zen and clinging

Zen and Clinging

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Zen 101

Zen and Cling­ing  —  Cling­ing is what caus­es suf­fer­ing, or so said the Bud­dha. This idea is not so hard to under­stand, until we are… well… suf­fer­ing. Then, we just want it to be over. And that’s how we go off the rails.

Look­ing for more on this topic? 

Check out my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall.

Wayne’s “East­ern” book takes you by the hand and helps you to find peace of mind. Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall is a Zen-based guide to liv­ing life ful­ly and deeply.

Most people are plagued with clinging. 

Cling­ing is “grasp­ing onto.” We can grasp on to an actu­al thing, or to an idea. We can also grasp on to “aver­sion”  —  to not want­i­ng some­thing. In gen­er­al, cling­ing us about iden­ti­fy­ing with ideas  —  “this is me, this is not me.”

Something I cling to might be called the “object of my desire.”

Zen attempts to loosen our fin­gers from the death-grip we have on the object(s) of our desire, so that we can accept the final para­dox of our desire – you can nev­er hold on to any­thing, includ­ing our illusions.

The problem is simple  —  clinging demands that my desire should trump my reality.

Many of us are quite capa­ble of being present  —  when all is well and the creek ain’t ris­ing. Dif­fi­cul­ties hap­pen when we face a real­i­ty that dif­fers from what we imag­ine we want. 

It’s like the old joke: The 8‑year-old speaks for the first time: “Mom! The toast­er is on fire!” Mom’s amazed: “Why has it take you so long to speak?” Kid: Every­thing was alright until now.”

Zen, too, seems kin­da easy, right up until some­thing goes wrong: ill­ness, death, some­one leaves you… Then, it’s: “This is not sat­is­fac­to­ry! I want this to be over!” 

Let’s start by having a look at desire, shall we?

the fire of desire

There’s a book by Mark Epstein called “Open to Desire.” Epstein is a Bud­dhist psy­chother­a­pist, and was a stu­dent of Ram Dass. 

Obvi­ous­ly, the sub­ject of the book is desire, and how Bud­dhism has a bit of a split per­son­al­i­ty about it. We do too, of course. 

Desire, like sex, makes many peo­ple uncomfortable. 

We like it that things can and do “turn us on,” but we also real­ize that turn-ons have “pow­er over us.” And turn-ons mean that there are turn-offs; things that we don’t want. They’re still desires, or bet­ter, anti-desires. 

Epstein describes two paths in Buddhism.

  1. The ‘right hand path’ as that of the ascetic. In this view, all desire leads to trou­ble (suf­fer­ing)… and the way to deal with it is to repress it, fight it, ignore it, or med­i­tate it to death.
  2. The ‘left-hand path’ is Tantra. In this view, desire becomes the ener­gy for trans­for­ma­tion. Desire stands in the gap between what we have and what we want.

There are several things going on here at once, and they’re all contradictory.

First, desire is a func­tion of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion.

One of the exer­cis­es fea­tured in my book, This End­less Moment is to go to a Mall or a beach or some place where lots of peo­ple are. Sit there and watch the peo­ple go by, and notice which peo­ple you are attract­ed to. Just notice. 

If you do this with your part­ner, tell him or her what you are learn­ing about your­self.

Just below the sur­face, we all crave, or desire, “oth­ers.” Here is the first paradox. 

  • In order to desire, I have to cre­ate an-oth­er  —  an “object of my desire.” 
  • In order to desire, I have to see the object while hold­ing it as a thing.

The para­dox is that full-blown desire only hap­pens when I objec­ti­fy. As soon as the object becomes a per­son, as soon as I give the object sub­jec­tive real­i­ty, (I rec­og­nize the per­son) the charge… the desire to fade. 

Sec­ond, desire is an inter­nal men­tal process  —  the object of your desire is inside of you.

