The Bucket List

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There’s a hole in this bucket?

Last night I watched a programme on Channel 4 called 24 hours in A&E. It’s compulsive viewing and filmed in Kings College Hospital in South London where I was treated on more than one occasion during a previous ‘career’. In last night’s episode one of the senior nurses was talking about his reaction by being confronted by people who are close to death every day…he said something like “you can’t help but think about your own mortality and try to wring as much out of life as possible while we’re here”. Not all of us work in environments where we are confronted by death in a way where “the message is repeated” as this nurse put it “over and over again”.

And it’s not just about being busy, not just about the bucket list, sure fulfilling ones dreams and ambitions in life is a great and positive way to approach the world, but being fulfilled doesn’t end at ticking things of a list…what about supporting your family, being there for a friend in need or just putting a hand out to a complete stranger in distress? Anyone who has ever done any one of these things (and of course it’s not an exclusive list in any way) will know how fulfilling helping, thinking and acting for others can be. Who does our life belong to anyway apart from the community in which we live, grow, flourish and die?

I suppose that’s where the motivation for this blog came from, because it doesn’t really matter what you believe happens after death, the important thing is to fully understand that you will die, that it is an inevitable part of life…the loss of a loved one is hard and sad but thinking about death (ours or anothers) is not morbid unless your perspective is one that  only understands life as good and death as the end of that goodness…well no-one knows what lies ahead so it’s not constructive to think that way, indeed for most of us life itself is a battle…and why? Largely because we see death as the end…and that’s the paradox. If death were the end doesn’t it seem bizarre that for the infinitely small period of time (compared to the eternity of death) that we’re alive that we spend most of our time on this beautiful and bountiful planet fighting one another and struggling to compete for something we are not even sure is real…on the other hand if life is ongoing in some form, where’s the rush…? Why bother when you have the next million lifetimes to enjoy?

As the Buddha came to realise neither of these views is useful, they serve neither to inspire or enlighten, they simple deepen delusion or create stronger attachment.

“Based on the concept or dependent origination – one of the truths to which Shakyamuni became enlightened – the sufferings of age and detah are seen as arising from the innate ignorance within the individual. The Buddha teaches that these sufferings can be overcome by extinguishing this inner benightedness.

The wisdom or insight that enabled Shakyamuni to attain enlightenment represents the wisdom for conquering delusion and suffering concerning death. Based on this wisdom the Buddha rejecetd the two most commonly prevailing views of death – two extremes – both of which he considered errouneous because they could not fully enbale people to transcend the fear and uncertainty of death as the annihilation or complete cessation of self (the view of annihaltion), while the other was the view that death as the self continuing in the form of an unchanging immortal soul or spirit (the view of permanance)”.

DAISAKU IKEDA

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Have we been here before?

Buddhism teaches that life and death comprise the great and eternal rhythm of the universe itself, neither ending with death nor beginning with birth. Both life and death are impermanent.

That might be worth contemplating if you’re writing your bucket list.

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The Fear 2.0

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake.”

FRANCIS BACON, SR, 1561-1626

If I could I would get this tattooed on my eyelids. Okay, I wouldn’t but you get the idea.

The spiritual and psychological perspective are very similar on this topic. The source of all our fear comes from our own uncontrolled minds or “delusions”. This, to me, sits perfectly with the fear of death. It’s not constructive for me to fear what is inevitable after all?

So okay there’s a bit of a difference between heading out in the rain for a run and having that talk with your partner that you’ve been dreading but the root is the same, because the fear is always about the feelings. We can make a decision to do something but the action that is required to follow it through can get bogged down in the fear…and the greatest fear is that we are going to feel something unpleasant.

It’s more comfortable to sit and look at the doors than to walk through one of them and yes I believe this also applies to something as straightforward as getting back in the gym or the dojo. The result is the same in the end, both lead to the same conclusion so it can only be the uncertainty and the element of surprise that creates the anxiety. The ego stuff.

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Looking at the doors can become boring..

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”.

ANAIS NIN

There are many kinds of fears of course, such as the fear and anxiety of not finding or being separated from something or someone we feel we need for security or happiness (attachment). There is the fear that arises from anger and hatred. Some fears are instinctive and natural such as the fear of annihilation and some are directly proportional to our feeling of being threatened which is the reason we get angry and mentally or physically try to push people away.

In particular, there are fears that arise from the mind of ignorance, and this is root of all other delusions, and thus the source of all fears. As Shantideva says in ‘The Way the Bodhisattva’:

“Buddha, the Able One, says,
‘Thus, all fears
And all infinite sufferings
Arise from the mind’.”

The reality is I will never  know what’s behind the door until I make the decision to open it and walk through. The rest is my ego’s manufactured bullsh*t. The humiliation, the chorus of disapproval and most importantly the possibility of failure, all of this is just a fabrication of my grasping monkey mind. What about the feeling of loss? What have I lost exactly? Nothing. Sitting and looking at the doors isn’t choice, it isn’t freedom; it’s bondage and looking at a row of doors is boring after a while!

So what if I took more risks?  So what if I fail? What exactly is failure? It’s just another fabrication of my mind in the end.

Think about it: In all those situations where we procrastinate and delay making a decision or having made the decision, procrastinate further; our greatest fear is that we will feel something unpleasant. What if you have that scary conversation you’ve been avoiding and it ends the relationship? It would hurt. What if you follow through on the business idea and lose money? It would feel terrible. What if you submitted the proposal and you were rejected? It would feel awful.

The thing is that most often our fear doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonizingly long time. We feel the suffering of procrastination, or the frustration of a stuck relationship for example.

Taking risks, and falling, is not something to avoid. It’s something to cultivate. But how?

Practice; by getting up and doing it again.

“fall down seven times, get up eight”

JAPANESE PROVERB

The more we ‘fail’ the more we realise it isn’t failure (or death) at all and the more we can accept the projections of the mind for what they are; negative products of an ego shell that needs feeding to have any power.

The other way, of course, is to practice Meditation. For we can never control whether things will go our way or not, but we can learn to control our own minds, our responses, and our own conduct, and in this way gradually find a genuine liberation from all fear.

“.. it is not possible
To control all external events;
But, if I simply control my mind,
What need is there to control other things?”

When we let go of our notion of fear as the welling up of some unknown perhaps archetypal, paralysing force (procrastination) – and begin to see fear and its companion emotions as basically information, we can think about them consciously. And the more clearly and calmly we can articulate the origins of the fear, the less our fears frighten us and control us.

Sorted. That makes sense to me and usual it all comes down to practise, to experience itself.

“Even if things don’t unfold the way you expected, don’t be disheartened or give up. One who continues to advance will win in the end.” 
DAISAKU IKEDA

This winning, from the Buddhist perspective, is not necessarily the successful achievement of these goals but rather our state of mind; the state of mind created by not being afraid to open the door and move forward. If we can acknowledge that the fear is simply an illusion (unless the door happened to be perched on the edge of a cliff ) and knowing whatever the outcome our feelings are also an illusion (even if they seem justified). If we can keep on pushing the sky away we will find an indestructible state of mind that knows no such thing as irrational fear (or failure).