Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Garden of the Good Life. Part Three

Weeding and Watering.

Weeding is essential to a well kept garden so that our tender and still growing plants and flowers do not become overwhelmed. Weeds are bad mental states or actions that are obstacles to well being. Without water nothing can grow or live. We can respectively think of weeding as both stopping undesired, negative and harmful behaviour. Watering can be thought of in terms of effort. Effort in contemplative practice- mindfulness and meditation and in our effort to lead better lives. Weeding and watering are simply two sides of the same coin.

At the heart of Zen philosophy is the idea that our suffering is conditioned by our thinking. That very often it is our thinking that is the problem. The first weed we should be on guard against is the hardest to eradicate and the well from which the others weeds drink from. Neurotic discursive thinking. Imagine what our consciousness is like when we are not thinking neurotically? Thinking about what others think of us. What actions we did or didn’t do. Or our anxieties about things that haven’t happened yet. At some time I am sure we have all experienced what it felt like to have our minds intrinsically at peace.

Our thinking gets us absorbed so much that we lose our perspective, our spontaneity, our freedom. We fail to fully experience the moment because neurotic thoughts keep careening through our brains. It is like we are reading a book in our homes only to have ornaments being flung and smashed around us. We are constantly kept in a state of upset or distraction. We cannot enjoy or fully experience what we our doing because we are constantly gripped in thought. A writer whom I admire summed well the difference between Western thought and its Eastern counterpart. Christopher Hitchens put it after scorching eastern style “religion” and its seeming need to dissolve the intellect or thinking “The pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable from angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair.”

I used to subscribe to this way of thinking. The intellect and critical, combative thinking is of course essential to many human endeavours. However we need not think like this all of the time. Or even positing a priori that we have to “think” all the time anyway. States of worry, or fear or neuroticism seldom lead to good actions or a healthy and calm mind. From this turbulence of mind we have much of the source of conflict we see not just within ourselves but in the wider community. From this we have separateness. The sense of me and him, us and them. From this we have fear and from fear we have hatred.

Hatred is perhaps the most divisive emotion that we can experience. By definition hatred implies intolerance, condemnation and disgust. It has been well remarked that hatred and fear are closely linked. The American south in the pre civil rights years are both showcases of hatred and intolerance but fear as well.

Zen goes further than simply labelling the emotion of hate and saying it’s a dangerous, divisive emotion. It makes an empirical claim that the person who is hating and who is intolerant has a mind that is suffering. We know enough about ourselves on an intuitive level to say mental states such as hatred whether it be over ethnicity or politics is a mind in turmoil and as such is not conducive to states of well being. Simply put we are in a much better mental state of mind when we are at ease with people rather than being at odds with them.

Attachment to pleasure.

Our attachment to sense pleasure and material enjoyment is another weed that needs eliminated. There is nothing wrong of course in taking pleasure in many of the things that constituent human experience. Whether it be having a bowl of ice cream or sex with ones lover, or listening to ones favourite music. Today in our consumerist paradise, with nearly every kind of pleasure and novelty on perpetual offer. There is still a wide spiritual gulf we feel within ourselves. Many of us still think the solution is the age old division between hedonism and asceticism.

Hedonism as a philosophy is simply that happiness is got from sensual pleasures even if they are say intellectual such as connoisseurship. Hedonism says that the repeating of favourite source of pleasure until we run out of steam is the best we can do. Asceticism is the renouncing of all worldly pleasure. The problem with this practice is that its life denying and joy sapping. I believe there is much to be had about luminous experiences whether it is found at the top of a mountain, gazing into the paintings of a Da Vinci, hallucinogenic drugs or in the arms of a lover. Asceticism does pose however a spiritual truth that lurks at the heart of every religion. That is our well being or ideas about a good life are not dependent on sense pleasure.

