Manipulation of Experience
I’ve been reading “Being Upright” by Reb Anderson. I have found it enlightening, especially his discussion on the turbulent Baker Roshi years of the San Francisco Zen Center. Now I am reading the chapter on the forbiddance of intoxicants. I don’t know if I have issues with what he says, but I do have fundamental questions.
He relates a minor incident where he goes back to his native Minnesota during the fall. I understand his appreciation of the all-too-brief beautiful colors of the leaves that do not necessarily occur in warmer climes. Michigan is the same as Minnesota in that respect, briefly and brilliantly colorful.
“I was out driving in the countryside, and I noticed a thought come up in my mind: It is so beautiful, but it would be a little better still if the sun were shining….It does not seem like such a terrible thing, to wish for a little sunlight. But this precept is gently indicating a way of being upright that is so much at peace that you are free of the impulse to bring something in….If you want to realize the bodhisattva precepts, then you should not blithely dismiss the natural and lazy human tendency to try to manipulate situations….Ironically, using individual effort to try to control our behavior is itself a violation of the ultimate meaning of the precept, because it is akin to manipulating our experience.”
If he had been indoors with the curtains closed, would he have hesitated to open them out of concern for “manipulating” his experience?
I see life itself as a mood-altering experience. I thought the whole concept of Buddhism was the alleviation of suffering (or “unsatisfactoriness”, I love that word), that of others’ and one’s own.
I completely agree that anything can be used addictively. I’ve seen it in my family and myself (in a less chemically-dependent way).
However, I see the issue as not so much avoiding the manipulation of our experience (which I am unconvinced is even possible) but rather taking responsibility for our experience and being honest with oneself about one’s motives. Self-dishonesty is so complicated and difficult.
We humans have a very large survival range and an exceedingly narrow comfort zone. We can survive all sorts of calamities, in a huge range of temperatures and humidities. But we are seldom comfortable. Misery seems to be a normal part of the human condition.
What I have always appreciated about Buddhism is how reality-based it is. It doesn’t pretend something is wrong simply because someone is unhappy. That’s just life. We are here to find ways to deal with our own and everyone else’s suffering. Part of Buddhist ethics is to try not create more suffering for all sentient beings.
For example, I have less will to live than most people I know. I believe that at least part of that comes from being severely depressed as a teenager. I believe I permanently screwed up my biochemistry back then (during an extremely important developmental stage) and will likely always need anti-depressants. I am always on the lookout for signs of worsening depression, especially in the past few years as I have tried to radically lower the dosage. Getting down my levels of anti-depressants has been part of my attempt to streamline my life and live more cheaply in retirement and in preparation for widowhood.
Also, I try to use my lower desire for life to benefit others. I have been willing to “catch a bullet” for others in social situations. If I were in a dangerous situation, I would be unlikely to care as much as others for my own well-being. People sometimes see me as generous, but, to me, you just “use what you got” for the benefit of others.
The hard part for me is the self-honesty part. I am accustomed to sacrificing my own needs and wants to benefit Barry. I am now in a phase of life where I need to start more aggressively preparing for life after Barry and Michigan. I denied it for a long time. Barry’s been good to me and part of me is not ready to leave my native state and vigorously seek medical and other resources for Barry elsewhere. I don’t want to start over. Ugh. But I’ve gotten an advanced degree and not preparing won’t help me. My goal has been to keep Barry comfortable, which I no longer believe is possible. My desire to live in my current situation is gone and it was a hard realization.
The bottom line is that I am in charge and must take responsibility for myself and Barry. If I need to open the curtains, I will do so, shamelessly “manipulating” my and his experience.