“All real living hurts as well as fulfils. Happiness comes when we have lived and have a respite for sheer forgetting. Happiness, in the vulgar sense, is just a holiday experience. The life-long happiness lies in being used by life, hurt by life, driven by life and goaded by life, replenished and overjoyed with life, fighting for life’s sake. That is real happiness. In the undergoing, a large part of it is pain.”D.H Lawrence, The Boy in the Bush
“If you can approach your daily life in this way for a while – as a sequence of momentary, self-contained, eminently doable actions, rather than as an arduous matter of chipping away at enormous challenges – you might notice something profound, which is that, in fact, this is all you ever need to do. You can make your way through life exclusively in this manner. (As E. L. Doctorow said of writing, it’s “like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”) And not just that: actually, it’s all you ever could do. There is no achievement, in the history of human civilisation, that has ever been accomplished by any means other than as a sequence of doable actions.
In the end, it isn’t really a question of “breaking big projects down into small chunks.” It’s more a matter of seeing that “big projects” are nothing but psychological constructs, quasi-illusory entities summoned into existence by taking a particular view of what our lives really consist of – which is moments, and the actions that unfold in them.”Oliver Burkeman, The Imperfectionist (“How to get out of a rut”)
“A Ch’an master once wrote that the wise enshrine the miraculous bones of the ancients within themselves; that is, they do not regard teachings of ways to enlightenment as an external body of knowledge or information to be possessed as an acquisition or believed or revered as inflexible dogma, but rather apply it as far as possible to themselves and their situations, vivifying the way of enlightenment with their own bodies and lives, not just in their thoughts. It is therefore a matter of course that new Buddhist literature has been produced; for the Buddhist canon is not closed, as long as people continue the search for enlightenment.”Thomas Cleary, introduction to his translation of The Blue Cliff Record
“When you allow for uncertainty, then you don’t always have to find solutions. You can live through a problem until it’s not a problem anymore. Instead of seeing things as problems, you see the life you are living. You can live your way into the answers. This is different from standing outside of your life and throwing stones at your problems from a safe distance.”John Tarrant Roshi, “Why Play with Koans?“
“Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all his strength.”Hasidic Saying
In his latest newsletter James Clear included a quote from the physician Chris Ballas I felt was brilliant and true enough to requote here:
“The goal of adulthood is to let go of the other possible existences and to make the best of the one. A successful adult is one who understands that it doesn’t matter which life you ultimately pick, only that you live it well. The same potential for, say, happiness exists whether you are a construction worker, porn actor, or wealthy industrialist.”A Surprising Number Of Teens Think They’ll Die Young, Or Live Forever, Whichever Comes First
Last night I watched Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a story of four friends languishing in middle age who decide to test a theory that humans are born with an alcohol deficiency of 0.05% by drinking everyday. The story closes with a quote from Denmark’s own, Soren Kierkegaard that I think articulates the need for us all, no matter our age, to take a risk:
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
I think sometimes we feel the itch to dare but for fear of the unknown we play it safe and it’s then we start to, as Kierkegaard put it, lose ourselves.
Quit your job. Ask someone out. Move to another country.
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life[.]”C.S. Lewis
I was thinking the other day how easy it is to disown my problems just because they’re inconvenient and act as though my ‘real life’ is waiting for me over there once I deal with these problems as quickly as possible. But, seeing as though life is never going to stop giving me problems, when you add it all up, that’s a lot of time waiting for my ‘real life’.
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.