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Desperately Seeking Solace, or What I learned from Buddhism

This is a long rambley entry, so bear with me (or skip it.)

There is a lot to be learned from Buddhism, and it would be impossible absorb it all in one lifetime. Since I’ve moved away from the secularized version that is often practiced in America, and more towards Vedic, or Yogic traditions that form the foundations of both Buddhism and Hinduism, I’ve thought a lot about what didn’t serve me when I was practicing in the Shambala tradition. Namely, what I saw as a nihilistic need to regard a mystical experience of God as a crutch, and some ethical problems stemming from guru worship.

Recently I’ve started to realize how much I have integrated into my world and self-view, and how it has helped prepare me for this next phase of my own spiritual journey. At the same time, I’ve begun to observe a pattern among my friends and peers in the 35-45 age range, and my Buddhist studies have helped me frame them.

Things change. I can’t ignore it anymore. What’s more, I’m old enough that things are starting to fall down faster than I can build them up. I may build a successful company, and I may write books. I may start a family. But I can’t not get sick, I can’t not age and die, and I can’t keep those I love from experiencing the same things. I couldn’t keep Simon from dying, and though the death of a dog may not seem that big on a universal scale, it shook my foundations. If Simon could leave, so could everything else.

Yes, everything is impermanent, and no, just trying to get used to that idea is not enough to make it tolerable. Not for me, anyway. So ultimately, I needed more than Buddhism (or at least the version I was studying) had to offer. I suspect that a lot of people my age are struggling with this transition, from the attaining/building/growing phase of life, to the beginning of the slowing/ending/dissipating part of life.

I’ve sought solace in relationships for a long time. Friends, lovers, family, pets; I’ve sought peace and balance, love and acceptance from other beings. Buddhism says that this seeking is itself a cause of suffering, and that when we cease seeking, we can find our own innate place in the universe. Only last year, after losing my certainty about my career (after I left my last job), and my dog Simon was I able to admit that I didn’t know where I was going. That was really hard for me, because while I’ve never been one to join groups, I’ve always needed to identify myself with a verb of some kind: Student, Musician, Designer, Manager. I didn’t know anymore what word to use to identify myself, or what words I might use in the future.

It was in this place of uncertainty, when the some of the things I clung to were no longer there, that I was able to start listening to my higher self, or the collective unconscious, or God, or whatever I choose to call it on any given day. Whatever. I could feel this connection and recognize it consciously at the same time, and I couldn’t do that before. Why is this so important to me? Because life (and Buddhism) had taught me that nothing is stable, that things fall apart, and that clinging to them doesn’t change a damn thing. Buddhism helped me realize that most people struggle with this, whether or not they know it. But my core, or soul, is always there no matter how much things change.

Some people I know just keep speeding up. They’re the ones who have always been achievement focused, and have never really given themselves the option of just saying, “What the fuck am I doing?” and putting on the brakes for a while. If it worked before, and it’s not working now, just do more of it. In these people I recognize the same aversion that I see to sitting with my mind quietly and seeing what arises, rather than trying to plan and control everything. It’s funny how society brands depression as dysfunctional and those who experience it as less successful than those who just never stop. One way or another we all need a mental break sometimes. I think often depression is just our body-mind’s way of letting us hibernate and germinate ourselves so we can deal with whatever just happened, or what comes next.

Others have gravitated towards ideologies, or organizations that have cult-like qualities, be they for work, self-improvement, or religion. Where the power of groupthink seems to momentarily free them from the fear of the unknown, but the anxiety that drives them is still readily apparent. This too, I feel like I’ve dabbled in myself. I certainly felt for a while that in Shambala, perhaps I’d found a belief system trustworthy enough to leave my critical mind at the door. That didn’t work out so well.

Others have done what I was forced to do, and now am trying to sustain. Slowed down a bit. I still struggle daily with feeling as if I need to do more, be more, accomplish more. But on the other side of the equation, I can’t really understand who I am and who I may become if I’m always running towards or away from something. I’m not saying I’m good at doing things slower, far from it. But between the two polarities of the drive of individual accomplishment and the pull of groupthink mentality, it’s the only place that makes sense to me.

Buddhism prepared me for this place. I learned how to meditate, I learned to observe how the qualities of emotions and thoughts change when we observe them. I learned that there is no “being good at” in meditation, and that it’s just as valuable when it’s frustrating as when it’s transcendent. I started to learn to listen and be, instead of talk and do.

It seems as if we’re all finding ourselves well out of the barely post-adolescent mental state that is our twenties, and we’re all trying to figure out what that means. We’re losing grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, and all the wisdom that we lose with them. We’re creating new generations. We’re trying to figure out what is really important to us, and what doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore.

I know now that peace and contentment are way more important to me than excitement and drama. I like solitude and quiet a lot. Rather than condemning those who join religions, I believe in some form of God. I’m not so quick to judge people who believe different things than I do – spiritually or politically. I’m more interested in the creative process and less interested in showing off the results (though I think I will always be kind of a show-off). I’m more interested in healthy, strong relationships, and less interested in flattery and adulation. I know the difference now between real courage and empty bravado.

So what do you think? How are you dealing with this transition and how is it going? How have your values changed in the last few years? How are you finding meaning and fulfillment now as opposed to when you were younger? Drop me a line sometime and let me know.

A Conversation

Him: I feel really awful today
Me: Are you getting sick?
Him: No.
Me: What do you think is wrong, then?
Him: *shrugs*
Me: What are your symptoms?
Him: *describes symptoms*
Me: Why is it that you are describing the symptoms of the stomach flu, and yet you don’t think you are getting sick?
Him: I’m not getting sick, I am sick.
Me: Aaaahhh! *brain explodes*

Literal man strikes again. I pointed out that he could have avoided the twenty questions if he’d let me know he was making that distinction initially, but his response was the usual, “But then I would have had to use words.”

The scary thing is I am becoming an amazingly astute mind-reading, but I guess my radar was down this time. Maybe I should take up palmistry…

Addiction No.1: Photography

David and I are becoming photography junkies. This week we got a tripod, which really rocks for the long exposure photos, and a Nikon Speedlight flash, which is super cool because you can bounce the light off the ceiling and avoid casting hard shadows:

Yes, I know you saw that photo in my last post, but dude, check out the nice fuzzy soft barely-there shadow! I know! I’m a geek!

Even better, I can follow my dogs around with this huge rig of camera and get really good indoor shots with no red eye:

Doesn’t he look great? Other than the put-upon expression, that is. Even Happy Buddha likes my new flash!