Aspiration and vow in Zen practice Barry Magid August 3rd 2013

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This morning I’d like to think out loud with you about the ideas of aspiration and vow in our practice. I say think out loud because I’d like to leave some of the issues this thinking raises as unresolved. I don’t want to explain it all, but rather present it as an ongoing dilemma that we all have to work out for ourselves one way or another.

We can chant and bow to save all beings and at one level this is a koan. It cuts through dualistic notions of self and other, saved and deluded. On one level, when we cut through those false opposites our vow is already fulfilled. And yet to see the side of which it is already fulfilled cannot free us from the obligation to continually save all beings day in and day out at another level, a level on which people are actually suffering: hungry, poor, in pain. When we come down to that level it goes from being a koan to being a can of worms. We open up something and we don’t understand where the bottom of it is, what the limits are, what we can expect of ourselves.

When we muddle those two dimensions we can get a life of aspiration that becomes endlessly self-sacrificing, but which contains the seeds of masochism because it has no bottom, no end. That’s the dilemma that I’ve often called saving all beings minus one. It’s the particular disease of spiritual practice and helping professions. We don’t know where to put self need or self interest in this ledger of infinite need.

If we read a moral philosopher like Emmanual Levinas, he will state that the ethical demand of the face of the other is infinite and is not reciprocal, and you cannot presume to make an equal demand on the other that the other makes on you. When Joko writes about love, she says, true love is total and expects nothing in return. How does one live that way? What’s a model of that? Is the love of a mother for an infant that kind of love? Sometimes it can look that way when we speak of unconditional love. But the love of a mother for an infant is almost always a reciprocal circular feed-back loop of love and response. A mother is constantly reaffirmed in her own identity as a mother and her own sense of being a good mother, effected by the way the baby thrives, looks up at her, grows, smiles, learns to talk.

When something happens that makes that impossible, perhaps a colicky baby or a baby that is not thriving or a child that is not doing well, of course part of you feels terrible for the child but it is also a terrible narcissistic injury. One feels almost inevitably like a bad mother, a failed parent, that there’s something wrong with who you are and what you’re doing. It’s very hard to be in a situation like that that is free from any desired outcome.

Now in some circumstances like that, if you have been caring for a child or a patient who is not going to get better, has something developmentally or terminally wrong, sometimes that experience will really serve to wear out and purify your motive. You really learn to love just as it is, without any comparison, any longing that it would be different. You’re just totally absorbed with the person just as they are. That can be a long process and sometimes it opens people up to a different level of love. But you certainly can’t presume to start there and you can’t assume that all kinds of frustrations and failings of outcome are going to be growth experiences or spiritual exercises. Some kinds of work, some kinds of dead ends can genuinely be soul-killing, depressing. It’s a big problem in some communities where work practice just becomes a lousy job. You really have to be able to tell the difference.

The young woman had to quit school, take a low paying job to support her husband while he writes his dissertation or she is staying home taking care of the kids while he’s in medical school. Once a year she finally gets to go away to do a retreat, and work practice comes around and they send her off to scrub the Roshi’s bathroom. I’m not sure for that kind of person that that exactly counts as a spiritual practice. She’s had enough of that.

We have to be careful about what we presume is going to be selfless or make us selfless. Whenever we talk about saving or helping, we have to be clear about our motives and I’ve written a lot about our secret practices. There are a lot of ways in which we have hidden motives for our self aggrandizement, self redemption, ways of secretly pumping up our ego in the guise of spiritual or selfless practice. We have to always see how those things are implicated. In the end we cannot say we will not act unless our motives are pure because then we will never do anything. Everyone’s motives are always mixed. Somehow we have to figure out how we can do the best approximation of what needs to be done when we realize our reasons for doing it are complicated. There are ways in which we need this practice in much of our life to get off the grid of means to an end, off the grid of any kind of gaining idea.

In my practice as a psychoanalyst I’ve often said to people the difference between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy is that analysis doesn’t help anyone. It is a model of open-ended presence and inquiry that isn’t goal directed, isn’t symptom focused. Occasionally I’ve had rather fruitless exchanges with insurance companies who do not particularly care for that attitude. They want things to be focused and goal-directed and preferably short term, Open-ended and not goal directed doesn’t sound like something they want to pay for. Makes sense.

And there’s the perspective from which we can fetishize not-helping, of having no gain. But we cannot diminish the times when it’s absolutely necessary. If a child is being abused in a bad family situation, we’ll call a social worker who is going to do something about it, get it into foster care. You don’t want some analyst to just sit around, have no goals, explore how someone feels. There’s got to be a way in which you value action.

Sometimes we say we can resolve the tension between the absolute and the relative in this by finding the absolute in whole-heartedness when you help, just help, totally throw yourself into the activity. That’s right, but the question is how to really integrate or balance in our lives this dimension of what needs to be done, what social injustice needs to be protested, what living conditions need to be ameliorated, what kinds of relationships need to be fixed or ended. Real problems at the level of helping can’t be evaded by a retreat to a transcendent level in which all is just as it’s supposed to be.

We want to see both of those levels but I think we also don’t want to find any too easy false integration of them. We have to be able to live with the tension, that we’ll always have those two aspects in our lives. I’ve just been thinking a lot about this. I don’t want to have an answer to it. I think that it’s a genuine conflict and it’s genuinely irreducible. We want to be able to stay with it and not find a comfortable answer on one side or align with the other.

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