Reevaluation | Taking refuge

Today, I saw a facebook memory post from 2 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about the last 2 years recently, wishing I could somehow jettison it all or twist it into something completely different. The post reminded me instead to find strength in reaffirming my values and path in its ongoing depth of intention that has gone above and beyond the pain of obliterated personal goals and the loss of meaning.

The post:

“Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” – Nietzsche (One who has their why of living can withstand almost any how.) Tonight was cold, and I felt tired, old, and unenthused, but ultimately, if you commit to practices like running, like philosophy, like becoming a bodhisattva, the “warum?” of being engaged in such a life carries you along through the challenge of such obstacles.

In the last several months, when it was all I could do to pick myself back up every morning and try again, to not give in to the despair that made me want to commit suicide, I focused on things like bodily exercise, digging into spiritual texts, and caring for those in my life – just like the post. We could call this: body, wisdom, and compassion. To me, this is the “chopping wood, carrying water” of the ongoing path that is life, and no matter what I may lose or how much I may feel dead in comparison to past versions of myself (does such language even truly make sense?), these continue to move me forward and hold me accountable to myself and the universe from which “I” have no separation. In a weirdly resonant note, I think of this challenge and self-destruction in both Nietzschean ways of the “going-under” that is progressing forth as human over the abyss and the Buddhist insights of realizing that all this form and meaning we cling to is empty. It’s all a dream, even the things that “defined” us, even the experiences we cherished, even the pain that arises. The condition of a human life in all that becoming is the constant, and that’s what can inspire the larger choices to awaken: be present and do your best to do well to yourself and to do so for others by offering understanding and care.

In looking through quotes to match up with this Nietzschean inspired post from the past, I found a great section in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart about the Buddha facing and overcoming Mara to achieve enlightenment. It halted me in my tracks of wanting to throw away the past with some sort of harsh reevaluation, instead taking refuge in the dharma of tenderly opening to just this – all the experiences of pain, loss, disappointment, doubt, fear, heartbreak, depression, despair annoyance, self-criticism, and the absurd – and trying to bring my best intentions of wisdom and compassion forward as I have continued to do from the past, knowing that it will always be an “on the way”, a process and path upon which I walk. I feel so much to be the person who’s thrown off by big events in the quote below, doubting that his efforts are any good at all in that very process, and the insight is to embrace that difficulty and continue in it. In a sense, the refuge of buddha, dharma, and sangha is finding peace right in the middle of everything being on fire (The Fire Sermon), of recognizing that you are in the burning house (The Lotus Sutra), and sitting in it with ease. As Dogen says, the Buddha is in the burning house:

I think maybe all of the maras arise from fear of death, but yama mara is particularly rooted there. When we talk about a good life from the usual samsaric point of view, what we mean is that we’ve finally gotten it together. We finally feel we’re a good person. We have good qualities, we’re peaceful, and we don’t get thrown off balance when arrows are shot at us [note: allusion to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment from the beginning of the chapter – basically here a metaphor for the various daily things that our mind pursues and pulls us off a steady path of mindfulness]. We’re the person who knows how to turn an arrow into a flower. We feel so good about ourselves. We’ve finally tied up all the loose ends. We’re happy. We think that’s life.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head, somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit, or we’re going to arrive at our favorite restaurant and discover that no one ordered produce and seven hundred people are coming for lunch.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in a no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.
We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (pp. 93-95)

May this offer inspiration to those who need it and help them find their own refuge in difficulty.

Gassho!

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