today: a few excerpts from a book i’m reading right now, living with the devil: meditations on good and evil, by stephen batchelor. it’s not just “a” book – it’s one of the best books on buddhism i’ve read.
a path is created by one’s aims and removing what gets in the way of their realization. it is carved from commitment and opened up by letting go. it entails both doing something and allowing something to happen. a path is both a task and a gift. in exerting too much control, one inhibits its spontaneous unfolding, whereas just by letting everything be, one loses sight of a guiding vision. the art of creating a path is to do neither too much nor too little.
shantideva compares compulsions to “bands of thieves” who lie in wait for an opportunity to invade us and “steal the treasures” of our minds. as soon as there is a lapse in self-awareness, a compulsive thought or image is liable to erupt, triggering a torrent of longing or despair that leaves us rattled and bewildered. as creatures of mara [the buddhist equivalent of “devil”], compulsions act as if they were autonomous forces. we suffer anxiety or panic “attacks” and feel overwhelmed by unwelcome thoughts. we are seized by feelings and images that we cannot seem to shake off.
who owns desire?
the depiction of mara as an autonomous being who argues with buddha illustrates how such drives feel as thought they happen to one. i do not choose to be lustful, lethargic, conceited, or deluded; i find myself feeling that way. i do not decide in advance to think a thought; it comes to me as a ready-made phrase. i talk of “my” desires, “my” fears, and “my” doubts as though i somehow owned and controlled them. but when i try to let go of them, i find that it is not so much i who have them but they who have me.
compulsion and the path
compulsions obstruct the path by monopolizing consciousness. the hypnotic fascination they exert prevents us from attending to anything else. we behave like a rabbit dazzled by the headlights of a car. not only do compulsions make us lose sight of our goal, they inwardly paralyze us. to escape their grip does not entail suppressing them but creating a space in which they are freed to let them go and they are freed to disappear.
neither condemning nor condoning
“as soon as i know the mind is distorted,” says shantideva, “i should remain as steady as a log.” without condoning or condemning what is breaking into consciousness, calmly note that an emotionally charged complex of phrases and images has erupted. you do not have to think of it as “me” or “mine.” having risen of its own accord, it will pass away of its own accord. given the space to do so, a compulsion frees itself.
(this post has been listed in the addiction and recovery blog carnival)