Buddhist with Life Goals & Desires?
November 2, 2011 2:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I not be an apathetic Buddhist?

I'm looking for resources that explain how to have desires and goals in life while practicing Buddhism. Everything I have come across so far does not directly tackle this question, or I don't really understand it. It seems the more I practice and understand Buddhism, the more apathetic I become. (Not sure if that is the best word)

I have this perception that giving up attachment might cause me to be a leaf in the river of life where I have no control. But I want my life and actions to have purpose and believe that having good controlled desires will help achieve this.

Perhaps the real question is that I'm not exactly sure what "attachment" to desires which lead to suffering actually means in everyday life. What exactly does it mean to cling to something? I understand how it apply's to more serve issues, but what about about normal day to day things of someone with a pretty good mental health?

I am currently unemployed and looking for a job. Despite all that I think my mental health is pretty decent, but would be much better if I had a career.

My Background: I have been meditating with a small group for the past 7 months once a week for 40 minutes. After mediating we read from a Buddhist book and discuss it. I have also been on a 6 night residential retreat and 2 daylong events at Spirit Rock Mediation Center.

I have read or read part of: What the Buddha Taught, Buddhism Plain and Simple, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Mindfulness in Plain English, Dancing With Life, ...

Sorry if the above is a bit rambley, its hard for me to express and explain all that.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Why not approach life whole-heartedly, and try to be present in whatever activity you're doing?

The books won't help, the practice does, but you need a teacher.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:01 PM on November 2, 2011

The book The Zen of Oz talks about this and explains it in terms of "intention" rather than "attachment". As soon as Dorothy gives up her attachment to going home, that's when she's able to do it. It's okay to have things you intend to do, as long as they aren't all-consuming. That's what I got out of it.
posted by bleep at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think Pema Chodron addresses this in a easy way in many of her books.
posted by mimo at 3:03 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have read or read part of: What the Buddha Taught, Buddhism Plain and Simple, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching

Well, in one of those books, you'd apparently find this, which seems to describe that the desire for the right livelihood is not at all inconsistent:

"To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. " ... Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living." (The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching [Parallax Press, 1998], p. 104)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:06 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the real question is that I'm not exactly sure what "attachment" to desires which lead to suffering actually means in everyday life.

it's obviously a complicated question. but I think of it this way:

"Attachment" is about something extra. Like thinking "If I can only get this job, I'll be happy" or "I hate that guy who didn't give me that job I deserved- he's such a jerk!"

None of those thoughts actually help you get the job or do the job. They're extraneous, and they lead to suffering because you can't control whether someone gives you a job or whether someone is a jerk.

BUT- that doesn't mean you aren't allowed to do your damnedest to get that job. And when you get the job, it doesn't mean you shouldn't do your best. It just means, essentially, letting go of things that are out of your control. Every second you spend dwelling on the jerk who rejected you, or on your expectations of what the job could do for you is a wasted second.

You should do the job just because you're doing the job, just like you should meditate just because you're meditating, not with some extraneous goal in mind.

I have a read a few books, but I am not your Buddha.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:22 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by Postroad at 3:27 PM on November 2, 2011

If you're western, I think Siddhartha by Herman Hesse answers this question pretty well, although it took me several decades to understand this. You're probably smarter than I am, so this might not be an issue.

If you don't need to go down the Zen path, you can just accept the stream your leaf is floating in right now. There may be years and decades of desire and suffering ahead of you, but as you put your house in order and as you go through these classical phases of existence, you will come to believe that the destination for you is free of desire.

Then instead of being a leaf in the stream, you may end up being a ferryman across that stream.

That gives me some comfort sometimes. I hope it helps you.
posted by stubby phillips at 3:34 PM on November 2, 2011

Read this chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:43 PM on November 2, 2011

If you DO need to follow the Zen path, consider the following modern-day "koans":

I want it all and I want it now - Farrokh Bulsara

You are what you is - Frank Zappa

You are here - Yoko

Friend, I don't think you need it all (enlightenment, that is) and I don't think you need it now. You are right here right now. I prefer to think of myself as a rock in a stream, rubbed smooth by the passage of time and water. What I will become under this constant flow, I have no way of knowing. I am becoming what I shall be.

