I am writing this in Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport, Dec 31, watching the mass and mess of humanity – including families bustling home after Xmas and, exhaustingly, a youth going to New York just for New Year’s Eve. (As my flight is an hour and a half late, my New Year is now going to commence in the higher sky …)
Family life provides umpteen opportunities to practice patience and kindness, especially when it involves the care of small children or elderly or unwell adults. Notwithstanding that the love in families can be a wonderful thing, and I have just had a very enjoyable time with my parents and other fab family members, my observation has been that family life is challenging at all ages and in all countries.
One drawback of family life can be that we are bound to the same people whether we get on with them or not, that we can get stuck into grooves of thinking and behaving that are not necessarily helpful, and that this can cause underlying frustration even at the best of times. Looking around this airport, a small slice of life, a small slice of time, I can see hundreds of little annoyances and minor desperations. A mother right next to me saying wearily over the sound of her wailing child: “We’ll get him to suck his dummy during take-off if we need to; he won’t eat anything now.” An argument between a couple in Costa. And one full-blown tantrum at the security gate.
I said goodbye to my 81-year old dad at East Finchley tube station this morning, and a woman standing nearby saw that he was a bit mournful as he lumbered back to his car (my dad likes me.) In a South African accent, she asked how old he was, and then pointed out her husband, who is 83, and volunteered, “All our friends are getting older and iller and dying.” Of course, I couldn’t then pass up on this opportunity to chat as I have been thinking a lot of late of the challenges of worldly life; so we ended up traveling together to Warren Street tube where she and her husband got off.
She told me she had read a book called Letting Go, recently, and was experiencing a bit of an “awakening” as she found independence from her husband (only 74, she has decided to go on lots of mini-trips on her own without him if he can’t come with her, for example to Vienna.) She is no longer interested in being taken for granted, used as a hotel, and blamed for everything by her three 50+ kids – I agreed that they may respect her more if she starts to live her own life and respect herself, that she has already done quite enough for them, including giving them their bodies (“and much much more”, she added darkly).
Also, everyone, even those for whom we feel most responsible, has their own path and karma, and so we can only do so much. Her morbidly obese daughter, who was rushed to ER recently, has always blamed her mother for everything, and her mother has always worried herself sick about her; but this daughter is now in the care of professionals and her brother, an ex-Israeli soldier, who is insisting she finally take responsibility for her own life — leaving her mother to declare on the London tube, “I feel free for the first time in years!”
It was a brief encounter, but a meaningful one. She wanted my blog URL, and thought I might write about her; and she may even be reading this now.
Shantideva says that people attached to a worldly life experience many problems with little reward:
They are like a horse forced to pull a cart,
Who can grab only an occasional mouthful of grass to eat.
In the old days of Buddhism, it was more traditional to give up on worldly life altogether and take yourself off to a monastery or a mountain cave. (Tempting!!!) But this is the modern world and, thanks to the patience and skill of my teacher Geshe Kelsang, this is modern Buddhism – so we are finding ways to install mountain caves into our living rooms next to the flat screen TV, Fisher Price truck, or zimmer frame, or maybe in a quiet spot in our bedrooms. Everyone can learn to meditate and follow a spiritual path both on and off the meditation seat; this is no longer the province just of monks and Yogis, and it’d all be over if it was.
Being practical can be helpful and, dealing with an illness, my folks and me did a lot of practical things over the last couple of weeks, adjusting day by day to the “new normal”. But in some ways this confirmed that we cannot solve our actual or inner problems outside the mind.
We need to know how to develop and sustain inner peace as everything slides away from us, basically out of our control. No one ever gets out of here alive, and leaving these bodies, whether quickly or slowly, is usually pretty challenging for ourselves and everyone else concerned.
The pilot (for I am writing this paragraph later, now on the plane, while experiencing an on-rolling sunset!) just described this as a “long-haul flight”; which made me think that we really do have to haul these meaty bodies about all over the place for years, sometimes under our own steam, sometimes with the help of a Boeing 747. Until they fall over and we can’t get them up again.
I have to quote this from Bill Bryson’s latest book that I just brought in WHSmiths at the airport:
The worst part about ageing is the realization that all your future is downhill. Bad as I am today, I am pretty much tip-top compared with what I am going to be next week or the week after. I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old now for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time.
However, taking charge of our own minds (while we still can) does require some determination — going inwards to solve our human problems isn’t automatic in our busy, distracted society. Right now, for example, in the airport, I am surrounded by sensory stimulation – music straining to be heard above the noise, ads everywhere, shops galore, and pretty much everyone — except those in a hurry to queue for their planes or vainly trying to stop their children barging into strangers — on their smartphones. I am tuning this all out now to write this.
It’s not a bad idea (UK English for “it’s a good idea”) to take time off from the constant hectic blare to go inward every day, even if it is only 10 to 20 minutes, or even if it is only the few minutes in the gaps between activities, if we can tear ourselves away from our gadgets.
It is also a good idea, if and when we can, to treat ourselves to some retreat. And I am very grateful that I and thousands of others in this tradition have the opportunity to do just this in January. This is because I find that meditation is what makes sense of everything or anything, including all this ridiculous ageing, sickness, and death stuff. I mean, really, it is so bad it’s almost funny. Bill Bryson says, in what is supposed to be a funny book:
There are other scenarios that involve catheters, beds with side railings, plastic tubing with my blood in it, care homes, being lifted on and off toilets, and having to guess what season it is outside – and those are all still near the best-case end of the spectrum.
Laugh a minute, that. And no one escapes it. Unless … and this is the whole point of the spiritual path … unless we use everything that happens to us to help us increase our compassion (to give us the energy, the motivation, the bliss) and our wisdom realizing that this is all just dream-like appearance reflected by our own thoughts (to get us through the door to liberation). Or, as I like to say:
Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. But luckily samsara is not real.
We need to escape from the sufferings of samsara once and for all. From the title of this article, you might have been expecting more about the new Star Wars movie; but I’m afraid I didn’t like it quite enough to write more. However, there was one rather excellent line in it I thought (and don’t worry, this is not a spoiler):
Escape first, hug later.
So, back to some discussion of how to do Mahamudra meditation, really awaken the force within (rather than — sorry, spoiler alert — have a lame stick fight in the forest), and get the hell out of here. Only now I have run out of space, and you have other things you need to do; so we’ll have to wait till next time.