Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

Much ado about little. Dithering and inconsistent. Gentle, sensitive, yet eager to excuse himself and others in seriously bad choices. Far too much Wittgenstein.

Psychoanalyst Barry Magid's Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, subtitled "A Zen Guide", may be goal-less, which is good at times. But it also comes across as pointless. As Magid himself observes in Chapter Two ("The Zen Way, the Psychoanalytic Way"), both Zen and psychoanalysis are quite "useless". That is not necessarily the most persuasive starting point if one wants to share insights with readers, even if the key insight is vast emptiness itself. And if an author doesn't want to share insights, then why should a reader bother to turn the pages?

Magid does, in spite of his pledge, sometimes try to point at the moon. But then he gets in the way of it. For instance, in Chapter Three ("Ordinary Life"):

Zen practice can redeem the ordinariness of our lives and return us to a natural richness, simplicity, and creativity that we have long imagined could only be ours by becoming special, by attaining enlightenment or some other exotic state of consciousness that once and for all will turn us into a wholly different kind of being. Deep down, we don't want to be a human being, because being human means being subject to all the inevitable pain and suffering of being human. Our bodies are subject to change. We can grow and develop, and we can exercise and become strong and fit. But all of us will also eventually grow weak and sick and helpless, some sooner than others, for reasons that may not be under the control of the best of our diets, exercises, or fitness programs. What then? Have we somehow failed? Sadly, many people would rather treat the inevitable consequences of being human as a failure of their project of perfection in one of its many guises than admit that the most basic things about life are not, and never have been, under our control.

That's unfortunately typical, on-the-one-hand on-the-other-hand illogic. Flat prose is aimed at straw-man targets. Though one wouldn't know it from this book, there are options between perfect success and utter failure, between godlike transcendence and abyssmal ignorance.

The best take-away, perhaps, from Ending the Pursuit of Happiness is a personal note in Chapter Eight ("Who, What, and Why"):

Some years ago, my wife Debbie died in a plane crash. When I told my teacher what happened, I said that the one thing I never wanted to hear from her or anybody else is that this had any meaning whatsoever. No unseen plan could justify it. No subsequent good could give it meaning. Death happens. For me, the "why" simply disappears into brute fact. Yet the consequence is that disappearance isn't grim resignation. It is liberation into a simultaneously problematic and problem-free life; it is not a problem to have problems, and problems are no longer separate from the rest of our life.

Well, maybe. Or maybe "meaning" doesn't mean what Magid thinks it means.

Could it be the lens of psychoanalytic doctrine that distorts his view? Hard to say. Magid's teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, somehow is both radically different and significantly more skillful in hinting at Zen caverns to explore. Likewise Shunryu Suzuki, who for instance suggests simply embracing "things as it is". Much to ponder there. Maybe not so much in Magid's book, alas.

^z - 2014-10-30