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Ask A Buddhist: “Make my life smaller”

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Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online. 

By Sarah Conover

How do we deal with the paradox of year by year wanting to go through life with new understandings to live more “fully” when this becomes so similar in many ways to all the other desires we have, and we miss a lot of the present moment because of it?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Fantastic question Dear Reader. I often find that people ask me just the thing I need to ponder.

Not long ago in Backpacker Magazine I read an editorial that, much to my surprise, adjusted the compass of my life. The magazine’s editor had taken a long-wanted distance hike of several months. He said he’d expected to grow, but instead found that he’d shrunk, shrunk to the size of a single human being and it was a huge relief. I take his words about “expecting to grow” as cousin to what you’ve dubbed, “live more fully.” The take-away for me from the article pointed to an always-out-of reach horizon of accruing experiences. When is enough? I’m never going to get to all the retreats I’d like to, read all the books I’ve put on my Amazon Wish List, see all the movies I want from Sundance, watch all the Ted Talks I’ve tagged or listen to the hundreds of podcasts and Dharma talks available online. With so many possibilities now, where does a person dive in or jump out when garnering experiences to create a fuller life? My guiding mantra since reading the article has been to make my life smaller.

Living more fully seems to me an unexamined ideal (and thank you for prompting me to look at it), one that we can clearly see through when it refers to material comforts, but one that seems to have snuck right past us when it comes to spirituality. The conundrum brings to mind a man from Eastern Europe I met years ago who, having just got out from under the thumb of the USSR, said that we Americans live under our own form of tyranny — that of too many choices. He had a point. Today, those choices have exploded in material and nonmaterial forms. David Brazier in a recent Tricycle Magazine contribution said: “The pursuit of self-advantage and gain has a clear and pervasive logic. It can enter into every crevice of one’s life, not excluding one’s spiritual path.” It’s possible we’ve become greedy in our most intimate arenas—perhaps we need to dust off our old copies of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “Spiritual Materialsim.”

What truly feeds our heart and not the curating and constucting of self, ego? Trust that I’m asking myself more than making any declarations, hoping I learn something here as well. Can spirituality be chased after or hoarded? “As soon as you desire spiritual attainment you can be sure you’re off its trail,” said a Buddhist teacher in a book I read recently.

Because the tenet of the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism is that cause of human suffering is desire, taṇhā, you’ve opened a very big topic indeed. Tanha, can be translated as “craving,” but a craving so primal that another translation for it is “thirst.” We can go without food for many days, but we cannot put off our thirst for long before we die. Tanha refers to worldly desires, a spectrum ranging from sense pleasures and lust to the myriad ways we cling to our sense of personhood through our preferences and judgments.

However, your question points to a broader Buddhist term than tanha: chanda. Chanda translates as intention, interest and desire to act. It refers to desire for a result that is ethically variable depending on its accompanying mental factors. Thus chanda can either refer to something like base sensual desire (kama-chanda) or the virtuous desire to achieve a worthy goal. Ajahn Karunadhammo of Abhayagiri Monastery told me that the most common use of chanda in the wholesome sense is in reference to the Four Bases of Success, which are chanda, viriya, citta, vimasa (interest, energy/effort, application of mind, review/evaluation). Another Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Succito states: “Desire as an eagerness to offer, to commit, to apply oneself to meditation, is called chanda. It’s a psychological ‘yes,’ a choice, not a pathology. In fact, you could summarize Dhamma training as the transformation of tanha into chanda.”

My daughter asked a respected teacher in Thailand a similar question to yours — are ambition and desire necessarily bad, or can they also lead to good? He is a man who is rather straightforward (he trained as an engineer in the U.S. and he also seems to have trained in American directness and needs no translator). After he told her that any ambition other than becoming a nun was pointless, he divided experience very starkly between desires that hunger for something outside a person, and a content state of mind within. The former, he said are never fulfilling. He continued:

You have to keep getting more and more, meaning you have to work hard all the time to get this kind of happiness. The other kind of happiness that I told you about is meditation. When your mind settles down, becoming peaceful and calm, you will find real fulfillment where you have no desire for anything. It is yours all the time, because it is within yourself. Everything else outside yourself comes and goes, so if you have any desire for anything in this world, be it fortune or fame or anything, you are just going after bubbles. So try to develop mindfulness; try to bring your mind to peace, to settle down, to become peaceful. Then you will realize this is the real kind of happiness.

It might seem easy to spot the differences in these two chanda camps of desire, but in my experience, not always so. Your conundrum, Dear Reader comes to mind for instance. A number of teachers have told me that you must hone your sense of worldly desire (kama-chanda) versus unworldly desires (those of virtuous chanda), and that you can almost catch the scent of their final trajectories before you take any action. Investigating the difference at a micro-level, through wise reflection and meditation, is essential. In my limited experience, there are no shortcuts. The more I learn to attend, the more I notice that the distinctions might not be subtle after all. One feels like a hunger that can never be satiated (and therefore causes me to suffer); the other feels like I’ve arrived at the home in my heart where restlessness ceases.

I have other personal indicators for discerning the divergence in chandas: for me, kama-chanda (tanha/craving), feels like a grabbing. In fact an image often comes to mind of my daughter’s first words: with both arms reaching outwards and upwards, palms rotating, she’d repeat, “More!” On the other hand, my experience of wholesome desire feels like an emptying out, a freedom — not an acquisition, not a feeling of I, me and mine. Another signal for me of worldly desire — even in the realm of a fuller life and new understandings — is when I notice I’ve been pricked by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and find myself obsessing over it. A teacher recently told me that paying attention to one’s state of mind when desiring something will color what camp the desire falls into — worldly or otherworldly.

It may seem cliché, but meditation can indeed turn that yearning for more on its head. Samadhi, the meditation term for a deep unification of mind, is an antidote to addiction — the worst face of tanha, craving. In my practice, I’ve found that the ajahn is exactly right: When our minds and hearts are truly composed, they allow for utter contentment in this very moment. Nothing more needed. Seeking for something else, for a different experience, for a fuller experience and life, drops away.

The great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Chah, was once asked for the fastest way to enlightenment. His deceptively simple answer: “Do nothing!” Stop chasing, acquiring, wanting. “Not doing,” says John Tarrant in “The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul and the Spiritual Life,” “is a kind of falling out of our lives…Visible and invisible hands reach out and we find that we have always been supported by much that is unknown and beyond our plans.”

About doing nothing, Jianzhi Sengcan, known as the Third Patriarch of Chan Buddhism (Chinese Zen Buddhism), says: “The great way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.” Remember that we in the West have a tyranny of too many choices, so perhaps we need to start channeling our efforts to explore more of what’s already before us and within us with great patience. Rather than looking for personal growth outside ourselves, perhaps it is in transforming tanha — through meditation and wise reflection — into virtuous chanda that offers freedom and happiness. Trust that your heart will know difference.

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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  • NoName

    After he told her that any ambition other than becoming a nun was pointless. . . [he said] “so if you have any desire for anything in this world, be it fortune or fame or anything, you are just going after bubbles”

    This is maybe my #1 problem with Buddhism. I read the philosophy, I love the ideas, but so often it induces arrogance in its practitioners. There’s a single-mindedness to this teacher’s advice that is reminiscent of fundamentalism. Does Buddhism have fundamentalist groups akin to those in Christianity and Islam? What about a history of religious violence?

    • Sarah Conover

      Dear Reader: thanks so much for your comment. I have thought about it a lot, and done some self reflection around it. You make an important point, one that any religious enthusiast must handle with mindfulness (!) and care. I think your set of questions are worth an Ask a Buddhist essay. Thanks again.

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