Eric Amidi touches on various topics on self improvement as in applies to today’s life. The focus of these articles are on practical and pragmatic solution, rather than esoteric and theoretical discussions. Be sure to check out the articles on the blog to learn more…
Zen and the Art of Daily Life
Introduction – Ancient Remedies for Modern Problems
In today’s world, it’s easy to feel like there’s no way you can possibly keep up or accomplish everything that’s expected of you. Particularly with the advent of social media, we are all constantly surrounded by images of other people’s seemingly perfect experiences and possessions. A recent article in the Atlantic explains how recent technologies can have a destructive effect on younger generations, reports that rates of teen depression have skyrocketed, and that the more time teens spend using social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. There are an increasing number of studies showing that using Facebook can have damaging effects. So how is one supposed to deal with all of the stress – and even distress – that has become part of everyday life? You may be surprised to find that these issues are not really “new,” and that seekers and philosophers who lived thousands of years ago had startlingly relevant insights into how to deal with the problems we face today.
The Origins of Buddhism – Confronting Suffering and Social Change
Buddhism was originally founded in the late 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama in an area near the Himalayan foothills. While Buddhism is subject to varying interpretations and has taken many different forms, there is commonly an attempt to draw from the life experiences of the Buddha and the spirit of his teachings as models for a “good” life. Just like today, the era in which the Buddha was born was a period of great social, spiritual, and intellectual upheaval.
The Buddha was born into a high status family – he was a prince, the warrior son of a king and queen – who lived a sheltered life, surrounded by luxury. His parents tried to provide him with everything he could possibly desire, including a beautiful princess for a wife, who gave him a young son. The prince rarely left his luxurious palace, but one day decided to explore the world outside the palace grounds. For the first time in his life, he saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a “seeker” or holy man. The contrast between his life and the suffering that he observed made him realize that all of the pleasures and luxuries he had experienced – in fact, all of the pleasures on earth – were transitory and would not last over time. In a sense, they were just a temporary mask for human suffering. The prince decided he would renounce his family and all of the pleasures he had known, and that he, too, would become a holy man or seeker.
He therefore renounced everything and lived an ascetic life in the forest until he reached a point of near-starvation. Finally, he realized that the path of asceticism he was on was futile, and that he was only adding to his own suffering. The Buddha ate and then sat down beneath a tree to meditate. After a time, his meditation led to Nirvana or Enlightenment, which provided both the true answers to the causes of human suffering and the way to find a permanent release from it.
After achieving Enlightenment or Nivana, the Buddha (“the Enlightened or Awakened One”) began to share what he had learned. His teachings included, among other things, the Four Noble Truths described below:
- Life is suffering. As people experience it, life is full of both physical and psychological pleasure and pain. Even if we manage to find momentary pleasure or happiness, however, it cannot last. Pleasure and happiness are invariably linked to pain and suffering. We experience suffering or longing for pleasure and happiness; more suffering and anxiety from wanting pleasure and happiness to continue; and still more suffering from wanting pain and anxiety to go away so that we can enjoy future pleasures.
- Suffering is caused by desire — for pleasure and for things to be different from how they are. We want things that we do not have, or want ourselves or the people in our lives to be different than they are. We refuse to accept life as it is.
- Suffering has an end.
- The means to that end include choosing a “Middle Way” that rejects extremes of thought, emotion, action, and lifestyle. Rather than a life of denial or a life of indulgence and pleasure, the Buddha advocated a moderate or “balanced” life-style and the cultivation of mental and emotional health through meditation and morality.
To learn more about the history of the Buddhism and the Buddha, try http://asiasociety.org/education/origins-buddhism or https://www.britannica.com/topic/Buddhism.
Taoism – Finding Balance Through Intuition and Unity with Nature
Taoism (or Daoism) is an ancient tradition of philosophy and religious belief that is deeply rooted in Chinese customs and worldview. Its foundational text, the Tao Te Ching, is generally attributed to Lao Tzu, who was believed to have lived around the time of Confucius in China (around the 6th and 5th Century B.C.E). Legends often account for a meeting or confrontation between Confucius and Lao Tzu. According to legend, part of their conversation went as follows:
“Lao Tzu and Confucius discussed the difficulty of sharing their thoughts with the world, and the limitations of language in conveying meaning. ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,’ Lao Tzu said. ‘He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.'”
Lao Tzu may not, however, have been a historical figure at all, and many scholars believe the Tao Te Ching is actually a compilation from multiple authors. More information about the history of Taoism is available here.
Taoism is focused on the Tao, or “Way,” which is the ultimate creative principle of the universe. All things are unified and connected in the Tao. (If you think this sounds a lot like The Force from Star Wars, you’re not alone.) Nearly everyone is familiar with one of the major principles of Taoism; Yin and Yang. The principle of Yin and Yang sees the world as filled with complementary forces – action and non-action, male and female, light and dark, hot and cold, etc – that must be balanced. Taoism aims toward achieving harmony or union with nature as well as self-development. Like Buddhism, meditation and morality are important components. Taoism also has a mystical side, and often focuses on themes of naturalness, spontaneity, simplicity, detachment from desires, and “non-action,” “non-doing,” or wu-wei.
