Staying on the Curb
Try to be mindful and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha. -- Ajahn Chah
Happy 4th of July! One of my favorite childhood memories is spending Independence Day in my mom's hometown of Algonac, Michigan. In Algonac, the week leading up to the 4th was always the "Pickerel Tournament," which consisted of a very rickety but fun carnival and an ongoing fishing tournament,which I completely ignored. The big finale for the week was always the 4th of July parade.
Every year, all 18 of the cousins on my mom's side would arrive at my grandma Lucile's house on the St. Claire River, and take our seats for the parade on the curb in front of her house. We loved watching the variety of cars, floats, bands, and clowns going down the street. We got very excited when the firemen threw candy and bazooka gum to us, and we all slumped a little when the fifth Lion's Club or City Council car passed by, but we never left the curb. We stayed on the curb for a lot of reasons, partly because we were told that a small child in a parade route could be dangerous, partly because we didn't want to miss anything, and partly because sharing the experience could make anything interesting.
Consider our minds. One minute our thoughts are like a marching band, and then like a clown on a unicycle, and then suddenly we have a boring politician's car thought. When we start to watch our mind, we soon realize that it is more like a 4th of July parade than we ever realized. Over the years, we may have developed some rigid preferences for which thoughts we like and which we don't. But the Buddha taught that these rigid preferences and attachments are what cause us most of the suffering in our lives.
So in meditation or savasana, while watching our thoughts, we may notice ourselves getting carried away by pleasant thoughts about the future -- planning our next meal or fantasizing about a situation or a person, and we may lose the chance to be present for our lives as they are. It's as if, while watching the parade, we fall in love with one of the floats and we decide to jump up and grab it. We hold on so tightly that we get dragged along behind the float. We might get a little extra candy, but we also get beat up and miss the rest of the parade. As kids, we were wise enough to stay on the curb, enjoying the candy as it came, and not clinging to any one moment.
Likewise, when difficult thoughts, emotions, or situations arise, we have a tendency to push them away or react in anger. Back then, when the annoying clowns circled the parade route for the 100th time, we didn't get angry and try to hurt them, and we didn't turn away, we just watched them while rolling our eyes at each other, which meant, "Oh, not this again." But we stayed right there on the curb, letting the experiences of boredom and annoyance pass right by. Before we knew it, another firetruck would show up with even more yummy candy, and the anger or boredom would be gone.
And so it went. Float after float after fire truck, after clown, after politician, after Miss Algonac, after band, and on and on. And we just sat there on the curb for hours, taking it all in. And I think if the Buddha had been American, he would have suggested that we watch our life experiences the way a 10-year-old girl watches a 4th of July parade. All sorts of wonderful and difficult thoughts and experiences go by, but we stay on the curb. We let the amazing experiences--like falling in love, meeting a dear friend, having a child, or creating something beautiful--go by. In the same way, we let the difficult experiences--such as losing our loved ones, breaking up with a partner, or facing illness--go by. And just like back in Algonac, we stay on the curb partly because we know we will get hurt if we get hooked, partly because we don't want to miss any of our lives, and partly because we know our community is sitting on the curb with us.
We can enjoy the parade without getting caught up in our preferences or our judgments about it. We can enjoy the candy, and we can get annoyed with the clowns, but we never get off our curb to chase after anything or push anything away. Because it's just a parade, and we know that. And there's always another float going by. Now and then the parade gets stalled for minutes or even hours, but eventually every float passes by, the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Vipassana teacher Phillip Moffit teaches like this:
The alternative to the tyranny of clinging is to fully receive the experiences that arise in your life, knowing them to be pleasant when they are pleasant and unpleasant when they are unpleasant. Certainly you act to avoid the unpleasant and to have the pleasant, but you consciously practice not judging your life by the outcome of your preferences. Instead, you organize and measure your life by how well you follow the intentions that arise out of your values. This is the essence of living the inner life.
So if we miss a parade this 4th of July, we can still enjoy watching the world go by in our minds while we practice yoga or sit in meditation. And we can try to stay on the curb no matter what arises, knowing that if we get caught in attachment, we lose the ability to live the authentic life of intention that we want so much to live. And by staying, we can we truly be independent and free. Enjoy the fireworks!