Living Through Difficult Times by John Aske

The philosopher Epictetus—image WikipediaThe philosopher Epictetus, once a slave, advised us to deal with those things over which we had control, and stop worrying pointlessly over those we have not. Worry and fear are always about those things over which we have no control — or very little. All we can do is take care.

I cannot count the number of people I know who have been involved in motor accidents, some injured, some fatally. But of all the people I know, only one person has been ill with the current virus, and fortunately did not need hospital treatment. But despite this, we worry more, because we are accustomed to road accidents and because this situation is new to us. We rely on past experience and worries, and project those into the unpredictable future. We do not live in the reality of the present, but somehow with one foot in the past and one in the future, and this divided mind is the source of our fear. It is the way the mind works. As Mark Twain said: ‘All the worst things in my life never actually happened.’

The ego decides how it wants the future to be and when things turn out differently, it is unprepared for the new reality, and instead of accepting things as they are, generates fear and anger like a spoilt child. The ego wants everything to be static and under its control, but almost nothing is really under its control. Everything is changing. That is what life does and what we do too because we are part of it.

Amida Buddha © Philadelphia Museum of ArtThere is the divided mind which likes to worry, particularly if there is nothing else to occupy it; and there is the quiet observer, the listener. This is the intuitive awareness that is always there for us and is never ruffled or despairing — like a good parent is always there — when we are prepared to turn to it. Sometimes in meditation or out walking in the land, you are aware of a quietness, a calm that can take in any troubles and worries, and rest the tired spirit. Not for nothing did Ajahn Chah call meditation ‘The holiday of the heart.’

You may think you lack such a wonderful thing, but if you go out in the early morning you hear birdsong without any intention of doing so. And this awareness never leaves you, waking or sleeping; it is your true nature. No human being lacks it, though some go to great lengths to suppress it because of a desire to control it, which stems from fear. John Richards told me that the Greek testament actually says: ‘If the eye is undivided, the body shall be full of light.’ This is the ‘Wise mind’ the Zoroastrians speak of which leads us back to wholeness.

All it requires — and this is a lot — is trust, patience, and the willingness to open ourselves to the world as it is, not as we would like it. It is in the willingness to give, and give ourselves, and be grateful for what we have.

It is to be like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, as Roger Sale* writes so beautifully: ‘To be able to go, without meaning to, into a strange and magical land, and to be able to accept each moment there as it comes and for what it brings — it is like having it always to be morning, to be always setting out, and that is one of the most enchanting and elusive of life’s possibilities … Dorothy is fully awake. She does not worry or fret or plan, and so everything can be fully itself.

*Roger Sale: Fairy Tales and After.

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Categories: Buddhism, John Aske

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3 replies

  1. Many years ago I worked with someone in a small, but very busy company whose activities were spread across the entire U.S. His title was Coordinator, and essentially he was responsible for pulling everyone else’s work into a smooth and focused flow. His predecessor had become so overwhelmed with anxiety that she eventually had to resign. Although much younger and less experienced he proved to be very, very capable and coped with the endless hullabaloo of his position with unusual equanimity.

    One day he motioned me to sit down at his desk while he was dealing with someone on the phone at his assistant’s desk. Among the piles of folders and papers I saw a small wooden base which held a card which said: “You are not the center of all the action”.

    It seemed so incongruous considering the nature of his job. I pointed to it when he was done, and laughed, saying something like “What a joke!”

    He said, “Oh no. Whenever I start believing I am, everything seems to fall to pieces.”

    What a gift that experience was! More than half a century has passed. But I still stop when I feel like the world has a master plant to drive me nuts, take a couple of breaths and repeat those words: “You are not the center of all the action.”.

  2. Yesterday, I took a virus test because I’ve been very scared about symptoms I have. Today however, I am feeling a lot better, albeit tired and still have some symptoms. My fear about this is mostly around the idea of protecting everyone else; my family for one. But I do recognize your words. I do not fear a car accident as much as I fear the unknown.

    When I get in a car, my thoughts are on my destination, as I drive my thoughts may fluctuate from the notion of “mutual destruction” that keeps each of us in our own lane to the music on the radio, my comfort of getting to my destination with ease instead of walking to how much fossil fuel I’m using.

    My ego may dictate my perceived power over my demise, but this virus is so un-perceivable. We don’t know where or how it may attack our bodies.

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