To be fair, the article also contains a quote that refutes Washam’s position entirely. Jesee Vega Frey, a teacher at Vipassana Hawaii says, “It is the wanting of things to be other than they are that is the heart of our imprisonment. Changing the colors, textures, and flavors of the prison doesn’t lead to freedom.” Unfortunately, this quote is buried in an article filled with rah-rah hype for the use of drugs.
…Why do we want things to be other than they are? Why do we feel we have plateaued? We long for fundamental change, but what is it we most need to fundamentally change? Could it be that our desire for something else is the root of our problem? Could it be that satisfying that desire with something that looks like spiritual progress is the very worst thing we could possibly do — not just to ourselves but to everyone around us?
Rather than running off to find new experiences to relieve the boredom of meditation, maybe it would be better to dive deeply into that boredom and find out where it comes from and whether it really needs relieving.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been attempting to do some self-improvement. I decided that I got stressed and lost my temper too easily, and that I should work on being more sanguine and unruffled, possibly even cheerful. My primary inspiration in this was the Lady of the House’s example. She exudes a confident, buoyant, patient optimism to a degree I’ve never seen in anyone else. Time and time again, I’ve felt foolish for having watched her straightforwardly solve a problem that I had abandoned in frustration or anger. The philosopher and relationship counselor Rocky Balboa famously discussed his “gaps” theory of a successful relationship: “She’s got gaps, I got gaps; together, we fill gaps, I dunno.” Likewise, the Lady filled this particular gap in my character, and for that, I’ve tried to show my gratitude by striving to give her less work to do in that regard. A reliable teammate should inspire you to strive harder to be worthy of them, not to ride on their coattails.
Now, I want to make clear that it’s not like I had a serious problem or anything. I wasn’t getting into fights or screaming matches or putting my fist through walls and windows. I was just tired of allowing petty irritations to live rent-free in my head and thought a little Stoic equanimity would be a good thing to strive for. It was only a little tinkering, not a major renovation.
And yet, and yet. It turns out that even this minor adjustment is hard. At first it was flabbergasting, then slightly dismaying, to see how often I slipped right back into old habits of getting too easily frustrated. I would reflect at the end of another less-than-stellar day on how, once again, everything turned out all right after all, how getting angry didn’t help at all, and how I could do better the next time. And when the red mist would descend the next time, I would struggle mightily to remember: what was I supposed to do again to calm down here? Why am I not supposed to curse or otherwise betray my irritation? All my careful philosophical preparation was nowhere to be found when a stormy mood arrived.
Eventually, you start to notice other things beside your immediate failures: the ways in which your parents influenced you much more than you ever thought; the ways in which old coping behaviors from a toxic relationship hardened into regular practices before calcifying into unconscious habits; the mystifying sense of near-powerlessness, like a rider on a bucking bronco, which comes as an unpleasant shock to the ego. What begins as a project of willpower seeking to assert itself becomes a realization of how deluded we often are in imagining that we can shape life to our liking. As Brad has said many times about Buddhist meditation, strange, unnerving things happen when you refuse to allow your mind its usual escape routes and insist on paying bare attention to what is. All I wanted was a minor upgrade on my temperament! I didn’t ask to have the wind knocked out of me by the realization of how much time I wasted thoughtlessly acting out old, lazy patterns of behavior!
The ability to envision and move toward alternative ways of being is both the blessing and the curse of the human experience. It’s made us the amazing, dynamic species we are, and it’s also left us unable to rest content with whatever actually exists. There’s always something better somewhere else, we think. Whatever is is never enough. As W.H. Auden said, “With envy, terror, rage, regret/we anticipate or remember but never are.”