Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Relaxing Our Grip

Each day is a little life; every waking and rising a little birth; every fresh morning a little youth; every going to rest and sleep a little death.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

My grandmother, my spiritual teacher, used to tell me that the pain we associate with the great change called death arises from our innumerable selfish attachments. One day she illustrated this in a simple way by asking me to sit in a chair and hold tight to the arms. Then she tried to pull me out of the chair. She tugged and pulled at me, and I held on tight. It was painful. She was a strong person, and even though I held on with all my strength, she pulled me out.

Then she told me to sit down again, but this time not to hold on anywhere, just to get up and come to her when she called. With ease I got out of the chair and went to her. This, she told me, is how to overcome the fear and pain of death. When we hold onto things – houses, cars, books, guitars, our antique silver teapot – we get attached and tied down.
--Eknath Easwaran

Eknath Easwaran is one of my favorite writers about spirituality. One major reason for this is his ability to illustrate abstract ideas with concrete and clear examples. Sometimes I think his ideas and illustrations may be too simple and that spiritual practice is not largely about meditating only by silently reciting sacred passages to oneself or about dispelling distracting thoughts and emotions by silently chanting an ancient mantram to oneself. Yet, there is something about his teaching that rings true to me, or, at least, true enough to incorporate within a broader and deeper understanding and approach to spiritual or integral practice.

Today's "thought for the day" is certainly no exception. Indeed, it seems uncommonly clear and compelling, even if it raises more questions than it answers. For, on the one hand, it seems indisputably true that so much suffering in this life comes from clinging to our possessions and loved ones such that we live in constant anxiety and fear of losing them or ache with the pain of having lost them. On the other hand, when we truly care about something, is it not natural and even desirable to do what we can to keep it alive and healthy or within our possession, or to mourn when we lose it?

I worry about losing my TV, books, car, computer, house, cats, friends, family, and wife someday, and I can only imagine how anxious I'd be about the possibility of losing my children, if I had any, to drugs, disease, accident, or crime. But if I didn't feel this concern, would I take appropriate steps to guard against these losses? Can I take appropriate steps without being motivated to do it by anxiety, fear, and a certain kind and amount of clinging?

The great sages seem to say not only that we can, but that we must if we're to know the joy and peace that surpasses understanding and know heaven either in this life or the next. But I still don't understand how it works. Maybe I don't need to. Maybe I just need to do what sages like Easwaran suggest, and someday I'll understand all I need to know, like the man in the Buddhist parable who removes the poisoned arrow from his body and lives, even if he never knows who made the arrow or shot him with it.

And perhaps I need to begin by relaxing my grip on the chair.


counter mag said...

Here's a better way. You probably won't like it because it is the white man's way, but try seizing life by he balls and participating joyfully in the sorrows of the world, instead of trying to detach yourself in illusion and safety. It takes a much more integral spirituality to accept life on its own terms than to try to detach from its pain, for if you cannot suffer pain, neither will you suffer pleasure.

Jess said...

Countermag 12:34
While I agree with the seizing of life, sometimes I think it is okay to detach from pain and troubles for small amounts of time. Believe me, it can overwhelm you at times to where you don't think you can go on. The only thing that saves some people is detaching temporarily from that which troubles them. Almost just taking a step back to look in from a comfortable distance to sort things out in your head. I have been there more than once this year for one reason or another and for me personally it makes sense to do that. I totally agree with the thought that if you cannot suffer pain you won't know how to suffer pleasure.

Nagarjuna said...

"try seizing life by the balls and participating joyfully in the sorrows of the world, instead of trying to detach yourself in illusion and safety."

What is the "illusion" from which I'm trying to "detach" myself?

"It takes a much more integral spirituality to accept life on its own terms than to try to detach from its pain, for if you cannot suffer pain, neither will you suffer pleasure.

Two points. First, as I understand it, integral spirituality, as Ken Wilber and various other sages describe it, is an approach in which "non-attachment" to rather than "detachment" from the phenomena of consciousness or life is precisely what empowers us to become most fully engaged with life. Thus, it is the anxiety and fear that most of us experience from clinging to life and its phenonema that stifles our full and exuberant engagement with life.

But the question that keeps coming to mind is: How does one become "non-attached" without becoming attached to non-attachment? What this would often seem to boil down to, in worldly practice, is the effort to continue clinging to life and the things we value in life without suffering the pitfalls of clinging.

Second, Buddhists, psychotherapists, and many others would suggest that there is appropriate and necessary pain and suffering from which we shouldn't try to escape, and inappropriate and unnecessary pain and suffering generated by "irrational" or misguided thoughts and other wayward internal conditions that we can control to varying degrees and thereby empower ourselves to experience life--its pleasures and necessary displeasures--without throwing needless displeasure into the mix.