Honey and Vinegar

I used to read to my kids about two inseparable pals, Frog and Toad.  Like Winnie the Pooh, Frog is comfortable in the world and is able to laugh at his own foibles.  Toad, on the other hand, like Eeyore, is nervous about the world and feels chronically unprepared for the unpleasant surprises that are bound to come.

In one episode, Toad could have been me.  He is walking along a windy hilltop when his To Do List for the day is swept out of his hands.  This is such an unmitigated disaster that he remains rooted to the spot–until Frog finds him and persuades him to take a step.

Last Friday, when I returned home and looked in my satchel for my three planners, Toad looked like a mere amateur in the art of preparing to meet an unreliable world.  I didn’t stand there frozen like Toad, unable to take a step until 1 knew what step I had proscribed next.  I jumped in my car, drove five miles, and only felt comfortable once I had the planners in my hands again.

Pooh and Eeyore pass their days in a utopia of the leisure classes, where time stretches out uncurtailed by any responsibilities and there is unlimited opportunity to design your life afresh each day.

I think most of us would choose to be Winnie the Pooh over Eeyore, at least while we are visiting their fictional world. But whom are we choosing in our own lives? Are we Pooh, leisurely planning what we’ll do today over a second cup of tea and honey?  Or are we more like Eeyore, peering out at the day to come, assuming the worst, projecting onto the future an aura of threat in a world awash with disaster.

When Frog persuades Toad to take a step, they find a sheet of paper stuck to a branch further along the path and, miraculously, Toad’s To-Do-List—with reminders to “Take a walk,” and “Visit Frog”–has been aced, simply because he dared to take a step off the windy hilltop.

When the sages advise us to be present, it seems that Frog and Pooh were paying attention.  However, except in rare moments, the present can feel like a speeding phantom, passing by so quickly that it’s gone before we can step foot into it.  As soon as we have a thought—such as “I must be present”–that thought has already vanished into the past.

If a thought is inevitably in the past as soon as we become aware of having one—and, worse, we substitute an old label familiar from the past in place of our momentary engagement–then where and when can we be present?  How can our awareness enter into the experience of the moment?

At least in imagination we can move ahead in time, then turn around and look back at our present life.  For instance, imagining that we are five years older, then grounded in this future time we can ask a poignant question: “What have I done, who have I been, in these past five years?  Am I happy that I did those things, lived the life of the person who is now looking back on a span of time forever in the past?”

A practice like that works best if we have begun to view our life as an opportunity for something to take root and grow. Pooh would not do it, because he has stuffing in his head.  But perhaps Pooh doesn’t really need a practice in order to take advantage of the opportunities that being alive offers.  Perhaps Pooh is one of those characters in literature who demonstrates the splendid ability of being present in the moment.  So of course he gets the pot of honey in the end.  He is present and so he wins.  It’s Eeyore who needs such a practice, just as I need it, in order to recognize the cost of living a life in which the past is projected across the present, establishing a future that seems inevitable.

Winnie the Pooh can call upon Christopher Robin for those times when having stuffing for brains doesn’t quite measure up. He is fortunate enough to live in a world where such help is available.  Eeyore doesn’t live in that world. Not because the opportunity for trustworthy support doesn’t exist around him but because he cannot see through the mists of pessimism that he himself exudes.

Pooh’s sunny orange color announces a being on whom the sun shines, whereas Eeyore’s rainy day grayness bespeaks a life lived in the shadows. Which came first?  Are we able to walk in the sunlight because we turn a trusting face towards it, and confined to an untrustworthy reality if we turn our back on life’s wholeness?  Or do the conditions of our birth and early environment impose their yoke upon us, establishing who we are?

Longchenpa, a 14th century Tibetan Buddhist sage, wrote a trilogy entitled, “Kindly Bent to Ease Us” in which he gives a list of fortunate conditions needed for a fulfilling life.    He doesn’t mention Winnie the Pooh or Frog, but I believe these storybook characters help to show us our options.

Two items on Longchenpa’s list of fortunate conditions are: We have been born a human being with a mind able to understand and explore; and we have been born at a time in the world when teachings that are worth understanding and exploring have not all been lost or destroyed.

Whatever our spiritual roots may be, we can feel gratitude for the fact that these teachings are accessible on the planet right now, that people are available who are able to introduce us to them, and that we have been born with minds able to be inspired by the wisdom they contain.

There are so many ways that this fortunate state of affairs can be destroyed, either for us as individuals or for all of life on the planet.

Human kind’s dominion over our fellow creatures is typically connected with two gifts unique to humanity: our prehensile thumbs, with which we till the soil and cast seeds upon it, and our clever minds which are able to design the plows and scythes needed to harvest Mother Earth’s bounty.

It is not only our thumbs that are “prehensile” (which means “adapted for grasping”).  Our minds are also prehensile; incessantly grasping whatever attracts our attention.  In Buddhism, grasping (along with aversion and ignorance) is presented as one of “three poisons”.  According to this perspective, we respond to our experience in three questionable ways: we try to avoid what is unpleasant (aversion), we try to get what attracts us (grasping), and we remain disinterested (ignorant) in everything else. To call such common characteristics of our daily experience “the three poisons” may seem a bit extreme.  In describing our ingrained proclivities, we favor words like “love” and “value” when it comes to the objects of our affection; words like “danger” and “self-preservation” when it comes to our aversion to certain elements of our experience; and “minding our own business” when it comes to the vast field of potential interests in the face of which we remain ignorant.

Yet, the picture of our lives as a frantic grasping after some things, a fleeing away from others, and a dull indifference to everything else, may strike some of us as uncomfortably close to the mark for how our daily lives unfold. The critical remark of our spouse or our boss may keep us off-balance for hours afterwards. The shapely legs of a young woman running for her bus may haunt us and launch us into internal fantasies that cause the world through which we are moving to virtually disappear. And the words of the friend or teacher, who is giving us advice that could help us be happier, glance off our indifference like rain bouncing off an awning above a parched potted plant underneath.  Enveloped by such reflexive gestures, which grasp, push away, or ignore whatever pulls up alongside us, unhappiness is inevitable.

These three gestures may seem dramatically different from one another, but they all have a similar result: they isolate us from the potential richness of experience.  They erect barriers between ourselves and the environment through which we are travelling, thereby obscuring a world which we might otherwise find vivid and fulfilling.  Just as our relationships with others tend to go better when we listen to what they say and take genuine interest in what they are doing, so with all our experience: everything is more nourishing when we aren’t winnowing our encounters into friends, enemies and strangers. When we turn towards whatever arises with interest, we may discover that inside this simple interest resides the seeds of wonder, and that we ourselves are the ferti1e ground upon which those seeds have fallen.

Leave a Reply