I'm about as American as it gets - 4th generation San Franciscan on one side and on the other, descended from Jews who fled Europe to Canada first, then quietly made their way down into Nebraska with what they could carry, which our family is pretty sure didn't include anything fancy or legal, like immigration papers.
I was raised to believe in the pursuit of happiness and that when the going gets tough, the tough get going: those characteristically American endeavors. I see the wisdom in both. I've done both, most of my life.
I can also feel the stress in in both - in the constant pursuit, and in being tough and getting going, again and again and again.
It's possible that this strategy is not altogether a bad one, especially for lawyers who are ambitious or deeply committed or both. But at the very least it's missing a component: peace. And I'm not convinced peace is available in the pursuit.
But I do know it's available right here and now, in teach moment, each breath.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 347.
We’re coming to the end of the Dhammapada, not that we could ever come to the end of such a rich text. But at least this first time through, we’re almost at the end: there are 26 chapters and this is Chapter 24, Craving.
Craving: where does this fit into mindfulness?
The historical Buddha said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.”
Suffering – some teachers say they prefer the word ‘stress’ – it’s inevitable. We lose cases, we lose clients, we fail at whatever we’re doing. Our relationships get shaky, our parents die, our kids get their hearts broken. Our friends move away or get sick or get mad at us. We don’t always get what we want, right? And we get things we don’t want, like bad news. And we’re imperfect – we’re not the best litigator or the best mom, in our own eyes.
So what do we do? We engage in that uniquely American bequest, the pursuit of happiness, trying to locate happiness in the wins, the wealth, the relationships – all worthy desires, but all temporary, unstable, and eventually gone.
And what do we do when we aren’t happy, when things get tough? Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, my dad always says. He grew up in a tiny Western Nebraska town and he’s echoing that other very American thing, and also human thing, which is to not waste time with pain and sorrow. To pull yourself up by your bootstraps. To take it on the chin. To get going when the going gets tough. To do anything but be with whatever difficulty is happening.
The pursuit of happiness, the tough get going: either way, striving, wanting things to be different, living in contention with what is. That’s craving, the title of this Chapter 24. And according to the Buddha, craving is the cause of suffering. The underlying things – the losses, the disappointments, sorrow, imperfections of life: we can’t do anything about those. But spending our lives in pursuit, or “getting going” instead of being with – we can do something about that. We can come to the present moment. We can be mindful of the present moment. And we can be mindful that in this present moment, there’s the possibility of peace. Whether things are going well or aren’t going well, right here in this moment, in this breath, there can be peace.
Maybe these verses of Chapter 24, which is fairly long, say it most succinctly:
For people who have agitated thoughts and intense passion, and who are focused on what’s pleasant, craving grows more and more. But those who delight in calming their thoughts and are always mindful…will bring an end to craving.
Our whole world is so agitated right now. Everyone seems either passionate or checked out. I feel that, too. There’s a tremendous focus on what’s pleasant, except for those who are focused on surviving – which makes up a very big chunk of humanity for various reasons – war, climate emergency, Covid. In the law this all seems amplified: there’s a great deal of agitation, stress. A huge focus on more: more work, more billable hours, more money, clients, wins - even more options for wellbeing (there’s a kind of competition for wellbeing right now in the law). It’s a grasp-y time in general and especially in our profession. There’s so much craving, so great a misunderstanding of peace, and where it lies.
And maybe you’ve noticed, it’s self-perpetuating. I have yet to hear about a firm that says, our profits per partner are enough. Let’s lower our billable hour requirements, let’s lower our rates, let’s take on fewer clients. So we’re looking not only at individuals but also organizations and a whole system built around craving – craving more because more equals happier; craving an avoidance of pain and sorrow because avoiding pain and sorrow equals happier. For people who have agitated thoughts and intense passion, and who are focused on what’s pleasant, craving grows more and more.
The great news is, we can work with our practice and see this. We can see, just by unpacking this together, and also by sitting and noticing how we feel in our bodies, that whatever supposed happiness and peace and security arises from pursuing happiness, and “getting going” when the going gets tough, it’s fleeting. It requires that the conditions that created the happiness and peace continue, and that we can successfully avoid the pain – which unfortunately isn’t possible because everything is always changing. Pleasure turns to pain and back to pleasure again; gain to loss and back to gain; praise to blame to praise to blame; fame to ill repute to fame to ill repute to fame.
Which is why, as the next verse says, …those who delight in calming their thoughts [and] are always mindful…will bring an end to craving. Which we know how to do.
We can calm our thoughts. We do it all the time, when we sit; when we use STOP – stop, take a breath, observe, proceed. And we can do it more often. We can sit for a little longer each day; we can set a timer every 30 minutes instead of 60 and remember to take three conscious breaths; we can remember to look up and get five people in our line of sight instead of three, five times a day instead of three, and secretly wish them well. We can include our opponents in those well-wishes; people of different faiths, different races, different genders, different political views, different countries, beliefs.
And can remember – be mindful - that in this moment, this present moment, peace really is possible – and it’s the only place it really is possible because it’s the only place and time when peace doesn’t depend on pursuit or bootstraps or anything else. It just depends on being able to take a breath.
Which let’s do together for a little while, right now.