Stop the Train! I’m alighting…
Monday, January 3rd, 2005
Over the few decades our world has suffered a marked increase in both man-made and natural disasters. One seems to echo the other, in an unholy cacophony of discord and destruction. The more we mistreat the earth and wage war upon it, the more violently Nature retorts. Significantly, both evils are not only rampaging in developing countries but they are now angrily knocking at our doors in the West. We can no longer ignore the effects of our actions in the world believing that we are immune from the consequences. Discontent and dispersion seem to characterize our postmodern condition. In a smash-and-grab culture of instant gratification we are spiraling downwards towards perdition in a train without brakes. Before we make any New Year’s resolutions and plunge blindly into the same old habits, perhaps we should re-examine what it is that we are doing to upset the balance, and what we can do to redress it.
The plastic face of Western culture is hypnotizing the world in an unprecedented way. Our obsession with images – especially our own – obscures us from our real selves. The masks we wear become more real than the face we hide behind them. We create all sorts of comforts and padding to shield us from seeing things as they are. The accelerated speed at which we live makes it very difficult for us to focus and be still. We have become so concerned with results that we have forgotten to enjoy the process. The way we treat the earth as a marketable commodity (especially here in San Miguel), rather than a blessed place to live and nurture our families, is a recipe for unhappiness. This is because we have lost respect for the sacredness of Mother Earth and see her increasingly as a product to profit from. Mobile phones are now attached to our waists and have become part of the human body and computers are now so small they can be held in the palm of the hand. Although these gadgets are designed to improve communication they invariably obstruct it. Despite all our efforts to better our lives, we seem to have more clutter and less time.
Modern civilization is offering something wonderful but what we experience is something entirely different. We’re being seduced into a life of accumulation and debt, conned into believing that more possessions means more happiness. Yet the more we accumulate, the unhappier we become. Retail therapy has turned us into incorrigible consumers. When we grow tired of consuming the things around us, we start consuming ourselves. In an attempt to escape from the horrors of our own existence we turn to alcohol and drugs (including prescription medications) to hide our desperation. We become addicted to all kinds of excesses and obsessions and jump from one to another, dashing around a minefield in search of safe ground. We look around for someone to blame for this sorry state of affairs – our parents, partners, friends or enemies, anyone who can remove our own responsibility from the equation.
Our discontent is reflected in the world around us and its gloominess. Eventually we’re forced to confront our own despair. Technology offers no solution. Nor modern politics. The answers need to come from a spiritual source, a sensitive understanding of our common situation. Being aware of problems on a small scale brings awareness on a larger one. Only if we can begin to see a pattern to our entrapments and fantasies can we begin to break free of them. If we can develop a certain level of awareness at all times, even in our dreams, we can learn to walk a straight path and to be true to ourselves. We need to become aware of the moment-by-moment details of our activities, and also of our collective situation as a whole. How can we do this?
First of all stop the train. Slow everything down. Learn to be still and quiet. Leave the carriage and take a look around. Where are you? What kind of earth are your feet touching? Is the sun or moon out? Are there any trees and open spaces? Is your chest open and your body relaxed? The way you hold your body reflects your mind-stream. Step outside your daily self and a spiritual landscape will begin to emerge around you. Make small adjustments and find your symmetry. How do you relate to your self? Are you always complaining? Address the things you’re unhappy about and move on. Are you in pain? Find the source of that pain and choose to release it. Are you trapped by repetitive negative patterns? Stale repetition causes boredom and stagnation. Shake yourself. Wake up! Do you really want to change? If you do, you can. The most difficult thing is finding the desire to change. Let go of your self-importance and personal history. Focus your attention on the link between you and your death without sadness. Focus your attention on the fact you don’t have time and let your actions flow accordingly. Only under these conditions will your acts have their rightful power. Don’t get back on the train. Stay where you are. Stay alert. Maintain the awareness.
If we are to move forward with awareness we need to develop generosity and a willingness to give. This means just doing what is required here and now, at any moment in any place. We all have good intentions, but this is not enough. We need to couple them with skillful means and discipline, where skillful means involves learning to be precise and direct in every situation and disciple is an attitude of fluidity and strength, not one of rigidity and tightness. As we transcend hope and fear we can develop patience, and cultivate a flowing relationship with the world. We no longer need to fight but can begin to work with joy, energy and tolerance.
The secret to happiness is simplicity. If we focus our desires and choose what we do very carefully we’re much more likely to achieve what we set out to do, now and in the coming New Year. Three fundamental qualities are essential to cultivate for inner peace. Vowing to develop them would make an excellent New Year’s resolution.
Contentment. So often we waste energy on bemoaning the imagined poverty of our existence rather than celebrating the joy of our being. Allow that natural instinct of joy to spring out. However dire our situation most of us enjoy the freedoms and advantages of this life – of being born human, in a central place, with all one’s faculties. How amazing is that? When we learn to be content with what we have, and work with that, then we can enjoy our daily practice – our work and play, family and friends. We can develop our strengths and resolve our weakness. Above all, we can discover time and space to be who we are. And whoever that proves to be, there’ll always be room for improvement!
Stillness. Find space every day for meditation, even if its only ten minutes every morning. Sit quietly and watch your mind. Filter out the moving images and junk. Calm down the monkey in the engine room and an ever rich sense of space and awareness will begin to take its place. Being still helps clear your energy and centre your body. Above all, it helps you to bring balance and equanimity to your being, and to place you in alignment with the universe. When you get up from your sitting practice try to extend the feeling of clarity and awake-ness throughout the day. Allow your meditation to become your action, and your action to become your meditation.
Compassion. Extend your sense of goodness to the world. Try and generate warmth and open communication. Do not take lightly small deeds believing they can hardly help. Drops of water, one by one, in time can fill a giant pot. Look at each being in the eye when you meet them. Smile! This tiny gesture of kindness can light up the universe. Give what you have without regret and try to be loving and forgiving to all, without discrimination. Love the earth that supports your existence and the sky that opens to you.
Maybe we feel powerless to stop wars or tsunamis, terrorist bombs or hurricanes. But if we can work on ourselves in a gentle way we can reduce the conflict and turbulence within, bring simplicity back into our lives and help redress the balance on a universal scale. By translating these teachings into real practice in accordance with the needs and realities of our lives we can develop clear light and wisdom. Imagine what we would be capable of if we became masters of our energy – we would be of the greatest service and benefit to humanity in the present Age. As the Dalai Lama says: “If nine efforts fail, try a tenth.” If you really try to cultivate peace of mind and work for peace and justice in the world you will meet with much failure and disappointment, yet this effort is still very important. If we feel a sense of brotherhood and closeness with each other then we can work together for a better world with joy in our hearts and smiles on our faces.