Sunday, May 2, 2010

So What Is The Aim Again?

The aim is to awaken, not to achieve this or that mood. Back in my active days effort lay ahead on workdays; there it was when I woke up: the commute, the chores left behind the night before. Reality’s pressure forced me to clean up my act at intervals. The mental contents of awakening were quite often tinged with anxiety. I could never contemplate the future with equanimity. Functionally this situation reminds me of certain Zen masters who slapped aspirants at random times. This produced a pervasive anxiety in their charges—that feeling of always expecting something bad to happen. I’ve managed to make my living in such a way that the Zen master was always somewhere behind me or on my blind side. The presence of anxiety will produce alertness of the mind, and alertness is a precondition for hearing the higher dimension.

Hello paradox. The object of life is supposed to be happiness. Now we imagine that state to be a kind of stress-free, childlike bliss—not as a high, sovereign alertness that ignores even while it deals with all the shit that happens all the time. Initially we cultivate that sovereign alertness (I’m speaking for myself) because it is a coping mechanism, not because it makes us happy. It makes us competent. I came to the spiritual life by way of the turbulence of action. Unless you’re blessed with a high state of insensitivity—a really thick skin, a really hearty temperament--the high-energy turbulence of modern life will produce anxiety.

I will describe the conditions in which contemplative musings about happiness—in this life—might seem appropriate. Endeavor to be born into a very well-off family—at that stage of its existence when its wealth is wide and deep, when the family is well embedded in the upper class, and in a time when neither revolution from the bottom, nor a greedy ruler from the top, nor war from the side threatens to unravel this temporary social nest. Oh, yes. Make sure that you are male, first born, and in good health. Finally, take an interest in philosophical matters and think in abstract categories drawn solely from your personal experience. And even under these circumstances, it really is best if you’re not a very sensitive, intelligent, or a poetic soul.

Siddhārtha Gautama, the man later known as the Buddha, had all of the above qualifications except the last. And that last was his undoing. He discovered how other people lived, and that opened his eyes. Goodbye happiness. Despite the presence of all those things most people would consider happy-making, he was miserable and set out on his epic journey of liberation from the wheel of karma.

The case of the Buddha is the case, ultimately, of most people except the genuinely blind. It’s very striking that in every culture a shadow falls upon this dimension, no matter how beautiful it is in sunshine and shade, in mountain and valley, by brilliant starlight, on the shores of the vast ocean. At a functional level all descriptions are equivalent: the Gnostic view that a low god, who holds us captive, made this world; the Christian view of the fall and of original sin; the Eastern view of the karmic wheel. The various solutions also have a uniform shape. Knowledge, gnosis, liberates. So does enlightenment. And salvation, death in a state of grace, also represents an escape from the valley of the shadow of death.

In practice—in the everyday life—this means coming and staying awake. The framing of the story may be different one culture to the other, but the meaning is the same. Alertness, awakeness, and oil in the lamp—so that when the bridegroom comes, the lamp may be lit: wonderful stories full of incisive advice. If we manage to awaken and meet the moment of transition well prepared, then we shall have achieved the real object of this life, which is liberation. And let’s be practical. Such action improves life one moment to the next as well. It’s also competence, not some kind of “piety.” Or, to underline the point, those two states of the self are equivalent—however different the sound. In the end, after a life lived competently terminates, seeking happiness will still not be an aim. At that point it will simply be our natural state.

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