The Garden of Eden Never Was, but Always Might Be

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What do the Garden of Eden and the Buddhist notion of Samsara have in common?

The seed of both concepts can be found in a feeling I had, many years ago, when I worked in a charmless, fluorescent-lit Dept. of Education office in Brooklyn. In the afternoons, while my blood sugar plummeted, I’d sit back and contemplate other life paths while the emails piled up: teaching abroad, writing upstate, or getting promoted (ha!). While riding back to my home on an overcrowded F train, I’d console myself by staring not into my neighbors’ ear holes (those were the days!), but into an absorptive fantasy where I was living in Vermont and somehow both a writer and wealthy.

This longing for an improvement upon the present is a defining trait of being human and, in very different ways, Christianity and Buddhism try to explain it (as does science). As a former Catholic, I’ve been reflecting lately on a foundational explanation for this sense of displacement, or the feeling that we aren’t quite where we belong. You don’t have to read far — it’s in the book of Genesis. The Garden of Eden. The original MAGA.

To Buddhists, this basic longing is not explained by an origin story but rather by the notion of samsara, our ill-begotten search for permanent pleasure, security, and certainty. Samsara is cyclical because it’s a futile search. We do find pleasure but things change and we never stay right where we want to.
Yet, unlike some religious takes (and a common misinterpretation of Buddhism), the problem is not that we have desire, but rather that we so quickly disconnect from our bodies as soon as we want something. We “attach” wholly to what we want whether that is the desire to win an argument or have a better body, rather than remain, even briefly, with the wanting itself.

To quote the Zen Buddhist teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck , the “secret” of spiritual life is the choice “ …to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment — even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness.

When success, physical independence, and clear direction eluded me during my health crisis, I always had one remaining option: “to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment.” There, I could “rest” with my longing for improvement. I could feel this hollow space in me that I desperately wanted to fill. Some origin stories, like the Garden of Eden, have likely complicated our feelings of dis-ease. Judgment and shame often pile onto our feelings of dissatisfaction or downright crappiness.

Having grown up in churches (and having been endlessly bored in them and looking around), I loved much of the Christian imagery I saw. This is certainly true of the lush, haunting paintings of the Garden of Eden. But I now think of the Garden of Eden not as a place we were once flung from, but a germ of dissatisfaction that was indulged in and glorified in the minds and artworks of early Christians. Our longing for paradise must be proof that we once were there. The Garden is elaborated upon a feeling, nearly always present, that a more perfect existence awaits. If only we hadn’t eaten that damned apple!

Buddhism acknowledges this germ of dissatisfaction within all of us. However, we don’t need to spin that germ further into solid-seeming worlds. The Garden of Eden appeals to nostalgia, based on a sense that we don’t quite belong here. Make Life Perfect Again.

But we didn’t eat the apple, and we didn’t destroy perfection. We are biased, through evolution, to always strive for a more secure, certain, and comfortable future. That helped us build roofs, walls, and pacifier latches. We worry about what’s open-ended and unknown. It helped us survive, but it doesn’t help us thrive. To do that, we need to keep practicing being fully here. From The Odyssey to Star Trek, it’s a defining characteristic of being a human to have a sense of being cast out from the lush garden.

But the garden isn’t a memory; it’s a wish.

- -

Practice advice
Here, we are building off of last week’s “ The Difference between a Wish and a Worry.
When you find yourself wanting something: air conditioning, a new gadget, or a night off from parenting, try the following practice:

  • Acknowledge the thoughts (i.e. ‘Thinking about iPhone 11’) and feel into your body, especially your face, chest, and belly.
  • Ask yourself: Can I feel this desire for another five seconds?
  • And another five seconds?
  • What did you notice? You can label each sensation — excitement, tight throat, nervous belly, mania, etc. It’s helpful to unpack “desire” into some of its constituents.

The point is not to always deprive yourself of the object of desire, but to grow your willingness to feel desire without habitually reacting to it. In my book, desire isn’t inherently bad. It’s been around since the beginning and it won’t be quenched. But we can learn to ride it with mindfulness.

Focus & Relax, Tonight, Monday, August 10 at 8 PM. Register !
Note: F & R will take place next Monday, August 17, and then it will take a holiday for the rest of August, so I can rest and plan for the fall.
www.dancayer.co

What do the Garden of Eden and the Buddhist notion of Samsara have in common?

