The Art of Lay Life 4: Selecting Elements (cont.)

Uposatha Day Teaching (Index to Series)

Your life is based on a long history of lifestyle decisions of your own making. Some of these decisions are to include something because something appeals to you, some of these are to include elements out of obligation. This is the pull and push of decision making. If you are like most people you made these decisions with very little reflection.

Last week I began discussing the “Selecting Elements” step, the first step in the Art of Lay Life (the steps are Select – Reject – Balance – Simplify). You’ve already done this step probably with poor results; this is a good time to revisit the Select Step with more reflection and with the wisdom gained through the experience of having lived with your decisions. I suggested that you prioritize the elements of your life, to try to discover which are non-negotiable and which are rather frivolous. Selecting Elements should be something you revisit over an over throughout your life, as you develop more insight in conjunction with your Buddhist practice; this is much more valuable than worrying about your investment portfolio, for instance, for living optimally.

I want this week to add another dimension to the considerations behind Selecting Elements. When we think we are bringing in one element (“Ice cream. I like ice cream. I’m going to put that down as an essential element of my lifestyle.”) we are actually bringing in a mass of incidental, causally implicated elements at the same time (“How’d I get so Chubby?!?!).

Incidental Elements. “Because this arises that arises.” This is the Buddhist principle of Dependent Origination, which the Buddha introduced to help us understand Samsara, how we get so stuck in life. We know it particularly in the twelvefold sequence that has

Contact → feeling → desire → craving → becoming

in the middle. A less known variant (from DN 15) touching on social issues also goes

Craving → seeking → acquisition → decision making → lustful desire → attachment → appropriation → avarice → guarding of possessions → taking up sticks and swords, quarrels, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying, etc.

A modern variant might run,

Stress → Watching T.V. → Seeing commercial → craving → buying → debt → work

Although these lists traditionally are presented as linear sequences, it is clear that they actually trace lines through what is actually a complex network of causality in which each arising phenomenon has many conditions and conditions many arising phenomena. “Craving,” for instance, show up in all three sequences above. The point is when you bring one thing into your life, even if it is a simple thought, you generally bring a mass of consequences into your life as well. Sometimes these spin off into vicious circles, like

anger → violence → vengeance → anger → violence → …

Studying such causal relations is the primary part of studying samsara. This is why the Buddha taught Dependent Origination.

In the unexamined life we inevitably get unwittingly pulled into this tangled mass of thorns, creepers and snarl, and wonder why life is so difficult. It is critical in Selecting Elements to consider all of the incidental elements in your life that you wish were not there, at least not in their present forms, yet have been brought in to sustain things you feel you need in your life:

  • Job, oppressive working conditions, boss from hell
  • Car, long commutes, breakdowns, providing free chauffeur service to family
  • Insecurity, suspicion, insurance, maintaining stuff
  • Debt, bills, overdrafts, plunging markets
  • Competition, undermining others, retaliation, malicious speech
  • Anger, hatred, dishonesty
  • Stress, anxiety, busy-ness, worry, panic, high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, back aches

The Select step of the Art of Lay Life is to rationalize your life to the extent that you at least know what a pickle you’ve gotten yourself into, then to decide what is really important to you on that basis. This will probably inspire you to prune away at this mass of thorns and creepers to what is really essential, to what you really really value, and for what you are willing to incur the incidental costs for. What is left may or may not have Buddhist roots, but they will be yours.

Of course incidental elements can just as well be desirable, and maybe unexpected at the same time. You might take up a sport like birdwatching because of the challenge or even the competitive element of spotting more birds than Fred, but discover an unexpected serenity and joy at the end of every outing. We all begin with some fundamental values that we would all like in our lives, such as Health, Preserving this Life and Happiness, and perhaps even Being Good, that is, being of net benefit rather than harm to others. Without understanding causal links you will not know specifically what to bring into your life to realize these things; the most fundamental things are incidentals. If you are like most people you don’t even have much of an idea of what Happiness is or how to recognize it. Buddhist practice can help. If you are like most people you probably have brought in a lot of elements that are even detrimental to these most fundamental values, often neglecting one while you vainly pursue another. Consider smoking, for instance.

In sum, Become a Student of Samsara, and be ready to adjust your lifestyle to accord with what you discover! If you get serious about this you will probably start making a lot of changes in the grosser elements for the better in the short terms as you become quickly disenchanted with much you now thing is important through tallying up the most obvious incidental emotional, financial and other costs of the elements of your life. Then these changes will become more gradual as your understanding becomes more subtle.

This study of Samsara for the serious student of Buddhism will deal for the most part with very subtle emotive and cognitive elements taught in detail by the Buddha and his disciples. Dependent Origination even leads to a very refined understanding of existence, and what the self might be. Nagarjuna, the Second Century philosopher-monk, wrote, “Emptiness is Dependent Origination,” and the Buddha said, “To understand Dependent Origination is to understand the Dharma.” The lifestyle elements we are dealing with here are the visible and much grosser manifestations of, and influences on, human thought. Tractable, but still a challenge to sort out.

The human mind has not changed since the time of the Buddha so much as human artifacts, institutions and conventions . Many common elements of modern lives did not ever remotely exist during the time of the Buddha; things like credit cards, television commercials, cheerleaders, extended warranties and traffic tickets probably would have puzzled even Shariputra. I find that an invaluable source of wisdom on negotiating modern life, one that has put this network of conditionality in a proper perspective for modern life is the Voluntary Simplicity movement. It is not Buddhist in origin, but is nonetheless similarly concerned with understanding the causes of conditions at work in trying to realize our most fundamental values, and has a similar willingness to look outside the box. A book I have at hand is Your Money or Your Life, which focuses on simplifying your financial life in order to have more free time and a better sense of contentment. There is not much in there I can use as a monk, but I can report I regret not having followed their advice more closely as a layman. You can google Voluntary Simplicity and probably come up with a lot of current thinking on-line.

I’ll return to some of these themes with the Simplifying Elements step in the Art of Lay Life. But next week I will take up Rejecting Elements, those things which Buddhism has been pretty clear about having ideally no place in the Buddhist life, even if they have a certain appeal.

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