Be an island unto yourself. Take refuge in yourself and not in anything else.
~ Thích Nhất Hạnh ~
After reading that quote this morning, I suspect my mental wanderlust may be an unconscious expression of seeking the refuge to which Thích Nhất Hạnh referred. My mind wanders from place to place, rarely staying anywhere long enough to understand the place, nor the mind that visits. And as I contemplate what I just wrote, I debate with myself whether the word “mental” is the right one, or whether “spiritual” would better describe the source of my longing. For various reasons, “spiritual” goes against the grain with me. In my mind, it suggests another dimension, one beyond human understanding that, frankly, I do not believe exists. And it tends to remove from me the responsibility for my own thoughts, placing that burden somewhere “beyond;” in a “being” or “entity” with magical, mystical, mysterious powers. Yet “mental” seems too sterile and shallow to describe the depth—and the source of—my longing.
Perhaps I should describe, for the record (which may later provide the foundations for my own recollections), what I mean by mental (or spiritual) wanderlust. But defining that phrase probably is an impossibility, given the constraints of language and the limitations of the scope of my understanding. Regardless, I will use a few words to briefly touch on the concept. The refuge I seek is—I think—the equivalent of understanding. I want reliable, valid, comprehensive answers to “why?” And the “why?” I ask applies to everything: me, the world around me, the people in my life, the sky, Earth, pain, joy, longing, displeasure, rage…everything. The question is not suitable to a superficial answer. It seeks to know, at the deepest level of human comprehension, the reason for existence. Not just my existence or the existence of the people I encounter in the world around me, but all of existence. I realize, of course, that there is no legitimate answer to the millions of questions embedded in those concepts. Yet even in the realization there are no answers, I want proof of their non-existence. And, yes, I am familiar with the folk logic that “you cannot prove a negative.” Yet that very assertion is a negative; many (perhaps most?) professional logicians would argue with that folk logic…wait, I am wandering down a path unrelated to my point. If, indeed, I was making a point. Actually, I have been—and am—only thinking silently with my fingers. Contemplating or mulling over or considering or whatever one does when one ponders a concept too simple to understand, due to its limitless complexity. But the point, if there is one, is this: I have been seeking the refuge for which I so fervently desire by looking outside myself. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s words insist I have been looking in the wrong places; I should be looking, instead, inside myself. But, in reality, that has been precisely where I have been looking, isn’t it? Even though I claim—or appear—to be looking outward, it is obvious that I am looking inward; because all I can do is to examine my perspectives on the world around me. I have the capacity only to look at a reflection of my experience, not the actual experience. I look at how the experience affects me. So, ultimately, the refuge I seek is the epitome of selfishness. Though that seems harsh and judgmental, it is a simple fact. Not just for me, but for everyone like me and unlike me. The only control any of us have is over ourselves. But looking outward allows us to sidestep the fear that accompanies the realization that we really are in control. We fear being in control of ourselves because…what if we fail? That potential failure, if it occurred, would be catastrophic to our psychological well-being. To avoid responsibility for that horrific potential, we look elsewhere to place…blame or responsibility or whatever you might call it. When we reach that understanding, we tend to seek comfort in others. We want to be held, hugged, assured we are wanted or needed or loved. Thích Nhất Hạnh suggests our comfort should come from within. Ach. Looking there and finding nothing but emptiness could be devastating, so we reach outward, instead. Following Thích Nhất Hạnh’s advice would require strength I seem to be missing. But I will continue to try.
It is hard NOT to take everything and everyone around us for granted. They are there almost every day, after all, without fail. It seems that only when we are in danger of losing something or someone of vital importance to us that we suddenly realize their enormous value. Knowing that, it seems to me I should make it a regular practice to dedicate time, every day, to dedicate specific thought/gratitude for every aspect of our good fortune. I know…that sounds a lot like prayer. Maybe it is. But I think of the concept not as an expression of appreciation TO an invisible entity, but as an internal reminder that I should be mindful of/recognize the immeasurable importance to me of…everything and everyone. That is a big ask, I know. And I know there is a danger of a daily ritual becoming so routine that its meaning is lost in its endless repetition. Recognizing and regularly acknowledging that danger, though, can help in avoiding it.
I came across the following “contemplations” that are recited, in some form or another, by various Buddhist communities. These five contemplations could easily be adapted to encompass every aspect of our daily lives. I would add a sixth contemplation, as I write below, in an effort to minimize the possibility of gratitude losing its importance.
The Five Contemplations, recited before each meal, as adopted by the Still Water Community:
- This food is the gift of the whole universe – the earth, the sky, and much hard work.
- May we eat in mindfulness so as to nourish our gratitude.
- May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat with moderation.
- May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.
- We accept this food to realize the path of understanding, love, and joy.
I might add a sixth contemplation, something along the lines of: May we remember the importance of avoiding the invisible allure of allowing these contemplations to become so routine as to lose their meaning.
The plan for today includes a trip to Little Rock to pick up a semi-custom shirt that was not quite right when I went to pick it up a few weeks ago…it was too big for my shrinking frame. (I was delighted to discover, when I weighed myself this morning, that I am down by a shade over 40 pounds from my peak less than a year ago. But I still have a long way to go before I reach my “ideal.”) Assuming the modifications to the shirt are right this time, I may order another one, in the hope they can duplicate the “fit” exactly with another fabric (or, perhaps, the same fabric with a different pattern/design). And what is a trip to Little Rock without a trip to Costco? I only hope we can exercise some restraint and buy only what we really need and/or will use before its “expiration date.” Sometimes, in the presence of attractive things, it seems my innate greed is unleashed—with a vengeance. That is a personality flaw—one of many—that warrants dedicated corrective attention. We shall see, shan’t we?
I had a series of dreams last night and early this morning. In one, I was in the driver’s seat of a car, with several passengers, on a ferry and was attempting to find a path off the boat right before it was to depart its dock. In the confusion of near-darkness, I finally found a way off the vessel by going the wrong way on an entry ramp. But as I was leaving, I realized the car’s headlights would not stay on; I worried that, invisible to to other cars in the heavy traffic, I would get into an accident. The dream disappears from my mind at that point. Another one popped up. I was with someone else in a very loud, crowded restaurant at an airport. We were in a rush to leave because we were trying to change flights to get one earlier…or something like that. We left the restaurant and went to a kiosk just outside. As we attempted to change our flights (as the kiosk kept spitting out torn boarding passes), a waitress ran out of the restaurant, holding my American Express card, and said “we do not accept American Express.” I gave her another card and she disappeared. (Apparently, in my dream, it did not seem odd that I would have left my credit card.) We kept trying to get the tickets changed, to no avail. And the dream goes away.
And it’s time for breakfast! I may have an egg, a baked tomato, and a little slice of ham. And I will be grateful for it and for my breakfast companion.
You got me thinking today about my childhood family always saying “Thanks” before a meal. Usually said by my father, it was a couple of sentences, never exactly the same. A good practice even without belief in a deity, I think.