buddhism can’t make you happy so why bother: what being failed teaches us

The very sad news of the tragic death of Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has stirred a flurry of comments on various Buddhist internet sites that range from the expected grief and – sadly – the expected lack of awareness of the suffering that mental illness can bring on us. The latter set of comments includes and exposes a deep misapprehension of what a Buddhist practice can do for its practitioners.

The quick answer, if asked, is that a Buddhist practice has little to do with effortlessly conferring happiness, calm, serenity, and peace. Sadly, the practice also does not confer invulnerability to slings and arrows of outrageous inner and outer judgments, exorcise self-generated demons, or make one beloved by all. Buddhist practice is also not going to cure or remove whatever neurological process involved in profound depression, extreme anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or many other ways of being that require a more focused approach. In a word (or six), Buddhist practice does nothing for you – except one thing.

To practice the Dharma is to examine the topography of places where we fail ourselves over and over. It is to turn towards that suffering, relentlessly; that incongruity between who we thought we were and who showed up at the family dinner, the date night, the wedding, the job interview. And in that turning towards, we find a way, through practice, to be steady in the face of the whole blessed mess – even when we aren’t. Buddhist practice is a how-to lesson in cultivating humility, skillfulness in failing, and loving with a heart broken open wide.

I understand the defensive posture of superiority in the comments when any Buddhist teacher has not lived up to our expectations. Been there, sacrificed my dignity. It’s frightening to think that someone in an elevated status can be so fragile, even if we were the ones to lionize them. It’s more frightening to think that this practice does not protect even those who have such an obvious commitment and fierce devotion to it. What does that say about us mere mortals who struggle with taking seconds on dessert, feel impotent rage at the state of our world, or whose lives had to be rebuilt because we followed in a very human teachers’ footsteps? What hope is there for us?

The reality is that there is no one who can satisfy our craving for security. There is no one who can single-handedly lift us out of our messy morass and make it all better. Sorry. There is actually one who can – but that requires teaching the eye to see itself, the hand to hold itself, the heart to feel its own beat. But we’re not ready for that and won’t be as long as we think salvation is in someone else.

These incidents of teachers who show their utter humanness are themselves our teacher. It opens us to be brutally honest about who we become in the face of our desire that the teacher should be our source of safety and support. It should open us to discern between an authentic teaching that is grounded in Buddhism and aspects of our own Western culture (read: knowledge of mental illness). I have listened too long and too often to the damage caused to practitioners by Buddhist teachers who say, “Just sit with it. It will pass.” Or, “meditate more.” Or, imply that somehow it’s some past life transgression that totally explains and justifies one’s current pain and suffering. It’s a long road back from this level of hurt. And more often than not, it ends up in a conversation that necessarily deconstructs the person’s belief that they are not a “good Buddhist” but also that they may have to surrender their clinging to the belief that they are “Buddhist”. Understanding this collision of our desires and what is promised as “freedom” is crucial to understanding the core of Buddhist practice: taking responsibility for our own development.

However, in the process of taking responsibility for our own delusions about teachers and about being “Buddhists”, we also need to see how the teacher’s own frailties serve us in some way. I have sat in front of teachers who are blissfully blind to their own mental illness and – here’s the rub – whose illness is useful to their community. This collusion likely contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and seals it in silence. It is time we ask ourselves how we impart subtle judgments and demands for perfection onto to each other. It is time we examine how we uphold each other’s frailties so that ours can be further served.

I do love the story Woody Allen tells voice-over at the end of Annie Hall (at least that’s my memory of the story): A psychiatrist’s patient says he has a brother who believes he’s a chicken and wants the psychiatrist to tell him what to do. The psychiatrist suggests the brother may benefit from treatment to rid him of the delusion that he’s a chicken. The patient is horrified: But, doc, then what would I do for eggs?

Once we cure ourselves of the delusion that Buddhism will make us happy and free from pain, what would we do for eggs?

The post by Justin Whitaker, On the Death of a Teacher: A Buddhist Teaching, is a recommended companion piece to this post.

