Sunday, November 20, 2011

"As Good As It Gets"

The following is an adaptation of an essay I wrote in 1998 after seeing the film, As Good As It Gets the night before. It was written for the newsletter of the Community of Mindfulness/NY Metro.

What if this – this life, as it is – is as good as it gets? Does this thought, which can be understood to be a central insight, teaching and practice of (zen) buddhism, scare you? Depress you? Do you celebrate the idea with a hearty cheer? Or does it jolt you into sobriety?

There is an old story about a farmer who travels many miles to consult with the Buddha. Upon sitting at the Buddha’s feet, he tells the Buddha that he has 83 problems. The Buddha asks him about his problems. The farmer begins, “Well, I’m a farmer, and I love to farm. But last year we had a drought and we almost starved to death because of the meager harvest. This year, there was too much rain, and many of the crops were destroyed.”
            The Buddha sat and sympathetically nodded his head. “Yes, go on.”
            “Well, I love my wife very dearly, but I find myself growing bored and looking after other women.”
            The Buddha continued to nod his head and encouraged the farmer to share his troubles.
            “I have a son and a daughter. They’ve made me very proud. But they’re stubborn, and don’t take my advice,” the farmer continued.
            After delivering his long litany of problems to the Buddha, he asked, “So can you help me? I hear you are a great teacher.”
            The Buddha responds, “Well, it’s true you have 83 problems, and you haven’t even mentioned others like the fact that you are growing old and that you will die, and that everyone you know and love will also grow old and die.”
            The farmer was aghast. Why wasn’t the Buddha helping him? Why was he loading on even more problems?
            Then the Buddha said, “I cannot help you with any of those problems. But perhaps I can help you with the 84th problem.”
            Exasperated, the farmer asks, “What is the 84th problem?”
            “You want a life with no problems,” replied the Buddha.

            We would like a life with no problems. Ideally, we would not grow old, infirm and die. We would not have to deal with such unpleasantness as losing our teeth, our eyesight growing dim, bad breath, wrinkles, graying and balding hair, let alone tumors, miscarriages, and the fact that, as the Golden Archies sing, “the number of ways to die is infinite.” We’d always be surrounded by the pleasant and beautiful. This is a true vision of heaven, and it is one traded on by religions, political ideologies, and advertisers. And because it’s not how our life actually is, we are led to feel discontentment and shame. We actually feel shame when our body does something innocuously natural like fart, or when our bellies make gurgling noises, let alone when our skin wrinkles or becomes diseased! And because of this conditioned shame, we spend huge amounts of money, time and energy trying to deny the fact that we are not “perfect,” distracting ourselves in myriad ways. Whole industries, anti-aging products and body enhancing surgery, are devoted to this vain pursuit. We put on a front for the world and attempt to hide from ourselves our “imperfections” and infirmities because we have been made to feel shame. The Buddha tells us that “imperfection” is real and we do not need to feel ashamed. It is “perfection” that is purely conceptual and unreal. And because we’ve fallen for this deluded conceptualization of “perfection,” we then conceptualize the real world we live in as “imperfect!”  In fact, facing duhkha is noble and ennobling. Not turning away, and not exacerbating it, is the noble response taught by the Buddha. This noble response to existential reality is enlightenment itself. It is transcending the conceptual duality of “perfection” and “imperfection” and embracing just this, life as it is, perfectly imperfect!

            Sitting on a cold stone wall on a cold grey afternoon in January, waiting for a dharma sister with whom I have planned to take a contemplative walk through Prospect Park. A dharma sister whom never arrives, so I sit and contemplate the film I saw last night, As Good As It Gets, as a kind of koan or hwadu.
            There are many parents out with their children, walking through the park today as it is a legal holiday – Martin Luther King Day. They are pushing carriages of sleeping or crying children, many carrying bags filled with the myriad supplies required when on an outing with little diaper-wearing children. Many of these parents have older children tagging along or running ahead. There is a lot of chaos and mayhem.

