Category: humility

Buddhism

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The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.

I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.

From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, in “No Death, No Fear”.

 

“Around us, life bursts with miracles, a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops. If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere. Each human being is a multiplicity of miracles. Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms; ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap; a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos; a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings. When we are tired and feel discouraged by life’s daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Face it, you’re a loser who’s running out of time

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If you feel hurried, it’s an illusion. No one is hurrying you. Not having enough time is an fallacy, an impossibility, and the unpleasant feeling it engenders is simple unfocused anxiety. You may well be worried about a real dilemma, and that concern manifests itself as worry about not having enough time.

Other feelings that fall into that category and arise from that same mechanism are free-floating guilt, concern that you’re a loser and nobody likes you (and never will) and the certainty that you are doomed. Because you’re a loser you’re doomed to a life of failure. Everything you try will ultimately come to nothing. You’ll be found out.

So why even bother to try? Spare yourself the effort and resultant humiliation. Play games on your phone. Shop for things you don’t need. Whatever comes of those activities are entirely predictable and thus, comforting.

The Final Curtain

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If you don’t know why you’re still alive, maybe there’s been a mistake. Maybe you’re not supposed to be here any longer. You’ve overstayed your welcome. You’ve passed your shelf life but nobody told you, and that’s why nothing much seems to be coming your way any more.

What to do? How can you determine for certain if this is the case?

Try stepping outside your comfort zone and see what happens. Magnanimously and gracefully bow, thanking the audience for its attention, then slip behind the curtain and into the wings. If there is no thunderous demand for an encore, then you were right, they’ve seen enough. Cultivate your newfound retirement. Resist all obligations and demands on your time. You have no more time, at least none that’s assured.

This is indeed the last act, the final curtain.

Leave them wanting more.

 

Bounce

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Don’t worry, most things are out of your control. You were never in the driver’s seat. None of this is your fault, nor do you have the ability to come up with a solution to the many problems that surround us all. You can’t fix what you didn’t cause.

You’re simply a passenger on this voyage. Did anybody ask you if you wanted to be born? Did they determine your preferences regarding national identity, language, level of income, gender, race? No, they did not. You showed up uninvited and made the best of it, sliding in through the servant’s entrance if the door was unguarded. Trying your best to fit in, you’ve not succeeded in every possible way, but you’ve not done too badly. You’re not incarcerated, at least not yet.

Eventually, if you keep your options open and pay attention, good luck will send something your way that you can seize upon. Hopefully, you’ll be able to carve out a niche for yourself doing something that interests you and that you do well. You will have found a way to fit in.

You might have to wait a while, though. There will be false starts. Temporary disappointments. The trick is not to give up. Bounce, don’t break.

Face It

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SUGGESTIONS FOR A BETTER LIFE, ONE WITH ALL THE MONEY, SEX, FRIENDS AND FREEDOM YOU’VE ALWAYS CRAVED.

Admit it, when you were twelve you thought you’d have that stuff by now. You thought you were going to be some kind of damn celebrity, or at least live like one. You assumed it was your birthright. Sure, there were a few complications that had to be solved, setbacks to be endured, but by the last commercial break it was going to be smooth sailing all the way. 

But then the job you thought was yours was given to someone else, the girl you figured would be happy to marry you had other ideas, the swingers who were your friends seemed more and more like unemployable parasites. 

Now you’re sitting at home wondering what to do with yourself. Your days are filled with meaningless errands. There’s never a time to kick back and relax after a hard day because it’s been so long since you’ve actually accomplished anything you can’t remember what that feels like.

Social media is a complete waste of time. So is online shopping. These activities do not constitute a rich life, well-lived. You’ll have to find a way to raise the bar to get any excitement or meaning back into your life, but you can’t find the bar and even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to lift it. 

How do other people swing this? Are they just better at faking it, or do they really have more substantive lives? Maybe they’re just more easily satisfied with less. For them, buying presents for grandchildren is enough. Or maybe it isn’t, but they hide their ennui and disappointment. They put on a brave face for the sake of others.