 

playing fetch with the black dog: buddhism & depression

alium

It’s finally a sort of Spring here. I mean “sort of” in the sense that there is no clear delineation between the end of Winter and the start of Spring in the very best of years and it’s more than apparent this year. It would be nice to claim that this is some sort of growth in my awareness and hence degree of enlightenment. But it’s not. Spring just seems to saunter up the laneway and turn the corner to the rose garden, looking for all intent and purpose as if it had simply stepped out for a moment to fetch a pail or a trowel. And then looking shocked at the rampant growth of weeds and frost-withered daffodils.

DSC_0032Lady Spring not being the kind to hang around for the hard labour, Frank headed out into the swarm of mosquitoes and black flies to stave off the advances of the dandelions and their ilk. Two hours later I was summoned to check on his work; the greenery had become more undifferentiated in being flora or possible compost. I was astonished. The roses stood out in solitary splendour, the alium sat happily in their tangle mess of leaves and stems, the Buddha wore a half-necklace of chive – and all seemed perfectly right with the world.

There are moments like that these days. It wasn’t always so. I was deeply moved to read Justin Whitaker’s recent blog post on his journey through darkness. Justin writes about his dance with depression and it’s a worthy read for all of us who have taken long walks with the Black Dog. (Side note: if you Google “black dog of depression”, there are a number of fascinating hits.) Many of us know the pain, despair and devastation that can accompany depression and its cohorts of anxiety, phobias and self-harm. We have gone on voyages and pilgrimages to find cures, salves and resolutions to our pain. Some of us enter the path of Buddhism. Some of us meander, picking and choosing in the exact way that reinforces the clutches of helplessness and hopelessness because nothing can ever be a certainty or give assurance that the clouds will lift forever.

And some of us live in a strange oblivion, unaware of that beast dogging our heels or curled snugly against our chest as we lie in bed wishing the dawn away. Perhaps we notice a regret that we made it through the night and have to face another day of masked frailty. Perhaps we take deep breaths just before an exertion, mental or emotional. Perhaps we turn to Buddhism because it promises an end to suffering despite our insistence that we really cannot be suffering in this mud sty of materialist delight.

I don’t recall if I came to Psychology because I suffered or if I came to Buddhism because it was the best articulation of the psychology of mind and behaviour… and because I suffered from those tangles of mind and behaviour. There are so many memories of sitting in the library stacks researching schizophrenia because that could be the only explanation for the impossible reality I experienced. There was this moment of heart-rending insight when I learned that there was a name for what I experienced. It was called “impermanence.” Of course, there were a few nuances to that.

At a gathering of Burmese refugees, I was asked when I left Burma. 1965, I said. He looked at me perplexed. “1965? What was happening then?” In a single sentence, 35 years of exile were wiped away. I could appeal to no war, massacre, slaughter for having left with my parents who themselves bore witness to a range of subtle and overt forms of torture and torment. But it was there. Deep in my memories lay stories I overheard of people being taken away and returned broken in bone and spirit, visits to families left destitute because of changing loyalties and rampant paranoia. But it was 1965 and nothing was happening so I could not have been suffering.

The story could go on for a long while yet but it is little different from what Justin or others have shared. We twist and turn at the end of our perceptions of what it means to feel helpless and hopeless. In the end, however, we exhaust ourselves and become still – in body if not in mind.

What I really want to put out here in black-and-grey is that we tend to dismiss our birthright to suffering. We seek external validation for it and by doing so we fail to see the simple truth that we suffer. Never mind if there is a diagnosis (I’m not big on diagnoses). Never mind if there’s a label that makes it more communicable to health care providers and insurance providers. There’s a place for all that but all that has no place in turning around and sitting in front of that loyal black dog who is simply trying to do its job.

The practice of Buddhism in the face of mental health issues is to teach us to turn around and sit down. Wait for that experience to show up. Meet it with all the equanimity, fear, reservation and curiosity we can muster. It’s a tough scary call to practice but it is an irrevocable responsibility given the moment we first wailed.

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And some days then, we hear with profound clarity the burbling of the spring behind the house. We see the green in the banks of the brook. We smell the ploughed earth and the mown hay in the back field. We feel the soft fur of the animal at our feet, our own “soft animal body that loves what it loves.”¹ We taste the wild strawberry tucked under the lavender bush. And our mind flashes with realization, this is it. Just this.

We throw the ball and the black dog delights in playing fetch.

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¹”“Wild Geese” from Dream Work, copyright © 1986 by Mary Oliver.