Friday, March 2, 2012

Zen and the Art of Temptation

Ah, our good friend temptation.  While the word may only have been around since 1175-1225 (according to, the concept is as old as Adam and Eve. 

There is an element to the concept of temptation of the forbidden.  What tempts us, often, is what we should not have.  Yesterday, for me, it was a Tim Horton's donut.  And, instead of buying just one, I bought a half-dozen convincing myself that it was a more worthwhile deal.

In the definition provided by our friend,, it is not just something we shouldn't have, it is possibly evil itself. 

1. the act of tempting; enticement or allurement.
2. something that tempts, entices, or allures.
3. the fact or state of being tempted, especially to evil.
4. an instance of this.
5. ( initial capital letter ) the temptation of Christ by Satan. Matt. 4.

In fact, as we see here, Capital T Temptation refers to the temptation of Christ by Satan.

The original temptation was the Tree of Knowledge.  Despite the common understanding of the snake as evil in the story, is wanting knowledge really evil?  Personally, I think not, but that perhaps may be a post for another day.

But I think our understanding of that story is instead not that what is wanted is evil, but the very act of wanting something we should not have itself is what is evil.

How do we deal with temptation? How do we respond to temptation? 

One way in which I know I have dealt with temptation is to rationalize that I should have the thing or person I should not have.  I take away the aspect that makes it wrong. 

I mean let's go back to that Tree of Knowledge.  What made it wrong wasn't the tree or the fruit itself.  What made it wrong was God said don't eat this.  Now the rationalization would go something like this.  If He didn't want us to have it, it wouldn't be there.  God wouldn't create something we couldn't have.  Everything God creates is beautiful and wonderful, and before you know it, I'd be eating the fruit.  And perhaps, one would aptly argue, that the thinking, the rationalization, is the evil at work, and is the snake whispering in my ear.  I don't know.

I have one good friend who annoys the crap out of me sometimes.  Often in the context of resisting temptation, I'll say something like "I'll try".  To which my non-science fiction friend will suddenly quote Yoda.  "Do.  Or do not.  There is no try."  At which point, I'm usually tempted to hang up on her, but resist that.

In thinking about that this morning, I googled Yoda's quote to get it right.  And then started thinking about what he says, and how very zen like it is, and discover I'm surprisingly not the first to make that connection. 

And in my browsing, I came across one site that reminded me that the essence of Buddhism is "the elimination of suffering".  And in giving examples of suffering, the page stated that the desire for something that one can't have can cause suffering.

The Serenity Prayer is actually very zen-like.  It asks God for acceptance of the things we cannot change. 

The reality is that I could have the donut.  In fact, as I already admitted above, I bought six.  (Now suddenly, I'm hungry for a donut.  Luckily, there are still three left... )

But Eve wasn't really hungry.  She was curious, perhaps, but not hungry. 

I have already written that resistance is futile.  The donuts in my kitchen are an example of that.

So do we just give in to temptation whenever it arises?  Regardless of the consequences? 

I don't think that is the answer either.  Suffering is caused by wanting the things we cannot have. 

Another connection to Buddhism made by these folks who already thought this through before me was all of the references made to "clearing your mind" of your own voice or to "let go". 

I think the way in which we should respond to temptation is to think of all the reasons we do not want what we think we desire.  That's where the consequences come in.  If Eve was able to get past that moment of curiosity and thus the desire of the Tree and really think through what that action would result in - God's wrath - would she have still wanted it? 

The problem about consequences is that sometimes they are hard to see in advance.  Yes, if I eat six donuts in one sitting, I can expect tummy rot.  I will need to work a little harder at the gym.  Although one would argue that one day of six donuts would not make me suddenly balloon out - and that little rationalization is how chronic poor choices start.  No, one day won't, but repeating the pattern might.  Will eating these donuts today make me eat donuts tomorrow?  Who knows?  Well, I do in this instance since as I mentioned there are three out there calling to me now.

When I was young, as I mentioned, I was in a long distance relationship, and it was hard.  I was lonely.  And there was temptation around me.  Eventually, I succumbed.  I am not proud of this.  I was not proud of this then. I am not sure, though, that I could have made a different choice then.  I was unhappy.  I was lonely.  I really needed to end the first relationship, but I didn't know how to or want to.  I wanted it to work.  Yes, I understand how starting up with someone else is not the key to a successful relationship. 

If I had been able to look at all of it.  If I had been able to step back and clear my mind and think through it clearly, I would have seen the following:  I want to be with Person A.  And I want to be with Person B.  Person A is not here for me, and has not been here for me emotionally or physically in a while.  I want Person A to be here for me.  I can't have that.  I can have Person B. 

With 20-20 hindsight, I would have added one more element, I do not want to hurt Person A. 

In the end I chose Person B, and I lost Person A as a result of that choice.  I don't regret that consequence.  I loved Person B very deeply and we had a much more viable relationship than I had with Person A. 

What I do regret is that the choice I made and how I made it hurt Person A. 

Now Person A and Person B are long gone and I have been in relationships since, even that one long-term one that lasted ove ra quarter of my life and ended badly.  I admit that I have been tempted again by the allure of someone new while with someone old. 

And what I always remember when I am is the pain that I inflicted on Person A.  I have understood that when I am tempted by someone new that it is a sign that there is something I need to deal with someone old.  Because someone old is important to me, I have found that I do not want someone new.  In weighing what I want, I know that I do not want to cause pain and suffering to someone I love dearly.

In writing all of this out today, having not had that relationship last or be without pain, I am rethinking through even that long held conviction.  It may be that by the time I am tempted it is too late.  That the seeds for that pain have already been planted.   Because when I was tempted at the end of my last relationship, it was already the end.  It took three years for it to explode, but our relationship was over at that point. 

I still wouldn't do it any differently, though.  I still believe that if I am tempted by someone else, it is a sign that I need to focus on the relationship I am in.  It may be, though, that what I need to do if this situaton arises again is evaluate that relationship more deeply and decide whether it is time to move on.  I don't think that I spared my partner any pain by not cheating.  I think I only pulled the band-aid off more slowly.

Temptation is about desire for something one should not have.  Desire for something one cannot have causes suffering.  Should and cannot are different words.  I think the answer when confronted with temptation is to clear your mind, as the Jedis instruct, and figure out what it is that you really want.  Why is this particular thing or person tempting?  Do I really want a donut? Or am I looking for comfort food? Or a sugar jolt to get me through the afternoon?  What is it that I really need or want?  How can I satisfy that?  And then, lastly, will the thing or person I desire satisfy that want or need and is it the best way to satisfy that?  That examination will lead you to your heart's true desire. 

Resistance is futile. 

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