Saturday, June 7, 2014

striving on and non

There was no trace of seeking, desiring, imitating, or striving, only light and peace
~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Don’t just do something, sit there!
~ Sylvia Boorstein, in her book by the same name

Many people come into my office feeling despondent for reasons they do not immediately recognize.  Then they uncover a connection to having been bullied by parents, partners or employers, at work, in the school yard, at home or, nowadays, online.

Their reaction is usually some combination of feelings of shame, helplessness, anger and despair.  They feel intense frustration and often become rage-filled when recalling how they were stuck in a situation in which they felt hopelessly tormented, diminished and abused.

One young man expressed it like this:
No matter what I did, the bullying would continue.  Day after day after fucking day, they would pick on me.  They would stop for a while, and that would be a blessed reprieve, but then they would start up again.  I never knew why; could never figure it out.  It was random.  Like getting swept up by a wave and being smashed down on the rocks, over and over again.  Whatever I did had no impact whatsoever.
He stopped fighting back, like the dogs in Seligman and Maier’s famous experiments who became limp and unresponsive after being given random shocks that they were unable to escape.  At one point, when they no longer tried to get away but just sat there and whined, the dogs were thought to have “learned” helplessness.  In fact, they had lost their sense of agency, something which would return only after they were physically assisted in moving their bodies.  

Ultimately, agency is about striving, with purpose, toward an end.  It matters not so much to which end.  What matters is the striving.  It says “I am alive”.  Conversely, when whatever I do has no impact, I lose my sense of purpose, of agency.  I cease striving, become “dead”.

In Buddhism, striving is regarded as the result of ignorance and part of the chain reaction that causes suffering.  Awakening leads to Nirvana which extinguishes striving, releasing us from the patterned responses that give us the illusion of freedom but are really a trap.  When we are free, so the theory goes, ignorance is replaced by awareness, striving by non-attachment, and preference by equanimity.

I have long questioned whether this model might be ignoring something fundamental about sentient beings: our innate sense of agency; and whether practice based on this model, rather than extinguishing human suffering, might merely attenuate a sense of aliveness by training in certain types of dissociation, fostering disconnection and detachment from, rather than transcendence of, our human condition. 

Of course the Buddhist practice model is intended to be liberating, and it can be.  Sometimes sitting in quiet attention is very effective in helping us overcome the defensive reactions inhibiting body and mind.  It can arrest the pattern of going for the fix and free the energy locked up in our attachments.  But, for most of the people most of the time, we are not so completely shut down or fixated that the path of renunciation is our only recourse.  In fact, renunciation of striving may be no recourse at all.

Even in Buddhism, the path is often presented as a function of striving: great doubt, great awakening; right intention or resolve, the exertion of our own will to______. [Awaken. Reach enlightenment. What have you.] This striving is an expression of choice, a preference and attachment to a path.

Whether sitting, standing or tied up in a pretzel, at all times, as long as we are on a path by choice, we are always doing something and there will always be agency.  Moreover, anyone that has really experienced the loss of agency and choice, like the young man above, can tell you there is a big difference between choosing to limit your choices on your own, and others eliminating them for you.  In the first, agency is conserved; in the second, it is removed.  But we cannot remove it ourselves.

One would be wise to be skeptical when a spiritual teacher claims that learned helplessness can be undone “by severing our internal connection with the system that gave rise to it”.  Engaging in the process of “severing” connections always involves agency, is an expression of choice, not of freedom from it.