Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Cure for Common Confusion

You know how people are always talking about how great it would be if someone came up with a cure for the common cold? Well, I want to suggest something even better: the cure for common confusion.

Confusion is the term I use to describe the root cause behind what most people call angst, sin, violence, suffering, garden variety meanness, all the different causes and effects of suffering. The vast majority of people are living an unconsciously confused life. We're so deeply and consistently confused that we don't have any idea that anyone is at all confused, least of all ourselves. So since most of us are not aware of this confused state, we continue to perpetuate it on and for ourselves and others, and thus we continue to perpetuate all the various resulting violences, both big and small.

By the way, I think it was Brad Warner, a terrific writer and Zen priest, who suggested the term "confusion" to me, so I want to thank and acknowledge him now. Thanks, Brad!

To start, how can you detect whether you're living in this confused state? This one's fairly easy. If you are resisting what is right in front of your face, you're confused. You can tell if you are in resistance a few different ways. For one, there's some kind of mental complaint. There's a sense of something being not right, whether you want something you don't have, or you have something you don't want, or you have something you want and you need it to stay longer than it's likely to stay, or you want something to stay away but you know deep down it'll be back. Secondly, your body tightens up somewhere, whether you're aware of it or not. There may be muscular tension, or digestive distress, or constricted breathing. One way or another, you're suffering physically and it's not from an external injury or illness. Finally, you are emotionally uncomfortable in some way. This could manifest as boredom, rage, annoyance, depression, frustration, fear, bitterness, disdain, etc. These are all symptoms of confusion. Notice that some degree of unnecessary discomfort is the common element. Confusion equals suffering, not meaning physical pain, which is something one way or another we'll all share in during our lifetimes. It's the extra we add onto the physical pain, or create fresh if there's no external source of physical discomfort.

Here's an example from my day: I brought my 8-year-old to Border's to pick up the next installment of her favorite pre-teen book series, Warriors. This is about fierce cats with clans and drama and battles and all that good stuff. Unfortunately for her, they did not have the book she needed in stock. This fact brought out a very loud and belligerent tirade from her in the middle of the store. So there we are. My choices are: A) fight this behavior, which is, I stipulate to, not optimal or preferred by me, or B) work with the facts of the moment. I was fortunate and found the ability to work with it, which consisted of stopping and drinking in the facts of an annoyed kid in a big store, and then following her outside to hang out for a minute while she vented her frustration and then listened to some options I came up with. And within about two minutes, she had worked her way around to a peaceful alternative, which involved going back into the store to explore whether there might be another book series she'd like to try.  A common confusion reaction to the outraged 8-year-old might have been to grimace, roll eyes, march her out, or launch into the shame lecture, all the while asking what I had done to deserve such a moment. But like I said, I've looked at this confusion thing hard enough so that I was able to stay open to the facts.

I refer to this as common confusion, but common insanity would be another way to put it. Not the deep pathological kind of insanity that we all recognize requires medical intervention, but the kind all of us  confused people suffer from. It's insanity to believe that this moment should be any other way than exactly how it is right now. If this itself sounds confusing to you, for just a moment, set aside the debate that instantly begins to form, about how you have to want things to be different in order to improve the world. Set that aside just for a bit, and think about whether it's possible to change exactly what is in front of you at this precise moment.

Is it possible that the following statement is ultimately and permanently true:       It is what it is.    

Did you agree that you can't change this precise moment? If not, you can choose whether to stop reading this and get on with your day, or consider whether you'd like to wake up from confusion and thus being in suffering so much of the time.

If you've continued to read, think about this. Of course it's possible to act to change things. One acts to bring about positive change, which results, of course, in a new moment. And perhaps as a result of your action, things turn out a little better. Wonderful! And what if things turned out not as you planned? Do you resist that outcome and suffer? Or would you rather see this new moment fully, perhaps even see something more wonderful or interesting than what you could have planned? Can you see the potential of this new moment, ready to see what actions you bring to the new world that is this moment?

Like standing for a moment in the middle of Borders with a kid railing loudly enough to warrant a compassionate smirk from a guy at least 25 feet away. I had a nice moment with that guy. Which likely helped me maintain my balance and access some compassion for the state of disappointment my kid was experiencing. I've felt that disappointed, and I know how much I've wanted to spit that feeling out in loud words. In fact, good for her for giving it voice, even with the talk we later eventually did get around to, about next time, how to express yourself with a little more mind to include the effect on the people around you.

What happens when you accept this moment just exactly as it is, whether it's what you planned for or not? Is there a sudden relaxation about what you've got to work with in this moment? Is there greater clarity about what is actually here right now? Is there a sense of adventure with each moment, unfolding into it's own new universe?

Why is this common confusion the cause of all the ill in the world? It's simple: whenever one of us is in resistance and suffering, we almost always act out of that state in non-beneficial ways. Sometimes we keep our suffering to ourselves, sometimes we take it out on the people around us, but one way or another it impacts the world harshly. Every time. And one harmful act almost invariably leads to more suffering and more harmful impacts. It's a super-tight system until you can bust out of it.

The way to bust out of it is to get clear about the present moment. Moment by moment. This is where meditation and yoga and t'ai chi and such come in. These are all ways of re-training ourselves to get better at staying with just the facts, ma'am. They're awareness practices, and they are the means to waking up from the confusion. Get started on one of these, now, and do it for waking up purposes. Don't worry about whether you're good at it or not. Just do it and start waking up from the confusion. You'll thank yourself, and the world will really appreciate it, too.

