Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Line 3: Seeing through life's illusions

A prayer may give expression to a deep longing, a difficult transition, a cherished ideal, a powerful truth or any number of other facets of spiritual practice. In this translation, the third line reads:

Send me energy to see through life's illusions.

First a note on this translation. The Tibetan is a bit indirect. Translated literally, into English syntax, it might read:

Send me energy for futility to be born in my continuum.

In this context continuum is synonymous with mind. The word is used to bring out the continuity of experience/awareness. 

Why would you pray for futility to arise in your experience? The futility here is the futility of samsaric existence. In the West, our understanding of samsara has been distorted by the influence of the German Romantics. As a consequence, many people associate samsara with the urban, the technical, the industrial, and nirvana or enlightenment with nature, with beauty unspoiled by human touch. This is a naive and mistaken interpretation. Samsaric existence refers to a life based in emotional reactions, a life in which one bounces from one emotional reaction to another, a life of utter futility. Awakening, or one dimension of awakening, is about freedom from the tyranny of emotional reactions. 

The line in the prayer refers to what is usually translated as renunciation. The word renunciation, because of its place in Western religious teaching, puts the emphasis on turning one's back on the world. In the Buddhist context the emphasis is on being resolute about one's spiritual calling (which, in turn, may lead you to turn your back on the world). That calling is based in the feeling or the perception (or both) that for you what conventional life has to offer is inherently unsatisfactory and illusory. In Theory of Truth Robinson Jeffers puts it this way:

Man is an animal like other animals, wants food and success and 
women, not truth. Only if the mind 
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness: 
then it hates its life-cage and seeks further, 
And finds, if it is powerful enough.

Not exactly the high-minded sentiments expressing the nobility of the spiritual life extolled in the Tibetan tradition. A little reductionist, too. But a meaty enough description of what, at bottom, impels many who seek answers to life's questions: for whatever reason life as it is presented to us is inherently unsatisfactory and we, as Robinson Jeffers says, seek further. 

But to let go of our habitual ways of engaging with life is not so easy. To do so, we train to take notice of what is often ignored, namely, that we live in the paradox of mortality: we are, without doubt, going to die, but we have no idea when. Certainty on the one hand, uncertainty on the other. The Great Matter of Life and Death, as they say in the Zen tradition. Life looks different in the face of death and the vast expanses of time before and after our lives. The prospect of death strips away many of the illusions we have about life and helps us to see clearly, free of the distortion of emotional reactions.

Again, Shelley says it well in his sonnet Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said-"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

What are life's illusions? The illusion that we have an unchanging, independent identity; the illusion that we can control what happens to us, that we can control what we experience, that we can control our fate; the illusion of triumph and disaster, the illusion of love and hate, of gain and loss, and on and on. However, it would be better for you to call to mind the aspects of life that you have learned are illusory, or at least, not what they seemed to be when they were first presented to you, the aspects of life that have left you disenchanted and, can we say, disillusioned?

Disillusionment is crucial. We only have so much time and energy and we have to decide how to use them. This kind of motivation flies in the face of the utilization of spiritual methods to improve our lives, whether through enhanced functioning or psychological healing. These approaches just reinforce the notions that we can control what we experience, find the ideal connection and community, strengthen and solidify our sense of who and what we are, etc. When we feel a calling to know life more deeply, how to improve our lives is not our principal concern. In fact, it is not a concern at all and we are prepared (or need to be prepared) to follow our calling wherever it takes us, whatever it brings us.

A conceptual disillusionment, though, is not sufficient. Something has to take hold inside, and this, again, is where prayer comes in.

A good prayer, that is, a prayer that is good for you, is one that gives expression to your own heart's yearning or one that puts you in touch with the dilemmas that haunt your life. If a prayer doesn't express something that is your own, it must  at least express something that you want and can make your own. How that comes about is a bit of a mystery. Sometimes, a prayer acts like a great bell -- each line resonates with something in you and sets those parts of you ringing. Sometimes, however, you have to experience something in your own life before those lines resonate in you. Without that resonance, there is the possibility that you may simply be trying to instill an idea, a sentiment, that you don't really feel. In Hamlet, Claudius, trying to repent of the murder of his brother, says of his prayers:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

One of the reason why many people find it difficult to pray, I think, is that it is frightening to acknowledge and embrace the aspirations, the inspirations, the truths or the dilemma held in the core of our being and to give them expression in prayer. We feel naked, exposed, with nowhere to hide, not even from ourselves. 

In fact, I often have the feeling that some practitioners use meditation as an end-run around prayer and its emotional challenges. They use meditation as a way to feel that they are giving expression to what they are seeking without really touching the place inside from which that seeking arises. Meditation and prayer are intimately related and I think quite a few practitioners might find their meditation practice different -- clearer and less of a struggle -- if they spent more time touching directly what is in their hearts, giving that verbal and physical expression in whatever ways are appropriate (prayer, song, dance, movement, recitation, etc.), and then sitting down to meditate. 

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