You, the leaf on the stream, are going where you shall go.

You can think. You can wait. You can fast. Do those things and slough off those desires and attachments if and when they do you harm. You will become what you were meant to be.

posted by stubby phillips at 3:54 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Finally, trust that your life has purpose. Give up that central conceit that you must steer the roller coaster. You made a difference in my life this very day.
posted by stubby phillips at 4:07 PM on November 2, 2011

Thanks everyone for taking the time to answer, everyone has different insights and I hope to learn from them.

KokuRyu: Any recommendations on how one finds and works with a teacher? How does that process work exactly? It seems a bit intimidating.

bleep: Thanks for the recommendation I will look into that book. It can be hard to explain these topics since everyone uses slightly different words when describing Buddhist concepts. Also, everyone has their own notions of what particular words mean.

mimo: Is there a specific chapter or book of Pema Chodron that addresses this topic? I know her book When Things Fall Apart is highly recommended, but have yet to read it.

drjimmy11: Your explanation makes perfect sense, and that is what I understood it to be. I have been practicing that as best I can. I was just curious to see if I was 'missing' something or whatever since I read about "clinging and attachment" every week in my Buddhist group which causes me to second guess my understanding. I still get this vague deep vibe of apathy from the whole Buddhist thing, and that is what I hope to address in my question.

Postroad: Any recommendations on resources on practicing mindfulness in everday Western life? I know about being aware and present in whatever you do, and the challenge is to keep practicing that. But is there "more" to it so to speak?

oinopaponton: Thanks for the specific recommendation. That is the same book that Steve Jobs read.

stubby phillips: I think "accepting the stream my leaf is floating in right now" is what gives me a sense of apathy. I understand what your saying, but something still doesn't sit quite right with me. I think the notions of being able to be what you want through hard work, having control over your life, and freedom are so culturally ingrained which makes it hard to fully accept being a rock in a stream where you have no way of knowing or guiding what you will become.

Perhaps Im over thinking this and it's as simple as having goals in a healthy way similar to what drjimmy11 explained.
posted by Mr. Papagiorgio at 4:31 PM on November 2, 2011

"but something still doesn't sit quite right with me"

Meditate on this. Good night.
posted by stubby phillips at 4:38 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't check right now for a specific chapter within a book, but I would recommend Taking the Leap as a very accessible place to begin and Start Where You Are as the slightly more esoteric version.
posted by mimo at 5:09 PM on November 2, 2011

So as others have mentioned, taṇhā, the word that's often translated as "desire" doesn't really map well onto the English word "desire."

So lemme just blather about the difference for a minute. In English we often just use the word "desire" to mean "any mental state that motivates action." (In English philosophy, there's a theory called the belief-desire model of motivation that hinges on that idea. Roughly, it says if someone is motivated to do X, it's because he desires Y and believes that X will lead to Y. If you buy that model, then by definition, any mental state that motivates action has some component of desire in it.)

But the thing is, there are some mental states that do motivate action (i.e. they count as desires in the usual sense of the English word) but that don't count as taṇhā.

The stock example here is compassion. Pure compassion, according to Buddhist psychology, can motivate you to act even though it doesn't count as taṇhā. As I understand it, this is why Buddhist scripture talks about compassion so damn much — because compassion is what makes it possible to let go of your taṇhā and still be motivated to participate in the world around you.

The part where this gets tricky for me is when you start talking about compassion for yourself. I've heard it argued that sincere compassion for yourself is different than taṇhā, even though we'd probably describe both of those things as "trying to make yourself happy." According to the argument, something like wanting a better job can come out of compassion-for-yourself, and that's somehow different from clinging to the taṇhā-style desire for a better job. I really struggle hard to understand the distinction, and so I'm not going to even try to explain it — but I have it on good authority that the distinction is there, and I feel like just sort of struggling with it is sometimes helpful for me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:11 PM on November 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Well, maybe meditate on what exactly you mean by "apathy" - it sounds like you believe that apathy, whatever it you mean by that, is self-evidently bad. How does apathy differ from detachment, or peacefulness? How is your notion of apathy connected to your discomfort with your life (or anyone's life) not having a teleological "purpose"?

