This question of denial or deferral also reminds me of an incident that happened at a large conference of Buddhist meditation teachers and Catholic monastics I attended years ago. Pope John Paul II had recently issued some papal document that seemed to denigrate meditation practice, arguing that it was a narcissistic avoidance mechanism, a way of blissing out of this world, possibly a dangerous form of self-obsession or self-indulgence, like a drug. One of the Catholic brothers mentioned this view and challenged a Buddhist to defend meditation, so I immediately rose to speak about how meditation was not a drug; no, no, it was the opposite of a drug, it promoted mindfulness, clarity, clear truthful seeing, wisdom, knowledge, compassion… anyway I went on in this vein. After I had spoken, Joseph Goldstein, the Western Buddhist pioneer, who happened to be my roommate for the conference, rose to differ. “What’s wrong with a drug?” he began. “Don’t we need a drug sometimes? To cure us when we are ill, to relieve our pain, to give us a break when the going gets tough?”

In any case, yes, we need all sorts of things, different things at different times, and in spiritual matters we need to be practical and flexible. Spiritual practice is nutrition for the soul, and you can neither cook nor eat while you are weeping. Cooking requires some happiness, and happiness may require letting things slide from time to time, so that we can get a little relief from the seriousness of our troubles. In The Odyssey it’s interesting that Helen, whose beauty had been the cause of all this grief in the first place (for it was her abduction by the Trojan Paris from her husband Menelaus’ household that precipitated the war), calms down the extravagant display of weeping by Menelaus and Telemachus. She slips a grief-dissolving potion into the men’s wine, so that they can pull themselves together and get on with the royal dinner party. Under the influence of her drug, Menelaus eventually recovers his composure, and gets on with his tale.

Excerpted from Sailing Home by Norman Fischer. © 2008 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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