Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Despair Isn't All About "You"

Note: I first offered this post about a year and a half ago. It feels accurate for today, and so here it goes again.

I don't have a lot to say today. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joanna Macy that I really like:

Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.

Joanna Macy: Yes. I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we’re doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling "pain for the world."

In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.

I honestly find myself sometimes really pissed at how much of this reductionism occurs in spiritual circles. It actually brings up anger for me. Whatever people's current positions are on things like nuclear power, one thing I see a lot of is despair. And it's ridiculous to reduce this to some individual psychological attachment or maladjustment, but you can bet this is going on. Maybe you're doing it yourself, or your teachers or students are doing it. Maybe the book or article you are reading is doing it.

In any case, I'd like to offer the following. Instead of thinking things like "oh, this is ego clinging" or "if only I weren't so attached to what's occurring on the planet" - why not just let all of that go. Let every last explanation for what's coming up go. And just be with what is, recognizing that whatever is occurring on the planet is us too. It's all functioning together. And maybe if we listen more closely to the despair and whatever else is coming, we'll know better what our next steps need to be.

Peace to you all.


Jeanne Desy said...

People think too big, when they think of changing things like the environment. I very much like the story of how the students of Shunryu Suzuki were debating passionately whether the hot tubs should be nude or co-op, stuff like that. He listened. Finally someone asked him what he thought. He said something like, "I think that broom should be stood on its head. Storing it with the bristles down wears it out sooner." I consider this a beautiful example of how there is always work to be done right where we are. We have only to pay attention. (from Crooked Cucumber, I think)

Nathan said...

That is a good point. I do think some our despair comes from thinking too big, and then feeling helpless. Gotta burn through that to see the broom.

On the other hand, I do think some of the despair is simply grief over disappearing species, trees, clean water, mountain tops ... and wondering if the planet or people are doomed. This side of it can be there even when someone has burned through helplessness and is taking care of what they can right in front of them. I have certainly experienced this.

spldbch said...

I think this tendency to label despair as a personal malady is just another manifestation of Western individualism. Western society is all about the individual and about personal responsibility. If you succeed it's through individual effort. If you don't, well, that's your problem. We don't acknowledge that we're all in this together.

Nathan said...

Yep, well said.

Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical that it's nuclear power or the destruction of the planet that is actually making me feel the way I feel. And I support just meeting whatever comes up, and supporting others to do that, too.

So, when I'm having a bad day, I think about alaya vijana, and I'm convinced. I don't see it as a reduction treatment, but instead as an expansion treatment, acknowledging boundless causes and conditions making me feel irritated, angry, or sad. I probably look very much the same as I meet my mood, but there are two things I try not to do:

One, say anything to anyone about what's happening in mundane reality. Mostly, this is exhausting and confusing- how could I be vexed by global warming, the community bike coordinator, the farm pump, my father who doesn't write, all in the same 3 hours? So, I don't pay attention to that ticker tape.

Two, I don't sugar coat it when people ask me how I'm doing. I usually say, you know, just dealing with my ancient twisted karma. And this face is what you get today. And I think about sun faced Buddha and moon faced Buddha- what I don't like is Buddha and what I do like is Buddha.

But I'm also in a very Abidharma phase these days!