One last important point to mention: can you notice that this confusion business is an innocent system? It is what it is, and it is what you were brought up to live with as the normal situation. You never chose to buy into the confusion system. You have no idea you've bought into anything, in fact. All people who have not been invited to look clearly at this are equally blameless of buying in. This is an important point. You are not to blame for being in confusion. Neither is the terrorist across the globe to blame. There is no one to blame; there is no original cause of the long-standing confusion. If you can really feel that, you now have the freedom to stop blaming yourself and everyone else about everything that up to this point you have labeled "wrong" with this world. It doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot of stuff we can get better at. For Pete's sake, it's the thing that keeps us all jazzed about life, right, the getting better part, learning, serving? So keep your eye out and enjoy all the improving and learning, just stop issuing blame for how it is right now. When you stop blaming, you can see everything in a much more peaceful and friendly light. This frees up vast quantities of your energy and will give you a vastly better attitude to bring to your actions in the world.

Here's to the cure for common confusion!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It'll only take a second...

Waking up will only take a second. Actually even less: someone out there, remind me how the old sages measured the smallest increment of time... Whatever cosmically small description they gave to it, I remember that it's TINY. And as a perfect corollary, closing down to what is happens just as quickly.

I mention this because I was meeting with a meditation group last night, and we were talking about the act of closing down, of "checking out." This moment signals the end of happiness, at least as I define it in this blog. In my way of seeing things, happiness equals presence. And presence is defined as that quality of being available to each of us that meets just what is here, no more and no less. To be accurate, when I talk about closing down, it's not so much that presence ever really closes down, but it does get so fogged over or opaquely covered up that access to it appears gone for all human intents and purposes.

My example of checking out involved a common situation I seem to experience often in my kitchen. There I am, bustling around doing my typical busy doing mode, and also taking in the 8-year-old or the two 20+ year-olds or whatever else happens to be happening. And in the midst of this perfectly ordinarily clear type of moment, my husband innocently tosses off one of his charming, non-harm-intending digs at something. And then, for some uncontrollable reason there's a flicker of injury and an immediate reactive checking out from the reality of the Fletcher kitchen. I'm gone in a dark hole somewhere, not for very long, but long enough to miss my big opportunity.

Yep, that's the big opportunity for happiness in the world according to Fletcher. In hindsight, I will dearly wish that I could have stayed around and fully felt the little sling of that false arrow. That's what was present at that moment, the sting. And that sting presented itself as a chance to notice what strange, confused micro-fast assumption was being made that somehow translated into this hurt. When I am lucky enough to stay with presence and most particularly to stay out of judgment of reaction, and to see this all in action, the results are always well worth it. The simple seeing of the little drama shows itself as the fiction it is. The emotion that accompanies such seeing can range anywhere from awe to knowing chuckle to grateful humility to perfect equanimity. All good, very, very good. In fact, there's honest and true happiness in connecting fully and precisely with these assumptions and reactions running through me, regardless of what they consist of or whether the common person would label them as "happy" experiences.

Okay, yes, this is complicated to convey. Let's see if you can remember a time in your life when this seeming paradox was clearly showing you the perfection of a time commonly presumed to be negative. Think about being with someone who is very sick or very down. This would be a person you care about greatly and perhaps even grieve to see go through this experience. And there may be a moment of temptation toward interpretations of injustice or fault to be found. Somehow you feel injured. But then you shake your head... what were you thinking? and all personal concerns disappear, such is the severity of the situation. So there is likely a mix only of love, concern, compassion, and grief present with you. Tell me, is there unhappiness? When you take the situation into your heart, as a whole, without casting about to place blame, you are doing perfectly and able to be connected and really with this person. As long as there's no insane demand for a different moment than the very one you got, or for a better past that would have resulted in anything but this outcome, as long as you're willing to be right there in the midst of grief and concern, all is right with you. You are perfectly present and able to provide what is needed. And what is more, with this quality of love and presence coming from you, the other person is more likely to be receiving what is flowing from your eyes and mouth and heart, with no fog or cloud of self-referential confusion, and thus more likely to be experiencing this deep love themselves regardless of the conditions of the moment.

I have a friend who described spending time with her very good friend, who was dying over the course of a few short weeks last summer. My friend described what it was like in the bedroom where this woman had settled herself to spend these last days. This dying woman had pronounced that this place would be a no-BS zone. Only truth and clarity were allowed; no bemoaning, regretting, railing, obfuscating, brave-facing or tap-dancing around the truth were permitted. This was the dying woman's insight into a way to happiness for these precious days, and my friend told me later that she saw how true and powerful this was, and how much she herself longed to live this way as a regular thing. Happiness in the process of dying.

In these "big" moments, somehow this can be seen clearly, but then it's so easily forgotten or written off as an anomaly when we move back into regular life with all of its banality and repetition. Is it possible to stick with the truth of each moment, every big and little up and down, just as it is, and see from this the deep happiness that comes from living life directly and authentically? This is a question to live out the answer to, not mechanically or worse yet, masochistically, but curiously, with the intent to discover the answer rather than to take my word for anything. And be sure to notice, you don't have to turn this into a gruesome chore. This is no grand project, because it only takes a moment. After all, as you may have noticed, that's all there ever is.