Here in the West, we hear and see many claims of liberation. Some tell us that we can have anything we want by just wanting it badly enough. Others say that if you just meditate in a particular way or follow their particular prescription for practice, all of your cares will drop away and life will be wonderful beyond your wildest dreams. Some go so far as to say that if you achieve their brand of secret knowledge, you will meet that beautiful woman (or man) you’ve always wanted to meet, you will have that million-dollar mansion and somehow wealth and power will float down to you magically from the void.
We all want to have the good stuff without the bad, and there are plenty of people out there who will sell us ways to have that, for a price. There are even those who seem to think that if we look hard enough, we can find ways to keep our bodies or minds alive, forever. I’m not sure why anyone would want to keep my particular mental formations alive that long, but I’m not all that worried that they’ll be successful, anyway. It seems to me that there are a number of issues that are caused by this idea of fixing reality to make it what you want it to be.
The first is our ideas about psychological disorders. We have come to define normal mental functioning by a set of definitions. We, as a society, have decided what reality is and what our mental relationship to it should be. In fact, we have allowed that set of definitions to be determined be a small number of very powerful people. A single text, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, constrains our relationship to reality by defining want is considered to be mental illness. This manual is applied around the world as the standard for defining mental illness, deciding who gets treated and who pays for treatment. Not only does this limit individual treatments, but it is also harmful to finding new solutions because it constrains the type of research that may be conducted. This could be considered a case of the scientific establishment setting up structures that will maintain the status quo, and thereby limiting research that might challenge that status quo. I’m not suggesting that is the intention, but it may be the effect.
The second is cultural divisiveness. If we become convinced that we can eliminate all darkness from our lives, and others tell us we can, if becomes a driving force. We know that what drives us internally also causes us to react to the world in the same way. In other words, we judge others by what we don’t like about ourselves. So we decide that if we only want affirmation, we should surround ourselves by people who support and compliment us. Anyone who challenges our ideas becomes the “other”, and we push them away. Slowly and incrementally, we begin to isolate ourselves from those who disagree with us, who do not share our particular view of reality, or even those who do not go out of their way to comfort and compliment us. We build walls to let only the right kind of person into our lives. We create lists designed to isolate certain people so we keep them from our home, our children, and our religious institutions. But the problem is, we all have the capability for light and darkness, so we also isolate innocents who may be caught in our net of isolation. Some may even go one to become what we are trying to eliminate because of the isolation we have imposed upon them. We create the illusion that if someone is on the other side of the fence, they are evil and if they are on our side they are good. This is why terror cells can arise in middle class neighborhoods, and why the neighbor next door can keep women captive for years without anyone suspecting a thing.
A third issue is simply that believing we can make darkness disappear is that this distracts us from discovering our true nature. Life does not exist without death; light does not exist without darkness. If we convince ourselves that we can ban darkness from our lives, we are simply denying reality. Our bodies are going to die. Each and every one of them. There may be something everlasting about each of us – be it soul or Consciousness, or simply the physical atoms that make up our bodies, but if we imagine we will somehow continue to be the same person we are today, we might be forgetting that little thing about body and brain. We know for sure that these aren’t going to continue to house us. The Dalia Lama may be able to characterize bodily death as a “change of clothes”, but no one really knows. Even if you can claim to remember countless previous deaths, you still don’t know what the next one will bring. But even if we are not a product of past lives, we know that we are the product of our birth and upbringing. We were born with the capacity to become anything – the victim, the perpetrator, the healer or the illness – and that capacity will always exist within each of us.
Though there are many other issues, the final one I mention here is simply where we are focusing. If we focus on the external, we are missing the point. Liberation is not achieved by finding the perfect person, having a more expensive house, or making the next million dollars. It is achieved by understanding the nature of reality and fully accepting that reality. It is achieved by understanding and accepting the darkness within us as well as the light.
So do we just give up and be as bad as we want to be? Of course not. We need to recognize the capacity within ourselves and nurture those things that will move us toward the light. We can’t do it by eliminating the darkness, but finding a new relationship to it. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about nurturing the positive seeds within us. While the negative seeds remain in the soil, the positive seeds grow and flourish. I would add that psychic weed killer is a blunt instrument. If we try to completely kill all of the weeds, the whole garden will die.
Thich Nhat Hahn, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, (New York: Broadway Books, 1998)