What did you expect?

Part of what’s so disorienting about a crisis, but also potentially so useful, is the disruption of norms. Some norms — patterns of feeling, behavior, and social organization — are healthy, and some are not, of course. And so the disruption of norms is also going to have healthy and unhealthy aspects. 

One of the things that feels most healthy about the current disruption is how deeply it has revealed the unsustainability of aspects of contemporary global life, especially around resource [mis]use, economic dependence on consumerism and endless growth, and social inequality. These were all visible before, but delusion is powerful, and mostly we don’t see obvious but inconvenient things until we’re forced to. So the revealing is healthy, but the process of revealing is incredibly painful, and the pain is being disproportionately felt among already oppressed communities: POC, marginalized, indigenous, and all those already contending with inadequate health care, livelihood, and protection from harm.

For those of us in relatively protected circumstances — who have enough resources and support to weather the crisis and wait for the rebooting of the social order — the main practice will be trying to come out of delusion, which has parallels to coming out of freeze. Part of the delusion of privilege right now is the idea that the norms of the global order are tolerable, even if we can see their flaws. Waking up to how our system is actually intolerable for almost everyone is part of waking up to the truth of dukkha, the way that life is profoundly difficult and impossible to fix to any lasting satisfaction. While it’s true that the beauties of life are powerful enough to outweigh the misery sometimes, it also may be delusion to cling to the idea that the beauty and ugliness somehow balance. Do they? For whom, and for how long?

As conditions improve, expectations increase. So people can remain as dissatisfied or as vulnerable as before.

Yuval Noah Harari, BBC, 5.5.20

The Buddha’s path is relentless—sorry to tell you. The entire thing, which is designed to heal the deepest wounds in the heart and set up the conditions for unshakeable happiness, depends on spending enough time with misery to understand it and stop maintaining the conditions it feeds on. At the heart of understanding misery is seeing that it is the inevitable result of expectation. We expect success or failure, and are wrong about both. We expect norms to continue as they have been, and they don’t. Everything is subject to change, as we hear again and again in the teachings: “All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will be separated from me” (from the Five Recollections). Until we accept that expectation is the same as fantasy, we will always be disappointed.

Two weeks ago, on the full moon, we celebrated the Buddhist holiday of Vesak (vesākha pūjā), honoring the birth, awakening, and death of the Buddha. I celebrated the day by launching a new biweekly morning practice call on the lunar observance days (Uposatha), and taking the traditional Eight Precepts for the day. In the evening I tuned into the livestream from our nearby Forest Saṅgha monastery, Abhayagiri, for the evening pūjā and talk, which was centered around a set of ordinations. Two men became anagārika, “lay supporters clothed in white,” which in this tradition is generally thought of as a trying-it-out period before taking novice ordination, and one transitioned from anagārika to novice (sāmaṇera). It was a sweet, quiet way to spend the evening, watching footage of a nearly empty hall, a handful of monks sitting 6 feet apart from each other performing this ancient ceremony with both seriousness and a relaxed good humor. It’s so very good to feel peace and clarity radiating out of a place and a group of people in this moment. In any moment, really.

Out here in non-monastery life, it doesn’t always feel like that. (Of course it doesn’t always in there either, so don’t get all romantic about monasteries…)

It takes community support and appropriate attention (yoniso manasikara) to wake up from delusion, even in very minor ways, because the very nature of delusion is that you can’t see it. And what you can see — a believe, habit, or pattern of understanding — is by definition inaccurate. This has a huge shadow, of course, which we see in the thriving world of conspiracy theory and misleading information that’s so prevalent in some communities. If good friendship is the whole of the holy life, then bad friendship is the path to the horrifying corners of the internet. Search algorithm as quintessential bad friend: it only tells you what it thinks you want to hear, and what will keep you from turning your attention elsewhere.

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