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Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Times
By Dana Marsh
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Dana Marsh
All rights reserved.
Getting Out of the Pot
The parable of the boiling frog describes how researchers compared the responses of frogs in two different experiments. In the first scenario, researchers placed a frog into a pot of boiling water. Without hesitation and regardless of the water level, the frog immediately acted on instinct and jumped to safety. In the second scenario, a frog was put into a pot of water, but this time the water temperature began as comfortable and nonthreatening. Researchers then gradually raised the temperature and waited for the frog to realize it was in danger and take appropriate action. But this never happened. Although the frog displayed sporadic moments of pain and discomfort, it did nothing. It continued to endure, adapt, and withstand the intolerable environment. The frog became increasingly lethargic and less responsive until it died.
We too are often slowly boiled in the waters of conditioning, stress, anger, anxiety, worry, and fear and often don't know that our situation is dire. Instead of changing the way we live our lives, we continue, oblivious to the rising heat, until we meet our demise. Thankfully, if you are reading this book, you have noticed the heat and wish to jump out of the pot and into the cool waters of peace.
Your situation may not seem critical because the heat has been rising slowly. Sometimes it seems easier to stay with what we know rather than put forth the effort to venture into new territory. Staying in the pot seems okay; we really don't know that it will get hotter—or do we? We may think, If only I were a better swimmer, prettier, skinnier, more muscular, smarter, or a funnier frog, I could change my situation. So we swim around in the ever-warming pot, spending years trying to make ourselves better, worthy of life and love. As the temperature increases, we may start to worry and fret, complaining to everyone about the situation, blaming the universe for our troubles. We become lethargic, depressed, anxious, and hopeless, because no matter what we do, it doesn't seem to help. The temperature continues to rise even with all of our mental efforts to control the situation.
Does the water feel a little bit warm to you? Are you ready to jump, or do you prefer a new bathing suit so you can enjoy the Jacuzzi-like warmth of the pot?
You may ask, What do I do? How can I become happy if it is not through the material world? First, let me clarify that happiness is a shallow cousin to liberation. Happiness is a temporary state: it comes and goes based on what is happening in the world around us because it is dependent on conditions being the way we want them to be. We can be happy in the morning and sad by lunchtime. Liberation is independent of outer conditions; we are freed from negative states by unhooking ourselves from the chains of mental habits and habitual tendencies that bind us and make our lives difficult. When our minds are in turmoil, we can look within and we will find that we are resisting something. In other words, we want something—perhaps a thought, an emotion, or circumstance—to be different, to be like we want it to be.
This is the human condition; this is the source of our discontent. Of course it doesn't mean we shouldn't want things to be different than they are, but when we can't change life's circumstances and continue to pine for change, we increase the intensity of our discontent. It may even turn into powerful suffering. When we are unaware, thoughts and emotions form a groove in our consciousness and are replayed over and over again. In this case, habits rule us. However, when there is awareness, thoughts and emotions can arise and be seen for what they are, passing mental phenomena, and when not grasped, they don't leave a trace. Through awareness our lives are transformed. When encountering powerful emotions or negative circumstances, we may not overcome them, but we can learn to develop a nonacrimonious relationship with them. Mentally resisting our deep wounds seems to keep them more sensitive to the touch. By being willing to sit with the energy of what is arising, be it anger, sorrow, fear, or worry, we can come to find a place of peace and, hopefully, deep insight. If we don't hold onto expectations that life will get better or be different than it is right now, we might find moments of peace and joy arising in our consciousness.
To understand our lives, it helps to consider the culture we have been raised in and the assumptions we make about life itself. For example, in American culture in general, our most important values include wealth, prestige, individualism, material success, science and technology, and a strong work ethic, to name a few. Our focus is placed almost exclusively on the outer conditions of life—the material world. We try to manipulate the world to our whims, seeking something outside of us to fill us up and make our lives more meaningful. So we strive and work hard to capture the American dream. We are more centered on ourselves and our goals, with only a few, select people within our inner circle who receive the benefit of our efforts. "Every man for himself" seems like a plausible aphorism for life, but in reality, it hasn't worked out so well for us. There seems to be something missing in our lives that the material world can't give us.
