On American Buddhism.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Feb 5, 2011
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II: The Depth Of Our Dissatisfaction.

(Audio might be choppy… Was having computer problems. Might have to actually read the article!)


Last week I spoke on the subject of Spiritual Materialism.

Spiritual Materialism is a specific example of a general dynamic. It describes the ego’s tendency to own its environment within the context of spirituality. When the ego takes hold of the spiritual path, we start trying to be spiritual, religious, contemplative, philosophical, and what have you. We dress up in spiritual costumes, acquire a fancy new spiritual name, and begin to speak the spiritual language. We start engaging in highly intellectual discussions regarding the quantum nature of the soul or some non-sense like that. Simply put we are playing the part. This sort of self-deception has nothing to do with the practice of meditation. In such cases, we are using meditation as a prop, something that enables us to project a certain self-image. However, this may give rise to the sort of dissatisfaction that leads us to the cushion…

In order to remove all of these unnecessary bells and whistles we must honestly observe all of our contrived and pompous motives. It is not necessary or even possible to get rid of these motives at first… We just have to see them. Then,we do not get caught up in the business of fooling ourselves. With all that said, we can now begin our discussion about the truth of discontentment— The First Noble Truth.

This concept of discontentment is rather vague, so it seems necessary to clearly explain what it means. The manifestations of dissatisfaction that we can all readily identify with are the feelings of anxiety, anger, passion, arrogance, and confusion. We all know how it feels to be so angry we cannot see straight, or so sad that we cannot stop crying. Everyone knows all too well the feeling of rejection that looms over us when something does not go our way, and the feeling of anxiety that mows us over when we are uncertain as to how some series of events will play out. Most people have beat on the steering wheel of their automobile while cursing the idiot in front of them for some ridiculous stunt they just pulled in traffic.

It seems as though most everyone can relate with the more obvious signs of dissatisfaction that come boiling up from our core on occasion, but they are just that— signs. The negative emotions are just symptoms of our dis-ease. They are just the rough texture or the surface level of a much more corroding and pervasive form of dissatisfaction, namely self-disdain.

The common denominator in all forms of discontentment is the feeling that something isn’t quite right… A self-conscious sense of vacancy. This is essentially what is meant by pervasive discontentment. There is a sense of insufficiency or defectiveness, a very subtle inclination that we are somehow incomplete or broken. This pervasive form of dissatisfaction serves as the very foundation for the more familiar forms of discontentment that we undergo.

This pervading form of suffering is the product of our fragmented perception. We experience life as though it is some-thing separate from us; some-thing that we do. As a result we always feel distant or cut-off— almost as if we are apart from or other than life. This distance is a mental fabrication we attribute to reality, and not an intrinsic feature of Life. It is self-generated and self-consumed propaganda.

This sense of being incomplete or defective begins to permeate the whole of our existence. It leads to us wandering around baffled in search of some solution… Something to repair ourselves. The ideology of self-degradation— the belief that we are in some way broken— is what gives birth to desire. We feel the need to fill some void, so we begin to desire some-thing, an occupant. Fueled by desire we wander around aimlessly looking for the magical fix. It transforms life into an endless search for the perfect tool to repair our ragged self-image.

It is inevitable that at some point in our search we will come across someone or something that we believe is the answer. In an attempt to complete ourselves we cling to the experience. We are bound to experience conflict when we adhere to such a philosophy because, we are forever caught in the up-hill struggle to manipulate our environment in order to suit ourselves.

We take snapshots of our experiences, and cling to them by hanging them up in conceptual frames, but we forget that these events are in a state of constant fluctuation. As time passes we notice that, for one reason or another, these pictures have fallen from their frames. It is at this point that disappointment arises.

What at one time seemed to fill the void, now has itself become a void.

The very experiences that we hold to be precious, the ones we spend so much of our time and energy pursuing, will in time become the object of our dissatisfaction. This is the suffering of change.

Intimate relationships are another great example of how we choose to ignore the transient nature of experience, by clinging to or obsessing over our ideas about the experience. In the midst of our search for some-thing to make us whole or complete, we all stumble across someone who appears to be the answer, our other half so to speak. It is love at first sight. In our eyes, they are the best thing since the Slinky. We could not imagine life without them— they are all that we think about. We make every effort to rearrange our lives in such a way that this relationship is at the center of our world. We spend every waking second with them, blowing off family and old friends. Eventually, maybe two weeks to a month later, the relationship gets much more serious. After a short time we decide to move in with one another…

A month or two goes by… Then the very person who was once God’s gift to earth, suddenly begins to appear much more human. We begin to become acutely aware of the others little quirks like snoring, talking with their mouth full, or not wiping their feet. The relationship no longer seems to be the fun filled romantic affair that was once the theme music of our life. Before long we start looking for more space or time apart. We start popping back in at our parent’s house, or going out with old friends. Pretty soon, the same relationship that was once the center piece of our lives becomes the most irritating aspect of our life. Every time our partner opens their mouth we simultaneously start thinking to ourselves, “Shut-Up… Shut-Up… Shut-Up!” Next thing you know, we have decided that this relationship just isn’t going to work and we part ways.

