11 June 2006


Self-portraitI've been going through a rather bleak, albeit creative, period lately - a bit of a crisis really. My dilemma is that I have a day job which pays the bills but which is dull and uninspiring, and I have this other job which involves managing my various websites, writing raves, and doing various art and music projects, which is enormously inspiring and fulfilling, but which currently doesn't pay anything. Actually that's not quite right because my 'hobbies' actually cost me money. Much of my 'work' is not self-centred, but involves creating resources for my my Sangha - a Yahoo discussion group here, an online newsletter there, and most recently an extensive website on the calligraphy of mantras and seed syllables.

And I find it difficult to see how I can turn my 'work' into a livelihood. As well as being worn out from doing two jobs, and feeling stuck, I have experienced quite a lot of despondency lately. I'm told, but have never found the source, that despondency is a form of laziness. That it's just giving into self-pity. And that is true to some extent. But to me there is something more to it. I think despondency is failure to see that things change.

Which brings me to my theme this week. In order to maintain my energy and enthusiasm in the face of adversity I have to believe that I can win, that I can through my labours at least make headway against the current which drags me along - the current of worldly values, of conformity, of negativity, of greed, hatred and delusion. And why? Because if there is no possibility of making progress then striving is pointless. Back in the days before ethics committes, a bunch of psychologists tormented dogs by giving them electric shocks. Some were able to stave off being shocked by doing some action such as pressing a lever. However if the lever stopped working, they soon gave up trying. The dogs just became gibbering wrecks who cowered in corners and accepted the torture with a whimper - ie the dogs understood that nothing they did could stop the torture, and they just gave up. I'm thankful that we now have ethics committees, but it I think this example, gross as it is, graphically illustrates the point. We need hope that things can change and/or that we can change them.

Now this identifies me as someone who does not hold with the style of Buddhist practice in which there is no goal, no need to do anything, just be, blah blah. There are a number of ways in which I find this approach unsatisfactory. When I have asked people espousing this view why they bother to practice I have never had a sensible answer. And this is crucial because these people often practice a lot. Why bother to spend all that time sitting if there is no point? Anyway I ain't one of them.

The possibility of making progress - how ever we define progress - is important. This kind of basic Buddhism really works for me: there is suffering (yes there sure is!); there is a source of suffering which is ______ (choose your poison); there is an end to suffering, which involves removing the poison; the way to end suffering is the Noble Eight-fold Path. Leaving aside a detailed exposition on the Eightfold path, isn't that a great concept for anyone who is suffering? That suffering can end is highly motivating for me. The Eeyores who focus on the first of the Noble Truths, are missing the whole point. The Noble Truths as a set really do get me excited because they offer hope. They acknowledge suffering (unlike some of the 'no goal' kin, who also espouse a sort of no 'suffering' deal as well) and then they offer some hope that suffering - this present suffering as well as any possible future suffering - can stop.

At this point we're just taking it on faith. It sounds good, and we've got the cheque book out and we're keen to sign up to this whole Eightfold Path deal. Can't wait. But the Dharma isn't quite like that. What happens next is a bit more refined. Someone, or maybe even a book, says "OK, do a little of 'this', and see what happens". 'This' may be meditation, or sutra chanting, or basic mindfulness, or puja, or just being gratuitously kind and generous. So we do a little, and we find that ... we feel a bit different... a bit better/happier/saner (or whatever). Now this is really exciting because not only do we have Sacred Scripture, and Holy Water, and maybe some exotic guru, but we have actual personal experience of the path working for us. We don't need to believe anything which makes no sense, which feels wrong, or which runs counter to our experience - perhaps this is why Buddhism got a reputation as a rationalist philosophy. Actually some of the practices are pretty weird, and some of the traditional beliefs are just as dodgy as anything in the Bible, but the important thing is not what you believe or don't believe, it's how you practice and the fruits of that practice.

I think the most important insight that comes from practice is that actions have consequences - ie what we do, or don't do, influences the future. The world is not just a totally random series of events, and neither is it rigidly determined. We have influence to the extent that we choose our actions, and we have choices to the extent that we are aware. And, I would say, we have hope to the extent that we are aware and able to make choices.

So when I lose sight of this important insight - that things change, and that I can at the least influence that change - then I just give up and, like those poor bloody hounds, sit in a corner and whimper. This is Mara temporarily winning the battle against the Bodhisatta (if I may be so bold as to cast myself in that role). Fortunately I seem to have some kind of keel these days that flips me right-side up after a bit. I call this Saddha - the faith that things can change and that I can influence that change in the direction of Awakening. Saddha, is a specific kind of hope born of practice and observation. This is the benefit of practice, that a habit of awareness gives you choices in any situation. In any life the winds of the world can blow strongly, and temporaily overwhelm us. But by building up awareness over years, we lay down a keel that will right us eventually.

It's good to be right-side up again, and to be full of hope and inspiration. Awareness is revolutionary, eh!
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