt head on.  Instead of asking listeners to take everything on faith, The Buddha gave a challenge.  Try the teachings out for yourself.  If, upon giving them an honest try, you don’t feel that they are worthy of following, then go back to your life.  However, if upon giving an honest try, you do feel that they are worthy of following, then it is prudent to waste no time in acting accordingly.  I didn’t give them a real honest try last time.  I tried to modify them to include a couple of things that I didn’t want to give up.  Oops.

It is almost impossible to argue that the blueprint to living taught by the Buddha (and similar paths taught by spiritual teachers throughout the ages) of non-violence and moderation (do no harm), generosity and kindness toward others (altruism to the extent that your situation permits), and meditation (taming the mind) could be bad for you.  The only argument against is that all of that renunciation just doesn’t sound like vey much fun.  Here in America, we want to be enlightened and awakened, and we want it as quickly as possible, and we want it while we are drinking beer, shooting guns, eating friend chicken, listening to rock and roll and, well you get the idea.  It always comes back to something like: yeah that unshakable peace and contentment you talk about sounds nice and all, buuuut I like getting drunk sometimes and having no-strings-attached sex and watching the Black Sails Do I reeeeeaallllly have to give these up?  You already know the answer, but you ask anyway.  And the act of asking allows you to indulge just a little while longer while waiting for the answer.  And you get the answer but you don’t like it, so you ask again…and again….and again…   This is clinging.  This is chasing after short-term pleasures.  This, the Buddha taught, is like trying to quench your thirst with salt water.  This is what the Buddha taught is one of the main causes of suffering, both your suffering and the suffering of people around you.

But dang if these things aren’t hard to give it up.  And it doesn’t have to be alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling.  The more insidious ones are the ones that society hasn’t labeled as immoral, because it is easier for us to trick ourselves into thinking that they are okay, even good for us.  It could be food, work, exercise, achieving, the need to dominate a conversation, collecting shoes, believing, not believing, complaining about political figures, watching sports, even (gasp) religion — pretty everything that we normally do can be done in a way that’s harmful.

The key is intention – do we do it for beneficial reasons with a pure mind or do we do it for selfish reasons with an impure mind?  Of course, it is difficult to assess one’s intention if one does not have a clear mind.  It’s like waving a bottle of liquor under the nose of an alcoholic and saying, Well I guess it’s okay for you to have some as long as you’re not addicted.  You’re not addicted, are you?  What answer do you expect to get?  And that is another reason for the Buddha challenge.  In order to view our thoughts, intentions, and actions with even a little bit of clarity, we need to distance ourselves somewhat from the objects of our cravings.

Well, it seems I’ve gone past my bedtime.  7 days down.  42 to go.  All the while, an ongoing honest-as-I-can-be self-assessment.  Luckily, depressed people tend to be more realistic self-evaluators than people that appear happy all of the time.  So I’m not too surprised at what I’m finding.  Much of it I already knew.  The real question at the end of 49 days will be – am I prepared to something long-term about it?  Like belief in god, I’ve found happiness to be ever-fleeting.  Perhaps I also doubt that happiness, the true and lasting kind of which the Buddha speaks, is possible.  Perhaps I’m scared to death of it, because it would mean having to change.  Perhaps all of the resistance to something that seems so obviously healthy is….fear of change?  Maybe, I’ll take that up another time.

Good night all.  May you make progress on your journey, wherever it leads you.

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