Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Conversation with a relative on Willpower, Zen, Jews, and Guilt

This is my workspace. It is the most organized that it has ever been.
Thanks for the very interesting article link on Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. I had missed the article and am interested in checking out the book. It does sound as if worry and rumination are two sides of the same coin, or maybe the same coin altogether. And yes, I "worry" that they are ways of avoiding the present. Clearly, willpower (i.e. telling myself to focus on the here and now) doesn't work. Have your zen practices been more helpful?

Regarding your Torah study and the notion of worry as a Jewish trait—I have many times thought that worry (and guilt) may be particularly prevalent among Jews of eastern European ancestry, a cultural trait developed over centuries of hard times. I, too, was in a Torah study group but never felt the connection so strongly there. Still, as Jews with eastern European ancestry (you through your mother's side and I through my mother's side), we may be wired ...
Willpower: I agree that willpower isn't the way. I've heard teachers say that they pull rather than push. I think when we push ourselves we burn out quickly. I couldn't sit at my desk unless a movie or music was playing. I had to check my email all the time. So I tried various willpower techniques, including using a pomodoro timer (neat project management system) but it still was an incredible effort. I think willpower is exhausting, though maybe (sometimes) useful in developing habits. My sister Gail (a psychoanalyst) urged me to try some ADD medicine (generic Ritalin) ... so I went through some testing and since I was “borderline,” they gave it to me. I've been taking it for about six weeks now and feel pretty much like a different person. Supposedly the pills stimulate the front part of the brain that controls willpower. In any case I felt like I was a car out of alignment, using “willpower” (over and over again) to go straight, where now I feel I'm in alignment. I have no interest in having video or audio on when I'm working, though if someone interrupts me, that's ok too. It has made me question the perception that many others just don't “try” hard enough. Perhaps they have some part of their brain that isn't functioning properly. I saw so many students struggle, and no matter how hard they tried, barely improve. I wondered why. In fact, I worked to try to get our campus disabilities office to consider learning disabilities as a disability (sounds so obvious). The disability folks were much more into the deaf and those using wheelchairs and never pursued it. On the other hand, I know that some people think that many kids are over-medicated. I'm sure that some ADD/ADHD drugs are used for the convenience of the teachers rather than for the growth of the student.

Zen: There are so many Buddhisms, and even more than one school of Zen, and they don't agree. Buddha's #1 goal is to relieve people of their suffering, which he feels is a result of their attachment to things. (I think of Buddha as ever present, and existing in all things.) Greed, hate, and delusion are the three poisons that come from attachment. Perhaps rumination is an attachment to the past, and worry is a fear that things won't be as they are. I realize now that I was fixated on certain things that had happened to me in the past. Now (with the meds) I remember the incidents and see that I was fixated (obsessed) about them, but realize that I'm not concerned about them any more.

In Soto Zen, (which is what I practice), we say the "Zen is good for nothing." People come to us because they want relief from this or that. And most say that they have benefited from their practice. But those who just do it for the end goal often don't stick with it. It is like wanting to be a famous artist. There is no better formula for failure.

The prisoners with whom I communicate want to meditate as a means of numbing their suffering and suppressing their anger. I try to shift their thinking a little so they'll observe their anger rather than trying to get rid of it. I believe that someone who says "I am so angry" really isn't so angry at the moment when they are observing their anger. They are a guy/gal observing themselves being an angry person. Did I send you the poem, The Guest House, by Rumi? It is the best description of Zen meditation.

So a question, are you worrying when you are aware that you are worrying? I suspect that both can't occur simultaneously.

Jews: My grandma Rebecca was certainly the modicum of worry, wasn't she? And my mother worried a lot. She wrote in her notes that she was depressed a lot. In the Torah study group it was mentioned the other day that Jews suffer from their persecution. This seems very non-productive to me because it is making the world the cause of our thoughts. I like better the Buddhist idea that pain is like a dart thrown at us, which hurts, but suffering comes from a second dart that we create in our mind. (But back to the brain ... how much emotion and how many thoughts are the result of too many or too few chemicals being released by the brain?)

Guilt: I haven't thought a lot about guilt. I do remember how bad I used to feel when I messed up in the Zen temple, doing something that was “wrong.” like moving a cushion with my foot. And now, when I see newcomers do such things I just think “they are a newcomer and they don't know any better.” Buddhists do have a concept of repentance, but it is simply acknowledging that they messed up and then move on. There is no sin, nor commandments that they should do this and not that (though precepts are taken to inform one's path).

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