“What IS the problem?”
by Antonio Dias
The title comes from a comment made to a recent post.
The “answer” seemed too glib, unfair actually, to throw the question back by responding that the problem is our habit of looking at everything as if it were a problem needing to be solved.
But this is true. It could be useful to say “This is the problem.”
But then, it can’t just be left at that.
There has been a bit of a dry-spell here in the last few weeks. Old habits had me posting a few times a week. I benefited from a cycle of regular internal dialogue coupled with simple superficial habits like being accustomed to sit at this keyboard at a certain hour and to jump off the edge that is writing.
These habits provided me with the capacity to create. They assured a certain output and helped focus me and therefore had some affect on the quality of that output.
But life cannot remain in any one routine. As much as I hate to have mine broken, I have come to realize that without such breaks habit tends to take over and there is a growing possibility that output becomes just that, the object that falls off the end of a conveyor.
Our culture values this! How else can we be supplied with reliable commodities?
My track record has always shown that I am unreliable in this way, and for good or ill, this has suited me to other pursuits.
One of the ways a creeping commodification betrays its presence is in a mounting sense of futility. I have long found that as output narrows into predictability a sense of futility rises within and it becomes harder and harder to continue.
Another way to look at it is to acknowledge that cycles process. They do not return to the same place and neatly start over. They develop a wobble and they “fall off the rails.”
This connects with the cycle of life Alan Watts referred to, the one with the “Man in a Boat.” In fact, what makes our own time so perilous is our resistance on so many levels to the necessity for decay and death. In our rush to avoid this cleansing aspect we up the stakes and insure that the eventual collapse will be greater and more profound than it might have to be otherwise.
This connects with the question at hand. “What IS the problem?”
We could say our inability to accept a cycle that processes – and this is different from one that progresses! Procession is a wobble, a change that mutates and evolves, and in this way takes us from this place to another. It does not guarantee or in any way expect that the other place will be superior, or that things get necessarily better, or worse, for that matter. But they do change. We could say our inability to accept this in our default mode of acting is itself what creates problems. Very simply, by looking for something we are more likely to find it, or at least to imagine that our projection of this image onto what we perceive will create the illusion that this is what we have found. We hit what we aim for.
But this is only one aspect of our predicament. It happens to be the one that drives us to ignore our predicament and focus on a series of problems for which we then strive after solutions. This puts us, enforces our position within cycles of conflict. If there was no one, no force, opposing us we would have to invent one…. There are signs of this everywhere from the private to the public spheres.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of our predicament is that it derives from a fundamental incoherence we apply to everything because we misinterpret the role of thought. This delusion-creating dynamic is based on a compelling illusion itself, that because we think, there must be a thinker.
The reasons this question is so difficult to keep in mind are wrapped up in the difficulties we have in grasping our predicament at all. A compelling illusion freights us with difficulty because it is compelling. When faced with partial evidence that it throws us off track we rush to correct it. We do this by inventing problems, compelling problems, that defy solution and maintain us frustrated and off-balance, but they are “successful” because they do not shake our faith in our underlying misunderstanding.
There is Schadenfreude in watching others caught in a maze they don’t perceive as a maze. It exercises our sense of superiority, “Poor buggers!” We say, watching the ants suffer….
There is a hint here at the price we pay for holding onto our delusions. The same pitilessness we show those we can see squirming in there traps extends to our selves. The worst result of remaining within our delusions is in the way they close us off from the paths of compassion.
Our misunderstanding is not an intellectual one. It is not a question of becoming smarter, more clever, although recognizing the capacity we all have to share in intelligence is a helpful step along the way. Compassion and the access it gives us to engaging with and living within what-is, is a state of being that requires the adjustment of habits and a different attitude. This cannot occur without some form of ongoing practice.
Now, not just to be difficult…. No practice will take us there. That is, we are either deluded or not. When we are not, it is not the result of striving. It is not a cumulative process of becoming. We cannot be and be in the process of becoming. They are mutually exclusive states!
But, being partakes of an attitude towards life as a series of embedded processing cycles. No state of disillusionment maintains itself indefinitely. At least from within the portion of the cycles I’ve been aware of from within the types and levels of conditioning that are customary today I have recognized that without some series of practices that help hone in us an ability to perceive compassion from within the anesthetized, traumatized states we find ourselves in I would have no idea how to find my way.
One guess, or clue embedded in this realization, might be that within such an attitude is implicit a letting-go of an insistence on certainty. Welcoming paradox, not only as a wry punctuation for moments of reflection, but as the “bedrock” of existence, might be a way to resist the habits and conditioning that maintain us blindly striving unaware that our persistent frustration and sense of futility are warnings that there can be no solution along that path.
It can seem glib and perverse, to throw back at someone sincerely looking for solutions that their attitude holds them in an incoherent state chasing after problems that leave them frustrated at their insolubility; but such is the difficulty in this quest.
This has long been a motif in Buddhist practice. There are complete literatures devoted to chronicling the ways Zen Masters have frustrated seekers with their tricky, seemingly cruel responses. We can intellectually see the need for it without understanding that it does always bite and that the frustration piqued in these exercises might lead to a breakthrough, but that no level of preparation or worthiness will assure it.
There is a gulf between coherence and our present incoherence. There is a gulf between those who might have left this divide behind and the rest of us. There is a gulf I have experienced between when coherence shines out with a fleeting clarity before the fog rolls back in. I don’t pretend to have answers, nor do I look for answers, on a good day. All I can do is look at what comes to mind and put it down so that it is visible.
From here, this does not appear to be a problem. From there it is still hard not to expect that there be a problem and therefore a solution.
I recognize the incoherence in this. I recognize that stating questions as though our incoherence were a problem, and therefore solvable, is mired in conditioning. I recognize that none of what I’ve found or observed or glimpsed will solve our misunderstanding.
All I do see is that our misunderstanding is pervasive and persistent. That there is joy and access to compassion when this misunderstanding lifts. That exercising practices that involve experiencing coherence in some manner appear helpful, while falling into futility and further willful striving has never been anything but destructive.
The intent behind this post has not been to provide an answer. It has been to provide company. To persist, at least for these moments of writing and reading, within a possibility of dialogue. And through this to ask for, and provide, a gesture of community.
In face of predicaments I don’t see how we can offer, or ask for, anything more, or different, or better.