We expected the relationship to always look and feel the way it did in the first 30 days. When we place permanent labels on changing events it is inevitable that disappointment will arise. The legendary master from the Thai Forrest Tradition, Achaan Chah once remarked that, “Things do not bother us, we bother them.” We bother these things by placing permanent labels on them; “things” are just following their nature, which is change. Life is nothing more than an endless stream of transformation. When we single out some section of this stream by framing it through conceptualization, we are attempting to halt the process of transformation. It goes without saying that any attempt to solidify life is futile. Life will continue to change… Eventually we will come to realize that our pictures are no longer in their frames. It is at this point that we are once again confronted with that sense of personal insufficiency or vacancy. Except this time, there is an added element of frustration, because our attempts to repair ourselves have ended in failure yet again. This is the third dimension of suffering—blunt suffering.

This frustration is magnified by the fact, that in some way, the entire thing seems to be somewhat personal. It seems to be personal, because when we become attached to some-thing we become dependent upon it. To say that we are dependent upon it, is to say, that our identity is somehow wrapped up in the experience. When we cling to something we are using it as a reference point— a way of acquiring confirmation or validation. As the experience changes, which it inevitably will, our identity undergoes revision. From this point of view, framing events as a means of completing or repairing ourselves is no different than stepping on board an emotional rollercoaster. The whole of life becomes an amusement park where our very identity is being slung back and forth between various forms of hysteria and despair.

As a result of our personal investment in these fleeting events we find our emotional sanity contingent upon circumstances which are themselves unstable. This instability is made evident by the way we continually shift back and forth between the extremes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In Buddhism, this roller-coaster ride is called Samsara.

These emotional extremes are the glaring forms of discomfort that we mentioned earlier. They manifest in a variety of ways, and we are all very familiar with the assorted textures. Everyone knows exactly what it feels like to be angry, depressed, anxious, and so on. If we were able to step back and look at these sensations for what they are, we would discover that they are nothing more than a primal form of intelligence— a sort of built-in alarm system that is pointing out the presence of insanity or confusion.

In most cases though, we choose to ignore this message. So, we go on plagued by fear, anger, anxiety, stress, jealousy, depression, and all the rest. In order to escape these feelings, we recycle the very course of action which gave rise to them in the first place. In a fit of despair, we plow forward trying to find yet another thing, another picture to shove into our frame.

We suspected that we are somehow insufficient or vacant. So, we took hold of some experience in order to fulfill ourselves. We cling to the experience as if it were some solid entity that can endure the rigors of time. However, in the end we see that it came to pass as all things do. Since we continually ignore the fleeting nature of “things” we continually find ourselves disappointed and heartbroken by them. This is a consistent feature in most of our lives.

In the comment section below I invite you to share some personal examples of and insights into the pattern described above:

How do you experience that subtle sense of feeling broken, incomplete, or somehow defective? Do you ever get the sneaking suspicion that you are missing some big idea or component? If not, can you see the symptoms of such a belief in your life? Looking for the perfect self-help or spirituality book, teacher, or practice?

Do you ever catch yourself reaching out for some thing… Clinging to it as though it is your only hope? Do you ever notice it while you are doing it or only in retrospect? Can you see the signs of such behavior? A sense of , “AHA! I got it.” Followed by, “Well, shit! I thought I was over this…”

Do you ever get that feeling of impending despair? Like you just can’t escape some problem? Do you ever feel like you are right back where you started? Or never really left?

I encourage you to ask yourself these and other questions…and share your insights. It is only once we have identified suffering and accepted it as a fact of lives that we can begin to investigate the causes and conditions that give rise to suffering and begin to work with its patterns.


About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


15 Responses to “On American Buddhism.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ben Riggs and Refuge Meditation, Red Fox. Red Fox said: American Buddhism: The Depth Of Our Dissatisfaction. http://bit.ly/g2nwGc […]

  2. BenRiggs says:

    Hello Cindy… It is good to see you are still popping to participate in this discussion group. As to your comment, If it is there in meditation, it is there at the checkout counter of the grocery store! My question is, "Can we hang onto it?" Or is that just another version of the ego clinging to something?

