Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fear Itself

In many recent posts, I've focused on the question of how to be happy, but it's time to delve into a less cheery topic: fear. Fear is a very unpleasant experience, and I know it strikes everyone at some point. For the most part, it leads to hasty, paranoid, selfish, and poorly thought-out decisions, making fear more than just unpleasant in the moment, but actually destructive in the long run. One of the appeals of Buddhism is that it allegedly helps people free themselves from fear. Honestly, this possibility has been one of the strongest motivators of my practice of Buddhism from the beginning because I dearly want to be free from fear. The question is, can we overcome fear, or if not, how can we live with it? I've found that Zen Buddhism has helped me do a little bit of both, which has been pricelessly beneficial to me and, I'm sure, a lot of people who have to put up with me. In this post I'm going to explain some of the process in brutal, personal detail.

First, lets look at the emotion itself. Fear comes in many forms. There's the intense feeling of panic, whether during physical danger, when encountering the object of a phobia, or when contemplating mortality in the middle of the night. There are also milder, lingering fears about job performance, social acceptance, etc. Finally, there are subtle, creeping fears that do not even feel like fear because they've been so deeply buried. These are the most insidious. An example is the feeling of pessimism and hopelessness that one feels in the first few minutes after waking up, when otherwise realistic aspirations seem impossible.

Fig 1: A common image of death.
Prior to Buddhism, I had many dysfunctional ways of dealing with all of these fears. For one, I had regular panic attacks when contemplating mortality in the middle of the night. I had an intense belief that death was exactly like being trapped in a dark box and remaining conscious forever in a state of absolute terror, while also falling down a black hole. My response was to sit in bed, thinking about it for hours, making myself more scared, and futilely trying to rationalize death away, rather than questioning my arbitrary image of it. I spent much of my adolescence obsessing over death, thinking in circles, convincing myself that the images in my head were accurate, and cultivating a morbid, terrified, and hopeless mindset. Lacking an understanding on par with the Buddha's teachings, I consoled myself egotistically, convincing myself that at least I was superior to my peers because I had such "deep" thoughts, but failing to recognize mortality as an essential and necessary part of existence that also gives us reason to have compassion for one another.

My responses to social anxiety were also dysfunctional. Because relationships are constantly in flux, and people's feelings change all the time, it can be stressful to not know what people think of you. Of course, you can't always know everything all the time, and you have to rely on forgiveness to make relationships work--you have to forgive your friends and your friends have to forgive you. My problem was that I wanted to escape the stress of not knowing, and I thought foolishly--no, idiotically--that I actually could get away from it. I established a pattern in which I'd make friends, feel good for a while, and then become unsure about whether they liked me, and so I'd do something drastic to force them to show their feelings for me, which would inevitably annoy them, and so I would feel hurt, and then I'd get pissed that they didn't accept me, and I would annoy them intentionally to spite them, and negative feelings would escalate from there. In this way, over the course of high school, college, and several jobs, I alienated many really nice people who haven't talked to me since.You could say, more briefly, that I pushed people away when they got too close. I'm still trying to forgive myself for being that socially inept. At the same time, my aversion to social uncertainty is still a work in progress.

These obvious, destructive fears were the first ones I faced when I began seriously looking at Eastern philosophy more than 3 years ago. The ancient puzzles of Taoism sort of primed my mind for thinking outside the conventional dualisms of my panic attacks, dualisms like life/death, light/darkness, freedom/entrapment, etc. Modern thinkers, especially Jiddu Krishnamurti and Alan Watts, helped me realize that these fears are timeless, universal problems for people that require a lot of attention and action. Krishnamurti said that running away from fear would increase fear, so the ultimate question was not how to overcome fear, but how to live with it. His idea of living with fear, and maybe even enjoying the experience, was radical for me.

