Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I’m moving away from the practice of Buddhism as “nirvana”, as permanent and total release from suffering. I’m moving toward the practice of Buddhism is “resilience”, as (1) the capacity to tolerate an inevitable amount of pain and suffering; (2) the capacity to mitigate suffering and its effects on our lives; (2) the capacity to use the experience of suffering to generate compassion for self and others; (3) the capacity to transform suffering into psychic and spiritual growth, i.e. wisdom, and (4) the capacity to reduce the amount of pain and suffering in the self and the world by creating more just and compassionate social processes, creating well-being and resilience for all.
I am using the traditional Buddhist dharma of the Four Noble Truths, reinterpreting these teachings as a practice of resilience:
there is suffering: recognize the full reality of suffering in one’s life and the world
the root of suffering: understand the many forms of suffering and how they’re generated
the ending of suffering: as a regular practice and process that promotes resilience and spiritual growth
the path to the end of suffering: the eight-fold path that requires
This model moves away from the original and traditional Buddhist teaching of “nirvana”, which is the complete and permanent cessation of suffering in all its forms (with or without ‘bodily remainder’). It is a modernist re-interpretation of the dharma that responds to the conditions of the individual and society today.
Traditional Buddhist practice privileges “non-conceptual” mental states, silence and stillness as essential to the practice of obtaining nirvana. This model values knowledge, both conceptual and experiential, communication as a means of understanding and promoting resilience, and action to create cultures and economies of resilience.
Traditional Buddhist teaching is primarily focused on individual release and nirvana; this model acknowledges the primacy of the individual but incorporates the collective causes and conditions of both individual and collective suffering and well-being.
I started moving toward this model when one day, pretty much out of the blue, I had a flash of insight of the “eight-fold path to the well-being society”, which I would now call the eight-fold path to the resilient society. After that initial flash of insight, I didn’t feel ready to go into the details of how to flesh that out, so I just let it sit for a while. And then one morning, several months later, it just started coming to mind and I began writing it down.
In the meantime, I had this critical insight that the traditional teaching of “nirvana” didn’t work for me, especially as a person who has struggled with addiction.
As I reflected on my path in the dharma, I came to realize that I was really seduced by the promise of bliss, of permanent and total relief from suffering. The weird part is that there are moments when you can actually achieve that, but then you spend your whole life chasing that feeling, chasing that state of bliss. Pursuing nirvana, which I call “chasing the dragon”, becomes a cycle of addiction. I go on retreat and have a deep feeling of bliss, so then I want to have that feeling all the time. So I go on more retreats and meditate longer and practice harder to achieve that elusive mental state. I’m in a state of chronic anxiety, wondering if I’ll ever be fully “enlightened.” The effort to attain nirvana becomes an obsession-compulsion. I attain that state only at rare and unpredictable moments, so then I get frustrated and angry because I can’t maintain a state free negativity and strife. Thus I am constantly in a state of “lack”—need and want—because I don’t have that state of bliss all the time. Then I start to feel like a failure, and I hate myself because I haven’t achieved “nirvana.” It’s the same vicious cycle of addiction-obsession-frustration-self-hate that addicts go through.
Practicing to attain ‘nirvana’ became an insidious addiction. Even when I told myself, consciously, not to cling to that state of bliss, unconsciously it was driving my practice of Buddhism. Furthermore, I see a lot obsessive-compulsive behaviour in Buddhism. People spend their whole lives going on retreats, meditating, reading dharma books, chasing gurus and practices, trying to achieve and maintain that state of non-suffering bliss. It’s very hard to sustain unless you are a monk dedicated full-time to the task, and even then I’m not convinced that the most ardent practitioners attain continuous states of bliss, free from all negativity and pain. In the end, I had to conclude that “chasing the dragon” just doesn’t work for me.
Instead of getting hooked on bliss, I want to feel everything: good and bad, pain, strife, joy, peace, or just ordinary okayness. If you don’t experience pain, you have no way to develop compassion for yourself or other people. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” to feel your own or another’s pain and help transform it. It’s when you experience pain, when you grapple with the “shadow” of the human psyche, that you become the most creative. When we accept and befriend our flaws, needs, hurts and courageously transform our suffering that we can be really creative and joyful in life.
I still use meditation and the dharma to avoid creating unnecessary suffering, self-created suffering caused by flawed thinking and behaviour. But even that has its limits. Pema Chodron teaches us to use our pain and strife, even our own frustration with our selfish behaviour, to feel compassion for ourselves and for others. The traditional Buddhist teaching is that suffering arises with vedana, with the feeling tone that arises from contact with the world. But we have to feel; unless you shut down the central nervous system, feeling is inevitable and so is suffering. Moreover, there is no path to wisdom and compassion without feeling, which is the “awakened heart” of the Bodhisattva.
It was this process of reflection that provoked the insight that I had to abandon the traditional goal of attaining “nirvana” (or ‘rigpa’ or ‘enlightenment’, fill-in-the-blank). I turned toward the concept of resilience, which I had been studying in my doctoral work on environmental sociology. Resilience is a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where you are balancing dystonic and optimal states. Resilience is a fluid yet sustainable condition where you are able to move back and forth through dystonic and optimal states, but generally feel well and able to cope with life. Resilience also incorporates what I learned from the Twelve Steps, which is the wisdom to know what to accept as unavoidable suffering, what conditions can be changed and how to change them, and the courage to both accept and transform our conditions in life. The twelve steps taught me to use moments of suffering to build character and strength, to mature and grow spiritually. Sustainable liberation is the capacity to transform suffering into resilience.
[photo credit: Cirque du Soleil “Cabinet of Curiosities”, which I had the great pleasure to see in Boston in June.]