The Zen Dilemma

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I received an interesting email from a friend today. He has just started getting into meditation and has bumped up against an issue a lot of people run into:

I have been reading Eckhart Tolle’s book on The Power of Now and it has got me thinking about Zen philosophy again. I heard that you used to practice meditation quite a bit and I wanted to ask you about it.

Zen is contradictory to most of the philosophy I invest in, but it’s unclear whether or not it has to be exclusive. One struggle I have is the idea that ruminating in the past or future is detrimental to one’s overall consciousness, even when it is positive. Tolle says, the idea of a future heaven creates a present hell. Does attachment need to be taken to this extreme? If I didn’t think of the past or future, wouldn’t I become an irresponsible person?

I started meditating when I was 16. I got very into it and read a lot about spirituality and eastern philosophy in high school and college. I rarely talk or write about spiritual practices because I honestly believe that spiritual experiences are, by definition, unquantifiable and therefore exceedingly difficult to put into words. They’re also exceedingly personal. So I just rarely even bother going there.

With that said, this is a pretty common dilemma for people who are exposed to zen and eastern philosophy — that the idea of “unattachment” isn’t exactly practical or even applicable in modern life. You have to remember that a lot of these philosophies were developed thousands of years ago when there were far fewer demands and complexities in everyday life. So the idea of going and sitting in a cave for nine years and staring at a wall wasn’t exactly giving up a whole lot.

The usual sticking point for everyone is, “If I’m supposed to be attached to nothing and desire nothing, how the hell do I get anything done?” Hell, how did Tolle write multiple 300-page books if he was completely unattached to the future? Wouldn’t he just stare and smile at the typewriter?

The problem comes with the explanation of attachment. Many people take it as wanting or desiring anything. This is where you get people living in communes, giving up their possessions, moving to Tibet and whatnot. It’s also the main reason I’ve never felt comfortable in any spiritual community I’ve found, because I think they commit the same foul, just in the opposite direction.

The catch is that actively being unattached to things is still being attached to something. You’re attached to being unattached. Actively desiring to be desireless is still a desire. Letting go of a thought is still a thought. Surrendering to a feeling is still a feeling. I think most (smart) people who are turned off by Eastern Philosophy at first glance intuitively recognize this. And rightly so…

By that definition of desire and attachment, you’re screwed if you do and screwed if you don’t.

The catch is that actively being unattached to everything is still being attached to something. You’re attached to being unattached.

A more proper explanation would be that it refers not to just something that you want or desire, but rather to things you are afraid to lose. In life, everything is lost. Everything. At some point, everything goes away, and therefore to have anything at all, we must be willing to accommodate that loss.

You know that saying, “You can’t truly have something until you’re willing to lose it?” It’s like that.

Zen imageIt’s not about doing or not doing. It’s all about how much of your sense of Self, your identity is attached to the outcome of what you do or don’t do.

“Being present” isn’t ignoring the past or the future. That’s impossible actually, because the act of thinking about a past or a future is actually taking place in the present. It’s impossible to not be present. What changes is how you identify yourself. Or rather, how you identify your Self.

It’s about widening your perspective, expanding what you identify to be a potential part of You. Recognizing that you have such little control and little knowledge of, well, anything in the world, that you might as well let go and be humble about it. Have your career goals, thoughts and ideas, your hopes and dreams, but don’t attach the Self to it in such a way that you’ll suffer if you don’t achieve them. Remember what’s happened to you and enjoy your memories, but don’t base your identity on it.

Obviously, this is all easier said than done.

The way I explain it is recognizing that it’s all just a game that we’re playing, the game is called life. And I don’t mean in the business, climb-the-ladder analogy, but in the fact that ultimately everything that we are and do is just a cosmic interplay between seemingly separate manifestations of consciousness. Most people never realize it’s a game. As a result, they are slaves to the ebbs and flows of what’s played.

But there are people who slowly realize that it’s just a game. Some of these people find out by refusing to play. Some find out by simply stopping and paying attention. Some find out by almost being removed from the game. Some realize it by watching others being removed before their eyes. But in the end, for whatever reason, they realize it’s just a game. And because it’s just a game, they have no reason to be worried or afraid, ever, because it’s just a game. And whoever wins or loses doesn’t matter because it’s just going to start all over again.