The Examined Life

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Law of Distraction

One of the most intense aspects of our personality is the voice of desire. Buddhists point to this aspect of the human experience as the source of all human suffering and yet life without desire would be a very passive and dull experience if life were possible at all. It would be foolish to try to eliminate desire from our lives but at the same time it is equally foolish to allow our lives to be run by our desires. One of the things we must come to terms with is that the aspect of us we call desire is insatiable. When we get what we desire we quickly move on to desire more or something else. I think this is what the Buddhists are actually pointing to with regard to desire. Satisfying a desire is like filling a bucket with a hole in it. So the task becomes one of managing desire such that it serves us and not enslaves us.

Several years ago a video was released called “The Secret”. Since that time many in the spiritual community have come out to criticize the video (which is now also a book) as being just another appeal to the base desire of wanting stuff, including money. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. The premise of the movie is an idea called The Law of Attraction. This is really an ancient idea that had a incarnation in the early 1900’s which provides the material that is with us today. This principle tells us that we get what we focus on. But the big question for many who have spoken about this principle is how clear is our vision of what will satisfy us and is this just another way to allow our desires to run our lives. Are we really attracting what we think we are atracting?.

I think those who have criticized this video are not questioning the validity of the law of attraction but are pointing out that this may just be a way to put that voice of desire on steroids. A drive that is already so powerful in most of us that it distracts us from really enjoying the amazing gift that is our life.

Here is my two cents on the matter. Checking in with the Buddhists again we begin to see the irony of how desire works. Desire is usually rooted in some dissatisfaction with whatever is currently so. The irony is that the Law of Attraction then tells us that what comes from dissatisfaction is just more dissatisfaction. It is a kind of Catch-22. This is why many tell us that in order to eliminate human suffering we should simply eliminate desire and yet without desire we would probably just fade a way and die.

Now here is my suggestion. Let’s look for a way to live our lives in such a way that we are sustained and excited by life, a way in which things flow to us without us having to desire or even envision them before hand. Is there good evidence that this could actually work? Yes, and we even have a word for it. It is called serendipity! So if serendipity works, why don’t people rely on it? Simple, we are distracted by our desires. We are so distracted by our desires that we feel like we need to buy books and videos to learn how to get the stuff we want. I call this effect the “Law of Distraction”. We are distracted from noticing and appreciating the gifts that flow to us in each and every moment.

Virtually everything that we are offered on TV is telling us that we are missing something we need to have in order to be happy. It is not that the Law of Attraction is not working, it certainly is, and often we get exactly what we ask for. But along with it we get more wanting. Let’s face it, “wanting” is a lot of work and it by the principle of the Law of Attraction, it cannot result in contentment.

So what is my answer? Simple, in order to attract contentment we must already have it! No, this is not some type of double talk. Just because we are content does not mean that all manner of things do not flow to us through serendipity. The catch is however, that we will get what the universe freely provides not necessarily what our voice of desire is insisting we need. Can we come to trust and be content in each moment that the universe will always take care of us? Can we feel deep gratitude for this process and all that it provides? I think what those who use the Law of Attraction successfully are trying to tell us is that when we stop being so distracted by our desires that a space of contentment, love and abundance will naturally arise within us and we will attract more of the same. Our desires can then be seen as things that might be “nice to have” not a dire necessities.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Alan Watts 1915 - 1973

I have started a study and discussion group to study the life and work of Alan Watts. It is surprising how few people are familiar with his work or even recognize his name because he and D.T. Suzuki were among the few the pioneers in brining eastern philosophy and practice to the west, preceding all the Gurus that came to the west and literally spawning in the 1960’s the huge public interest in what came to be called the “New Age” movement.

Alan Watts was first of all a scholar of eastern religion who came from the UK and taught at Berkley in the U.S. But secondly he was a renegade and a self-proclaimed “rascal” of the beatnik era (1950’s) hanging out with the likes of Alan Ginsburg and Timothy Leary. He soon began to move beyond the hallowed halls of Berkley to give impromptu talks to small groups on board his houseboat moored in San Francisco bay. No doubt though, the material in these talks, that is available still today in the form of books and audiotapes, was indeed the material that inspired the “hippy” era and transformed a generation. It was this renegade attitude that had Watts escape the stogy university environment and have a profound impact on a whole generation.

To get an inkling of what Watts and a few others accomplished we must take into account that even though the religious beliefs and practices of the east enjoy a history predating Christianity, that previous to the 1950’s, in the west, eastern religion was considered for the most part to have little or no relevance outside scholarly and historic interest. Even such practices as daily sitting meditation that has exploded right into the 21st century were at one time considered esoteric in the west and often down right weird. As part of this explosion there was a myriad of “spiritual” weekend workshops, retreats, books and videos that followed.