Grandma and Grandpa are just waiting to die. Don’t mind them. They’ve got their TV, their comfy chairs, and the remote. Everything in their house is over-stuffed. Grandpa has his model ships, and Grandma her porcelain figurines. Limited edition china plates featuring sentimental scenes. Lawrence Welk died twenty years ago, but some cable channel still plays the reruns of his show.

Look, there goes Grandpa to the hospital. Thank God for Medicare and the AARP supplemental policy he had the foresight to purchase. He’ll only be in hospice a little over a week before the angel’s trumpet sounds and he’s called to his eternal reward. We’ll give the model ships to Goodwill, because the kids don’t want them. That quilt Grandma is working on will lie on the bed in the guest room. We don’t use that room much, because nobody wants to come here if they have vacation time. They want to go somewhere more fun. The pictures they post on social media will arouse envy in their friends and neighbors. If they took pictures around here, it would just make people sad.

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Look for the sweetness in things

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HOW MUCH WILL THIS MATTER IN THE LONG RUN?

From our current perspective there is, of course, no way to answer this question. The present moment may contain the stuff that shifts the entire course of history. These words I write may influence someone to go on to do great or terrible things. If this were a podcast, someone listening to my monotonous voice reading it might fall asleep while driving and take out a family of twelve just starting out on vacation.

The main way we influence each other is through acts of kindness. They are remembered long after everything else has faded. Money transacted, misinformation corrected, opinions shared…nothing holds a candle to kindness.

The best news is that everyone, everywhere at any time is capable of acting kindly. No official permission is needed. No mission statement needs to be formulated, no certifications granted.

Kindness and humility rule long after pomposity and arrogance have exhausted themselves in public. The Quakers used to have a suggestion: look for the sweetness in every situation and watch it grow in front of your eyes.

There aren’t as many Quakers nowadays as there used to be.

How Often Do I Get Lucky?

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How often do I get lucky and not realize it? How often am I gypped out of success I rightfully earned? Probably not very often. Maybe I’m swimming in a sea of good fortune and don’t realize it. For all I know, I could have been born with a golden spoon in my mouth and simply assumed that everyone else had one, too.

I certainly haven’t worked as hard as have many, nor suffered as deeply as some. I’m wise enough to look back on my life and conclude that most of my problems have been of my own making. I’ve rarely been a victim of another person’s malfeasance.

Oh sure I’ve been lied to, robbed, betrayed, but not very often. I stopped lending money to people quite a while ago. In my defense, I recently learned to say “let me get back to you on that” when pressured to make a snap decision. That line alone has saved me thousands of dollars and hours of agony.

Don’t Be a Wimp

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PUT A SOCK ON IT

Some days it pays to be clever, other days it’s best to put a sock on it. Limit invention. Just dig what’s up.

For those who have been rewarded for their cleverness, damping it down is hard work. Sometimes you can only change your behavior a tad, a wee bit, and only for a short amount of time. You can pretend to be less clever than you actually are for half an hour. Then, “ding!” it’s time to don that thinking cap.

I have met people who are just as “intelligent” as college professors, but to whom it would never occur to try to tell other people what or how to think. They simply are too humble to want to go there. To offer unsolicited advice would be obnoxious, impolite, intrusive, arrogant, and would distance themselves from others, which in the West is considered virtue and in the East, a vice.

Interestingly, and maybe paradoxically, strong leaders of nations often downplay any cleverness they posses. Instead of smart they would rather be considered “strong.” As rigid as they are ruthless. Unafraid of popular opinion. This is why in Banana Republics they are often military men.

The public trusts a dumb guy with a gun more than a clever guy with a pocket calculator.

