“Love hits people over the head when they are not looking for it, and the same can be said for epiphanies and enlightenments. We fall into them. An opening appears in regular life, and what follows doesn’t necessarily fit in regular life. That opening changes your frame of reference and then, well, anything might happen … You might assume that the implication is that you have to marry and have children and stay together for the rest of your life. That might be so, but it might not; love isn’t dependent on outcomes. You might notice that love is what really counts in life and that could mean you get a different job, spend more time with friends, forget about being famous, come out as gay, or shave your head and go into a long retreat. Both love and enlightenment are in favor of whatever welcomes more life.”John Tarrant Roshi, Let Me Count The Ways
Last month I travelled to Crosby for a bi-annual five day retreat with my local Zen group. Three times a day, along with hours of sitting, we would chant sutras while I struck a wooden percussion instrument called a mokugyo to maintain rhythm. Back in Liverpool I would play the instrument almost every week for service in our usual place so I think by that point I was in a stage of unconscious competence. Then, on the fourth day, the Ino, our lead chanter, praised my mokugyo skills and proclaimed, in part jest, that I was a mokugyo master. While I was pleased to be complimented I also noticed a small thought afterwards that said, now because people saw me as a master, I better not mess up.
In her book Mindset Carol Dweck proposes a two part model for success and achievement which has caught on in education and sport: fixed mindset and growth mindset. Growth mindset allows you to make the inevitable mistakes that will help you grow and eventually succeed. When a teacher compliments a student for being clever, that praise can induce a fixed mindset and hamper learning because now this student, like me, feels that they have something to lose: their standing with the teacher. If the teacher were to praise the effort instead, what’s there to lose?
Perhaps it’s not so important to be recognised as a master as it is to stay on the path of mastery? Fortunately the path goes on forever.
If you, like so many each year, were diagnosed with early stage cancer you would be forgiven for dwelling in each moment afterwards on how close death is to you and, by extension, your family. Only natural, right? But when the writer Winifred Gallagher stepped out of hospital some years ago after she received her own diagnosis she resolved to not allow the cancer to “monopolise” her attention. Instead she focused on what she called “the skilful management of attention.” Rather than chemotherapy, she focused on her daily walks; rather than thoughts of her funeral, she focused on movies and the occasional 6:30 Martini.
To the best of my memory I’ve resisted positive thinking ever since I first heard about it and my best guess for why that may be is that a good portion of my identity is rooted in so-called “negative” thinking*. Were you to ask me to think positively you’d get a flat “no”, but ask me to manage my attention skilfully and, if we can agree on what “skilfully” means, I’m all ears.
The anthropologist Carlos Castenada once said “The trick [for happiness] is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” I think it’s easier for me to think “negatively” because I’m accustomed to that way of thinking but, as Castenada points out, the amount of time I dedicate to making myself miserable (by how I allocate my attention) is the same amount time it would take to make myself “happy” by instead directing my attention, over and over, to those things that comfort and please me, even in the face of devastating circumstances.
*Perhaps the dichotomy of positive and negative is too simplistic of a model to apply to things as complex as thoughts?
See also: I wrote a short essay for StoneWater Zen a few years ago in response to a prompt by David Loy, a Buddhist scholar: When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.
I read a Dharma talk a few weeks ago by the late Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman about Birth and Death. She spoke about one of the many practices Buddhists use to remind themselves of those non-negotiable realities all humans face: The Five Remembrances.
Those remembrances are:
- I am of the nature to grow old. I can’t avoid ageing.
- I am of the nature to get sick. I can’t avoid illness.
- I am of the nature to die. I can’t avoid death.
- All I hold dear and everyone I love are of the nature to change. I can’t avoid being separated from them.
- My actions are my true possessions. I can’t avoid the consequences of my actions.
Since I read her talk I’ve adopted the practice as my own and kept those remembrances in the background of my mind.
It’s hard to notice someone ageing if you see them every day but if you find old photos of them, like I found of my parents from a decade ago when they had less wrinkles, less grey in their hair and less body fat, their age, as well as my own, hits home.
Yesterday I heard a surgeon on the radio talking about people waiting on organ donor lists and just this evening my parents drove my nan to hospital because doctors think she may have deep vein thrombosis.
A few days ago, on a morning walk around the village where I live, I saw two men in black suits carrying a stretcher out of a house with a body bag on top.
Last weekend a friend at work left for a higher paying job and, looking ahead into the not so distant future, I’ll soon leave the house and village I’ve grown fond of over many years to live elsewhere.
That my actions are my true possessions is more difficult to see because I can’t always link what I’ve done with what and who I have in my life in a way that’s satisfying to me but nevertheless I do feel, and somewhat understand, that this is in some part my karma.