Many people struggle with guilt for most of their lives and with regret at the end of their lives, wishing they could start over and do it all "right." Each of us will face the last moments of our lives with either regret or peace. Some of us will wait until the last minute to determine what is truly important, while others will consider this theme throughout their lives. Some may never get to the question at all, dying before they consider the lives they have lived. I'd like to suggest that we consider this question while we still have time to do so. In this way, we can make adjustments to our lives while we have sufficient energy and resources. Then we won't come to the end of our days filled with guilt and regret, but will feel that we have lived full and rich lives.
To find a reliable remedy for dissatisfaction, we will find help by looking at the lives of the great masters and saints of the past who spent quality time looking into themselves. They have all contributed to our understanding in different ways. Although these inspirational beings come from different traditions, the core of their insights are profoundly similar in nature. They found that in order to find meaning in life, we need to look inside ourselves. This is different than our normal approach of looking outward for something to bring meaning. It may even feel counterintuitive. Through looking at the landscape of our inner world, we will find the answers that we have been searching for in our outer experiences.
Carl Jung pointed out, "Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." When we take our focus away from the external world, even for a little while, and place it on the inner world, we will open the door to awaken to a new perspective, a new way of being in the world that is based on deep insight. In our everyday lives, we strive and struggle to gain comfort. Like greyhounds we chase after the ungraspable rabbit that is always just beyond our reach and are filled with a profound sense that we can't ever get enough. We live with a "wanting" mind, grasping for a bit more of this and a dab more of that. Indeed, our desire for material things is endless and dissatisfying. It is not too long after our desires are fulfilled that we find ourselves searching for something new. Our satisfaction is short-lived and lacks a sense of meaning. Although most of our basic needs are met, we may still find a subtle dissatisfaction lurking in the dark recesses of consciousness. We want people to change and situations to be different, and when this is the case, dissatisfaction has the tendency to manifest as anxiety, anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, false pride, and sorrow. It is easy to see how this dissatisfaction manifests in others and negatively impacts society.
Ultimately, we can't change anyone, no matter how good our intentions or how hard we try. So, the real work of our lives is completed by going within, because it is only ourselves that we can change. We can begin by examining our minds to see how we are the creators of our suffering. This may be obvious or more subtle and hard to see. It may take us some time to investigate our inner world to uncover the layers of habit energy, the force that drives us to react to what happens in our lives in a habitual fashion, and dissatisfaction that forms a veil blocking our view. Because we have not investigated our inner world, it may be difficult to see the coating of dissatisfaction lining the walls of all our experiences, like plaque built up on the walls of our arteries, slowly cutting off the vital flow of life energy. Beneath these layers of concepts, habits, and beliefs is a wellspring of joy, love, compassion, and wisdom.
Unless we take time to examine our lives, including our motivations, desires, attachments, and aversions, and see into their true nature, it will be quite difficult to get beyond a sense of lingering dissatisfaction or even downright suffering. Even when we seem to have everything, we may be caught in a web of dissatisfaction, spending a lot of hard work and money trying to alleviate it. It is easy to get caught up in the search for satisfaction in the wrong places as is seen in this anecdote entitled, An American Story.
A man goes to a doctor. "Doctor, I don't know what's wrong. I can't seem to stop worrying, I'm anxious, I can't sleep. I think I'm getting an ulcer ..."
The doctor nods. "You do look exhausted. What's the matter?"
Patient answers, "I don't know. I'm not sure."
Doctor says, "Then tell me something about your life."
The man brightens up considerably and smiles. "Oh, everything is great. We have the best life. Honestly. We live in our own three-bedroom, two-bath home in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs, drive two new cars, have closets full of good clothes. Our three kids go to private schools. We eat out a couple of nights a week, belong to the country club, and have a condo in the mountains for skiing. We had a great vacation last year in the Bahamas, and we're planning on going to Hawaii in two months."
The Doctor smiles, "My, that sounds wonderful!" the doctor says. "You have a wonderful life."
"Oh, we do, we do," the man says.
"Then what's your problem?" the Doctor asks.
The man shook his head. "Well, I'm not exactly sure. I think it might be that our income is only four hundred and sixty dollars a week."
As you can see from this anecdote, even though life seems to be going well, there is often a silent but persistent dissatisfaction or fear that lingers in the dark recesses of consciousness. If we don't recognize the cause of our anxiety, we won't have a chance to overcome it. This same inner conflict is occurring in each of us. We may have smothered it nicely with hard work, hard play, and material success; however, the lack of satisfaction and the exhaustion from striving sometimes sneak up on us, and we find that we really aren't satisfied with our lives. If we have gained some wisdom, we do not look to blame others for the predicament in which we find ourselves. Instead, we look at what is going on within us.
