We all like things to be regular, and what’s wrong with that, you might reasonably ask? We all want stable conditions as well. We don’t want anything to change, either — we want it to stay the same — or more or less, always.
Having a regular job, regular meals and somewhere regular to sleep at night can only be good, better than sleeping in a ditch and being hungry all the time. The gravedigger at Drewsteignton preferred to sleep under a hedge, he told me, because a roof ‘made the place stuffy,’ but he was an unusual man.
But these are all physical conditions, and though they can strongly affect the way we behave and think (our views and opinions), we must be careful that they do not blind us to what is really happening. It is not so much what we have, but what we depend upon having, now and in the future, that gives us problems.
How often, acting upon our need for comfort and security, do we sacrifice our freedom and happiness? An old friend used rather ruthlessly to extract from people what they really wanted; it was often living in the South Seas in those days, though that sounds rather old hat now, with modern air travel. He then explained to them how easily they could fulfil their dreams. In virtually every case, he told me, they invented a thousand feeble excuses why they couldn’t. With the exception of Scott of the Antarctic and William Thesiger, we are nearly all terribly attracted to a conventional lifestyle.
That is one reason why the Buddhist sangha of monks and nuns is so vital. It consists of people (often quite successful people) who have gone into homelessness and given everything up to ‘follow their dream,’ as Joseph Campbell calls it. But even more than that, they know from what the Buddha taught that their dream is not a fantasy, but a greater reality. We cannot truly live in the moment — and that means truly live — if our minds live somewhere else: next month, next year, or often, sadly, last year.
Fearing death, disease and taxes, we build a whole raft of tomorrows and sail off on it into the future. But it is not the future, it is a dream world that surely prevents us living our real lives and moments fully. We are so preoccupied with our self-created world, that we fail to see and attend to this one — the one in which we really live and of which we are a real part. When the fiction collapses in the face of change and disaster — as it periodically must — we are lost, for the world in which we find ourselves is one that seems to have been thrust upon us, and not of our choosing. Reality is certainly not of our choosing, but it is what it is and what we are, and until we recognise this, we will keep blundering around in the dark and banging into things we didn’t know were there. It’s like going to the lavatory during the night, half asleep. A natural need overtakes us and we know we have to go from point A to point B somewhere, but it is as if we have forgotten or never noticed the way before, and we collide with all sorts of obstacles that wouldn’t bother us in the light of day and in full consciousness. And it is just this full consciousness or rather awareness that is lacking in our daily lives. This unawareness is so comfortable and convenient to us in our daily lives, that we create obstacles where there would otherwise be none. Sometimes these obstacles are called ‘karma’.
Our obsession with things and targets prevents us seeing the ground beneath our feet and if we do look at it, it may be with dismay, for it is not quite as we want it to be or as we expect it to look, like coming back to an untidy room after a holiday.
Our minds are themselves like untidy rooms full of yesterdays and tomorrows, always chasing after this and that, seldom contented with what we have and where we are.
But the more we remain aware in these moments, the more remarkable they become, and the more we belong in them. The more we live truly in these moments, the more they lose their separateness, and the more we take — and are — everything as it comes.
First published in the August 2006 Buddhism Now.
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