Saturday, August 20, 2011

Liberated and Habitual Restraint

ver at Kloncke, Katie has an excellent post that manages to link Buddhist teachings, economic critique, dieting, police brutality, and the Planet of the Apes movies together. How did that just happen?

Anyway, one of the issues brought up is the notion of restraint, which is frequently viewed as a positive skill amongst Buddhists, and many other spiritual folks for that matter. Katie attempts - successfully in my opinion - to complicate the narrative around restraint in her post, offering examples that point out the following:

Sometimes, the concept of “restraint” is just another way of saying “Stay In Your Place.” Knowing one’s place is a matter of ‘respectability,’ which does not always foster dignity, and may in fact undermine it.

This brings up all sorts of examples for me. Here's a list for you:

1. The way that white folks often cite the anger and frustration of people of color as being "Un-Buddhist" or "not spiritual."

2. Restraining sexual expression due mostly to the guilt and shame that's continually reproduced in our society - and many others for that matter.

3. The little lies and obfuscations people use to avoid telling someone truths that might hurt in the short term, but actually could benefit them in the long term.

4. Adults withholding child-like expressions of joy, fun, and enjoyment out of a sense that "it's not proper" for adults to act like that.

5. Employees holding back ideas that might benefit the organization out of "protocol," fear of the leadership, or a belief that they aren't "good enough" have something to offer beyond their job description.

I actually think it might be helpful to consider restraint in two categories:
liberated restraint and habitual restraint.

Habitual restraint is the act of giving up, not doing, or not keeping on thinking about that's coming from a conditioned place. It might be a really good idea, like not letting your anger at someone drive you to kill them. Or it might be something that's much more debatable, like not telling your boss that his casual flirting is upsetting you. However, the way I see it, "habitual restraint" is mostly about external authority pressing inward, and you responding to it, often in a habitual way. Your mother told you a thousand times not to cuss as a child, and after getting smacked or yelled at a few times for copying your loud-mouthed father, you now resist the impulse to swear.

But does that kind of restraint lead to liberation?

Liberated restraint is the act of giving up, not doing, or not keeping on thinking about that's coming from you organically. It may be that after years or decades of more habitual restraint around something, you realize something that internalizes the action as being part of living an enlightened life. Or it might just be that you realize that the habitual patterns of restraint themselves are the roadblocks. In either case, whatever it is that is called restraint here isn't primarily driven by external pressures. It might look, for example, that you choose not to steal out of a fear of getting arrested. However, if it's liberated restraint, the act of not stealing just flows forth because you know there's no need to.

So, what do you make of all of this? Do you have any other examples you'd add to the list Katie and I have made so far?


Ben said...
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Ben said...

That's rad!
An example of liberated restraint: "withholding" insight in a sangha/class/group discussion because you've already said lots and you want to allow others a chance to speak. Another: a member of a "central" group (central as in not marginal--White, male, hetero, etc.) not taking up the amount of "space" they usually do, as part of an effort to examine their privileges? The second one is more debatable as I see it, I suppose it would depend on your upaya in a particular setting.
Not eating meat is seen by many as an act of restraint, in which case I would have to say it's a liberated restraint!

K Grey said...

Prior to liberation - the 10,000 things vie for attention.

Judging/debating which among the 10,00 things are more or less "enlightened" (aka perceived as "better"), or whether "restraint" is of this or that nature (aka "preferred by you"), is not particularly "Buddhist" and only serves to turn the Dharma Wheel.

Work with what arises, sure. I'm not suggesting withdrawal/inaction or a detached/uncaring attitude. Do what you do based on your situation. Just that, without claiming any of it is any more liberated/enlightened than any thing else - until you're in a position to directly realize the impossibility/error in this.

I'm pointing to a deep irony, to the trap itself, inherent in such judgmental thinking (regardless of any personal notions of good/bad/whatever being suggested by anyone).

Work on your own "liberation". Then see how the Bodhisattva gig really plays out, if any of this "restraint" is still such a concern, if any actions are seen as "enlightened" at all...

My apologies for not commenting within the topic, and for intruding on your "Buddhist" discussion. Enjoy.

Nathan said...

K Grey - your comment seems quite certain that you "have the truth" and I and the rest interested do not. Perhaps you are totally correct, but I see no opening in what you say for a discussion, so I'm not going to engage it.


It's interesting about restraint within a sangha discussion. I've noticed a few things with that in my own experience. Definitely, there have been times when it just clicked that I've said enough and it's time to be silent. Other times, however, I've held back because what I had to say seemed "half-baked" at best, and not really adding to the discussion.

"a member of a "central" group (central as in not marginal--White, male, hetero, etc.) not taking up the amount of "space" they usually do, as part of an effort to examine their privileges?" This one is really important to keep in mind, I believe. But you're right that how it actually plays out is going to depend on the situation.

