Monday, June 7, 2010

The Buddha at Work - "Why are you Unhappy?"

Blog Posting taken from

Oh, David Whyte, I am hooked.

I've been listening to his latest CD collection, What to Remember When Waking, mesmerized by his mellifluous accent. For me, the best part of listening to Whyte is the anticipation I feel while waiting for him to drop the next poetic bomb. I've never studied poetry, and so my poetic vocabulary is quite limited. Whyte is responsible for introducing me to Mary Oliver, to Marina Tsvetaeva, to Yeats, to Wordsworth, to Rilke and Machado, and even to Dickinson and Eliot. But I don't know if I'll ever forgive him for constantly kicking my butt through poetry.

Yesterday I got to hear him talk about the English poet Wei Wu Wei (born Terence Gray) and his poem, Why Are You Unhappy?

Why are you unhappy?

Because 99.9 per cent

Of everything you think,

And of everything you do,

Is for yourself -

And there isn't one.

Well, that sounds pretty clear. There isn't one. If you're reading this blog, you've probably heard of non-self. Wei Wu Wei says in the same book:

We do not possess an 'ego'.

We are possessed by the idea of one.

Here's Whyte's explanation:

"He means there isn't a self that will survive a real conversation. That whatever self you manufacture only out of your own recognizances, will not survive contact with anything other than itself. The only way it will survive is for you to create a hermetically sealed world, a world where nothing affects you from the outside. Nothing anything says, nothing anyone does changes you from your fixed belief in what you're about, and how you see things, and how the game is played. But as soon as you turn outward, as soon as you start to see that other people are actually alive, and have a life that might have very little to do with you, unless you actually inquired about it, that they may represent sources of energy and power, and currencies in the world for which you have no exchange inside yourself, but which you can actually learn from, and through which you can actually enter other worlds."

What that says to me is that "self" is merely a concept, but a concept that we cling to desperately. What might happen when we cling desperately to our idea of a fixed self? "People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies," Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us. But "as soon as we turn outward," we open up to other possibilities and other forms of communication; we recognize our interdependence, and it allows for much more than in our hermetically-sealed bubble.

Here's Thay, quoted in an interview in Shambhala Sun:

Thich Nhat Hanh: To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you. All meditation exercises are aimed at bringing you back to your true home, to yourself. Without restoring your peace and calm and helping the world to restore peace and calm, you cannot go very far in the practice.

Melvin McLeod: What is the difference between this true self, the self you come home to, and how we normally think of ourselves?

Thich Nhat Hanh: True self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements. There's no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.

Melvin McLeod: What happens to you when you realize that the true nature of the self is non-self?

Thich Nhat Hanh: It brings you insight. You know that your happiness and suffering depend on the happiness and suffering of others. That insight helps you not to do wrong things that will bring suffering to yourself and to other people. If you try to help your father to suffer less, you have a chance to suffer less. If you are able to help your son suffer less, then you, as a father, will suffer less. Thanks to the realization that there is no separate self, you realize that happiness and suffering are not individual matters. You see the nature of interconnectedness and you know that to protect yourself you have to protect the human beings around you.

That is the goal of the practice--to realize non-self and interconnectedness. This is not just an idea or something you understand intellectually. You have to apply it to your daily life. Therefore you need concentration to maintain this insight of non-self so it can guide you in every moment. Nowadays, scientists are able to see the nature of non-self in the brain, in the body, in everything. But what they have found doesn't help them, because they cannot apply that insight to their daily lives. So they continue to suffer. That is why in Buddhism we speak of concentration. If you have the insight of non-self, if you have the insight of impermanence, you should make that insight into a concentration that you keep alive throughout the day. Then what you say, what you think, and what you do will then be in the light of that wisdom and you will avoid making mistakes and creating suffering.

Yesterday I was speaking with a lawyer about a potential deal and he presented a point of view that was contrary to something I'd proposed. My initial inclination was a rigid defense of my ideas; I had a fixed idea of what was right for me, and what I needed in order to make the deal work. But as he calmly explained his reasoning, my hermetic seal broke open and I started to notice that what I'd proposed wasn't really fair, nor was it something that would really work for myself and the other party.

I quickly went from a defensive position--"you're out to screw me over"--to seeing the possibility for collaboration and win-win in our dealmaking. Had I insisted on my point of view, I might have "won" my negotiation, but ultimately at what cost? We have yet to close a deal, but I'm now exploring it from a place of understanding our interconnectedness. If we're to make a deal, I'll need to help everyone involved if I want to have any happiness for myself. The alternative would have been a one-sided imaginary win, as though my view of reality was completely independent of anyone else's existence.

Of course, this concept goes way beyond a single deal; how I choose to get to work may lead to buying gas in a way that leads to a gigantic oil spill, the obliteration of species and thousands of miles of natural beauty, with a million interactions along the way. I can imagine that my only real concern is my convenience, and choose to deny the effect my consumption has on the climate and the environment. There might even be a short-term win there, but eventually it comes back to bite me.

So the trick, then, is to train ourselves, to remember our interdependence, our interconnectedness, and to be willing to break open the hermetic seal of our rigid idea of self.

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