Turning Homeward by Jampa Jaffe by Jampa Jaffe - Read Online

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Turning Homeward - Jampa Jaffe

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If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you convinced him, not with tears, but with your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner!

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems

Prologue

BEGIN AGAIN

There’s a familiar saying, Even a journey of a thousand miles necessarily begins with a first step. Which is to say, however long the path, we have actually to begin it, if we’re ever to reach its end.

A number of years ago, I lived in a small Buddhist monastery, a wat, on a tiny island off the southeast coast of Thailand. There were three of us there, two Thai monks and myself. Over the many months that I spent meditating, I would at times become lonely and down-hearted and would question just what I was doing so far away from everything that I knew, everything that had any meaning for me—the people who I cared about and who cared about me, my interests, my habitual pleasures and distractions—living isolated, with few physical comforts, and for what I wasn’t even sure.

Sometimes, when we came together in the afternoon for a hot drink, I would share these difficult feelings with the English-speaking monk and he would always listen with great attentiveness and patience. And though I was never sure if he understood even half of what I said, when I’d finished, invariably he would smile and say, Begin again. That was all, just, Begin again.

Perhaps the point is that we’re always free to begin, to start all over again if need be. No matter who we are or what we may have done, no matter what our life-story was up to even a few moments ago, still, we can start from just there, from where we are at right now. From moment to moment we can choose to put one foot in front of the next in the choosing and re-choosing of what it is we want for ourselves, the direction we want our life to take. We can begin now to make a habit of the person we want to be, just as we have in the past formed the habit of who we currently are. We can create a new future for ourselves, go beyond our present selves and what we have or have not done if only we have the imagination and the will for it.

This is perhaps our greatest of human gifts—the capacity for free and conscious choice, the possibility to begin again, and with that the opportunity to transcend our histories, the residue of our chain-like repetitive pasts. What was once true of us and for us need be true no longer if we so choose.

Whoever you are and whatever your real or imagined constraints may be, in some form or another—however limited, however narrowly circumscribed—the chance is always there to stop drifting into the old patterns, to stop yielding to the push of circumstances, and to choose in that moment—and if only for that moment—a new life-story for yourself, to reinvent another version of who you might be and what you might do, the kind of world you want to live in.[1]

I’ve heard all that you have had to say to me on your problems.

You ask me what to do about them.

It is my view that your real problem is that you are a member of the human race.

Face that one first.

―Idries Shah, Reflections

1

FACING BEING HUMAN

How many of us have ever looked pleadingly to the sky, our arms flung open wide, and from the depths of our hearts cried, Why me? Why does everything always have to go so well for me? Why am I so fortunate, so happy? I can’t go on like this any longer. I have to understand just what it is that I’m doing so right! None of us. If we’re unhappy, we want to know why, but it never occurs to us to ask why we’re happy.

It’s unhappiness, rather than happiness that disrupts our routines, deflects us from our usual preoccupations, and turns our reluctant minds to issues that seldom concern us. It’s our suffering or, more precisely, an awareness of our suffering, that makes us stop and think, forces us to question.

This isn’t at all to suggest that we’re to be unconcerned with happiness. That would be perverse. It’s just that happiness isn’t the problem, suffering is. Suffering and our persistent struggle against recognizing it as an underlying truth about ourselves. It’s just that if a reliable and lasting solution to the problem of suffering is ever to be found, we have at least to begin by acknowledging its existence. We have to face the difficult-to-face-fact that, as ordinary members of the human race, we suffer.

Granted we may never have known the horrors of war, or experienced the devastation of a natural disaster, or endured the miseries of poverty, yet who of us can honestly deny that we suffer too? Wealth, education, fame, beauty, position are no protection. A loving family, good health, a supportive environment all help but offer no guarantee. A few tranquil individuals, with little conflict, suffer less; at the other extreme, tormented beyond endurance, some breakdown. In between are the rest of us, not despairing enough to seriously consider death, yet not honestly able to say that we’ve come to terms with life.[2]

Don’t we all, everyday, if only in brief and minor ways, experience the sufferings of not getting what we want, of meeting with what we don’t want, of being separated from what it is we want to hold on to?

How long are any of us free from the self-generated afflictions of anger, attachment, pride, and jealousy, of being ruled by our hopes and fears, torn between conflicting emotions?

For most of us there still remains the unhealed wounds of long ago abuse and neglect, of unresolved grievances, shame-filled memories, lingering guilt about what we did or failed to do.

The view that we have of ourselves as isolated egos leaves us feeling alienated, alone, and afraid. Constantly we struggle to maintain a self-image, re-establish our credentials, guard our territory—always we’re driven to be somebody doing something to confirm or defend ourselves.

Then there are the long, drawn-out periods of boredom, times when we don’t know quite what to do or where to go, how to be with ourselves—not particularly painful, just dull and aimless, a feeling of tedium.

And, finally, inevitably at the end of it all, there awaits for us all the leaving behind of the loved, the familiar, and the going-forth alone we know not where.

No one asks us if we want to die or not, or for our parents, our partner, our children to die or not. No one asks us if we want our once warm love to grow cold, if we want to be in an accident, or to develop cancer, or watch all our possessions burn in a fire. No one asks us if we want to lose our job, the car not to start, for it to rain over our vacation. None of us chose to be born, none of us choose to become sick, to grow old, and none of us—at least the vast majority of us—will choose to die, yet we all do and will.

Whether our suffering be imposed by impersonal forces as with natural disaster, accident, or disease; human-made as with war, oppression, or environmental degradation; or self-induced by worry, loneliness, or intolerance, still, in terms of the quality of felt experience it’s all suffering, differing only in kind and degree.

Whether we are innocent or guilty of complicity with our suffering, view it as deserved or undeserved, worthy or unworthy, still it remains suffering all the same. Regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not, see it as intrinsic to life or not, suffering remains a shared fact for us all. We are all open wounds against which life is continually rubbing up against. Life hurts us.

But, none of this is to cynically suggest that there’s nothing but suffering, that it’s all darkness and despair. We all know for ourselves there are times of love, joy, freedom, creativity, meaning, pleasures of body and mind, and on and on, nevertheless, life still hurts us. Hurts us more than not. And the fact is we don’t want to be hurt. That in large part is what it means to be a sentient being, to be human—not wanting to be hurt. No different for any of us.

But what is different, and indeed what makes a difference with regard to our suffering is what each of us does about it—how we understand and respond to it. With regard to that there have always been differences amongst us. There have always been remarkable individuals with the willingness to acknowledge their suffering and the skill to fruitfully question it.

They saw that oblivion