We’ve been having a lively exchange about what it can mean to be the hero of your own story. This is another way of investigating the “self” we take ourselves to be. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the four noble truths of the Buddha, about how suffering arises in this life, about how it ceases, and what the heck this has to do with being a self. For a long time, I wondered why suffering was so central to the Buddha’s teaching. It seemed life-denying to me– championing the need to pull back from life (even before it was fully lived!!!) I was attracted to teachers like Gurdjieff, who had brave adventures and feasted on life, none of this restraining the senses, limiting attachments. Over the years, however, although I still love feasters and lovers of life, I’ve slowly come to understand the noble truths in a new way. Now I understand that the “dukkha,” which is often translated as “suffering” includes that feeling of friction, unease, of being slightly out of balance with the world that comes with having a self.
The Buddha understood the way our habitual, reflexive ways of responding to life get entrenched and drive our lives. We see the world and experience everything that happens to us through the lens of our own attitudes, old hurts, our particular problems. Our stories about who we are and what we’ve been through and what matters give us a way of relating to life but it also separates us from the experience of being fully present. And part of what we might see if we weren’t so cut us off, so narrow and selfish in focus, is that we ourselves are inextricably part of the whole world, no clear separation between inner and outer–that those very feelings and thoughts of being separate require a physical nervous system and physical ears and eyes, not to mention the impressions that flow in from the external world. Moment by moment by moment, we are receiving impressions and responding to those impressions, not observing life but participating in it. Yet we don’t really take in the big picture. We see what we want and don’t want. The Buddha taught that the root of that experience of “dukkha” is our underlying craving to have this or or not have that–our yearning to be or become this and not be or become that.
In moments of radical honesty, we can taste that the “self” that we experience is not a fixed being at all so much as a powerful shadow longing that laces together all the feelings and thoughts and impressions. BUT the Buddha does offer a greater possibility. We really are meant to be something greater than a kind of ghost haunting the world, returning again and again to the scene of old hurts and lost loves. In those moments when we stop and truly open to the here-and-now, we can experience a new kind of groundedness and balance. After our craving or pining or thirst abates, a new calm and clarity can appear. The Pali word for craving is tanha, which comes from a Sanskrit word with the same root as thirst, and when we see it for what it is and drop it (and sometimes life shocks us into dropping it for minute) another order of desire or wish may appear–the wish to help, to aspire, to be compassionate. This order of desire is called chanda. As the Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto writes chanda is “a psychological “yes,” a choice, not a pathology. In fact, you could summarize Dhamma (Dharma) training as the transformation of tanha into chanda.” Blind instinct and habitual grasping or aversioncan give way to the conscious choice to participate in the world. Whether one is Buddhist or Christian or follows another way (Sucitto uses Nelson Mandel as an example) a sense of true self-respect or respect for one’s brief and blessed life can cause one to chose to resolve to stop blindly identifying with the circumstance and conditions of life but to consciously relate to life.
Ironically, since the Buddha emphasizes how much a part of the whole we all are and how conditioned our experience is, the Buddhist path holds out the possibility of being more than the sum of our conditioning, of being in the world but not of it. As Sucitto writes (taking inspiration from Mandela) “We don’t have to drink the water we’re swimming through. We don’t have to become the world.” We can be more. Some of us can even be true heroes. Seeing through the selfish nature of self, can lead us to our underlying heart, which is able to let go, to relinquish, to open to life. A sense of courage, inner balance, and generosity can grow within us as we learn to open more and more the truth of the present moment. Some people can even take this inner strength into places of despair and great suffering and offer themselves in service. And all the rest of us can learn that instead of separating us, our heartaches and disappointments can become a source of understanding and compassion. Our suffering, our stories, are cravings and longings are “repurposed”–not so much “gotten over” as seen through, made into a light that can illuminate us to the roots of the situation–so that we can respond to the world (including ourselves) with generosity and compassion.