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"Buddhism Without Beliefs"

I've been reading an amazing book, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor. In essence, it's Buddhism for agnostics. The more I read about Buddhism, the more I read that most of my perception of it -- temples, statues, monks in robes, prayer wheels, lamas reincarnated in children, and so on -- has been added on by successive generations of people over the last 2,500 years. Stripping all that away leaves something that's more akin to a philosophy than a religion.

In any case, this passage on craving has been much on my mind of late:

Moods dictate my behavior. If something makes me feel good, I want to have it; if it makes me feel bad, I want to get rid of it; if it leaves me indifferent, I ignore it. I find myself in a perpetual state of conflict: emotionally pulled one way and pushed the other. Yet underpinning both attraction and aversion is craving: the childish and utopian thirst for a situation in which I finally possess everything I desire and have repelled everything I dislike. Deep down I insist that a permanent, separate self is entitled to a life removed from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence.

And I invest my icons of craving with absolute finality. Be they sex, fame, or wealth, they shine before me with an intoxicating allure unsullied by the ambiguities of lived experience. I do not consider their implications. Diapers and tantrums figure as little in my fantasies of sexual conquest as do journalists and taxes in my daydreams of fame and wealth.

Such craving is crystallized from the spinning turmoil of confusion. In my metaphorical blindness, I reach out desperately for something to cling to. I yearn for anything that might assuage the sense of loss, anguish, isolation, aimlessness. But craving is distorted and disturbed by the very confusion it seeks to dispel. It exaggerates the desirability of what it longs to possess and the hatefulness of what it wants to be rid of. Bewitched by its own projections, it elevates its goals into matters of supreme significance. Under the spell of craving, my whole life hinges on the acquisition or banishment of something. "If only..." becomes the mantra of unconsummated desire.

A world of contingency and change can offer only simulacra of perfection. When driven by craving, I am convinced that if only I were able to achieve this goal, all would be well. While creating the illusion of a purposeful life, craving is really the loss of direction. It spins me around in circles, covering the same ground again and again. Each time I think I have found a situation that solves all my problems, it suddenly turns out to be a reconfiguration of the very situation I thought I was escaping from. My sense of having found a new lease on life turns out to be merely a repetition of the past. I realize I am running on the spot, frantically going nowhere...

Life becomes a succession of minibirths and minideaths. When I acheive what I want, I feel reborn. But no sooner have I settled into this feeling than the old anxieties resurface. The new possession swiftly ages as it is diminished by the allure of something more desirable that I do not have. What seemed perfect is abruptly compromised by alarming glimpses of its imperfections. Instead of solving my problems, this new situation replaces them with others I had never suspected. Yet rather than accepting this as the nature of living in an unreliable world, rather than learning to be content with success and joy and not to be overwhelmed by failure and pain, rather than appreciating life's poignant, tragic, and sad beauty, I grit my teeth and struggle on in thrall to that quiet, seductive voice that whispers: "If only..."

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