Krishnamurti and Watts had many cool ideas, and I needed some cool ideas at the time, just to get started. They rejected established religion and insisted that a rational, sincere effort to understand oneself would lead to spiritual insight on par with or better than anything attainable through an organized religion. That really appealed to me. I was too anxious and paranoid to trust any institution. Equipped with some cool ideas from the Tao Te Ching, Krishnamurti, and Watts, I was determined to discover enlightenment on my own.

As I continued my personal research, though, I found the teachings of Buddhism to be very good. Eventually, I tried meditation and found that the Zen format was very effective at cultivating concentration and openness, much more so than my half-assed attempts to meditate on a mountain in a self-invented and uncomfortable posture. So I began to practice Zen Buddhism, in spite of my reluctance to participate in an organized "religion". I use the quotes because Zen is definitely organized, but I'm not sure if it's a religion because they don't require you to believe in any particular concepts to be a member. You just have to show up, sit still, and bow at the right times. It's enigmatic, a weird practice to figure out. I love that aspect of it.

Fig 2: This is not what nothingness looks like.
As it related to fear, Zen practice helped me look at fear systematically, and without running away. One night, a few months after starting to meditate regularly, I had the mother of all panic attacks, and I sat through it, observing what was going on in my mind and body, using the skills I'd started to develop through daily meditation to simply look at the experience clearly, without judgment, without backing down. Even though I began to shake violently with terror, I stayed focused and was finally able to see my irrational beliefs for what they were--irrational--and I saw that I had the choice to not engage in my old mental habits that amplified the intensity of the fear. Instead, I watched it passively from beginning to end, which I never did before, and I thereby "shined the light" of my consciousness into a place I was afraid to look and discovered there was nothing to fear. What I discovered was that my panic attacks were driven by an irrational fear of two mutually exclusive images of death--I was afraid of the total annihilation of my consciousness and, simultaneously, the prospect of being conscious through eternal darkness. Even though these two possibilities cannot both happen, I was afraid that they would, and it felt claustrophobic, like I was trapped between two awful possibilities. That feeling of being existentially trapped inside of two awful possibilities is what I was actually panicking about. When I dragged this irrational idea out of its hiding place and subjected it to the scrutiny of reason, it simply evaporated.

From that point on, the panic attacks were reduced. Radically reduced.

In terms of quantifiable results, I can give you some impressive numbers. Between the ages of 11 and 27, I had panic attacks about 2-3 nights every week, some so intense that I would scream or run down the street in my pajamas or press my face up against a TV, desperately trying to escape the fear as it stretched on for minutes or hours. In the two years since that night, I've had less than a dozen panic attacks total. In terms of frequency, that's a reduction of 96%--more effective than Prozac (considered effective with a 40-50% reduction of panic attacks). Furthermore, none of the later attacks were as bad as the ones I experienced before meditation. When the panic comes, I'll wake up and notice it: "Oh, this again," and then I'll fall back asleep within a minute or two. I've even experienced enjoyment of it, as Krishnamurti suggested, when I try to use the panic to sharpen my attention and learn something new.

Because most of the benefits of meditation are subtle and hard to convey to other people, I like to share the panic attack outcome because it is concrete, undeniable, and practical. A less obvious benefit of this process is that, being equipped to deal with anxiety, I've learned how to effectively deal with untold amounts of stress and uncertainty that previously derailed my best efforts to sustain a stable career and led me to quit jobs and majors because of stress and anxiety. This is why, if you know me, you always hear me talking favorably about Buddhist practice. It has given me an unprecedented degree of control over my life.

This idea of "freedom from fear," I've learned, doesn't mean that I never feel fear. I feel some kind of fear every day. But I'm able to watch it and mentally hold my ground so the fear does not sink its teeth in and control my life again. That is an essential component of freedom from fear. Once you can hold your ground--which means to look at fear without running away, not even trying to explain it away in your mind--then the fear does gradually diminish. At this point, I feel less fear than ever before in my life, even though I am regularly pushing myself into intimidating and stressful situations. Thus, on both fronts--overcoming fear and living with fear--I've begun to taste the freedom from fear. (Still, there is always room for progress.)

