Despair is a Funny Thing

I once had a tee-shirt that read, “Boredom is an interesting thing.” A new one is in order: “Being down-in-the-dumps is a funny thing.”

Why? I just finished listening to “The Confederate in the Attic,” a disheartening book about the legacy of the Civil War in the U.S.  Now I’ve started chapter two of Bill McCabe’s “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” Its conclusion: global warming is now irreversible. And I have a toothache, and I’ve pickled too many beans.

            Buddhist practice advises us to watch the constant change of one’s own emotions. On a car trip to Connecticut, I listened to a CD by Mary Chapin Carpenter.  When she sang a sad song, I felt sad. When she sang a wistful one, I felt wistful, etc., etc. For an hour, Mary Chapin was in complete control of my emotional life. And I don’t even know her!

I live with someone who tells stories that make me cry from laughing so hard. The same night I’m convinced that she’s Satan because she’s vacuuming at 11 p.m.

At this moment, the end of the natural world as we’ve known it (McKibbon) and another bag of beans awaiting pickling are bringing me down. The sun is shining in the south windows and this afternoon we’ll finish painting the barn doors, so I feel a faint stirring of cheer. Who’s in charge here? Bill McKibbon? String beans? The sun?

The point of observing my emotions is to make me see the never-ending change of all things. And to begin to enjoy the ride. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. We are bigger than just our emotions, so there’s no need to get attached to them. Just realizing that is enough to start to lift the doldrums.

This practice is considered to be the ability of the Buddhist practitioner of “ordinary capacity.” A practitioner of “great capacity” will look deeply at the essence of an emotion, realize its true nature and unlock the wisdom within it.

“ It is like placing a tiny spark into a heap of dry hay: it will immediately burst into flames and be completely destroyed. Although the original spark is tiny, it can burn away any amount of hay. Similarly, just one tiny spark of wisdom can burn away completely all the mind’s confusion and the emotions associated with it, until all that is left in the mind is ultimate reality.” (Lama Gendyn Rinpoche)

Jesus put it in a more prosaic way: When someone hits you, turn the other cheek. He’s advising us not to react, not become attached to anger and resentment. Not to let them own us.

We turn away in order to see and experience those emotions’ true power on ourselves. Turning the other cheek must be the most difficult and most illuminating of Christian practices.  We can interpret it as “doormat” submission, or as denying our emotions, or as an excuse not to act for justice. If we don’t take his advice as a wisdom practice, we may miss the point.

No pickled bean has smacked me in the face…yet. It just feels that way.  So the advice is the same. Being of exceedingly “ordinary capacity,” I watch the play of emotions with curiosity. I see that despair, annoyance, physical pain can lead to ultimate wisdom, but I’ve a ways to go before fully stretching out to my fullest Buddhist and Christian capacity.

Excuse me, I’ve got to go call the dentist now.