Friday, October 27, 2006

Originally posted April, 2005

You know, every once in awhile you just screw up. You do something you shouldn't have done, you stick your nose where it didn't belong, you bite off more than you can chew, whatever. You try to rationalize it, you try to make it someone else's fault, you try to convince yourself that anybody would have done the same thing in similar circumstances, but the bottom line is: you screwed up.

It occurs to me that perhaps the main difference between Presbyterianism (which is what I publicly do for my religious practice 2-3 Sunday mornings a month) and Buddhism (which is what I'm investigating and finding to be quite interesting and relevant) is how you define this screwing up. Presbyterians call it "sin" and they encourage a weekly time of confession and internal house-cleaning, followed by a reminder from the pastor that the whole point of Jesus' death and resurrection was so that our sins could be forgiven. If we honestly repent, we can let go of past mistakes and feel clean. Or healed, or at least that we have been given a fresh start. It is taken as a given that the believer aspires to avoid sin, that the fresh start will be used to try and do better, be better.

I know for most of my non-Christian friends, this is THE major sticking point about Christianity, and particularly the weekly emphasis placed on it by Presbyterians. It seems so medieval, so prudish, so negative to talk about sin. In their minds, talking about sin automatically conjures up images of hellfire and damnation. But I'm not opposed to the idea of sin, and I'm pretty sure the vast majority of the Presbyterians I know think about hell about as often as they think about Bhutan, which is to say: almost never. In some ways, I find the idea of sin and confession to be almost comforting. Maybe because I was raised with these ideas everywhere around me, I don't have any problem identifying times when I've screwed up, or "fallen short," which I'm told is the official definition of sin. It makes me feel bad (later) when I'm short-tempered with my kids or I say something nasty about someone behind their back, or I act in a way that doesn't match up with my internal sense of who I want to be. The mental act of "confessing," which in my practice amounts to identifying these moments and regretting them, can be cleansing and helpful. And the idea of aspiring to be a better person is imo one of the hallmarks of the religious life.

But the Buddhist idea, which I'm not entirely sure I'm qualfied to present (but here goes anyway), is quite different and equally compelling. In at least two of the books I've read recently, the act of trying to change yourself, to improve yourself, is described as an act of violence against the self. In fact, Tara Brach's book which I'm currently reading is titled "Radical Acceptance," meaning that only by embracing and befriending all aspects of our selves, even the negative ones, can we learn to be free of the shame and confusion that comes from trying to be something we aren't. Or trying to pretend that we are something that either others or ourselves wish we could be. Pema Chodron, over and over in all four (five?) of the books of hers I've read, talks about befriending our messiness, our neuroses, our "juicy bits" as she calls them at one point. So rather than trying to change yourself into a better person, you accept that this messy, mixed bag is who you are and you learn how to embrace and be-friend all that you can find out about yourself.

I think the idea behind this is that as you accept and learn to feel compassion for all of yourself, your heart expands, you are able to let go of some of the crabbed, cramped, mean-heartedness that defines us all at our worst. It seems to me -- as always-- that there's a gray area in there. The two ways of thinking aren't necessarily antithetical. Both of them provide something different for me, and in some ways they neatly dovetail. I do think when you are raised (or just surrounded?) by the idea of sin all the time, it's easy to either over-emphasize it -- so that every little failing becomes SIN -- or to project it out on others -- what they do is "sinful" by definition because they aren't one of us. (I've done both of those, sometimes at the same time. Funny phenomenon, that.)

And the Buddhist philosophy of self-acceptance, of softening one's critical stance toward one's self and others, is a potent antidote to that hyper-judgmental mindset. And I know from experience that the Buddhist approach does work, even though at the time I wouldn't have called it that. A lot of what I read in these Buddhist books sounds very similar to things I've heard from therapists for years, making me feel like I have a track record (so to speak) with it, even though I'm fairly new to the study of Buddhism. That's one of the things that about Buddhism that is so compelling to me-- it makes sense, in a way that much of the stuff I read from the Christian world does not. I read stuff that my family recommends to me and sometimes it's like the person that wrote it lives on another planet. There is some more complex Christian thinking out there, but you sure have to look hard to find it. But I digress.

I'm starting to think in circles here, I'm too tired to finish right now. More later. Or maybe this is enough on this topic.

still thinking about this.
Lovey dovey
Aunty BeaN

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