There’s a saying that seems to be born out in experience: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. The reason is not hard to find. Someone who is grounded in intentions and who acts on their plans seems to develop a magnetic charge that draws them forth into dynamic energy and focus.
I try to exemplify this kind of relationship between intentions and their realization. I rarely am charged late fees for unpaid bills, and I keep e-mail in my inbox until I respond to them. But there is an unfocused dullness also present in my psyche. E-mail reveals this other, dimmer kind of momentum. Leaving e-mail in my inbox until I have addressed them can result in the passage of so much time that the issues they address cease to be relevant. I typically have hundreds of messages. They line up like consumers on Black Friday outside a Walmart; they pile up like leaves, each as big as saucers, a foot thick under my Mulberry tree, which are, at this very moment, dropping like rain).
I’m still operating in the aftermath of a ‘realization’ that ‘Vision’, ‘Intention’, ‘Action’, and ‘Effort’ provide a living stream in which I feel more present and engaged. However, with the passage of years, it feels that the old jalopy that takes me along my chosen path in life is now spinning out on a few tight corners, even though it’s not driving as fast as it once did. But I still feel grateful that I have been given this road-map and that (when I encounter some unknown fork in the road) and check in the glove box, I can pull it out and be guided accordingly.
I have to remind myself that the steps of ‘Right’ living enumerated in the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, not only include the four steps mentioned above but also four others: ‘Speech’, ‘Livelihood’, ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Concentration’. These latter four steps are easy to forget in a culture in which ‘speech’ has collapsed into bullet points, ‘livelihood’ for so many feels like a desperate scrambling for survival, while ‘mindfulness’ and ‘concentration’ are collateral damage in the accelerating missteps of our global economy and fortified societies. (Although ‘mindfulness’ programs—adapted from the ancient Buddhist practice that had other aims than self-improvement—have doubtlessly improved health, work performance, and instilled the potential for greater calm in the midst of harried life styles for many). Personally, I have recently had an opportunity to practice a form of mindfulness called “Full Presence Mindfulness”, which is somewhere between the modern self-improvement orientation and the old Buddhist practice that provides a path for fundamental liberation from suffering. Its aim is to feel present with whatever is going on, without an agenda for how to fix it, or how to escape into an imagined liberation.
It’s strange how old conditioning still holds sway over much of my life–even though I don’t take my remaining time for granted.
Having a mini-stroke earlier this year gave me a sense that my life has a limited, although unknown, amount of time left. This incident was at least as effective as any Buddhist teaching in delivering the message of impermanence. As well, getting older and witnessing directly the fallibility of my body has had the effect of making me aware that “nothing lasts forever”.
It feels like I am ascending a hill and–upon seeing the peak within an attainable distance–twin voices speak up. One says “Let’s finish it up.” the other “We’re almost done. Let’s take a break.”
About life itself, I’ve never experienced with certainty that a deadline—waiting for me on my mortality timeline—has been scheduled with certainty. I wonder if that were ever to happen how I would respond. Since it hasn’t happened, I find myself living much as I always have.
Last week I had a three-month follow-up lipid panel lab test, to check my triglycerides which have been too high. And two days ago I received the results, along with a note from my doctor flagging the results as “abnormal” and observing that this is a factor in longevity. Since then, I have had several generous servings of apple pie, as I continue to put off looking more closely at the numbers or comparing them to previous tests and to the recommended “Norms”. (However I did make a salad yesterday and even ate it.)
I seem to approach my life as a whole in a similar way. I don’t really want to know how long I have left, and so I continue to have no real experience of the kind that Dostoyevsky describes (after having been granted a last minute reprieve): “Knowing you’re to be executed in the morning improves the concentration wonderfully.”
I’ve always been impressed with people who devote their lives to something they consider greater than themselves. The people I know personally who I believe are doing that are working to preserve the Buddhist teachings. I’ve never been seriously tempted to join them. The effort and dedication they manifest intimidates me at the same time as I am impressed and grateful for their efforts. Since I myself have been a consumer of those teaching, I don’t have to look elsewhere than in my own life to confirm the benefit of their dedication. I can see a great need for the balance and sense of possibility these teachings convey in these dark times. Accordingly I take classes, read books, and am always aware that I am indebted to anyone who has devoted their lives to keeping this precious resource available in this world and at this time.
The purpose of my own life is not as clear. I view my life through the lens of a ‘past’ (what I have done and who I’ve been), a ‘present” (how I pass my days now–in a bit of contemplation and writing, eating pie while watching a video when I feel tired), and a possible ‘future’ (more of the same, leavened by intention, appreciation and hope). It’s as if, nearing the top of the hill, I feel renewed energy and a sense of being on a journey; however, pausing to rest, I easily forget why I started walking in this direction in the first place.