The final thing to consider is the concept of running away. What does it mean to run away from fear--not to run away from an object of fear, but to run away from the emotion itself? How do we try to run away from fear when there's nothing external to run from, when we're just anxious for no obvious reason and we want to escape? If there isn't a physical danger to escape from, and you're just feeling uncomfortable about life or people or work, then the tendency is to seek distraction. Turn on the TV, crack open a beer, fill in silences with small talk. In social situations, the tendency is to prove yourself so that you can make people like you or hate you, so you can try to escape that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing. When we're alone and the fear of loneliness creeps in, or just the fear that we're going to look at ourselves honestly, the tendency is to jump into something like a book or videogame to engage the mind and distract it. Even religion can serve as a distraction when we look to a "spiritual authority" to tell us what's definitely going to happen. One of the easiest mental escapes we've created is explanation. We love to explain the things that scare us. All that does is create a false sense of control which temporarily distracts us from the immediacy, irrationality, and power of the fear experience.

The subtle thing about these distractions is that none of them are intrinsically harmful. The harm comes if we use these activities to distract ourselves from fear; if we use these activities to run away. Running away from fear makes it stronger. By not sitting firmly in the middle of unpleasant emotions and observing them as they pass through our minds, we get in the habit of avoiding, which cultivates a mindset of weakness and cowardice, and we begin to give the fears power over our minds. Consider the bogeyman. It seems innocent enough when you're a child to stay away from the closet at night. But when you make a habit of avoiding dark spaces, your fear begins to grow. You begin to feel that there really is some terrible bogeyman lurking in the shadows. The more you avoid the bogeyman, the more real the fear becomes, the more your behavior warps around it, and the more you are under fear's control.

The thing about fear is that it spreads. Running away from a childish fear of the dark establishes a pattern of running away. That habit becomes the template for dealing with mortality. Running away from that fear makes it so strong that panic attacks begin. Habitual panic establishes a pattern of anxiety that spills into social situations. Trying to escape social anxiety leads to pushing people away, aloofness, bitterness, and regret. In this way, fear can poison an entire life.

But think about this: 

How liberating is it to throw open the closet door in the middle of the night and face the darkness?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Quantum Mechanics and Buddhism

The topic of quantum mechanics and Buddhism has been run into the ground in pop culture, but I'd like to discuss it from a different perspective, showing that some aspects of quantum theory are frequently misinterpreted while one very interesting conclusion is not often considered.

Two of the best known concepts in quantum mechanics are the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Schrodinger's cat. In new age hippy pop culture, these are the two clich├ęs you can expect to see in any discussion about quantum mechanics and Buddhism. These concepts are sometimes invoked to suggest that the universe can be magically manipulated by the mind of an observer.

It's important to know, though, that the degree of uncertainty for everyday particles and objects is very small, leaving us with a universe that behaves classically on a macroscopic, human level. Even the very practical concept of electron delocalization is not going to register with our senses (except, maybe, for the sense of smell). Sure, an electron has a non-zero probability of "appearing" very far away from its home nucleus, but the odds are so low, and the electron so tiny, and the distances constituting "very far" are still so small, that it's not going to make a difference in your everyday life (beyond the noteworthy application of certain electronics, which make important use of this phenomenon). It's definitely not going to help you levitate or walk through a wall. So for the most part we're stuck with the plain old reality we already knew we had, and our desire for scientifically-grounded telepathy remains wishful thinking.

Schrodinger's lolcat
The story of Schrodinger's cat deserves special attention because it is often grossly misinterpreted. It was a thought experiment designed to criticize the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which states that the wavefunction determining the probabilities of a particle's state "collapses" to a single value only upon observation. Schrodinger's cat in the box, stuck in a state of superposition between life and death until someone opens the box to observe it, was presented as an absurd consequence of the Copenhagen interpretation.

