Saturday, March 9, 2013

Caffeine Guilt

     For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (Romans 7:19:20)

     Don't worry—I'm not going to say that good Buddhists shouldn't drink coffee.

     Years ago there were times when I would feel anxious and ill at ease in the afternoon. It felt as though my conscience were bothering me about something I had done recently. Being of an introspective nature, I would often psychoanalyze myself to try to find out what was bothering me. "What was it that happened this morning? It must be something." As Ravi, a monastery attendant of long ago, used to say, When the morning is ugly, the whole day is ugly.

     For a monk, alms round, his trip into the village to obtain his daily bowl of food, provides the richest opportunities for troublesome experiences, as the village is "where the action is," so to speak. So, I would review my experiences on alms round, endeavoring to remember what put me into such a nervous mood. Sometimes I would actually come up with something: "Ah, it must be because I was looking down that girl's blouse when she was bowing down to me," or "Oh, it must be because I was irritated when that old lady poured soup right on top of my piece of cake. That must be it." Then suddenly it would strike me: "Nawww….wait a minute! It was those four packets of instant coffee I drank today!" I called it Caffeine Guilt.

     Once I realized that the anxious feelings were simply a case of sensitivity to caffeine, I could let it go. The nervous sensations didn't disappear, but I no longer felt the need to take them seriously. It wasn't me at all, it was just a visiting chemical temporarily affecting the system. No problem.

     This in itself could be called a genuine insight, as I had learned to detach mindfully from a certain kind of unpleasant feeling; but what I learned subsequently was more important. I found that I was able to detach in exactly the same way from feelings of genuine anxiety. After all, the feelings were essentially the same. By detaching from the feelings they don't necessarily go away, but at least one stops identifying with them, or taking them too seriously. This is good, especially from a Buddhist point of view, not only because of the idea of No Self, but also because feelings of anxiety, worry, guilt, or remorse (all called kukkucca in Pali) are considered to be unskillful, or "bad karma," and generally make the situation worse than it already is. They add more negativity to the mess, assuming that there is a mess already. If one is to experience scruples of conscience, one does well to experience them before one does the deed, and not afterward. Then it is called hiri, and is skillful, or "good karma," especially if it actually prevents one from taking the last cookie, kicking the dog, or whatever.

     This is one of the teachings of Buddhism that I have really taken to heart, sometimes to the exasperation of others. I rarely feel sorry for what I have done, even if it was a mistake, and consequently I rarely say "I'm sorry." Civilized society may require it, but to say it would be untrue and, for me at least, dishonest. This is sometimes a complication in the West. But I'm not sorry.

     There really is no use in crying over spilled milk—although it does make sense to clean up the milk as well as one can, if appropriate, and to become more careful about not spilling milk. On the other hand, if one's "misdeed" is nothing more than an act of political incorrectness or failing to live up to someone's unrealistic expectations, then one might as well just keep doing it.

     I consider this ability to detach from feelings and mental states to be possibly the greatest benefit I have received from my years as a Dhamma-practicing Buddhist monk. I've received plenty of other benefits too, of course; for example I've stayed out of trouble, more or less, and have a much deeper (but still uncertain) understanding of such notions as karma and the illusory nature of Samsara. But being able, to some degree at least, not to identify with my mentality (let alone my body) is truly invaluable. (To be able to disidentify from one's mentality by temporarily stopping the mental process is also invaluable, but much more difficult to accomplish for most people in the West, that part of the world being a veritable carnival of distractions and agitations.)

     Really, anything you can observe is not you; because you, if you are anything at all, are the observer, not the thing or process being observed. Right? So if you can observe your name, you know your name is not you. If you can observe your hand, you know your hand is not you. If you can observe your anger, you know your anger is not you. And if you can observe your fear, you know your fear is not you. And because it is not you, it's not entirely under your control, either. There's no need to take it too seriously.

     A typical case in point occurred yesterday afternoon: I went to the monastery bath house to take a bath. Unlike most Burmese people, I prefer to bathe naked, so I go in mid afternoon because other monks usually don't bathe then, and I can close the door. But yesterday another monk was bathing when I got there, so I waited outside. But he seemed to be dawdling in there; he was taking a long time. (Maybe he was shaving his head or something. I don't know.) Having to wait for people has been a lifelong pet peeve for me, so after a while I noticed irritation arising…then resentment toward the dawdling monk…then some critical, spiteful thoughts directed at him. However, instead of believing these thoughts and feelings, regarding that monk to be a no-good so-and-so, or whatever, I acknowledged that silly mental states were arising, based on cause and effect and years, maybe lifetimes, of adding momentum to unskillful habits ("bad karma"). Eventually the venerable monk finished his business, came out and hung up his bathing robe to dry, and went away, and I went in and took a bath, the impatience and resentment not lasting much longer than they took to arise in the first place. In all likelihood that monk is a good person; and I take longer than necessary in the bath house too. This kind of thing happens all the time. What arose near the bath house is obvious and relatively easy; more subtle states are a more advanced game. Everyday life is Dhamma practice.

     By the way, I'm writing this buzzed on three packets of Coffee King, plus one cup of straight black Nescafé.

Unimportant Appendix: Ironically, even though I really like coffee, I went for many years without drinking it. This is because every time I would drink coffee (but never when I drank water or other beverages) I would experience an intense, jabbing pain in my eye. Finally, out of a desire to drink coffee again, I went to a doctor about the situation; and after explaining the jabbing pain in my eye whenever I drank the stuff, he knew exactly what the problem was, and cured me of it immediately. All he said was that I should take the spoon out of the cup before I start drinking. He was a very good doctor, and only charged $200.

1 comment:

  1. Venerable,

    Thanks for this succinct and nice post. I cannot agree more with you about not crying over spilled milk. Sometimes, we say "sorry" just to fix things quickly (because it feels good to be loved and accepted), without even realizing why we are saying it, or much worse even without the intention of cleaning up the mess.

    However, if one can both say the word "sorry" as well as help clean up the mess, that is the best possible scenario. Often, if we really care about the person who is hurting, we can say something like "I am sorry to hurt your feeling" (without saying rest of the sentence, "but I am not sorry for what I said/ or did"). After all there is no harm in spreading metta towards our 'unenlightened' friends/family members/ loved ones.

    I am sure you don't need to worry about live up to someone's unrealistic expectations (for being a forest monk and all). But for the rest of us,living in this samsara, it is already hard enough to live up to our own expectations!

    I like the quote you used at the beginning of the post.