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Lions Roar : September 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN SePteMBer 2009 95 you overcome the sting and virulence of your naturally arising negativity, and return to the feeling of being alive, you will think more clearly about what matters more and what matters less in your life. You will see that regardless of your conditions you can partici- pate in what matters most. You will see that in the big picture of things, you have what you need and there is plenty to be grateful for—and plenty to do based on this gratitude. You may not have as many impressive appointments to keep as you did when you were busy with your high-powered job. But you have more time to keep up with friends and family—to call and say hello, how did your day go, happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy holi- day, and, oh yes, I love you and am glad you are in my life. You may not be able to afford a fancy gourmet meal or the person who comes to clean the house, but you can prepare with great care some steamed greens with olive oil and lemon and share it with someone you love, and clean up the house yourself, noticing, maybe for the first time, how good the workmanship is on this dining room chair as you dust and polish its legs. Living more slowly and simply—although this may not be what you wanted or expected—may not turn out to be so bad after all. My personal reference point for material happiness is a mem- ory I have of my days at the Tassajara Zen monastery, where I lived for five years when I was young. Tassajara is in a narrow mountain canyon that can get pretty cold in the winter months, when very little sun gets in. Our rooms in those days were un- heated, so the cold really mattered. I remember winter mornings standing at a certain spot in the center of the compound, where the first rays of the day’s warm sun- light would come. So far, no material luxury I have encountered surpasses this, and I feel it again every time I feel the sun’s warmth. Hard TIMeS are paInfuL and no rational person would ever think to bring them on intentionally. Quite the contrary, ordinary human day-to-day life is mostly about trying to avoid the financial, health, romantic, and psychological disasters that seem to be lurking around every corner. So we do not valorize or seek out what is hard or unpleasant. Yet disasters are inevitable in a human lifetime, and it is highly impractical not to welcome them when they come. Hard times remind us of what’s important—what’s basic, beautiful, and worthwhile about being alive. The worst of times bring out the best in us. abundance and an excess of success and good fortune inevitably bring complications and elaborations that fill our lives with more discrimination and choice. We like this, and seek it, but the truth is that it reduces joy. We are less appreciative of what we have. Our critical capacities grow very acute, and we are always somewhat skeptical of whatever excel- lence we are currently enjoying, ready to reject it in a moment, as soon as something we recognize as superior comes along, wheth- er it’s a new phone or a new spouse. When there’s less, there’s more appreciation, more openness to wonder and joy, more capacity to soften critical judgment and simply celebrate what happens to be there, even if it is not the best, even if it is not so good. It is and there’s a virtue merely in that. The sun in the morning and the moon at night. I remember my friend Gil, like alan also gone now, who went to India to relieve the misery of poverty-stricken villagers by offering them ex- pert eye care. He was shocked to gradually realize that these des- titute, ill-schooled villagers were happier and wiser than he and his prosperous, well-educated friends in San francisco. This is when Gil began his spiritual practice. In retrospect we can see that the last fifty years or so of ever- increasing prosperity and opportunity have been based on an enthusiastic, exuberant, and naive lust for material goods—as if the goods themselves, and not our satisfaction in them, were the source of our happiness. That lust so raised the bar on what we expect to possess—the houses, cars, vacations, gadgets, informa- tion—that we have lost all sense of proportion and have forgot- ten almost entirely how our ancestors lived and how most of the world still lives. The various economic bubbles produced by that exuberance have proved to be much shakier than they seemed when we were in the midst of them. Most experts on the economy predict a slow period of a year or more, to be followed, inevitably, by a return to the upward- reaching growth economy we have come to feel is as reliable as a law of nature. But suppose they are not correct. Suppose we are reaching limits on a limited planet, and that we are in for a long period of reduced circumstances. What if in the future we won’t have top-notch medical care, high-performance cars, houses, and abundant energy? Such an eventuality might cause a crisis of de- spair due to dashed expectations, and usher in the sort of dysto- pian nightmares we’ve seen in movies or novels, with chaos and violence everywhere. Or it could bring the opposite—more hap- piness, more sharing, more wisdom, bigger hearts. More people growing gardens, cooking food, working on farms, taking care of others. a slower, more heartfelt and realistic style of living, and a move toward dying at home surrounded by friends and spiritual supporters rather than in high-tech hospitals hooked into alien- ating machines run by busy professionals. This probably won’t be the case; the economists are probably right that things will return to what we have come to call normal after a while, maybe after only a year or two. But even so, it would be a healthy exercise to visualize and celebrate this simpler, spar- er life—and maybe even to live it. ♦ Hard times remind us of what’s important—what’s basic, beautiful, and worthwhile about being alive. The worst of times bring out the best in us. norman fischer continued from page 47