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Lions Roar : September 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2013 42 vines in spring. Will that chocolate I gave my friend require the purchase of a weight-loss book to counter its effects? Did that Galactic Light Blaster, with its flashing colors and weird noises, make us happy at the party? And then the deeper question, full of yearning: “What would I be like if I were happy more often?” The spiritual path starts with a simple impulse like this. We can start anywhere, go through any gate. We begin by noticing, by becoming curious about reality. “What do I want?” is a gate. That’s what a spiritual path is, a series of queries about reality. It’s not an admonition—“You ought to lose fifteen pounds” or “You should be calm” are not yet curious or compassionate. The quest is more likely to begin with a question that we are immediately interested in, such as “Will the mousse really lift my hair up?” and “What will get me through this day?” Suffering is sometimes a good thing Self-improvement is a beginning of something profound. We are starting to embrace the problem of suffering, which, in basic form, appears to be endless: I lack something and struggle to get it, and I’m still unhappy. This is something Buddha was inter- ested in, and that is different from, say, physical pain. While pain is just pain, suffering comes with meaning; it touches on who we think we are. Here’s a way to think about the difference: My border collie has an enthusiasm for bacon and gophers but she has no inter- est in a weight-loss program. In a sense, digging for gophers is a weight-loss program but that’s not why she does it. Her motives are pure. She might grow obese from bacon and have a shorter life than otherwise, but that’s fine with her. A dog can be miser- able, she can be in pain, her hips will stop working if she weighs sixty pounds, but she doesn’t wonder, “Will my butt look fat if I eat this gopher?” For humans, though, suffering is a mental thing, our impulses are at war with themselves, and algorithms are born—if choco- late, then happy, but also fat. If fat, then ugly. If ugly, then lonely, unhappy. If chocolate, then weight-loss program. Compared to the border collie, we suffer from our thoughts, but there’s a liberating power in noticing this. The mind being interested in itself is what makes consciousness. Desire can reflect on itself and discover that, on its own, it is endless and unsatisfied. Suffering provides the editorial pruning necessary for self-knowledge, which is why, in the spiritual tradition, suf- fering is sometimes A Good Thing. Suffering is fascinating and exciting and people talk about it endlessly—because noticing it is how tenderness for our own lives and for the lives of others appears. It makes a gap in our difficulties, and in that gap a path into reality is visible. Goals get us started but then we abandon them The impulse to self-improvement is simple: something hurts and I want to turn things around. I want to— lose weight, be calmer, not be anxious, stop drinking, stop fighting with my wife, change my husband’s personality, stop procrastinating, be kinder, get rich, be popular. The goals are assumed to be good in themselves. Questions they don’t raise are “What is life about really?” “What is the self that I’m helping?” and “What about unreasonable delight?” PHOTO©ISTOCKPHOTO/HIPOKRAT Sun, lotus, and gold—the images accompanying this article are three traditional Buddhist symbols for buddhanature, our unchanging wakefulness. Like the sun, our buddhanature always shines, even if the clouds temporarily obscure our view of it. Like the lotus, it grows pure and unsullied from the mud of our passion, aggression, and ignorance. And like gold, we need only purify the dross of our obscurations to experience the beauty and brilliance of our true nature.