  3. BenRiggs says:

    Having moved beyond suffering, if only for a moment, and touched basic sanity, where do we go from there? Is that a feeling or idea, an experience we can hang onto? Or is clinging to insight just another form of attachment? An action of the ego that continues the cycle of suffering? Is it just another example of me judging a particular insight or experience as the answer to my problem, and clinging to it for dear life? Will I, in the end, always be disappointed because I can not hold onto it?

  4. Lacy says:

    I didn't mean to leave those questions at the bottom.

  5. BenRiggs says:

    Thank you so much Lacy for sharing all of that! That was incredibly insightful stuff. I really hope more people will dig in like that and see those patterns. Thanks once again for sharing your insights.

  6. BenRiggs says:

    I have started a new job, but haven't quit the old one. I just moved in with my girlfriend. Things have just been different. I feel so busy. My first instinct is to set up the apartment. Do all of my work as fast as possible. Go.Go.Go! I feel like if I can get ahead everything will be fine, but in the end I just dig the hole deeper! I get exhausted, which makes senseless arguments over ABSOLUTELY nothing with the misses all the more likely… In the end I get less work done.
    I should sit in the middle of that [email protected]%k of an apartment and embrace the chaos… Let it be!

    I feel overwhelmed, which is to say ill-equipped- 1st dimension
    I press forward b/c I think that is the answer- 2nd dimension
    I realize that didn't really fix anything, in fact it made things more complicated! -3rd dimension

  7. Cindy says:

    Here's what I think. When my eyes are closed in meditation, I can find that core. When my eyes are open, I'm in the world. Distractions, concerns abound. As soon as I start my day my tranquility starts shrinking as I focus on my family, school, animals, any responsibility that keeps me planetside. How about you, Ben?

  8. BenRiggs says:

    Well for now I will simply say this: I can relate! In the future we will talk about a deeper dimension, but for now I will stay on topic…

    It is important to observe and accept these patterns as real & operable features in our lives… As you seem to have done. In the coming weeks we will explore the nature of these patterns, and begin to investigate the causes and conditions that give rise to them.

    But for now I think it is brilliant that how you have seen that there is a sort of problem, the distractions & concerns… You have noticed how you find relief, but no real solution to this problem in meditation. And finally, that when being plummeted back into your day any sense of tranquility is lost. That is the dynamic described in the article above.

    But it is important to remember that patterns are workable… They are pliable dynamics with components, not intrinsic characteristics…

  9. BenRiggs says:

    Yes I can once again relate, to some degree… I definitely feel one has to remain teachable. Maybe a better word would be open-minded. There does come a point when the teacher is reality or truth… But then its voice is to be found in suffering, no?

    Doesn't it seem like the content of the path is confusion, and in seeing our confusion for what it is, insight is born? Is that not why we start with suffering? The path and goal are one in the same? We begin with suffering and enlightenment consists of nothing more than seeing suffering for what it is? Nirvana is the realization of samsara, or enlightenment is insight into confusion???

  10. TamingAuthor says:

    Perhaps we are only catching fleeting glimpses of the true depth of the estrangement from our true nature. In a metaphoric sense, we are a long way from home, living mostly as broken players.

    One might compare the depression you note with the feeling of someone walking through the mall who was kidnapped and taken into a rendition program in a foreign prison. Years have gone by and the torture dulled the mind so memories of the former life have faded. Every once in a while there is a fleeting glimpse of a memory that seems almost unreal. And every so often a clown appears in fancy costumes and dances outside our cell with a golden key but then vanishes without unlocking the door.

    After awhile there is no need for a cell. The prisoner considers there is no way out. Better to pretend this is life in its fullest. And the depression dulls the mind so escape seems a laughable dream that no one dare dream.

    And so the fog of ignorance is thick. Hope but a mirage.

    And meanwhile, the Buddha and Jesus, to name two, have come around and tried to coax the prisoner out of his slumber but have been rejected, mistaken for the vanishing clowns with the gold keys. They have announced the prison gates are open, walk out, fools! March out in joyful celebration… but the prisoner chooses not to do so. The fog is too thick, the imaginary leg irons too heavy.

  11. Cindy says:

    I'm going to have to let that soak in for a while. Confusion is a teacher, I think. It can remind me to be still and then it goes away.

    You're right about remaining open-minded, letting life and reality (or what we think is reality) be the next teachers. Nature, too, has been a great teacher. I get more clarity walking in the woods, hearing nothing.

  12. […] In order to establish and validate its existence, the ego had to create division; a sense of being a… […]

  13. […] The experience of this-&-that managed to divide life right down the middle. This single thought formed a perimeter around pure space, but we ignored the fact that this perimeter was transparent, by obsessing over the differences between this and that. On one side of the line was this or the sense of self and on the other side was that or everything else. This simple little idea set in motion the pattern of dissatisfaction that has plagued us for most of… […]