16 April 2012

Making a Life-Saving Decision

I was recently listening to some talks by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and in the course of one of them I found myself cracking up.  He said that our tendency is just to run with any thought that pops up in our mind, going along for the ride, no matter how silly, or fictitious or whatever.  He said it was as if someone just pulled up in a car, said, "Hop in," and we just hopped on in without asking who the person was and where the person was going.  He continued that only once we're in the car do we find out that there's a monster at the wheel, and he's planning on driving over a cliff!  If we lived our lives like that, he added, we'd be dead.  We need to be choosy with our thought just as much as we are choosy with our rides.

I get it.  I've been entertained by thoughts for a few minutes or a few hours.  I've been burdened with thoughts for days and weeks on end.  And I've come to see, in perhaps all too small a measure, that I have within me the power to not go there.  Not that I exercise that power as frequently as I might like, or as often as might be skillful and prudent, but that power remains within my grasp all the same.

Yesterday we heard a teisho in which the whole of a speech by David Foster Wallace was read.  In it, Wallace pointed out that we can either run on our default, ego-centered – he would go on to say ego-worshiping – mindstate in which all others are somehow a burden to me and the universe is a gummed-up obstacle course, or we can make the decision to think differently.

He gave an example that hit so close to home for me, it actually wounded flesh.  Instead of thinking, for instance, about how pathetic it is that all kinds of people are out there driving gas-guzzling SUVs, taking up my space when I need to get somewhere, etc., he suggested the possibility of a new kind of thought:
The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.
And at that, I found myself crying.  Yep, I hop in that self-righteous, more-socially-conscious-than thou, self-satisfiedly pontificating mindstate all the time.  And yet, I know – I know – that that is exactly the monster driven car, and it's over the cliff I'm going as long as I'm riding in it.  The assumptions I make day in and day out are killers of one kind or another, and I'm never but a moment from violating the first precept (and not only the first precept) in the most self-congratulatory way possible.  Pathetic, really.  In the language of the vernacular, totally fucked up.

Later, over brunch, I found out that Wallace had committed suicide. 

I found myself fighting back tears again, as much for myself as for him.  If I keep on taking these rides with the monster-driver, maybe the day will come when I can't hop back out of the car, either.  How much longer, how many more times am I going to risk it?  And even if I manage to keep getting out of the car, how much collateral damage will I have caused along the way all the same?

Long, long ago I heard often enough the line from Deuteronomy 30:19: "Today […] I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."  With every breath, with every thought that arises, with every sensation that the body takes note of, I have a similar decision to make: the one way is death, the other way is life.  Such is the nature of our practice.

May I – may we all – choose wisely.  May we all – ourselves and our children and our children's children – simply live.

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