Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Of Buddha, Oprah, Spirituality and Letting Go

I got an email from Oprah the other day telling me about the seven books that very spiritual people read. I opened the email, not because I have any aspirations to be more spiritual, but out of curiosity. The link took me to a book written by an Eastern guru type author. 

I forget the title but the blurb didn’t tell me anything I haven’t read or heard somewhere else. No aha moments for me. So I didn’t read any further.  

That word spiritual has slowly but steadily climbed the list of status definitions in the past 20 years, and as it has, it’s become more and more of a glittery currency that has no real reserves. Paper money with no gold in the bank to back it. Because the truth is that spiritual is an absolute. We’re all spiritual. We’re spirit housed in physical form. It’s impossible to be more or less of what we inherently are.  It’s possible to be more conscious of the fact that although the physical impacts so powerfully on us through our senses it’s not the most powerful part of us. But that’s just about education; it’s hardly something we can use to elevate our ego status.

It’s only the things we don’t fully understand that we think are phenomenal. So I guess if we were all a bit more educated, about the truth that we’re as much spirit as we are matter, and that at least whilst we’re on this plane, we can’t detach ourselves from either, we wouldn’t attach such significance to this wretched word spiritual.

Where did it start, this craze? Perhaps it began in earnest in the West when hippies travelled to the East in search of a more meaningful life and mind-altering substances. They learned about Buddhism and they liked what they saw. They came back home and brought it – or their interpretation of it - with them. Along with the mind-altering substances.

These days, in the West, it’s not unusual for Westerners to consider Buddhism the most elevated religion or philosophy, whatever you want to call it, in the whole world. How did that happen? Either because it is the most elevated - or because Buddhists are great at PR, perhaps. Or because in the West we latch onto religions or philosophies that let us off the hook of grappling with our physical experience and with our very very uncomfortable emotions. Religions that promise us a life of freedom from inner conflict. 
Letting go is the term that I hear the most often in connection to Buddhism. Can’t get your life together? Just let go. Detach. Attachment is where all the trouble lies and it’s the least spiritual thing you can do.

They tell you that all suffering is a consequence of being attached to something. If you let go, abracadabra! no more pain. It sounds good. But is it even possible? We seem particularly fixated on letting go of emotional baggage. It’s in the past, they tell you, there’s nothing you can do about it. You need to move on. Whether that’s real Buddhism or not is questionable, to my mind. What isn’t questionable is that in reality, until we process whatever binds us to our emotional baggage it will stick like superglue. We can repress it for a while, or anaesthetise it, but it will drive our lives and our relationships and we won’t be able to understand when things go wrong. Nor will we be able to fix them.

Emotional baggage is a symptom of something that’s unresolved within. It’s there because we still need something that we didn’t get when it was first created. Emotions are uncomfortable because if they weren’t we’d ignore them. Stick your hand into a fire and it hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. The pain tells you what to do. If you didn’t have the pain you wouldn’t know.

So, maybe we’re not supposed to let go of anything. Maybe we’re supposed to actually pay attention to what we’re experiencing. Lean into it. Feel the feeling until we understand what it’s trying to tell us about what we need. Maybe trying to detach is just another form of escapism. The way we perceive letting go in the West, is it really letting go, or is it just another kind of anaesthetic? Do we want to reach a state of serenity because it’s the height of spirituality or because it’s very comfortable? If it’s the former, we’re addicted, attached, to spirituality. And the truth is that there’s no height to anything that involves knowledge and understanding, because the more you know the more you realize there is to know.

If we’re just looking for serenity because it’s comfortable and relieves us from the burden of dealing with emotions, then we’re attached to fear of feeling, and letting it drive us. I don’t see how that can be spiritual. 

Is it really Buddhism? Surely not. The thing that I wonder about is, do we in West have any real understanding of what the original Buddhists meant when they let go? Can we even get anywhere close to knowing, given that we look at everything through our own Western filters? It seems more probable to me that what we know as Buddhism in the West is more likely to be a loose translation, with all the difficult parts left out, than an absolutely accurate one.

One thing seems pretty obvious. We in the West use spirituality to ego-aggrandize and we're attached to letting go. Couple of oxymorons there. So, thanks Oprah but no thanks.