Dying is easy, it’s living that scares me to death.
Lyrics by Annie Lennox
If you hang out with Theravada Buddhists, it’s not uncommon to hear “I don’t want to come back” – as in I want to break free of the cycle of rebirth and human existence. I admit that I would love to break free of the cycle of rebirth. Some may call it Nibbana or Nirvana, enlightenment, or freedom from suffering. And, who doesn’t want that? While I’m at it, how about liberation from suffering for all beings everywhere. Sounds good to me! Yet, even with faith and progress on the path, I am aware and constantly reminded that Nibbana is not the best goal. It’s something to aspire to, but making it a goal is not skillful. Goals are created by the mind and rooted in the mundane. Nibbana transcends the mundane.
In general, I do not see myself as a perfectionist. However, I see roots of perfectionistic goals that support greed, hatred, and delusion. For example, my mind can suggest that if I stop my unwholesome behaviors and habits, then I will experience well-being and maybe even liberation. That kind of thinking is fraught with high standards and born from craving and greed. Failing to live up to expectations sets the mind up for hatred. Hatred in the form of annoyance with others, and self-hatred that is generated by guilt over doing that which is unskillful – even when it seems to be harmless. That supports delusion as the defense mechanisms kick in as an attempt to avoid pain and suffering. The wheel spins round and round non-stop as we whirl around the cycle of Dependent Origination and experience birth, death, and rebirth over and over.
How does all this relate to coping? Good intentions can easily turn into expectations. Expectations slam the door closed on awareness and create blinders that only allow for what is familiar and conditioned. In the face of high expectations, aversion can easily arise as doubt sets up fear of failure, anxiety, and depression or sadness. Then, the need to cope emerges as a means to deal with the stress of human existence and experience.
Obviously, effective coping is an extremely valuable skill that can help create a life centered in fostering peace – both inner and outer. An inability to cope is frequently displayed with drama and flare and can lead to doing harm to one’s self and others. Effective coping can result in less projection, stress, and overall well-being. Ok, so there’s nothing new there. However, what I realize is how high standards can support a deep point of view that translates into a life centered in coping. Even when very subtle and applied to something that seems skillful like Nibbana, intentions can become dogma that blocks us from living joyfully. Consequently, it’s hard to lighten up, enjoy life, and a heaviness seems to prevail. Where is the fun in that?
I now realize that resisting the human experience (as in the mind wanting the cycle of rebirth to end) creates a constant underlying trigger to cope with life instead of live it. Instead of an open engagement and acceptance for that which is unknown, the unconscious reflex is to be on guard for potential danger. The delusion is that we’ll avoid stress. It’s automatic in a way that creates an attitude towards experience that is limiting. In spite of embracing the transcendent and supra mundane, I am seeing the mind’s attachment to not having to experience life as a human being again. The push (aversion) and pull (craving) of the mind has attempted to corrupt Nibbana as a rationale for avoiding living a happy and joyful life. In other words, if being human is something to transcend and avoid, then no wonder the mind sees it as something it has to cope with.
Here’s what I discovered: Living centered in an awareness of the conditioned is coping. Coping is not healing. Coping is getting by. Hence, the goal of ending the cycle of rebirth gets hijacked by the mind to simply cope and get by. Even when cultivating growth and utilizing all the wonderful Buddhist and other spiritual practices, what is genuinely driving us matters the most. Automatic reactions based on points of view or judgements stifle broadening perspectives and don’t allow for the transcendent. We are faced with a choice. Do we drop our expectations, open to the unconditioned and unexpected? Or, do we cling and remain fixed to the conditioned and familiar? Do we approach life with curiosity?
Coping can and will remain a valuable tool and resource for me. However, it is just one of many tools not the foundation of how I hope to respond to life. Instead of coping with being human, I hope to drop the expectations, accept things as they are more openly, and embrace the unconditioned. It seems that the human experience can be so much more than something to overcome or simply endure. Fun, happiness, and well-being are found through freedom not expectations. An open mind is a curious mind. Even when it feels like the best we can do is cope, may hope and faith lead us to the wisdom of the unconditioned and the freedom to be happy and enjoy what life offers.
© All rights reserved, photo and text. Sallie Odenthal 2017