There was a cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks ago. Two lawns sat separated by a fence. One lawn was wild and full of weeds, while the other looked perfect: “I’m greener, yes. But am I happier?” mused the seemingly perfect lawn. Yesterday, I had a very interesting little lesson in the way the mind yearns after a better life and self, the way the grass is always greener, yet is it happier? It was beautiful fall day here in the Northeast. Aware that the autumn leaves and soft weather aren’t going to hang around forever, I tore myself away from all the work I thought I should be doing to spend an hour or so walking the beautiful lanes around at Stone Barns, a sustainable farm that overlooks the Hudson River. We saw flocks of turkeys and crops and cattle and sheep on the hillside. There were even a striking number of adorable puppies bouncing around, taking in the sights. It was perfect…or almost…except that I suddenly thought of seeing photos of Stone Barns in a Martha Stewart Living Magazine that I had flipped through recently…and that started this little subliminal hum of worry that I wasn’t being as industrious as others. Why didn’t I ever seem to entertain? Why wasn’t I accomplised and successful? My friend and I left after awhile, and after deciding that we really couldn’t afford the pies and things for sale and Stone Barns. Who did I think I was, Martha Stewart? We decided to pick up food to cook at a market in the village of Katonah. As my friend picked out chicken patties, I noticed a woman standing beside us, waiting for the butcher. It was Martha Stewart! My friend let her go ahead, since she herself could not make up her mind and Martha clearly knew what she wanted. “Do you know who that is?” I whispered. “I know, I know,” whispered my friend with no particular interest. “Now you can say you shopped with Martha Stewart,” the kindly butcher said to us. I couldn’t help noting that Martha hadn’t looked particularly happy. Suddenly, I found it extraordinary that I had thought of her at Stone Barns, as if she existed in a magazine photo paradise–as if Stone Barns itself was a world beyond labor, beyond suffering. As if all that beautiful green grass was really happier than I am.
The Buddha was radical–turning peoples’ attention to their lived experience. He wanted us to investigate the way the mind works–especially the way the craving to have something and to be or not be a certain self keeps us stressed and miserable. The cessation of suffering that the Buddha offered can sound very small and uninspiring- like being promised an end to a headache enough but is that all there is? But what the Buddha was really pointing towards was another way of living, anchoring our selves in the present moment where the true vibrancy of presence might open to us. The Buddha offered a path and many different maps to this path, many qualities of heart and mind, of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, compassion, etc. etc. that could help monks penetrate to this state of presence. But I’ve found that for this ordinary worldling, it is often in a time of loss or disruption or uncertainty that my hopes and dreams for myself fall away and I come to rest in the present moment. I let go of the worry and hurry, the incessant planning and business–if only for a short time–to remember what really matters: to be loving, to voluntarily participate in this life in a helpful, nonharmful way. It has taken me a long time to realize that the Buddha wasn’t urging people to abandon and relinquish suffering in the sense of ridding themselves of life, running away or repressing themselves. Just the opposite. He meant know your life, really touch in with the feel of it, know the pull of craving, of the desire to run away. Dharma practice is very personal, very humble and earthy. We have to come down out of our dreams and check in with ourselves. When there is no craving, no stress, no hope of escape from who we are in this present moment, what do you suppose we have? I think it’s a special kind of faith that takes the form of openness, of a willingness to be here.