“Monks, all is burning,” the Buddha taught in his “Fire Sermon.”  A fresh translation of this ancient teaching by scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi is the opening piece in Parabola’s upcoming “Burning World” issue, and for good reason.  In little more than 300 words, he describes the root cause of the overwhelming global challenges we face today.  The Buddha looked out over a thousand monks and serenely explained that through every sense door pour impressions that burn us “with the fire of greed, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion.”  He assured them that even if they worked to put out those daily brush fires of desire and aversion, there was a greater, more unstoppable fire advancing: of the impermanence of life, and the sorrow and despair that comes with death and with all that passes.

Did the Buddha offer a happy ending?  Not in a Disney princess sense. I used to picture walking for days hoping for a magical formula.  And yet what he offered actually does have a thread of connection with Sleeping Beauty. The Buddha told people that “disenchantment” was the key–  disenchantment with all the objects of the senses and the mind, with everything we yearn for or fear or otherwise grant the power to make us happy or unhappy, to be satisfied or dissatisfied. Disenchantment leads to a dispassionate attitude and finally to liberation.  I used to think of this solution as a kind of prison sentence, a state of radical restraint.  I thought of the monks shorn of all pleasures and attachments, from chocolate to love, voluntary inmates living life at the lowest possible flame.  Over the years, meditation has helped me see disenchantment in a radically different way.

Disenchantment means waking up to the true scale and possibilities of life. It does not mean growing numb and experiencing life as less than it is but developing an attention that is more quick and supple, able to go beyond our usual addictive one-way attachment to our thoughts and feelings and all the things “out there” that we long to make us happy.  Waking up is revolutionary act in the sense that it radically reverses our usual addictive tendencies, returning the attention us to what is arising in the moment and to ourselves.  As the focus of our attention shifts from “out there” to “right here, right now” our usual sense of separation and isolation tends to fall away.

“Meditation is the DNA of the kindness revolution,” says Pancho Ramos Stierle, who practices meditation and kindness in the midst of strife-torn, contemporary Oakland, California. According to Stierle and his friend Nipun Mehta, who writes about Stierle in the upcoming Burning World issue, we can transform the world starting right where we are.  It can begin with the smallest of acts, picking up broken glass in the street or sitting down to meditate.  Pictures of Pancho being arrested in Oakland as he was deeply meditating (for “disturbing the peace?”) went out over the internet, causing thousands upon thousands of people to pause and question. When we are awake, there is no such thing as a nobody as opposed to a celebrity, and no such thing as small act as opposed to a grand or important deed.  As Gandhi knew, as Buddha and Jesus surely knew and demonstrated,  seemingly small acts of care for our neighbor done with great consciousness can be vast, cosmic.

Of course we don’t all have cosmic consciousness, but we are all being invited to be a little disenchanted and see that we really can’t separate ourselves from an increasingly critical global situation.  The search for wisdom cannot be separate from compassion.  I’m not saying that we are all called to get arrested for meditating like Pancho or march to the sea like Gandhi.  But we really must all raise the question of what it means to live a good life now.

“Everything that was external and away from us surrounds us now,” says Jonathan Rose, a Manhattan builder and green thought leader, also in this issue.  “The economy is globalized.  But climate change knows no boundary except the earth itself.  The effects will reach every one of us.” How are we to change?   The first thing that has to change is how we see ourselves.  We need to become disenchanted, awakened from the trance of our addictions, aware that we are inextricably part of a larger whole.

14 thoughts on “Disenchantment

  1. I enjoyed the perspective of looking at Equanimity through the lens of Disenchantment. We are all indeed “enchanted’ by the lure of that which is “seemingly” fixable by changing what is “out there” or even that which is inside of ourselves.

    1. Thank you for making the connection between disenchantment and equanimity, Marc. Equanimity in Pali means to “look over” or see the big picture. Just as disenchantment doesn’t mean being numb or less than you can be, equanimity doesn’t mean being less. To the contrary, it means being open to the possibility that your seemingly small actions can mean a great deal to the whole.

  2. Hi Tracy

    Is disenchantment the same as detachment? Does disenchantment lead to detachment or just other attachments leading to the same results since “because we are what we are, everything is as it is”?

    You wrote: “Disenchantment means waking up to the true scale and possibilities of life. It does not mean growing numb and experiencing life as less than it is but developing an attention that is more quick and supple, able to go beyond our usual addictive one-way attachment to our thoughts and feelings and all the things “out there” that we long to make us happy. Waking up is revolutionary act in the sense that it radically reverses our usual addictive tendencies, returning the attention us to what is arising in the moment and to ourselves. As the focus of our attention shifts from “out there” to “right here, right now” our usual sense of separation and isolation tends to fall away.”

    I believe Simone Weil was right when she observed:

    “Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty, and equality are of infinite value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace.” Simone Weil

    If this is true it means only a certain quality of attention as expressions of our higher parts attracts grace or “help from above”. Our lower expressions of attention are good practice for the eventual opening of higher parts but shouldn’t be considered the same. How can we respect their differences? This is a hard question especially since most everything within us strives against this recognition and the practical cooperation between these levels of attention.

