Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity. -Lao Tzu
These words of wisdom brought me out of the slump I found myself in this week. I was stewing over where my path would lead as a teacher of contemplative practices. What path should I take to have the most positive impact in the lives of the people I encounter? How much more volunteering can I do or what should I be doing to make the connections in order to…. or is it too late already – my mind was going 100 miles an hour! Then I woke up to the realisation that my whole focus was on the outcome of my service rather than the joy and fulfillment of actually serving.
Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman wouldn’t have known the impact of their extraordinary work down the road. But they poured their passion into their work and led fulfilled and abundant lives.
Aparigraha is one of the five yamas of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. The yamas, or restraints, offer moral guidance for how we live and relate to ourselves and the world around us. Aparigraha means to take only what we need, to keep only what serves us in the moment, and to let go when the time is right.
To renounce things is not to give them up. It is to acknowledge that all things go away. – Shunryu Suzuki
Aparigraha offers us the freedom to work and do what we love without worrying about the outcome. From this we can gain a freedom to rely less on material possessions and positive outcomes to bring us happiness.
I have been pondering the river metaphor: Life can be a bit like watching all the boats moving slowly down the river. You may see beautiful yachts (or pleasant experiences), nondescript boats (neutral experiences), and garbage barges (unpleasant experiences). It doesn’t work to try to “hold on” to the beautiful yachts and try to make the barges with the swarm of flies go away faster. Everything just floats down the river on the current in its own time. Our lives are just like this; it is a lesson in impermanence (nothing lasts forever) and non-attachment (don’t try to “hold on” to experiences). Be with each boat, or each moment, just as it is.
In SouthEast Asia, hunters have an ingenious way of trapping monkeys. They take a coconut, and carve a hole in the top, and take out the insides of the coconut. Then, they place a tasty morsel, such as a piece of fruit, inside the coconut. They take this coconut, and put it in a tree in such a way that it cannot be dislodged. When a monkey comes along, sees the tasty morsel, and reaches its hand in through the small hole. When he grabs the food, his hand turns into a fist, and he can’t get his hand out of the coconut. The monkey is not willing to let go of the sweet thing and the hunter catches him.
At times we are just like the monkey, holding on to our stuff, our feelings, our opinions and we won’t let go. Even when we are stuck and we can see how much it’s hurting us, we sometimes don’t let go. So what is the solution to this problem? Non-attachment.
Meditation brings us into the now. Being in the now keeps us from becoming attached to the past and future, which are only constructs of our mind. When we are attached to the past, we feel guilt and sorrow for our failures and missteps, when we are attached to the future, we worry about what may happen to us or mistakes that we may make.
“My soul does not find itself unless it acts. Therefore it must act…. But my soul must not project itself entirely into the outward effects of its activity. I do not need to see myself, I merely need to be myself. I must think and act like a living being, but I must not plunge my whole self into what I think and do, or seek always to find myself in the work I have done.” -Thomas Merton