Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Bottomless Cup

Tim and I went out for coffee yesterday. As per usual, we played a match of 'reality volley,' and this time he made me run for the ball with a corner shot directed at my Lenten practice. The argument was while it is nice to use such a holiday as a way of recentering, there is nothing keeping one from engaging in such practices now. He also said that while the practice is good, it can (like all things), be used as a crutch to deflect focus from the real cause of suffering; i.e., Lent becomes just another distraction (albeit a seemingly noble one) from the uncomfortable reality of [?]--whatever it is we run away from with such frantic gusto. It is sometimes easier to stay for years with things outside the Self than to sit for an hour with the things inside.

I defended myself by claiming that keeping God at the center of any ascetical practice is the spinal column that holds up its integrity as a spiritual discipline. He lobbed an argument over my head--that God, like everything, is just a label we ascribe to a reality that cannot be captured (he used the label 'river' as an example: there is no permanent 'river' because their reality is one of constant flux. It is a more obvious example, but really this is the case with everything without exception. The Christian might argue that God is the one unchanging Reality but of course this is not a view shared by Buddhists as they do not exempt even God (or, more accurately, our construction of the label-falsely-perceived-as-reality "God") from the Law of Non-Permanence)). Since God is just another label, my claim that one must 'keep God at the center of Lenten practice' in order to maintain the ascetic integrity of such a practice was rendered to be one that was no more real or important than, say, using Lent as a reason to give up chocolates; one was just as valid as the next, since what the practice meant to each person varied from reality to subjective to reality. I watched the ball sail over my head to a back corner of the court and bounce a few times before rolling into the fence. Game. Set. We headed home.


Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Rob,

You guys sound way too smart for me! I go with whatever works, however strange, simple, or small-seeming. The most difficult thing I ever gave up for Lent was Triscuits -- I was living on them and eating nothing else and gave them up with much pain. But now I can't even look at one because of the experience. I didn't desire them after the forty days. I don't know what to say -- without Lent, I wouldn't have known that giving something up for a little while would break the spell. So in small things, I learned a pretty big thing.

Tim said...

I got a tip off last night that our coffee chat was in print. so like the subject of any journalism I’m here to listen to your story and match your reality against mine. it's interesting to hear your reflection of our comments on lent. i get the feeling i came across as less than charitable with regards your lent-tastic intentions which I didn’t intend, so my apologies.

To clarify, while there is always an argument in Buddhism and beyond that reality is not what it seems, that 'things' be they lent, god or chocolate are never as independently real and solid as we might want/need them to be, that's not to say these concepts and labels are without benefit. In fact, the act of 'giving up' for lent offers incredible insight into our regular lives of cravings and limited discipline. Lent can provide a mirror in which the moment by moment thought process of 'i want more of, I want less of' is reflected. Unless we are courageous enough to put that mirror up in front of us we may never be aware that these thoughts arise. And as a result not recognise it is the chocolate (or basement) that controls us rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, as with everything it comes down to intention. in the broadest of terms, is lent, god or chocolate being used to help perpetuate the notion of 'self' (I am a good ascetic; I am a good Christian; I deserve more sweets) or is the purpose to help others and move away from ‘self-cherishing’ (a Buddhist phrase)? However, it’s vital to watch judgment of which is the ‘better’ motivation. That’s not the point. It’s not about what we should do, it’s about what we are doing. The crux is awareness. Am i using lent, god or chocolate to run away from something or face it? And developing awareness takes more than belief, it takes practice. Whether you believe in god or Buddha, belief doesn't equate to insight. Insight takes work. Which can be why lent is so great because it offers that opportunity.

Slowly, slowly, a Buddhist teacher of mine used to say. It takes a lifetime (if not many) to genuinely act with the intention of helping others at every step. Slowly, slowly. So, all we can do is set an intention, to act as honestly as we can. One step at a time, one act at a time. All we can do is be as self-aware or mindful as possible. We’ll fall over, we’ll make mistakes but the true intention lies in the process of getting back up and trying again, and again, and again. Lent, chocolate and god all offer fantastic opportunities for practice. While they may not be 'real' at one level, they are also as real as it gets.

So, in conclusion two points. Firstly, I want you (Rob) to know i see fantastic merit in your ascetic lenten practice. I applaud the discipline it takes and your willingness to face certain cravings (demons?). I know I struggle to make those kind of commitments from my comfy armchair. For me it takes a cushion and a supported environment to find such discipline. And secondly, I believe god provides a fantastic foundation for spiritual practice. The fact that god is 'just a label', doesn't make it any less real, powerful or beneficial for you, the however many billions that subscribe to similar notions and the rest of us who benefit from your faith. So, thank you.