I often have the feeling that my Buddhist practice is in turmoil. Its high and low tides in response to my sorrow’s moon. Sometimes that moon is full, others new, but most often all manner of shapes in-between. This would likely bother me more if I had not read CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters when I was first working through my existential crisis of religion in my early 20s. This short book is a fascinating read, as Lewis relates an exchange of letters between two of Satan’s Tempters, Uncle Screwtape and Wormwood. Wormwood is a novice and receiving instruction from his uncle. When Wormwood expresses satisfaction that his prey’s faith is diminishing, Uncle Screwtape responds harshly, admonishing Wormwood with the law of Undulation.
So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one every told you about the law of Undulation?
Humans are amphibians— half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation— the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life— his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. (Lewis, Chapter 8)
Every one of my interests, both philosophical, spiritual, and even recreational, has always succumbed to the law of Undulation. And, again, with my Buddhist practice the peaks and troughs so often correspond to times of illness and health. This might make it seem like it is only important to practice when ill or otherwise suffering. If that were the case, it would make it even more difficult to be grateful for the hard times—for if there were no hard times, practice would not be necessary, on this view.
However, there are at least two reasons that one should practice just as diligently when things are going well. The first is that eventually things won’t be going well and if you wait until then to practice, things are going to be a mess. The second is that even if things never stopped going well, there would be reason to practice, if nothing else because it is only through practice that we learn to fully be present to all that is going well. But, of course, the thing is that no one lives a life where things never go badly. Old age, sickness, and death, whether that of a loved one, a friend, or our own, find us in there many forms—they are inescapable. And, thus, without some means of healthfully engaging the necessary losses of our lives, we are likely to suffer greatly.
According to Buddhism, a primary source of our suffering is impermanence. Further, peace, joy, and hope for happiness depend on coming to live comfortably situated in the midst of constant change. Lewis, presumably without knowing it, is not far from these Buddhist thoughts when he writes: “…while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation….” While the eternal object that Lewis is thinking of is, of course, God, in Buddhism it would be the present moment that is, in an important sense, eternal and constant in its undulations. As Dainin Katagiri says, “Be present, from moment to moment, right in the middle of the real stream of time. That gives you spiritual security. That is why in Buddhism we don’t try to escape from impermanence; we face time itself in our daily living” (Each Moment is the Universe, 8-9).
For me, and I suspect others, one of the central things that distinguishes things going well from things going badly is whether things are “going my way.” That is, when my desires are not resisted, when I do not feel impeded, then things are going well. In other words, when I am in control, or at least feel as though I am in control, then I am generally pretty well disposed. Joy finds a place.
This issue of the constancy of joy versus its undulation, reminds me of an exchange with a friend. She related how imperturbable her father’s joy was, how everything he did was a kind of play. One of the things that stood out from what she said was how easily he fell asleep—something I’ve often struggled with. And lastly, she related how nonjudgmental he was. All of these things can be brought back to the question of control. When I have trouble sleeping it is usually because things are not as I want them to be: too hot, too cold, too loud, too bright, etc. When we are judgmental, and I am ridiculously judgmental, we might see it as a kind of pushback against a lack of control: when judging things negatively, we are saying this is not how they would be if I were responsible; when judging things positively, we are saying this is how they would be, too, if I were responsible.
Talking to my wife about my friend’s father, the constancy of his joy, his playfulness, it occurred to me how the degree to which we do things playfully and joyfully is inversely proportional to the degree to which we are attached to control. But, of course, riding the waves of my spiritual practice and life, these are just the kinds of things that are easy to forget. This is one reason why it is so important even when things are going well to read, and to discuss with others, these issues of practice, being present, relinquishing control, etc. To this end, one passage that I come back to again and again is from Dōgen’s fascicle, “Only Buddha and a Buddha”:
Long ago a monk asked a master, “When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?”
The master replied, “Don’t try to control them.”
What he means is that in whatever way objects come, do not try to change them. Whatever comes is the buddha dharma, not objects at all. Do not understand the master’s reply as merely a brilliant admonition, but realize that it is the truth. Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled. (Shobogenzo, Tanahashi ed.)
The truth of this passage is, I think, obvious. Its profundity lies in part, then, in the fact that while obvious, its truth is so easy to lose sight of.
But it is not merely easy to lose sight of. Within this passage lies, I think, one of the core problems of Buddhism, namely: what does it really mean to act in accord with the admonition, “…whatever way objects come, do not try to change them”? Really? Whatever way something comes at us, whatever comes at us, don’t try to change it?
This issue of control arises not only in Buddhism but also in, for example, Christianity. In Christianity one form of it concerns how to live in accord with, and not against, God’s will. In both Buddhism and Christianity, the relinquishing of control is not to be an occasional thing. That is, the problem is not trying to figure out when to relinquish control. The when is always. The question, then, becomes: How do we relinquish control moment to moment? What does that look like? What does it mean to give up control? Does it mean to have no desires at all? To never try to do anything? Surely not. And here we see the importance of understanding words like relinquish and give up in terms of letting go. Letting go means not being attached: one can come apart from (or never come close to) the object of one’s desire and not experience suffering. Any and every action is an attempt to control. So we must investigate, we must make central to our practice, what it means to let go of control. To this end, I will leave off with two of my favorite passages on these issues, one from Buddhism and one from Christianity.
…if we use a term like acceptance to point to an aspect of equanimity, it seems important to distinguish two connotations of acceptance. On the one hand, acceptance implies recognition: “I accept [that is, I don’t deny] that we have an organizational problem.” On the other hand, acceptance can suggest a resignation to the fact or even moral approval: “I accept that there is racism; this is the way that it is and has to be.” Acceptance in the former sense can lead directly to an intention to make changes, whereas the latter connotation of acceptance may block action or rationalize inaction.
(The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, 180.)
In Christianity, these issues are grappled with in the Serenity Prayer (whose origins go way back and whose heart can be found in other traditions). A version of it is:
God grant me—
the serenity to accept
what cannot be changed
the courage to change what can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
A parting thought: a particularly subtle kind of control to let go of is: letting go of trying to control how much one can control….
May you be well, reader….