How well do you deal with life’s ups and downs? If you’re anything like me (and you’re honest about it), the probable answer is, not very well. When unexpected and undesired things happen, the inevitable first reaction is, “No! I don’t like it. I don’t want to and I won’t!” We never really outgrow our tantrum-throwing 5-year old self, it seems.
And yet, change is the only reliable truth about life. In Buddhism, they say you are dying every moment and being born anew every moment. Nothing stays still.
Since it’s unavoidable, it’s worth figuring out how to ride the ups and downs. Otherwise, we’re doomed to being miserable most of the time, and that’s no way to live.
There is a famous Zen parable that inspires me in my more challenged moments.
Many centuries ago, there was a Zen monk who lived in a small village in Japan. He was well-regarded by the community and he exemplified good Zen Buddhist conduct. He was what people expected from a Zen monk and they revered him for it.
One day, the family of a young woman came angrily to his home, the young woman in tow. As people gathered, the parents loudly berated him for having illicit relations with their daughter, as a result of which she had gotten pregnant and delivered a baby. The villagers were furious to hear this, and quickly joined the parents in hurling insults at him. They maligned him, passed sarcastic and scornful comments, and overall threw him off the pedestal and into the mud. All the goodwill and respect they used to show towards him disappeared. The parents roughly thrust the baby in his arms and told him it was his responsibility to take care of.
Throughout all this, the monk listened and then said, “Is that so?”
Quietly, he took the baby in and started taking care of it. He fed it, washed it, clothed it. He sang to it to soothe it when it started crying, played with it during the day, and murmured lullabies at night to put it to sleep. He rearranged his life to make room for this new person that had come unwittingly into it.
Months passed by. One day, the family of the baby came back to his door, the young mother sheepishly following them. She had confessed that the real father was another young man from the village, and she had panicked when discovered by her parents to be with child. In her flustered state, she had taken the monk’s name falsely. The parents were ashamed and came to ask for his forgiveness. Fully repentant, they now wanted to take the baby back to raise it themselves.
The monk listened to them patiently and at the end, asked, “Is that so?” He turned and brought the infant to hand over to its grandparents and mother. As they walked away, he turned back into his courtyard to pick up his morning chores.
I love this parable for the way it makes mindful living real and relatable. Noble, esoteric concepts are all fine and good, but their true power lies in translating them into ordinary living.
The monk was falsely accused of bad conduct, his reputation was ripped into tatters, and he was given a massive, unexpected responsibility when he had nothing to do with it. Then, when he was taking care of the baby, it was unexpectedly taken from him. His life was disrupted not just once but twice, and in big ways.
Through it all, he is undisturbed. He does what he needs to do. He goes through all the actions that are so banal and boring – burping the baby, sweeping the house, cooking the meal. He does not get caught up in the way his reputation is smeared. He does not obsess about his loss of standing and regard in society. He does not get angry about the way he was treated so badly and unfairly. He simply goes about the day, responding to what it has presented to him. Nothing more and nothing less. This all there is to do. This is the aspiration.
Would I be able to do it? Would you? Every day throws upheavals our way. They’re usually nowhere near what it must feel like to be given a baby to take care of. And yet, we easily and quickly lose our balance. We get frustrated, we fume, we fret. We cling to what should be, feel affronted by what is, long for what used to be. By the end of it, we are drained by our anger and anxiety and left restless and unhappy.
This is not mindful living. This is resisting the flow of ups and downs. We would all be better off if we could conduct ourselves like the monk. Missed your train? Okay, wait for the next one. Got given a new project with short deadlines? Okay, do what you can to your best abilities. Got a project taken away? Okay, shift your focus to the project you still have and make it shine. Fought with your partner? Okay, listen to their anger, accept their emotions, respond with love, calmly.
Mindful living is nothing more than being aware and responding to the present moment. No attachment to thoughts, no clinging to the past memories or future hopes. To respond appropriately, and not in a reactive manner, it requires a calm, unstirred, unconfused mind.
Difficult to achieve, bountiful in imparting true joy and happiness.