Monday, March 9, 2009

Serenity Now

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.

King Lear

Reading Judith Warner's latest column brought to mind Chekhov's haunting novella "Ward Six" (the ultimate there-but-for-the-grace-of-God story for psychiatrists). Warner muses on the (around these parts) contemporary craze for mindfulness, which has seeped into a good deal of the psychotherapy literature by now.

Warner frets, with a telling lack of complete mindfulness, that implacable attention to "the moment," and the remorseless casting aside of any concern that could be viewed as petty or as a potential distraction from the pursuit of Mindfulness, could have the effect of making one somewhat inhuman, or what would be worse, boring. And to the truly mindful, having to tolerate (relatively mindless) family members and (ex?)friends could be like the recovering alcoholic having to sit through beer commercials. She postulates that being human may involve being a bit "ragged" from time to time.

As a non-Buddhist but one long fascinated by that mindset, these wry concerns ring true. If I understand Buddhism correctly, the source of all suffering is desire; one follows surely from the other--extinguish desire and, one, hopes, relieve suffering. But given that, as Buddhist monks ably demonstrate, all we absolutely need is a cell, a robe, water, and bread, what justification can there be for maintaining further desires at all? If thy eye offend thee...Of course, desire (and I'm not talking (just) about a new Lexus here, but desire for family closeness, world peace, whatever) is also arguably one's reason for living. That offensive eye provides vision; if it doesn't, maybe it should indeed go, as should desire if it no longer justifies life.

The Buddhist move is much like the colloquial philosophical move of "the grand scheme of things." We do this all the time to maintain perspective in life. A guy cuts me off in traffic--is it ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, worth it to me to murder him? "Don't sweat the small stuff," we say. The problem with this as a general move is that from the standpoint of the universe, nothing we do or care about matters. In the grandest scheme possible, the earth vanishes in five minutes--doesn't matter.

No, things matter at all only in a contingent way and according to how we happen to be constituted as conscious animals with a long evolutionary history. For our own individual and social well-being we somehow manage, singularly and consensually, to work out what "really" matters. But it may be unwise to say that this happens primarily as the work of the solitary, determined, and mindful self. It is a spiritual project, and one that culture ought to refine and not coarsen.

All this reminded me of Stoicism, Chekhov and "Ward Six." The doctor is trying to convince a skeptical patient of that Greek wisdom:

"There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this ward," said Andrey Yefimitch. "A man's peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself."

"What do you mean?"

"The ordinary man looks for good and evil in external things--that is, in carriages, in studies--but a thinking man looks for it in himself."

"You should go and preach that philosophy in Greece, where it's warm and fragrant with the scent of pomegranates, but here it is not suited to the climate. With whom was it I was talking of Diogenes? Was it with you?"

"Yes, with me yesterday."

"Diogenes did not need a study or a warm habitation; it's hot there without. You can lie in your tub and eat oranges and olives. But bring him to Russia to live: he'd be begging to be let indoors in May, let along December. He'd be doubled up with the cold."

Let the storms of life rage! The mind cares not, nestled as it is in its dark, moist womb of bone. Ah, high-maintenance humanity, both cursed and blessed with a limbic system and a midbrain, not to mention everything from the neck down...I would say that as a society we show little sign yet of becoming morbidly mindful.

1 comment:

Retriever said...

Funny piece she wrote...It's always been practiced by friends and acquaintances of mine who look severely at me and say "R, you should try being SILENT for once..."
Had an old boss who was an RC nun who used to make us all meditate half an hour before work every day and I would spend the whole time twitching like a racehorse ready to run, making lists of what I had to do, planning out the next lesson, etc.
I think the problem most American dabblers in mindfulness have is that they expect great things from Buddhism lite. I suspect that to truly benefit, one should go be a celibate novice in a monastery for a few years, be a disciple of a teacher, live ascetically.
Having said that, very fond myself of Pema Chodron, the teachings at Kripalu (not that weird former abusive exswami of theirs tho), Jon Kabat Zinn, and don't forget how many DBT has helped (mindfulness can be therapeutic)