John Wayne was never admired for being clever. He didn’t need to resort to discourse or persuasion. He’d just punch you in the mouth if it seemed that’s what you needed. Obama was a real professor and it’s taken Trump’s base years to stop asking about his birth certificate. They’re glad our current President is more like John Wayne than some damn pointy-headed intellectual. The citizenry applauds simple solutions to complex problems. Diplomacy is for sissies. Bombs away! Turn that unpronounceable country into a parking lot!

If cleverness isn’t working any more, try pretending to be dull yet determined. Such people are often admired and respected far more than those seeking approval or agreement.

By all means, avoid anti-intellectualism in all its guises. The Git-r-done crowd will never embrace you anyway. They’ll suspect you’re faking it. Better to act dull, uninterested. That way you can’t be mistaken for a wimp who cares too much.

 

 

 

Nothing to do and all day to do it.

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As a self-appointed leisure specialist, I am amazed by how often the idea pops into my wizened head that I should be doing more with my time. I should be applying myself to some task, fixing some problem. Having proven time and again that I do not work well with others, nor follow directions, nor persevere under duress, I don’t now why I keep flogging myself this way. After all, I have deliberately constructed a life where nothing is required of me. Why not enjoy it?

 

I think the voices in my head are the same ones Thoreau struggled with as he lived his solitary life at Walden Pond. He wrote that his neighbors were quite critical of his selfishness. Here he had all this time on his hands and he wasn’t working to help those less fortunate than he.

 

And what about politics? Don’t I have some duty to weigh in on the injustices carried out by my country’s leadership? Why aren’t I organizing rallies and fund raising for noble causes?

 

The fact that I live on the other side of the world exempts me from some of the duties of an educated populace in a somewhat functioning democracy. I don’t seem to have much lucks persuading expatriate Trump supporters of the fallacy of their convictions, so I doubt if I’ll be any more effective twelve time zones away.

 

No, I’m going to assume that the best gift I can give the world is to try to be content with my lot and kind in my interactions with others. Somebody else can do the heavy lifting.

 

 

 

 

Grace Not Works

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My Thai wife and I have developed a little game. Mondays are Husband’s day and everything centers around pleasing me (him). Fridays are Wife’s day, and the same holds true for her. Because we are for all practical purposes retired and childless, obligations that weigh us down are virtually non-existent. What we’re doing is really just a way to celebrate our good fortune.

Celebrating good fortune is a way to cultivate gratitude, which leads to increased joy and mental health. Chronic whining and fault-finding is the flip side of that coin. We all know where that leads.

There’s a movie called Diary of a Country Priest which was made about 1948 by Jean Renoir. It tells the story of a shy, humble parish priest in a small French town. Nobody holds him in high regard and his superior treats him like a dog, an attitude picked up by the members of their parish. Eventually, he catches tuberculosis and dies, and his last words are “Everything is Grace!”

Grace, as you might recall from your Baltimore catechism is an “unearned gift from God.” It is not by works that we are saved, but by Grace. If we were all more aware of just how much grace we already enjoy, and will have access to in the future, we could relax and enjoy the bliss of the present moment. But we lack faith and are keenly aware that sometimes the good fortune of others seems to exceed our own. We become bitter and full of self-pity. We blame our unhappiness on our circumstances, even though they are fully sufficient for a plenitude of bliss.

Another movie, Babette’s Feast has the same message. We are awash in a river of good luck, and no matter how poor our choices in life, in the long run they pale in significance to the glories we are due to inherit. So stop your griping and smile.

When you do your best to honor others, even those you disagree with, you’re on the fast track to real peace of mind and contentment. You realize the world is a bigger place than you thought it was, full of more possibilities than you ever dared imagine. Black and White thinking reduces things. Having to be right is a trap. Giving advice that nobody asked for and pointing out what others are doing wrong is a service to nobody, least of all yourself.

Moving to the other side of the world exposed me to entirely different ways of going about the simple business of being alive. Seeing that others can endure and thrive, care for children, support their families, and govern themselves without my advice or permission has humbled me. I keep waiting for them to ask advice, but they never do.