Acedia and the Good Friend
The following article is entitled "Acedia and the Good Friend" by Jiko Linda Cutts and may be found in the publication of the San Francisco Zen Center Wind Bell, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2000, pages 39-46.
AcediaToday I want to talk about Friendship, envy, hate, and acedia. Acedia, a new word I've recently learned, means spiritual torpor, ennui, apathy. There are situations that arise in monastic life and in everyday life, that are monotonous and repetitious. The feeling quality, quite hard to work with, is that we cannot keep going on with the endless things we have to do. It is all too much. Burnout. Desperation.
What are the antidotes to acedia, to spiritual torpor? How can we help ourselves and our friends when this kind of situation arises? And what fans the flames of acedia?
Acedia, Characteristics of: Time Hardly MovesIn the book The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work, Kathleen Norris talks about acedia and quotes from the fourth-century Catholic monk Evagrius. He considers acedia to be like what, in the Buddhist tradition, we call Mara, or the evil one: a demon that enters your consciousness and begins to undermine your resolve, your state of mind and your vows. Evagrius writes that the demon of acedia, "makes it seem that the sun hardly moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then it constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour (lunch time)."
This may sound familiar. A feeling, whether in the monastery, at home or at your work, of looking at your watch, looking at your computer screen, "When do I get to take that old lunch break and get out of here?" The sun hardly moves. The clock stands still. I remember feeling that way in high school especially. The monk (in this case, male) is distracted by this. He is supposed to be meditating or doing mindful work and instead he finds himself distractedly gazing around hoping lunch time will come soon.
Acedia, Characteristics of: HateThen acedia moves inward and "instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place. A hatred for his very life itself." The monk begins to think less of the other monks with whom he lives and works. We might feel less friendly towards our co-workers, or family members, or neighbors. We might spend time "brooding on the ways they have angered, offended, or merely failed to encourage us." They're ruining my practice, these people!
Acedia, Characteristics of: Withdrawal"This demon (then) drives the monk to desire other sites where he can more easily find work and make a real success of himself." So you reject those around you, reject what is going on with yourself, and start to pits' yourself, thinking about the "memories of your dear ones and your former way of life."" It used to he better in Seattle. You begin to think, gee, if I just move there, or get another job, or get a new apartment, or get a divorce, or get married, then I'd make a real success of myself, then I would be appreciated. Thinking like this we believe we can change things around, so that everything finally, once and for all, will be okay.
Acedia, Characteristics of: ResignationEvagrius reports how acedia triumphs, "(depicting) life stretching out for a long period of time, and bringing before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saving has it, it leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight." The monk believes it is going to be terrible, in just this was, forever, if he stays where he is. Absolute bleakness. You give up on even making an effort.
Acedia, Etymology of: Care and CryThe word acedia itself comes from the Greek, meaning: a lack of care, and the root of the word, care, means: to cry out, to lament. Acedia is a crying out for help that is not recognized. Can we understand this and "turn the light inward" to look at what are the causes and conditions of this feeling, rather than believing that the environment is wrong for us or that there is someone to blame? I remember my first sesshin, it was very painful. The person who sat next to me had a jaw that cracked every time she chewed. For seven days all the meals, there was this noise when she chewed: "click click." And I hated her. I really felt she was ruining my whole sesshin. She was making it SO difficult. I turned outward and blamed it all on her. She was the bothersome problem. If she would just get out of the way, get another seat, then I'd be able to practice. It was hard to understand that the practice was right there in front of me, in working with the very annoyances and irritations I felt. This is the fertile ground of our practice. But, caught in acedia, we can't find the energy to make that kind of effort, to give that kind of attention to what's going on. to "study the self" in that way. We don't care anymore.
Antidote 1: Daily ActivityOne of the antidotes to acedia is to throw yourself into your daily life, the details of your daily practice, to enter the "quotidian", the everyday. The dian of the word quotidian means "divine, to shine or bright sky". Doing our daily activities of laundry, dishes and grooming is an expression of our connection to life. When these simple activities are forgotten it often means there is deep trouble. Staving grounded in the quotidian is one way to address acedia. That is the mystery of the everyday. Everything is included. Continuing with our sitting practice at those times of acedia is very important. We may turn away from zazen just at the time when we need to practice more thoroughly.
Antidote 2: Help OthersAnother antidote to acedia is to encourage others, to help others. Helping others is a powerful way of encouraging ourself. When you extend to someone when they are in need, or needing encouragement, you find words that really are meant for yourself as well. You are being encouraged at the same time that you're encouraging others. Dharma talks are like that: encouraging others, hut encouraging myself at the same time.
Antidote 3: Friendship and Good FriendFriendship and the Good Friend are important at these times. The Buddha, as the teacher of dharma, is the quintessential Good Friend and these Bodhisattvas arc thought of as Good Friends as well. The way you actually help another, the greatest gift you can give, is to expose someone to the teachings. In fact, having Good Friends is one of the main, proximate causes that are conducive to practice. We can help one another in many other ways as well, including the material realm. Our friends are those that we can trust in such a way that it feels like-this is how it's described in the sutras-as if you're a baby putting your head down on your mother's breast. That feeling of complete reliance, trust, and faith in our friends-that is a true friend.
