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Ming Zhen Shakya

Living out a Fantasy

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Joseph Campbell was famous for telling people, "Follow your bliss!" It is one of those dictums that encourage the hesitant soul to pursue the heart's desire.

A natural and constructive involvement in any field of interest that gives us joy and satisfaction is the bliss Campbell had in mind. A change in lifestyle is not necessarily required. Sometimes following bliss means sticking to whatever we're doing that we already thoroughly enjoy. Usually, though, the advice is intended to encourage us to embrace vocationally that which previously had been mere avocation. So long as the change, no matter how seemingly radical, reflects the heart's purity of motive, it qualifies as following bliss.

But there is another change that merely masquerades as one that is beneficial and filled with such promise - this is the foolish, bizarre event we call, "living out a fantasy."

Both 'quests' can critically alter occupation, income, social position, place of residence, and so on. Change is the stuff of drama; and through various media we learn about the adventures of those who change their life so unexpectedly. The drama provides us with knowledge after the fact when we can readily gauge failure or success.

For the wise man, following his bliss is good advice. Often, however, we don't recognize good advice when we hear it or know the difference between our heart's desire and our ego's fancy. Wisdom lies in awareness, anticipation, a look ahead through insightful eyes, and the good sense to proceed with caution. The information we need, therefore, is ante not post. How do we tell the difference between following bliss and living out a fantasy?

The question is not simply one of academic interest. Bliss-following usually succeeds; and fantasy-following usually fails. In the latter case, if it were only our own time, effort, or fortune that was lost, we'd experience one of those stunned awakenings that make us shake our head in wonderment and ask, "What was I thinking?" Unfortunately, other people may have invested in our misbegotten plans. For it is a peculiarity of 'living out a fantasy' that the enthusiasm it generates is so contagious that the fantasy goal often seems not only plausible but probable of fulfillment. Few schemes are as attractive as those that are improbable.

Two illustrations from the world of photography should serve to illustrate the difference between a change made as the intelligent fulfillment of a blissful desire and one that is made under egoistic delusion.

A neighbor of mine, an appliance salesman, decided, after thirty years of employment with the same store, that he'd buy an established photography studio in his old home town. His children were grown and he felt free to pursue his hobby - which we all knew was photography. He developed his own film at home and often took portrait shots of friends and relatives that he gave as gifts. He was unquestionably talented.

I talked to him the day he put his house up for sale. He was clearly apprehensive about making the move, especially since his family was opposed to it. He knew the problems he faced - the debt he was incurring to relocate and buy the studio, and all the daunting details: the record keeping, the advertising, the day-to-day management of a business. "It's just that photography's always been my passion," he explained, "and it's time I took the step." I asked him why he hadn't pursued it as a career years earlier. "I never even considered it," he said. "There was so much to learn, and," he said slyly, "I needed more time to work out the magic of a picture."

This reference to an ineffable "magic" intrigued me, and he explained, "Anybody with a camera and a beautiful woman can take a photograph of a beautiful woman. Skill comes in taking a woman who is not beautiful and making her look beautiful; but art - the magic of it - comes in being able to find something interior in a woman that is beautiful - the expression of some fascinating quality that would render her face irrelevant. You find that mysterious quality when you study a face and let yourself fall into a kind of trance. You can do the same with apples."

I never forgot this explanation. I had never really understood portraiture or 'still life' art enough to know what I didn't know. Quality had always seemed dependent upon representational merits; and his remark directed me to that insight that I hadn't understood, the transcendental aspect of creative art. I asked, "How do you feel after you find the magic in an image?" He smiled. "Like a lunatic...just incredibly happy."

He left town; but a few years later, he returned for a visit; and we spoke again. He had devoted himself to photographing brides, babies, and pets. There was magic in it all. "Not much money," he said, "just magic." He was content to be an independent, small town photographer. "I like to keep it simple - a personal thing," he said; and I said I understood. By personal he meant sacred, and that was why he loved his work.

The bliss-follower seeks the discipline that comes with identifying himself as one who lives by the products of his art or craft. If photography is his bliss, he needs to experience that sense of duty that accommodates a need. An amateur can take a picture... or not. An amateur can take a thousand pictures and if he doesn't like them, he can put them all in a drawer... or not. But when each photograph counts, when more than the artist's temperament depends on the result, when the person who's being photographed exists as a critical entity, a higher level of awareness, of involvement, of performance is reached. The bliss-follower doesn't seek to get rich. He seeks to get serious.

We encounter the identical situation in the religious life. We have 'amateur' clergy who serve...or not, depending on their mood. And then we have others who consistently sacrifice their own interests dutifully filling a need.

Living out a fantasy is in no way related to following bliss. Fantasy locks us into the "I, me, mine" world of the ego. We don't look for the magic in the act of doing, we look for it in the act of being - not in taking pictures but in being regarded as photographers.

Contrast the experience of the real photographer with one who tried to live out a fantasy.