This is part of the point of the obser­va­tion exer­cise. You judge some­one to be desir­able. Anoth­er per­son, sit­ting next to you, might not think so. Thus, the per­son observed is NOT desir­able (it’s not a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the per­son); you desire the person.

As you take a step back, you real­ize that there is a gap between what you desire and the real­i­ty of the object. The para­dox is that you want to pos­sess and hold on to some­thing you are imag­in­ing… (the real issue is, as we shall see – cling­ing…) – but the real­i­ty of what you are try­ing to hold on to has a mind (or a nature) of its own. 

Epstein writes:

But this kind of sat­is­fac­tion is impos­si­ble because the qual­i­ties that we project onto the desired object  —  of per­ma­nence, sta­bil­i­ty or “thing­ness”  —  do not real­ly exist… The dis­par­i­ty between the way we per­ceive things and the way they actu­al­ly are is at the root of our strug­gle with desire. Once we learn to make that dis­par­i­ty part of our expe­ri­ence, how­ev­er, desire can be a teacher rather than an afflic­tion.” [p 69]

The Buddha’s first teach­ing is called “The Four-fold Path.” This teach­ing sup­pos­ed­ly hap­pened pret­ty much right after his enlight­en­ment, and dis­cuss­es his major insight  —  that desire (or bet­ter, cling­ing to desire) leads to suffering. 

The Bud­dha thought that our propen­si­ty for cre­at­ing suf­fer­ing was so com­mon that his First Truth was, (as it is typ­i­cal­ly trans­lat­ed in Eng­lish) Life is Suf­fer­ing.

Epstein says that the San­skrit dukkha, (the word usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed ‘suf­fer­ing’) actu­al­ly means some­thing clos­er to “per­va­sive unsatisfactoriness.”

An example of dukkha is a potter’s wheel that is off-balance, and therefore continually squeaks.

When you are mis­er­able, isn’t that what life feels like  —  like something’s not quite right, annoy­ing, irri­tat­ing, anger-provoking? 

The prob­lem comes when we feel this sense of dukkha, and then blame the expe­ri­ence on per­sons, places, or things out­side of our­selves. We blame oth­ers (or our sit­u­a­tion  —  pain, etc.) for cre­at­ing the feel­ing we have inside of us, despite at some lev­el know­ing that our feel­ings are always and exclu­sive­ly an inside job.

The second Noble Truth: “Clinging (to misplaced desires) causes Suffering.”

The Bud­dha was a pret­ty good psy­chother­a­pist, and he spent his life describ­ing ele­ments of this dance. What he deter­mined was that desire in and of itself is not an issue. Cling­ing to the thing we desire is the issue.

We cling to what we imagine we want, as opposed to being with (desiring) what we have. We create dukkha when we prefer our imaginings over reality, which is how suffering happens.

The place where desire exists, how­ev­er, is also the place where we can begin to step out of the world of things. As we allow the “things we desire” to just be  —  to become real, sep­a­rate and sub­jec­tive, we can embrace both their sep­a­rate­ness and their deep­er meaning.

Now, that’s not what we think nor how we normally act. We label everything, and most especially do we judge everything.

Thus, it might be said that all suf­fer­ing comes from our attach­ment to what we think some­one (or some thing, more pre­cise­ly) ought to be, as opposed to learn­ing to deep­en our desire for how “it” actu­al­ly is.

The same thing happens at the intra-personal level, as we objectify our lives.

  • This time was bet­ter than that time.
  • This expe­ri­ence is prefer­able to that experience.
  • This is a good desire, that is a bad desire.

In each case, I am creating a straw person who is leading a life other than the one I am experiencing, and I cling to my desire for that (unreal) reality.

Boy, this suf­fer­ing is a pain…

Of course, if I am sick, I’d rather not be. I can eas­i­ly remem­ber all the times I felt ‘bet­ter,’ and boy do I desire that “oth­er” feeling. 