However, the definition of an observer has been clarified since Schrodinger's time. An observer is no longer defined as a human being, who, granted the magic power of consciousness, has an exclusive ability to collapse wavefunctions everywhere he looks. Instead, an "observer" is any classical system that interacts with a quantum system, whether or not a measurement is made or a human ever sees it. In other words, when a large object interacts with a tiny, quantized system like an atom or a photon, the quantum system shows its classical side and acts like it has only one state instead of a superposition of many. This means we can safely forget about Schrodinger's cat because (someone should have thought of this a long time ago) the paradox is resolved by recognizing that the cat is the observer that collapses the wavefunction. (Actually it's the apparatus that releases the poison, since that's the first classical system to interact with the radioactive, quantized particles, but the cat deserves some recognition.)

It would seem, then, that the new age hippies have botched the spiritual interpretation of quantum mechanics by exaggerating or misinterpreting early concepts of the science. Does that mean the field is totally irrelevant to the quest for enlightenment? Assuming that you already know that enlightenment is to be found within and that any outside information is merely icing on the cake, I'll say no--quantum mechanics is not irrelevant because it encompasses some of the most precise observations ever made about physical reality. It is thus a tool for helping one better look at and understand reality, which in turn helps one act more fully in accordance with reality.

So where are we now?

A major breakthrough in this field came in the mid-20th Century with the development of quantum electrodynamics (QED), one of the most successful scientific theories in history. It is successful because it has stood up to extremely rigorous testing, it has been confirmed to match observation to the 12th decimal place in the case of some predictions, and it has provided a framework for explaining much of real chemistry and optics. It has not received much popular attention though, probably because it is newer, more advanced, and more complicated than the initial incarnations of quantum mechanics, which new age hippies are still, futilely, trying to wrap their minds around.

Richard Feynman
The underlying philosophical implications of QED are not too complex, but they are amazing. QED makes use of a technique called the "sum over histories" approach, developed by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, which determines the most likely path of an electron or photon by adding up the probabilities associated with all the possible paths it can take. Mathematically, an infinite variety of possible pathways can interact with each other, yielding a single pathway that is actually observed. The amazing thing about this theory is that it accurately predicts and explains phenomena that cannot be explained any other way--the rainbow of colors you see on the underside of a CD, for example--so philosophically we are forced to acknowledge the "reality" of the infinite alternative pathways, even though they individually do not manifest in the "real" world.

... culminating in one reality.
All possibilities... 









A related theory, quantum chromodynamics (QCD), explains the behavior of atomic nuclei. With QED and QCD together, atoms and their interactions are thoroughly modeled using this crazy sum over histories approach, which means that all the matter we care about on a daily basis (the matter making up our bodies and environment), and all the energy we care about (the energy of light and chemical bonds), takes form through the interactions of possibilities. Thus, the philosophical implication that emerges from modern physics is that, in a certain sense,

Reality is the sum of all possibilities. 

That blows my mind. We're sitting at a crossroad of infinite possibility, not just in space and time, but in every particle and every event and every thing. Thinking about that for a bit, I realize that pop culture depictions of alternate universes and many-world interpretations of quantum mechanics are far, far too narrow to be accurate. There's a lot more out there in the realm of possibility. Moreover, the possibilities are not separate from one another; they're all interfering together: If there are parallel universes in which 9/11 didn't happen (and there certainly are in the "realm" of possibility), they are not separate from our own. Rather, all the microstates of every quantum system that would comprise those possible universes are interfering with the microstates of every other quantum system that comprise possible universes in which 9/11 did happen, and the net result, the grand summation, is the reality we know in which 9/11 happened.

