The Deep Truths are the Simple Ones

The insights which affect me the most, and last the longest, are maxims you might find on any hybrid-SUV's bumper stickers. Love and Let Go. You are Okay, etc. It's embarrassing, really.
06/11/2010 07:50am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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All of my most powerful insights have been banal. Despite having spent two decades studying the baroque mysteries of the Kabbalah, the intricacies of postmodern philosophy, and the endless inversions of gender and queer theory, and despite four (count 'em) graduate degrees, I find that the insights which affect me the most, and last the longest, are maxims you might find on any hybrid-SUV's bumper stickers. Love and Let Go. You are Okay. Trust the Part that Loves. It's embarrassing, really; having written over two hundred essays and articles on the spiritual path, I'm at a loss to say anything original about what really matters to me. It all comes out sounding trite. Pale.

This is especially true of the latest stage in my spiritual journey, which has involved long silent retreats (two months, three months) in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. I have, on these retreats, wonderful profound/mystical/life-altering experiences, and sublime mystical states which I've written about elsewhere. But these were not really the point, since these pass, and I've had plenty of them already. Nor was the point to get some new, secret information. Rather, what stuck are the fundamentals.

Here's how I've put it to friends. For 5 billion years, life on Earth has evolved ever more complicated means of ensuring survival. Two of these fundamental methods are the basic idea of the self, and the basic drive to satisfy the self's desires. If we didn't have a sense of the ego, of "I," we'd surely have been eaten by predators eons ago. Who knows, some of our ancestors may well have been -- and their genetic material has long since been lost to history. And if we didn't have this basic drive to satisfy our hungers and our desires, we wouldn't eat, wouldn't reproduce, wouldn't do much of anything, really. The mental constructions of ego and desire have long been essential, then, to our very existence.

And yet, the Buddha realized 2,500 years ago that these basic constructions cause a lot of pain. The ego feels alone. Desires are never satisfied -- we just want more. And life just doesn't cooperate; it's just not possible to always keep the pleasant and always avoid the unpleasant. Really, all of us want just a few basic things: success, love, power, meaning, purpose, pleasure. We could go on, but not for long -- the basic list of human desires is not so long. And, of course, none of us want sickness, death, loss, pain, loneliness or grief. Again, there are some differences -- some people like conflict, others hate it -- but more commonalities.

This handful of basic desires is universal, natural -- and the cause of suffering. Or, to be more precise, it's the thirst for those desires' fulfillment (tanha in the Pali) that is the problem. All of us feel hunger if we don't eat, and the sensations of hunger are just sensations. But when we get really hungry, and really need to have that meal, and get really angry if we don't get it -- then, problems begin to arise.

See the conundrum? The needs most fundamental to our biological makeup are also the ones which tend to cause the most suffering. Is there another way?

The Buddha said there was. In arguably the most unnatural philosophy ever promulgated, he said -- and demonstrated in his own life -- that it is possible to want less, to be less and to relinquish more. In great detail, he set forth a way of life with minimal needs and wants, and maximal happiness. As originally proposed, it may require too much renunciation for most Westerners, raised as we are to value family and career. But it's been adapted in many different ways, by many different teachers, for a long time.

The fundamental axis of the teaching is to understand, intuitively and deeply, that what Buddhists call "conditioned formations" -- i.e., stuff, ideas, people, emotions and everything else -- are incapable of providing lasting, deep happiness. Formations change all the time. The joys they bring -- though often wonderful, profound and amazing -- are short-lived. Even when we get exactly what we want, it gets old after awhile, and we want something else. And, most subtly but also most importantly, formations just happen. They don't happen to you or to me. There's no one really minding your mental store -- it's running on auto-pilot. Stimulus, response; cause, effect. We say "I am angry" but really all that's happening is "anger has arisen." Sit quietly for awhile and look for this self who's having all these experiences. If you find her/him, please shoot me an email.

So what's the alternative? Well, it too is easy to describe and hard to experience: just letting go. Now, at the further stages of the spiritual path, the letting go becomes quite profound indeed, as it comes to include letting go of everything, even thought and consciousness and self. But for most of us, it's just plain, ordinary letting go. Those things that have to get done don't really have to get done. The dream that you have, that if you don't achieve it, your life will be meaningless -- let it go too.

This is not very profound. It does not involve angels, demons, neo-Platonic spheres, noetic experiences of the union of all life -- nothing. But it is "profound" in a different sense of the word, as in "profoundly difficult" or "profound change." It is a fundamental reordering of our most basic sense of the world. And so it does take a long time to really sink in.

Can I really be equanimous between pain and pleasure, love and its lack? Can I really let go enough so that I can remember, over and over again, that, contrary to all indications, fulfilling my desires will not be as satisfying as lessening them? As one spiritual teacher has said, the path is "simple... but not easy."

One of the advantages of a long retreat is that, over time, the mind really does learn to let go, and real faith -- not blind faith in some idea, but confidence in one's own experience -- begins to develop. I didn't just read about the four noble truths in a book; I've seen them for myself. Without this kind of experience, it's just another idea. But with the actual, repeated-over-and-over-again experience, the mind really gets it. This is a very different kind of learning from the kind I did in graduate school(s). But it is the kind which transforms.

Chasing after desires and dreams is not the way to happiness (although it may be the way to productivity and a certain kind of success). Letting go of them is. This doesn't mean not doing anything; you can still smell the roses, cultivate the garden, raise the family and write the novel. It means not chasing, grasping, holding and pushing away.

I've heard many, many teachers say this, so many times that the words wash over me. But when I actually felt the bliss of releasing, the happiness that comes purely from letting go and letting the mind rest in itself -- and when I learned the same lesson for the hundredth or thousandth time -- eventually I got it.