Difficult is Good
A corollary principle of self-struggle is to elevate anything that is hard and devalue anything that comes easy. It is therefore also a habit of scarcity and of ingratitude. Imagine you are a practitioner of meditation and someone asks you, “What do you do?” You reply, “Well, I sit on a cushion and pay attention to my breath.” The questioner says, “That’s all? What’s so hard about that?” “Oh,” you say, offended, “it’s really hard!” Being hard validates it. To do it, you have to overcome something in yourself; you have to prevail in some kind of struggle.
I realize that the paradigm of struggle is something that quickly falls by the wayside as one pursues the practice of meditation. Maintaining focus on the breath cannot happen through forcing, but only through allowing. In fact, it is extremely easy; our habit of making things hard is what gets in the way. Nonetheless, we often use “easy” as a term of disparagement, as in “She took the easy way out.”
Are things validated by being difficult, in Taiwanese culture? Is 'difficult' a virtue and 'easy' a cop-out?
If you had to describe how people are in Taipei in just one word, what word would you use? How about for the city you grew up in/another city you maybe lived in for a while?
Who here has told someone they were busy when they just needed some time to themselves?
Why is busy such a virtue?
When is the right time to do the right thing? No one can offer a formula to answer that question, because the rhythm of the phases of action and stillness has an intelligence of its own. If we tune in, we can hear that rhythm, and the organ of perception is the desire, the nudge of excitement or the feeling of flow, of rightness, of alignment. It is a feeling of being alive. To listen to that feeling and to trust it is a profound revolution indeed. What would the world be, if we all listened to that?When you hear words like self-denial, willpower, discipline, and self-sacrifice, what do you feel?
This kind of deep self-trust highlights the common habit of separation that is its opposite: the habit of struggle. In the old story, just as humanity as a whole is destined to conquer and rise above nature, so are we as individuals charged to conquer and rise above that bit of nature that we call the body, including pleasure, desire, and every physical limitation. Virtue comes from self-denial, willpower, discipline, self-sacrifice. Mirroring the war against nature, this war against the self can have only one result: you lose.
Are these things really obstacles to trusting the self? Why or why not?
What did it mean in your family to 'be good'? How do you conceive of being good now that you're an adult?
Censure means 'severe disapproval'. Do you often severly disapprove of your own behaviour or thoughts? Do you often experience the censure of others? What is most commonly censured?
Do you get told not to worry about what others think? A lot? How much should it matter to you what other people think? How much DOES it matter, to you?
Does Taiwanese culture have any message like of 'you're not good enough'? Where do you suppose this message comes from? Is this a message from capitalism? How about from global culture?
Because our habits of self-forcing are so deep-seated and often quite subtle, it might help to have a way to distinguish where your actions are coming from. Sometimes it is not clear to me if I have done something out of a direct, uncontrived desire to [give], or if the real motive was to show myself or others that I am good, to confirm my membership in an in-group, to avoid self-censure or the censure of others, or to fulfill my duty as an ethical person. I find, though, that there is a lot more pleasure in the former. Because the desire to give is a primal expression of the life-force, actions taken in the gift bring a feeling of being fully alive. That’s the feeling to look for.What is the feeling of being 'authentically yourself', or 'authentic giving'?
I will leave this topic with a paradox. You don’t have to do anything—why? Not because nothing needs to be done. It is that you don’t have to do, because you will do. The unstoppable compulsion to act, in bigger and wiser ways than you knew possible, has already been set in motion. I am urging you to trust in that. You needn’t contrive to motivate yourself, guilt yourself, or goad yourself into action. Actions taken from that place will be less powerful than the ones that arise unbidden. Trust yourself that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it.When you read this passage, what's the first emotion you felt, and then what was the next? What do you suppose they might mean?
The Story of Struggle
The belief that goodness comes through sacrifice and struggle goes back thousands of years—but only thousands of years. It is the defining mentality of agriculture: only if ye sow, shall ye reap. The ancient peasant had to learn to overcome the immediate urges of the body for the sake of a distant future reward. Just as it takes a lot of work to overcome nature (for example by clearing fields, pulling weeds, etc.) so also does it take work to overcome human nature: the desire perhaps to play, to sing, to roam, to create, and to seek food only when hungry. Agricultural life requires sometimes overcoming these desires.
In tracing the deep roots of this programming, I fear I am overstating the case. The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was not a sudden rupture, either in lifestyle or in psychology. Foragers are not without forethought; they might move to a food-rich area or go on a hunt even if they are not at that very moment hungry. And small-scale farmers enjoy plenty of leisure, and their work need not be tedious or exhausting or anxiety-driven. Gardening, many of us know, can be a pleasure and a joy. So really the origin of the valorization of self-conquest probably came later, with the first “builder” civilizations. Their high degree of division of labor, standardization of tasks, hierarchy, and other regimentation necessitated the virtues of discipline, obedience, sacrifice, and the work ethic.
These civilizations developed the conceptual and organizational basis for the Industrial Revolution, which took division of labor, standardization of processes, and the attendant degradation, exploitation, and tedium to new heights. It was then as well that the values of the machine achieved their full expression. Society required millions of people to do very hard things indeed. We devised numerous institutions to compel ourselves to sacrifice the present for the future. Religion taught us to do that: renounce and overcome fleshly desires for the sake of a heavenly reward in the afterlife. School taught us to do that, conditioning us to perform tedious tasks we really don’t care about for the sake of an external future reward. And, most of all, money taught us to do that, or, more often, compelled us to do that, through the devices of interest and debt. The former tempts the investor to forgo immediate gratification (or generosity) for the sake of even more in the future. The latter compels the equivalent of the debtor.
These social institutions reified the struggle contained in our basic scientific paradigms. Not only in Darwinian biology with its struggle to survive, but in physics as well with the doomed and endless struggle against entropy embodied in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we reside in a hostile universe in which we must overcome natural forces and carve out a realm of security, and apply force to impose our design on a purposeless, disorderly jumble.
You can see how intertwined are the habits of scarcity and the habits of struggle. On the economic level, it is scarcity that motivates and compels sacrifice. On the psychological level, the need to validate oneself through (paradoxically) self-conquest comes itself from another form of scarcity: “I’m not good enough.” And both scarcity and struggle are implicit in our basic concept of being. The separate self can never have enough: never enough power to stave off every threat from the arbitrary, merciless forces of nature; never enough money to ensure against every possible misfortune; never enough security to defeat death, which, for the separate self, means total annihilation. At the same time, in striving for money, power, and security at the expense of other beings, the separate self is essentially evil; only by self-conquest, self-sacrifice, can it act in the interests of other beings. In the face of this desolation, it is easy to see the appeal of an otherworldly realm of spirit, a place where our perpetual sacrifice is redeemed.