Turning attention inward allows us to see where we are hooked and what habits contribute to being hooked. We are able to gain insight simply being with the experience of those moments without reacting to them. It allows us to see past our preconceptions and instead interact with what is behind our habits. In this way, we learn how to live in a peaceful and joyful way rather than with strife and unhappiness or maybe even downright misery. In fact, we may find the desire to go beyond the cycle of dissatisfaction. No one likes to feel miserable; we all want to be happy. I've heard this statement many times from various sources, so I conducted a survey with those within my meditation community. It was an anonymous survey of sorts. After their eyes were closed, I asked each of them to raise their right hand and hold their fingers in fist. I then asked everyone who wanted to be happy to raise one finger. Guess what? They all raised a finger. Thankfully, they were all very polite and raised their index finger, and not one of them chose unhappiness over happiness. It was a small sample, but I think we can safely say that everyone wants to be happy.
The American dream of working hard and finding success is part of our conditioning. As we grow up we are conditioned, either overtly or covertly, into accepting the premise of our culture. In fact, this mentality goes well beyond the borders of the United States; we can see this conditioning in many places. We have come to believe that if we are able to fulfill this dream, we will be happy and live a meaningful life. The 1950's in America was a time of hard work and material gain, and those who have grown up in America since have been influenced by this materialistic culture. Yet we are less happy now with a higher rate of suicide, drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness, which seems contradictory to our wealthy, industrialized, and free country.
Although Americans have relatively good lives (most of us have enough food to eat, a roof over our heads, and good health), as a society we are still dissatisfied. Not only are we unhappy, but in our attempts to become happier, we have multiplied our difficulties by seeking happiness outside of ourselves. Buying into materialism, we have sought the gods, not of conventional religion like Catholicism, but other isms like, commercialism, materialism, and alcoholism. We aren't bad people and it is not that material things are bad either; they just don't provide us with what we seek long term. In fact, they can even become an overwhelming burden when we have to care for them, repair and clean them, or even worse, move them somewhere else. We just don't know how to find happiness and peace without these things.
As a school teacher, I can tell you that we don't place an emphasis in schools on how to live. Generally, we don't teach that happiness is found inside of us. Instead, we place our emphasis on what to get. Get your education, get your diploma, get good grades, and get a job. Once youngsters graduate from high school, society emphasizes: get married, get pregnant, then get the kids out of the house, and have a good retirement full of travel and play, and so it goes. During our lifetime, we often aren't lucky enough to find even a single person to tell us to stop trying to get something and sit down and rest.
I was fortunate enough to stumble upon such a person several years ago, and that chance encounter changed my life. It was like one of those moments you see in a movie when the clouds slightly part and rays of light shine down upon the earth, and you just know something wonderful is going to happen. The clouds, in this case, weren't the ones in the sky; instead, they were the ones in my own mind that had obscured my joy and happiness for as long as I can remember. During my first meditation retreat, it felt like I was coming home, not to my parents' house, but back to myself. It was an experience without equal. I know this sounds pretty fanciful, but how can anyone adequately explain the beauty of the experience of sitting on the beach and watching the sun set, or the taste of cheesecake with strawberries on top, or how it feels to hold your newborn baby? Maybe poets come closest to being able to describe such things, but they are still light years away from the description of a moment of insight, a dropping away of the veil that blinds us to the truth of this perfect moment. Even if I could describe this experience perfectly, the small (confused) mind would have a tendency to distort it and misunderstand even the description. It is not until we experience this coming home for ourselves that we truly understand, that we really know the experience. Already I have made this sound mystical (you see how tricky language is). However, the experience of coming back to ourselves is not mystical as much as it is transformative and liberating.
Excerpted from Extraordinary Freedom by Dana Marsh. Copyright © 2014 Dana Marsh. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Getting Out of the Pot, 1,
Chapter 2 A Rare and Precious Opportunity, 15,
Chapter 3 Freedom from the Jail of Thoughts, 25,
Chapter 4 Healing the Cancer of Delusion, 35,
Chapter 5 Adversity Is Not the Problem, 43,
Chapter 6 Tea with My Teachers, 55,
Chapter 7 An Unencumbered Life, 65,
Chapter 8 No I in You, 73,
Chapter 9 Dive into the Ocean of Love, 81,
Chapter 10 It's Enough!, 89,
Chapter 11 Living with an Awakened Heart, 101,
Chapter 12 The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, 111,