Today's talk is about strawberry ice cream and all those other ideas we get in our heads, and then can't let go of. Like keeping our clients out of jail or from being deported, or like getting our deals done.
It's our job, so we do need to do it. But is there a way to do it without so much longing? And without so much affection for our no doubt stellar abilities, and infatuation with our own success?
Because if not, it's a bit of a setup, isn't it? Aren't we going to live in a state of concern (will I win?) and at least occasionally, grief (I lost!).
Maybe there's another path. It's worth a look.
Hi there, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 335. The theme for today is, Why Practice?
We’re looking at Chapter 16 of the Dhamapada, which Gil Fronsdal translates as “The Dear.” In his notes he says the word he’s translating into “Dear” is Piya, and that it can also be translated as precious, beloved, liked, agreeable – things like that. So this chapter is about what is precious, what is dear.
But not in such a complimentary way.
One of the first verses of the chapter says, Do no turn anything into something longed for, for then it’s dreadful to lose. Without longing or dislike, no bonds exist.
So the chapter is not about how sweet it is that things, or even humans, are dear to us. It’s all about the practice of not getting entangled by liking this and disliking that; by considering this or that, “Dear.”
As I was reading the chapter, for whatever reason the first thing that came to mind was strawberry ice cream. I don’t know why because it’s been cold here, plus I ate a lot of ice cream in January and I’m on a no-more-ice-cream-for-a minute pledge for January.
But anyway, I thought of strawberry ice cream and how, when it’s a hot day and a long day, and it’s light well past dinner, sometimes I just really, really, want a strawberry ice cream because I love strawberry ice cream. And how, when I’m craving strawberry ice cream like that, it’s also because I’m infatuated with the amazing strawberry ice cream our local ice cream maker makes. All of which puts me in a state of longing, which is the same as craving, which is the cause of suffering, the Second Noble Truth.
And then if they don’t have strawberry today at our ice cream store, I’m going to suffer when I look up on that board and see that there’s no strawberry. I’m not going to like that. Even if it’s only a flash of dislike, it’s still suffering, arising from having gotten in the car and driven down to the ice cream store with a craving for strawberry ice cream.
On the other hand, if we decide, let’s go get ice cream, and I don’t even think about what I want, and then I get there and there are twenty different flavors, no suffering. I pick something that’s there, and enjoy it.
Longing, so goes the verse, gives rise to grief (bummer! They didn’t have any); longing gives rise to fear (hurry, they might run out!). And affection gives rise to grief…and fear; infatuation gives rise to grief…and fear; craving gives rise to grief…and fear.
For someone released from longing, the verses continue, there is no grief; and from where would come fear?
Easy enough to think about when it’s ice cream. But what about more consequential things?
It seems like it’s not so different. But it does invite us to look at that strong pull; that way it feels to want something very, very, much.
I have a lot of that. I have an idea of what I want for dinner, or I know what I want a document to look like or how I want a presentation to go.
What sits underneath those preferences, which is what they are for me, is definitely fear. The verse says longing gives rise to fear and that’s exactly what happens for me. I open up a document or send out a note that needs a reply, and I want something to happen; I long for something to happen, or for something to have already been done – and in a certain way.
And if it doesn’t go that way: grief. Grief is a big word but in my experience it covers it: maybe it’s grief in the form of a brief sense of disappointment like, really, they missed that typo? Maybe it’s grief in a more profound way, a deep sense of sadness like, this person isn’t doing what I need, yet they say they care about me. Maybe it’s in between. But it’s definitely grief.
One of the first talks I heard, when I was a very young meditator, was about this very thing: preferences. Making things too “dear” on various levels. Getting entangled by preferences. The talk essentially said, be easygoing. Don’t be a high-maintenance person.
I don’t know if I know how to do that as a lawyer, even decades in.
If I look at Chapter 16, Dear, from this perspective, for me practicing and teaching law has been so much about this. I’ve had a lot of fear that things won’t go the way I want them to go. And that fear has lurked underneath the surface of my life, and poked up in the form of frustration, anger, irritation, grumpiness. And I’ve had plenty of grief, too, when things didn’t go the way I wanted. I still tend to long for things to go just the way I want, and to grieve, even if briefly but sometimes deeply, when they don’t.
As I sit more and more with this, it feels to me like the law is kind of a setup for fear and grief. If my client needs X, then I need to try to get X. And it becomes what I want. Or maybe it was always what I wanted from the first moment I took on the case, because if not, maybe I shouldn’t even have taken it.
Think about something like that for you: a person you really want to not be incarcerated; someone you really want to not be deported; a parent you’d really love to see get more time with their kids. Or maybe it’s a business owner who wants a copyright or a deal to close and you want that for them. All of these seem to me to be perfect recipes for longing.
Or it could also be something you personally want: the win, a promotion, tenure, to make partner.
So how can we be passionate advocates and not become entangled in longing? I mentioned last week that the Bhagavad Gita says, do your duty and let go of outcome, and that seems to be a way. I have aspirations. There are plenty things I care about – for myself, the kids, our profession. For the planet. There are plenty of things, and I care a lot, but I might not get them. Most of them I won’t get, like a healthy planet, in this lifetime. So even though they’re dear, they’re my deep, my strong, preference, this chapter is saying, I think, don’t do it that way. Just do our work, live our lives, do everything humanly possible to help; aspire to be the best, to accomplish the impossible; work your petunia off as I used to tell my daughter when she was little; and then let go.
That way maybe there won’t be so much fear that things won’t go the way we want, or hope, in our cases, our classrooms; and maybe there won’t be so much grief, when they don’t. And maybe that also makes space for what we do want, and I think need, which is compassion: compassion for one another, caught in this pandemic; caught in the collapse of the planet; caught in the vortex of the white patriarchy of the West, and of the law. And maybe that also makes space for self-compassion, which, speaking for myself, sometimes need even more.