How Am I to Live? How Am I to Be?

This question has been elusive to me since I was seventeen. There are so many ways of being in a given situation. If someone betrays your trust, for example, I could see many ways to act. I often feel differently about the situation at different times. Sometimes I feel anger and I want to express that anger towards the person. Sometimes I feel compassion. Sometimes I feel forgiveness. Sometimes I feel acceptance. Sometimes again I feel pissed off. Sometimes I just want to love them, despite it all. Sometimes I just want to be able to hate them and forget them, like so many other people seem to be able to do.

What’s the right response? Looking at the situation from a raw human perspective, or from a Buddhist perspective, each way of responding has its own justification. Each path can find sympathy, praise, and understanding with different people. Each path seems like the right way to go at different times. I feel like I have no “fixed self.”

Each choice seems attractive in its own way. I have this sense that nothing really matters. Each option seems more or less equal. So you can be whoever you want to be. You could be compassionate and they wouldn’t notice. People aren’t used to compassion. People are often selfish. They could just take advantage of your kindness and not learn anything – go on doing their thing, hurting others.

Getting angry and putting them in their place might be the most appropriate and beneficial way to handle the situation. Some people don’t respond to the language of love and mindfulness. They only respond to what they’re used to. Angry, or frank words, may be the only language they can hear.

I often thought when I was seventeen that if someone was being a total jerk or an asshole to me, I should not hesitate to punch them in the face. This, of course, coming from someone who is studying Zen Buddhism may be surprising. After all, if we are truly all one, then the person who is being an asshole is also myself. I am not separate from him. We share the same basic desires, hopes, fears, sufferings and dreams – the same basic humanity.

But even though I can see myself in the asshole, and the whole universe can be considered “the self,” sometimes we all need a good punch in the face! Yes, I am punching myself in the face. But hopefully, if I was ever being an asshole, or was incredibly hurtful, someone else would do the same in kind to me, and I would have the good sense to thank him for it.

Truly, it’s the fake friends that smile and nod and then gossip to others. Your true friends won’t hesitate to set you straight, if the need arises.

Of course, I’m only really kidding about physically punching someone. What they need is an emotional punch, a spiritual punch – something to wake them up and get them to pay attention to their actions. If people hurt others and do not realize they are doing this (or admit that they know but don’t care), does it benefit them or others to leave them alone? Until they learn the lessons they need to learn, they will continue to make the same careless mistake, burning a long path of tears and heartache for others, and eventually, themselves.

It is the reason why I do not simply want to accept others. I do not want to have the same attitude as a good German. I do not want to sit quietly and let an injustice stand unchecked. Whether it be a friend, a relationship, a stranger, a politician, or a corporate CEO, life is too short to not say something, to not school a person when they need to be schooled.

Again, I feel like if there is any commonality among humans to want to learn and grow, we could only hope others would care enough to do the same for us, when our own blind-spots mislead us.

At the same time, try as we might, it is very difficult to change people if they have no inward desire to change and improve themselves. Some people may need to suffer greatly and cause others to suffer greatly before they finally learn the lesson they had originally been offered. There is some old wisdom from the book Siddhartha, which is that people will always learn the lessons they need to earn in their own time. While you may try, while you may earnestly want to spare your friend, ex partner, spouse, or child the same lessons you yourself learned with much strife and difficulty, ultimately, you cannot change their path. They are the only ones who can do that, and we cannot know if it will take five months or five decades.

This is why the ancient masters talk abut letting events take their course, and not trying to force things. It is why Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you do not understand, you will think not getting angry to be the act of a fool.”

When Siddhartha ran to find his son, his friend looked at him and smiled with sincere consideration, but he did not hinder Siddhartha’s path. Vasudeva knew that Siddhartha’s search to find his son would be futile (because his son did not want to be found), but that Siddhartha had to come to accept this himself. He had to seek and find despair before he could finally accept, ultimately, what he already knew. It is a moment that speaks truth and wisdom to me. Vasudeva knew how to yield, how to love without interfering.

Of course, this choice is satisfying to us because we, the reader, can share in his wisdom. In real life, the other we have in mind has no idea we have decided to love them from afar, to let them find their way in their own time. They move past their experience with you in very traditional terms, thinking they were right and totally justified, whatever it is they’re thinking. This may be an example of my own struggles with this path, but I find it hard to let a situation go in this way when I know their ego has probably thought of all kinds of justifications to put themselves above the other. In their minds they have created a “version of events” that somehow always puts them definitively in the right.

So from another perspective, Vasudeva’s choice could be seen as overly passive. Not doing something is the same as doing something. What is the right action to take in each moment?

Be true to yourself and express yourself, but learn to let things go.
Be definitive, but know how to yield.
Reflect on all this, but be spontaneous!

Hopefully by now you can get a sense of the predicament I’m in. Let events take their course and be mindful of the wisdom of Vasudeva’s non-action, or take a more direct stance and say fully what you feel and believe? That’s the predicament. Which self, which way of being am I too choose?

February 2010

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