Friday, September 1, 2017


I don't know about you, but I still can't seem to get settled.

It's easy to find all the superficial, external reasons: a world--particularly an America--gone mad with racial confrontation and other expressions of political and social dissension; nature seemingly taking her revenge on the mistreatment we humans have accorded her, admonishing us with storms like Harvey in Texas and, further afield, dreadful monsoon seasons in India, Bangladesh, and other Asian lands, and deadly mudslides in South America and Africa; unending wars and violent confrontations in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere throughout the world; truculent nuclear bomb and missile tests in North Korea, with the prospect of that small, rogue country's ability to send a warhead to obliterate us in Los Angeles and all along the West Coast of the country; and widespread outbreaks of disease, hunger, and famine. Here in once-temperate Southern California, our heat waves are becoming increasingly unbearable. We have another one right now.

And so on. I have by no means exhausted the list. A century ago, perhaps less, all these events--or most of them--would have seemed remote from our daily lives. Not that there would have been any less human turmoil, but news of it would not have reached us quite so readily. During World War II, for example, when I was growing up in England, the "media" were BBC radio and the daily newspapers. I remember distinctly to this day the sound of Big Ben announcing the nine o'clock news. The family would gather around the radio for the important occasions--a speech by Winston Churchill or His Majesty the King, news of victory in Europe and, eventually, Japan. But the voices of news reporters, familiar though they would become, came from some distant, abstract place, and the news they brought did not directly affect our daily lives.

Perhaps these news reports from the external world unsettled my parents more than they did us children, but we all remained relatively protected in our little village, in our private schools. We viewed the war from, mostly, a safe distance--though a Messerschmidt fighter did crash land in a nearby field, and we nightly watched the searchlights play amongst the silver barrage balloons. And if ever we got to go to the cinema--a rare occasion--there were the newsreels, depicting a more or less sanitized war. But today, it's different. Unless we purposely shut them out--and I choose not to, out of some deep, abiding sense of obligation to remain conscious of what is happening in my world--we have high-definition television images streaming into our living rooms. We have the instantaneity of the Internet, reporting simultaneously from all parts of the world, north and south, east and west, with unceasing, rapid-fire insistence. All of which was unimaginable, no more than a half-century ago.

It seems, then, today, that in addition to the inevitable petty problems of our personal lives, every one of the world's great woes can impinge upon our state of mind. Watching, for example, news about the Texas floods, we bear witness to the constant, overbearing evidence of impermanence: homes gone in an instant, possessions lost, everything that had seemed dependable and real swept mercilessly away by unpredictable raging waters. How is it possible to see such events unfold without the realization that everything around me in this little cottage I inhabit could be snatched away from me in a similar instant of disaster--here in Southern California, more likely wildfire, or the dreaded Big One. The dharma teaches me that nothing that I think I own is truly mine, and my mind is capable of grasping and acknowledging that fundamental truth. And yet it's all philosophy until I witness it in actuality, in real time.

So, too, with life itself. This morning on the television set I watched an interview with a mother who lost every one of her four children, along with two other members of her family, to the Texas floods. Children! Whose whole life lay, seemingly reliably, ahead of them! I myself am still alive--as this blog bears witness--after more than eighty years. We can expect no justice, of course, in the allotted span of our lives; each one of us is as vulnerable as the next. The dharma reminds us of this immutable truth. And yet... the body-mind is less prone to accept it. We prefer to pursue our lives under the delusion that we will live forever, until some forceful reminder comes along to rub our noses in the reality of our very personal, very human, very unappetizing impermanence.

Actually, to tell the truth--and compounding my problem in arriving at a place where I feel as truly settled as I would wish to feel--I am much aware, these days, of the brevity of the time left to me here on earth. If my mind should chance to forget it, my physical body is there to re-mind me. I need only glance at the wrinkled skin and the age blotches on my arms, and there I am: unsettled, by the knowledge of my impermanence. Some not very long time hence, this body will no longer be "mine" to inhabit. A difficult thought. It's personal, it's immediate, it's unavoidable. Oh, I hear a ninety-something year-old boast that he or she feels not a day older than twenty, that age is just a number. And I know what they mean, I am thrilled for them--even as I inwardly fault them for what I judge, in my arrogance, to be a kind of refusal to acknowledge the truth. Deep down, I insist to myself, and beneath the easy denial, they must surely share my sense of physical and emotional insecurity. But, I don't know, perhaps not.

How to get settled, then, in the circumstances I describe? The first step, in my personal view, is the recognition and acceptance of reality. So long as I hide some truth from myself, I am convinced it will lurk somewhere in the inner recesses of the mind and make itself known in inappropriate ways. Perhaps the most common of these is anger, buried deep, and bursting forth in unwelcome and unattractive eruptions. And then, related to the anger, there is fear. And grief, which manifests as fits of uncontrollable depression. But once I manage to expose the truth to the light of day, it becomes more possible to observe it with something more like equanimity: there it is, there's nothing I can do to change it, might as well just keep it in mind and return my attention to that other, more insecure but strangely more enduring truth: the present moment. The breath, I have learned, is the best help I can get.

But listen, it's all very well to know all this, as I think I do, in that part of the brain that is satisfied with nice logical explanations. The hard part is the practice of it. My daily meditation is my refuge, though clearly--since I persist in this feeling of never being quite settled--I have not yet, in more than twenty years, acquired the skills I need to find true equanimity. I'm still working on that...

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