One authentic step

In the midst of pandemic, social injustice, looming war and apocalyptic climate change, how can we live an authentic and fulfilling life? Everything we put in our mouths, everything we buy, every action we take seems to involve such complex and contradictory ethical choices. How do we navigate all this complexity in a dark, doom-laden environment without feeling exhausted and overwhelmed? These are questions that I have asked myself so often in recent times and which continue to challenge me.

Here is a Buddhist tale that addresses the challenges we find ourselves struggling to navigate.

There was a great bushfire that roared through the forest destroying the homes of the birds and animals. As the fire approached, a little bird grabbed a gumnut and flew to the river, scooped up water in the gumnut, returned to the blaze and dropped the water onto the flames. Then the little bird took the gumnut back to the river and again scooped up water and dropped it onto the flames. Over and over the little bird diligently carried out this task.

On seeing the little bird return again and again to the flames, a wombat called out, “Hey! Little bird! Can’t you see that your gumnuts of water are never going to put out that fire! What the heck do you think you’re doing?!” To which the little bird simply replied, “I know the fire is too great, but I’m doing the best that I possibly can!” And continued on towards the river.

The wombat is asking what is the point of doing something when you know it will not succeed. The little bird knows that the fire cannot be put out by a gumnut of water, but that is not the point: the point is to strive to do the best you can in the face of all odds.

Now, you may be as puzzled as the wombat because this way of thinking is so counterintuitive in our Western way of always being goal-oriented. We’re always striving to get to a goal, striving to achieve. Think of all the time management and productivity apps that are designed to help you “reach your goal” (and believe me, being a perfectionist, type-A person, I’ve tried lots of them!). However, this Buddhist way of thinking is throwing out a different kind of challenge: what if reaching the goal is not as important as the pathway itself? What if your life satisfaction could be found in the simply undertaking the path without ever reaching a goal?

This is indeed quite a challenge! But the reward is actually the release from having to constantly achieve: when focussed on the path alone, there is a great space that opens for creativity and a feeling of joy that comes from being freed from the constraints of being driven by goals.

As a part of my Buddhist ritual every morning, before I start my day, I offer up these words, known as the Four Great Vows:

Suffering beings are numberless, I vow to help them all;
Delusions are endless, I vow to conquer them all;
Teachings are infinite, I vow to master them all;
The Way is unknowable, I vow to embody it.

As you can see immediately, these vows are impossible to fulfill! Nonetheless, as a Buddhist, I commit myself to practicing my utmost to carry out their intent. That is, in the face of the impossible, in which I must acknowledge that have already failed, so to speak, I set my intention to try with all my being to be mindful in all of my thoughts, my speech and my actions. And I do this, knowing that I am going to trip up and make mistakes and never fulfill these lofty aims. But the point is, knowing that failure does not prevent me from committing to try my utmost to honour these vows and strived to live a compassionate life.

So now I am trying to work more with a mindful awareness with all my actions and ethical choices as they appear before me, one moment at a time; being fully aware that, in the same way that I cannot fulfill the vows I made every day, nor can I solve social injustice, or prevent war or climate change. I do not view this as defeatist! Not at all. Knowing my limitations and imperfections and failures, I will work diligently to cultivate wise choices through thoughtfulness about the way my choices impact others and our world.

An authentic life is to be found in the striving: that is the Path. Full catastrophe living means to engage in whatever practices you are able to in order to fully acknowledge that you are doing your best to contribute to your own wellbeing and that of this precious world that we share. There is a deep satisfaction and sense of fulfillment in knowing that you have committed yourself to a course of action regardless of whether that action will ultimately achieve a specific goal. It is always only ever one step but the footprint is authentically your own.

My Grandfather’s Clock

There is a wonderful medieval Japanese folktale that tells of a group of discarded tools and household items, thrown onto a pile of rubbish, who became animated spirit objects called tsukumogami. The tsukumogami, which included abandoned teapots, fans, shoes, scissors, rosary beads, pots, hammers, etc, were angry at their previous owners, who had failed to honour all their hard work by throwing them away, and so they wreaked havoc and mischief on their owners until they are pacified by a Shingon Buddhist ritual. The tsukumogami then became devout Buddhists and subsequently all achieved enlightenment.

It is believed that when they reach one hundred years of age, all tools and household articles become sentient beings. Therefore, there are many rituals held still in Japanese temples where you can offer your used tools and pray for their enlightenment. One lovely ritual, observed annually at temples and shrines throughout Japan on February 8th, is called Hari Kuyo and involves placing your used sewing needles into a block of tofu so that they might retire in a soft place after all their hard work.

