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Running on Empty

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised – after all, how many people testify that they turned to spiritual practice because they wanted to share the secrets of their material success and psychological balance. No, even if, as Siddhartha and Jesus did, they seek after solutions for others, most seekers after inner truth do so because they find the world to be unsatisfactory. So most spiritual paths start by attacking that which is considered to be most wrong.

In the case of Buddhism, that process beings with deprogramming. The seeker turns inwards and attempts to break the association between her experience of the present moment and its interpretation by the mind. The goal is to understand the operation of the mind, and to correct its programming so that we can construct more successfully our lives.

As Ethan Nichtern describes this process in “The Road Home”, the currency of the successful life is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is that ephemeral awareness that human nature is constructed to empower our well-being. All the tools are available to us, if we only apply ourselves to learning the craft of living well.

Nichtern does not expose the contradiction of that process: in order to live well, we must murder our dissatisfied self. Our resolve is fortified by applying the law of cause-and-effect to the history of our lives. When we recognize the connection between our misunderstanding and our dissatisfaction, it becomes clear that we should modify our understanding. While the impact of that change is healing of our relationship with the world, that takes time to manifest. Immediately, the change is in fact a form of self-murder.

I experienced this a number of times in my first year in college. As I expanded my awareness of the world of the intellect, I had dreams of my old self dissolving into this greater realm. That old self wasn’t a bad self, and it inhabited a world that I was comfortable navigating. I knew that I couldn’t go back, and so with growth came mourning for the self that had died.

When she has severed the sense of self from the process of forming judgments about the world, the Buddhist seeker is prepared for a journey into emptiness. Nichtern cautions clearly that this is not to surrender a search for meaning. Rather, it is to recognize that the self – our personal experience – is not the entire measure of meaning.

Nichtern illustrates the problem with a parable of the irritating mother-in-law. Rising from the mat, the meditator considers with satisfaction the clarity of mind that he has attained. Then the phone rings, and mother-in-law demands an audience. Equanimity is replaced with dread and anger.

The wisdom of all great spiritual teachings is that it doesn’t help to project our ill-feeling back on the trigger. That simply reinforces the pattern – obviously they find us irritating as well. Instead, we have to learn to project equanimity into our relationships, both beneficial and hostile. When the latter overwhelm us, we should seek separation.

As Nichtern documents, the Buddhist concept of emptiness has a complex lineage. I also find it to be subtle, almost to opacity. He eventually resorts to a metaphor: the ego is like a cocoon, protected in the shell of hardened ideas, but seeking from deep within to transform into a liberated soul. To become empty is to break out of our cocoon. Our experience becomes “empty” because we are no longer bound by the constraints of the cocoon. To be “empty” is to be free.

But free for what? Nichtern asserts that the Buddhist practitioner, recognizing the interdependence between her well-being and the well-being of others, is motivated to seek after healing for the world as a whole. This is a freedom to, rather than the ideal of freedom from which is so popular in America and expressed to magnificently by W.C. Fields with the comedic line, “Go away kid. You’re botherin’ me.”

Put in this context, I find it valuable to make the leap to a more accessible characterization of the dysfunction addressed by Buddhist practice: quite simply, it is selfishness. When embarking in her practice, the acolyte must learn to surrender the protective cocoon that defines her hostile experience. For her own good, that self must be relinquished, allowing her to emerge into constructive engagement with the world. That engagement necessarily involves relationships, and Buddhism offers that wisdom that attaining healthy relationships requires that we not impose our experience on others. We must seek instead to improve our experience.

In Christian practice, selfishness is recognized as the antidyne of unconditional love. In the material world, selfishness manifests most powerfully as predation — the tendency to say “I don’t care how much effort was required to make this. I don’t care how much it will hurt to lose it. I want it, and I’m going to take it.” In the spiritual realm, selfishness desires nothing but itself, and so is arid, producing nothing of value except by coopting the virtues (interesting, then, that Jesus went into the desert to confront Satan).

When the Christian surrenders to the strength of unconditional love, they conquer selfishness. That condition is characterized, not as emptiness, but as peace, arising from the same source as does Buddhist bodhichitta: the realization that reality is organized to bring us into a life that is both satisfying and rich.

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