Self-Help Does Not Help

Well, life tends to mitigate against complete commitment, doesn’t it?

Count Saint Germain, Castlevania animated series, season 4

With the recent turmoil following my mother-in-law’s passing, life has been disrupted in many ways. All of this is temporary, but it has reminded me of how easily one’s Buddhist practice can slip. Since this started shortly after taking up the Ango abstinence, my meditation and even my daily exercise routine fell apart due to changes in routine, caring for the kids, etc.

This isn’t surprising really, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing either. It’s just that, as the quote above shows, life tends to get in the way.

At work, we got signed up for a free self-help services, including meditation videos, through Headspace, but I tried it once and found it kind of useless. The company maybe meant well, but the idea that you can meditate your problems away is contrary to Buddhist teachings.

A long time ago, I worked in a certain big e-commerce site under pretty stressful conditions. At times, it was so stressful, I had painful acid reflux issues, leading to vomiting and other things. At times, I tried to meditate to calm down and reduce stress. I would take a break during work, meditate for 15-20 minutes at a time, and then return to work.

It didn’t work. I felt calm and at peace at the time, but as soon as the first problem came up, my stress level shot right back up again. Obviously, I can’t just meditate all the time.

It was only when I finally quit that e-commerce site that my stress and my stomach issues finally resolved. The problem had not been my attitude toward work, the problem was that I worked in a really shitty, competitive work environment, and the money and prestige weren’t worth it.

Years later, I’ve come to realize that trying to run away from life through Buddhist practice didn’t work. I needed to practice Buddhism through life, not in contrary of it.

I believe this is why in Zen Buddhism they emphasize the importance of samu (作務), or practice through work, or the Pure Land teaching of practice amidst daily life. There’s nothing magical or mystical about this. You have to work, eat and survive, even as a monastic, and in the end you’ll never have all the “me time” you need. It sucks, and it ain’t pretty, but that’s life.

Each one of us lives in our own private hell in a sense. We suffer, we’re stressed out, we’re getting older, we face health problems, we have obligations we can’t escape. In the end, we will die and eventually be forgotten. This is the burning house spoken of in the Lotus Sutra. It is through this, not in spite of this that the Buddhist teachings and practices truly come alive. Meditation retreats and self-help books are not the answer; you have to live, survive, reflect, and you have to help others do the same. In so doing, you learn more about yourself.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. if you work in a stressful work environment, get out if you can. Do not think a “stiff upper lip” will work in the long-run.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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