Sunday, May 9, 2010

Buddhist Bravery, Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, & Humor

For the past 5 years, my version of bravery has been putting on a stiff upper lip as I marched gently into a room of surly defiant teenagers hell bent on hating philosophy.  It was a war I often won by the middle of the semester, the peace flag murmurings of self-directed philosophical student reflection wafting in the collegiate air.  It takes a great deal of a certain kind of bravery to perform such a feat, knowing full well how critical and resentful students can be of their professors in these irreverent times. 

But, it seems, there is another sort of bravery, one that may require even more courage than this.  According to Shambhala, The Sacred Path by Chogyam Trungpa the "key to warriorship and the first principle of Shambhala vision is not being afraid of who you are."  Bravery is "not being afraid of yourself;" being "heroic and kind at the same time."  Now, the heroic and kind thing I had down with my students, but once you ask me to take this attitude toward myself, my knees get weak.  Well, they did until a couple days ago.  Now, everything has shifted and I genuinely get what it means to say that each one of us is at root basic goodness.  This doesn't mean that we all have the capacity to act the right way if we want to (although it doesn't preclude this either).  It means that at root life itself is good and we are blossoms of goodness in our appreciation of it. 

Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus says as much by insisting that the figure of Sisyphus isn't simply a melancholic tragic hero.  Rather, the man who was condemned to roll a boulder up the side of a mountain over and over again for eternity had an attitude of appreciation for his existence in the world.  At the moment when the boulder again plummeted to the bottom, Camus insists, Sisyphus may very well have found joy instead of despair in the absurdity of his labor.  Sisyphus "concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of the stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy." 

Camus insists that the absurd does not necessarily lead to tragedy; rather "{o}ne does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness."  Camus is not offering an ancient Grecian happiness that is well-defined and guaranteed given the right social conditions; Camus is offering an existential version of happiness which is won through the embrace of the absurdity of life.  (Existential absurdity is the concept for a world of meaning that is created and negotiated at every moment, and, for this reason, is not guaranteed by any higher power.)

It occurs to me that I could offer this single line--"{o}ne does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness"--as a clear explanation for the writing of this blog.  When I first read this essay by Camus, however, I could not or would not grasp his message.  How could someone be doomed to such a life and yet see into it and beyond the particulars of it to embrace joy?  I worried that this thought could function as a way to undermine our obligations to end oppression and suffering.

But it is precisely here that Buddhism has helped me understand Camus' point.  One of the basic tenants of Buddhism is that life is suffering and it takes bravery to face it.  Without this bravery you just manufacture more suffering (often psychic suffering) for yourself.  To end this unnecessary amplification of pain which inevitably reverberates throughout the bodies and psyches of those around you, you must learn to face yourself and your life head on.  "Very simply, Shambhala vision is trying to provoke you to understand how you live, your relationship with ordinary life.{...}  We can see our shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate, and at the same time, we can see our potential for extending goodness to others.  We can tell the truth straightforwardly and be absolutely open, but steadfast at the same time.{...}  The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything."

Yet, this bravery is not accomplished by putting on a stiff upper lip when in the line of fire.  Rather, according to Trungpa, it is accomplished through an attitude of humor.  "The problem is that, when we begin to realize the potential goodness in ourselves, we often take our discovery much too seriously.  We might kill for goodness or die for goodness; we want it so badly.  What is lacking is a sense of humor.  Humor here does not mean telling jokes or being comical or criticizing others and laughing at them.  A genuine sense of humor is having a light touch.  The basis of Shambhala vision is rediscovering that perfect and real sense of humor, that light touch of appreciation."

For the last couple days I have finally come to understand what this means.  It means sitting on the bus and truly appreciating the ride.  It means allowing yourself to smile at others and allowing them to smile at you in return.  It means greeting the bus driver every day and learning his name.  It means taking notice when the bus driver plasters his area with yellow smiley faces and wears a yellow smiley face medallion around his neck.  It means letting  your own quirky self replace the lacquered veneer of polite patience you assume around strangers.  It means being in common with others.  It means being with yourself even when you are alone.  Keeping yourself company instead of the radio or television--even when you are agitated or afraid or lonely or worried or have a boulder you are pushing up a mountain.  These are instances of bravery in an urban life full of strangers and distractions.  

Sometimes the boulder is the fact of living with and among other people.  The boulder may be riding the bus every day.  Sometimes the boulder is the fact of living with and as yourself.  The boulder may be the expectations you cling to for yourself.  Both require fortitude, but more than this, they require a gentle sort of bravery that is open to the possibility of joy.  

About the Book
After taking level one of Shambhala training, I was given a book called Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa published by Shambhala Publications and copyrighted in 1984.  When I receive books as presents, I usually wait to read them until exactly the right time, when I can sink my way into the message of the book.  I have had this particular book for about three quarters of a year.  I cracked it open last night.  When Marcus and I went through the hundreds of books we had before moving to Albany, the only non-professional books I could not part with were my meditation books, some poetry books and, of course, Kafka's diaries.  I bought two thick books by Thich Nhat Hanh at a flea market 4 years ago and I still haven't read them from cover to cover, which is just fine by me because they continue to promise fresh wisdom every time I go to them.  On the other hand, I find that I accidentally open to the same passages each time I go to them and am reminded of just how awesome those books are.    

