October 19, 2010

Too optimistic to be happy

According to Buddhist tradition, being born as a human is a rare privilege. Other states of being may be more or less pleasant but the human state is said to be the only one in which one can attain enlightenment. It is even rarer and more fortunate to be a human and be exposed however briefly to the Buddha and his teaching.

By those standards, I guess I'm pretty lucky. Due to a traveling grandfather who died before I was born, I don't remember a time when I didn't know about Buddha or at least recognize his image, thanks to a statue and a prayer wheel he brought back from China in the 1920s. Learning about Buddhist teachings came later, partially through my study of martial arts.

For the record, I'm not a card-carrying Buddhist but more like a Buddhist sympathizer. Seated meditation drives me nuts and I'm way too fond of wine to sign on to the Fifth Precept. But I've been struck over and over again by the practicality of some Buddhist teachings to working for social justice--and not going crazy in the process.

Here's one to start with: life is suffering. Some people seem to have this magical idea that if only this or that could be made to happen or stopped from happening then everything would be just peachy. If the desired state does not come about, they can make themselves pretty miserable. Paradoxically, they are too optimistic--in the sense of thinking everything can be fixed--to be happy.

Buddhism isn't pessimistic but it is realistic. Things aren't all bad all the time but living and suffering are intertwined. Such a view is entirely compatible with happiness, strange as that may seem. We can do things to increase or decrease the amount of suffering in the world but not eliminate it. That insight makes me grateful for little victories and for all the things that aren't terrible at any given moment.

Here's a suggestion: try to make it a practice to notice it when you don't have a toothache.

DEJA VU. This New Yorker piece by Sean Wilentz traces Glenn Beck's outlook to old, hard right groups like the John Birch Society.

JUST SAY NO to more foreclosures. Dean Baker calls for a moratorium here.

YOU CAN READ THIS LATER. It's another New Yorker item about procrastination.

DROP EVERYTHING and watch this video clip from Stephen Colbert about how goats are stealing American jobs.

SPEAKING OF SUFFERING, elite athletes train to push past pain and other people can learn to do this too.



Karen said...

El Cabrero, you have such a gift for summarizing beliefs- you echo my thoughts on Buddhism. But, as a Quaker, I'm getting better at the quiet meditation thing. Thanks for your insights.

hollowdweller said...

IMO only temporal things can be have no suffering.

When you build a building you are likely to feel sore or hit your finger with a hammer.

When you build a relationship you are gonna have to deal with negative emotions and offer each other a lot of grace to keep going.

When you work anywhere for any length of time you are gonna have to take sh*t in order to build your long term security.

What if in the quest for nirvana or heaven or enlightenment or whatever that dealing with adversity is the practice that keeps your consciousness from dissolving under the weight of the absolute??

hollowdweller said...

PS. Anita's dad used to be a member of the John Birch Society.

El Cabrero said...

Hey Karen,
Thanks! I probably need to work on the quiet sitting kind but just haven't done too well with it.

hollowdweller--that is an interesting thought. Sometimes dissolving sounds good to me.

Martha Yager said...

Hope Venus doesn't take offense at the scapegoating. :) Very funny clip.

El Cabrero said...

Hey Martha,
Venus was pretty cool with it. She mostly thinks of people as stupid waiters.