Life: New Phases

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
-Paul Boese

In Buddhism, the two “wings of awakening” are wisdom and compassion. Sometimes we try to separate these , perhaps even seeing them as antagonists. But in fact, as the ‘wings’ imagery suggests, the two must be cultivated together on the path to awakening. One may be – and most people are – stronger on one side or the other, but this serves as no excuse for the neglect of the other.

I, as most folks will easily guess, favor the wisdom side of things. My inclination is to understand – people, life, the world and all it holds. Understanding, done properly, facilitates love and compassion. After exiting an abusive relationship a while back, I strove in earnest to understand the woman’s violent mood-swings and associated problems. Understanding the causes and conditions of her actions invoked compassion, she was simply repeating her family’s cycle of violence and denial.

The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.
– Carl Jung

At times this understanding faded and I found myself blaming her. I was also hard on myself – and others – for failing to see the problems as they grew and grew – a bit like this guy.

Luckily I did have close friends and family who saw what was really happening and facilitated my exit. I couldn’t blame her any more than I could save her, which had been a major preoccupation as the nature of her past – and present – became more apparent. Just causes and conditions; and though I had become one cause in her life, it was too little, too late. I still regret not being able to help more.

“You have to know the past to understand the present.”
- Dr. Carl Sagan

One thing I’ve learned quite deeply from that encounter is that we can never abandon our past. This love of mine often spoke of letting go of aspects of the past that no longer served her; but I eventually realized that she wasn’t doing the work of letting go. This is something many of us miss in our efforts to come to terms with life. We can become experts in the right words, yet fail completely when it comes to the actions necessary to realize our aspirations.

And that brings us – me at least – back to the present moment. My own life-aspirations have long been threefold: family (relationships), philosophy (academia and career), and (Buddhist) practice. It has always been a challenge to balance these three.

And now, as I enter what could be the last year of my Ph.D. – a year that of my academic friends have called the most stressful year of their lives – I find my energy pulled strongly toward the academic and practice sides of life. And I am actually really excited about that. Part of me is sad to pull energy away from relationships, but I know that the many very wonderful people in my life (especially Julie) will still be there when I come out the other side of this academic worm-hole.

And the truth is, I have no choice. If I don’t redirect my energy, I’ll never finish my doctorate, I’ll never write the great books, jet a real job, relieve suffering everywhere, gain perfect enlightenment, and all that jazz. And without those things, who would want to hang out with me? Not me, that’s for sure. So, in my usual humble fashion, and I think the Buddha had similar intentions when he set forth from his home life at age 29, I seek to abandon much of mundane life so as to find something worthy of offering to the world (mostly in the form of a good ph.d. thesis).

The Buddha spent 6 years away, practicing some the most severe austerities imaginable, before his return. The average Ph.D. program in Buddhist Studies in the U.S. is about 6 years. A coincidence? I don’t know. But I do know that it’s been a while since I held my arms above my head for weeks at a time or lived on a grain of rice a day, so I’ve got some work to do.

  • Maringouin

    As you embark on your final PhD year, Justin, there are lots of us cheering you on! I didn't find my final year the most stressful–in fact, I rather enjoyed it, although of course there were dry bits. But it was exciting to take all the research I'd done, and start kneading it into a whole, realising how much I'd learned, and getting excited all over again about what I had to communicate. Go for it!

  • Pete Hoge

    You are fortunate to understandthat you have to be focused inthe first place which can catalyzethe momentum you need.I remember a story in the zentradition about the ox slogging through the mud because that iswhat it does and when it reachesdry earth it goes on walking because that is also what the ox does.Pete.

  • Nathan

    Good luck on the final year of studies. It's so true about not abandoning your past. When people gloss over it, or try and forget it, eventually they land in a heap of trouble.

  • Kyle

    Justin – I have to admit I envy you. I work as a Computer security engineer for a rather large gov't agency. I only dream I could go back in time and follow a path similar to yours.Good Luck, and remember the old Zen saying:Before Enlightenment Write Thesis, Get PhD After Enlightenment Write Books, Make Big Money :-D

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Thank you (!) everyone for your encouragement. I'm sure I'll be pleading for more some time not to far down the road.Margaret, I can taste that excitement you speak of. It's like having explored the many rivers in detail and now having the task of mapping the ocean. It's familiar, but it's sooo immense… Time to dive in!Pete, I have the understanding. Now the hard work will be in actualizing it, actually letting go of (or cutting back drastically on) the many wonderful and exciting things in the world that diminish my focus.I am the ox.Nathan, many thanks. I try to keep my past on continuous replay. Best to remember too vividly and not repeat than to forget and live through it all again, I say.Kyle, envy is always a two-way street. And it's never too late. A good friend of mine is around 55 and thinking of grad school in Buddhism; a fellow traveler in China is in the same situation; Margaret (above) dove back into graduate studies of Buddhism later in life as well. I highly recommend doing an MA -> Ph.D. in England (depending on your interests). It would only take 4 years, or so, and require probably accumulating loads of new debt, battling various bureaucracies, traveling widely, meeting amazing people, losing things, gaining things, and more. It's not for the faint of heart, but for some of us it is just a matter of realizing we could never truly be happy doing anything else in the world. So we brave the bureaucracies, the poverty, the vagabond life. And in the end, a few of us get book deals and jobs :) If you choose to join us, let me know!

  • Julie

    I wish you luck on what WILL be your final year of Ph.D studies. You will succeed beyond even your expectations.You have my blessings and best wishes on your future.

  • EdaMommy

    I think it's really wonderful that you have this awareness of where you are at right now, and where you need to head next.Best wishes!!(One of these days, if I can manage the cost, *I* intend to follow in your footsteps and get my own PhD!^_-)

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Awe, shucks – thanks Julie :) Your optimism is infectious.EdaMommy – it's nice to have the awareness, but scary at the same time. It's like I've been plodding around in the foothills for so long and now I see Mount Everest staring down at me. I have to go forward, step by step, undaunted by the enormity of it all.Good luck on your journey up the mountain (soon, I hope) as well.