Humans press on forward.  It is like an automatic car.  The basic state of such a car is to move slowly forward.  To get it to stand still while the engine is running one actually has to apply a brake.  It will not come to a stop of its own accord.  Humans are the same.  When you learn to drive a car, the first thing to learn is how to apply the brake.  The spiritual life is the same, first learn to apply the brake.

For a long time in psychology it was thought that a person’s instincts were always trying to bring the person to a halt.  Needs were met in order to end the state of neediness and this end of neediness would be a halt. 

Then some people decided to test this out.  If there is a basic instinctive need to return to rest, total rest should be blissful.  Experiments were done using sensory deprivation.  Subjects were put into float tanks where they received minimal sensory input.  This was as near to complete stasis as can be contrived.  Subjects were paid to stay in the tank.  They had a button they could press when they wanted to get out.  The vast majority of subjects found it intolerable after a short time.  Even though they were being paid to spend time doing absolutely nothing they soon asked to be let out.  Returning to zero is not bliss for most people.  They are all itching to complicate their lives.

The Buddha realised this.  If you are to simplify your life and discover real bliss, this will not happen by just indulging your feelings.  If one goes with the flow, life gradually becomes more and more complicated until something breaks down.  If people have capacity - time, space, money, attention - they get a hankering to use it.  

You can see this operating in many areas of life.  For instance, it causes economic cycles.  When times are good people invest.  In order to invest they borrow.  Others lend.  Lending is one simple way of investing.  Demand grows.  Lenders gradually make more and more risky investments.  As people push for more and more the whole structure becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually some shock to the system tips the balance.  Some borrowers fail to pay their debts.  This leads to a “loss of liquidity” - in other words, the people that they borrowed from now do not have the money to pay their debts either.  There is a general loss of confidence that anything will get paid.  Investment dries up.  The crisis ripples through the whole system very quickly and there is a crash. Then it all starts all over again.

These kinds of cycles involve pain.  One can see that it is all rather unnecessary, but it is not so easy to avoid.  On top of one’s own tendency to get involved in things one does not need, there is the fact that everybody else is doing it too, so we egg each other on.  Surveys have suggested that most people think that they would be happy and content if they just had 25-30% more income than they currently have.  This stays true however big the income is.  It is thus apparent that whatever they currently think, they will never actually be happy.  They will always want that next increment.  Many career structures have increments built in.  On the one hand, this means that people have an incentive to stay in the job.  On the other hand, it also means that the cost of keeping them gets higher each year.  Organisations that use such a system - and most big bureaucracies do - thus have to have a “restructuring” - an artificial crisis - every so often so as to get rid of the staff who are now costing more than they are worth.

Although it is easier to see these cycles and their effects when we look at large scale social structures, the same is true in individual lives.  When life becomes simpler it is more blissful, but there arises also the hankering to complicate it - a new relationship, a bigger car, a new house, a better job, or, simply, get a dog - there is always an urge for more, an incessant irritation.

So the Buddha said that unless there arises a revulsion for this aspect of oneself, one will stay tied to the cycle.  Samsara will just keep going round and round.  The key to liberation is restraint.  If your relationship has ended, don’t immediately go onto a dating site and find a new one - enjoy the liberation of having some space in your life.  If your events cancel, don’t immediately fill up the time with new commitments - enjoy the free time.  If you have this kind of attitude, nothing is a disaster.  If the car breaks down and you have to walk, enjoy the exercise.

It has all become worse since we increasingly live in urban environments.  Most people no longer live close to nature.  If you do, cherish it.  Take time to stop and stare.  Smell the flowers, listen to the birdsong, hug a tree.  Observe the cycles of nature.  You will see that they have a similar pattern, but you can stand outside of it and watch.  In an urban environment one is surrounded by things that advert toward complication.  Buy this.  Get one of those.  Don't miss out.  Don't be late.  And so on and on, endlessly until the crash. Birth, old age, disease and death.     

At the present time, we are at a point in the cycle where quite a lot is breaking down due to the arrival of the corona19 virus.  People are staying at home rather than going out.  Many are obliged to “self-isolate”.  This is like sending half the population on a religious retreat.  Some people find it hard to bear, though it means that they are living much as I do most of the time.  Sartre said "Hell is other people," but many find it a kind of hell just to be on their own.  Yet what could be easier?

Eventually the crisis will pass and things will “return to normal”, but normal is not a steady state. Normal is a constant pushing forward - shop til you drop.  For sure, when the present crisis is over, there will be some kind of rebound.  Not everything will be the same as before.  During the crisis people will have learnt new ways of doing things and some of these will stick.  But the point to notice is that the crisis creates space and the rebound fills it up again.  Better to keep some of the space free. 

Spiritual teachers teach restraint - he who does not know contentment will never have enough.  Do not complicate your life unnecessarily.  Enjoy the freedom that you have and hold back from filling it up with new stressful commitments.  Every loss is also a freedom regained; don’t squander it.

To do this there has to be some countervailing force to the urge to ever press on.  This force has two components.  The first is paravritti - the revulsion for the samsaric hamster wheel.  The second is grace - allowing the bliss of spiritual sustenance in.  Amida’s light is always everywhere if we will allow it.  To fulfil the spiritual life, both of these elements need to be present.  Commonly this means that enlightenment arrives when shock and inspiration coincide.  Right now we are in a time of shock, but will one allow the inspiration to enter or is the itch to get back to "normal" irresistible?

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  • Interesting question.  I don't think creativity is a single thing.  Many different processes can turn out to be creative.  Some creativity will come out of this crisis, some because necessity is the mother of invention, but some because people will have enforced idleness time.  When one is idle, new thoughts come along or old ones resurface.  Real artists live mostly on the margin of regular society.  they need that space.  A very few become celebrities, but even they have to preserve some space if they are to go on being creative.  Also, art always involves some element of challenge or revision.  It too involves an element of revulsion.  The artist is creating, but also working against something.  He or she is demolishing complacency.  Art is thus a kind of spiritual practice in itself, though it can be a risky one.  

  • I agree with much of what you say and wonder, where do you see the space for art and creativity in your analysis?

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