Saturday, October 9, 2010

Are You Choosing to Die Already?

I'm in my mid-thirties - old enough to have some experience under my belt, but still pretty young in the grand scheme. And yet, when I look around at many of my fellow late Gen Xers, I can already see it - the choosing to die syndrome. This is not the living and dying in each moment that we all experience, nor is it about a physical death. No, this is about something else entirely.

The Choosing to Die Syndrome

What is it? It's the slow accumulation of decisions towards a fixed identity and away from the fresh aliveness of your life. It's giving in to the prevailing views of what life is about, and the building up of habits and defenses that maintain those views. It's the murder of curiosity, and the killing off of exploration. It's the embracing of certain certainties in order to soothe to pain of living in an ever changing world.

Even Buddhists do it - Gasp!

The longer I practice Zen, the more I have developed a faith in it's ability - somehow - to be totally transformational. It's not about becoming a different person, but is about the fact that when you're completely you, it's a very different experience from living out of habits, fixed views, and emotional states.

I've gotten the sense, though, that a lot of us convert types - and maybe a lot of Buddhists of all stripes - don't really have much faith in such a transformation. In fact, many maybe aren't even thinking about it. Buddhism is mostly a way to be calmer, or a little more present, or accepting, or whatever positive quality you want to fill in the blank with. There's nothing wrong with any of those qualities mind you, but when I chant the Bodhisattva Vows, for example, it doesn't make any sense to hope for being "a little better" - whatever that is. No, those vows aren't about improvement at all - they are about transformation.

Are You Transforming or Killing Yourself Slowly?

The word "transform" means to alter or be altered radically in form, function, etc. If you are like me, you often attach the word to major changes in a form, like in a building project or melting down metals and then reshaping them. It's easy to get fixed on form, just ask any longtime meditation student who can't sit in full or half lotus anymore. However, in the context of Buddhist practice, transforming doesn't really look like anything at all. It's not something you can explain well. You can point to appearances, but what exactly is going on, it's kind of hard to say.

I have a retired friend who has, in certain ways, transformed over the past few years. After years of defensive efforts to maintain her "self," she's dropping that off, and risking being out in the world as she is. While many women her age have decided that their lives are basically over, and are content to sit in a chair and watch TV, my friend joined an on-line dating service, found a new partner, and spent much of the last six months traveling, trying out new things, and loving life. She has renegotiated relationships with her family by being more open and honest with them. And she left a church community where she liked the people, but didn't feel connected to in a deeply spiritual way. If you would ask her how this all happened, she'd probably point to her meditation and yoga practices immediately. But I think it's something more than doing the forms going on. It's an again and again and again process of choosing not to kill yourself off, which happens within forms, but also fully bleeds into one life completely.

Killing Yourself Off is Society Approved

My friend's life is an anomaly amongst her age group. Major changes often do happen for elder folks, but it's usually not coming from conscious decisions and openness to not knowing. It's usually about illness, loss of a spouse, or money issues that press the person into a different life.

It's more likely to find the kind of conscious decisions and openness to not knowing amongst younger people, who haven't yet killed off most of who they truly are. But you know, I think the pressure and desire to fit in makes a lot of us "decide" to accept certain stories about how to live as the only way, even when human history and current reality suggests otherwise. Take employment. How long have people been working for hourly wages at companies and other organizations? Two, three hundred years maybe. And yet, if you asked a hundred Americans what it meant to work, ninety of them would probably describe some variation of a salaried job. Even people who are entrepreneurial gravitate towards time segments and money payments based on time. Which goes to show you how fixated most of us are on a certain view of time, and how we believe it functions in our lives.

The point here isn't to denigrate salaries jobs, or the conventional view of time, but to suggest that when a person has attached to these things as "common sense truths," they have killed off part of life.

Form Can Be Deceptive

I have met people who, on the surface, seem to be living very conventional lives - jobs, houses, children, etc. - but who have a very fluid sense of what life is all about. At the same time, I have met people who are very radical looking on the outside - piercings, tattoos, open sexual relationships with multiple partners, unusual work - but who have very fixed views about their lives and the world around them. So, forms are tricky. It's easy to think, for example, that doing meditation practice is going to radically change you. But that's just another story.

What is This Guy Rambling on About?

If you are a Buddhist practitioner, or interested in Buddhism and reading this blog, what's your deepest intention? Is it really just to feel better, or be a little kinder, or more helpful, or is that just a story you've chosen to protect yourself with? Are you inspired by Buddhist practice to transform your life completely, or is it just a better tasting, more holistic add on than going out and buying a new TV?

I have no idea if the kind of transformation you see in the stories of the enlightened masters will occur in my life, but I figure why the hell not aspire to awaken fully anyway. The times I have been most depressed and miserable in my life have been the times I have chosen to either kill my largest dreams, or cling to them fiercely and defiantly.

You can have the most expansive vision possible about everything without making it into something you must defend and force into existence. You can make choices that might lead you to transform, or you can do things that are pretty certain to kill off your life. It's your call.

"What are you going to do with your one precious life?"


tom sullivan said...

Interesting, thought-provoking. Thanks.

Petteri Sulonen said...

