The weather has been strange these past days. Friday started with rain, then the temperature dropped and we had snow on the mountains. Then in the afternoon it was like Spring again with the sun bursting out and the temperature rising to 15 degrees. It was like four seasons in a day. And we had no control over it and can just watch as the different conditions come and go.
It is not surprising that the weather is used as a way of reflecting on our inner life. Things change rapidly there too, even within a day. What we are trying to move towards is greater acceptance of these different conditions and the ability to not label things “good” or “bad”. Fear often drives those labels and they lead to a closing of the heart.
In Spring, hundreds of flowers.
In Summer, refreshing breeze.
In Autumn, a harvest moon.
In Winter, snowflakes accompany you.
If you do not have
the upside-down views
every season is
a good season for you.
Buddhist classic texts
translated by Eido Shimano Roshi
Today Holy Week starts, the most significant week in the Christian understanding of the human condition and the understanding in it of how we can be happy. Central to that, and to this week, is the place of forgiveness and reconciliation. Somehow it seems crucial to becoming fully human as this week’s story reveals:
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, but forgiveness changes the way we remember.
When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events over which we had no control. The only people we can really change are ourselves.
Forgiving is first and foremost the healing of our own hearts.
Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
Inner division wears away the personality
and this division can be overcome
only by making a choice,
by selecting a definite object for one’s love.
Nicholas Berdyaev, Russian philosopher
As the Dalai Lama reminds us, everyone wants to be happy. The problem is seeking it in ways that may not lead to full contentment. Our mindfulness practice is based on the understanding that deep contentment is first of all related to the process of getting to know the mind, and only secondly due to external factors, such as our job, or wealth or even our relationships. My work with people brings me into contact with a lot of different experiences of relationships. Today’s society places a great emphasis on happiness coming from finding the right relationship, placing a huge burden on an aspect of life which was never designed to carry it. It becomes one of the main carriers of our hopes for contentment, this search to find someone who will through whom I will be complemented and completed.
This fusion model does not seem to be working and is not the only understanding available. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle stated that there were three types of friendship, only one of which brings about a real contentment and happiness. Today’s emphasis leans toward the first two, which he says ultimately do not lead to contentment, and in many cases can actually increase our lack of fulfilllment.
The first type is a friendship of pleasure, mainly as sexual partners, which feels good in the moment but which is not fulfilling in the long run. Aristotle said this is normally seen in younger people, “as passions and pleasures are great influences in their lives”. The second type is a friendship of utility, where people are in a friendship but thinking of themselves. Thus, they use the other for status, or to feel good about themselves, or for prestige, or for beauty or money, or because they add to their own sense of self by being with the other. He calls this friendship shallow and “easily broken”.
In contrast to these two, Aristotle described a third type, which he called a friendship of shared virtue. In this case you discover a friend who gets you in your deepest self, your soul, and inspires you to grow into your highest potential. He called these people soul mates or “soul-nurturing mates”, as the friendship touches our deepest self. It gives us the energy and courage to grow into better people. Being with this type of friend allows us to believe in our dreams and feel bigger than ourselves, more confident in our daily lives. He believed this was directly related to our deep happiness. This type of friendship is long-lasting but hard to find, because it takes a lot of work and a resilience to develop.
I visited Paris recently and while there spent time in the Orangerie, standing before Monet’s beautiful series of Water Lily paintings. What struck me most is the different emotions contained in each painting, from tranquil to agitated, light to dark, as each canvas reflected a different period of the day or different season of the year. I looked on them as a reflection on light, on the passing of time.
However, since coming back I have read that Monet painted these works after the death of his beloved Alice, moving from the more realistic portrayal seen in his earlier style to the abstract swirls and splashes used here. So more than a reflection on light, they are a reflection on love. These huge circular canvases around the walls come to represent eternity, and the emotions within them the never-ending love which he found in that relationship. Not all light, but shadows and shades. But all within the beauty of a love remembered.
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.
Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.
O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.
Robert Hayden, Monet’s Waterlilies
The purpose of life is to be happy
The Dalai Lama
Spring has arrived and with it a new sense of life and of joy. We see the signs of growth all around, buds on the branches, birds building nests, spring flowers in bloom. Seeing all that this week has made it easy to feel joy, that inner experience that is deeply refreshing. It liberates us from our fears. It allows us to be content.
This has been a strange week, with news of sadness and with success in other areas. And as such it is the stuff of which life is made. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that joy is only to be found in a life without difficulties. We can think that happiness will only come if the circumstances of our lives change a lot. However, as the phrase reminds us, difficulties – ups and downs – in life are inevitable but suffering is not. It depends on how we work with the difficulties. We discover joy in the midst of the ups and downs of each week, of a life. All things change constantly, even those which are most precious to us; it is just the nature of this life.
And in the midst of life we discover that each one of us has inside ourselves a natural deep joy that we can access. We can drop into it and let it bloom. This allows us to celebrate our lives – the small and large things in each day – and not get caught up in complaining and resenting what happens. As nature blooms we can see that we are connected to a wider life and come to realize that our own personal story is unfolding in a much larger context. It leads us to practice gratitude for all that is happening, which helps the mind expand into a fuller sense of life. We then can notice that we frequently have a choice – to celebrate what is happening or to reject it. Mindfulness practice is a type of training that allows the mind develop an inner narrative that leans towards acceptance, kindness and joy and away from rejecting, from fear and from sadness.
We learn in our guts, not just in our brain,
that a life of joy is not in seeking happiness,
but in experiencing and simply being
the circumstances of our life as they are;
not in fulfilling personal wants,
but in fulfilling the needs of life;
not in avoiding pain,
but in being pain when it is necessary to do so.
Too large an order?
On the contrary, it is the easy way..
Charlotte Joko Beck