Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Ending the Pursuit of Happiness - Introduction

A Zen Guide

Introduction: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

The title of this introduction—and one of the main themes of this book—isn’t taken from some thousand-year-old Zen text, although we can find echoes of it in such Chinese classics as the Tao Te Ching or Hsin Hsin Ming. But just as the old masters spoke in the colloquial language of their time, so we need to find our own contemporary American way of talking about what they transmitted to us. The saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one of those bits of folk wisdom that everyone thinks they’ve heard before but whose original source no one can ever quite pin down. I remember hearing it back in 1977 when it was made famous by Bert Lance, a close friend and advisor to President Jimmy Carter. But it was probably an old saying even then. Maybe it really does go all the way back to China. In any case, in its very folksy American way, maybe it conveys a truth deeper than Lance intended. Not only does it caution us not to meddle with things that are already running perfectly smoothly without our help, it challenges us to take a closer look at what we assume is broken and at what we assume needs fixing in our lives. The surprising answer may just turn out to be that nothing whatsoever is broken and that we don’t need fixing after all.

Since I am also a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher, my professional life is all about working with people who say they have problems and who indeed are suffering, often quite visibly and terribly. How can I tell them that there is really nothing wrong with them? And if I were to tell them that, how would I be fulfilling my Buddhist vow to save all beings?

Everyone who comes to therapy or meditation practice feels something is wrong and wants something fixed. That’s to be expected. We come seeking a relief of suffering, however we may conceive of that “suffering” and that “relief.” Yet Zen (and maybe Bert Lance) is telling us that our search itself may embody the very imbalance we are trying to correct, and that only by leaving everything just as it is can we escape a false dichotomy of problems and solutions that perpetuates the very thing it proposes to fix.

But before we too glibly arrive at that conclusion we will have to investigate thoroughly all the ways we feel that we are broken and be honest about just what kind of fixing, treatment, or salvation we think we need. Each of us is trying to cure ourself in one way or another, but often our hopes go underground and we are never quite clear just what we are seeking or how we imagine we’re going to get there. We may say a lot of different things about what we hope to get from meditation, but in the back of our minds there usually lurks the fantasy that something will fix us once and for all. That fix goes by many names, one of which, “enlightenment,” can become a way of imagining a life once and for all free of problems. Enlightenment is real, more real than we can imagine, but we will never know what it means as long as we entangle it with all our fantasies and dreams.

In the first chapter of this book, I will explore the ways we can become aware of and more honest about that “secret practice” that we all engage in behind the scenes, so to speak, in our imagination, the practice that we hope will be our fix or our cure.

Knowing how to look for all the subtle ways in which we unconsciously put meditation practice in the service of our personal psychological agenda is where my psychoanalytic training comes in handy. Psychoanalysis is an open-ended inquiry that basically asks us to look at what our mind is doing moment after moment—in a way that really isn’t so different from watching our thoughts come and go in meditation. The main difference is that psychoanalysis also asks, “Just where did you get that idea?” In an ongoing dialogue with the analyst we look at our personal history of hope and dread, how when we were growing up we learned what to expect, for better or worse, from our loved ones and from life in general. We remember together what it was like to look to our parents for love and what as children we imagined we had to do—or not do—to earn or keep that love. As the analytic relationship develops over time, we look at that relationship itself to see the ways it, like all of our relationships, is continually being shaped by those old longings and expectations. Are we finally getting the attention we always wanted but never could get from our parents? Or is the analyst just the latest in a long string of people who never “get it” and leave us feeling chronically misunderstood?

The permutations of hope and dread are literally endless and will play themselves out in a variety of different scenarios over the course of many years. What gradually emerges is a clearer picture of who we think we are and how we feel about being that person, how comfortable we are in our own skin: with our emotions, our bodies, our sexuality, and with other people.

Inevitably, there is much about ourselves we don’t like and want to change. There are also broad areas of our mental and emotional life we don’t want to examine at all and whose existence we would prefer to deny entirely. These are the areas where we feel most vulnerable, most fragile—perhaps most damaged— or those things we are most ashamed of. But the longer we practice paying attention and being honest with ourselves and with the analyst, the harder it becomes to ignore these warded-off aspects of ourselves. The question then becomes this: What is supposed to happen to those parts of ourselves that we don’t like, the ones that seem to be the cause of our pain? Will therapy make them go away once and for all? What about spiritual practice? Can meditation turn us into another kind of person altogether, a kinder, more compassionate, more spiritual person?

Both psychoanalysis and meditation can bring about profound changes in our lives but they each do it in ways that we don’t expect. The changes that we notice after years of analysis or practice may not be anything like what we anticipated when we first started out. In a deep sense, they both change us by teaching us to leave everything just as it is—but leaving everything alone isn’t what we usually want or expect. There are many kinds of therapy and spiritual practices out there that promise to fulfill all our fantasies of self-improvement, if not perfection. I like to say that the difference between psychoanalysis and that kind of psychotherapy is that psychoanalysis doesn’t help anybody. All those helpers, and those they purport to help, are all too sure what’s wrong and what’s going to make it right. Psychoanalysis and Zen, each in its own way, both call that kind of certainty into doubt.