            Looking at all these universal and particular family street dramas, I see all the sheer effort that goes into being a parent. All the work, planning, and worry that goes into the seemingly simplest thing like a walk in the park with your kid(s). The stress that goes into bundling a squirming irritated little boy or girl to protect them from the winter cold. And many of these moms and dads will face several flights of stairs in their brownstone walkups when they get home, balancing children, supplies, and groceries, and the carriage up to their apartment. And, before they have a moment to catch their breath, the kids will be crying or pleading for something warm to eat or drink or they’ll need some other attending to. And on it goes.
            This is as good as it gets.

            This effort, all this drudgery, is absolutely inseparable from the incomparable joy of being a parent. Of being alive! It is all of a piece and all one. The “suffering” and the joy inter-are. The quality of mind you bring to one determines the depth of the other.

            The problem is that we all too often remain blind to this truth, and thus add greatly to our suffering and discontent through our thinking that it can and should be otherwise. All these thoughts, expectations, and hopes; all these preconceptions we bring to our life as to how it should go, keep us from fully experiencing the luminosity of the present moment. Because we tend to think that if only we could “get it all together” things would be fine. And then what? We wouldn’t have to struggle to balance the carriage and the kid and the diaper bag as we make our way up the stairs? While not dropping the groceries?

            In the movie, As Good As It Gets, Melvin (Jack Nicholson), fears and suspects that this life is indeed as good as it gets. So, Melvin spends much of his time and energy attempting to keep himself as separated from reality as he can. He locks each of the several locks on his door five times. He brings his own disposable plastic utensils to the same restaurant where he sits at the same table to be served by the same waitress everyday. He uses several bars of soap to wash his hands of the outside world, using each bar for only a few seconds before disposing of it in the garbage bin.
            Melvin suffers from obsessive-compulsion disorder. But, except for degree, how different is he from many – if not all of us? Do we not all, to some degree or other, attempt to set up a world we can control, attempting to put as much distance as we can between us and change? Between us and the every-changing contingency of reality?

            Impermanence is one of the deepest teachings of the buddha. And when we look deeply into impermanence, we see another of the deepest teachings: that of selflessness. Most of us, most of the time, are conditioned to view both change and selflessness with either fear or sadness or anxiety. But when Melvin is forced through circumstances to become the caretaker of his neighbor’s dog, the process that will lead to his opening of his fortress of solitude and his heart begins.
            And here, I wish to point out a key tenet of zen buddhism (and verified by recent cognitive science research) that we needn’t have to change our thinking in order to change our behavior. In fact, we needn’t wait to change our mind, but by changing our behavior, we do indeed change our mind. Thus the phrase often heard in the zendo: “You don’t have to like it.” Melvin most certainly does not like the situation, and yet it brings about transformative, healing change!

            Carol (Helen Hunt) lives, as a frustrated date tells her on his way out, “with too much reality.” Her son, Spencer, suffers from a severe respiratory and immune system malady, placing great demands on her, yet her love for him remains strong and bright.
            Yet she too has her hopes, and dreams of the “normal boyfriend,” to come to her and it is up to her mother to interrupt her fantasy and tell her, “We all want that but it doesn’t exist.” This, she is telling us, is as good as it gets.

            Simon (Gregg Kinnear), at the nadir of his life, ends up traveling with Melvin, the bane of his life! His quest is to return back home to Baltimore and his estranged parents in order to ask from money. When he calls from the hotel, and speaks to his mother, it is the day after an evening of re-connection to his art, inspired by Carol, and from a place of new-found strength, rethinking his situation, he refrains from asking his parents for the money. Instead, he forgives his parents, asks for forgiveness himself and just lets go. Holed up in a hotel with Melvin and Carol, it’s as good as it gets.

            Early in the film, after Melvin is rebuffed by his psychiatrist, he spits out the line which gives the film its title, to a startled and bewildered waiting room filled with patients. I suspect that for Melvin, this vocalization of his deepest fear is a kind of turning point. Later, we discover that he has begun to take the pills that may help him, despite the fact, as he says to Carol, that he hates pills. “You don’t have to like it.”

