Internal Affairs, Part Two

January 21st, 2011

A continuation of my comments on internal and external elements of practice. Go here if you haven’t read part one.

The internal/external rules lead me to another way to envision the Buddhist concept of dukkha, usually translated as “suffering.” We suffer because we view elements of our lives as external. Whenever we look at our lives and think, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” we create our own stress and disappointment–our dukkha.

Consider the stress we feel in relationships. Most weeks I listen to the podcast of the advice columnist Dan Savage, who often fields questions about jealousy. People get stressed when their partners show attraction to other people; people get stressed when they feel attraction and don’t want to tell their partners about it. I think we’re led to believe that the rules of a relationship are external–that if you’re in a relationship, and you look at someone other than your partner and think, “HOT,” you’re somehow breaking a rule that invalidates your relationship. We’d like to think that a relationship won’t have a conversation about what to do when there’s an outside attraction–which there just about always is. We feel attraction when we do, regardless of whether we’re romantically committed to not act on that attraction. In our time, I think it makes more and more sense to make that rule internal–to resign yourself to have a discussion about what lines there are, and what to do when you or your partner cross that line.

We’ll suffer if we expect our guesses to match up the actual practices of our partners, or vice versa. We’ll reduce suffering if we accept that disappointment is part of life–is internal to it. As my friend Koho says, “We’re not very good at hanging out with disappointment. It seems that about five minutes into being disappointed, we look for someone to be angry at.”

When I was a child, I got the sense that “childishness” was something external to adult life. If I was acting childish, I was warned that once I became an adult, I’d find that no one acts like that. It was a slow dawning, the more I became a full participant in the adult world, that people can still be petty, people still throw tantrums, people still pout and whine, and people still bully. These behaviors aren’t separate from adult life, and never have been.

Every week at Still Point, we chant our own version of the Three Refuges, which defines “Dharma” as “teachings manifesting everywhere.” If we think of our problems as external to our lives, we idealize a life without them. “I’ll be able to study Dharma as soon as all this junk gets out of my way.” “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that.” We miss the point: that these are the Dharma gates opening for us. There is nothing that isn’t a teacher.

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