Monday, February 19, 2018

Zen and The Art of Antifragility

Recently, I read a book by professor Nassim Taleb called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.  In the book, Taleb argues that there are three types of systems in the world.

There are fragile systems that break under stress, robust systems that are strong enough to resist stress, and antifragile systems which actually become stronger under stress.  

He spends a majority of the book describing what antifragile, economic systems look like, and encouraging readers to become antifragile in their personal lives.

It's an interesting read from the standpoint of economics, however, it also gave me a lot to think about from the standpoint of spirituality.  After all, what is spirituality if not the study of stress/ suffering and how to cope with it?

What is Zen, if not the art of antifragility?

When one looks out into the world, it's obvious that most people live as fragile beings.  That is to say, in the face of suffering they recoil for fear that they can't withstand the beating.  If we're honest, all of us have been fragile at some point in our lives.  

After all it's instinctive to run towards pleasure, and to hide from pain.  In fact, I would call it a national past time in the United States.  We numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol, we "veg out" in front of the TV, and we do everything in our power to not feel anything unpleasant in our daily lives.

But this is a losing gambit; akin to eating cotton candy when you're hungry.  Yes, it may be pleasurable in the short term, but the end result is sickness, and lack of fulfillment if you never find real food.

In contrast, some people work to make themselves more robust in the face of suffering.  They accumulate money and possessions, read self-help books, and gain status in the hope that having the right car, job, clothes, etc. will make them spiritually bullet proof.  This isn't a ridiculous notion.

Common sense tells us that life is easier when you have money in your bank account.  

However, it's important to note the limits of this approach.  It doesn't matter how strong your reputation or finances become; life will always be stronger. Eventually, there will be a bill that can't be paid or a friend that betrays you. Reputations crumble over time like a sand castle in heavy winds. Thus, robustness is not a winning strategy in the face of suffering.

Thankfully, Buddha gives us a third option.  He teaches us to become antifragile, and helps us grow stronger in times of difficulty.  He does this by speaking very plainly about our present condition.  That's why the first noble truth states, "Life is suffering."

This isn't meant to be discouraging.  Rather, it's a simple statement of fact.  And the sooner we learn to accept this  fact, the sooner we learn to work skillfully with our pain.  In other words, the problem with fragile and robust people is that they see hardship as something to be avoided or overcome.  

In contrast, the antifragile person sees hardship as fuel, which strengthens their Buddhist practice.

In every moment, life is giving us a choice.  The crying baby can be the cause of anger, or a chance to practice patience.  The rude family member can be a source of sorrow, or the chance to practice equanimity.  

Will suffering kill us, or will it make us stronger?  Buddhism lets us choose our fate.

It does that by helping us to live fully and completely in the moment regardless of what that moment contains.  As we become increasingly antifragile, the fear and anxiety that normally accompanies hardship is replaced with contentment and inner peace.  

At times, we even rejoice in our pain because we know it's moving us closer to enlightenment.

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Zen and The Art of Antifragility

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