My advice would be to think less about clinging and detachment, and more about interconnectedness and dependent-arising and your realistic place in the world as a human being. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lot of great stuff about this, e.g. this excerpt from one of his books. In the parlance of that metaphor, the cloud and the tree don't serve any one teleological "purpose" and I suppose you might call them apathetic since they didn't actively strive toward anything but being themselves. But they did their tree-things and cloud-things, and the world wouldn't be the same without them doing that, and thus the world gains emergent properties from them simply doing what comes naturally.

Now, of course we are blessed with more agency than a cloud or a tree (which is why we can become enlightened and they can't), but that doesn't mean our actions-in-the-world are imbued with any more intrinsic meaning than theirs. The important distinction is in your motives, and distinguishing between doing a thing because it is the right thing to do to fulfill your potential as a compassionate human being (in much the same way that the tree fulfills its potential by growing tall and strong and then dying to nurture the soil), vs. doing a thing because it will get you a certain result or you can abstractly "achieve" something. The former is skillful means, the latter is clinging and unskillful.

There is also a lot of scholarship out there on Buddhism as it relates to social justice, and you might find more philosophical background on questions like "how can a Buddhist aim to change things and still not cling to the outcomes of her actions?" The answer, as nebulawindphone says, is in the compassion that should automatically arise from truly comprehending the unbelievably complex interconnectedness of all people, animals, plants, and things.
posted by dialetheia at 5:23 PM on November 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

What's wrong with apathy? You seem to care a lot that you not become apathetic. That's attachment. If you can accept your apathy, you may find it becomes something else. If you can't wait for it to become something else, you haven't embraced it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:26 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Once, on a long meditation retreat, I did an experiment that was suggested to me by a teacher. I pretended that I only had one more day to live. I pretended REALLY HARD. Obviously I never started believing it, but I put myself in my own shoes, one day before death, as best I could.

(This is obviously a lot more possible in the silent, solitary environment of a retreat center. In mid-winter. I was not interacting with anybody in any way, reading, writing, using any technology other than a light switch - I was totally on my own.)

The result was that I was overwhelmed with how much I really, really loved all the mundane things around me, and I hadn't even noticed. Some silly nondescript table lamp. A little fleeting thought I had - how wonderful! I can think! A tree I watched bend in the wind. The warmth of my shirt. The rug on the floor. The shuffling step of another retreatant. Somebody's pack of tissues set on a shelf. The stars. Suddenly I saw the sweetness in everything around me - the ways in which we have all tried to surround ourselves with comfort, the ways we help each other, the ways we struggle, the ways we try to make sense of it all...

It was undoubtedly the most overwhelming feeling of gratitude I've ever had. It made a big impression on me. When I tried really, really hard to understand that I would die, it caused an outpouring of tenderness and affection. To me, that is why impermanence is so important to understand. Of course we all know that we'll die. Of course we all know that things change. But to really feel it, to live it...

It doesn't make you bitter and fearful and wary. It makes you overjoyed to see every little thing. It makes you SO GRATEFUL that you get to live.

To cling to something is to believe that you must have it in order to be OK. To celebrate something is to be delighted in what you are experiencing, ESPECIALLY in light of the fact that you KNOW it will not last.

My teacher often tells a story about visiting a garden in England. In the garden, there is a cherry tree, and underneath it, a grave stone. The gravestone reads:

and then a single date.

It's for a little child that lived only one day.

It's the brevity of our time that gives it meaning - enjoy it.
posted by Cygnet at 6:21 PM on November 2, 2011 [10 favorites]

I used to practice Buddhism and I don't any more, and it was partly because of the mental passivity engendered by the view that you need to accept what there is and not get attached and so forth and so on. I found the Lojong stuff especially unhelpful ("Gain and victory to others, loss and defeat to oneself") – I remember asking a teacher how I was supposed to make a living and do even reasonably well in life if I stuck to that one, and she couldn't answer. You can't do business if you really choose loss and defeat for yourself at any crucial moment.