The Buddha himself both practiced hedonism and asceticism before his enlightenment. His philosophy and ethic was that of the middle way. We crave our pleasures however fleeting they are. We chase after it, become upset if we cant satisfy them. Search for new pleasures if our old ones fail us. Our attachments to such things is like a gerbil running perpetually on a wheel. We ultimately get nowhere. We are all on the same continuum with the crack addict who’s mind is totally absorbed in the procuring of the drug. He will steal, lie and cheat and stomp over anyone to get his fix. It momentarily sates him then the cycle begins again. We are of course not as selfish and violent as this: but pause for a second and consider what we have done to ourselves and to others in our pursuit for our pleasures?


In Buddhism one of the hindrances that prevents enlightenment is doubt. Doubt is like all the above weeds, a mental state. It is thinking. How many times do we hear a voice in the back of our head telling us that what we are doing is a mistake? Or that we are not good enough or that we should not have done such and such? To the extreme we have mental conditions such as self harming or anorexia, a doubt or a pathology about how we think we are or how we think we should be.

So how do we weed and water? How do we rid the mind of these unwelcome mental factors. It is not enough to say on a intellectual level that these are unwelcome states that need to be removed. We need to have a method of noticing them and removing them.

The cultivation of mindfulness or awareness builds welcome states and reduces unwelcome ones. We train ourselves to be aware moment to moment of our experience, labelling our thoughts. Becoming aware of our thoughts and thought processes, our attitudes and attachments. Our strategies when dealing with people. The Buddha taught that mindfulness or awareness is a purifying force. The most powerful for cultivating desirable states and lessening undesirable ones. When we recognise thoughts as thoughts and stop our discursive thinking we cut the string upon which much of suffering is wrought. We can cultivate this by meditating, watching detachedly our thoughts as they arise. The mistake we make however is that once our sitting is done we return to our normal thinking styles. Throughout our lives we should practice mindfulness, simple observation without judging or reacting or evaluating. So when someone insults us they have simply insulted us. The problem comes when our thinking goes into haywire and says “oh this is bad” “I must hit back” or that there is something wrong with me that I MUST FIX.

Mindfulness is something we use to both pull out weeds and cultivate our seedlings. We observe tolerance to others. We observe and let our mind be open and free to new ideas or experiences. We observe ourselves letting go of greed and being generous.


Effort is another tool essential to both weeding and growing our desired states of mind. Effort is at the root of all achievement. Life will not settle to how we want it, we must go after it, no one will cure our ills or make us happy we must seek it out.

One of my favourite teachings in Buddhism is that the Buddha will not enlighten us. No one can enlighten another person, no reciting of words or mere study can make us enlightened. Buddha points the way to enlightenment but we must make the effort. A Buddha shows us the way like a person pointing to the moon. Many of us get caught obsessing over the figure or the different fingers pointing at the moon. Our concern should be with attaining our own enlightenment. Consider this passage from Marcus Aurelius-I have quoted it at length.

"Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods and not used it…… there is a limit circumscribed to your time- if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone and the opportunity will not return."

So now we have laid our soil, planted our seeds, weeded and watered our garden. We have been attentive to each plant that has grown. Our garden perhaps is stunning looking. Our day to day, moment to moment experience has been transformed. We experience not only a balance of mind but a joy. A joy that goes beyond transient states, pleasure or satisfaction, pain or disappointment. We have achieved a equilibrium and calm state of mind. Nevertheless we still wonder-- can such states last? Is it only temporary?

Say we have lessened our neurosis. Stopped our discursive thinking, severed our attachments and cravings to pleasure. Fear and hate no longer largely take root in us? We have a good job, a loving companion, the fridge is stocked with good food and good wine. It is the height of summer and our friends and family are close at hand. So what happens say when we get that phone call in the middle of night? What happens if one of our children die in a car accident or a partner leaves us. Or we lose our job? Even the most normal and well adjusted life at some point is going to experience hardship, the hardest perhaps being the death of ones we love.

Best and be Well.

Michael Faulkner

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