Category Archives: Uncertainty

Open to Failure, Open to Happiness

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camel

The Buddha told his followers to use their own eyes and make up their own minds, rather than slavishly adhere to his teachings. So a certain degree of “prove it to me” attitude is warranted. That desire to see for ourselves, though, can easily turn into a form of skepticism that prevents us from trying new things and, thereby, discovering whether they are good for our practice or not.

It is difficult to expose ourselves to the possibility of failure. Forget failure – we can be afraid just to take a chance that things may not turn out as good as we had hoped, even if the results are really a success by any standard. Our happiness is contingent upon achieving results that may not actually be attainable. No wonder we are so miserable.

What is the solution? I can say from plenty of past experience that there is no easy remedy to a lifetime spent reinforcing such thinking. The remedy is slow, gradual. It involves “opening your eyes” to the reality of your circumstances. In other words, lean on your mindfulness practice to see things as they really are. Question the “reality” we have woven, the one in which we are unhappy failures. Are there really no positives in our present conditions, no sources of happiness and strength?

Identifying just one beneficial aspect of our current circumstances is a start. It exposes the lie we have woven that our lives are miserable and that happiness is unattainable. If there is one thing worth being happy about, then there must be two. And three things. And four things. Eventually, we come to recognize our carefully constructed “reality” as a massive fiction that we have crafted, and then the floodgates open.

When we close ourselves off to avoid experiencing the things we perceive as negative and unpleasant, we also shut out the things we consider positive and pleasant. We cannot experience what is beneficial to our lives unless we are open to the possibility of encountering things that don’t feel so good.

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Stuck in a Moment

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Man Sitting In Valley

A recent blog post by Wray Herbert describes sunk-cost bias as “the tendency to persist with an endeavor once we’ve made an investment of money or time or effort.” He paints it in a negative light, calling it an “irrational” behavior.

I get what he’s talking about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve put up with an unhappy situation as if there were no alternative. Part hopelessness, part fear of change (even if just about any change would be an improvement), part stubbornness (“No one’s going to make me do something against my will…”).

This may be an instance of painting with too broad a brush, though. Sometimes, even when we are suffering and a situation is far less than ideal, there are good reasons for remaining right where we are, continuing to do the exact same thing. We may know that things will get better soon. We may believe that the intolerable situation we’re experiencing is worth it to achieve a goal we consider important.

I’ll give you an example. My first marriage, for all practical purposes, was over after about a dozen years. It would be 18 years, though, before we divorced. Some of those intervening years were among the most painful of my life. If I had physically left the marriage after 12 years, though, I never would have experienced the final three years. During that time, we attended marriage counseling, where we discovered that, ultimately, we did not wish to save the marriage. In the process, though, we worked out most of the issues that had undermined our marriage. Consequently, as we worked through the particulars of the divorce and chafed at the shackles of trying to sell our home in the wake of the 2008 housing market collapse, we rediscovered the friendship that had brought us together in the first place. We also gave our daughter a lasting image of her parents as friends, rather than as mortal enemies and screaming lunatics. Tough as those years were, I wouldn’t go back and redo any of them.

Mr. Herbert points to mindfulness as the solution to the inertia of sunk-cost bias. I’d amplify that notion, though, to say that mindfulness allows us to discriminate between the moments when we are being irrationally anchored to a painful experience and the times when the best course is to stay put. Sticking out an unpleasant situation is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes the right thing for us and those around us.

The teachings I have received as a Buddhist also remind me that change is always occurring – in fact, change is an immutable part of existence. Which means that no situation is permanent, no specific form of suffering unending.

In dire times I remember the words of a Sufi poet, “This too shall pass,” as well as those of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And then a song by U2, “Stuck in a Moment,” starts playing in my head. I sing along and the present situation seems less dark, less inevitable.

I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool
But darling, look at you. Ooh.
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
‘Cause tears are going nowhere baby

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

I will not forsake the colors that you bring
The nights you filled with fireworks
They left you with nothing
I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me
I listen through your ears
Through your eyes I can see

You are such a fool to worry like you do.. Oh
I know it’s tough and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now
My, oh my

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh love, look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh lord look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment  and you cant get out of it

I was unconscious, half asleep
The water is warm ’til you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass

It’s just a moment
This time will pass

I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Fear of the unknown

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“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

A recent sports story involving Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel intrigues me. The key parts of the story are, as I understand them:

  1. he was notified a year ago that some of his players, including the team’s star quarterback. may have violated NCAA rules by selling their team-related memorabilia
  2. he chose at that time not to report what he had been told or to otherwise act on it, perhaps because he feared the players would be suspended, undermining a season in which many were predicting Ohio State would win the national title
  3. the possible violations were ultimately revealed and the players were suspended for several games, at which time he claimed not to have been previously aware of the situation, and
  4. more recently the whole story came to light, Tressel was fined and suspended by Ohio State, and likely faces additional fines and suspension from the NCAA.

I don’t pretend to understand why Jim Tressel chose not to pass that initial tip along to Ohio State’s compliance officer right away, but the situation has the ring of familiarity. Who knows what the effect on the team’s chances might have been if Tressel had reported what he knew right away? It is certain, however, that the ramifications would have been far less than they will ultimately be—a multi-game suspension and $250,000 fine for Tressel, both of which will likely be augmented by the NCAA, and possibly sanctions for the university itself (voided wins, lost scholarships, and so on). The delusion that this potentially bad situation would simply disappear if he ignored it has already cost Tressel over a quarter of a million dollars of his own money (when you factor in lost salary during the suspension) and his reputation.

How many times do we choose to ignore potentially bad news because we are afraid of what we may find out if we acknowledge it? The simple answer, I think, is “a lot.” Maybe everyday.

Warning signs flash all around us—a rattling in our car, a pain in a limb, constant fatigue, a child’s declining grades. All too often, my inclination is to look away and hope that, when my attention drifts back in that direction, the offending omens will have vanished. But they almost never do. The rattling becomes a seized engine. The pain becomes a heart attack. The fatigue becomes metastatic cancer. The falling grades become an arrest for under-age drinking.

I knew someone who, for years and years, hardly ever went to the doctor. He had a relatively minor ailment that he was scared was something very serious, and refused to discuss it with his doctor. Then he was rushed to the hospital in pain and, in the span of one weekend, he was gone. Turns out, had he received treatment for the ailment any time in the last few years, he would still be alive. He feared that he might be seriously ill, and in fear he tried to hide from his imagined illness.

Worse yet, I think I had an inkling that he was ill, and said nothing. Maybe I was hoping it would just go away, afraid to find out that he might be sick; that if I asked, then he might tell me he was dying.

Pema Chödrön is so wonderfully reassuring on this topic, her most recent book being Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. As did her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Pema speaks of awakening bodhicitta and becoming “warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world.” Bodhicitta (or bodhichitta), as I understand it, is tantamount to our inherent ability to love, our deep-seated need to love in order to realize our Buddha nature, our overpowering compassion for all living beings. Bodhicitta is at the heart of the bodhisattva way of life, a life devoted to achieving enlightenment in order to ease the suffering of others.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, Pema writes: “A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty.”

In other words, hiding is a delusion; it is not actually possible. When we try to hide, we do not manage to avoid contact with illness, accidents, discomfort, painful emotions, or unpleasant situations.

The only things we actually avoid—in the process of trying to hide from our fear—are opportunities to show love and compassion to others, the kind of contact we most desperately need.