Posts Tagged ‘koans’
I was housesitting, and the homeowners had a collection of daily reflections sitting on the tank of the toilet. I flipped through and decided that I liked the collection well enough to get one for myself (Mark Nepo’s “The Book of Awakening”). I don’t always remember to look in the book, and when I do, I often find the comments and discussion to be sufficient and think no more about it. This time was different.
The koan was: Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.
The discussion was about being born a human and to think about what gifts that brings. It would be nice to be a bird or a tree or even a rock. They can do marvelous things. Or maybe their lack of human thought would be a nice respite. But think, for a moment, what it means to be a human rather than something else—and think what it means to be YOU, specifically. There are things you can do, and DO do, every single day, that no other being can do.
It’s kind of like counting blessings. When you list all the positive things that happen in a day, you start feeling better about your day, every day. In a while, it becomes a habit, to see all the golden sunsets, the birds soaring on a thermal, the well-crafted quilt or pie or computer, the way the laundry smells when it’s fresh out of the dryer.
I have several friends who suffer from depression. This koan made me think of them—how special each was, how much I love them for their strength, their humor, their tolerance of me and all my peculiarities. Could someone else be or do all those things? I doubt it.
Think for a minute about the many great gifts that you have and that you give every day. I often reflect on one friend’s ability to be part of a family. In her case, it’s not an easy thing—that’s why it’s so remarkable. It’s not just that her husband is indifferent to her much of the time, or that she has disabled children, or that her live-in sister is often difficult to be around. It’s that she has the fortitude to stay in the relationships. She could have scarpered. She could have refused the sister’s presence in her home. She could have demanded a divorce and buckets of money. She could have institutionalized the kids. But she stayed. And because she stayed, those four other humans have a decent life. Can’t she see how amazing that is? I couldn’t have done half of that.
Another friend has married a very nice fellow. Oh, some of her family doesn’t understand because he’s so different from how they are. But he adores her. He grows all cow-eyed and mushy when she walks into the room. He thinks she can do no wrong and boasts, all shy and embarrassed, about her many skills, gifts, and beauties. I know her because we share a hobby. She’s always prepared, she always arrives on time, she never asks for anything special, and she always does her best, and her best is pretty darned good. Everyone who knows her can find many things to appreciate. Her hugs and her big soft eyes that look at you with wit and humor are the best things, of course, but I suppose she can’t see those. Even her job is about helping others. Yet she suffers with thinking that she’s not enough.
Still another friend has a wonderful and heroic husband, the kind we all think of as the prototype for Prince Charming. And he chose HER. He chose her because she’s lovely, witty, clever, kind, and patient. She can’t see any of that. Sometimes her cheerfulness seems a bit false or her unwillingness to talk about herself or her current projects reveals her depression, but most of the time, she gets away with her secret. She’s another person whose job is all about helping other people.
One more friend, probably the most intelligent human I have ever met, suffers with this same kind of overwhelming sadness. She’s beautiful, wonderfully well-educated, has a great job that interests her, great friends, many hobbies, and a very quick wit. She’s the first to point out the beauty in something, the symmetry or similarity to some other thing (often pop- or movie-culture), and she makes you laugh so hard that the orange juice you drank yesterday comes out your nose. I admire her more than nearly everyone I’ve ever met (my parents and some of their friends are the only ones who can top her). And she thinks she’s nothing most of the time. She thinks that no one sees her because there have been a few blind fools crossing her path.
All of these women exhibit extreme cleverness, marvelous outside-of-the-box artsy-fartsy-ness. They make and maintain friendships, even with people like me, who tend to withdraw for no good reason (other than being introverted).
I’m not a sad person. I think I understand what my friends go through, but my times of sadness have been caused by something specific (like my mother’s death, or the end of a romance, job, or friendship), and in time, the darkness lifted or changed. I have a tendency to look for and find the silver linings in things. When I can’t find one, I feel desperate and keep looking until I do.
Thinking about this contrast makes me return to the koan. Is it uniquely human to suffer depression or to be permanently—or determinedly—happy?
On my walk this morning, I watched myself put one foot in front of the other. Do I choose to walk like this, the same pattern over and over? Why not put a foot to the side? Why not behind? What is it about that forward motion that’s so mesmerizing? I took a step to the side. I walked with my feet wide apart. I took some steps backward. I turned sideways and walked by crossing my feet grapevine-wise. (This is San Francisco. It wasn’t even REMOTELY a weird thing to do here. No one noticed.)
I thought about the uniquely human act of going for a walk that has nothing to do with getting food or shelter. My walks feel like they have purpose because they’re about health and meditation and writing scenes in my head, but what other animal sets aside an hour of every day for such self-indulgence?
Today, when I reached the bay, I came upon a goose couple with three little goslings, I stopped to watch. They were going for a walk too. They walked to the other side of the path and onto the berm. Then they turned around and walked back, just as I do every day. I walk to the ballpark, walk around the ballpark, walk back home up the hill. What I saw was just like that, those little goslings and their parents putting one foot in front of the other, coming to the turn-around, and heading home, one foot in front of the other.
I walked on and was about to warn a woman walking toward me to give the geese a wide berth (they can be aggressive, especially with the little ones around) when she cried out—”oh! The little ones! And I just saw a seal and her baby! What a beautiful day!”
Her joy made me think about that little koan again. Humans share those little happy moments, even with strangers. We share little triumphs, even little annoyances. Even when the news is bad, it makes my day a bit brighter to know that my friends or a stranger has shared in this uniquely human way, and that I can be counted on for sympathy, advice, indignation, or happiness, as appropriate. We are most human in our responses to the things life brings our way.
Today, I honor the uniquely human part of us all, and I especially honor those people who suffer from depression, especially the ones who suffer who haven’t yet told their friends. Tell them. Tell us. We will love you because that is what humans do in times of trouble. It’s also what we do in the happy times. We might not understand, but we will listen.
Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.