If at some fundamental level we don’t need fixing, then the life we’re already leading, this ordinary day-to-day life of ours, is not the problem but, somehow, already the solution we’re looking for. In that case, our everyday definitions of “problems” and “solutions” will have to undergo drastic revision. A venerable Zen verse, the Sandokai (“The Identity of Relative and Absolute”), indeed tells us that “ordinary life fits the absolute like a box and its lid.” The absolute stands for what we usually take to be the opposite of our ordinary life: something that is eternal, perfect, and indivisible into our usual dichotomies of good and bad, perfect and imperfect. The problem is we are deeply conditioned to see the ordinary and the spiritual as polar opposites. And yet, rather than the ordinary and the absolute canceling each other out, we are told they are a perfect fit.

So this book also will be about being ordinary, and how it fits together with what we call the spiritual. Much of what follows will explore what that fit looks like in our everyday life of work, relationships, desire, and difficulty.

Unfortunately, we think we already know all about what it means to be ordinary, and we don’t like it one bit. The psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan once remarked that in the end “we are all more human than otherwise.” Sounds obvious, but somehow most of us end up preoccupied with being “otherwise.” Usually people come to therapy dreading that they are somehow less than simply human; that they were somehow damaged by their life or are in some basic way inadequate. They are plagued by anxieties and often stuck in unhappy relationships that keep them from living the lives they want, tying them up in webs of conflict and inhibition.

Historically, psychotherapy developed along the lines of an analogy with medicine, and emotional problems were thought of like illnesses that the psychotherapist, though only occasionally actually a medical doctor, would undertake to cure. We have grown accustomed to thinking in terms of mental “illnesses,” and treating unhappiness as a disease from which we are suffering and of which we need to be cured. While there are undeniably serious conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar illness that may be shown to have some biological or neurochemical basis that we may need to treat with medication like other physical illnesses, it’s not so obvious that we can draw a straight line from schizophrenia down through every form of unhappiness, confusion, or interpersonal difficulty with which we struggle.

Are they all really illnesses? Is the whole human race basically ill and in need of treatment? Or are there forms of suffering that we all have to face even after we have somehow gotten a clean bill of mental health? Buddha declared that life, birth, death, and everything in between is suffering. We will explore how that suffering is rooted in the reality of change, particularly the changes that happen to our bodies. How does what we think of as spiritual practice relate to our embodied existence? Can practice help us somehow transcend our bodies and find us a higher realm free of suffering or does practice always keep bringing us down to earth? What do all those sages mean by “enlightenment” and what kind of difference will practice make in our lives?     

In my previous book, Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis, I examined how it’s possible to integrate the way psychoanalysis talks about the self, both a person’s healthy development and his or her pathological difficulties, with Zen Buddhism’s way of talking about no-self, the self’s essential emptiness, and its interdependent connectedness with all existence. In this book, I will not make any further attempt to define or justify an integrated approach to Zen and psychoanalysis—I will simply illustrate it as I go. The style of this book will therefore be less explicitly psychoanalytic. I hope my experience and expertise as a psychoanalyst, though it necessarily informs everything I write, will, for the most part, remain unobtrusively in the background.

Nonetheless, when we turn to what Zen practice means for our relationships and what it tells us—and doesn’t tell us— about sexual passion and spiritual compassion, I will draw more explicitly on my clinical experience.

Ordinary Mind also included formal commentaries on various koans. Koan commentary is one of the most traditional forms of Zen teaching, and I wanted to show how such commentaries could be made relevant to a modern psychologically-minded audience. In this book, I will talk about koans more informally and use them simply as the old case examples that they are (koan means “public case” in Japanese) in order to illustrate a particular topic. Although the old cases can be used to illuminate a variety of issues, in their most basic form they pose a question whose very form exemplifies or actually heightens the problem it poses. Thus, in the first case students traditionally encounter, a young monk asks his teacher, “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” The question reflects our own preoccupation with what we have or don’t have, with what’s base about ourselves and what we imagine is spiritual. It reveals the basic gap most of us experience between who we think we are and what we want to attain. That way of experiencing life as either/or, and ourselves in terms of have or have not, is the shape of our most basic conflicts. The koan challenges us not to answer the question, but to radically escape from its (and our own) arbitrary dichotomies.

As an analyst, I know that therapy can help solve problems, but it can also have the unintended consequence of perpetuating a person’s idea that there is something basically wrong with him or her, some sort of fundamental, inner psychological damage that will require a lifetime of work to correct—if that is even possible. It doesn’t matter whether that “damage” is conceptualized as biologically based or laid down in childhood traumas that are forever and irreducibly etched into who we are “deep down.” Too often so-called insights into the nature of our illness or a reconstruction of childhood trauma may simply be a crutch that confirm a belief in our intrinsic infirmity rather than give rise to the strength to trust our own resiliency in the face of our life as it is. Zen offers us a counterbalancing insight into our essential wholeness, a wholeness to which nothing need be added or subtracted—or indeed even could be. We are like water which can’t—and doesn’t need to—get any wetter.

What then becomes of the “helping professions” or “saving all beings” from suffering? We are surrounded by therapies and diets and self-improvement programs, all of which promise to fix us. What we don’t realize is the way all of them tacitly reinforce our assumption that we are broken and need fixing. What if, instead of searching for the latest fix, we really deeply challenged that assumption once and for all? We will need to look where that challenge leads us and explore how it has been differently addressed in different traditions, psychological, philosophical and religious, lay and monastic, Western and Eastern.

By the end, I hope you will see how a new psychologically-minded Zen practice can be relevant to your daily life in twenty-first-century America.

How to cite this document:
© Barry Magid, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

Creative Commons License
Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide by Barry Magid is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/ending-pursuit-happiness.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.wisdompubs.org/terms-use.