Michael Stone, yogi, psycho-therapist, activist, writer, and friend, wrote a comment in response to my last post (Why take life so seriously? It’s impermanent.) on FaceBook, prompting me to take this opportunity to delve again into what I was attempting to get at in that post.
Michael wrote: Isn't "peace the path" because our actions matter, not in a future life awaiting us, but in the real social, political, emotional, familial life of ours now? frank the title of your blog makes me uneasy as it comes close to the passivity that a (mis)understanding of non-attachment connotes. yes, the asset of joy means everything. and so does action! mindfulness happens in action, whether joyful or serious or upset and neutral. if we focus too much on not taking life so seriously, we can become indifferent, or worse, we tend not to study our actions and their consequences.
Michael specifically says that it is the title of my blog that made him uneasy. I don’t know (and I should have asked) if he had read the post before commenting. And if he did read the post, I should have asked if the rest of the post left him uneasy as well, or if it indeed were just the title.
After all, the title is simply from a bumper-sticker I found humorous, and yes, a bit provocative. And that was exactly why I chose to use this to title this particular post. As I responded to Michael, it was meant to be both humorous and provocative. I think perhaps the humor may have been lost on Micheal, and it simply 'provoked' his response.
The response I posted to Michael’s comment on Facebook was the following: Michael, I agree that "if we focus too much on not taking life so seriously, we can become indifferent" but my experience with students (and most people I know) is that we don't focus on taking life less seriously at all. The point of this post is that through self-absorbtion, most of us take things too seriously (personally) etc. Thay himself offers the practice of stopping and considering what you (and the person or persons you are caught in drama with) will look like in 100 years.
Our actions DO matter. AND I do believe we'd be better off not taking ourselves so seriously at the same time. Or as Pema Chodron puts it, "Enlighten up!" I've often experienced that when a group of practitioners can feel easeful enough to laugh at themselves and their 'craziness,' a deeper sense of authenticity and intimacy is the result.
I hope by this you’ll see that I am not saying that life is meaningless or that we should adopt a frivolous attitude to it. Everyday, as part of my prostration practice, I chant the following gatha:
Great is the matter of birth and death!
Impermanence surrounds us!
Be awake each moment!
Do not waste your life!
This is a pretty 'serious' verse. But to approach our actions and their consequences seriously is still not necessarily the same as taking ourselves seriously, and it was this that I was particularly addressing in my post. This is why I specifically talked about “drama queens” (and we all harbor an inner drama queen to some extent or another).
Sally’s comment directly addressed this when she wrote: Thank you!... this resonates so much with my current family drama that pulls me into thinking and getting so serious. I'd much rather be light, forgiving, loving, and letting go. I will always remember how easily you said there is nothing to forgive when I was so sorry to have forgotton to show up on a class that I was suppose to sub. That response is still with me as a reminder to extend it foward. so much gratitude.
I wrote that post after I had just returned from a Yoga Teacher Training in Costa Rica, where many of the students were oppressed by the suffering of taking themselves and their ‘little dramas’ so terribly seriously. It was this tendency we all share that I was addressing in my post. This is not to minimize the difficulty of life, of family and relationships in general. But again, as Thay reminds us, impermanence should wake us from this daze of taking every 'insult' to our ego so seriously. Many times when I have found myself getting upset and building a Gone With The Wind narrative around a perceived slight, I have used Thay's practice of imagining myself and my loved on in 100 years and the drama completely deflates, as does my anger and self-defensiveness!
Michael responded to my comment saying: thanks frank. sometimes i get charged with being serious (for those who don't know me) and i only mention this because social change that arises from compassion still requires confrontation. we need to confront, with metta, what's in us, but also what is around us. that's serious business!
And I totally agree with Michael that social change is indeed ‘serious business.’ And that compassion sometimes requires we confront injustice. But I still hold that we should work for social change in the same spirit as we work for personal change (or transformation) and that is by not taking ourselves so seriously! I believe this is part of the message we should take from the Diamond Sutra where the Buddha says that the bodhisattva works for the liberation of countless beings, and when countless beings have been liberated does not for one instant believe that any beings have been liberated. Why? Because if we think "I" have saved "others" we are falling into self-cherishment.
One of the Buddha’s core teachings is the teaching of anatta or not-self. That we take every thought that goes through our head ‘personally’ is part of the problem of duhkha. As Joseph Goldstein says, "thoughts, feelings and emotions are all conditioned by impersonal forces." As hard as it may be to accept, there is nothing ‘personal’ about any of it! That we take things ‘personally’ is what I mean by taking things too seriously. Perhaps I should have been clearer, and so I thank Michael for his comments, prodding me to re-state my intention here.
As Karen Maezen Miller writes in Momma Zen, “Yes, we all have a load on our hands, but the heavy is in our heads. Set the heavy down and sweep aside the useless mental clutter.” As her teacher, Maezumi Roshi told her, “You make everything work.” Don’t we all do so when we take ourselves overly seriously? Life is more fun that we sometimes make it. When a child asked Thich Nhat Hanh what he did for fun, Thay responded with a smile, “Everything I do is for fun.” As I titled an earlier essay, I think of it (life, practice, commitment) as all of it being “Important Fun.”
poep sa frank jude