A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing, or to love the right person, or to be happy after a disappointment, or even to be happy in happy times. People lack this capacity not through a deficiency of discipline but because the jurisdiction of will is limited to the latest brain and to those functions within its purview. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.
Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
– Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
As Stephen Batchelor has written, “When the stubborn, frozen solidity of necessary selves and things is dissolved in the perspective of emptiness, a contingent world opens up that is fluid and ambiguous, fascinating and terrifying. Not only does this world unfold before us with awesome subtlety, complexity, and majesty, one day it will swallow us up in its tumultuous wake along with everything else we cherish. The infinitely poignant beauty of creation is inseparable from its diabolic destructiveness. How to live in such a turbulent world with wisdom, tolerance, empathy, care, and nonviolence is what saints and philosophers have struggled over the centuries to articulate. What is striking about the Buddhist approach is that rather than positing an immortal or transcendent self that is immune to the vicissitudes of the world, Buddha insisted that salvation lies in discarding such consoling fantasies and embracing instead the very stuff of life that will destroy you.”
It suggests that we spend a great deal of time stumbling about distracted, veering from one thought to the next, forgetting what we had intended to do as soon as a more diverting possibility presents itself.
To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and “mine.” It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty, and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a lifelong practice.
As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty, and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.
All too often in the name of Buddhism, people transform the dharma into a belief system, a religious or ethnic identity, a dialectical tool that they employ to secure a place either in their own egoistic scheme of self-appraisal or in the various pecking orders established by society and the world. Far from dwelling in the radiant, open-hearted equanimity that allows them the freedom to risk responding to life unconditioned by reactivity, they prefer to encase themselves in an armor of fixed opinions, where they can feel self-righteous and impervious to criticism.
The key to freeing oneself from the repetitive cycles of reactivity and beholding nirvana is attention (manasikāra), the fifth nāma factor. When attention becomes embodied through contemplation of the transient, tragic, impersonal, and empty nature of the bundles, our relationship to experience begins to shift in disconcerting ways. The practice of embodied attention challenges our habitual perceptions of self and world as permanent, satisfactory, and intrinsically ours. By stabilizing attention through mindfulness and concentration, we begin to see for ourselves how pleasurable and painful feelings trigger habitual patterns of reactivity and craving. These two insights not only undermine our inclinations to hold on to what we like and to push away what we fear but open up the possibility of thinking, speaking, and acting otherwise.
Instead of grasping hold of the world in order to preserve it from falling apart, or recoiling from it in order to transcend it, someone who practices the dharma embraces the world in order to comprehend it.
Nirvana, therefore, does not refer to the attainment of a transcendent, absolute state apart from the conditions of life but to the possibility of living here and now emancipated from the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion. A life not conditioned by these instincts and drives would be an enriched one. No longer would one be the victim of paralyzing habits; one would be freed to respond to circumstances in fresh, unimpeded ways.