Monday, 18 May 2015

The annoyance of other people

A touchstone for me is my favorite description of the goal of Buddhist practice taken from an article written by B. Alan Wallace and Shauna L. Shapiro entitled, "Mental Balance and Well Being" from the October 2006 issue of American Psychologist. The bit I like reads thus:
The goal of Buddhist practice is the realization of a state of well-being that is not contingent on the presence of pleasurable stimuli, either external or internal. According to Buddhism, this movement toward well-being is a fundamental part of being human. As the Dalai Lama commented,
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.
A fundamental insight of Buddhism is the recognition of the fluctuating, impermanent nature of all phenomena that arise in dependence on preceding causes and contributing conditions. Mistakenly grasping objective things and events as true sources of happiness produces a wide range of psychological problems, at the root of which is the reification of oneself as an immutable, unitary, independent ego. By first recognizing these ways of misapprehending oneself and the rest of the world, one can then begin to identify the actual sources of genuine well-being. The true causes of such well-being are rooted in a wholesome way of life, are nurtured through the cultivation of mental balance, and come to fruition in the experience of wisdom and compassion. In this way, the pursuits of genuine well-being, understanding, and virtue come to be thoroughly integrated.

Now, just because I like this bit of text doesn't mean, of course, that I apply its wisdom, earnestly. Hardly. I'm a bit of a crank. I often get my dander up and charge citadels of power in an effort to change the world!1 I am highly unsuccessful in all my efforts and am left to stew about it afterward. Often, after my Don Quixote thing, I ride my donkey back home and re-imagine all that I did, only with me being much more articulate with nastier retorts and with my opponents left writhing on the ground, shaking their fists at me, screaming "You've beaten us, again, Armstrong! Damn you, you golden-tongued genius! And you're handsome, too. Well dressed. And we like your hair!"

I joke a bit in the above paragraph, but what is certainly true from it is that I FAIL in my efforts to make a better world and I REVISIT my failed efforts in my head and allow that to multiply real personal misery.

One area in my life where I'm quasi-successful is in regard to the homeless community of Sacramento and West Sacramento. I am no longer homeless, but I still know many of the guys and continue to blog about homelessness and seek the best for the guys, to get them off the street having meaningful, productive lives.

Sometimes, thoughts cross my mind that take me out of the moment. Recently, I was talking to a really nice thoughtful homeless fellow I know, Milton2, when something I know about him occurred to me: He is 48 years old and has spent half his life in prison. What he has been convicted of, repeatedly, is child sexual molestation. I've read in academic journals that for every conviction of child molestation there are fifty instances where the crime is never reported or the charges against the perpetrator are dropped, often because the traumatized child cannot bear the pain of memory of her experience. Of course, the statistic does not mean that Milton committed fifty times as many felonies than those for which he was convicted, or even one more, but the thought that his record appears to show he is out-of-control bothers me.

So, how is it possible to have a cordial conversation with a very likable man, knowing that his background is reprehensible? I think it starts with the Walt Whitman idea that each of us are multitudes and that with this Encyclopedia of Self we can find empathy for anyone. Whitman wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

Now, my child-molester friend certainly isn't multitudes; he's a psychopath whose exclusive interest is doing things for his own enjoyment. And when I described Milton as "thoughtful" and "nice" this is true in the way he comes off, but only because he is actively striving to manipulate me. Nonetheless, he is interesting, good company and I am filled with compassion for him.

The world would be a better place had Milton never been born. Because of the real possibility that Milton will re-offend, I would be at best ambivalent to learn of Milton's death now, today, because I can enough imagine the horror for a child when she is sexually attacked.

It's a crazy-ass world we live in, but I have come to believe that people do the best they can with the twisted minds and crooked backs, sorrows and limitations that beset them. This is a different "frame of reference" than what most people have with others. Nonetheless, I'm convinced it's the correct one.


1. Recently, I made a mighty effort to get the child-hating book Go the Fuck to Sleep out of the library. "WHAT child-hating?" asked one librarian. "It's humor! It's a satire!"

2. Not his real name.

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