Toenail Fungus and Happiness
"Only the present moment contains life." -- Thich Nhat Hanh
Some weeks ago, I was getting a pedicure with one of my daughters, and when the polish was off my left big toe, I noticed a dark area that I had never seen there before. I was surprised and I asked the pedicurist what it was. "Oh, it's just toenail fungus." So she slapped some nice pink polish on there and it completely disappeared.
A few days later, I googled toenail fungus (if you ever do this, don't click images) and found out that this is a pretty common concern, but that it clears up much faster if left unpolished. So I took the polish off my toes hoping that it would be gone, but there it was, bigger than ever, a dark black square in the middle of my big toenail. Ugh.
Because I am barefoot at least half of the time, even in the winter, I have been looking at my black toe on a daily basis for a few weeks now. And it isn't getting any prettier. Every time I look at that toe I think, who is this person that has a toenail fungus? Surely not me, a healthy and active yogi. I tell myself that people won't like me if I have imperfect feet, and that fungus toes are simply not cool. How can I be happy with this toe?
Then yesterday I was thinking about how I would like a new fleece jacket for Christmas. And that thought led to a short fantasy about the perfect fleece coat, in which I would look really great. Which led to the thought that brown fleece might be best because it was the color of Buddhist monks robes and therefore would make me look more monk-like and down to earth. Can you see the irony in that? I am embarrassed to admit that I craved a new coat to demonstrate how simple and humble I was.
When I became aware of my thoughts, I had to laugh. Because I could clearly see how I was hooked. The Buddha taught about three forms of craving or tanha which are the root of all of our suffering: craving for sense pleasures (sights, sounds, tastes, etc), craving for being or becoming, and craving for non-being. With both my toe and my jacket, I was dealing with the second type of craving, bhava tanha or trying to become someone. Instead of just being a healthy, humble, cool person in that moment, which would have meant compassionately accepting my toenail fungus and the red fleece jacket already hanging in my closet, I spent that moment fantasizing about becoming a healthy, humble, cool person. Craving is the distance between where we are and where we think we want to be. And that is how the Buddha defined suffering.
As Phillip Moffitt says, we "take birth" in each moment in which we try to create a separate self. When we do this, it isn't that we are bad, it's just that we create more unhappiness for ourselves and others. We can only ever be in this moment. When we crave being another way in a future moment, we lose our ability to actually be the person we want to be in this very moment. If we take care of this moment, the future will take care of itself. The only way to become something later is to be something now. Craving makes us believe that we won't be happy unless we get the object of our craving. In this case, when I have no more toe fungus and am wearing a brown fleece jacket.
"But throughout any ordinary day there are so many small ways where, if you pay attention, you can see how you’re suffering unnecessarily. Awareness sees it and in the seeing of it, there’s letting go and you’ve liberated yourself. So liberation isn’t just a goal. It’s actually a practice. You are liberating yourself in this moment—and that’s all we’ll ever have, these moments. If you have even a little glimpse of clear mind, or that in us which is untouched by any kind of cultural conditioning, it’s hard to settle for anything less. "--Larry Rosenberg, The Art of Doing Nothing.
It's easy to see now how my thoughts did not reflect reality. But when cravings strike the mind, we are often hooked before we have a chance to see their true nature. This is where the practice of mindfulness can really help us. Learning to pause, to get some distance from our thoughts, if only for a moment, allows us the time we need to let go of craving and see our delusions for what they are -- a new brown jacket will not make me more humble and a fungus-free toe will not make me cooler or more loved. But what does create more happiness for all of us is when we live fully in this very moment. The only moment in which we can live.