To answer your question first, my motivations change. All the time. There are times when I mean every word of the Four Vows. Then there are times when I sit just to get rid of a bad mood. Not to get too Zen about it, but who is this "I" who has all this motivations anyway?

Second, autumn always makes me think of death, and not in a morbid, grim, gloomy kind of way. Death is also a transformation, perhaps the ultimate one. Breaking out of that shell of habit you've formed is also a death; you kill one self you've constructed, to allow another one to emerge.

Perhaps there are many such deaths, with a new constructed self emerging from the ashes of every one you've killed, each one closer to, or further away from, the transformation that Buddhism is supposed to be all about. Perhaps, as Daniel Ingram put it, the only way to end suffering is to become enlightened, and then die.

Perhaps death isn't all that big a deal after all, slow or fast.

'k, I'll shut up now before I depress the hell out of everybody. If you want to check out some graveyard photos, here are some.

Nathan said...


Death is very much on my mind with autumn here, the leaves falling, the sun setting earlier, the major changes in my life.

The kind of killing and dying I'm talking about in the post is more like drinking too much to stave off your pain, or acting in ways that allow you to fit in, but are ultimately lies.

It's makes a lot of sense, the shifting of motivations. I don't think it's any different in my life. But I also feel that it's easy to be tossed about by those daily motivations if you aren't riding the "great aspiration" to awaken. It may not be the appearance you're manifesting right now - just getting through a bout with anger or sadness might be all that is appearing in your life in my the moment. That's fine. I know this is my life too.

And yet, I'm also seeing how a lot of us sell our lives short, and settle for small visions as our only aspirations. I hear it in myself. I hear it in my fellow sangha friends. I hear it in a lot of the writing online.

So, what I'm saying is why can't we both appreciate the small stuff, the little shifts, even the stuck points we don't like - but also have great aspirations to awaken in this life?

It's like a leaf falling - you see one side, but the other is there as well. They function together.

Carol Horton said...

Great post, Nathan. I do believe that we all have some deep organic impetus toward growth and transformation. But fear, exhaustion, habit, social norms, negative relationships, and many other things get in the way. The "normal" pattern is to disconnect from that internal force. An effective spiritual practice, whatever it is, can keep us connected - and even when we feel that we've lost that thread of connection, we learn over time to maintain the faith that we'll find it again - and we do.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Nathan – I very much agree. The one shouldn't preclude the other. The fact that it gets harder as you get older and developed a more nuanced view of things shouldn't discourage you; all you're losing is illusions, while the great aspirations stay as great as they ever were. They never were any easier even if you kidded yourself into thinking they were.

Small steps make a big difference, if the direction is right, and there's enough of them. Without the aspirations, we're just wandering around aimlessly, getting nowhere.

There are deaths, and there are other deaths.

Anonymous said...

Just think how much fiction you have to walk around in each day. Society has its' own set of mores that are being shared unconsciously. If one were to act too far out of the norm they are rejected. So much of our days are spent conforming to social norms without being conscious of it. So many of these norms and mores are to keep people asleep. ( dead ) Get up, watch TV, go to work, talk about whats in the news, or your relationships, go home, have dinner, be entertained, then go to bed. The script is set, and the actors better play out their roles or they won't have a job, and will be rejected. If one starts to question this role they are stuck in, a sort of mental breakdown occurs. An ego death.
So the more direct question is, can you live with yourself without buying into the roles society demands of you? If so, what kind of life will you live without all the social support?

Algernon said...

Have to limit myself to one comment among many.

You write suggest that perhaps there is a lack of faith in transformation among "convert types." I wonder why you would limit that hypothesis to converted Buddhists. Is there any measurable increase in this faith among people raised in Buddhism?

I can remember leading a Zen Center in L.A. where many Koreans would visit. Some would meditate, but many would not because "that's something monks do," it wasn't for them. Others would sit, but they would never lead chanting or do other dharma room jobs. Again, the explanation was, "I'm not a monk." Similarly I've met people raised in Pure Land traditions for whom meditation was not a personal practice at all, but simply leading a good and compassionate daily life.

So if there is a greater degree of faith in personal transformation through Buddhist realization in non-converts I haven't noticed it.

Nathan said...


The converts lack faith point is pretty weak when I think about it more. Some of my former Buddhist students and their family/friends - originally from Korea, Thailand, and Burma - lack the same faith. It's probably more that humans just struggle with faith, period, not just any one group.

Anonymous: I'm don't know if social support is reliable regardless. Some follow all the social rules and yet have almost no support. While others transcend the need to fit in, manifest very different lives than the vast majority of people, and yet find that they have plenty of social support.

kevin said...

Thanks for this post. It points out something we should all be aware of.

I think for a lot of us, we get hung up on just accepting things and not questioning them. This is a good reminder of why we should.

As my practice has continued, I really feel like I've been peeling back different masks I wear, not just for others but for myself as well.

I think this post reminds us to not be too hasty with the chisel as we carve our true selves out lest we chip some of it away.

Thanks again

bookbird said...

for me I am working with one motivation right now:

"I am at peace with what is"

I guess I am trying to work with that now, rather than think about what is to come.

Small steps!!