Saturday, December 04, 2010

Zen, Meditation, Writing, Expectations

I constantly marvel how people raised in Western culture misunderstand Buddhism. Particularly Zen. I've been noticing this a lot lately. There was a recent documentary on public television; there have been some writerly friends posting about Zen, and their doubts about it; and more. Not too long ago I got into it with a very smart man who is a philosopher and former Anglican priestly type, who I think made some of the usual mistakes Westerners make about Zen.

Misconceptions abound. Particularly, it seems to me, that verbal-dominant persons such as many writers (and philosophers) are prone to misunderstanding Buddhism. First of all, they tend to treat it as a mental problem/solution, like they treat psychology a mental problem to be solved, ignoring that it's much more than that, which psychology is also. It's not all mental, and it's certainly not all rational. The emotions must be taken in account, or the equations will never balance.

The Medieval belief was that the body is in the soul; the modern belief is that the soul is in the body (I've even read articles that try to locate it in particular regions of the brain, say, the pineal gland). The Medieval belief is more elegant and attractive in some ways, since it reminds us that the mind, and the self we know about, the personality-ego, are just parts in a larger system.

A lot of this discussion comes up when people see their spiritual leaders fail in some way. Fail to live up to the standards expected of them. Fail to be perfect. A lot of these expectations are tacit, discovered only in the act of transgression.

But the true issue is disillusionment, based on false expectations. We put people on pedestals. We especially put our spiritual directors and psychologists on pedestals. It's called transference; it's a form of projection well known to psychologists, especially Jungians; Jung wrote a whole book about it.

Thus when spiritual leaders screw up, we condemn them far more strongly than they deserve to be condemned, simply because they didn't live up to our expectations. After all, in reality they're just as human as we are, just as weak, just as fallible. Perhaps they've learned some spiritual and psychological truths we haven't yet, which is why they're further down that road towards enlightenment than we are; but they're still human. Even Jesus got mad; even the Dalai Lama has a bad day every so often. It was only our expectations that made them seem perfect.

The expectations of perfect behavior in our spiritual leaders is particularly problematic, because we're demanding forms of behavior we wouldn't reasonably demand anyone else to live up to. Speaking as a recovering perfectionist, I know whereof I speak. Of course, religious institutions can be complicit in building these expectations, by requiring their priests to take on unreasonable vows of inhumanly perfected behavior.

There is a legitimate place in life, I believe for a spirituality of imperfectionism.

And make no mistake, those expectations of perfection are ours. They are a projection—a psychological tendency to project those undeveloped aspects of ourselves onto others, onto the world outside—both positive and negative aspects that we do not wish to see within ourselves. We project our expectations of perfection onto people we place in authority over us. Always forgetting that no one really ever has authority over us.

It's amazing how alive you feel, on that day you suddenly that you're free. That you're already empowered. That you already have the power to make the choices in your own life, and that no one can stop you from doing so. That you were always free.

That stunning realization of your own freedom, that you're already free to be who you are, and no one has any power over you that you didn't give away to them—that is a small satori, a small enlightenment experience, a first step on the path towards eventual realization. Your Zen teacher waits for that day with great patience, and when it happens, is no less pleased than you are.

This is liberation: knowing that you always were free to do anything you wanted to do. That you always had the power to make choices even when you thought you didn't. And that you might still choose to conform to societal expectations: but you do so by choice, and the choice is yours.

Zen practice is all about stripping away those kinds of illusions that projection and transference embody, till we see what's really there, and stop dwelling on what we think is there. Zen practice is about quieting the mind—something many verbal people like writers inherently resist doing. Smart, verbally-oriented, intellctually-oriented people tend to be prone to mind-drama; and meditation, Zen or otherwise) is about quieting the mind. Some writers seem to think quieting their internal verbal dramas will damage their psychological driving forces behind their creativity. But there have always been writers who are also meditators, and for whom the experience of satori has enhanced rather than made useless their creativity. These writers find instead that quieting the mind brings out new depths of creative, rooted experience. Don't take my word for it; many writers who practice Zen meditation have said exactly that.

Far too many Westerners still tend to equate enlightenment with a static state of non-being, or of nihilistic escapism. One of the basic Buddhist truths is that life contains suffering—but that's a universal truth. Everybody hurts. Everybody suffers. It's just life. What the Buddha discovered was a way to alleviate that suffering—not by making it go away by ignoring it or avoiding it, not by escapism, not by denial—but simply by ceasing our usual reactiveness to suffering. Most people are aching tangles of knee-jerk reactions, unconscious responses, and twitchy reactionary self-justifications. The purpose of meditation is to quiet the mind, to get it to cease being so reactive. Zen practice is an effective form of meditation, that does indeed put out the fires of suffering, given time and practice.

A great deal of suffering that people create for themselves is based in the notion that they must be In The Right. That their worth as well as their self-esteem is diminished if they are ever wrong, or seen to be wrong. This can range from self-recriminations we continue to make against ourselves long after we made a painful mistake, to a fear of making future mistakes or appearing to be imperfect in the eyes of others. Letting go of the mind-drama we create for ourselves can be as simple as being okay with being imperfect, and forgiving ourselves for our own past mistakes. Which is the first footstep onto the road to forgiving others, as well.