About My Practice

I am currently sitting at the Albany Shambhala Meditation Center. Many of the practitioners at the center are seasoned sitters and are open to inviting guests to offer cutting edge classes.  The center offers comprehensive programs that help introduce a person to the Shambhalan Buddhist path to enlightenment. There are Shambhala centers all over the U.S., so even if you do not live near Albany, there may still be one near you.

About the Picture
This picture was taken by me in Albany's Washington Park. 


Ellen Rook said...

you've touched on the key point of why we study, whether it's philosophy or Buddhism or flowers, to deepen our appreciation our appreciation of ourselves and the world. How things really are. That there is richness. I love that you have tied together the great stories of our western tradition with the concept of basic goodness and work and ordinary activities like riding a bus and working. The photo is extremely beautiful also. Thank you!

David E. Rook said...

Love the quote from Camus!

Spirit of a Dove said...

Thank you, David and Ellen, for offering your feed back. The book the center gave me really clicked for me this week. I am so thankful that there is a meditation center in Albany that has such a rich tradition. It accesses stable wisdom through various modes of mindfulness (meditative, artistic, physical) that allow the full person to flourish. This feeling of basic goodness, of being thankful to be alive, of living deeply in the present is one that has grown a great deal since I started sitting at your meditation community. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Bonjour Anne!
I just red your <..buddhist-bravery-camus-myth-of-sisyphus.html> entry of your Blog.
I was in the woods lately, seeing bald eagle, orsprey, mink, pike, loon, and sky with no artificial light arround...
I've lost my job as a guide due to lack of clients.
Economical situation shared by other North Americans.
I'm still adjusting, trying not to panick, trying to enjoy life.
This weekend i went to the marriage of Native American friends, and I let myself go as never before, trying to "grasp" the feelings I had many years ago when I was discovering their culture. You know how we can loose sight of our daily life surroundings.
I recall reading Buscaglia saying s-th about that.
Our routines make us live in a blurr?

Anyway, the funny thing is that through a different path I came across some similar topics than you. I'm reading a presentation of Buddhism. I studied some parts of it previously, but this time I wanted an overview.
I'm also reading Lighten Up by Chieko Okazaki, a Japonese-American of Hawai, born Buddhist, convert as a Mormon. She was the 1st non-caucasian in the presidency of that Church. Her book is filled with joy, even as she recount hardships she went through.
She's also very "feminine", she's a woman without the harshness of guys.
Girls today have been exposed to Charlie's Angels toughness, and some are adopting this line of self-defence. That's another topic, but it's good for me to read s-th with that gentleness, and the sensitivity of a mother, with a broad embrace of humans foibles.

I'm also reading philosoph Michel Onfray, who follows Nietzsche, in the view of an heroic life self-determined. For me his anti-christian position is s-th I don't like, but I'm able to recognize that the Institutions can deny Christ exemples.
It is also true that Buddha is more happy as a figure.
But this also is another topic.

Anonymous said...

I'm also reading Albert Nolan, 2006. Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom. Orbis Books (USA). ISBN 978-1-57075-672-6.
He's a Dominican Friar, and his presentation of the state of our world is realy close to my views. His chapter on actual science is thrilling. Because since Einstein and quantic physics our mind can be more acceptant of mysteries, and living without proofs.
My words here are inadequate, but he says s-th like the process of science is not exactly the same since 80-90 years. But not everybody is yet arrived to that understanding.
And as I read some scientific magazines lately I agree that for a Christian believer the theories can be unsettling, but they deepen my awe about God vastness.


To live with joy, with courage, live in the present, live free.
These are--as always--powerful possibilities.
But we have to get out of our maze. Since our youth we are conditionned to fear, and to prefer illusions (TV, electronic games, and romatic songs, novels...).
Some sportmen may appear closer to reality, through their bodies, but they often treat themselves as machines, so they are not so atuned to LIFE.

Me neither. I was exposed to raw nature this summer, fresh trouts, eagles flying over us, and billions of sanguinarian mosquitoes, but as a mentalist I was often far away of the present, thinking of what I will do when I'll be out of that experience.
And it happened what it usually happens: the experience ended abruptly, and I cannot yet realised the things I have planned. So I lost my energy fussing about past and future, not fully living my present.

I'm not yet healed of that habit, but I wanted to say s-th about my neverending quest of Harmony, and the fact that your own testimonies are helping me to rekindle, and getting back in the swing of things.
Merci Anne!

Michel N. Dubois

Spirit of a Dove said...

Thank you, Michel, for an update on what you have been living lately. I could just imagine being in the forests with you and breathing in the air and soaking up the spirit of the place. It was very refreshing for me. It is sad to think how much *now* we actually waste a day at the expense of a future that may never happen and a past that often has very little left to give. This year I have definitely seen an improvement of my self in this regard. Thank you for sharing your own journey, as it gives me courage to pursue mine too! It is especially hard to stay in the present when it feels like uncertainty is everywhere and overtakes your own ability to embrace what you want to be. It is risky to live a life you can believe in. It often comes, I have found being unemployed myself, with bouts of unemployment and low pay, which can make you question your choices in life. But when I consider living a different life, I just cannot leave behind the journey I've started. The one worth believing in. As one unemployed person to another, I say, be critical not of the path that brought you here, but, if you must, a world that challenges deeply those who let their heart lead them.