The old monk was perched on a wall as I walked into the courtyard outside the temple in Hue, Vietnam. He leant upon a crooked stick and his great mustache trailed beside it; almost as long. Through the small crowd of people there, he fixed his eyes on mine, lifted his head, then his wiry hand, and beckoned me over as if he were expecting my visit. As I approached, he shifted position to offer me the warm spot that he had been keeping. I sat. He introduced himself in perfect English and asked of my adventures and listened with alertness to my tales of travel.
After a while, he told me his story. He began with this. “I too am a great traveler! Many years ago I decided that I would go everywhere and see everything, simply by using my mind”.
He pulled from his pocket a ragged collection of photographs, each one protected as best he could with old pieces of clear plastic bag. He continued, “As a teenager I was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. The doctors gave me only a few weeks to live”. I looked at the photograph presented; a skeletal figure in hospital bed, skin as white as the hospital wall. I recognized his features immediately.
“The next day I left the hospital and retreated to a cave close to here. This is where I stayed for one year, and this is where I decided that I was not ready to die; that I still had a purpose to fulfill”.
And so it was that this man had decided to live. He now spent his days in spiritual contemplation, continuing his purpose of the study – and teaching – of wisdom. His days were spent either in his cave or at the temple. That was his path.
I tell this story here, to see how it compares to your answer to last week’s question.
“If I had everything that I ever wanted, including possessions, home, relationships, health, job, money, family; what is it that I would do with my life?”
Many westerners will translate this question to “Ok, what will make me happy?” And this is where we get lost. We grow up in a materialistic and consumer driven culture, being taught every day what we need to be happy, and what is expected of us as individuals. For many, including myself, we are thrown into adulthood clinging to what we have been taught. I won’t say that our childhood teachings are either wrong or right. But they are made up exclusively by someone else’s opinion.
Happiness can be compared to the surface of the ocean. One minute calm and serene, the next thrown up into writhing waves and flying foam. The surface is forever under the control of exterior circumstances. We buy a new car or a bigger house and we are happy. We find a new partner and fall in love and we are happy.
Two years later the car is full of dog hair and a smorgasbord of spilt soda and snacks – it no longer keeps us happy. Our partner turns out to be not the person of our dreams after all, and they no longer keep us happy. And so it goes on .. and on.
As any diver knows, under the surface of the ocean is another world. Currents ease and flow in a glorious seascape. Conditions on the surface have little effect on the steady tidal flow in this majestic scene. The ocean will move with purpose, no matter what is thrown at it. And so it is with fulfillment.
Assume then, for a moment, that happiness is a temporary emotional feeling, pushed and pulled by everyday circumstances that come to us each minute of the day. Now ask yourself the question above again. If you had everything that you wanted, what would you do?
Enter the ego. This is the voice stating “No, no. You can’t do that because of this”, or “You can’t do that because you are not capable of it”. The ego comes up with all the excuses .. and excuses is exactly what they are, and in most cases, we are completely attached to the excuses as well. These are what we call self-imposed limitations.
The good news is that there is a way to sift through the differences between what makes us happy and what brings fulfillment. We look at this next week. In the meantime be thinking about the times in your life when your heart and mind came alive, the times when everything felt right, the times when you rose from bed with vigor, in earnest to make the most of each minute ahead. Make a list.