In the Shingon Buddhist tradition, all things are said to possess a spirit and thus all things – humans, animals, plants, rocks, fabricated objects – are ‘alive’ and are all capable of being enlightened beings. This stems from the deeper principle that no thing in the whole universe exists as separate to any other thing – we are all completely interdependent. The great Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this “interbeing“. And enlightenment is the deep realisation of the truth of this interdependence.

This belief that everything is alive is also very prominent in the worldview of First Nations peoples and accounts for their inseparable connection to Country, of which they are not only the custodians but Country is an integral part of their very being.

My grandfather’s clock

Many years ago, my grandfather made me a clock: he found the various pieces he needed strewn amid the discarded debris at the local shire rubbish tip in Shark Bay, where he lived in the far north-west of Australia. He found an old clock face, bits of metal to make the workings, some metal tubing cut to fit the clock face, a piece of wood to house it in, and the handle of a discarded sewing machine case.

Although my grandfather died in 1992, the clock remains as the manifestation of the actions of his body moving through the red dusty country of Shark Bay, amid the heat and smells and sounds of the rubbish tip; the actions of his hands manipulating tools, which he also found or crafted, as he fashioned the clock in the hot corrugated iron shed that looked out over the blue ocean on one side and the red desert on the other; the sounds of his breath as he sighed over mistakes or sang snatches of old bush songs.

All of my grandfather’s thoughts and actions and breath are the clock itself, not inside it, but of its very essence and substance. And when I received the clock from his hands, with gratitude and delight, I too became a part of that story, that being, that clock. And of course, in a very real DNA way, I am also my grandfather on a cellular level. And so my grandfather’s clock is a living being, that is at once my grandfather and also not-my-grandfather. The clock and my grandfather and myself all inter-be.

And as I walk past the clock many times every day, glancing at the time, I feel a deep gratitude when I hear his heartbeat tick-tick-ticking in syncopated rhythm with my own heartbeat as we continue to inter-be: my grandfather, the clock and me.

Meditation:
What if everything you interact with is alive? How does that change your relationship to the things around you: your phone, a cup of tea, the trees, the ants, your house, the clouds? Feel your breath flowing out into the living world, feel your breath drawing that living world back into your body. What does it feel like to inter-be with all the things present right now in the space around you?

“Thank you” to Country

Within the grounds of my home temple on Mt Koya, there stands a small Shinto shrine that enshrines the local indigenous spirits of the earth, water, trees and sky. Part of the daily morning ritual for the community of monks and nuns is to stand on the open verandah, facing the shrine in the garden to offer thanks for to the native deities for their continued presence and protection. It is a reverent act of gratitude to Nature.

For over a thousand years, Shinto shrines have co-existed within the same grounds as Buddhist temples throughout Japan, with the two religions supporting each other: simply put, Shinto honoured the spirits of nature, Buddhism honoured the ancestors.

And here where I live, on Bindjareb Country in the Noongar Nation, as part of my daily ritual when I open up the doors to Wabi’an to greet the morning, I recite a prayer in Noongar that was generously written and gifted to me by local Elder, George Walley, in which I thank the spirits and the ancestors for taking care of Country and all who dwell upon it. Just as in Japan, this is a reverent act of gratitude to the local spirits of the earth, water, trees and sky.

In this part of the world, the Noongar word for “thank you” is “yaankga”. You can hear George pronouncing this word here. What is the First Nations word for “thank you” where you live? Why not make it a part of your daily routine to express your gratitude to the spirits of Country in their local language?

Winter Solstice

It is the Winter Solstice: The longest night of the year is a peak Yin time, the time of the year that honours the aspects of feminine energy, embodied in quietude and deep reflection, allowing your body and mind to rest in stillness. Just breathing, just being aware of your breath and the gentle rise and fall of your chest. So still, so peaceful. And yet, within the long dark night is the promise of light to come, as the days now get longer and move towards the warmth and light of the yang warmer months.

Rituals are so important in our lives: they bring our awareness into the cycles of life and our connection to the cycles of nature. They are reminders of the ephemeral nature of our brief lives but also provide us with reminders of the importance of our relationships with one another and with the natural world and to value and honour that relationship.

Midwinter rituals appear in all cultures and very often revolve around the symbolism of fire, lighting the long night and keeping us warm in our hibernation. Do you have a midwinter ritual that helps you to connect to the season that you share with your loved ones? Here at Wabi’an, we light a fire and take some time to reflect on the past year and then to share a warm cup of mulled wine and chat about our hopes for the coming year. Midwinter marks the New Year, so I like to write down my intentions for the coming year and then burn them in the fire as a symbol of my commitment and as an offering of gratitude to my ancestors and to the spirits of this land.

