Eric Amidi touches on various topics on self improvement as in applies to today’s life. These articles focus on practical and pragmatic solutions, rather than theoretical discussions. Be sure to check out the articles on the blog to learn more…
Zen and the Art of Daily Life
In today’s world, it’s easy to feel like there’s no way you can possibly keep up with everything that’s expected of you. Particularly, the advent of social media has made this worse. Today, you are constantly surrounded by images of other people’s seemingly perfect lives. An article in the Atlantic explains the destructive effect of technology on younger generations. It reports that rate of teen depression has skyrocketed.
Ancient Remedies for Modern Problems
The more time teens spend on social media, the more likely it is that they fall into depression. There are an increasing number of studies about the damaging effects of Facebook. So how are you supposed to deal with this stress, and even distress, that has become part of everyday life? These issues are not “new”. The seekers who lived thousands of years ago had insights into how to deal with the problems we face today.
Buddhism: Suffering and Social Change
Siddhartha Guatama founded Buddhism in late 6th century B.C.E in an area at the Himalayan foothills. Buddhism is subject to varying interpretations and has taken many different forms. Most of them draw from the life experiences of the Buddha and the spirit of his teachings as models for a “good” life. The era in which the Buddha was born suffered from great social and spiritual upheaval.
Buddha’s Early Life
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. That included a beautiful princess for a wife, who gave him a young son. The prince rarely left his luxurious palace. One day he 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 a truth. That all his pleasures and luxuries were transitory and would not last over time. In a sense, they were only a temporary mask for human suffering. So, the prince decided he would renounce his family and the pleasures he had known. He chose to become a holy man or seeker.
The prince renounced everything and started living an ascetic life in the forest. He lived this life to the point of near-starvation. Finally, he realized that the path of asceticism was futile, and that he was only adding to his own suffering. The Buddha ate and then sat down beneath a tree to meditate. In time, his meditation led to Nirvana or Enlightenment. He had found the true answers to the causes of human suffering and the way to find a permanent release from it.
The Noble Truths
After achieving Enlightenment or Nivana, the Buddha began sharing what he had learned. The word Buddha means “the Enlightened or Awakened One”. His teachings included, among other things, the Four Noble Truths described below:
- Life is suffering. Life is full of both physical and psychological pleasure and pain. Even if we manage to find momentary pleasure or happiness, it will not last. Pleasure and happiness are linked to pain and suffering. We experience suffering or longing for pleasure and happiness. So the more we seek happiness, the more we suffer. We suffer even more from wanting pain and anxiety to go away so that we can enjoy future pleasures.
- Desire causes suffering. Longing for pleasure and for things to be different from how they are is the source of suffering. 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 of suffering include choosing a “Middle Way”. The way that rejects extremes of thought, emotion, action, and lifestyle. So, Buddha proposed a balanced life-style. He chose a moderate life instead of a life of either denial or indulgence and pleasure. He suggested a better mental and emotional health through meditation and morality.
Taoism: Finding Balance Through Intuition and Unity with Nature
Taoism (or Daoism) is an ancient philosophy rooted in Chinese customs. Its foundational text, the Tao Te Ching, is generally attributed to Lao Tzu. Many believe that he lived around the time of Confucius in China (around the 6th and 5th Century B.C.E). Legends often talks about 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. They agreed on 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 have been a historical figure at all. Many scholars believe the Tao Te Ching is a compilation teachings from many authors. More information about the history of Taoism is available here.
Taoism focuses 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. One of the major principles of Taoism is 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, and so on. These are opposites that must balance each other.
Taoism’s goal is to achieve harmony or union with nature as well as self-development. Like Buddhism, meditation and morality are important components. Taoism has a mystical side, which focuses on themes of naturalness and simplicity. It also underscores detachment from desires, and “non-action,” “non-doing,” or wu-wei.
As Confucius and Lao Tzu agreed, Taoism can be difficult to describe. Because it does not focus on “conventional” knowledge and understanding. But it deals more with a direct, intuitive understanding of life. For example, we “know” how to breathe, even though we can’t explain how we do it.
We may believe we make rational decisions based on collecting the relevant data. But Taoism teaches that we often make decisions based on “hunches”. We make most of our decisions based on a feeling, or intuition – like being “in the zone” when we are playing a sport. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Blink, these intuitive decisions aren’t uneducated guesses. They are something far deeper and difficult to understand.
Zen: A Mix of Buddhism and Taoism
Zen Buddhism combines features from both Buddhism and Taoism. Chinese civilization was over two thousand years old during Buddhism’s arrival. The Chinese adopted Buddhism in a practical way due to its similarity to Taoism. The word Zen derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning “meditation”. Zen teachings assert that anyone can achieve enlightenment. But that requires instruction by a master.
Zen school is Buddhism practiced by monks and nuns who belong to a large religious family. This community has five main branches. Each branch could trace its origins back to one of the original Buddhas. The Buddhas had gained spiritual awakening and wisdom. Masters, then, shared this wisdom with their students in an unbroken chain.
These generations of teachings spread even more with Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was a monk who introduced this form of Buddhism to China in the 5th century. Zen Buddhism holds that its followers can achieve an awakening to spiritual truth. But, reading the scripture cannot achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment requires direct experience.
Like Taoism, Zen Buddhism insists that words cannot describe the most important truths. People are too caught up in seeking the “good” things in life. So they obsess with making their lives better and better. According to Zen Buddhism this is impossible. If we find something to eat, we survive today only to be hungry again tomorrow. In a sense, we’re all going around and around like we’re on a giant hamster wheel. The idea that we’re “making progress” in our lives is 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” implied an Eastern mysticism. It meant spiritual journey of a person. and was generally associated with one of the belief systems outlined above. Today, self-help gurus, business leaders, and scientists talk about mindfulness. Mindfulness means bringing you complete attention to the present. It often implies paying attention in the present moment and without judgement.
Self-help gurus such as Eckhart Tolle were influenced by Zen Buddhism. You can see this influence in his writings. For example, Tolle recommends making a list of routine activities that you perform. Include those that are uninteresting, boring, tedious, irritating, or stressful. Then, he advises you to be present in what you are doing these tasks. Tolle refers to this as “finding the joy of Being in what you are doing”. This could just as easily be referred to as finding the Tao or being mindful of that activity.
In his book, Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright says that Buddhism described much of what we are still learning today. The “true” doesn’t refer to scriptural truth. He believes Buddhism provides a great insight about our suffering and dissatisfaction today.
This view is consistent with scientific fields like evolutionary psychology and neurobiology. He also believes that Buddhism’s “prescription” or solution to these problems is valid. Wright asserts that the human brain evolved through natural selection to mislead us. Our brain’s goal is to get our genes into the next generation. Evolution has hardwired us with intense emotions such anxiety and despair. These are delusions. But despite being delusions, they have been useful in contributing to our survival. Buddhist meditation offers specific insights and options for dealing with these delusions.
Along with fear, emotional pain is a key factor that can hold us back and keep us from living fully. Mindfulness can reduce the physical reaction to fear and pain – the “fight or flight” response. Being mindful may involve “letting go” or “not doing”. Even though it’s against how we think we should react, sometimes it allows us to see things more clearly.
Buddhism teaches that attachment to negative emotions is the primary source of suffering. Detachment shows us how we can deal with setbacks. Letting go means a radical acceptance of life, ourselves and others. It’s about not wishing things were different. It also means not wishing that people (including ourselves) were somehow different than they 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.