My experience with Buddhism up to this point has left me feeling that, while the teachings are profound and enlightening, there is a lack of concrete instructions as to how to actually end bad behaviors. I understand that meditation helps to clear the mind, that craving comes and goes, that satisfying the craving only embeds it as a behavior to engage in the future, but I’m not sure what I should when the craving arrives and overwhelms me.
I get the feeling that I’m supposed to meditate away cravings and compulsions, but that hasn’t worked for me. Is this an ignorance on my end and I simply haven’t found the right teachings or lessons? Is it that I’m not disciplined enough to employ meditation as a behavior-altering technique? Has your experience with Buddhism left you feeling that it doesn’t generally utilize step-by-step behavior modification techniques? If so, do you think it could aid in the addition of such techniques?
There are certain forms of Buddhism that one might say use step-by-step behavior modification techniques. In Vipassana meditation there are techniques that are supposed to eradicate greed through a systematic contemplation its causes. Since greed is the root of cravings and compulsions, this is probably the kind of thing you’re looking for. I have never practiced Vipassana, so I don’t know much more detail than that.
One of the problems a lot of people encounter is that it’s very scary to learn that the underlying cause of your cravings and compulsions is you.
What many people tend to want is a technique that will allow them to maintain their usual relationship to the notion of “self” while eliminating from that self the things which that self finds unattractive about itself. It’s sort of like trying to make a duck into a bicycle while still keeping it a duck.
We all have compulsions and cravings. Our particular compulsions and cravings are part of what makes us unique and distinctive. I crave bad science fiction movies and have a compulsion for watching them. Most people disdain the films I enjoy – hell, I disdain them too a lot of the time! Anyhow, this craving is part of what makes me who I am.
What happens when I give it up? Do I remain who I am? Should I give up such things in order to be a “good Buddhist?” Some people certainly seem to think so.
When people worry about cravings and compulsions, though, they’re not usually worried about that level of stuff. They’re more concerned with the bad cravings, the darker ones. I have those too. So do you.
Many of us tend to hide those kinds of cravings, sometimes even from ourselves. We can get so good at hiding them that we are unaware such dark cravings and compulsions even exist. Yet we’ll act on these cravings and compulsions even when we’re not consciously aware of them. That’s when they can get really out of control.
It’s so common it’s become a clichÃ© that the most homophobic among us are those most likely to harbor hidden homosexual compulsions. How many gays have been victimized by men who would have been much happier if they could simply own up to their truer desires? That’s probably the easiest and most common example in our culture. There are countless others.
It also points out some of the problems inherent in identifying so-called “negative” compulsions and then using specific techniques designed to eradicate them. When we do so, we are always trying to modify what we are into what we think we ought to be. So a man who fears his own homosexual cravings and compulsions as “negative” tries to eradicate them. This never ends well.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition, we generally don’t work on systematically identifying negative cravings and compulsions and then eradicating them through behavior altering techniques. It’s not because that can’t be done. It can. But it often just leads to a reinforcement of the very ego mechanisms that produced those cravings and compulsions in the first place.
Now of course there are situations in which something like this becomes necessary. If you find you have cravings and compulsions towards activities you know are harmful to yourself and others, you have to take steps to manage those. In more drastic cases more drastic measures become necessary. But that’s not the kind of thing most of us are dealing with.
Most of us just have a more vaguely defined notion of wanting to be “a better person.” Kodo Sawaki, my ordaining teacher’s first teacher, said, “You say you want to become a better person by doing zazen. Zazen isn’t about learning how to be a person. Zazen is to stop being a person.”
Here is where it gets really hard. Zazen threatens our sense of personhood. Nobody likes that. I sure don’t! Are you kidding me? I got off so hard on my uniqueness as a person that when I was on the staff of my high school newspaper I invented a category of “most individualistic” for an issue about outstanding students just because I knew I could win that one.
Yet weirdly enough my two Zen teachers were some of the most unique individuals I have ever met. To call either of them eccentric would be a massive understatement. They were both downright peculiar people! So was Kodo Sawaki.
Dogen said, “Realization does not break the individual any more than the reflection of the moon breaks a dewdrop. The whole moon and the entire sky is reflected in a dewdrop on a blade of grass.”
Our aim is not to identify what will make us a better person and then sheer off the parts of ourselves that do not conform to that ideal. Rather, our aim is to try to honestly look at who we actually are in this moment and learn how to be that completely.
We don’t meditate away our cravings and compulsions. But when we start to see them clearly and honestly it becomes gradually easier to relate to them, to see what we really need to be doing and to start doing that.
April 3, 2015 Pomona, CA Open Door 2 Yoga
April 24-26, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
May 16-17, 2015 Nashville, TN 2-DAY RETREAT AT NASHVILLE ZEN CENTER
July 8-12, 2015 Vancouver, BC Canada 5-DAY RETREAT at HOLLYHOCK RETREAT CENTER
August 14-16, 2015 Munich, Germany 3 DAY ZEN RETREAT
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
Every Monday at 8pm I lead zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 am I lead zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
Registration is now open for our 3-day Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center April 24-26, 2015. CLICK HERE for more info!
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