From time to time we read stories in the media about incredibly successful, high-flying, workaholic uber-achievers, who thrive on relentless deadlines, travel, stress etc, usually getting by on all of 4 hours sleep a night.
You can do it too, seems to be the subliminal message. Perhaps even you should do it. If you have an ounce of backbone, entrepreneurial zeal, or get-up-and-go, then install that standing desk over your treadmill – to cut down on unnecessary gym time – and literally, get moving!
I am a great admirer of people who achieve, pioneer, and make things happen. But I also think it’s important to take the big picture view. Yes, there will be periods in our lives that are given over to worldly or mundane pursuits, when we need to sacrifice much of our time and energy to the working world. What’s important is to ensure that working crazy hours and being fixated by our message feeds don’t turn into habit we can’t let go of.
Buddha once pointed out that the chances of being born a human with what he termed “leisure and fortune” – i.e. not a slave – is about the same as a turtle that surfaces to the top of the ocean every hundred years just happening, on one such occasion, to stick its neck through a yoke of wood that is floating on the surface. In other words, extremely unlikely.
When we look at the lives and prospects of the countless trillions of animals with whom we share this planet – all of whom share our own wish to enjoy happiness and avoid suffering. When we imagine the daily lot of the average person in China, India or Africa. When we pause, for long enough for a clear-eyed, objective view of reality, we recognise our almost unbelievable freedom and good fortune.
What we do with this good fortune is up to us. Shantideva, the eighth century Buddhist sage who wrote the world’s first self-help book (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) pointed out the absurdity of focusing all our energies on the material world. Writing in hard-hitting stanzas, he said:
Although I may live happily for a long time
Through obtaining a great deal of material wealth,
I shall go forth empty-handed and destitute
Just like having been robbed by a thief.
We can’t take our money, influence, power or charisma with us. How many rich and mighty people have walked this earth before us? What happened to their fortunes? And can we even remember their names? Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandias is one of my favourite evocations of the ultimate meaninglessness of material pursuits, and written from a very Western perspective.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias)
Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön tells the story of how she took her children to meet the Sixteenth Karmapa. Because they weren’t Buddhists, she asked him to tell them something that didn’t require any understanding of the Dharma. She writes: ‘Without hesitation, he told them: “You are going to die: and when you do, you will take nothing with you but your state of mind.” (From: No Time to Lose).
From a Buddhist perspective, the state of our mind is the only thing we take with us. As human beings with leisure and fortune, we have limitless opportunities to cultivate positive or virtuous qualities, attitudes and mental habits in this lifetime which will not only propel us into positive future experiences, but are also powerful enough to free us from every limitation we have ever endured.
Materialists reading this blog may say, ‘That’s all very well for you lot, but what if you don’t believe that consciousness, in any shape or form, continues after death? Might you not just as well focus on the material world and get all the thrills you can?’
Well, even materialists should know that it’s not the circumstances of our life – the house, glamour of our partner, power we wield or toys we have – that give us a sense of contentment and wellbeing. It’s the way we think about those circumstances. There will always be plenty of people who are way up the totem pole of material wellbeing compared to us, and who are so miserable that they commit suicide. So it’s not about the stuff. We’re back to attitudes and mental habits.
It’s very significant to me that the very same methods of mind training which support our enjoyment of this life, here and now, are also those which support our ultimate purpose from a Buddhist perspective.
So – living a life of relentless hard work with drive and determination is all very well. As long as we are taking the wider view, the bigger picture. Personal aggrandisement, individual success, power and wealth should only ever be by-products of our more important mission: to use our unique capabilities for the benefit of others. And to do so with wisdom and compassion.
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