According to the news on Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me!, last week brought a headline about a study that revealed 80% of us would rather receive electric shocks than be left alone with our thoughts. Apparently stuck in a room with no diversion, the subjects rather quickly pressed the relief button, which gave them a mild electric shock.The button, of course, gave them something to do. It was an escape from themselves. Finally a distraction! So they did the equivalent--or worse-- of banging their head against a wall-- again and again--without thinking anything of it because of course they didn't want to have to think.
Apparently we humans are so anxious--and quick-- to run away from being, we just love love love doing --something, even if it's banging our head against a wall or getting electrically shocked. I know this not just because of that study, but also because I just read that someone else did a study to learn why all the labor-saving devices now glutting the marketplace haven't given anybody the leisure they were supposed to. How did that advertising promise get so broken that nobody nowadays in the heyday of gadgets has time? The warm and fuzzy answer is that we want to keep buying newer and costlier devices to keep up with all the innovation, so we need to keep working for the money to do that. The chilling answer is we prefer to go to work because having something outside ourselves to focus on and do defines us, gives us meaning, and distracts us from ourselves. Everyone of us is the very bogeyman we are afraid of. How's that for a selfie.
I totally get this because I have a lifelong friend who went into utter agony about having to retire from her government law position; as she put it, who would she be, what she do? And I have another friend who lost her job from age discrimination and could have retired but was so upset about how she would keep busy, she fought her way into another job.
I also confess brief not shining moments in my retreat cabins when I desperately wanted a distraction. I felt so sorry for myself without anything to reach for, so willfully deprived I questioned my sanity. Then I slogged on with just myself for company, days on end just me and the imagined deities and a tea kettle. And I am still here. At least I know the enemy you don't befriend sneaks back again and again to torment you. I really liked so much that the immensely popular Pema Chodron's first book was called: The Wisdom Of No Escape, I gifted at least a dozen copies.
About a week ago, one of the opinion curators of the New York Times finally got around to noticing how overhyped, overused and overly misinterpreted the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has become. It's now therapy for keeping focus on the job or goal. It's about not being distracted when you are doing something. Of course nothing could be further from the truth of mindfulness, but I suppose this new version is all a piece with the pharmacology race for emotional painkillers, a way to blot out thoughts.
Genuine Dharma is of course about not doing but being, not out there but in here. Meditation is about burrowing inside yourself with a metaphorical miner's headlamp, being alone with your thoughts, watching them like a movie or TV show. It's the struggle to become intimately familiar with the inner workings that power you, so you can mine them for your own gold by making them your vbf.
That's why my immediate reaction to hearing about that 80% who preferred shock treatment to the shock of their own mental jibberish was to wonder if 20% of Americans are actually Buddhists. I'd have gone for being the .01%. Now I want to know who those other brave people are? Did those researchers study painters, actors, writers, songwriters who have to harness their own thoughts like a mill dam that powers output? Are creative types the 20%?
Since the program went off when I got out of the car, I've had an ongoing reaction: no wonder people are scared of their thoughts. What complex and contradictory creatures we are, doing one thing while saying another, loving and hating at the same time, multitasking in the worst possible ways. I mean here I am vowing to protect all sentient beings, begging forgiveness through confession for eating meat and every couple hours turning myself into a vicious death squad. I keep running out the house with a squirt bottle of poison to exterminate all the Japanese beetles munching on my rose bushes. It only takes a dozen of them about an hour to turn one large bush to lace. A rose can't open without them already inside eating it up. It's so disgusting I have my own surge: double extra squirts of poison just to be sure they're really dead. I tell myself I'm killing them to save the bees that come because bees are in such decline they need all the help they can get. And they do good work. I rationalize how I'm fighting for the shiny little red ladybugs I sometimes spot on the lily stems. As I grab the handy squirt bottle and morph into a merciless serial killer, I tell myself I'm protecting beauty and shade, bird habitat and decency, and of course my investment in all the plants. What a hypocritical hoot I am.
Then too, I am undependably wishywashy. My mind is controlled by whether systems that bring cloudiness and storm just as inexplicably as sunshine and breeze. Three weeks ago I was in gloom, circling the sometimes fatal abyss of depression. I wrote about being sideswiped by changes. Then literally, the sun came out, the air warmed and softened, friends called, friends came and bingo! the vacuum was filled, storm damage cleared. I was buoyant, thrilled by how rich and beautiful my life can be. So I saw and I see. Like other human beings, I am a mood see-saw, buffeted by the slightest wind of change. Like other human beings, I definitely prefer the brighter times and don't want to have to think about bad things. I just want to be comfortable.
That's the ticket! Nobody wants to be unhappy, especially in a country that so happily supports the mega billion dollar mood enhancing business. We are a society that speaks only and always, early and often of happiness: be happy! What me worry? Just be happy all the time: we can help you with that. Who wants to be unhappy? That's the source of shame and condemnation. What's wrong with you? Pick a smiley. Buy something. Have it your way.
Of course the Buddha knew how much we hate being unhappy That's how much none of us have changed over the last 2600 years. All beings want happiness; or if you prefer, all beings want is happiness. We can all agree on that; we just can't agree on what exactly happiness is. Maybe for you it's tofu. What makes me insanely ecstatic today, I may hate tomorrow. The bombardment of blasting rap music that makes the teenage male happy infuriates me when it pounds out the car windows and rocks my car. Just take a look at the news headlines if you don't believe me that someone's joyful pursuit is someone else's death rattle. Or just take a look at all the media stories of the 1% who have it all whining unhappily they don't have as much as the .01%. They want more. Want, want, want...
The Buddha knew that as long as happiness was based on wanting things, based only on external getting and having, it would be this insane. I'm sure he would not be surprised a bit that it would drive 21st Century people to the seemingly insane pursuit of preferring the simple clarity and certainty of having an electric shock--ah! something to brag about having-- to nonstop juggling the sometimes disturbing contradictions, humiliating ups and downs, and worried thoughts we are all made of. Is that shocking or what?
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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