Buddha’s River Analogy continued: Why We Crave the Shores

In a previous talk, I shared the Buddha’s analogy of a river to explore The Middle Way. We have looked ar various aspects of it, and today you will have the opportunity to explore for yourself what is on the shores of your own river and why it draws you.

Both the banks of the river, though they look so different — one a lush jungle of opulence and indulgence, the other an arid desert of strict self-denial — are really quite similar. They both lure us deeper and deeper inland with promises that if we just go a little further, we will find ultimate happiness. Whether it’s through acquisition or austerity, the message is still the same: Wherever we are right now is not okay. Change is necessary. The here and now is flawed. We are flawed and in need of changing.

Perhaps you say that message is not a bad one because none of us is perfect. We are each flawed, and therefore in need of changing. And then you add that the world we live in is not perfect and in need of fixing. Maybe yes, maybe no, as the farmer in the Taoist teaching story says. If you are not familiar with this story, it goes something like this:

A farmer had a plough horse to help him tend his fields. One day the horse ran away. His neighbors told him how sorry they were for him. How would he till his field? What a terrible misfortune had been laid upon him, and he didn’t deserve it, he was such a good man, such a hard worker. But the farmer surprised them when he said, ‘Maybe it’s a misfortune, maybe it’s not. Who knows?’

The next day the horse returned, and along with him came some other horses. Now the neighbors exclaimed, “What great fortune for you! You are the luckiest man! You deserve this good luck.” But the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day the farmer’s son rode one of the new horses and fell off, breaking his leg. The neighbors said, “Oh my, this is a terrible stroke of bad luck!” And the farmer surprised them again when he said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

The next day conscription officers came to the area to draft all able-bodied young men into the army. Since the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, he was allowed to stay home with his family. The neighbors, some of whom had tearfully seen their sons trudge off to war, exclaimed at the uncanny good fortune of the farmer. And this time they were not surprised when the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows?”

As you can see this story could go on and on. It’s useful to think of this story the next time we notice ourselves reacting as the neighbors did. We can pause and question the truth of our assumptions about a situation. We could withhold judgment and open to possibilities within any situation.


Nostalgic amnesia
It seems to be in our nature to see the world as it is right now as more flawed than it was in the past. People ask, ‘What period would you go back to if you could time travel?” as if there was some idyllic time when all was right in the world. This nostalgic amnesia really gets in our way of being present with what is. I just saw an interview on The Colbert Report with the author Stephen Pinker about his book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence.’ In it, he points out the statistical fact that we are living in the most peaceful time in history. Now of course this is per capita and there are way more people now, but even so this may seem contrary to our own sense of the way things are. This is nostalgic amnesia.

In class I brought up a decade that many people wax poetic about, a decade remembered as all soda fountains, felt poodle skirts, bobby socks, etc. But they choose to forget that the 1950’s and early 60’s was a time of ongoing degradation based on skin color, gender and sexual orientation. I remember children with downs syndrome either being hidden away in secret back rooms of homes or institutionalized, held in huge rooms naked. I saw this room with my own eyes when our school choir went to sing up at ‘Napa,’ the mental hospital for the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a decade full of fear of nuclear war. Many of us never expected to make it to adulthood, envisioned being evaporated en masse or dying slow painful radiation deaths. Some built fall out shelters to save themselves and their families and to keep out the hoards of neighbors who would want food. It was a time of paranoia, people seeing ‘a red under every bed.’ I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s a both/and situation. Yes, there were wonderful things about that decade too, but no era has ever been or will ever be perfect.

One student pointed out after class that things may seem worse now because we are more informed about everything that is going on around the world. She said that her experience of the 1950’s was very protected, not exposed to the things I mentioned above, but now she feels bombarded with a 24 hour a day influx of information. It’s challenging to know at what level to adjust our filters for all this input!

The technological advances of our age are a wonderful example of the ‘maybe yes/maybe no’ quality. On the one hand these technologies bring amazing abilities to stay connected over distances with family and friends. On the other, we can easily manage to never know our neighbors, as we come and go in cars, pushing a button to open our garage doors and closing ourselves into our contained spaces. Thus, we feel isolated and disconnected, even though we are carrying on text, twitter, email and phone conversations all day long. Of course we can easily remedy that situation by making a concerted effort to know our neighbors, to create real community, to participate in local government and organizations instead of only focusing on national and international situations. These technologies bring the ability to co-create a leaderless revolution. They bring the possibility of identity theft, of governmental invasion of privacy, of those with fear-based motives reaching our children with messages they are not able to defend against, of fear-based advertisements invading our homes and our minds before we realize we have been seduced or inducted.

This could well be the reason meditation has become so sought after now. It is needed so we can each find a way to be skillful in dealing with these challenges.

So the wise person doesn’t put on blinders but is able to hold all of what is occurring, recognizing the yin/yang quality of being, finding a state of equilibrium, understanding that these are and always will be ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’ Dickens claimed that in his opening line of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ about the French revolution.

‘May you live in interesting times.’ Is that a Chinese blessing or curse? Both! And we certainly do live in interesting times. How grateful I am to be alive to witness and participate in this fascinating period.

The recognition that nothing is perfect and was never meant to be perfect is very liberating. The astro-physicist Stephen Hawking says the universe was created from two forces: gravity and imperfection. Watch the first few minutes of this program to see his explanation.

With only gravity there would be a static unchanging uniformity, but imperfection provokes gravity into a dance so that the planets orbit and cycles occur that would not otherwise have been necessary. So imperfection has been getting an awfully bad rap, considering its importance in the creation of life itself!