            When Melvin leaves his apartment to go to Carol’s house for the final sequence, he discovers (along with the audience) that he had forgotten to lock the front door. This strikes us all as powerfully meaningful. The Fortress is open and vulnerable. He is not defending himself from reality. He is about to step our into the “full catastrophe.”

            When he tells Carol why he is there – because he alone can see how perfect she is in her mere being (dark circles around her eyes and all); in the way she loves and cares for her son; in the way she brings Melvin his eggs at the restaurant; how he is amazed that no one else can see this truth that shines so luminously to him, we hear the voice of prajna. This life, as it is lived in the mundane moment-to-moment flow is good. It is as good as it gets if we can only open our eyes and our hearts to this reality.

            When Melvin suggests to Carol that they go out for a walk, it is Carol who fears that to go out walking at 4:30 in the morning is “insane.” She certainly doesn’t want to appear crazy! Melvin shows her how fluid reality and perception truly is – how indeed they are actually the same thing – and is we who give meaning to experience by suggesting a “legitimate” reason a couple might be out walking at 4:30 AM.
            There is a bakery on the corner. By stopping off there as they open, they go from being a “crazy” couple walking at 4:30 AM to just a couple who appreciate “really fresh warm rolls” for breakfast!

            Still, both have further lessons to learn this morning. Another insight needs to develop. As they walk, Carol becomes aware of Melvin’s avoidance of the cracks in the sidewalk. She stops abruptly and pulls away from him, declaring “this, whatever it is. It’s not going to work.” This is beyond her ability to accept. She is uncomfortable with the situation as it is. After another avowal of love from Melvin, he moves in for a kiss. But neither of them can completely let go into the moment. They are not fully present to the embrace. Melvin insists he knows he can do better, and then abandoning himself to the moment, surrenders to a truly passionate, fully embracing kiss that Carol herself melts into.
            When they take each others hand and start walking again, the camera’s set-up leads us to believe there’s been a typical Hollywood “magic of romance” movement, because we see that they are walking along a cross-hatched sidewalk, side by side! But, as the camera pulls back, we see that while Carol is walking along the tiles, Melvin is walking on the inside of the sidewalk, where the cracks are more widely spaced! But, they are holding hands across the gulf. Is this a compromise? Or acceptance? Or is it both? Perhaps these two options are not in fact two different things. Perhaps they are one and the same, their love bridging all distinctions?

            Yet, in the very last shot of the film, the bakery lights go on. As the door opens outward, and Melvin steps aside to let Carol in, he loses his balance and the toes of his left foot land on the cracks of the tiled part of the sidewalk. We see – and feel along with him – his surprise… and relief! Nothing happens. Nothing changes. And of course, everything changes! It’s okay. In the very moment that he has let go and allowed himself to be thrown off balance by thinking of someone else other than himself first, he most fully comes alive. He becomes himself, free of self-defensive compulsion and obsession.

            When we are finally able to awaken to the present, with all its messiness, we can see how those things we may fear most – “things” like change and selflessness, uncertainty, and insubstantiality – are not only negative, but the very grist and foundation upon which life is lived. Change is the constant process of transformation without which there is no life. Selflessness is the fact of interdependence, of the contingent nature of reality. No-thing, and no-one, exists in isolation, no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise.
            In one way or another, each of the three main characters learns aspects of these lessons. Melvin’s transformation begins with his letting down his isolating tendencies – first with Verdell the dog, then with Simon and Carol. He learns interdependence as does Carol, when he offers her assistance and she overcomes her resistance to accepting his aid. In Simon and Melvin’s opening to each other, as well, the lessons of selflessness and interdependence allows change and transformation to happen; life flows and they discover deeper truths about themselves and their capacities to love.

            This is how we all become more fully alive. And, it’s as good as it gets!