As hinted at in the supposed exchange between Confucius and Lao Tzu, Taoism can be difficult to describe, since it focuses not on “conventional” knowledge and understanding, but more of a direct, intuitive understanding of life. For example, we “know” how to breathe, even though we can’t explain how we do it. Even though we may believe we make rational decisions based on collecting the relevant data and information, Taoism teaches that we often truly make decisions based on “hunches,” a feeling, or intuition – similar to being “in the zone” when we are playing a sport. Like the descriptions in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, however, these intuitive decisions aren’t simply uneducated guesses, but informed by something far deeper and difficult to understand.
Zen – A Fusion of Buddhism and Taoism
Zen Buddhism combines, in a sense, features from both Buddhism and Taoism. Chinese civilization was at least two thousand years old when it was first exposed to Buddhism. The similarities between Taoism and Buddhism allowed the Chinese to absorb and adopt Buddhism in a new and more practical way. The word Zen derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning “meditation.” Central to Zen teaching is the belief that enlightenment can be achieved by anyone, but requires instruction by a master.
One work describes the Zen school as consisting of Buddhism practiced by monks and nuns who belong to a large religious family with five main branches, each branch of which could trace its origins back to one of the original Buddhas. The spiritual awakening and wisdom realized by these buddhas was then shared by masters with their students in an unbroken chain. These generations of teachings culminated with Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was a monk credited with introducing this form of Buddhism to China in the 5th century. Zen Buddhism holds that its followers can achieve an awakening to spiritual truth. However, enlightenment cannot be accomplished simply through reading of scripture. Some type of direct experience is required.
Like Taoism, Zen Buddhism insists that the most important truths cannot be put into words. One of the fundamental ideas underlying Zen Buddhism is that people are too caught up in always seeking the “good” things in life, and in trying to make their lives better and better. This is impossible, however – if we find something to eat, we survive today only to be hungry again tomorrow. In a sense, we’re all just going around and around like we’re on a giant hamster wheel, and the idea that we’re “making progress” in our lives is just an illusion. To learn more about Zen Buddhism, The Way of Zen by Alan Watts is a terrific resource.
How to Find the Zen of Today
Several decades ago, the term “mindfulness” always implied Eastern mysticism related to the spiritual journey of a person, and was generally associated with one of the belief systems outlined above. Today, everyone from self-help gurus to business leaders and scientists may talk about mindfulness, which can be understood as bringing one’s complete attention to the present, or “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).
Self-help gurus such as Eckhart Tolle were strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, and this is reflected in their teachings. We can see this influence clearly in his writings. For example, Tolle recommends making a list of everyday routine activities that you perform frequently even the ones you might consider uninteresting, boring, tedious, irritating, or stressful. Then, he advises whenever you are engaged in those activities, to be absolutely present in what you are doing. Tolle refers to this as “finding the joy of Being in what you are doing,” but it could just as easily be referred to as finding the Tao or being mindful of that activity.
Similarly, in Robert Wright’s recent book, Why Buddhism is True, Wright asserts that Buddhism accurately described much of what we are still learning today. The “true” doesn’t refer to scriptural truth; rather, Wright believes that Buddhism has a useful take on our suffering, our anxiety and dissatisfaction today, and one that is consistent with scientific fields like evolutionary psychology and neurobiology. Similarly, he believes that Buddhism’s “prescription” or solution to these problems is valid and important. Wright asserts that the human brain was designed by natural selection basically to mislead us, with the goal of getting our genes into the next generation. In other words, evolution has hardwired us with intense emotions like anxiety, despair, and hatred, that are basically delusions – even if they’re delusions that may have been useful in contributing to our survival. Buddhist meditation offers specific insights and options for dealing with these delusions in a comprehensive way.
Along with fear, emotional pain is a key factor that can hold us back and keep us from living fully. The physical reaction to fear and pain – the “fight or flight” response – can be countered by mindfulness. Being mindful may involve “letting go” or “not doing.” Even though it’s contrary to how we think we’re supposed to react, sometimes it allows us to see things more clearly. Buddhism teaches us that attachment to negative emotions is the primary source of suffering. Instead of working harder or blaming ourselves when we fail, detachment may sometimes be the best solution. Letting go means a radical acceptance of life, ourselves and others, rather than always wishing things were different or that people (including ourselves) were somehow different than they really are. This attitude allows us to forgive others and ourselves for mistakes and incompatibility. In practical terms, we must be willing to let go of fear, pain, anger, and people. Only then can we take a more enlightened approach to life.