Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Balancing passion and mindfulness

This lifesize statue of John Belushi as a wailin' Blues Brother hangs over the cafeteria at the Volo Auto Museum in Volo Illinois. I'm not exactly sure why I was so determined to share it with you today, but I think it has something to do with the passion it conveys.

The man obviously had a passion for music, and you can tell from this image that he probably had a passion for food as well. We know he had a larger-than-life quality from the exuberance of his performances, both with the band and with Saturday Night Live, but his accidental death -- from an overdose of cocaine and heroin -- doesn't feel all that accidental; it feels like all that passion just burned him out.

I am still reading Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, and this morning -- appropriately enough, given yesterday's post -- I got to the fifth of the Five Wonderful Precepts of Buddhism: Mindful Consumption. Mindful consumption is not just about being a vegetarian or watching what you eat (remember that phrase, "You are what you eat?"). It's also about what we consume "from violent TV programs, video games, movies, magazines and books." And, of course, he tackles the issues of drug and alcohol consumption.

"Drug users know how destructive their habit is, but they cannot stop. There is so much pain and loneliness inside them, and the use of alcohol and drugs helps them to forget for a while... trying to stop the drug traffic is not the best use of our resources. Offering education, wholesome alternatives, and hope, and encouraging people to practice the Fifth Precept are much better solutions. To restore our balance and transform the pain and loneliness that are already in us, we have to study and practice the art of touching and ingesting the refreshing, nourishing, and healing elements that are already available. We have to practice together as a family, a community, and a nation. The practice of mindful consuming should become part of our national health policy. Making it so should be a top priority..."

"Once we are able to see deeply the suffering and the roots of the suffering," he goes on to say, "we will be motivated to act, to practice. The energy we need is not fear or anger, but understanding and compassion. There is no need to blame or condemn. Those who destroy themselves, their families, and their society are not doing it intentionally. Their pain and loneliness are overwhelming, and they want to escape. They need to be helped, not punished."

On reading this, I find Hanh's thoughts inspired, and yet, at the same time, it feels hopelessly naive. And why is that? It feels to me as if we, as a society, have gone hopelessly off-track: spend any time with your television (and I don't even have cable) and you can see signs of that: the enormous amounts of gratuitous violence, the constant pressure of the advertising, the subjects covered in our newscasts -- there is a sort of mindless consumption that has been happening for sometime now, and it's not clear to me that we have anything good to show for it.

But I don't want to go backwards, either; don't recommend reverting to the land, like the Amish, or going back to the 50s, when we were all nuclear families and everybody went to church. Now, especially after watching an episode or two of Mad Men, that era has an almost Victorian feel to it: so much apparent sweetness and light on the surface; so much heinous behavior going on below the surface...

I guess I'm hoping that the hideous state of the economy will serve as an indicator and people will start looking for other ways to feed that hunger that seems to drive us all into bad behavior. But I'm not sure how we get there, or how we begin to educate an entire society about mindfulness -- because I do still believe that mindfulness, being aware of what we're doing, or saying, or consuming -- is the beginning of health. The problem, of course, is that it isn't exactly a quick fix. And with the speed of all the other things in our society -- cars, planes, communications -- it's hard to be patient long enough to see the benefits of any medication, let alone something like meditation and mindfulness, that requires concentrated effort over time.

We are, I think, a passionate people: we want, we hunger, we long for things with a kind of exuberance that betrays the youth of our country. But that passion doesn't have to throw us over the edge into "too much of a good thing." Properly channeled, it could guide us into a deeper understanding of who we are and our purpose in life; it can act as a fuel for the good stuff that we do, and keep us going when we hit obstacles or lose energy or get discouraged. But that kind of channeling, of containment, takes discipline, and maturity, and I'm not sure how we can encourage a whole society to grow up.

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