Thursday, November 24, 2005


One of the big marquee items in Buddhism is the idea of the middle way - the path between the two extremes. It's usually said that people fall into the extreme of believing that things truly exist; when they first learn about Buddhism, it's relatively easy to fall into the extreme of believing that things do not exist at all. The middle path runs between these two extremes: things do exist, but they do not exist truly.

This all sounds really cool and mystical when you first read about it, and of course you have no idea what it means. I mean, things do exist. And they don't not exist. The source of this confusion is philosophical shorthand - what does it mean for things to exist truly, and what does it mean for things to not exist at all?

I'll talk about it in terms of my experience, and in terms of renunciation, another poorly understood term. When I was a kid I thought that the way to happiness was to meet a nice girl, fall in love, get married, get a good job, buy a house, and all of that. A pretty typical roadmap for a life. On a more granular level, I thought that, for example, owning a car would make me happier - if I had a car, I'd be able to get dates, and be able to meet the girl, and then happiness would ensue.

This is the extreme of thinking that things truly exist. It means that there's a car out there that has the quality of being able to make it easier for me to meet women. There's a woman out there who has the quality of being able to make me happy. And it all sounds pretty plausible on the face of it. We see things working this way all the time.

But the fact is that at some point you realize that things don't exist truly. When I give a bum on the street $5 to get a hamburger, he's probably going to spend it on booze, despite the fact that he assured me he just wanted a bite to eat. When Andrea is sad about something, I want her to be happy, so I comfort her, and it usually doesn't make her happy - in fact, I think sometimes it upsets her more. I am not the cause of her happiness.

When people get all the things they thought they wanted, they frequently realize that their lives are still unfulfilling. They get frustrated. Sometimes they live lives of quiet desperation. Sometimes they act out. Maybe that's why there's so much domestic violence: he/she was supposed to make me happy, but he/she didn't, and so he/she is bad, and must be punished for failing in his/her duty. Drinking is supposed to make me cheerful, the life of the party, attractive to others. One drink doesn't seem to be having that affect. Here, let me have another.

So in my life, there came a time when the fact that things don't exist truly really hit me over the head with a hammer. It was when Vicki and I first tried to buy a house together. She said something about growing old and grey together, and my reaction was "I don't want to!" We were buying a fixer-upper, and we were going to be horribly in debt, and living in a crap heap, and I decided I just couldn't deal with it and called the whole thing off, to the great disappointment of the architect we'd hired.

Then later I forgot, and we bought a house together, which was less of a fixer-upper, and wound up fixer-uppering it anyway. And I realized that the etymology of the word "mortgage" had to have something to do with death. And that I was going to be paying for this place that wasn't even remotely what I wanted for the rest of my life.

But I kept on thinking that things would make me happy. Just not that thing. This went on for quite some time, but I was starting to clue in. And at some point I finally really gave up on the gross idea that things could really make me happy. I still buy dessert, but I don't think the house in Tucson is going to be my source of happiness, and although I love Andrea very much and want her to stay around, I don't think that spending my life with her is going to be the source of my happiness. If I want to spend a happy life with her, it's going to come from somewhere else.

So here's where the extreme of thinking that things don't exist at all comes into play. If Andrea can't make me happy, and the house can't make me happy, then all the things that I've looked to for happiness have failed me. And I don't have anything with which to replace them. So now I'm in the extreme of thinking that things don't exist at all.

To be clear, on an intellectual level I know that this is not true. But now I'm in this between state, where I've given up on the conventional idea that being the perfect consumer can bring me happiness, but I haven't really, on a gut level, figured out another way to find happiness. So where before I was blipping occasionally into a freedom from the idea that things could make me happy, now I'm occasionally blipping into a freedom from the absence of any thing that could make me happy.

The way this is manifesting in my life right now is that I am hugely unmotivated. I'm doing stuff that people ask me to do, and making lousy progress on anything else. I'm in a state where I really, really need to get my shit together. There's a clue in here, I think - the ultimate source of happiness is in helping others, or so I've been taught, and so I believe, on an intellectual level. And when people ask me for help, and I help them, I'm happy to have done so. Last week I helped Albert, our VP of Marketing, with a product release, and although it was hard, because public speaking isn't really my thing, I was happy to help him, and I enjoyed the process.

So now the task before me is to get my shit together - to figure out how to ask myself for things for others, when they don't know to ask me, and to feel on a gut level that helping them is worthwhile. I've got some ideas about that, and I'm working on them. It's a process. We'll see how it goes.


Anonymous Mummy said...

Glad you had a good trip.

"Springerville, which despite not being near a ski area seemed a lot like a ski town to both of us."

How DOES a ski town seem?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 12:47:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home