Every once in a while a day will go badly. Something will go wrong, and then something else, and I’ll start to feel jangled and lose my sense of equilibrium so that the next thing that doesn’t go quite right feels inevitable. I can feel myself sliding, and at this point there are things I could do to help stop myself from spiralling further into a state of frazzled disorder, but do I do this? I do not. My mind darts here and there and fills with imaginings of yet worse things to come. I tense up and push on. I grit my teeth (quite literally) and do everything faster, fighting anxiety and confusion with grim determination. Deeper within there’s a voice that’s telling me to pause, to take a moment and listen but I ignore this. I will win through. I will make things go right.
I never do.
Yesterday morning I went out to buy a hosepipe. I’d already been rattled by trying to deal with a malicious virus on my computer and by the time I got to the garden centre with my head still full of trojans and malware, enough things had gone wrong for me to be cursing under my breath when I couldn’t find a salesperson to explain tap connectors to me. I strode up and down aisles feeling angry that I didn’t understand such a simple thing (though all plumbing is mysterious to me and gets me almost as agitated as computer viruses, because being mysterious it is outside my control). Eventually finding an assistant who knew no more than I did, I waited while he went in search of help and meanwhile, unable to do anything else I stood fuming beside a pile of cardboard boxes labelled Tranquil Buddha Water Feature, wryly noting the irony and still unwilling to slow down. I was feeling more and more irritable and exhausted.
Buddhism teaches a lot about slowing down. The practice of samatha is a process of stopping, of allowing things to clear and gently settle. Once you’ve stopped, it’s easier to focus on one thing at a time, to see more clearly and discern what’s going on.
At home I shoved hosepipe and connectors in the garage and clattered into the kitchen where I proceeded to make lunch, chopping vegetables and dropping things, my mind still all over the place and everywhere but where I was. I piled dishes into the sink and washed them without noticing. But when I’d fished everything out of the bowl the surface of the water was marbled with swirls of lacey bubbles sparkling in the sun, and by now I had no strength left for thinking. I stood there gazing at the bubbles and came to a complete stop. Nothing but water, and sunshine, and bubbles.
My mind stopped churning of its own accord because I was simply too tired for it to go on chattering and fabricating worries, but I could have made the choice to stop long before, and I didn’t. I chose to go on doing what I know won’t work, and chose not to listen.
It’s a good lesson, to see yourself blundering and thrashing about, doing no good at all and knowing that you know the way out but won’t take it. I can laugh kindly at myself and ask just what on earth I think I’m doing. I can see the absurdity as well as the destructiveness in all this. I can remind myself that I do know another way. And I can hope (though I can’t be sure!) that next time I’ll do better.
I almost pulled this post because I feel ashamed that the trivialities that are problems in my life are so insignificant compared to the appalling difficulties that are being faced daily right now in Gaza, as well as in other troubled parts of the world. The only reason I have for publishing it is because I feel if I can’t acheive peace in my own mind, what right have I to talk of the need for peace elsewhere? To pray for peace is perhaps all we can do, but peace and understanding come from within, so all peace starts here.