April 25, 2016
There was a riddle that hung over me for quite some time. Eventually I found that perhaps it was the form of the question that made it so difficult to answer. How do we know the difference between embracing and avoiding? Similarly, how do we know the difference between presence and distraction? And who is to judge when one behavior is more appropriate than the other?
The story of Buddha goes that Siddhartha Gautama left his wife and child in order to seek enlightenment. One perspective finds his actions selfish and evasive because he abandoned his wife and child. Another finds his actions altruistic and embracing because his goal was to help liberate humanity from suffering which his family was a part of.
Conflict here seems to arise from not going beyond the polarity, and not utilizing “yes and.” Buddhism’s middle way, Pragmatism’s third way, and even the “Three” that produces “all things” mentioned in the 42nd poem of the Tao Te Ching hints at a more encompassing and negotiatory alternative to a this or that.
What if Buddha’s actions were both selfish and altruistic, evasive and embracing, escaping and enduring? Can we not be present in distraction and distracted in the present? Can we not be at the same time responsible and irresponsible? Cannot more than one process go on at the same time?
A couple, Mary and Janice, get into a squabble. Instead of resolving the issue that very moment, Janice storms out the door. In one perspective, Janice’s behavior is viewed as evasive, even though the space might be vital for the resolution. More pressing on the point still, while Janice is on her walk, she “shuts down” any thought of the relationship and self-soothes with a mindfulness practice of being present with the sound, feel, and sight of the wind and trees. We cannot take away her experience of embracing the moment with the trees, though it comes at a momentary cost of an unresolved argument. Could she not be both ignoring and attending?
At any given moment, we choose what appears to be the best for us. We probably ought not to judge others so easily because we are blind to the full scope of their history and circumstances. If someone appears to be in distraction or escapism, perhaps they momentarily need these actions. One might see their actions as immature and evasive, but to the judged, they might be an essential form of protection. Everyone is at a different stage. We can easily be poisonous out of intentions to be medicinal, and there is already enough poison in the world.
Distraction and fleeing have their place. At any given moment, we may be fleeing away yet also embracing endless things. Don’t forget about the behind-the-scenes auto pilot psyche that makes multiple decisions for us based on past experiences and conditioned neural pathways. The scorpion makes good use of evasion. They have been around for 400 million years. They have a tough exoskeleton, two pincers, and a stinger. Modern scorpions live up to 10 years. They are built for survival, and elusiveness is one of their biggest resources.