Midwinter is also a peak creative time for all kinds of introspective arts. So take some time to sip something warming, pause, write a poem, whisper a song.

yarning
round the yule fire
on noongar country

Cate Kodo Juno
Wabi’an Yule log

Doomscrolling?

Me too! “Doomscrolling” was the Macquarie Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2020 and throughout the year I embraced it with gusto! I would find myself awake at 3am scrolling through the newsfeeds in Australia, in the UK, in the USA, in the world, reading the latest updates globally for pandemic news and more news on the chaos in America and other political hotspots. It became like a vital urge to know everything. And it developed into a deeply entrenched habit. A bad habit.

Of course, it was natural to be concerned about what was happening with Covid19 and it was indeed sensible to be kept up-to-date and informed. But I found that my mind was in a constant state of ‘noise’, like an annoying buzzing sound in the background of everything I did. When my attention to the pandemic went beyond the need-to-know level and gradually escalated to catastrophising, it began to impact on my mental health. And before I knew it, I was just feeling anxious all the time.

One night, in the wee hours, when I was doomscrolling away, it suddenly hit me that I was constantly feeding this shit to my mind and it wasn’t healthy! The constant buzz of negativity was now becoming like the dark, consuming background to my whole waking (and sleeping or non-sleeping!) life. I wanted to stop this obsession with the news… but how?

There is a teaching in one of the old Pali sutras, which says:

Whatever a person frequently thinks about and ponders, that will become the inclination of their mind. If you frequently think about and ponder unhealthy states, then your mind will incline to unhealthy states. If you frequently think about and ponder healthy states, you will abandon unhealthy states, and then your mind will incline to healthy states.

Majjhima Nikaya 19

There is no doubt about it – any bad habit is very difficult to stop. However, I do believe that the years I have invested in a meditation practice, although clearly is not a panacaea for every mental ailment, did in fact help me. It provided me with an awareness tool that I needed to even realise there was a problem. In the midst of one of my doomscrolling sprees, I had just enough mental space to bring in that sudden awareness that is essential to breaking through a habit you want to change. The awareness is the key and the first step. And of course, as with many moments in our lives, it was simply a “WTF am I doing?” moment!

So here’s how I changed my doomscrolling habit. This was my own process and I found something that worked for me, but that doesn’t mean that this particular solution will work for you. Nonetheless, I think the underlying process is a useful tool that you could adapt to your own personality and inclinations.

The first question I asked myself was, “What can I replace the newsfeed with, so that I can begin to cultivate a ‘healthy’ state of mind?” My solution was to subscribe to a feed from Tricycle (Buddhist journal) called “Dhamma Wheel”: a daily quote from a Buddhist sutra, which then has a brief Reflection and a recommended awareness Practice for the day.* So it is just one small thought or action to use throughout the day, which acts as an anchor for my day and provides an alternative background to the doomscrolling.

So instead of turning to my newsfeed the moment I wake up, I read the reflection and just make a note to myself of one thought or action that I can focus on during the day. At the start of this change, I made a conscious decision not to look at the newsfeed after reading the Daily Dhamma, just to try and curtail the habit. It was actually pretty difficult and I was surprised by that! Doomscrolling had really hooked me in.

This method of replacing doomscrolling with reading something inspirational may sound a bit corny, but it has been surprisingly effective. If you’ve been stuck in doomscrolling, I would highly recommend finding some online uplifting daily feed that suits your own personality and try it. There are plenty of offerings out there to suit any spiritual inclination. I actually find the Buddhist Daily Dhamma helpful because it isn’t just a saccharine feel-good inspiration meme, of the kind that proliferates Facebook feeds! Instead, it is giving me something to reflect upon and then act – it is the daily shift to action that has helped me change that doomscrolling habit.

This new practice doesn’t mean that I just turn away from what is happening in the world – well, let’s face it, that is pretty much impossible anyway! No, I’m still aware of the headlines but I’m no longer actively engaging with doomscrolling – it is no longer an anxiety producing buzzing. Instead, I can remind myself throughout the day of the note I’ve made first thing in the morning, which becomes a gentle humming background instead. It’s such a relief 🙂

*Just to let you know, “Dhamma Wheel” is a paid subscription, which acts as an engaging year-long course in Buddhist teachings from Tricycle’s online courses, but you can also get a free “Daily Dharma” inspirational quote from Tricycle by subscribing with your email address, which also link to an online article.