Thursday, June 23, 2005

Going On Being

There is an old joke that goes something like this: "Plato said that 'to be is to do' while Aristotle said that 'to do is to be.' Then the punch line: "but Sinatra was more correct, he said (or sang) "do be, do be, do..." (Can't you just hear Old Blue Eyes singing that refrain?). I suppose we are all condemned to be doers unless we have dropped out of society or some tragedy has struck our unfortunate lives. The modern holistic movement and all the pop psychology writers place the emphasis on "being" over "doing" and grant the former more importance. Traditional Buddhist psychology also stresses the greater inportance of being as do psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists. I suppose if we look at life in a linear fashion as we age from 0 to whatever age we finally "shuffle off this mortal coil" then doing has more priority as we have to develop and grow and acquire qualifications and work and so forth. However, there are other perspectives on life. Life is not only linear, it can and is cyclic, has depth and height, soul and heart, feelings and emotions, even "emotional intelligence" as Daniel Goleman has so wisely pointed out in his eponymous book. Once we've achieved what we have reckoned to be whatever is "success" in our world view, then we may have time to be... Maybe it is the trials of life that have taught us to "do a little less and to be a little more." For me it was being hospitalized when I was forty for some 7 weeks. For others it could be physical diseases like cancer or a horrible road accident. Perhaps even the loss of a job. Maybe a bereavement or some other frustration in life. We are forced to re-evaluate where we are going, what we have achieved and what is the point of it all. This latter is not a rather general though deep philosophical question, but rather a more personal one of what have I really got out of life, what is life for me, queries which incorporate a host of other questions that relate to my life and how I am living it. Am I wasting my time or am I appreciating what I have got? We have a colleague at school who is always wishing it was holiday time - "only 20 days left to holidays," etc. Another wiser colleague replies: "There you go again, wishing your life away." It seems to me that we can be prisoners either of the past or the future. Those who are prisoners of the past cannot let go of their regrets, their failures, their once good health and looks, their former wealth, their dead partner etc etc. They become stuck in a "slough of despond" as Bunyan puts it in Pilgrim's Progress. Those who are prisoners of the future cannot let go of their fears, fear that mum will pass away, that the wife or husband will cease to love them, that they won't be promoted, that the bottom will fall out of their world in so many myriad ways. (As the old joke has it, it could be worse - the world could fall out of your bottom! Forgive this dreadful inversion!) The secret of all the great religions, and more importantly the spiritualities that spring from them, is to live in the now and to be neither a prisoner of the past nor the future. More easily said than done. The person (or persons), whom you are graced to be with at any specific moment in your life, is (are) the most important person (s) in the world for you at precisely that moment! Think, or rather meditate about that for a while and it will eventually become clear. The secret is to be now, this instant, to celebrate the sacrament of being that is now. These thoughts were provoked by my reading of "Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, a Positive Psychology for the West," by Mark Epstein, M.D. (Continuum, NY, 2001)


John McCarthy said...

A great film, that I think acuratly portrays the Buddist mindset is "Spring, Summer, Winter, Autum & Spring"
It's Korean.

What about,you dont see the beauty around you if your always looking at the horizon.

TQ said...

Thanks James. I'll check that film out. Like your quote about the horizon. I'll use it in class.