The Kind of Work We Do (written 2016)
During a bad time a number of years ago I remember thinking “Why does it take so much work to be happy?” You see, it felt at the time that I was sliding toward an abyss, a nasty place I didn't dare to look toward. As if I were scaling a rock face and happiness was a waving flag at the top. Just a glimpse of color moving in the wind. It moved in and out of my sight line, but I was so preoccupied with the climb, the difficulty of keeping vigilant, of finding toe and finger holds one after another in this torturous journey, that I never could look up for long. And I couldn't look down for fear of what awaited me if I were to slip up, let go, relax the tremendous effort I was exerting.
Over time I learned, with wise teachings and persistence, that I had the image all upside down. Opening my eyes and looking down I would see, not very far below me, a grassy field. A soft bed of blossoms and scent and natural joy that I could fall back into with perfect trust, if I'd only allow it to happen. The flag I caught sight of now and then as it flapped in the breezes above, was really a red flag of warning. A flag marking out the territory of what I'd claimed as mine, as necessary, as subject to my will. And I was exerting all this unnecessary effort in the belief that somehow I'd be able to find peace with my back against that flagpole. I was trying to work my way to perfect safety, where my life would be secure and comfortable, all that I desired would be available and those I cared for would be safe and happy too. It's a fantasy we all have. And we work hard at the stories that keep the flag waving.
We tell ourselves there are reasons for the anxiety we feel, the anger that eats at us, the guilt we carry. That all this is necessary and justified. If we've screwed up, we need to carry guilt and sorrow. If someone hurt us, the resentment and anger are part of our armor so it won't happen again. Not only have we set ourselves an impossible goal...a flag waving over all that is “ours” in the distance, in the future somewhere, but we've weighed ourselves down with burdens to carry and we've worn our fingers to the bone with the scratching that moves us in what we think is the right direction.
The truth is, we are working hard. We think it's to be happy. But the effort we're exertng is mostly in keeping alive the stories that prevent our happiness. Stories that prevent us from seeing how close at hand peace is.
My teacher talks about realizing, finally, that the world goes on by itself. It is not our undying worry and work that keeps it going. When we sleep, he says, we are not on duty and the world does not fall apart because we dropped our worry, fear and guilt for a time. We are allowed to take a break. To unpack the resentments, put down the anger, let go of the worry wall and fall back into the sweetness of peace. The second Noble Truth the Buddha proclaimed is that there is a cause for our suffering. This cause is the kind of work we do. When happiness seemed so difficult to me, it was because I was driving myself toward some imagined “perfection”. These days it is only a breath away when I open to what is reachable here and now.