Eyes on the (wrong) prize

In the world we have three basic choices of how we will interact with the reality. Under these larger umbrellas is a myriad  of variation, but at the core we all decide, consciously or not, to face the world as it really is via one of these attitudes.

1. we can accept the world as it is and attempt to align ourselves and our personal mythology (beliefs) to this state of “as it is”.  (Buddhism, Taoism, etc)

2. we can negate the world, perceiving it as an illusion or a place of punishment, our beliefs can be aligned to reject it totally and to see the “as it is” as something to be transcended by rejecting all the trapping of this  totally (Jainism, Hinduism, etc)

3. we can believe that the world is imperfect or impure but can be somehow corrected through our behavior, prayer, or attitude. In this view the “as it is” is faulty and requires rehabilitation through our efforts (Judeo/Christian, Islam)

I think its pretty clear that most of us in the western world were brought up in  the third worldview. Even if our families and friends are agnostic or atheistic it still remains that in the west we have a strong cultural tradition of “correcting” the world outside of ourselves. This attitude manifests itself in many ways besides our religious attitudes, our country was settled under the notion that the natural state of the Americas was wild and in need of taming, our forests were “wild uncontrolled places”. The native people of the Americas and Europe were considered ‘savages’ who could only be acceptable once they were “civilized”(often we “civilized” them to death). We don’t even accept ourselves as we are, we must be skinnier, prettier, richer, stronger, or in some way superior to the way we naturally occur in the world.  The very basis of our attitude, a belief that is so deeply ingrained in us that we almost never question it at all, is that things as-they-occur are just not good enough! Even those of us who are religious seldom pray for the willingness to accept the world as is, instead we pray for the change we desire to occur in ways that will satisfy us.

Joseph Campbell once said “This worldview expresses the notion that through certain kinds of activity, a change can be brought about. Through prayer or good deeds or some other activity, one can change the basic principles, the fundamental preconditions of life. You affirm the world on condition that it follows your notion of what the world should be. This is like marrying someone in order to improve him or her – it is not marriage.” (italics mine)

We believe that our happiness, our salvation, our very ability to live is dependent on how successfully we change the world to suit ourselves. We view anyone not actively involved in driving themselves crazy with all this activity as “lazy”, “complacent”, or even “cynical”. The very idea of putting ourselves in accord with the world is downright radical (and in some cases heretical)to most western minds. We demand that reality agree to straighten itself up and conform to our ideal.

The results of this attitude are all around us, we destroy enormous tracts of forest and habitat, we use antibiotics so profligately that we have bred super bugs like MRSA, we demand ever more highways and our cities sprawl outward like cancers, we assign anyone not in agreement with our world view a traitor or heretic, we punish instead of rehabilitating, we demand others do what we say instead of what we do .We go to war to challenge attitudes in other lands, we kill others and we kill ourselves.

We try to “fix” anything we come into contact with.

The word “fix” has several definitions and in this case two distinct definitions apply to this attitude. On the one hand the word ‘fix’ means to correct or repair and this is how we believe the proper way to interact with reality is. The other definition of “fix” is to nail something into place, to make it permanent, to make it solid, and this, not coincidentally, is the other problem with our western worldview. We try to take the dynamic and ever-changing world and freeze it into a simple black and white problem with a convenient black or white solution. The problem is that reality is bigger than our worldview. The other problem with our solution is that reality doesn’t give a shit what we think of it either.

There is, outside of all our notions, beliefs, and filters; a reality that simply happens. Stars are born and stars burn out, deer are killed by wolves and meteors wipe the life off entire planets in an instant, people fall in love and people fall off cliffs and none of it is good or evil, it simply is, it is reality and our ideals against that reality are as worthless as spitting to put out a forest fire. Even when we do manage to make a change it never, ever ends up the way we envisioned it. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. We try to do what we believe is “good” and the result is that we cause more harm, more suffering, more delusion!

The good news is that we are here and we are here in a form that allows us to make a choice with how we interact with the world. Animals can only act like animals and their path is more or less fixed by genetics and the environment. Rocks and rivers pretty much simply exist. We are the only sentient beings on Earth who can take in this glorious parade and decide to do something with it. According to some ancient Buddhist stories, even the gods are too caught up in being blissed out to see things as they really are, only us regular folk can do that!

When you sit Zazen you take a moment to simply sit with the universe as it is. And yes I mean that you literally sit with the entire universe, it might be the only time that most of us take to sit still and be quiet for long enough to let that happen. So what does happen? Well, for myself it turns out that eventually, slowly, the noise begins to quiet down and a lot of notions that I used to think were very much a part of this thing I call ‘me’ drop off. One of the things that falls away is the notion that the world isn’t “right” and that I need to correct it. I began to accept that there was a lot of things that simply occurred and didn’t require me to interact with them at all. Things like being super opinionated or argumentative went away as I became comfortable with the fact that other people simply are going to believe what they are going to believe and that it isn’t my job (or even my right) to try to “fix” them or their ideas. I also noticed that lots and lots of nice things began to happen to me, small things, but still an unusual amount of shit started to go right in my world once I quit trying to tweak everything and everyone around me to meet my standards. Lastly, I discovered that what I thought I wanted the world to be like wasn’t half as cool as the world that just happened once I put my small little notions of  the world away.

It turns out that what we humans think the world ought to be like is small and stupid and petty compared to its real state just as it is!!! I mean this literally, the world is trying to give us all that we need and more if we would just get the fuck out-of-the-way with our stupid notions and let it!

I have a good friend in Alcoholics Anonymous and she once told me that when she first started going to meetings she was asked to write down 5 things she wanted out of her life with sobriety. She did and  was told that if she stayed on the path of sobriety that not only would those things come true, but that in time she would look back and they would seem small and silly compared to what her sobriety would have given her. Sure enough, all her 5 “wishes” came true, but she told me that her life was unimaginably more rich and wonderful than the things she desired on that list, once she got out of her own way the universe (or god, or karma, or fate, whatever)  was able to show her that her desires were really too small for all the awesome gifts that the world was trying to give her.

So it is with us all, I believe.  We may not all be alcoholics, but we are all addicted to our conditioning. To our faulty view that we need to fix this world before we can be happy. The trick is that when we fix ourselves first, happiness comes on its own.

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Categories: Buddhism and life | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Eyes on the (wrong) prize

  1. Lucas

    Dear Jason,
    I just wanted to thank you for sharing your views on Zen. I come here often to see your works, wich i find beautiful, and more often to read some of your thoughts. It is always refreshing to read about how we can grow when we ‘let’ the universe help us, and stop fighting our small fights. Thanks again, best wishes, Lucas (down in São Paulo, Brasil).

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