The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
-The Third Patriarch of Zen
I have spent much of my life in pursuit of satisfying preferences that I have been convinced I intrinsically possess. Chocolate or vanilla? Which college to attend? Maybe this sounds familiar to you: As if on autopilot, every choice that I have made, including the lousy ones; every goal that I have set for myself, I have accepted as being rooted in a character construction process shaped by family, education, trial and error, morality, and trusting my instinct. No coin-flipping here. Stubborn though I am, I have listened to the suggestions of elders, teachers, and mentors, I have tried to learn from my perceived mistakes, and refined my method of preference-setting for the next time.
And recently it was suggested to me: “You have lived through so much. Like, 80% of your body doesn’t work. Have you considered writing about it?”
Sirens began blaring. Big ego alert. Writing? To what end? I find self-help books boring, if not alienating. The people who write them, particularly the chosen few who have become seminar-giving superstars, ubiquitous on television, etc., scare me. And, to be candid, just because someone is quadriplegic and a Buddhist does not obviate the possibility that he can often be a colossal schmuck. Just ask my ex-wife. Or my present one.
Then, at the suggestion of another friend, I took a look at a video on YouTube rendered by a very successful, heroic, former Navy SEAL who earned a ton of medals en route to writing a #1 New York Times Bestseller in the arena of using one’s mind and will to achieve whatever one wants. Perhaps you know this man. He is incredibly charismatic. And makes a very convincing case.
And it occurred to me, though using one’s will to overcome seemingly insurmountable circumstances is a mythic archetype we have been taught to aspire to, it is hard for most of us to get through a day, if we are really looking. So learning to live with not getting what we want seems a more useful endeavor (to which a sequel can be added, Learning To Want Less).
Not that I am encouraging being lazy, or copping out (though I certainly seem to enjoy both more than I’d like to admit). And despite my 30+ years of exposure to great Eastern texts and teachings, I cannot honestly speak to a clear or deep enough understanding of the laws of karma to opine here about the notion that free will might not even exist, in the first place. I think it’s admirable if you are comfortable setting a goal and constructing a plan to get there. And bless you and the millions of people for whom this model has worked.
I’m just not like you. Maybe you are not like you. If you know what I mean.
The work of our leading neuroscientists tells us that no matter how exactingly the brain can be studied, at this juncture, after thousands of years of recorded human history, no one has any idea where thoughts come from. Not even a clue. That it is possible to control one’s mind enough to do anything seems like a lot to take on, in light of this fact. At this very moment, there are innumerable functions taking place in our bodies that our minds are entirely unaware of…The beating of our hearts, the formation of blood cells, and on and on. Have you ever considered what is really happening when you are driving a car? Your liver, kidneys, autonomic nervous system, etc. are performing all of their incredibly complex functions at the same time your brain is attempting to regulate a two ton projectile hurdling through space at 60 miles an hour…While, concurrently, you are either conducting a telephone conversation or singing along to Don’t Stop Believin’.
Perhaps our first collective encounters with our will as an illusion took place in early infancy when we wanted to be fed, only to be thwarted by the reality that, no matter how incredibly dutiful our parents might have been, we were not going to be satisfied on demand all the time. That we continue to try to get what we want in light of the continual disappointment of it not happening, no matter how hard we try, speaks to something else in our species that is pretty great. The possibility of contentment…
… Which is where I am more comfortable living. Choices do not, all too often, work out. No matter how resolute we are in preparing and organizing ourselves, very few of us get to be the guy holding up the trophy at the end of the game. And even that guy is going to encounter illness, or lose a loved one, and there is no preparation adequate enough for that.
I recall the hours upon hours of laying in my hospital bed when I was 19, and newly paralyzed. I would try and try to will my legs to move. It was always nighttime, and no one was around. I would focus all of the mental energy I could muster to attempt to contract my muscles; bend my knee; wiggle a toe, to no avail. And then, sometimes, when I’d had enough, and my will appeared to be more of an illusion than I could handle, I would remember how poignant it was to be alive, and in a trauma center in New York City, where, at the very least, I could ring for a nurse, who could bring me a phone, and help me order Chinese food.
Contentment, indeed. That’s my preference.
Until next time, much love.
Self Help on Huffington Post