Allan Watts, throughout his talks emphasizes that Buddhism does not fit the westerner’s definition of religion but is instead more accurately likened to, of all things, psychotherapy. This will come as a surprise to most people. As such, the impact of this marriage of eastern and western thought is has been felt most significantly in the areas of mental health. Buddhism traditionally addresses human suffering through creating a direct experience of well being. Western psychology has primarily focused on dissecting the ego and “working through” the barriers the ego constructs to prevent access to this experience of well being that certain sects of Buddhism promise us through “sudden enlightenment”. Alan Watts provides amusing insights into this interesting and tenuous marriage.

So who was Alan Watts in his own words? Over and over Alan Watts contends he is not a psychotherapist, guru or a preacher. Instead, in his talks and lectures he makes no claims to being anything other than an entertainer. But do we listen to Alan Watts simply to be entertained? All I can say is that I hope not because hidden among his entertaining stories, metaphors, amusing anecdotes and impeccable logic are the teachings of the Tao revealing how to be in life with grace and ease.

In the west, typically our experience of life is that it is complicated or obscure. Maybe that is why the 2,500-year-old message in Buddhism is seen as too simple to have any credibility. Alan Watts tells us that as self aware and imaginative creatures we have gotten out of touch with the experience of being part of the Tao, the natural order and unfolding of all that is. But self-awareness and imagination are the gifts with which we have been that make us human. These are the gifts that set us apart from the other animals. But is this a boon or a curse? Because with the same eyes with which we discriminate the light from the dark we have been given the ability to see ourselves as separate. We have been given access to the experience of I and thou, the experience of a world separate from ourselves. Inherently in this experience what lurks at the depths of our imagination is the unmitigated terror of the possibility of complete, utter and eternal separation.

In the story given to us in the Book of Genesis we are told that once we lived in harmony with nature, ignorant of good and evil, oblivious to life and death, without fears of past events or expectations of the future. But upon eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a world of discrimination and judgment was revealed to human kind, a view of reality which was at once as fascinating and alluring as it was alienating, a world of desires, a world of preferences and choices, a world of polarities, a world of opposites and dualities, a world of life and death.

But although nothing had really changed we became trapped in this illusion of finite mortality cutting ourselves off from the infinite and the eternal, experiencing instead separation, limitation and desperation, haunted in every moment of our apparently brief and perilous existence with the specter of our death.

Can we escape this prison of the mind? This is the suffering that The Buddha sought to dispel in every sentient being, the suffering resulting from the illusion of separateness. Einstein is quoted as having told us “Reality is an allusion, albeit a persistent one.” Great minds like Alan Watts have always challenged us to look behind the curtain and investigate the evidence that brings the realization that things are not at all what they seem or what we have been led to believe.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Fixer and the Tao

When I look at the aspect of me that wants to "fix" things (and people), I see that it is a very powerful drive. I also see that it is quite a clever aspect too because I am quite good at fixing, if I do say so myself. Fortunately for me, "fixing" is a never ending task.

But is it really possible to fix anything or am I just imposing my sense of order on something that is and always has been part of some “Great Perfection” that merely occurs to me at the moment to be broken.

The notion that something needs fixing assumes somehow that something is broken or imperfect. When I examine this notion closer I find that it is totally unfounded. It is not necessary for something to be viewed as broken or imperfect as a prerequisite for my taking action.

Most of us have things in our lives that we believe need fixing. But the attitude we bring to the task is not one of excitement and adventure but one of drudgery or obligation.

What if instead, we brought an attitude of "changing" or "rearranging" rather than "fixing". Then fixing up the house can become a matter of "changing" the color of the bedroom. Fixing the toilet can become a matter of "rearranging" the parts in the tank so that it doesn't run in between flushes.

I think the most depressing notions that we hold are those around "fixing" other people or, heaven forbid, fixing ourselves. What is depressing of course is that we, or someone else we care about, is seen as "broken". Does something have to be broken or wrong in order to change or evolve? I say, certainly not. It is the notion that something is imperfect that adds the onerous angst to the activities we choose to engage.

Taoism tells us that we are part of a great unfolding that happens both with and without us necessarily doing anything. Everything that we do is a part of that unfolding. There is nothing perfect or imperfect about the world as it is or about what it is becoming. In as much as we are a part of the world, there is nothing perfect or imperfect about ourselves or others either.

Therefore, it is ourselves that bring the judgment into our perception. And along with those judgments we bring the angst, dissatisfaction and suffering. The Tao is perfect in every moment, just as it is and as it is not as is our part in the Tao. Ironically, it is also part of that perfection that we suffer until we learn how to be in our lives without suffering. In the space of seeing that nothing is wrong or broken we can begin to play in our world and with each other with the sense that life is a gift and not a chore or a burden.

What Taoism is showing us is that it is not what we do in life but the attitude we bring that controls our sense of life's quality. When we are in the Tao, like being in the "zone", we float with the river of experience with curiosity and awe. We ride the horse in the direction it is already going, gently guiding, working with the forces that are already present accepting and experiencing what is as part of the process that we are at the same time creating.