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.

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