A few weeks ago, I posted the following quote from Mother Teresa on Parabola’s facebook page:
“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
The “thumbs up” clicks of approval came in moments after I posted, and kept multiplying. Mother Teresa tapped into a collective wish and knowledge. Most of us have had moments when we have been on intimate terms with life—moments when we live our lives from the inside instead outside, in thoughts about how we’re doing in the race of life or how others see us. Thoreau discovered that when he marched to his own drummer “new, universal, and more liberal laws begin to establish themselves around and within him….In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Sometimes a door swings open in the midst of your ordinary life, and you walk out of the cramped room of known into the real world. The moment you do this, you may wonder why you have accepted to live as you have for so long, asleep, lost to life and your own true self and life’s true dimension and possibilities. How does this happen? We all know from life and literature that exquisite happiness can be shattered in a moment. Yet it’s important to remember that the reverse can happen as well. The trance of unhappiness and unworthiness can be dispelled and we can connect. How can we make ourselves available to such a moment of grace?
I’m beginning to suspect that the answer is deeply counterintuitive, even revolutionary. I mean, we can’t seek to escape the limitations of our lives, but turn to face them without blinking, even to sink into the mess. The light from the larger world shines through the gaps like starlight through a roof full of holes. We have to seek to be in the midst of it all—not just in outer life but in ourselves. We need to cultivate an attention that embraces body, heart, and mind–and the gaps between. I wrote last week about equanimity, regarded as one of the most sublime emotions in Buddhist practice. Far from a state of bland indifference, it is held to be the ground for true wisdom and freedom.
The English word “equanimity” translates two separate Pali words (a dialect of Sanskrit similar to that used by the Buddha). Each represents a different aspect of equanimity. The most common Pali word translated as “equanimity” is upekkha, meaning “to look over.” It refers to the equanimity that arises from taking in the big picture and not being caught by what we see. This form of equanimity is sometimes compared to patient grandmotherly love (thanks to Gil Fronsdal for this knowledge).
The second word often translated as equanimity is tatramajjhattata, a compound made of simple Pali words. Tatra, meaning “there,” sometimes refers to “all these things.” Majjha means “middle,” and tata means “to stand or to pose.” Put together, the word becomes “to stand in the middle of all this.” As a form of equanimity, “being in the middle” refers to finding our balance, remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. How can we find such a posture? In my experience, it requires accepting exactly what is without reaction, sinking deep into the mess that we are, accepting the shallow and repetitious nature of our thoughts, accepting that our true feelings are cut off from our awareness, surrounded by the electrified wire of our reactions. Equanimity is the kind of inner strength that comes from acceptance. Balance comes when we when we are grounded, literally in touch with the ground of our own being, humble.
Equanimity is a protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. If you wish to know what it is like to experience such a free state, think of times when you cared nothing for any of these things. We all have moments of concentration and letting go, of forgetting all about ourselves and what other people think of us—moments when we seek to do what is good for its own sake.
I had such a time about a decade ago, when in the middle of the road of my life, I awoke like Dante in a dark wood. I thought I had lost my true way, my true self. Being lost heightens your sense of being present—and by that I mean your sense of what is and is not present? What was absent was something I couldn’t put into words, a certain flow or ease in the world, a sense of connection with life and with my true self. From a distance, my life might have looked ok, if hardly extraordinary. I was a wife and mother. I was a writer and editor who sometimes wrote about very interesting people who did interesting things.
But I felt like a little nibbler at the banquet of life, more of an observer than a participant. What brought this state of being outside myself into sharp focus was my daughter. At that time, she was 11 or 12-years-old, haunted by 9/11, and lonely after our recent move from Brooklyn. The Lord of the Rings was her refuge, her standard, and I encouraged this. I had the sense of wanting to be more for her, yet feeling very small and flawed.
One day during this time, I was asked to go interview a young author who happened to be dying. The call came in just before I had lunch the Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. I mentioned my fear to Sharon, my sense that I had nothing to offer. Sharon told me that the Buddha’s advice to those who were to sit with the dying was to aspire to lift up their hearts by reminding them of the good they did with their lives.
As I crossed the threshold of the loft where the young woman lay sleeping, surrounded by oxygen tanks and nurses, I had the sensation that the idea from the Buddha slid palpably from my head to the center of my being. As I crept softly to the bedside, I had the sensation that I was carrying a live coal, the way primitive people carried live coals from place to place before to kindle fire. As I sat down on the bed, I forgot all about myself and my deficiencies and became a means to transmit to say and shine back the good this person had done with her brief life. I thanked her for sharing her experience with such honesty, and with such a powerful wish to connect. I told her it was going to help and comfort many people. This is what it means to really live a rich and deep life, I assured her, and as I told her I realized how deeply I believed this to be true.
That day, I realized that at any given moment a person can slip into a new life, operating under new laws. In those moments we may experience a greater wholeness. In those moments, we realize that we can live our life from the inside, seeking to serve and be useful one moment after the next instead of seeking to be rich or famous or any other thing change.
In those moments, we know what Mother Teresa was talking about and what the late, great Vaclav Havel conveys here: “Hope is a state of the mind, not of the world….Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”