Students, friends, and teachers I had in China often encouraged me gently to adjust to what comes without judging, to do my best and not worry about outcomes in a world where cause and effect are not linear. These skills seemed to help them "be happy" somehow. I wondered if they were things I could learn.
Even if I accept the unAmerican notion that we are not in control of what happens around us, how can I follow my Master's advice to "Be happy!" in the face of the Chinese farmer's "Who knows?" How do I learn to be good at living, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests?
Both Buddhism and Daoism teach that feelings are transient. (Actually, they tell us everything is transient, including our precious selves. This is clearly true, but I grew up in a nation that spends a lot of energy trying to distract us from that thought, so. . . . Feelings are easier.) Feelings are like television shows, Thich Nhat Hanh says—if we don't like what's on, we can change the channel. Everything alternates, said the Chinese Master, then he told two stories about his time in prison.
In the Cultural Revolution, he was jailed and put on heavy work details with many others. To entertain themselves, the prisoners used to save grains of rice from their scant meals, put them on the floor of their cells, and bet on which ant would get to their grain first. (Be happy whatever comes, I guess.) In one of his cells, the floor was covered with water during the rainy season so, every night for a month, he allowed each foot to dry by lifting a knee and standing on one leg for half an hour, then switching.
He survived, he said, because he was optimistic. He accepted alternating yin and yang and tried to be happy and healthy. On our balcony, he settled into a meditative posture in his chair.
"When you go very, very deep in stillness," he said with his eyes closed, "then you begin to dance." He sat quiet, then slowly moved his limbs until he was up and waltzing around the balcony.
"When you are at the height of dancing, then you start to be still." He slowed himself down again and sat in the chair, closing his eyes. Then his eyes popped open, and he looked around the group with a smile.
"Life has many things," he said. "When you are strong, be firm like a rock. When you are weak, be flexible like air. Be happy for everything. Move with life."
It's a practice. Every day every day for fifteen years be grateful for being alive. Turn the channel on my thoughts out of impatience into mindful breathing and a smile. Notice the beauties and opportunities life brings. Move with life.
That's a lot to ask of a deep-steeped individualist perfectionist. It's a lot to practice, but maybe a statewide order to shelter in place gives me a little time.
In case you also have a little time, here are some interesting references:
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!