But this sim­ply leads to com­pound­ing my pain with my imag­ined suf­fer­ing .

A way to think of this is that pain is inevitable: things we want won’t hap­pen, things we don’t want will, and the bod­i­ly reac­tion is pain. The Bud­dha patient­ly explained, how­ev­er, that suf­fer­ing is always option­al.

Ram Dass used this illus­tra­tion at a work­shop: “Imag­ine that you have to have burn­ing coal placed on the palm of your hand. This is pain. The ques­tion is: will you hold it loose­ly, (non-cling­ing) or will you grasp it tight­ly (suf­fer­ing) and burn your entire hand?” 

Not easy, this, because when we hurt, we want “it” to go away. To change. To be dif­fer­ent. And yet, each thing has its own time-frame, and doesn’t care what we want. 

If we deal with the pain “as it is,” we do not suf­fer. If we focus on what we aren’t get­ting, and demand change, at the very least, we are disappointed.

The way though is being passionate about only one thing. This Present Moment.

Pas­sion is the way to open our­selves to encoun­ter­ing the oth­er (per­son, place, thing, expe­ri­ence) as real. This type of relat­ing is an inter­nal deci­sion to be pas­sion­ate­ly engaged in an explo­ration of the gap that exists between myself and that which is oth­er. I also explore the gap between anoth­er and my per­cep­tion of the other.

So, what is the gap, and how does it parallel desire?

The gap is cre­at­ed by the space (and the emo­tion­al ten­sion) between what is hap­pen­ing and what I wish would happen. 

In most cas­es, this ten­sion cre­ates desire – a long­ing for ‘what isn’t.’ This desire is either pos­i­tive  —  “I want what I don’t have,” or neg­a­tive  —  “I don’t want what I do have.” 

Where most go off the rails is when they freak out over the ten­sion. They end­less­ly try to “make-over” the per­son or sit­u­a­tion – the ‘object’ of their desire – into the image they have in their heads. 

To state it again  —  the desire for some­thing “oth­er” is nor­mal. The demand that “that which is desired” become real  —  that what I desire inter­nal­ly be cre­at­ed in the world  —  sim­ply because I imag­ine it to be “bet­ter”  —  is cling­ing  —  which leads to suffering. 

Cling­ing to one’s demand for “what I am imag­in­ing” leads to ‘spend­ing one’s life fight­ing the gap.’ A desire that one obsess­es over leads to mis­ery. If I ‘fix­ate’ on ful­fill­ing my desire, I will nev­er have a momen­t’s peace.

  1. The ‘right hand path’ sug­gests deal­ing with our propen­si­ty to cling by reject­ing or renounc­ing desire.
  2. The left hand path, the way ‘through’ desire, is to accept it, respect it, and use it to work with the gap.

So, what does this look like?

Odd­ly, it’s as sim­ple as accep­tance. I accept that noth­ing stays the same, that there is always a gap between what is and what I desire, and I use this ten­sion to relax into being com­fort­able with my dis­com­fort. What is will soon be some­thing else. Obsess­ing about it (“You! Change NOW!”) sim­ply means I cling to my desire, and I suffer. 

The best descrip­tion is this (repeat as a mantra, if you will):

I am who I am, and my dis­com­fort is a part of that. If I observe it as opposed to cling­ing to it and pre­tend­ing it’s real (it’s not – it’s a fig­ment of my imag­i­na­tion), the dis­tress will lead me to notice what I am doing, and allow me to step away from doing to sim­ply ‘being in the moment.’

Life is in endless tension. That is the nature of life. The way through the tension is to simply be present with it in a non-grasping way.

Once I see that life is as it is, I can learn to be in my life, as opposed to try­ing and fail­ing, end­less­ly, to fix it, either in time, or by mak­ing every­thing over in the way I want it to be.

Once I stop try­ing to play god, in oth­er words, I can sim­ply be me.

Like I have anoth­er choice…

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