    I’d like to leave you and others with this link as it concerns divisions of attention. It isn’t politically correct but there is a minority that value it as did this person who put it into a frame. I’ve found it as repulsive to my self image as it is meaningful for something else and perhaps you may as well.


    1. Thank you, Nick. As always. I think what you share about ordinary attention being a preparation for opening up to help from above is related to epiphany. There are many stories of scientists and thinkers working away to the limits of their powers, then something else seems to come from above. SW seemed to dwell there, on that border of human limitation.

  3. There is a story of a thief who enters a monk’s hut only to discover that there is nothing to steal. When the monk returns and finds the unfortunate thief, he gives the thief his clothing so that the thief’s efforts will not be wasted. Sitting naked after the departure of the thief, the monk looks at the beautiful moon wishing that he could have given the thief the beautiful moon too.

    I read this story long before I was a householder and it left an impression but it was only with many years as a householder that I am beginning to understand it. As adults, we spend years and careers accumulating things; things that define us and things that represent us but also things that imprison us. Yet the thought of losing things sends us into unimaginable never-ending staircases of fears. And so, while I am far from the monk in the story, I do believe that you have said profoundly important about disenchantment: “We need to become disenchanted, awakened from the trance of our addictions, aware that we are inextricably part of a larger whole.”

    Disenchantment, of course, is the whole idea of Sleeping Beauty for only when the enchantment wears off does she wake up. But again, it is easier thought than ventured.

    For me, there is the haunting truth of the Dharma: Impermanence. But there is no denying it. Everything is impermanent. In the film, “Little Buddha,” the Lama explains impermanence to a child by saying, “You see everything here, everywhere in the world. One hundred years from now none of it will exist.” And yet while it will not exist something else will and so, we have some obligation to forge the path for the next generations.

    But of course, the bedfellow to impermanence is compassion in Buddhism: to have compassion for all beings. And that is what the monk had for the thief.

    But perhaps for me there is a bit of the monk and the thief in me. Like the thief, I cling and long for things and like the monk, I know that grasping can never be the root of happiness.

    Oh, what a hard path the dharma is. But is there any other way?

  4. I thought you may appreciate this article Tracy. When I first read chapter one of Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, I found it difficult to admit that we can do nothing. It is bad enough to become disenchanted but to realize the human condition and my limitations in front of it was too much for this broad shouldered long nosed Aries male.

    In this linked article Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa seems to make the same point much to the shock of most:


    “The finest moment of spiritual deflation I can think of happens in Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa’s book Crazy Wisdom. A student asks what you can gain from having a spiritual practice, and Trungpa’s reply is “nothing.” Someone in the audience asks if we need to hope for some kind of benefit, and Trungpa again responds that the situation is hopeless. The audience is clearly shocked and again and again they try to get Trungpa to offer something that they can hold onto but he refuses. They list the various potential benefits of spiritual practice but again he says sorry, it’s hopeless.”
    This is hard to swallow when a person becomes disenchanted. I agree that there is this tendency to create what the author calls “spiritual materialism” which serves only to feed the ego. Fortunes are made by people encouraging “spiritual materialism” in others at the expense of their potential for understanding.

    I think we underestimate how easily we can first become disenchanted and then enchanted again in a different but equally illusory fashion. Simone Weil speaks of decreation but who wants it? It is far more satisfying to build a fantasy on an illusory psychological foundation. Is it any wonder that this Tibetan Buddhist knocked everyone for a loop?

    1. An important point, Nick. We have moments of disenchantment but it’s as if we have our fingers crossed behind our back. We’re always looking for a solution, a magic formula, a way out of the pickle we’re in. Lately, I’ve had really difficult emotions arise while I’m sitting. It’s really interesting to observe how I try to see the silver lining or the pay off, always–i.e. if I just hold this feeling it will be transformed and I’ll never have to feel it again. This is my question now, what does it might mean to go on with no expectations, no hope of escape or even improvement.

      1. Hi Tracy. You wrote: “This is my question now, what does it might mean to go on with no expectations, no hope of escape or even improvement.”

        I’ve read that the sacred impulses of faith, love, and hope are attributes of the human essence capable of evolution. Our situation you describe so well and I’ve also experienced may appear hopeless which would be normal for the human condition.

        Jacob Needleman wrote: “Hope is a state of the mind, not of the world… Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for…success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

        How do we experience hope as he describes? Once again I turn to Simone:

        “In order to obey God, one must receive his commands.
        How did it happen that I received them in adolescence, while I was professing atheism?
        To believe that the desire for good is always fulfilled–that is faith, and whoever has it is not an atheist.”
        – Simone Weil, First and last notebooks (last notebook 1942)
        (Oxford University Press 1970) p 137

        Simone was drawn to Plato’s “Good” which is really the same source as the Tao or Ayn Sof. Even though the World as a whole is in darkness so can be considered hopeless, this is not to say that everyone’s situation must be hopeless.

