When the Buddha Came to Dinner

I’m not running
I’m not hiding
I’m not reaching
I’m just resting in the arms of the great wide open
Gonna pull my soul in
And I’m almost home

– Mary Chapin Carpenter

Jake and I were talking about fears. Not your average dinner table conversation.  But somehow we had woven our way to a very powerful question –  “What’s your biggest fear?”

Jake bravely stated, “I’m afraid of commitment.”  And I thought to myself, oh yes, that fits.  He is leery of choosing just one path – he doesn’t like defining a direction that’s too certain, or a goal that’s too bodacious.  His argument is that things change (life, people, the weather, whatever…). You can’t predict that one path with any certainty, so why bother?  He’d rather stay flexible, and react to new information, whether that new information comes from what he learns about himself, or what he learns about the environment.  If you are familiar with Myers-Briggs personality theory, this is the P(Perceiving) preference strongly extroverted.  I am reminded of something he said many years ago in early high school that cracked me up at the time, but stuck with me.  In response to a push from me on why he didn’t sign up for the hardest class right out of the gate, he said:  “I’ll be smarter next year.”  It’s pretty hard to argue with that.  Jake may balk at planning out his next five years, but give him a gnarly problem that requires analysis, organization and step-by-step integration (e.g., pack a moving van leaving no unused space, put together a bookshelf, or develop comprehensive logistics for a weekend camping trip), and he has no equal.

Then it was my turn. “What’s your biggest fear, Mom?”  I sat and thought, trying to formulate a response that was pithy, but not too dark and depressing.  While I hesitated, Jake said, “I think your biggest fear is the exact opposite of mine.  You’re afraid of NOT committing.”  You’re afraid of NOT always having a goal or a plan.”  Well, damn.  I think he nailed it.

My reaction to his statement would normally have been incredulousness.  Well that doesn’t make sense! How is that a fear?  Of course everyone knows it’s very important to always have a plan!  But coincidentally – or maybe fortuitously – I had just finished reading a little book by Thich Nhat Hanh, called You Are Here.  Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the best known Buddhist teachers in the West.  You Are Here is about the practice of mindfulness and its capacity to transform one’s life.  The heart of the practice is to learn to be present in the here and now.  “Here and now” is the address of happiness, the address of life.   And happiness is accessible twenty-four hours a day, if we only know how to find it.

To cultivate mindfulness, we must first, STOP, and second, LOOK DEEP.  This sounds simple, but in fact is very hard. You can’t look deep until you have stopped.  And apparently stopping is very, very difficult for us humans because we’re always running – running toward something (craving or clinging), running away from something (aversion or avoidance) or twisting everything up while running (delusion).  These are called afflictive mind states, and they keep us from experiencing happiness (which, remember, is always there, inside us, if only we could just stop and see the damn thing.)

But here’s the part that clicked into place when Jake shared his perception of my fear.  One of the Buddhist practices to cultivate deep looking is called apranihita, or Aimlessness.  Aimlessness is actually a good thing (huh?) – a form of concentration, one of the three practices of deep looking recommended by the Buddha.  Aimlessness means not setting an object or goal in front of you and running after it. Nhat Hanh says, “We want this, we want that, and as long as we haven’t got it, we think happiness will be impossible.”  So – if you’re running toward/from all that craving/aversion, all that wanting/hating, you are most definitely NOT savoring happiness. When you learn to suspend your forward motion, and land – i.e. STOP – in the present moment, you are home. You are there.

The techniques to develop the discipline of mindfulness, and subsequently, to learn to rest comfortably in it, are complex, and can take years to master.  And frankly, practicing pure aimlessness in today’s world is not practical (unless you are the recipient of a very large trust fund.)  I can say with some amount of certainty that I am not going to stop making big plans — or stop wishing that my dependents would start. The message I want to take away is that you should carefully study the object – the desire – that you are chasing when you make that big plan.  You should practice ‘deep looking’ at this object, and contemplate the feelings of attraction/aversion that prompt your running.  And, most importantly, you can – and should – veer off the path frequently to just stop and sit.  Stop and realize that you can ‘arrive’ at any moment.  In fact you have already arrived.

On my drive home from eastern North Carolina today, I pulled out an old CD that has always been one of my favorites.  In Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, The Long Way Home, she sings about the best laid plans of driven, successful people who “had to go, had to be, had to get somewhere.”  They “arrive”, but have forgotten what got them there.

But there is an alternative:

Or you could be the one who takes the long way home
Roll down your window, turn off your phone
See your life as a gift from the great unknown
And your task is to receive it
Tell your kid a story, hold your lover tight
Make a joyful noise, swim naked at night
Read a poem a day, call in well sometimes and
Laugh when they believe it

Now THAT is truly arriving.

5 thoughts on “When the Buddha Came to Dinner

  1. Great post, Jeri! Both of you are right. It’s the balance of being focused on something and being flexable enough to let it go when it becomes overwhelming.

    I had no idea you were doing a blog. I’m happy you are. love your photos and your writing!!


    • Oh yes, Mary, I surely am a strong J in Myers Briggs! For the life of me, I can not figure out how I ended up with TWO P’s for sons. Both Ben and Jake are P’s.

  2. Jeri I love this. I’ve been reading a lot of Thich Nhat Hahn recently in preparation for teaching “Seeing with Quiet Eyes: Photography as Meditation” at the Buddhist Retreat Center in South Africa. You capture so beautifully that life is lived in the present moment and that is where we need to be focused. This is so different from the way society taught us to live, and perhaps the biggest gift we can give our children is to let them know that it is okay to live their lives more aware of the present moment, and less concerned about the future. I always remember the line from a poem by W.H. Davies called “Leisure” that my grandmother quoted to me: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Don’t you love it when our children start to teach us!!! I think Magnus is living this philosophy all the way, he is pretty darn happy, despite the many daily obstacles he faces. Personally I like to seek joy as happiness depends on external things happening to make us happy — joy comes from within, and is more of a state of mind.

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