I think the west imported some Buddhist monastic stuff wholesale, stuff that was meant for heavy monastic practice, and people tried to practice it in ordinary external lives, and it didn't work. In Asia, lay people support the monks and nuns who do the heavy lifting, I don't think many people try to do more than a bit of practice, say on special holidays and so forth, while out in the world.
posted by zadcat at 7:51 PM on November 2, 2011

Lack of attachment should not equal apathy. If that is where your practice has taken you - you need to practice more. For me, Cyngets post comes closest to lack of attachment because it is about clear seeing - without attachment - the miracle in everyday life.

Lack of attachment means clear seeing. It means walking into any situation - work, personal, religious, and truly understanding what is going on.

Here is an example from one of Thay's (Thich Nhat Hahn's) retreats:

A dharma teacher who happens to be a large black man was flying some where. He came into the business lounge and found a seat. A young man - white, wearing cowboy boots and a stetson - came up to him. He said "You are sitting in my seat. You people you are always taking things from people like me - you have no right to be here" (and several other very offensive things). The dharma teacher looked at the young man for a long time in silence. Then he replied, "I can see you are suffering. What's wrong?" The young man sat down beside the dharma teacher and started to cry. His wife had just left him.

Lack of attachment in this instance meant that the dharma teacher did not get stuck on attachments of being a black man, of racism, of hurt, but saw very clearly that this person was suffering. Apathy is not lack of attachment. Lack of attachment doesnt result in a feelings of helplessness and lack of control. If you are in San Francisco, there is a great dharma teacher in Oakland - he is a Korean Zen teacher and really helpful: Venerable Hyunoong Sunim
Sixth Patriarch Zen Center
2584 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, CA 94704
Tel: (510) 486-1762, Fax: 883-0461
Email: sixthpat@zenhall.org
Web site: www.zenhall.org

Also there is a zendo of Seung Sahn (an amazing zen teacher, now sadly passed) - reading the teachings they have online, they are really spot on suggest you try them as well: http://emptygatezen.com/category/teaching

There is also a monastery near San Diego where I have spent some time - its fantastic - Deer Park - you can go when they have a retreat or just contact them and ask to come stay for a week. Community of Mindful Living - Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026
Tel: (760) 291-1003, Fax: (760) 291-1172
Email: deerpark@plumvillage.org
Web site: www.iamhome.org
posted by zia at 8:02 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have this perception that giving up attachment might cause me to be a leaf in the river of life where I have no control. But I want my life and actions to have purpose and believe that having good controlled desires will help achieve this.

There's a world of difference between giving up attachment and giving up all control.

Here's an example: "I'm going to plant tomatoes." You have control over whether you plant tomatoes. Then it doesn't rain, or it pours, or rabbits and caterpillars eat your plants, or some kids uproot them. You can decide to be bothered and upset by this, or you can decide not to be attached, and simply plant more tomatoes next year. No, you don't have control over the weather, but you do have control over your thoughts and actions.

In the same way, you can apply for jobs - that much, you have control over. What happens next, not so much. Someone else might be more qualified, the hiring manager might have misfiled your application, or the company could go bankrupt. Or - you could get the job. Being unattached does not mean that you don't care. You want a job, and that's fine. But caring does not have to mean suffering over it.

There are many smaller examples. Today I was annoyed that my phone battery was dead when I woke up. I was annoyed at having to wake up and come into work. A garbage truck almost hit my car on the way in. Some women were talking loudly in the bathroom at work. Etc etc. Being unattached means I have those feelings (annoyance, fear), I accept that I have them, and then I let them go. Attachment would be clinging to them. Attachment would also be clinging to the idea that I shouldn't cling. I was really, really frustrated at work the other day, and then frustrated with myself for feeling frustrated (hey, I'm a buddhist, I should be chill all the time!). But if I'm mindful of that, I can let go.

So just relax, don't be afraid that buddhism is going to turn you into some kind of mindless uncaring zombie. It's completely the opposite, and you may have to go through this phase of fear before you come out the other side. Embrace it.

Along with Pema Chodron's books, I also recommend Nothing Special by Charlotte Kasl, which tackles a lot of everyday problems.
posted by desjardins at 8:23 AM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

desjardins, do you mean Nothing Special by Charlotte Beck, or a different book by Charlotte Kasl, or am I just failing in my search?
posted by mimo at 11:21 AM on November 3, 2011

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