The seed of both concepts can be found in a feeling I had, many years ago, when I worked in a charmless, fluorescent-lit Dept. of Education office in Brooklyn. In the afternoons, while my blood sugar plummeted, I’d sit back and contemplate other life paths while the emails piled up: teaching abroad, writing upstate, or getting promoted (ha!). While riding back to my home on an overcrowded F train, I’d console myself by staring not into my neighbors’ ear holes (those were the days!), but into an absorptive fantasy where I was living in Vermont and somehow both a writer and wealthy.

This longing for an improvement upon the present is a defining trait of being human and, in very different ways, Christianity and Buddhism try to explain it (as does science). As a former Catholic, I’ve been reflecting lately on a foundational explanation for this sense of displacement, or the feeling that we aren’t quite where we belong. You don’t have to read far — it’s in the book of Genesis. The Garden of Eden. The original MAGA.

To Buddhists, this basic longing is not explained by an origin story but rather by the notion of samsara, our ill-begotten search for permanent pleasure, security, and certainty. Samsara is cyclical because it’s a futile search. We do find pleasure but things change and we never stay right where we want to.
Yet, unlike some religious takes (and a common misinterpretation of Buddhism), the problem is not that we have desire, but rather that we so quickly disconnect from our bodies as soon as we want something. We “attach” wholly to what we want whether that is the desire to win an argument or have a better body, rather than remain, even briefly, with the wanting itself.

To quote the Zen Buddhist teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck , the “secret” of spiritual life is the choice “ …to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment — even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness.

When success, physical independence, and clear direction eluded me during my health crisis, I always had one remaining option: “to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment.” There, I could “rest” with my longing for improvement. I could feel this hollow space in me that I desperately wanted to fill. Some origin stories, like the Garden of Eden, have likely complicated our feelings of dis-ease. Judgment and shame often pile onto our feelings of dissatisfaction or downright crappiness.

Having grown up in churches (and having been endlessly bored in them and looking around), I loved much of the Christian imagery I saw. This is certainly true of the lush, haunting paintings of the Garden of Eden. But I now think of the Garden of Eden not as a place we were once flung from, but a germ of dissatisfaction that was indulged in and glorified in the minds and artworks of early Christians. Our longing for paradise must be proof that we once were there. The Garden is elaborated upon a feeling, nearly always present, that a more perfect existence awaits. If only we hadn’t eaten that damned apple!

Buddhism acknowledges this germ of dissatisfaction within all of us. However, we don’t need to spin that germ further into solid-seeming worlds. The Garden of Eden appeals to nostalgia, based on a sense that we don’t quite belong here. Make Life Perfect Again.

But we didn’t eat the apple, and we didn’t destroy perfection. We are biased, through evolution, to always strive for a more secure, certain, and comfortable future. That helped us build roofs, walls, and pacifier latches. We worry about what’s open-ended and unknown. It helped us survive, but it doesn’t help us thrive. To do that, we need to keep practicing being fully here. From The Odyssey to Star Trek, it’s a defining characteristic of being a human to have a sense of being cast out from the lush garden.

But the garden isn’t a memory; it’s a wish.

- -

Practice advice
Here, we are building off of last week’s “ The Difference between a Wish and a Worry.
When you find yourself wanting something: air conditioning, a new gadget, or a night off from parenting, try the following practice:

  • Acknowledge the thoughts (i.e. ‘Thinking about iPhone 11’) and feel into your body, especially your face, chest, and belly.
  • Ask yourself: Can I feel this desire for another five seconds?
  • And another five seconds?
  • What did you notice? You can label each sensation — excitement, tight throat, nervous belly, mania, etc. It’s helpful to unpack “desire” into some of its constituents.

The point is not to always deprive yourself of the object of desire, but to grow your willingness to feel desire without habitually reacting to it. In my book, desire isn’t inherently bad. It’s been around since the beginning and it won’t be quenched. But we can learn to ride it with mindfulness.

Focus & Relax, Tonight, Monday, August 10 at 8 PM. Register !
Note: F & R will take place next Monday, August 17, and then it will take a holiday for the rest of August, so I can rest and plan for the fall.
www.dancayer.co

Originally published at https://www.dancayer.co on August 10, 2020.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness. dancayer.co

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