On the other hand, the sutras say, if you take a wonderful stick of incense and wrap it in an old dead fish it will begin to smell like an old fish. The same with our friends. You can have great resolve, but if you are wrap it in friends who are not upholding the precepts, you will be strongly influenced by this. If you surround yourself with Good Friends, that will have an amazing positive effect on you as well. Both sides are true. I have a friend who has a chronic illness, and she has found, by carefully watching her life and taking care of her both', that there are certain people she cannot spend time with, because they drain her. She actually feels more sick after spending time with these people.
Although the bodhisattva ideal is to go everywhere and be with anyone, sometimes the bodhisattva herself needs protection and care, like a young flower. It is important to he aware of how strong this influence from our friends can be.
Antidote 3: Friendship, Characteristics ofWhat is friendship? The root of the word friend means: to love, beloved, belonging to the loved ones, not in bondage, free. All these words come from the root of the word friend. Also, dear, precious, safety. I think that's how we feel with our true friends. We feel safe to reveal ourselves and ourselves. We feel that we are beloved, and we love.
Antidote 3: Friendship and Not Befriending OurselfOne of the fuels of acedia is not being a friend to our own self, not being content within ourself. A dissatisfaction arid a dis-ease within ourself that's not being attended. This is "the crying out for help that is not recognized." It is fed by the daily round of annoyances, irritations and sufferings of our regular everyday life, which we cannot avoid. Being human beings there is no way we can get outside, around and away from these kinds of difficulties and pains of the day. Be they an extreme form o illness, suffering. lamentation and grief, or just having someone's jaw click who sits next to you for seven days, when those things begin to irritate us, if there is a dissatisfaction or discontent that we are not examining arid taking up in our life, we experience annoyance. This annoyance conditions our getting angry and hateful. The slightest thing can tip us into a full-blown expression of anger.
Antidote 3: Friendship and Mental DiscomfortIt is a mental discomfort, not necessarily a physical pain. I think many of us knots people who have physical difficulties and pain and yet they are at peace. They are not on the edge and irritated all the time. They're working with it in a way that's an example and a great inspiration to everyone. When the kind of unhappiness and dejection I'm referring to goes unattended, these are the conditions for outbursts of anger, envy, jealousy, and greed. One way of thinking of hate is as if it were an enemy who's got his or her chance to get in there and do some harm. Another traditional image of hate is a snake, ready to strike, spreading venomous poison, even to those that we love, or those we call our friends.
Antidote 3: Friendship, Nature ofAgain, what is the nature of friendship? What are true friends? It may get mixed up in our minds. We may feel that someone is a real friend to us, and then something will happen and we are shocked to hear that they spoke about us in an unkind way. These are the pains of our life. Or we may find ourself talking about someone in a way that may be bordering on slander. Using speech in a way that ruins another's reputation, or plants seeds for other people to think less highly of someone is slander. A true friend is love and peace and safety and relying. So are we able to be a true friend to our friends and family? Or does something unconsciously get constellated so that we strike out in such a way that we don't even know what's going on ourselves?
Antidote 4: PliancyOne of the ten qualities that is present in every wholesome state of mind is called, in Sanskrit, prasrabdhi. Prasrahdhi is translated as serenity, lightness, pliancy. A definition of pliancy is: "fitness for action that freely applies the full energy of body and mind for good purposes." Pliancy. Fully applying your mind for good purposes-at will-turning freely. This ease comes from relaxing rigidity in body and mind. Rigid ideas and rigid views about how things should he. the way it used to be, and how we want it to be. Looking around and discriminating in that way, there's a rigid quality to that. So relaxing that, allowing what is to come forward and realize itself, and to witness it-this is a kind of ease with whatever happens. Lightness. Serenity. Tranquility, lust saving the words. They're beautiful words. So along with pliancy is happiness and joyfulness, preceded by faith and clarity. When there is lightness and fully using the body and mind toward good purposes rather than "errant tendencies," then striking out, hatred and its derivatives cease. This means freedom to move, beneficial action, and being the Good Friend.
It reminds me of watching the Aikido black belt tests I saw recently, at the Aikido Dojo where my son takes lessons. In the final of these tests, the student is surrounded by five or more black belts who come at her from all sides doing different moves, moves not scripted ahead of time. The student just has to he ready. Totally ready. She meets each person in whatever way he comes, turning this way and that, throwing each one in turn. It was amazing to see. This is pliancy. Allowing the full energy of body and mind to meet whatever is coming. There was also a tranquil feeling, a peaceful way; no hate, no striking out venomously. Just meeting, meeting, all the way. At the end, the teacher said one student really exemplified the peaceful way of Aikido. It was a grandmother, a little tins' lady, perhaps in her late sixties. Her face during the test was completely serene and unstrained as slit' just met ('dub person, all of whom, by the way, were much larger than she was, and threw them into the air. It was just fitness for action that freely applies the full energy of body and mind. Very beautiful.