One of the questions I seem to keep coming back to is how do you balance deep listening with expressing what a given situation is calling for? Someone that led a workshop at my zen center once said "3/4 listening to 1/4 talking and action." I liked that, and have tried to aim in that direction when I remember to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these great elaborations, Ben and Nathan. :) The distinction between habitual and liberated restraint is useful for me.

This stuff gets really complicated for me sometimes. For instance, a political friend of mine works for a really fancy grocery store, a big-name union-busting chain, and has stolen hundreds if not thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise over the past year or so of working there. Other political friends who work at a coffee place also steal from it. The tradition of workers stealing goods (or even time) from bosses goes back basically forever, and I would argue should be seen in the context of bosses/masters/feudal lords/husbands stealing massive amounts of work from the laborers themselves. This exploitation is the background.

I'm not saying that to justify worker stealing as a tit-for-tat, but rather to consider it as a tactic of consciousness transformation, wherein workers become/remain aware of just how much their bosses are stealing from them every day. And might also show solidarity with other workers by helping one another steal, and showing that they aren't snitches. Which can help workers to organize with one another, eventually growing power to confront boss's antagonistic interests more directly.

I was raised with a middle-class ethic that stealing is wrong and people should work hard, not lie or cheat, and earn fairly. I was educated to believe that exploitation either happened (a) long ago or (b) far away; not in terms of the very fabric of class society the world over. Now my notions of the meaning of stealing from one's workplace are getting complicated. What is habituated, and what is liberated? So I'm trying to rest with the unknowing, but still make heartfelt decisions.

How does the stealing example strike you? Thanks again for being a community to think through things with!

Nathan said...


I also think I mostly grew up with the notion that stealing is wrong, and that there are other ways to get what you need. And while I still think there's some usefulness to that view, it's also gotten complicated for me over the years.

A similar example from my experience was learning that some of my ESL students were selling food stamps in order to pay their rent. Technically, I could point to the illegality of the act of selling. However, then there's the reality that these folks can't even pay their bills, and are basically being told to "figure it out" by state officials. You can imagine the numerous barriers to "figuring it out" there are.

I read a few threads over at another blog about the very issue of stealing in the context of being poor. The discussion got really heated because you had everything from really strident, middle class types condemning every last act of stealing as a major crime, all the way to people arguing that theft of "luxury" products - non-necessities - is totally ok. I guess I'm in the middle somewhere.

The kinds of questions that come up for me are the following:

"What are the motives behind taking something?"

"What is the potential impact on the business in question? (i.e. Is it a small business where theft has a major impact, or is it a multinational corporation where the impact is more minimal?)

"Who benefits from the theft?"
This is trying to sort out what's just selfish taking, what's necessity, and what's something else. I think this isn't really clear sometimes.

It's also worth considering what could happen if people get caught. One of the things that concerned me about the discussions I read was that those who were defending stealing spoke nothing of the potential legal consequences. I know people who had just enough petty theft on their records to cause a lot of damage in terms of employability and general credibility. We can agree that at least some of this stigma is completely bogus, and that the way property theft is handled needs to change, but what about in the meantime? How can groups both be smart about the current system, and also work towards a more just one?

Anonymous said...

Word. Selling food stamps is a super relevant example. Some friends of mine up in Seattle are also part of a project that supports working people in evading fare for public transportation, as part of a political demand that transport be free and fully funded (the opposite of the current fare hikes and austerity measures). Basically people pay into a pool that's like insurance, and can be used to cover individual tickets that people might accrue if they get caught. I think it's a really interesting example of 'stealing' as prefigurative politics: doing the thing that you want to happen; in this case, free rides on public transportation. There's some history in the US of drivers also working together with riders in this kind of refusal-to-pay. And the political point is that there is enough money in the profits of the rich to fully fund transit, so the austerity approach is in effect 'stealing' from poor and working people in order to leave the wealth of the rich untouched.

Nathan said...

the bus example hits home for me, since i have been a regular transit user for most of my life. and we've faced the same rate hikes and route reductions here as in other places. so, i find this "insurance pool" idea, as well as efforts to shift the dynamic towards fully funded transit really interesting.

and i can definitely affirm that some bus drivers seem to have a desire to support people who don't have the money or simply aren't going to pay. although sometimes i think it's just passiveness and exhaustion on the part of some of those drivers, rather than solidarity and/or compassion.

it actually seems to me that getting a critical mass of drivers to support such a movement is essential. i know that the drivers here in the Twin Cities have been screwed over in both of the last two contract negotiations, and the transit leaders frequently cite "reduced funding and revenue" as the main reason for cutting salaries and benefits, and making general work conditions less favorable. i can imagine some of those drivers see people who can't/don't pay their fares as being part of the reason why they get screwed on contracts. the old pit two groups towards the bottom against each other tactic.