I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Friday, 16 March 2012

Faith like flowing water…

Those who know me well understand that I am the kind of person who feels things intensely; consequently, my opinions tend to reflect this.  I am a passionate advocate of the causes closest to my heart and have strong views on a number of subjects - particularly, the more complex philosophical issues concerning life and death. It was my unceasing quest for meaning – a way to make sense of the often unjust and seemingly random world we live in – that led me to Buddhism; which I still consider to be the only world religion that comes anywhere near throwing any real light on such questions.  

My thoughtful, introspective and somewhat rebellious nature revealed itself from an early age, showing itself in my tendency to question things. I recall one of my teachers telling my parents that I was a bright child but very hard to teach, mainly because of my refusal to accept any kind of received knowledge as a given – I would always ask WHY? Furthermore, I would not stop asking why until I was satisfied with the answer, which quite often never happened!

The reason I share this with you is that I have been thinking recently about why my experience of the world has been so difficult and how this links to some of those character traits I have just described.  This is by no means an exercise in self-pity, I realise that life is a difficult business for most of us and I am lucky enough to be blessed with good health, a fulfilling job and two wonderful children – so I do not have a lot to complain about. Nonetheless, my transit through this world has not been an easy one and the conclusion I have reached about it is this: my tendency towards extremes and acute sensitivity make life just a little more uncomfortable and jagged round the edges than it is for most people.

This leads me to recall something my mother once said about me many years ago. Commenting on the intensity with which I experience things, she made the following observation: when I am happy, I appear to transcend the mundane concerns of every day life like a visionary from another dimension; however, conversely, when I am not, I seem to be lost in a cataclysmic abyss of unfathomable depths.  She also remarked that for one who lives betwixt and between such diametrically opposed extremes, I ought somehow to have grown accustomed to this emotional rollercoaster; at least enough to be able to embrace the highs and resign myself with grace to the lows. Yet, the reality is that although I am, by now, thoroughly accustomed to being me – after all, I have had 42 years to get used to it - I have never really made peace with the extreme tendencies that seem so intrinsic to my nature.

This is not to say that I dislike being me – there are at least some positives associated with the experience: for example, I am very glad to be the kind of person who never does anything half-heartedly. And, in a way, I’m also grateful for my capacity to feel things so intensely as it means I get to experience all of life’s beauty in extreme Technicolor with magnified surround sound (even though it also inevitably means that I experience all of life’s ugliness in a similarly enhanced way). Yet the uncomfortable reality is this: at times, it is rather exhausting to be me - especially when it comes to relationships….

This is an area of life where my experience seems to diverge considerably from that of my friends and acquaintances involved in long-term, committed relationships.  Like many couples, they too experience periods of turbulence with their significant others but, for most of the time, they seem to enjoy calm and harmonious relations.  Without wishing to question here whether or not this is the norm, I can only report that, as in so many other areas of life, my experience of relationships deviates significantly from this.

Although it is not easy to acknowledge, my interactions with my significant others – including my youngest son – seem to be characterised by conflict and high drama.  This sometimes gives me cause to reflect that whilst, for some, relationships provide nourishment, comfort and reassurance – a bit like home baked apple pie on a cold, winter’s day – mine are rarely like that.  In fact, to give another food analogy, if I had to describe the primary ingredients of my relationships, I would say they combine the tangy sharpness of limes with the fiery fury of jalapenos; though, just occasionally the finest trace of pure honeyed caramel lends an unexpected dash of sweetness to this volatile mix. However, most of the time the incontrovertible truth of the matter is this: black and white, sweet and sour; my relationships – like me – are pure ice and fire!

At this point, I return to my earlier fleeting reference to Buddhism because what I have just described is precisely why Buddhism – being a philosophy essentially concerned with harmony and balance - is actually a perfect fit for me. The reason for this is quite simple: since I am unquestionably one of the world’s finest, long-standing drama queens, this an area where I am particularly ‘developmentally challenged!’

A word about Buddhism here: the school of Buddhism that I follow advocates that to change karma, you need to have faith like flowing water (see footnote*). What this means is that it is vitally important to be constant and unwavering in faith, no matter what life throws at you – good or bad – but particularly when things are bad. This is a challenging concept for someone like me because, being of fiery temperament, my faith more closely resembles fire than water: it flares up with majestic brilliance and then extinguishes itself at the slightest breeze. Consequently, when times are hard, I dedicate myself to my Buddhist practice as though my very existence depended on it – only to discard it again like yesterday’s newspaper when things improve. Fortunately, I have this self-knowledge so there is at least some hope of transforming my lack of constancy and creating a bit of balance as opposed to yet more extremes.

I often wonder how life would be were I to attain a state of total enlightenment. Would I be a picture of calm, the perfect embodiment of the principles of Zen? Would I break free from my attachment to extremes and dissociate myself from my drama queen persona? More importantly still, would I really even want to? For, strange though it may seem, I am rather fond of some of my defining characteristics. This is because although there is a downside to being me, there is also most definitely an upside: for one thing, my passionate nature means that life has rarely been dull and my journey through this world has been a colourful one, to say the least! However, the beauty of the religion I have chosen for myself is that it does not require me to give up being who I am. This is because, unlike some schools of Buddhism, it does not advocate renouncing worldly attachments or practicing assiduously for many lifetimes to change negative karma. Instead, the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin allows me to continue being me, with all my qualities and imperfections, whilst simultaneously encouraging me to become more balanced and less combative. As a result, I am able to connect with a calmer and more grounded self - an enlightened version of me - that has been polished and purified through my daily Buddhist practise.  All that is required in return is that I keep showing up every day in front of my Butsudan (a Buddhist altar) until my faith becomes like flowing water – continuous and unstoppable. 

Ultimately, the reality of my situation is this: unless I have a complete personality change - caused by a freak accident or brain surgery – I am likely to live out the rest of my days being the same intense, thoughtful, passionate, rebellious, contradictory and difficult person I have always been. However, fortunately, I am lucky enough to have the tools at my disposition to temper the extremeness of my character so that there is more equilibrium and harmony in my everyday life. If I can manage to do this, there is some hope that rather than being dragged through life by the scruff of the neck, bouncing from high to low, I will find a place of stillness within the ebb and flow of my emotions. Perhaps, that way, I may be able to continue living life with similar intensity but less suffering.

Today there are people who have faith in the Lotus Sutra. The belief of some is like a fire while that of others is like water. When the former listen to the teachings, their passion flares up like fire, but when by themselves, they are inclined to discard their faith. To have faith like water means to believe continuously without ever regressing. Since you pay frequent visits to me regardless of the difficulties, your belief is comparable to flowing water. It is worthy of great respect!
(Gosho from the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1206; MW-2, p. 296)

* Footnote: Karma in the context I use it here means the dominant patterns established through repeated thoughts, actions and words over many lifetimes, which create a complex chain of causes and effects.