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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
buddhadharma| 77 |spring 2007 ibecame a scientist because I wanted to understand how the mind works – how an entire consciousness can reside within a modestlysized gelatinous mass of cells. What I actually learned during my short career as a neurobiologist and geneticist was how little we understand of the human experience. I couldn’t find myself in the convolutions of the cere bral cortex or the mechanisms of signal transduction. And, although I wanted to, I couldn’t find a home within the sci entific mindset. I didn’t enjoy debating a point; I didn’t think being a professor was the ideal use of my life. And I was devastated by the suspense of actually conducting experiments: years of labor might – or might not, in my case – yield a discovery worthy of publication. I was in a vibrant lab headed by a brilliant investi gator, at a worldclass research university, but as the days and years wore on, I felt unmotivated, then resentful, and then strangely proud of how bitter and burned out I’d become. I developed a spectrum of stressrelated medical problems: my jaw spasmed, my lungs constricted, and my heart pounded; I couldn’t sleep at night or stay awake during the day. My original question about what it meant to be human had somehow led to becom ing inhuman. I had wanted to study the mind, and I was losing it instead. After spending years within a mecha nistic paradigm of human existence, zazen returned me to the original question of what it is to be alive and aware. Perhaps by coincidence, my experiments started to work. I published a paper, received my Ph.D., and went to live fulltime in a Zen monastery. Ajahn Sumedho’s powerful little book, The Way It Is, found me as I came full circle again: a familiar bitterness and stagnation had settled over me, now in the monastery rather than the labora tory. After months of living under oth ers’ authority, following an unrelenting schedule, and having little personal time or space, even the heartiest practitioner may flag. My own response to the inevi table discomforts of the monastic life was to attack them. As far as I was concerned, my mind was real, the various assaults on my self were real, and the notion that pain could be vanquished by concerted effort was real. Faced with this new/old difficulty, I began to suspect that neither academia nor monasticism was any more flawed than my own mind. If I could be miserable in the lab and miserable in the monastery, maybe I needed do something other than critique my surroundings. The Way It Is pointed me in the direction that I needed to look – at the nature of the thoughts and feelings I was taking so seriously. The book is a compilation of talks given by Ajahn Sumedho, mostly in the 1980s, to monastics at Amaravati, a Theravada monastery in England. It is not “inspirational”; it does not offer solace or the assurance of a deeper meaning to life. Ajahn Sumedho tells his audience to forget about finding comfort, or anything else, through practice. “Inspiration,” he says, “is like eating chocolate: it tastes good and it’s very attractive, but it’s not going to nourish you; it only energizes sHugetsu delia garigan Has lived in Zen prac- tice centers in california and oregon and cur- rently works as a copy editor and tutor in portland, oregon. an antidote to Bitterness the way it is By ajahn sumedho amaravati Buddhist Monastery, 1990 in print reviewed by delia Garigan dharMa ClassiC