Trying to find tranquility is anything but tranquil. This world is defined by competition, ambition and speed – none of which exactly inspire peace. Hell, my own home seems to be defined by its own brand of insanity, bred of the sheer volume of people who reside within these walls; personalities virtually colliding into one another with meteoric force.
What happened to the simple life? Where did that go?
Simplicity seems to be something we have to retreat back into, something that we had long ago but strayed from in the quest for More. But, beyond a certain point, having more doesn’t guarantee peace of mind. Somehow the more you have, the more you have to lose and the more you think you should have. It’s like running on a hamster wheel, never going anywhere but crazy.
It certainly has nothing to do with being happy.
In the past, my ex-husband, in his frustrated pursuit of spirituality, labeled me a ‘natural Buddhist’. That meant that I was not the one who had to try to adhere to precepts, or circle a stupa reciting prayer in foreign tongues, or meditate for hours to embody peace and lovingkindness. It was just my nature.
At times he criticized me for not wanting enough ‘stuff’, for being satisfied with living small. He believed it to be unnatural. Why not get the big-screen TV? Everyone else has one.
And the truth is, I did appreciate simplicity.
I didn’t feel I needed much to be happy. When left to my own devices, I felt tranquil and content. There was not much to it at all.
In Buddhist society, monks are the representation of a philosophy that encourages being in harmony with living things, the development of inwardness over wealth and power. They try to live a life of tranquility and material simplicity that couldn’t possibly be in greater contrast to the constant acquisition and consumerism that represents developed countries, particularly our own. In the Earth Charter, principle 7 tells us to “Adopt patterns of production, consumption and reproduction that safeguard Earths regenerative capacities, human rights and community well-being.” Somehow this concept seems alien to most of modern society.
This is where the monks come in.
In embodying these values monks are role models for the common people; they represent the exact opposite of materialism and competition. When most of us even think about this we are entirely baffled.
I was never a monk.
And now, I am no longer a ‘natural Buddhist’. Although I still embrace a simple life, life is no longer as simple. Tranquility has become somewhat illusory. I find it harder to engage in quiet, to be still and empty. I worry. About money and grades and my children and someone else’s children and the uncertainty of the future. On top of everything else, I worry about the planet. I constantly feel lack. Mostly, lack of peace.
So, in pursuit of Tranquility, I return, once again, to my ‘natural Buddhist’ roots albeit this time trying hard.
I have never really meditated. The part about clearing one’s mind, of going back to the breath represents real challenge. My head is full of thought. I have entire conversations with other people inside my head that are sometimes so distinct and lucid that I could swear I had them for real. Sitting zazen for hours does not fit even mildly into my current schedule.
I know there are people who meditate by walking through labyrinths with a question in their head. I attempted this with my ninety year old father. We went to a labyrinth that had been written up, years ago, in the local newspaper. I explained the process to him – to think of a question as you navigated the labyrinth – and we started, a few steps distant from one another, walking slowly and purposefully, winding round, twisting back here and there towards i’s center.
I pondered the question: How can I be at peace?
You are supposed to have an answer as you reach the center, but I had none. Instead, I was thinking about how I could make my own labyrinth at home. When I asked my father if he had gotten an answer to his question, he looked at me, completely blank and befuddled and asked loudly, “Where’s the bathroom?” At least we were able to find the answer to that one.
I read about a contemplative Buddhist practice called Metta practice. Metta is most typically translated as “good will” or “loving kindness”. Supposedly this state greatly contributes to a tranquil disposition; it is key to Buddhist practice and one of four sublime states to be cultivated, the others being compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity which is defined by mental calmness and evenness of temper, also keystones to a peaceful mind.
Supposedly there are some extremely practical reasons for cultivating metta, not the least of which is that one sleeps easily, wakes easily and has no evil dreams, that one’s mind can concentrate with greater ease and, at the other end of the spectrum, that neither fire, poison nor weapons can touch one. It’s like some kind of mental armor that makes Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak seem like a flannel nightgown.
So, here’s what one does to practice metta: find a comfortable meditation posture and tune in to one’s breath till calm. Then proceed to let this little patter run through one’s mind: May I be well; may I be content, may I have the strength to meet what comes. Starting with one’s self is integral because it’s virtually impossible to feel good about anyone else if you can’t feel good about yourself.
After the self is out of the way, one moves on to those who are closest to them, gradually going further and further afield until finally you’re dealing with the people you don’t really care for at all. It could be a very long practice if you have a lot of friends on Facebook. In any case, I discovered that I could do this when I’m travelling home on the train. Maybe I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor but there were no more than a handful of passengers in the car and they were far from paying attention to the metta contemplation running through my head like electronic ticker-tape. I guess they may have thought it odd to have me sitting there staring into oblivion while everyone else was glued to their Smartphone but so what, right? I got quite far and started ‘blessing’ people who I’ve only heard of on the news. It became like a game where you had to come up with as many names as possible in a given time period.
