Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Trying to answer "Why"

As I continue to push my own boundaries, I am constantly reminded by others that what I do with my life is not normal. Jumping out of planes and walking high slacklines isn't the common recipe for success in most people's lives. They ask me why; unfortunately I don't have an answer.

I can try to give adequate reasons, but the further I look into my reasons, the further I realize how hidden those reasons are. Perhaps they are asking the wrong question. "Why not?" seems more appropriate, or "When can I try?" or "What do the mountains look like from up there?" We seem to have the idea, either as humans or citizens of the western world, that everything has an explanation, and if it doesn't have one, it needs one. This manifests itself to a great extent in the western pursuit of science. The scientific method, as a whole is based on the idea of causality, and that for every effect, there is some sort of cause. We can determine that cause through experiment or rational thought. But maybe there are spontaneous things! Maybe thoughts, actions, experiences that we have require no explanation, they are just there...

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend about limits, about how we define what we are comfortable with, what we are not comfortable with, and the fragile ground in between. The problem with the analysis of limits in this way lies in the evolution and relativity of comfort levels. As we experience new things, and difficult things, our comfort levels in these activities increase. Doing something with repetition develops a sense of comfort in that activity. When I first learned to drive a car, I was terrified. Over time it has become second-nature to me, and no longer entails any fear. The same is the case for me with skydiving. At first I was absolutely terrified: the entire plane ride, the entire gear preparation, during the jump. It was certainly a scary experience, yet as I have continued to pursue this sport, it too has become second nature to me. Comfort levels change dynamically as we continue with the passions in our lives. We can become more or less comfortable with something over time, based purely on the frequency with which we pursue it. Limits, then, cannot be defined with this concept of a "comfort level". How do we know what we are capable of?

I am still struggling with the concept of limits, but I do know that despite the fact that I am sometimes uncomfortable in certain situations, I still enjoy the experience. Even if I am completely inundated by fear during the entirety of an action (which is rare these days), I still get something out of it. This brings me back to the idea of "why". While the question is flawed, there may still be an equally flawed answer. I suppose the problems that we have with limits and comfort levels stem from this overarching idea of the self. In Buddhism, one of the main teachings is that there is no self such as we identify with. In order to achieve enlightenment, one must let go of the idea of self, and come to peace with the present. While I know almost nothing about meditation or enlightenment, and am a novice in these activities, I do observe the implications of these teachings in my life. On the topic of limits, for example, the fact that we perceive any limits at all is due to the attachment we have to this idea of a self. We think that our minds and our bodies have these limitations which prevent us from doing certain things. We make excuses based on these perceived limitations in order to not violate any of the limits that we have set for ourselves: "No, I'm afraid of heights" or "No, I have horrible balance" are the most common that I observe. There are excuses for all sorts of activities that extend past the comfort levels we have. But these limits are detrimental to our growth! Because they stem from the attachment to an idea that doesn't really exist, namely the self, they hold us back from experiencing the love and compassion of the world. We cling to this body and to this mind with such fervor that we forget to let it free and embrace the potential of our lives.

So in order to answer the question, "why?" I answer: "there is no why, there is only happiness." It takes a lot of energy to tear down one's limits and comfort levels, but in order to do so, one is free of this detrimental attachment of the self. Unfortunately, this can be misconstrued as a reckless waste of the body. People look with discomfort as they watch me jump off a bridge or walk a highline, claiming that I have a "death wish." They call me reckless and stupid and irresponsible. But once you learn that your body is already impermanent, you can pursue the things that make you most happy. This concept is best explained by a story of a Thai monk named Achaan Chaa. When asked how we can become detached from our cravings, and from our ideas of self, this is his reply:

Achaan Chaa looked down and smiled faintly. He picked up the glass of drinking water to his left. Holding it up to us he spoke in the chirpy Lao dialect that was his native tongue: “You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say ‘ Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious”

What I get out of this story is that our lives are like the glass. This idea of self that we have is flawed because we are holding on so dearly to something that we know will be non-existent in the near future. To extend the metaphor of the glass: if we keep the glass in the cupboard to look at and admire it's beauty occasionally, we are not using the glass to its purpose. If we use the glass, but use it sparingly, we don't get the maximum utility out of having the glass. If we use the glass as much as possible, in as many ways as possible, not worrying about the fact that it could break, because we know it will break eventually, then we use the glass in the best possible way. The same is true with our lives. We can live conservatively, creating false limits for ourselves, or we can live fully, embracing every moment that we have as a blessing and a challenge. Either way, our fate is already determined as mortal beings.

So this is my answer to the question "why?" When we realize that the self that we claim to own, the mind and body that we possess are hopelessly impermanent, we can set ourselves free of the idea that we need to limit that self as much as possible. Instead of trying to maximize the amount of time we are on this earth, we should instead be focused on maximizing the amount of happiness we have on this earth. For me, happiness manifests from flying my body though the air, and walking on highlines in the clouds. My happiness stems from the seeds of adrenaline and the water of meditation. In the process of these actions, I come the closest I can to eradicating this idea of self and living purely to live. In disposing of this attachment, all that remains is compassion and bliss, and I can't help but look to the sky and smile.


Anonymous said...

And My happiness stems from observing how much my children embrace their love of and pursuit of life. And I can't help but look at them and smile :-) Pops

Brett said...

I agree with your comment: "Instead of trying to maximize the amount of time we are on this earth, we should instead be focused on maximizing the amount of happiness we have on this earth." I would warn, however, that it sounds a bit selfish, which is ironic given the content of the rest of the post. I guess it depends on who "we" is there, and what the happiness is that we are trying to maximize. I definitely agree with the quality over quantity argument though, and am not trying to take away from the fact that your accomplishments and pursuit of happiness is commendable.

I tried to answer a question like this for myself a while ago after being asked by several familiar members who didn't really understand... http://rockymountainbrett.blogspot.com/2008/12/in-pursuit-of-gifts-we-might-receive.html. I'm no skydiver, and could expand on my response and probably would change it a bit now, but it seems we generally agree.

Best of luck exploring your boundaries and in all your pursuits.