27 August 2008

Buddhism vs. the Visceral Response

The minute you read about mindfulness, or some other super practical aspect of Buddhist practice, you know in your gut that it just makes sense. It may even seem that it explains your life. Buddhism is just sensible and accessible, especially modern expositions on it. You don’t have to “suspend disbelief” or perform mental contortions to be able to relate to it. It’s as if someone had dug down into the dark recesses of human experience - including all the things we kind of know but don’t fully want to know - and wrote it down, or spoke about it. It’s like turning a light on.

But in actual experience, in the business we all have of being alive - or wanting to be – in each moment of every day, the teachings of Buddhism are relentlessly, even viscerally, counter-intuitive. So that in the course of years of practice we may discover many of the same things over and over again. We may learn something, we may think we’re ‘done’ with it, but then we carry on with the task of incorporating it at successively deeper and deeper levels.

Spiritual practice is about the Herculean but somehow satisfying task of translating the realities of thought and word into deed. In attempting it we are confronting the ongoingly challenging task of expressing what we already know through our way of living in each moment. Our practice functions not to teach us new things ‘from the outside,’ but simply to remind us what we want to be doing. It reminds us to apply what we know to countless knee-jerk responses. It also somehow helps us do it.

The teachings, among other things, tell us to open up to the momentary and the abiding trials of everyday life, of every-moment life. But our gut doesn’t want us to do this, or at least our gut often doesn’t act enthused. We have to learn the thing over and over again. We have to have a thousand of the same Ah-ha moments. Maybe not a thousand. Maybe only 10. But I enjoy having them.

(Image of Manjusri from LA County Museum of Art.)

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