An article I read about tranquility claimed that tranquility keeps our thoughts free of the turmoil in the world around us. By the end of my exercise I was staring and smiling. There was certainly no turmoil. I wondered: am I allowed to laugh? I wondered: Did I win? Something was, maybe, not quite right.
But I was willing to try again.
On Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues tranquility is defined as not being disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable. Benjamin Franklin had two sons – one of whom died before the age of four – and one daughter. This is why he was fat and happy. Let him try practicing tranquility in a house with seven people. I wonder how calm he would have been if someone’s just gotten bitten by a bee, another is miraculously covered with mud from head to toe and another needs desperately to use the toilet but is too small to get on themselves. Days are punctuated with petty argument, shrieks of laughter, crying, complaints, questions and constant hunger.
It is not quiet or tranquil until everyone is in bed, too late sometimes to really enjoy it.
I try to create peace by reading aloud to everybody but they fight for their spot next to me, interrupting with a million questions that seem aimed simply at annoying me. I grow close to sending everyone to their room but bite my tongue. I know their father will accomplish this mission soon enough.
Like Ben Franklin, I only had two children of my own to raise. Mostly I did it alone; in comparison, it seemed simple. When you are around a lot of kids, it makes you realize just how easy it is for people not to get along.
For me, the closest thing to meditation, is some kind of outdoor physical labor. My mind becomes focused on the task at hand and my head seems somehow empty. I can feel the wind on my skin; I will notice every shadow the sun casts. I will remark at little bugs and things that, miraculously make themselves apparent from one moment to the next, the grass and birds that converse softly around me. I feel very aware and yet my mind is peaceful and clear. Work like this makes me feel free.
The most menial tasks, the most difficult tasks are equally capable of clearing my head.
One day I pulled weeds all day with my daughter. Behind us, the pile grew to immense proportions till, at some point, it seemed to take up almost as much space as the weeds had when they were still in the ground. My daughter said, “It’s like they keep coming!”. And, in fact, it was as if, no matter how many of them we cut down, they kept advancing. We were an army of two and they were innumerable and inexhaustible. “Still,” I said to Merit, pointing at the pile, “look at all their casualties – and our side is still standing! We haven’t lost a single person.” She laughed. We took a break and drank almost a gallon of water each and somehow, getting back to work, I felt more peaceful than I had been in a long time. My brain was quiet and my body knew exactly what to do.
Tranquility – at last.
I experienced a kind of revelation when recently visiting an urban garden. It is strange how a garden makes one immediately more tranquil; all the life quietly flourishing, so much un-aggravated activity. I have noticed that even the children are most engaged when planting or watering or harvesting in our own garden. This garden was like an oasis in the middle of town; all these little nooks and crannies inviting silence and contemplation. Inviting just being.
Being: the essence of tranquility.
For so long I’ve lived in the country and almost take for granted the silence of space. But there, so close to everything I realized how important it is to have these kind of green spots in a city, why parks can be so essential for city dwellers. They truly represent a peaceful haven where we are more than our jobs, our daily toils and our relationships with the inanimate. In these places we touch a bigger picture and allow ourselves to become infused and enlivened by it. Just that small breath of the natural is pleasing and peaceful and makes us feel emptied and whole all at the same time, for a moment connected to the natural world. For some, it is the only access they have.
Tranquility is part of the natural world. Cats certainly have it down. There is hardly anything that bothers them. The sun could explode and they would just lie there enjoying the heat.
But us? We move further away from the natural every day. As we clear land and build and pave and hijack water, we sacrifice our connection with nature and the peace that connection gives us is gone. We really only need for our most basic needs to be met to be happy.. It is proven that beyond this the amount of money or stuff one has does not change ones sense of happiness.
In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, written a long, long time ago by a guy named Adam Smith, the question is asked, “To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, power and pre-eminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature… do they imagine that their stomach is better, that their sleep is sounder, in a palace than in a cottage?” Good one. Who knows?
Indigenous peoples are often more in tune with what is important than we westerners are. And yet every day, somewhere on earth, we are threatening the tranquility of those who have lived in harmony with the natural world; those people and the simplicity of their way of life is pushed aside in favor of practices that give no regard to what is best for nature or what is necessary for survival, but only to economic gain. As nature is painstakingly infringed upon, compromised and erased, the earth too is robbed of its tranquility.
I wonder why I thought there was a secret to my own frustration. Lately I haven’t had much time for the simple things that kept me grounded, the farm work and connection to land and space that provided me pleasure and peace; I spend my days boxed up in work and study that may or may not be making me smarter but is certainly not doing anything for my peace of mind. Once upon a time, not so long ago, every day promised a certain purpose that was somehow self-propelled; I worked hard but I was tranquil. And now, I am not. But I remember. It was right there, in my own backyard.
I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, just waiting to go home.
I don’t think it’s so much how you come to tranquility,just that you get there at all.
HOW DO YOU COME TO TRANQUILITY? WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL PEACEFUL? Let me know. I’m still trying to figure it all out.