Sunday, September 23, 2012

Too Bad for You, Buddy!

Or words to similar effect, form in my head from time to time, and occasionally, I'm not happy to report, escape my lips. Each time, it's a variation on a theme: my less than compassionate response to someone else's misfortune.

Unless we're arhats or saints with permanent halos, as night follows day, when we learn about (or imagine) unpleasant things befalling someone who 'had it coming', uncharitable thoughts follow. Such persons include, but are not limited to - I seem to be lapsing into legalese here - individuals whom we deem arrogant, unkind, unfair, critical, proud, pompous, selfish, cruel, and generally anyone who has, or is imagined to have, slighted us, or has stupidly disregarded our advice. And of course, those who have the effrontery to think it's OK to judge us.

An extreme example is the outbreak of jubilation and festivities that erupted after the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

When the misfortunes that befall these folks are only embarrassing, it's just funny. A lot of slapstick comedy relies on this - the haughty character's flamboyant exit, followed by his sheepish reappearance when he realizes that he has just stormed into a closet.

When something they value, besides their pride, gets damaged, as when we hear of a bullfighter getting gored in an important place, we get a jolt of guilty pleasure - jolt because it comes out of the blue and is usually short-lived, and guilty because deep down, it really doesn't feel good.

Lately, I've noticed this happening quite a bit. Since I'm pretty sure I'm not becoming a nastier person, I think I'm probably just catching myself in the act more often. I let the little ones come and go without much mental comment, but when I catch myself in a doozy, I get a good chuckle out of it.

Perhaps the little squirt of endorphin our brain gives us when someone else stumbles used to have some value in the distant past when our survival depended on besting others. Perhaps it's similar to the pleasure we get from eating sweet fatty foods or the adrenalin 'fight or flight' rush - the one useful if we are going to spend a cold winter without much food, and the other useful if our house catches fire, but in general, both doing more harm than good.

Regardless of whether it's an instinct or just a deeply ingrained mental habit that we learned as little children, it continues to be strongly and widely reinforced by society - for example, in business, when the wealthy are ruined, in sports, when the bullies are beaten, and in theatre, when the villains suffer painful retribution.

But there is a world of difference between having unkind thoughts and harbouring them.

In zazen and mindfulness practice, we can treat our thoughts as part of our ever-changing mental scenery - whether they be mean thoughts or thoughts of elephants eating popcorn - and we neither try to push them out of our minds nor pursue them. When we realize we have taken off on a train of thought, we just get off and return to being present. If we deliberately pursue a thought, then we are no longer doing zazen or mindfulness. We’re just thinking.

If one moment in practice can be said to have more value than another, then I would say it's that moment when we become aware that we are no longer present, let go of the thought that was distracting us, and return to the present. Kosho Uchiyama Roshi has referred to this process as 'vow and repentence'. And a quote from Samuel Beckett comes to mind: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It is coming home.

So we need have no remorse or shame about uninvited unkind thoughts, no matter how out of character they may seem. They simply remind us that we're human. If we find we are not letting these thoughts go, but brooding on them and nurturing them, or even trying to cultivate them in others, then we may need to take a long, honest but compassionate look at ourselves and try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Image: detail from Christ Carrying the Cross (Heironymus Bosch) - Wikimedia Commons
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