Sunday, July 12, 2009

View from the mid-point

I am halfway through a year of stepping back, of contemplation, of slowing down, asking questions, and being willing to hear the answers. I've had lots of help, of course -- the many people who have shared their insights about these questions by writing books and essays, and the friends with whom I've discussed it all, especially my friend Peg, who has been grappling with her own challenges without taking a year off, and is a source of inspiration. These six months have been nothing short of miraculous, in that slowing down has allowed me to drop the excuses that always cut short this kind of exploration in the past. I never have the excuse of not having enough time. I have plenty of time. (Photo CC licensed; credit: Photoantique)

But though I am encouraged about getting past old excuses, I haven't found what I ostensibly came looking for in the first place: motivation to pursue with passion some path I could roughly characterize as "my third career," or in more immediate terms, motivation to throw myself into some specific dissertation topic. Not that I didn't give that a good try. I had already focused on that for seven months before I decided that want of a topic wasn't the real problem -- want of something more general was.

Once I made the field of inquiry both broader, and more personal, I discovered many things that could contribute to my lack of interest in anything and everything. I was very surprised to find that one of those stumbling blocks could be self-discipline. It is very hard to imagine that I might lack it, because I've accomplished many things that sure do seem to require it, but as I examine those accomplishments more closely, I see that jobs, school and social obligations structured my time for me. I really didn't have to. Of course, I prioritized, and prioritizing is certainly a type of self-discipline, but it seems that my priorities were always, at least in significant part, about meeting others' expectations of me. Even when I push myself, that is, exercise self-discipline to accomplish more than I really think I can, it's at least partly to please, or more precisely, avoid disappointing, others.

Where, exactly, does this motivation to please others come from? And is there self-motivation unrelated to the desire to please?

Addressing the second question first, meditation can be self-discipline at the most elementary level. The only desire is to be awake, aware in the present moment. On the other hand, if I practice meditation to cultivate kindness and compassion or for any other purpose, am I not back to, at bottom again, pleasing others? Can one really have no other goal than to be awake at every moment? Actually, it's true that many Buddhist writers indicate precisely that: having any other goal besides moment-to-moment awareness is simply more ego involvement, more delusion, and ultimately destructive of the very effort one makes to be present. It's quite nuanced, this non-goal-setting. If you simply have as your purpose to be awake, everything else will follow. But if you have as your goal all the stuff that is supposed to follow, you fail the goal of desiring to be no more than awake. Almost like you must fool yourself into thinking you don't really have goals, while all the while having them hiding behind the "be awake" goal.

Ah, but that's where knowledge of the differing perspectives from which you can see come into play (books I read earlier this spring and commented on in earlier posts). The logical, linear mind identifies as goals things like enhancement of some skill or ability, or some aspect of self identified with the form of the body ("I want to be more [whatever]"). The mind that is simply aware sees those enhancements as illusory, temporary, and destined to be unsatisfactory in any event, in short, of no consequence. Before I learned there was another way to see besides the logical and linear, I always became disillusioned when I came to this seeming contradiction (don't wish for the result, just be here now and the result will occur) and gave the whole enterprise of meditation up. It just made no sense. Indeed. It makes no sense, to the ego, to the logical mind. It makes perfect sense to awareness, to consciousness.

I really want to know whether I can accomplish anything significant outside of school, work and social obligations, that is, outside of external motivations to please or avoid disappointing others. I developed bilateral pneumonia at the end of June, so I have even more time to think about where the motivation to please others comes from, in answer to the second question. No surprises here: fear is at its heart -- fear of failure, hell, fear of being anything short of perfect, because at bottom, the fear is that those who love and take care of us only do so so long we meet their expectations. When no one contradicts that interpretation of reality (easy enough if it's never expressed), it can become very firmly entrenched in one's psyche. Maybe this is normal socialization; it certainly was a logical conclusion for this child to draw, given my particular family, but it's not the only possible interpretation of the basis for love and caring. And adults do revise their childish views of the world and how it works. It's not that there isn't contingent love. It's all around us. But there is also unconditional love. As it turns out, seeing the difference is one of those consequences of building moment-to-moment awareness. So meditation helps to answer this question too.

Pneumonia is a secondary lung infection caused by failure to clear congested bronchial passageways. Things like excessive suppression of coughs, asthma, allergies, and taxing one's body when it's least able to handle it -- these contribute to the conditions that allow pneumonia to get started and take hold. The cure is antibiotics, and for an asthmatic, regular use of bronchodilators and other inhaled medications that reduce the accumulation of fluid in the lungs. And lots of rest. Takes four - six weeks to get back to normal. Peg dragged me to the ER. I never would have gone on my own. I had to give a talk, that's why I was there in DC, that and to visit with Peg. I ended up staying in the hospital three days. No talk. My husband had to come to take me back home, and the trip back took every ounce of strength I could muster. Now it's just rest and recover. And think about how I got myself into that hospital in DC, because I am in no hurry to repeat that performance.

I have another six months to continue practicing moment-to-moment awareness, observing the nature of reality, seeing what's important, what's not, and to see where it leads. No goals other than to be awake in every moment, or as many of the days' moments as I can. Certainly more than before, though that's not saying much. And focusing on the breath has a much more profound meaning for me now than it used to. If I learn nothing else this year, I am grateful for that.