The following is from a chap who has just had a tumor removed from his brain and is now inevitably contemplating mortality and how he approaches the life he has left to live.
The story which seems to make more sense to me than at any time in the past is this one:
A man walking across a field encounters a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
The following is a copy of a Facebook ‘post’ sent to me by the author who wanted me to have the opportunity to choose a book. Publishing here because….well, you can imagine why because.
An Exercise in Letting Go (Or, ‘Let me give you a book.’)
For a long time, I’ve felt like the dozens of books I take with me from place to place, and the hundreds more in various storage locations, are like horcruxes (look up that word). I’ve felt that each is an intimately personal treasure, close to my hand, or locked away safely with the people I trust the most. In reading them, they changed me, and with my highlighting, my underlining, and my exasperated and sarcastic annotations, I returned the favour. Saccharine as it sounds, I took them to form some part of my identity. Not just that they have supported the development of my thinking processes, perspectives on life, and prejudices, but that ‘having a lot of books’ is an important part of who I am. I am a reader. Intelligent. Intellectual. Thoughtful. Reflective. Moreover, owning an amount of books that is hopelessly impractical for my lifestyle choice (fairly low-earning, fairly nomadic) seemed like a sort of promissory note to myself: one day I am going to have the lifestyle that I think is befitting of these books. I suppose what I had in mind by that was being an Oxbridge don, with an office of wall-to-wall bookshelves and living to be made by thinking, reflecting, and generating and discussing ideas. But, in fits and starts, I am beginning to understand that neither attachment to some identity, nor attachment to some outcome, is doing me much good. No moment is ever going to be more worthy of my joy than right now, because right now is all I have. Letting go of an attachment to some identity; letting go of an attachment to some outcome, is letting happiness in. 🙂
Twee Buddhist sentiments aside, I’m getting rid of my books. I’m holding on to a lot of them- the stronger the attachments, the longer it’ll take to feel ready to let go. I’ve catalogued the ones I’m discarding, thanking each for what it’s taught me, and writing a small response to each: part epitaph, part sales pitch. I’m going to put them up for sale in the coming weeks, but before I do that, I want to offer each of you the gift of a book, in the hopes that I might spread a little joy your way. Yours E.
This chap is currently selling his books through the University system however when they become publicly available I’ll post the list. The epitaph/sales pitch he has written for each book is worth a read and speaks volumes.
The quote below by Wendell Berry echoes a recent text conversation with a friend. The texts referenced a decision I’d made while on an early visit to Throssel in around 1979. I’d decided I would take the steps to become ordained as a monk. My decision was set in the context of a life which had hit against a wall. And I was open. To make sure I didn’t go back on the decision I’d written a note with ‘I Know’ confirming what I ‘knew’ and put it with my toothbrush. It would be the first thing I’d see in the morning – the best of us go back on decisions especially ones which are life changing. More than one bride/bridegroom has been left standing at the altar!
The Wendell quote came recently in an email from a chap I’d met at Throssel. He was telling me about developments in his life since coming on an Introductory Retreat. Last year I believe. The words summed up an understanding he had come to.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Friend: Your phrase ‘I know’ has been burning into my brain since I heard you say those words! Incredibly powerful and helpful. 6.20 pm
Me: Errm, in what context did I so impress you with my words ‘I know’? 8:56 pm
Friend: We were talking about the note you left for yourself about deciding to become a monk. It was so powerful and decisive. 10:17 am following day.
Me: Now I remember. In a sense I think one always ‘knows’ and the stuff of life is sifting through ‘the rest’! And allowing that to fall away, recycle etc. My ‘I know’ was life changing and the rest did fall into place. Magic! And still does, given patience. 10:37 am
So, The impeded stream is the one that sings. How amazing is that?
Hold a true friend with both your hands.
Amen to that! And my new friend? Blencathra, mountain of all mountains. Last Monday I walked up one (of a number) of the ‘edges’ that lead to the top. Perfect weather with views out to the very edges of the Lake District. A day to remember with an inside smile. But that’s how I’ll remember today. Nothing dramatic. And yesterday visiting a long time known Buddhist trainee living on one of the edges of the Lakes, Walney Island. The high fells stretching like a frill across the skyline, from one side of her living room window to the other.
Yes, I’ve been taking the opportunity to get out and about and to climb up into the mountains. How fortunate am I? Great Stickle, Swirl How, Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell and the Old Man of Coniston. High Street from Haweswater and more. On the Band and back again, for more. The names are the stuff of poems, there is a rhythm in their walking and I’ve chanted their names as I’ve neared the end of a long day walking.
Yes, and I’ve taken the opportunity to get out and about and meet old friends. How fortunate am I? By phone and email, driving and Skype calling. No mountain climb, however testing, can ever match up to the lived-lives of the people I’m privileged to spend time with. Many of their names I remember as I walk and chant a verse for. Each morning.
It’s the end of a long day and a long hot summer. With rain beating down on the skylight of my just-moved-into new room I’m thinking. Thinking that all experiences pass, relationships all end, shelter keeps the rain out no matter where it is and being able to smile in adversity helps.
I’m smiling now, inwardly, remembering the long crampon scratch marks on rocks high on Crinkle Crags. Winter walking? Winter talking? More towards the level of the sea, around Morecambe Bay, visiting an elderly woman there. Enjoy the Autumn golds and perhaps the Winter whites.
From a reader:
I would like to thank you (Mugo) for the link to Reverend Saido’s video on The Four Noble Truths. I found it very helpful indeed, particularly his reference to the need for being careful in the event of the falling away of a ‘chunk’ of the ‘stuff’ pointed to in box one.
This mention of stuff falling off reminded me of something that happened very early on in my life. Why should the falling away happen to a four year old, as it did for me? It was not as if I’d been intentionally practicing anything specific at that age. What, in general terms, did/does it mean for the rest of my life? The following thirteen years were lived in ignorance of what exactly had happened that day?
Now, decades on I wish to at least try to convey a feeling of the event:
Gazing at the blue sky
Fluffy clouds drifting across
Suddenly present way, way up
Nothing but vast light-space-distance all around
Wonderful, wonderful boundlessness, everything encompassed
Whilst returning/descending, a great falling away from within
Rendered transparent, utterly clear, no body here at all
And yet someone still returned
The whole world now my home, the whole sky my roof
Intimate/loving everyone, wanting to know about their lives, but how to ask?
I feel privileged to have known it, although known and it are not quite right. I never have understood why this should have happened and the certainty/clarity I was left with evaporated in time.
Over the years I’ve tried to leave the door open and remain receptive, being careful not to strive for understanding or cling through Zen practice to the experience. And there has been the help of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey and Reading Priory.
Thanks to Ross for this. Many people struggle with this sort of experience when young, as in this case, and when older too. Most often there is no context, such as a faith tradition, to help somebody to fully appreciate the meaning of such an experience. I’m glad he found guidance.