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.