Monday, April 12, 2010

On the treadmill to Nirvana (not the musical group)

I was at the club jogging on the treadmill on Sunday. Normally, I like to watch the Food Network while I workout and stare at the food I am not supposed to enjoy anymore. The Food Network programming has enough commercial breaks spaced evenly throughout their programs that I can usually judge how much time I have left in my workout without staring obsessively at the timer on the machine. Unfortunately there wasn't anything appetizing on the Food Network so I ended up watching a PBS program about Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha.

This turned into a challenge for me on more than one level. First it was PBS and there were no commercial breaks so I had no point of reference for how long I had left in my hour-long jog. Second, I had to suppress a certain amount of guilt at thinking I was suffering by jogging six miles when Siddhartha was pretty much spending years hanging upside down on trees, sleeping on nails and eating a grain of rice a day. Then there was the whole enlightenment thing.

I am no newcomer to Buddhist teaching. Of all organized religions, I think it comes closest to capturing my imagination. I even spent a couple of years as a Buddhist. It was a more radical sect that I joined to impress a woman I was dating at the time. I stopped being that particular brand of Buddhist after I stopped seeing the woman and after I became annoyed that all these Buddhist's seem to do was chant for stuff. The woman that talked me into joining was a starving artist and was convinced she had chanted a new car into her life. I kept thinking at the time if she had chanted a new car into her life she might have chanted for a nicer one. But I guess the Buddha gives to the needy, not the greedy.

Regardless, I don't think chanting for material things is technically Buddhism. The PBS program confirmed my suspicions. After being born into a privileged and sheltered life as a Prince, Siddhartha discovered that suffering (in the form of disease, aging and death) existed in the world. Then he set out to figure out a way to overcome that endless cycle of suffering. He tried out a couple of gurus. Although he was an excellent student, he still didn't feel as though he was any closer to his goal of overcoming suffering. So he tried asceticism (a path of self-deprivation that is supposed to lead to spirituality) and meditation. Still no enlightenment.

Finally Siddhartha decided that mega starvation diets, not bathing, eating or sleeping was too extreme for achieving enlightenment. He accepted a bowl of rice pudding from a local maiden and decided life looked better on a full stomach. He then chose the "middle ground" a moderate path to enlightenment that didn't require extreme indulgence or deprivation. He simply sat under a tree until the truth came to him.

And what was the truth? Where there were actually four of them. First, there is suffering (which is what started him down the whole spiritual path in the first place). Second, there is a cause for the suffering (we having cravings for lots of crap we don't really need). Third, it is possible to eliminate suffering by eliminating our cravings for crap. This is called achieving Nirvana (again, not the music group). Finally, there are eight things you need in order to achieve Nirvana and not crave for crap any more:right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood,right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Okay, I was okay with the first three truths (knowing there is suffering, knowing what causes it and knowing it is possible to over come it). But I got annoyed that the fourth truth tacked on another eight things that in turn probably come with lots of conditions, foot notes and legal disclaimers. I think what I need is a copy of Enlightenment for Dummies.

What I did glean from my 60-minute immersion into the birth of Buddhism on PBS was that after Siddhartha became enlightened and the Buddha, he simply learned to accept where, when, what and who he was at the moment. And that you get there by not being miserable by not having what you don't have (and probably really don't need). This contradicts the very nature of what I as a marketing person do for a living: convincing people they truly need what they do not have and when they get it they need much more of it.

Does that make me an anti-Buddha?

After my six-mile jog on the treadmill to enlightenment, I sat in the locker room pondering some of things I'd absorbed during my workout. When you run on a treadmill while seeking that path of enlightenment you definitely are forced to stay on the middle ground or you'll fly off the thing. And once you are through with your workout, the suffering subsides as well. I do believe the Buddhist concept that we are all the Buddha and that everything is connected (though there were a few fat, hairy men in the locker room that I don't enjoy the thought of being connected to in any fashion).

I also believe that I sweat a disproportionate amount for a person of my size even though I had just ran for an hour.

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