When to Aspire and When to Accept
As we have noted in past newsletters, the spiritual life can often seem confusing, replete with paradox and shot through with seemingly contradictory directives. One such perplexity that we have discussed previously is the tension between aspiration (working hard for change) and acceptance (affirming and surrendering to the realities we cannot change).
In November's issue of this newsletter, we argued that it's important to do both -- to work hard AND relax. But we didn't go on to think about when to do which, when to aspire and when to accept. How do we know when it's the right time to work hard and make progress toward attaining our goals, and when it's our best bet to stop making efforts and just "go with the flow"?
I think we can see this dichotomy in what are known in Buddhism as the two "wings" of the spiritual life - "method" (inclusive of both the moral restraint of ourselves and the selfless love for and compassion toward others) and "wisdom." Any authentic and effective spiritual path will have versions of both of these components, and any individual who hopes for success will need to include both in his or her practice. But upon analysis it seems as though the two are making very different demands of the practitioner. One asks us to work hard, and the other to relax.
The method side of things provides tools for self-improvement. It teaches us how to develop our morality, our love and compassion, as well as our mindfulness and ability to concentrate. We progress in our cultivation of these and other virtues in order to build up, little by little, what is called our "collection of merit" which eventually produces our physical appearance as a Buddha.
The wisdom constituent of a spiritual life relates to our understanding of the true nature of things - our realization of how things really are. We learn to recognize how things exist (they do exist inter dependently) and how they don't (they do not exist in dependently) in order to emerge from our all-encompassing delusion. On this side of things we overcome what are termed our "obstacles to omniscience" and accrue the "collection of wisdom" that will, at the time of enlightenment, bring us the mind of a Buddha.
While the two wings are certainly from one point of view complementary and mutually reinforcing, from another angle they require very different - even opposing - things of us. Method is motivated by the desire for things to be different than they are: we wish that our own and others' present suffering would come to an end. Wisdom manifests when we stop being deceived about the true nature of things, when we acquiesce to the facts of life instead of unrealistically wishing that they be different.
Method concerns our aspirations; wisdom entails acceptance. Method is developed over time - we seek to become happier, kinder, better people ourselves, and we wish that others also become happy and no longer suffer. But wisdom is discovered in the here and now - we acknowledge and accept things the way they really are and give up our delusions based on how they seem to us or how we wish they might be. Method is about becoming - becoming different, better people and bringing about a different, better world over time. Wisdom is about being - being present fully, here and now, in the real world rather than inhabiting a dream-like (or, more often, nightmarish) mirage fueled by ignorance and denial.
The attributes developed on the method side of things - compassion, benevolence, altruism, mindfulness, etc. - are positive qualities that we generate and cultivate through training over a period of time. But because wisdom is simply matching our awareness to reality itself - because it is merely the correct apprehension of how things really are - it is not really something that needs to be developed. Wisdom appears when obscurations, distortions, and hallucinations are dispelled; wisdom arises when falsehood ceases.
Wisdom is not cultivated, it is realized . While such realization of the truth can be experienced with different intensities (ranging from a mild sort of intellectual suspicion to a deep, direct and life-changing existential event), at bottom wisdom is nothing other than the awareness of what always has been, is now, and always will be. For wisdom to manifest there is nothing to do, only things not to do. Wisdom comes about when there is a cessation of falsification . We stop mistaking our illusions for reality; we accept things the way they are instead of clinging to misconceptions and projecting our fantasies.
We accept, for example, change and impermanence and cease to foist our chimeras of permanence and stability upon a world that will never validate or conform to them. Change will never change into changelessness no matter how much we wish it. Wisdom accepts and affirms the changing nature of things. It encourages us to relax into the uncertainty of change instead of trying to arrest it - and suffering as a result of this futile tilting at windmills.
Wisdom also requires acceptance of the fact that there are no essences to things or beings, very much including ourselves. Wisdom regarding the emptiness of selves is simply the correct identification of what is and has always been. There has never been a "self" to things or beings. Our idea that things have essences is a complete fantasy with no connection to the real world.
When we just stop the reverie and adjust our view to the reality of things, wisdom emerges naturally and without effort. There is nothing positive or constructive to do here; wisdom occurs when we stop defying reality and wake up from our self-imposed dream state.
Method, on the other hand, encourages us to never be complacent about the suffering of ourselves and others. As opposed to the fact that things are impermanent and have no essence, suffering can be changed. It is, in fact, because things are "empty" of permanence and self-nature that they can be changed. Method incites us to strive for and aspire to a changed and ultimately perfected state. And it is instigated and underwritten by the recognition that things and beings are changing, and therefore are changeable . The wisdom that entails the acceptance of the reality of change therefore makes possible the conviction that one's compassionate aspirations for the end of suffering are realizable and not just airy-fairy pipe dreams.
Things cannot be changed in the moment, however. Wisdom recognizes and accepts not only change but also the nature and laws of causality that guide change. One such law is that there is always a gap between the time of the cause and the time of the effect. And because of that gap we can't change the present in the present .
The present is a perfect culmination of past causes. Once those causes have come to fruition, there's no point resisting or striving against the reality they have brought about. From the point of view of wisdom, there is no sane alternative other than to just relax and accept that which you cannot change - i.e., the ever-changing present.
But the method side of our practice motivates us to aspire to change the things that we can change - i.e., the future. The present may be the perfect effect of past causes, but it also repositions as the cause of future effects. What we do in our present won't change the present but it certainly determines the future.
Wisdom calls upon us to accept what we cannot change. We can't change change no matter how hard we try, and we can't change the present in the present no matter how dissatisfied we are with it. There's no point in any strategy other than acceptance in these cases. But if the future is in our hands every moment, then it also makes no sense to be anything other than diligent in creating the causes and conditions for a more agreeable time to come. The latter suggests it's best to work hard, the former encourages us to relax.
And to just give the wheel one last spin: One of the best ways to create better karma and work to fulfill one's aspirations for an improved future is to begin by embracing the present, as it is. Being upset about what one can't change cannot but be sowing negative seeds for the future. Unhappiness about the present - wishing that things that cannot be changed instantaneously were different than the way they are - tends to be continually self-replicating and never-ending. Contentment, on the other hand, arises only when discontentment ends, when one accepts the here and now.
Aspiring to total acceptance may turn out to be the highest aspiration one can cultivate.
With all good wishes,