We used to have a member of the sangha who belonged to a theatre group. Because of a family relationship to a movie star, he had spent time on movie sets and knew cinema jargon. Unfortunately, he was neither a trained actor nor a talented one; and so he was given to gripe about the superiority of filmed performances over live ones. Besides acting, he took publicity pictures for the company; but none of the players liked his work and often said so.

At the conclusion of one particularly inept performance, the other actors refused to appear with him and, after the requisite histrionics, he was released from the company. Embarrassed, he called me and complained how they didn't understand acting or photography. He had tried his hand at many occupations, the current one being a wall-to-wall carpet installer. This job, understandably, did not satisfy his esthetic sensibilities; and when he saw an advertisement in the paper for an experienced photographer who liked to travel, he replied to the ad.

Seized now with the passion of creating art and with identifying himself as a professional artist, he signed a contract with a photography company to complete an itinerary of promotional offerings at a list of mid-west shopping malls. He'd set up his equipment and backdrop, and for three to five days per store, he'd take six shots of each subject. The film development and print production were contracted to others.

He knew nothing about commercial photography or life on the road. But he quit his job telling everyone that since this company wanted him he might as well 'take the plunge.' To him, the employment confirmed his proficiency. In fact, it did the opposite. Because life on the road was so awful the company couldn't hire a good photographer. His only qualifications were his ineptitude and his inflatable ego.

The fantasy took hold of him. His business acumen suddenly became acute. He could earn enough from this contract to return home and open a studio for "glamour shots" of ordinary women who wanted to give their men a calendar-style sexy photograph. His girlfriend thought this was a great idea and already knew many women who'd be eager clients. And why did they have to wait? He owned a pickup truck and planned to buy a small house trailer for his new job, but what if they got a larger trailer that could double as a studio, with a portable dark room? She could go with him. He could get business cards printed with a cell-phone number and hand them out to each house frau that he photographed on the 'tour.' And his girlfriend could greet the client, collect the money, arrange the pose and be there to act as assistant, giving the women a sense of security. He'd train her in photography and when they returned and opened their studio she'd be a full partner.

The mobile home would pay for itself - plus they'd never have to pack and unpack, never have to scout out vacancy signs, never have to pay for restaurant meals and tips. They could take side trips to see the sights. Giddy, they made a list of people and places they wanted to visit.

It hadn't taken his girlfriend long to succumb to his contagious enthusiasm and for her mother to succumb to hers. Assured that she could be the receptionist at the new studio, the lady withdrew money from her savings for them to use as a down payment on the house trailer. He and his girlfriend co-signed a note for the balance due.

"I have realized my dream," he said with the dignity and determination of one who has yet to fall asleep.

The contract commenced in June, in Topeka, Kansas. He took one uninspired photograph after another, but before the proofs were received by one set of customers, he was a safe distance away, clicking at another. The quick departure, however, undid the glamour-shot business. He was not in any town long enough for a woman to schedule the necessary beauty shop appointment.

Agony characterized life in the mobile home. Citing insurance issues, the malls denied them permission to stay overnight in the parking lot; and they had to retreat to highway rest areas, the hospitality of which they shared with poultry, pig, and cattle trucks. The heat at night was oppressive. They could not run the air conditioning without running the engine; and when they left the windows open they let in the noises and smells of the livestock. Often they stayed at motels to bathe and sleep. Their credit card bills grew, and they were unable to make payments on the mobile home. She began to argue and he began to drink. By mid-August not even her name on the note was enough to induce her to stay. At a truck stop, she hitched a ride and came home.

A few months later he returned to town, deep in debt. He had lost his girl, the mobile home was repossessed, and her mother lost her investment. As far as his brilliant career as a professional photographer was concerned, it had cost him more money to do what he now despised doing than he had earned doing it.

Bliss is a loaded word that contains an ethereal element. We have to feel uncommon joy in what we do. Being disgusted with our current situation and throwing a "Hail Mary" pass into the future is not bliss-following, and neither is exploiting what is merely a casual interest.

A person who cannot resist the impulse to live out a fantasy is a threat to any social organization, but he is particularly dangerous in to religious groups that have no strong central government, independent groups such as Zen Buddhist organizations..

Someone with a true ministerial aptitude serves, dutifully responding to need. If he's formally 'called' to the ministry, he studies and, under the guidance of ecclesiastical superiors, is ordained. Following the bliss of his spiritual path, he begins his career usually by starting his own sangha. Little by little he gains a following until he has an organized congregation. And then, if he's unlucky, a member of the group will suddenly be stricken with the need to live out a fantasy.

In this imagined drama, the layman plays the role of a great priest. He is congenial. He is eloquent. He is loved. Famous religious leaders confer with him. He is a magnet to all truth-seekers. His congregation swells - as do his fame, income and influence.