Antidote 4: Pliancy and Envy and CovetThis is a way to live in the world with pliancy. But it we are encumbered 1w the unattended parts of ourself, those parts of ourself crying out but unrecognized, then it's very hard to turn. Various afflictive emotions may gain ground: envy, jealousy, covetousness. Covet is an interesting word. I remember as a young person never knowing what the word covet meant, when it was referred to in the ten commandments. It wasn't a word that was bandied about in my house. Covet and envy are "contemplating another's successes, possessions, or good qualities, and wanting those for yourself." There is a feeling of discontent and resentment around this very contemplation of others' desirable possessions. The root of the word envy is "to look out at other things," and the root of the word covet is "to smoke," "to cook," "to move violently and agitate emotionally." When you covet something you are right over the fire, on a slow rotisserie, smoking and cooking, agitating. Your mind is the one that's disturbed.
There's a prayer from Saint Teresa of Avila: "Thank God for the things that I do not own." This is the opposite of envy or covetousness. Seeing the pain that material Possessions can cause someone, you are SO happy that your life is simple and that you are free to turn and help others. Envy, jealousy, covetousness: your body and mind experience these as painful and actually unhealthy. If you look at the medical literature, these kinds of emotions cause constriction of the blood vessels, high blood pressure and other problems. Very different from pliancy, serenity, freely moving and engaging with whatever arises.
Antidote 4: Pliancy and Hate and WisdomIn the traditional literature, it is said that a person who has a hateful temperament also has a temperament conducive to wisdom. The hate type has a disaffection for people. In wisdom however, the same type of person has a disattachment for objects of the senses, or external objects. Disaffection means the same as disattachment, but the former is disattachment in all unprofitable way, a hurtful way, an unwholesome way. The hate type and the wisdom type are the same person except one way is unprofitable, the other profitable, one way unbeneficial, the other beneficial. The hate type, when it transforms, becomes wisdom; hate has the possibility of transforming into wisdom. For all of us who deal with hateful feelings, whether momentary or of longer duration, it is important to know that this feeling can be transformed.
Antidote 4: Pliancy and RealityOne antidote to hatred is, "not to see unpleasant people." This is similar to my friend's experience, realizing she can't go out to dinner with certain people because she gets sick. At certain times, this kind of practice may he necessary.
Antidote 4: Pliancy and Pleasure"Encouraging the pleasure that comes from association in such matters as common meals" is another antidote to hatred. This reminds me of those studies about the French, who sit at a meal for hours on end, and eat cream and butter and all those things that we are not supposed to he eating any more, and they have less heart disease. This simple practice can address the constriction associated with hatred.
Antidote 4: Pliancy and FriendlinessAnd perhaps the most fundamental antidote to hatred is friendliness, rooted in prasraibdhi, rooted in the freedom to move, the freedom of beneficial action. Friendliness, maitri, is one of the four Brahma Viharas, or "heavenly abodes," including equanimity, compassion, and sympathetic joy. cultivated by bodhisattvas, Though bodhisattvas see that beings don't actually exist in a substantial way, that they have no "inherent existence," nevertheless, bodhisattvas radiate great friendliness and compassion toward all these very same beings. and give their attention to them, thinking: "I should become a savior to all those beings. I shall release them from all their sufferings." This is the bodhisattva's vow of saving all beings. This friendliness brightens the world.
Friendliness means to have hopes for the welfare of others, to long for it. This is the opposite of coveting, wherein you contemplate what others have and what you want of theirs for yourself and feel resentment. It means to delight in the happiness and prosperity of others. It is affection unsullied by motives of sense desire, passion, or hope of a return.
In the traditional literature, friendliness is explained as threefold. In bodhisattvas who first raise their hearts to enlightenment, friendliness has beings for its object. For bodhisattvas coursing in the way, it has dharmas (defined as fundamental elements of reality for its object. And for bodhisattvas who have acquired "the patient acceptance of dharmas which fail to be produced," who have acquired the "intuitive tolerance for the inconceivability of all things" For these bodhisattvas, friendliness has no object at all. These are bodhisattvas who understand emptiness. They understand the non-production of dharmas. They have no object for their friendliness, thus is just friendliness. They don't need anything to direct it toward: it is just friendliness that covers the universe.
Summary: Regain Your State of MindThere is a story told of the Buddha encountering a woman who had lost all her presence of mind, after enduring enormous suffering in her life. With great maitri, Buddha said to tier, "Sister, regain your state of mind." A friend of mine has that on her computer screen, as a screen saver. When she is at work and the demon acedia has entered, and she is wondering when lunchtime is going to come, and pliancy and joyfulness seem far away, then, being a Good Friend to her own self, she can say, "Sister, regain your state of mind." Recover your presence of mind. We have the ability to do this.