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The Buddha at Work - "Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Experiencing Basic Goodness"

This weekend, I finished Jonathan Franzen's Freedom on my subway rides to and from the Shambhala Center. I took the Shambhala Training Level I program which is alternately titled “The Art of Being Human” and “Ordinary Magic.” Acharya Eric Spiegel led the training.

There was some discussion of basic goodness, which Chögyam Trungpa described in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

Every human being has a basic nature of goodness, which is undiluted and unconfused. That goodness contains tremendous gentleness and appreciation. As human beings, we can make love. We can stroke someone with a gentle touch; we can kiss someone with gentle understanding. We can appreciate beauty. We can appreciate the best of this world. We can appreciate its vividness: the yellowness of yellow, the redness of red, the greenness of green, the purpleness of purple. Our experience is real...

...It is not just an arbitrary idea that the world is good, but it is good because we can experience its goodness. We can experience our world as healthy and straightforward, direct and real, because our basic nature is to go along with the goodness of situations. The human potential for intelligence and dignity is attuned to experiencing the brilliance of the bright blue sky, the freshness of green fields, and the beauty of the trees and mountains. We have an actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.”

It was auspicious, perhaps, to be reading this novel while doing this particular training. I was struck by the way Franzen's characters' vividness, their basic human goodness shone through even when their actions were less than laudable. Even the minor characters were drawn with a complexity that made it impossible for me, at least, to judge them.

Here's Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times:

Mr. Franzen delves further into the state of mind of his creations, developing them into fully imagined human beings — not Nietzschean stereotypes easily divided into categories of 'hard' (shameless, ambitious brutes) or 'soft' (pathetic, sniveling doormats); not bitter patsies fueled by ancient grudges, but confused, searching people capable of change and perhaps even transcendence...

...Mr. Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal urges. He proves himself... as skilled at holding a mirror to the world his people inhabit day by dreary day as he is at limning their messy inner lives.”

There is much more to say on Franzen's skill, on the novel's connection to basic goodness as well as bodhicitta (the novel's closing pages are as heart-opening as any I've ever read), but this discussion finds its place here because I look at it in the context of my working life. Here is a novel with an extraordinary depiction of rather ordinary human lives and the context in which they unfold; Kakutani called it, “a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times.” And yet it manages to do so without a single character who is a vampire.

As someone who works in the entertainment industry, I'm struck by the necessity of such a depiction in film and television in a way that reaches audiences, and that wakes them up to their own humanity. I've heard countless people tell me that they go to movies and watch tv to “tune out” and to “escape from their everyday lives.” Trunpga Rinpoche talks about how we create cocoons to shield ourselves:

"We prefer to hide in our personal jungles and caves. When we hide from the world in this way, we feel secure. We may think that we have quieted our fear, but we are actually making ourselves numb with fear. We surround ourselves with our own familiar thoughts, so that nothing sharp or painful can touch us. We are so afraid of our own fear that we deaden our hearts."

We deaden our hearts daily, through entertainment--our eyes glued to electronic devices--through gossip and our petty complaints that become our reasons for living, that push away the genuine glimmers of sadness that threaten to shine through.

We can look at that in ourselves; look at when we're avoiding any real experience of the world, of the yellowness of yellow. "Each of us has a variety of habitual tactics for avoiding life as it is," Pema Chödrön tells us.

Trungpa again:

"...sometimes you want to close your eyes. You don't want to look anymore. But the point is to look properly. See the colors: white, black, blue, yellow, red, green, purple. Look. This is your world! You can't not look. There is no other world. This is your world; it is your feast. You inherited this; you inherited these eyeballs; you inherited this world of color. Look at the greatness of the whole thing. Look! Don't hesitate--look! Open your eyes. Don't blink and look, look--look further."

The difficulties of the world in this very moment require this kind of attention, one that could be cultivated through films, books, and even tv shows that actually capture humanity for what it is––that allow us to see the yellowness of yellow, and to notice the humanness of humans.

These exist, for sure, but I suppose I write this with some urgency, knowing that they're generally niche products for an already-convinced audience. So where does that leave us? Certainly, individual artists may strive to bring their own craft to their work, to infuse humanity in whatever medium they're employed. But there's a desperate need for warriorship, for what Trungpa Rinpoche calls a “tradition of fearlessness.”

We must try to think beyond our homes, beyond the fire burning in the fireplace, beyond sending our children to school or getting to work in the morning. We must try to think how we can help this world. If we don't help, nobody will. It is our turn to help the world... The important point is to realize that you are never off dury. You can never just relax, because the whole world needs help.”

We don't have to be Jonathan Franzen to do something. We can help in whatever way we we can help. But because of my job, I personally look to artists and in particular, actors, writers, and directors, whose work has the potential for such a vast reach. The ability to touch millions of human beings with one's work creates an enormous opportunity for each member of an audience to get connected to his or her own basic goodness, and to truly experience the humanness of being human.

At the very least, we can step out of our cocoons long enough to experience that, even if just for a moment.

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