We think of our lives as having a shape and a direction, and worry if part of it does not seem to fit the plan. But the real world is all flow and change and does not fit easy patterns; it is organic and just flows without having any fixed points. We may have happy memories from the past and perhaps some regrets, together with worries and hopes about the future. We use these as a map of where we are and where we are going because we are afraid of uncertainty. I soon discovered that the map is very unreliable, and I needed another way of looking at things.
Ajahn Sumedho taught us to see things, not as part of a map or a pattern, but just ‘like this.’ In this way we come to see things as arising and ceasing naturally, without any interference from the thinking mind.
Years ago I suffered from a fear of the dark and decided to look at it, which I had not done before. So I intentionally began to go to shadowy places and say to myself: ‘Come on fear-of-the-dark; let’s have a look at you,’ and when it came, I would say: ‘Fear of the dark is like this!’
One day whilst I was on a retreat with Ajahn Sumedho at Amaravati monastery, I began to feel very uncomfortable and asked to leave. The retreat manager suggested I put it off for a day or so, and then to have a chat with Ajahn Sumedho. I agreed. Then in the early morning meditation, it was as if a rotting wall collapsed and brackish water ran out from behind it. The next morning, I walked round the paddock in the retreat grounds and suddenly realised I wasn’t using my torch even though it was still dark, nor had I jumped at the sound of a cow snorting in the next field.
The fear of the dark came back to me years later, when I was mugged and hospitalised but found that I had ceased to suppress that fear and allowed it to change, just as Ajahn Sumedho had said.
As for the hopes and fears for the future, and the regrets, they are all part of a framing of our lives into a fixed dance, so to speak, which we try to control and which we worry about when it seems to go in the wrong direction, when something happens which was not in the script.
I used to teach English to foreign students at a London college. The college had moved into a new building which had not been completely redecorated. One autumn afternoon I was due to have a one-to-one tutorial with one of our favourite students, Giancarlo. He had arrived a little late, and the only classroom available to us was an undecorated one which contained a couple of battered chairs and a broken table. I apologised to Giancarlo. After an hour or so, as the day darkened, I got up to turn on the light. It didn’t work! I felt hugely embarrassed, ‘Oh, Giancarlo,’ I said, ‘I am so sorry; this is awful.’ He simply smiled, patted me on the arm and said, ‘Non importa, amico mio – l’avventura.’ (Don’t worry, my friend, it’s all an adventure.’) Avventura has a much bigger meaning in Italian; it means something like ‘our whole life; not just a small bit of it’. Under my breath, I blessed the Italians.
Now, when things don’t go as expected, I remember Giancarlo and say to myself, ‘Stop worrying and just enjoy the adventure. L’avventura – It’s like this!
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