Freedom of action, freedom of thought, freedom of practice, freedom to make mistakes: some of the greatest, most revered Zen priests have been rule-breakers. They exemplified in their persons the tactics of mistake, the trickster's foolishness, and the spirituality of imperfection—often quite consciously, to teach their followers to get over their projections of perfectionism onto the world. One of the things you learn to let go of, to become free, is social expectations, and judgments of others. If a Zen master "fails" to live up to expectations in his or her behavior, is that the master's fault, or the fault of the student's illusory expectations? Ikkyu was a drinker, a lover of women, a frequenter of the wilder parts of town—and a great Zen master and poet. Ryokan was a recluse, a hermit, who had a longtime love affair with a Buddhist nun, in which they gave each other their hearts and poems alike—and Ryokan is considered both a great love poet and and a great Zen poet. Other great Zen masters have explored "the red thread of passion," and because they did it with Zen detachment, as as a way of learning to overcome their own limitations, it did no harm to anyone. The essence of the Tantric practice is to harness the power of even the more corrosive emotions—lust, jealousy, rage, fear—as fuel for enlightenment.

There are masters who, when you put them up on a pedestal, will quite deliberately take a swan dive to teach you these truths. To teach you that your judgmental expectations are one of the things that you do that causes your own suffering. You're not detached if you judge your teacher to have failed, especially if he or she has failed to live up to your projections. The lesson is that your projections are at fault, not their behavior.

For many people, the freedom of liberation is terrifying. Perhaps more terrifying than death. They will resist any effort to assist them towards enlightenment; they will reject any reminder that they are already free. For some, they seem unready for the responsibility that freedom entails: being accountable for one's actions is, after all, a very necessary aspect of growing up and becoming an adult. For others, they would rather cling to the belief that they're a victim of fate, that some outside force—projection, again—is what is holding them back, rather than their own hesitation. Well, it's understandable: actions do have consequences. But knowing one has the choice can be liberation, because one can choose to act in the full knowledge of the consequences.

When you see people doing the right thing, simply because it's the right thing to do, with no expectation of reward, remember that one is seeing a person acting out of choice, out of a place of personal empowered liberation. Pay attention to their attitude while they're in action; you will probably note that they are acting for the highest good of all concerned, not for selfish gain or ego reinforcement. It's just the right thing to do. You just do it. These people are role models for liberated action.

Of course, I'm using words here to describe experiences that are profoundly non-verbal, so I can't possibly get it right. Such things as can't be put into words do exist, no matter what writers who are dedicated to the primacy of words try to tell us; that even these fall inarticulate in such attempts is proof enough. But that is no judgment, rather it is an acknowledgment that there are things going on here beyond the purely verbal, the merely mental, the just intellectual.

A spirituality of imperfection also acknowledges that talking about this stuff, much less acting on it, is hard. But therefore so is being judgmental of the actions of others, particularly when you don't have all the facts, don't really know what's going on. Expectations of perfect behavior will inevitably lead to disappointment. Imperfectionism, by contrast, leaves the door open to forgiveness. There is very little that cannot, eventually, be redeemed.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

I hope you don't think I was casting aspersions on Buddhism Art, in my latest post, that is.

I was thinking more about that notion that you allude to here, the tendency to expect too much of those people we put on pedestals for one reason or another.

Natalie Goldberg seems to have done it at one time in her life, and I know that I have at times, too.

For me it boils down to the problem of extremes.

I agree with you, Art, the tendency to perfectionism is dangerous, either expecting perfection of ourselves or of others.

Thanks for this fascinating post on the nature of Buddhism. I know very little about it.

There's lots more I could say on the nature of transference from psychoanalytic perspective. I suspect, as you suggest, the two are linked, transference and unrealistic expectations. And transference has its roots in infancy - parental blue prints and all that.

Thanks, Art.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Your post did prompt my writing this, Elizabeth, but I had no intention of taking you to task for anything. I was also responding to the Natalie Goldberg excerpts you were responding to.

On the one hand, Goldberg herself wrote about her evolution of understanding of all this; I've read three books of hers, all of which tell of both her problems and her overcoming of them. I appreciate her honesty and willingness to admit where she knows she was wrong.

On the other hand, Goldberg herself has written that she made the same early mistakes about Buddhism that many other Westerners make, which I mentioned before. The misconceptions, as I said, are common. I don't know if it's a general trend, but it's very common.

There is a whole literature of secular Jews in the US writing about how they discovered and turned to Buddhism, both TIbetan and Zen, and their journeys of learning, which frankly are often a journeys of UN-learning. One of the most interesting titles in this genre is "The Jew in the Lotus."

There is another whole literature of former followers of gurus expressing their disillusionment about their gurus, when they feel let down. Most of these were written by followers of various gurus or other spiritual leaders who felt betrayed, exiled, abused, or used by their former masters.

Andrew Harvey's book on the topic is one of the most scathing I have ever read; and it's unfortunately entirely believable. Many others are not so extreme in their reaction to feeling betrayed; but neither were they as invested in their guru's teachings before being betrayed. The fact is, Harvey is a wise living mystic with a lot of his own wisdom to pass on. (He's an expert on Rumi, a translator and editor, among other things.)

But the whole lesson about putting people on pedestals, and how that rarely ends well, is the point here. I agree with you about all that. Except that I think that even the extremes are about expectations.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In general people are incredibly ignorant. Just look at some of the answers you get from Joe Public in street polls about things that actually affect their day-to-day lives like What’s the name of the current Prime Minister? In a recent poll apparently 55% of those interviewed didn’t know the sun was a star. And you wonder why people don’t know the first thing about Buddhism. I include myself in this. I did, however, know that the sun was a star.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No argument here.

An informed populace is supposed to be necessary for running a democracy, but it requires a bit of an act of will to be informed these days. The powers that be don't particularly want an informed populace, either. Makes them work too hard to stay honest.

I don't really expect most people to know much about Buddhism. They don't know much about Christianity, either, for that matter.

12:27 PM  

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