Emboldened by his fantasy, he attends meetings and scoffs. What does the priest know that he doesn't know? Anybody can read a sutra. What does the priest do but lead a few chants and meditation sessions? He can do that just as well... or better.

Then he commences to infect others. If he has a higher degree of education than the priest, he expresses his regret at the priest's intellectual limitations. If he dresses better than the priest, he laments the priest's lack of sartorial splendor. No inadequacy remains unexplored. On and on the criticisms go.

And as he reasons he whispers. He sees attractive but impractical ways to improve the facilities; stimulate donations; increase attendance; generate publicity; and so on. The priest's slightest resistance to these schemes is viewed as obstinacy, a symptom of incompetence.

Soon there is controversy and divisiveness in the congregation. Soon there is the contagious enthusiasm that attends 'living out a fantasy.' A splinter group forms, and he is the new leader of the "true" way. Ludicrous titles are assigned, articles of incorporation filed, a hall is leased, a phone installed, equipment and furniture ordered, press releases filed. Much time is spent designing logos and letterheads.

But as quickly as the fantasy-driven group forms, it begins to disintegrate. Nobody reckoned on the work, knowledge, devotion, or the acceptance of poverty the priesthood demands. Who will assist a needy family? Help someone find a job? Write letters of recommendation? Make sick calls? Instruct newcomers? Counsel the wayward or distressed? Who will answer the phone in the middle of the night? Clean the hall? Repair the cushions and mats? Who will mediate disputes between partners or spouses? Comfort the grieving? Bless a new house? Say prayers over the dead? Who will write the Dharma talks that help people cope with life and inspire them to stay on the Path? No one. No one is prepared to do the work of the priest. Work is never part of living out a fantasy.

Those who invested in the sham ministry will pay for it with real dollars.

The vector for this contagion is human suggestibility and those who succumb are those who are vulnerable. We know the power of suggestion. At a late meeting, one yawn spawns a dozen. A situation comedy that is not particularly funny inspires laughter by a mechanically imposed "laugh-track". Snickers, guffaws, rollicking laughter are all inserted in the hope that their suggestive contagion will make what is dull seem hilarious. But not everybody yawns or laughs. And not everybody buys into a fantasy. Investment requires susceptibility - the victim desires wealth, fame, or power and is hooked by the promise of it.

How do we recognize a fantasy impulse - our own or someone else's - when we begin to experience it?

The first phase of emotional involvement is fascination. We are interested, and interest is a nascent form of desire. Unconsciously, we are looking for something, and we sense we may have found it. It is at this precise point that we have to reason with ourselves and determine what is actually motivating us to initiate a venture or to invest in one. What egotistical need are we trying to satisfy? Is it greed? Is it anger? Jealousy? Pride? Is it lust for power? Maybe we want more of everything we already have enough of. Whatever it is, our desire is attaching us to a samsaric goal. Zen requires "detachment" and when we enlist in causes of any kind, we are far from detached. When we trace the line of our desire back to its origin we can sever it.

And if we fail to stop ourselves when it is easy to do so, we can still try to recognize the symptoms of fantasy quests, expansiveness being the most reliable indicator. The person who is under the spell of a fantasy is fearless and excited, his gestures and expressions exaggerated. His hands are open, and often his eyebrows arch and his shoulders shrug. "Why not?" he seems always to be asking. He sees opportunities multiply like bacteria in a Petrie dish. An outlet becomes a chain; an idea becomes a franchise. He breathes quickly and is quick to smile. His eyes are wide. He salivates. He is positive about everything; and, however low he keeps his voice, he is loquacious. He sweeps away doubt, boldly proceeding to solve in advance every possible problem that someone might suggest. He is generous in his desire to share power, fame and wealth. Everyone will benefit! His euphoria is such that he exudes goodness and love. He's is everyman's savior.

The person who decides to follow his bliss is just the opposite: he is apprehensive, cautious, anxious. He contracts rather than expands. His hands and jaw are clenched. Dreaded possibilities form a mantra... "What if...? What if...?" He knows that everything depends upon him, and he prefers to be alone in the venture than to share the responsibility of it. He wants to limit the effects of failure and the fewer people who depend upon his success, the better. His brow is furled, his eyes narrowed. As if he is scaling a cliff, he is focused on the next step of a sequence he has carefully planned. He's "on edge" because he respects and fears the unexpected. What leads him forward is the love he already feels for the Grail he seeks to hold.

When someone truly loves what he's doing - loves it enough to sacrifice and to humble himself for it, he ought to follow his bliss. But when the quest is the other kind... when he is merely seeking to ennoble or enrich himself, to preen with the glory of a role he plans to play, he needs to wrench himself free from the fantasy. He needs to quarantine himself from the contagious excitement, to sober up and in the cold hard morning light of enthusiasm's hangover he needs to re-assess the odds and separate the facts from the fictions. "What was I thinking?" is a painful thought. Even more painful is "What am I thinking?"

Which is why Zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire. 


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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