Every Friday evening at their Santa Monica location, the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society offers the Dharma Test Kitchen – a meditation and discussion dedicated to exploring how we can apply the Dharma to our everyday life. What works? What doesn’t? This is an informal chronicle of my ventures into Dharma practice.
In Buddhism, the 4th Noble Truth – or, as Stephen Batchelor would call it, the 4th ennobling Truth – is known as the Eight-Fold Path (to the cessation of suffering/stress/difficulty). Last Friday’s topic was the first element of the path: Right View, which could also be called “effective” view. In essence, this refers to seeing things as they are, unclouded by the delusions we cling to.
As an example of Right View, the teacher assigned us a meditative listening exercise in which the goal is to listen to someone speak without speaking in return, thinking about what you’re going to say next ,or engaging in the usual head-nodding and uh-huhs that come with conversation. The point is to listen with the utmost attention. We paired up to answer in turn the teacher’s question: what keeps up from seeing the truth/things as they are?
My partner’s answer was fear, both in the obvious sense that we tend to be afraid of seeing things as they are and in the unusual sense that fear can be a motivating factor towards becoming more mindful. Although I’m not sure I fully grasp how that works, it’s definitely an interesting idea worth refining.
My own answer was two-pronged. First was reactivity, our tendency to react to people and circumstances without awareness or thought. Someone says something and you instantly get angry or sarcastic because you perceive their words as insulting or demeaning. But is that response based on truly confronting the situation as it is or are you just lashing out reflexively based on your perception of the situation? This isn’t, incidentally, to create one of those philosophical conundrums that comes out the binary of opposition of reality versus perception. Rather, it’s simply to ask whether we react to a situation based on our assumptions, moods, past histories, relationships, and so on instead of the very thing we’re reacting against. And that’s assuming we even know what it is we’re reacting against and, crucially, whether we even know that we’re reacting at all.
The second prong I semi-coherently proposed (it’s hard to improvise without forethought) was the notion that it’s not just our own reactivity that keeps us from the truth, but our own socio-politico-cultural environment. We live in a society that is explicitly based on deception and illusion. Superficially, we could point to advertising and marketing that trade on selling products by associating them with lifestyle qualities – suddenly, penis enhancement doesn’t come from a link in an eMail but from the local car dealership. But the issue goes much further to the operations of media, politics, everything. We don’t trust politicians because electoral campaigns are more about telling people what they want to hear in order to get their votes. (As B.C. creator Johnny Hart once put it: Election Promises - n. If swallowed, induce vomiting.) Journalism has become corrupted by the profit-driven mandate to entertain consumers. The list goes on.
The common denominator, however, is the same: Wrong View, or a failure to see things as they are either because we don’t want to see them, we are afraid to see them, or we are dissociated from the world through the endless saturation of mediated symbolism (what Baudrillard refers to as simulation.) And the solution? Cultivating Right View to the practice of mindful awareness.