Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Death Through Inattention

So whenever you feel driven by a compulsive, destructive urge, don’t analyze it; don’t talk about it; don’t dwell on it. Turn your attention away from it by throwing yourself into work for others. It can starve the desire away.
--Eknath Easwaran

Eknath Easwaran
says that just as houseplants need water, fertile soil, and careful tending to thrive, so many of our psychological problems and cravings require our attention to live. If we turn our attention to serving others, our problems and cravings and the suffering they produce will often wither and die.

I don’t know if this is true. It sounds too simple to be true in this age of sophisticated psychological understanding of the human mind and condition. Many would say that trying not to think of something unpleasant or harmful merely suppresses it in a way that makes it stronger and more problematic. But I can see how contemplating and analyzing it could also strengthen it by nourishing it with one’s prolonged attention when that attention could be directed to other, more productive matters.

Perhaps it depends on how we stop thinking about it. If we do it in a fearful, angry, or rigid way, we may make matters worse. If we do it with a kind of gentle firmness supported by a consistent spiritual or integral practice, it might do more good than harm.

Perhaps this is a matter for psychological study. Perhaps psychological studies have been done that show which approach is best for dealing with unwanted thoughts, emotions, and cravings. I’m sure such studies have been done, although I doubt that their results are definitive and universally applicable. I would like to do an informal study of my own by trying what Easwaran proposes and seeing what happens.


Jess said...

I think what it does is allows you a distance from whatever problem you have. It allows you at times to get outside yourself and put things into proper perspective. As you know my situation, we can use that as the example. It actually makes me feel much better to help someone else when I am feeling low or attending my pity party for one, because it allows me time to get away from my own problem. Doesn't take it away or anything, just gives me a little break from all I find myself worrying about if I get into "what if" conversations with myself. I think the more you dwell on things, the larger they become for you, it can sometimes be unmanageable and overwhelming at points. I love the saying "that which does not kill you makes you stronger", or something to that effect. I think it all goes back to being aware of the state you are in and being mindful not to hurt yourself with negative thoughts. You don't gain anything by worrying about things.

Nagarjuna said...

Jess, one could argue that you can't get a good perspective on a problem unless you give it your undivided attention. That is, the way out of a problem is not by directing your mind away from it but by doing the Buddhist thing and being completely mindful of everything about it. "The way out is through." This is not "dwelling" on the problem in the ineffectual way characteristic of most of us, but using skillful means to relax its hold over us.

Yet, perhaps there's more than one effective way to handle things, and perhaps Easwaran's way of taking the focus of your mind away from certain kinds of problems and aiming it at selflessly serving others actually works. However, it's important to bear in mind that this approach is probably best carried out within the context of a stable and powerful spiritual practice. Easwaran's practice has eight interlocking elements.

I'm glad that it's been helpful to you to turn outward and help others when the "pity party" engendered by turning inward seems to help no one. You speak with the hard-won voice of experience that most of us will, hopefully, never have but which all of us can benefit from hearing. Hint, hint. :-)