I belong to Toastmasters, an international club to help people overcome their fear of public speaking and develop leadership skills. For the past few years I have been able to see incredible transformations in people in the club. Almost every member joined in order to change, in order to improve ourselves and our skills. Our motivations were anchored in this discomfort with who we felt ourselves to be in relation to the world.

But the transformations that have occurred are not from the elimination of imperfections but from the release of the fear of letting those imperfections show. The speakers who are most enjoyable to watch, most able to convey their message and connect with the audience, have learned how to relax into their shared humanity. They are completely themselves at the podium. And because they are relaxed and sharing openly of their own experience and knowledge, their audience can relax and take in what the speakers are saying.

The more we hold back, the more we protect who we hold ourselves to be, the harder we try to be perfect, the less successful we are. True transformation is a process of relaxing, noticing and releasing tension (which when in front of an audience exhibits itself in a variety of distracting ways,) making eye contact with others that reminds of of our connection, realizing that this is a practice and failure is simply a way we learn, and then staying in the present moment as much as possible with what we have to share.

If this sounds a little bit like how we begin meditation, then that really isn’t very surprising.  Coming home to ourselves, our true selves, is the key to letting go of the discomfort with who we feel ourselves to be in the world.

In Toastmasters, the most engaging and enjoyable speakers have in a way polished up their imperfections. The other day a club member talked about how unhandy he is in such an engaging and entertaining way that he won the spontaneous speaking award (Table Topics ribbon) that day. If he were to become handy around the house, maybe his wife would be happier because she wouldn’t have to hire someone to do those tasks my fellow Toastmaster cannot do, but the world would be poorer in a way I can’t explain, but I think you understand.

Think of someone you love who died. Isn’t it often the very quirks that drove you most crazy that you miss about them after a while? Isn’t it those very imperfections that make you smile?

There are Toastmasters who get caught up in a state of paralysis, afraid to get up and speak because they have not reached their goal of being perfect speakers and don’t want to embarrass themselves. Sometimes this paralysis keeps them from coming to meetings, even though they keep paying their dues because the intention is still there. But if they just keep showing up for meetings and taking roles that require them to speak in very non-threatening way (explaining their role at the beginning of the meeting and following up with a little report at the end of the meeting), and occasionally getting up for two minutes to answer a posed question, slowly but surely their confidence grows.

This is true in so many aspects of our lives, isn’t it? We don’t have to be Toastmasters to recognize the pattern we get into when we get inspired to improve ourselves in some area. Perhaps we join a gym to give ourselves the opportunity to get in better shape. The same pattern happens. If we go, we realize it’s a supportive atmosphere (hopefully!) and that we feel better for having done it, but if we don’t attend, we get stuck in that place where we feel disappointed in ourselves and stuck. We want that perfect muscle tone, that slimmer body now! We don’t want to have to see ourselves in the gym mirrors or compare ourselves to others who seem perfect. They’re not, of course. But some part of ourselves plays that game in our heads and we stay away, defeated and uncomfortable with how we perceive ourselves to appear in the world.
In the grueling ongoing effort to become more beings, are we hoping to trade in under-valued traits and attributes for ones that are more in demand? Or do we really just want to be more at home in our own skin?

It’s also true in developing a regular meditation practice. I honor my students for taking time out of their busy lives to come to class with such dedicated regularity. If they are in town, they are here. They carve this space out of their week and arrange their lives around it. Many of them have also managed to carve a half hour out of their day for a daily practice of meditation, as I hope all readers of this blog do. And just like the speech club and the gym, meditation practice is primarily a matter of showing up. What happens after we have set that intention to practice, that intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves, arises naturally. We don’t have to worry about the outcome. It is enough to be here.

For real transformation to occur, we need to be fully present and fully aware of what is occurring in this moment. Only then, anchored into sensation, can we recognize the mindlessness of habitual patterns that drag us ashore into jungles of desire or deserts of self-negation. Only then can we see that it is not our lack of uniformity that is causing us misery, but habit of striving for some distant vision of happiness where we or the world are different.

The river analogy applies to all of us, but each of us sees the banks differently. At times my indulgence bank is lined with hot fudge sundaes. Knowing this helps me to recognize it as the seductive jungle that it is. I am not clear what the sweet treat promises, what the allure is. That’s something I could explore and it would be very beneficial in order to be able to return the Middle Way river and not sink the boat with my over-indulgence! But would I only be comfortable in my skin if there was less of it? That’s another area for me to explore.

What line your shores? What inner aspects are jumping up and down, waving signs and calling out to you? Notice the expressions they use, how disrespectful they are, how they call you names to demean you.

What is so alluring on the banks of the river for you.  What is the promised goal as you trudge through the jungle of over-indulgence or the desert of self-denial? There will be a tangible fear that draws you to each shore. Can you name the fear? At core all our fears are the fear of separation, the fear of isolation, of encapsulation, of rejection. But on the surface they have many different names and appearances.

In class we did an exercise of exploring our own experience of being on the river, first looking at one shore, then making notes or drawing what was there; then looking at the other bank and doing the same. We also made any notations or sketches about the boat, the river and what we saw ahead of us. This might be a self-exploration exercise you would like to do for yourself after meditation practice, when you are feeling calm and spacious.

You might picture the images that draw you as cardboard cutouts set up as a lure with nothing of substance behind them. See if that helps to remind you that there is no fulfillment possible on either shore.

When we are fully present on the river, this river that runs through the center of our being, this river of presence and compassion, we feel fully enlivened and at one with the universe, this universe formed by imperfection.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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