The really crazy implication of this theory is that reality has an intrinsic way of combining all these possibilities into one history, just on its own. Wherever and however these possibilities exist, reality is mashing all of them together and letting them add up through some process that must be fundamental to the nature of reality itself. Wow! Several months ago I explored this idea, in my second post. It reminds me of a statement in the Lankavatara Sutra in which Buddha says, "When this entire universe is regarded as concatenation and as nothing else but concatenation, then the mind, by its patient acceptance of the truth that all things are un-born, gains tranquility."

On that note, I suggest that you don't try to figure out what this "really means," because it's too big to figure out. Instead, the next time you have a moment to yourself, just look around, notice what it feels like to be you, and consider that This Is It. This is, in one sense, everything trying to happen at once. You might find some tranquility by considering that, maybe, it absolutely has to be this way.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Priorities

Every semester, there is a new crop of aspiring filmmakers wheeling equipment around campus and shooting scenes in the quad, and I feel a compelling urge to blurt out, "Don't make the same mistakes I did... Get out while you're young... It's not too late to major in a science!"

Of course, I never say that. Filmmaking and science are not the real issues. Some people really should be filmmakers, and some people really should be scientists, and some people really should be something else entirely. That's how it is.

But there is something that bugs me about the majority of aspiring filmmakers; it's just been hard to put my finger on it. A lot of baggage from the past obscures my perception of the situation. I can't be sure whether I'm merely projecting my self-criticism outward, or whether there is a concrete problem that genuinely rubs me the wrong way.

Recently, though, I forgave myself for the hundredth time for choosing to be a filmmaker when I was 19, and in a moment of clarity I recognized that there was an actual problem, and I articulated what the problem was.

Here it is: We forget (or never learn as children) that the most important priority in life is to cultivate inner peace; if you want to be happy you have to understand yourself, accept yourself, understand others, accept others, relate to others compassionately, seek and pay attention in the right balance, relax the grip of greed, anger and delusion, and come to terms with your unsteady place in reality. If you can cultivate inner peace, then you can cultivate peace in the world around you, and you can actually enjoy life.

Inner peace, or true happiness that you can share with others, has to be the top priority. The problem that people create is when they put something else as the top priority and expect it to make them happy. Nothing can replace inner peace!

 
Are these filmmakers fostering compassion through art, 
or are they just trying to look cool behind a giant toy?

A lot of aspiring filmmakers (and scientists, too) spend so much time working on their projects that they don't make time to practice compassion and discover their potential to simply and directly enjoy being themselves. That's a big problem. A competitive field like filmmaking compounds the situation because you can convince yourself that you're going to be happy far in the future, when you've made it big, so you ignore the signs that tell you it's time to cultivate inner peace. The result is that, even if you do make it big, you won't be happy because you neglected to develop the requisite aspects of your psychology for being happy. If you fail to make it big, which is the most likely outcome, you will be doubly miserable. That's a huge problem.

Some people have the ability to do both; they can make movies and attain inner peace. Those people can become filmmakers with no problem. But many people can't swing both because the struggle to become a filmmaker sucks up every last moment of their time, and they have to choose one or the other. In their case, choosing to make movies is clearly wrong--not because movies are good or bad*, but because forgoing the pursuit of inner peace will create problems for them, and these problems will spread into the world through misguided actions, and an emotional mess will be created around these individuals.

What I'm trying to suggest here is that, no matter how appealing a career may seem in the abstract, it won't be rewarding if you have to sacrifice your opportunity to be a compassionate human being. Don't waste that opportunity! Instead, make inner peace your top priority, and then find a career that supports it. I suspect that, in addition to being happier, you'll be more successful in everyday affairs.


