I am not Sum-body (written 2018)
So far 2018, now a third behind us, has been a year without much in the way of tradition to give it a familiar rhythm. And recently I found myself following an odd line of thought that stemmed from the simple fact that this year I did not write my usual round of cards and letters at Christmas. I didn't clear the slate before the new year began. Didn't send off those messages that define me and mine for aging aunts and uncles, cousins at a distance, friends we seldom see who live far away. This thought led to the next about how this “defining” has become a tradition, and one I share with many others who sum up the year in the messages they send to us as well. Years go quickly these days. The measure of a year is much different in my 60's than it was in my 20's and even then, much different than it was when I was a child. The big events that marked the end of long periods, a single pendant on a chain of days, now crowd together like pearls on a string, bumping against each other. Taking time for reflection and choosing what makes our story as the year ends, has been one of my ways of grabbing hold of and taking note of this swift passing.
But, this is also a way of pinning myself down, which is an exercise in futility and misleading. If I collected all those cards and letters, would I even recognize the self I was at various junctures, ten or twenty or more years ago?
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness that the Buddha taught begin with body and with feelings, but move on to mind and to Dhamma. The last of these can yield surprising results, though it is also the one that is most difficult to hold steady. When I look through the lens of Dhamma at the thoughts that arise, I find something new and deeper and more true.
Dhamma offers many templates, but a couple seem useful in examining these thoughts about Christmas letters. One teaching list of the Buddha's is to notice the Three Characteristics of Existence in all that arises: impermanence, suffering, non-self. Although I am not anything solid and permanent, each year I strive to define a self that is, to present a tidy package that summarizes “who I am” and even who my husband and sons are. And, traditionally, these letters skirt those things that are most the source of suffering, the things we cannot control, the things we think of as anomalies and tragedies and blemishes on our “real” life.
I found myself mentally composing one day the not-a-Christmas-letter that I might write to explain the silence that marked the transition from last year to this one. What began as a mind doing...choosing phrases and telling a different story...the explanation for the silence, a suggestion that perhaps I was ready to leave this tradition behind, quickly resolved itself into a swelling and warming of the heart and a great wave of loving-kindness for all of those I had in mind as I did this composing. And by natural expansion to all human beings. For aren't we all caught in so many ways? By the need to be understood and valued, by the need for connection, by our wish for happiness, by our wish for love. And further, by the expectations of others which we feel compelled to meet. Abandoning this tradition will bring its own pain for awhile, but also, I think, a freedom from a habit that reinforced certain misunderstandings about myself in the world. I am not those “events” I choose, nor even the ones I leave out of the year's story. I am not what others perceive me to be. I am not.
Perhaps a gentle and natural letting go is happening here...of meeting expectations, of a need to “be someone/sum-body”, of a desire not to let people slip out of my life, although that's what happens anyway. I've dropped the mental composing and when, now, my mind begins to call up those people I imagine wondering why my usual closing-of-the-year letter didn't arrive, I move into metta instead. May all these people be well. May all beings be well. And may we find a way to accept the changes and inevitable passing of time and all that swims within it.