        When you sit are you really detached or immediatly drawn to new stimuli? I’ve found this difficult. I am incapable of the quality of detachment Simone was capable of

        “There is no detachment where there is no pain. And there is no pain endured without hatred or lying unless detachment is present too. …” Simone Weil

        I am incapable of this since I escape into interpretation and justification. Meditation is one thing but in the world again it doesn’t extend into detachment.

        Our situation is hopeless as we are but suppose we become man number four as Gurdjieff explains in ISM? Then perhaps what the Gospel of Thomas describes may become possible

        (3) Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

        I believe we need help from above in the form of grace that is attracted to this level of observation. If true it requires more than just meditation to serve as a middle capable of receiving from above and giving to below in a balanced realistic fashion. It also the conscious efforts and intentional suffering with the goal of inviting conscious experience and objective conscience. But this is painful to our habitual nature that has become established in us. The acquired reactions of our personality are dominant so only a few are realistically open to such attempts. There are a rare few capable of experiencing life in the way Simone describes in her essay on school studies previously linked. She wrote:

        “But in spite of appearances, it is also far more difficult. Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves. If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works.”

        To make matters worse there are those that hurt themselves on the inside by justifying fantasy after having experienced the depth of esoteric ideas. Jacob Needleman explains:

        “History is full of such things: ideas which are an awakening force in their complete form and in the proper context, becoming a soporific or even a destructive influence when only a piece of them is used or understood.”

        I believe that as long as we assume that the World offers hope, our situation is hopeless. However when we see it as a world of imbalanced reactions captivated by shadows on the wall as if in Plato’s cave, some are willing to “feel” what they are losing by living this way and turn inwardly towards the light living in the world with a higher more human perspective. In this way they can “see” themselves and in turn be seen and helped by the materiality of higher consciousness provided that they are capable of conscious detachment rather than the normal slippage into self justification..

      2. This is very rich, Nick. I’ve read it and reflected on it several times. The idea of placing hope in the good is very valuable. I will draw on it in my next writing. One reflection I can add now is that we can sometimes feel how painful it is to be constricted by our habitual reactions. We can sometimes feel how sad it is to spend our lives like ghosts. To be really alive, we must dare to feel again everything we thought we put to rest with a story or a conclusion of some kind. Don’t you think?

      3. I don’t know why we allow this Tracy but for some reason we are out of balance and our minds, hearts and sensations often become dulled and their potential for receptivity of impressions is replaced by imagination. Society wants to condition our behavior and we respond to this according to our nature. But regardless, the result is a personality that has exchanged life for the inner man for a conditioned outer man.

        To come to life emotionally would mean for me to consciously experience negative emotions rather than justifying them. Not so easy.

        Take the idea of compassion for example. It feels good to say it and express its value but if I react and close off as Gurdjieff and Simone Weil describe, am I really expressing anything but selective compassion?

        “To bear the manifestation of others is a big thing. The last thing for a man.” Gurdjieff

        “Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.” Simone Weil

        Gurdjieff spoke of objective conscience. Plato described it as soul knowledge and Simone said it can be a result of conscious attention and detachment.

        It seems living again emotionally requires admitting that our dominant negative emotions deny it. Gurdjieff spoke of the non expression of negative emotions rather than their suppression so as to consciously experience them rather than becoming a blind creature of reaction. But who wants to do it when either expressing or suppressing them is more habitually egoistically satisfying?

        This is the problem as I see it. As we mature in Plato’s cave we gradually become conditioned “things.” Our senses become dulled, our intellect become limited to associative thought and our hearts are corrupted with negative emotions including escapism. Yet we want to live. What’s wrong with this picture?

      4. Yet un-conditioning ourselves is possible, at least at moments. Allowing myself to feel and just hold negative emotions is also allowing me to hold other kinds of feelings from time to time. There will be an unexpected burst of joy, for example–not a thought but a heart feeling. It shows me that what I usually take to be emotions and finer feelings are usually just thoughts, the reactions that you describe.

  5. Hi Tracy

    I think we would agree that when we become genuinely disenchanted we’ve lost our perception of “meaning.” There is a hole in the heart so to speak that we begin to sense. It has been my experience at least.

    I believe that filing that hole requires the cooperation of heart, mind, and senses. I often read in these times where thinking is discouraged in favor of feeling. I believe that they must be balanced. The heart brings the experience of quality to the associations of our intellect. We need what Jacob Needleman referred to in his book “Lost Christianity” as the Attention of the Heart..

    I think you will appreciate this article from Prof. Needleman’s blog. I get the impression from it what it is like to feel as opposed to the emotional reactions of escapism. Perhaps from such impressions we can find within us the path to “meaning” the depth of our being, when allowed to live, calls us to.


    1. Thanks, Nick. I will read this. I agree about the need for balance. Learning to think clearly is important, especially as we learn to allow ourselves to feel.

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