In our era of unprecedented busy-ness, constant communication and relentless deadlines, it’s easy to feel that we have no time for an inner life. When so many of us feel burdened by the imperative for immediate, round-the-clock responsiveness, and the constant need to do more with less, it’s understandable that as we reach the end of each day, it’s all we can do to crumple into an exhausted heap on the sofa. To take the edge off our frazzled state with a glass or two of wine. To turn on the TV for some undemanding pap.
Deep down inside, a small voice may be telling us that we’re missing out on something. Potentially something quite important. But it’s easy to silence that voice with the conviction that we simply have no choice. Not for the moment, at least. Perhaps when things get quieter at work, or when the kids have grown up, or when we retire, then we’ll have time to do the things we know are important for our ultimate wellbeing.
Buddhism offers a very different perspective on reality. One that dramatically challenges our priorities.
Our life, right now, is extraordinary. To be born as a human being in a relatively affluent country, with a level of intelligence, education and available time – that means you, dear reader! – is spectacularly unlikely. Just look at the other seven billion humans on planet earth. The countless billions of sentient animals. So extraordinary is your good fortune that, to use Buddha’s own analogy, it’s like a blind, crippled turtle that surfaces from the ocean every hundred years just happening to stick his head through a wooden yoke floating on the water.
This rare opportunity is definitely going to end – perhaps sooner than you think. Death is certain, the time of death is uncertain and the only thing of value when you die is the state of your mind. You are going to leave behind your home, family, pets, toys, status, wealth and everything that makes up your sense of conventional reality.
If you are a materialist – that is, someone who believes that matter is all that exists – contemplating death may help you treasure each day all the more. Time is finite. Experiences are precious. Nothing can be taken for granted.
If, on the other hand, you are open to the idea that your mind – that formless continuum of clarity and cognition – moves from this lifetime into a new reality, then what we do with our mind in this lifetime is the only thing that endures. The imprints we create, the conditioning we generate, the karmic causes for future effects – however you wish to describe it, these are what matter. These we take with us. (See: Can you be a Buddhist if you don’t believe in karma and reincarnation? http://davidmichie.com/blog/2016/04/26/can-you-be-a-buddhist-if-you-dont-believe-in-karma-and-reincarnation/).
Your inner life is where you cultivate happiness – now and in the future. If it’s true that mind endures, that the causes we create in this lifetime will ripen into effects in the future, then doesn’t it make sense to focus on long-term planning? In the conventional world, retirement planning is the longest-term most people ever think. Buddhists have a much wider time horizon! If you are a Buddhist financial planner, you practice generosity in this lifetime, as the cause of wealth in the future. Patience, to ensure you are drop-dead gorgeous! Respect, if it is status you seek.
But better yet, bodhichitta, or the mind of enlightenment, to transcend conventional reality altogether and, while remaining in a state of abiding bliss, to be of maximum benefit to others who still believe in the world as it appears to them.
What if Buddhists have it wrong, and there is no life after this one? What if consciousness really is nothing more than brain activity (See: Where does consciousness come from? http://davidmichie.com/blog/2016/01/28/where-does-consciousness-come-from/). The wonderful truth is that cultivating generosity, ethics and patience, and a mind of loving kindness is still the best thing you can possibly do, because these are the true cause of inner peace, here and now.
Despite our fixation, as a society, on re-arranging the externals of our lives, the truth as many psychologists attest, is that it is how we interpret reality that makes us happy or unhappy. It’s not what’s going on out there, but how we think about it that makes us feel one thing or another. Change our interpretation, and we change the feelings. What’s more, as a growing bank of research studies show, it is when we practice generosity, benevolence and connection with others that we experience eudemonia, our most profound states of wellbeing.
We have no way of doing any of this unless we have some awareness of what’s going on in our minds. So we’re back to our old friend mindfulness, and the need to cultivate it through meditation. Our inner life is where we cultivate contentment, for this lifetime and the future. If we have no contentment within, it doesn’t matter what our external circumstances are, we cannot be happy.
This is why saying you are too busy for an inner life is a bit like saying you are too busy to be happy.
Life is short. This opportunity is precious. As the Dalai Lama reminds people, don’t leave this island of jewels empty handed.
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(Photograph courtesy of: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02580/stressed_2580348b.jpg)