This path of awakening is a process. The truth we seek is not a concept or philosophical formula. It is a felt experience of living, of consciously joining our experience, whether it is grief or laziness or anger, feeling it and seeing it from the inside. The truth begins to appear in those moments when sink below our stories and judgments and just see what is happening. It is not an idea that we need to pay attention. It is glimpsing our inattention.
Understanding that waking up is opening to what is happening inside and outside, we can understand Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in a new light. At the start, Scrooge is a miserable and isolated. On Christmas Eve, he finds himself all alone in a gloomy house, fighting a cold. Life has hurt him and he has responded by shutting down, focusing on making money, dismissing the warmth of getting together with others and offering kindness of any kind as “humbug.” He falls asleep, thinking only of the work he has to do.
The ghost of Scrooge’s business partner Marley appears, wrapped in chains made of cashboxes, ledgers, and other tools of his life-long trade.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard.”
In Buddhism, the fetters are mental bonds, grasping habits of thought that limit our ability to relate to life. “In life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole,” Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge. By spirit he means his awareness, his ability to see and embrace what is happening. Scrooge doesn’t understand. He reminds his old partner that he was “always a good man of business.”
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”
If Marley was a contemporary of ours, he might have said this: “Humanity and all beings everywhere was my business; generosity, compassion, equanimity and loving kindness were, all, my business. My job and status were but a drop of water in the vast ocean of my possibility.”
Slowly we begin to realize that possibility comes down to a capacity for presence. I once read that what the dying reporting regretting the most is that they weren’t present more often. Too late they realized that the seemingly small act of being present to life in the moment is actually something huge and essential. “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness,” writes Mary Oliver.
Scrooge doesn’t get it. Marley moans and shakes his chains and tries to terrify Scrooge into seeing that he is not paying attention, but Scrooge can’t take it in. By long-standing habit he is as “self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Seeing this will take more time. Three more spirits will come to help dare to have a felt sense of being “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous.” And he will feel under all that, remembering a time in boyhood when he was happy, remembering his basic goodness and generosity.
Yet before he leaves, Marley’s ghost leads Scrooge to an open window where he sees “the air full of phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went.” All of them are fettered. All of them suffer terribly. They realize that the way out of the chains that bind them is to open the heart and body and mind to life one moment at a time…but it’s too late.
The good news is that for us, as for dear old Scrooge, it is not too late.