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August 2021 Musings

A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him.
“Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man.
“Why?” replied the hermit.
The young man thought for a moment.
“Because I want to be enlightened.”
The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water.
After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke.
“Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water.”
“Air!” answered the man.
“Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want enlightenment as much as you just wanted air.”
– Old Zen Story
This story has been floating around in awareness since the Guide’s recent newsletter article on freedom. True freedom is not, as the article says, being able to do what I want, when I want, however I want, only when I feel like it. In fact, if one can only act when circumstances are how we want them to be, we’re hopelessly bound, a slave to our preferences, circumscribed by the boundaries of personality (an aggregation of memories, preferences, opinions, beliefs, prejudices, assumptions, judgments). In identification, we’re only able to react to situations. I like this. I don’t like that. I want this. I don’t want that. I can do this. I can’t do that. In that orientation, happiness is unpredictable and suffering inevitable, since life doesn’t necessarily unfold according to our specifications. It follows that true freedom is the ability to be receptive and responsive to all of life as Life is rather that how “I” am. It is only when we’re here, present and available to the moment that we can joyously and appropriately respond to the moment.
For most of us, our reaction when and if we’re thwarted is almost always to rearrange the circumstances (avoid or alter them) to get our needs met. Yet, even if changing the circumstances temporarily offers some relief from suffering, it doesn’t transform the suffering. After repeatedly changing jobs, relationships, cities, hobbies, friends, family configurations…, we have to face the fact that the karma doesn’t change. How “I” am in circumstances isn’t different. We find ourselves caught in the same behaviors, the same thoughts, the same rhetoric, the same emotional narrative, even the same content, albeit in varying settings. We wake up miserable, having once again traversed a familiar karmic loop. Then we fall into feeling trapped by circumstances, victimized by our conditioning, imprisoned by our reactivity, and frustrated by our choice-less-ness. This may lead to a kind of existential despair because no matter what we do, it appears we cannot have the life we want.
Spiritual maturity is accepting the truth that “I can’t have the life I want.” It is embracing the truth that “I get to live the life I have.” Many of us don’t want that kind of freedom. We want freedom from suffering but on “my” terms. We refuse the means but want the end.
Which brings us to our Zen story.
Ending suffering is really the movement into accepting Life as it is on Life’s terms, which arises from the clarity of recognizing where the choice is. The only choice is to be consciously responsive to life arising. If we are not consciously responsive, we will be unconsciously compelled by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to act out of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. The open question is how willing we are to make the only choice there is to make. Hence the Zen Master’s instruction: Come back to me when you want enlightenment as much as you just wanted air.
So do we really want to end suffering?
Some of us might respond with an unequivocal yes. Some might not feel that we can truthfully say all we want is to end suffering. There is no “right” answer, but periodically asking the question allows us to stay in alignment with what we’re truly seeking!
To do a spiritual practice to have more well-being and less suffering is one level of commitment. To practice to be completely free, for “me” to be completely destroyed, is another level of commitment entirely. As the Guide said to me once, “Your practice can be trying to be the Buddha or your practice can be being the Buddha.”
Conditioned patterns compel us to go with the old, the familiar, the comfortable. The momentum of karma grinds us inexorably to the same conclusions. Without an intensity of purpose and a single-minded devotion to waking up, will we be able to choose conscious awareness in the face of ego resistance? Probably not! There is nothing wrong if we don’t make the choice for Life. There is a consequence, though. If we don’t make the choice for life over ego, we settle for fractional freedom, if there is such a thing. As we recite daily, without judgment, at the beginning and end of every sit, we will make the choice to end suffering when we have suffered enough. But why would we not? Why would we settle for anything less than total transformation? As the desert fathers would say, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”