 *Most movies are definitely a waste of precious time and effort, but that's not the point here.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Karma in Speech

"For many of us, conscious and unconscious lying, intentional deceit, and lies of omission constitute an immense field of delusion and confusion throughout the interpersonal relationships of our daily lives.... The primary harm to yourself of not telling the truth is that after a while you forget that you are lying, and your mind becomes deluded and confused. Telling the truth is really hard: it takes courage and attention."
-- Reb Anderson, Being Upright

Months ago, at SFZC's Young Urban Zen practice group, we discussed the Buddhist principle of telling the complete truth. This is one of several behavioral "precepts" that can be interpreted in many ways. It's not made obvious whether the precepts should be followed precisely or whether they are simply nice ideals to gesture towards every once in a while. I think the best way to approach them is to try them out and see what happens. Ease into them slowly and notice whether you feel better, then step up your effort and see if you feel even better.

It's also possible to follow the precepts fanatically, just on authority, with no understanding whatsoever. You might get some benefit from this experience, but it will be exhausting. The benefit may come from making a big effort, at least superficially, to act constantly for the benefit of everyone. You may discover that altruistic actions are enjoyable and unexpectedly provide some of the happiness you have been seeking, and that will encourage you to keep going. But the experience of forcing yourself to conform to an idealistic standard, rather than finding out how to creatively and compassionately express yourself, will be frustrating.

It's better and easier to go through a process of exploration; understand why the precepts are what they are and how they can help you express your deepest needs. It may not be easy to change your attitude, but in terms of day-to-day effort there is less internal conflict and wasted energy. By understanding what the precepts mean and what your deepest needs are, you can better align your own self-expression with that of reality so that more often than not "the precepts keep themselves," to quote SFZC's founder Shunryu Suzuki.

Being truthful with yourself is a very important part of this process. Being truthful with others is practice for being truthful with yourself. Right there, you can see one way that a precept comes in handy as a tool rather than as a rule.

But many times in this process there are seeming contradictions--there are times when it seems inappropriate to tell the truth because it may be harmful or tactless. To bring up questions from YUZ, what happens if an angry person asks you to help them get revenge? You might lie to protect the other person. What happens if someone asks what you think of them? You might lie to avoid conflict.

If the precepts are thought of as rules, or as steps toward living a happy or enlightened life, then these situations are discouraging. We might think that the precepts have failed us because they have failed to cover every situation, and we might conclude that the practice of Buddhism only works sometimes. Or, we might feel disappointed in ourselves for lying in spite of our noble intention to tell the truth. In either case a deeper understanding of our situation becomes helpful.

Our situation is something like this: throughout life we have occasionally exaggerated a little or misrepresented ourselves in order to impress someone or get a little something extra. Maybe there was the occasional little lie that we justified as a harmless shortcut to get where we thought we were supposed to be going anyway. Superficially, we probably got what we wanted, so we thought we got away with it.

But did we really get off the hook? 

What we don't like to see is how small pieces of misinformation echo back and forth throughout our relationships, leading to chains of actions which necessitate more lying so we can avoid owning up to the original lies, so more actions branch out, and the process amplifies itself.

A great example to consider is that big lie we're engaged in all the time: our identity. Think about how much effort we invest in trying to convince ourselves and others who we "really" are. The original lie, beginning somewhere in forgotten childhood experience, has been echoing and cycling through our actions and relationships ever since. It transforms into new goals and desires but carries along all the emotional baggage. We've been building up vast databases in our heads to dictate how we should react in various situations and around various people in order to convince ourselves that we have an identity that makes us comfortable. These networks of actions, relationships, and ideas are so big that we cannot even begin to fathom how much control they have over our lives. We don't see that dishonest actions we pushed out into the world years ago have reflected back to us and brought about many of our present difficulties.

This "immense field of delusion and confusion" is just one example of the broader phenomenon of karma, and a little understanding of karma can help clarify the role of the precepts in our particular situation.

The concept of karma existed prior to Buddha's teachings. As I understand it (and I could be wrong), it referred to a mechanism of cosmic justice whereby people were punished or rewarded based on their moral actions. Buddha may have adopted karma into his teachings as a "skillful" way of explaining things to people in terms of an idea they already understood. To his wise disciples, the Buddha said that karma is a useful concept in life, but they should not get hung up thinking of it as an absolute reality. For comparison, when you tell someone, "That's the way the cookie crumbles," you don't mean to say that there is a real cookie governing the situation, or that the physical dynamics of a crumbling cookie directly mirror the situation at hand. In the same way, when you say, "That's karma," you're referring to the general tendency for our actions to come back to us, but not to a definite system. I make this point to dispel any philosophical speculation about physical, spiritual, or magical mechanisms of karma.

Karma can be thought of as the web of relationships, actions, and consequences that create the situations we face every day. This web is too complex to describe, so we just call it karma.

The important thing to realize is that we're responsible for our own karma, whether we caused it or not. If it's in our lives for us to deal with, then it's our responsibility. We might blame others, like our parents, for creating the situations that got the ball rolling, but we're the ones who decide whether to keep the ball rolling and make it go faster. By not understanding that even the smallest of our actions shape our future, we've blindly cultivated a very complex and frustrating system of karma for ourselves. Trying to blame it on others makes it worse. It is crucial to accept your karma as your own.

But don't take my word for it. You have to see this at work in your own life so that this becomes real for you. There are many ways to see it for yourself: meditation, therapy, keeping a diary, writing a blog, etc. Look at the ways you cling to pleasure and avoid pain. Look at the consequences of those kinds of actions: lying to avoid conflict creates a situation where you feel obligated to behave falsely and suppress your feelings. Lying to get something you can't get otherwise creates a situation where you have to worry about loss. The big picture, if you pay attention to it, will show that lies cause more problems than they solve.

Once you see that you're responsible for your present situation, then it's possible to begin working on that karma. Working on karma isn't something in your control. If anything, trying to control things is what creates karma. Instead, you have to deal with what comes as it comes without trying to cling or avoid. You have to receive the consequences of your past actions without trying to escape. That, in a sense, closes the loop of cause and effect, which removes knots from the web.

If you've been tying these knots for 20 or 30 years, then it will take a long time to make a dent in them, but it won't take too long to see small but real benefits. By reversing the habit of making things worse, you'll immediately begin to enjoy the trend toward honesty and simplicity in your relationships.

This process requires a lot of forgiveness. You have to forgive other people, rather than blaming them. You have to forgive yourself for past mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. You also have to forgive yourself for all the mistakes that you'll continue to make. It will take a while to figure things out, and the road will not be easy. That's because, in a practical sense, your karma is very real. It won't go away the moment you decide you're going to be good. You will actually have to face all the things you've been avoiding. You will actually have to let go of all the things you've held tight. Only action matters.

When you're starting on this path, the precepts are designed to help you stop spinning the web. Beyond that, the precepts are a picture of life when the web has been diminished. Following the precepts becomes natural when you've resolved the habits and misconceptions that motivated you to be dishonest with yourself in the first place. In that sense, we shouldn't assume that we're going to be able to follow the precepts right away without any difficulty. Being able to follow the precepts is actually a privileged experience that comes when you've burned through the karma that otherwise hinders you. Those situations where the precepts seem to break down or conflict are not shortcomings of Buddha's teaching; they are actually consequences of your karma. Our karma may be such that we can't follow the precepts immediately without having to suffer through tough decisions. If we've been avoiding certain kinds of uncomfortable emotions, we're going to have to face them, whether the precepts stand in the way or not.

Sometimes your karma forces you between a rock and a hard place, where there are no pleasant choices. You can accept it, do your best to do the right thing, and let this part of your karma work itself out; or you can try in vain to escape and let this part of your karma go around for another cycle.

The precepts can't save you from existing karma. It's just there. Someone has to deal with this mess. If it falls on you, then maybe it's your opportunity to bear it, move on, and make the world ever so slightly brighter. Sometimes you have the ability to make things better--which is great--but sometimes the best you can do is make the effort to not make things worse. But even that is making things better.