On Wednesday, my mom and I and my 17-year-old stepson went up north to the Flathead Lake to do some cherry picking at a u-pick orchard. Although the place I went with some friends last summer wasn’t open yet, we found another great spot – it even operated on the honor system and just left out a scale, some buckets, and instructions on where to leave your money when you were finished picking and weighing up. Oh how I love this great state of ours!
Even though I never buy cherries in the store and don’t much care for eating them, I really enjoy picking and prepping them. I find the whole process to have a high degree of mindfulness built right in naturally. And there are many activities like this, that innately involve a certain quality of mindfulness that you don’t have to work at developing, it simply exists with little effort – like fishing, cooking, playing an instrument, knitting, wood working, painting, photography, and so on. I find that picking cherries and then setting to work pitting them holds my attention and focus quite readily.
Two nights ago, I was reminded about one of the fruits that has unfolded as a result of my practice of cultivating mindfulness and joy: the ability and capacity to remain mentally at ease, upright, and stable in the midst of challenging circumstances.
Despite feeling a bit overloaded with organizational and schedule related tasks of late, I agreed to volunteer for an evening school-related function at a local art gallery, as part of my stepson’s involvement in the literary magazine program at his high school. On Monday night his literary mag teacher sent out a long and heartfelt email, sharing about her recent health struggles that will soon send her to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, along with her first and sole ask for parent support to help pull off their largest fundraiser of the year, which would be happening in 3 nights time. After learning about her health struggles, and other personal challenges she shared about in the email, and considering the late notice that would likely render many parents unable to help out, I decided to pitch in to help a little more than I usually would.
I volunteered to make and bring both an appetizer and dessert item, enough to feed 20 people (as requested), and I also offered to help set up at the event beforehand. This resulted in prepping and baking for 5-hours, until 9:30 at night, after working a full day at my nanny job on Wednesday, followed by going directly to the event for set up the next day, after another full day of work. Since we were rather short-handed, I stepped in to help manage and maintain the food tables throughout the event, as well, and stayed until the end to help with clean up. So, for a second day in a row, I immediately followed my 7-hour work day with another 5-hour set of active tasks. This would be a lot for many people, regardless of health status. However, with the added element of living with chronic pain, due to a nerve condition, 12-hour days for me are most often out of the question – my schedule of 7-hour work days twice a week are enough to put me in bed as soon as I get home at 4:00pm. I do have the capability, however, to pull it off when I need to, once in a while, knowing that my pain levels will be elevated for a few days afterwards in response and I’ll need to adjust my activities and schedule accordingly, in order to rest and recuperate my energy.
I’ve been preparing for the next teaching talk I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at my local sangha Be Here Now. I’ve decided to base my talk on the topic of nonself, which is proving to be a good stretch for me. Since my last talk was on the nature of impermanence, specifically the Five Remembrances, I’ve decided to have my next two talks continue to form around the theme of the Three Dharma Seals, which are: impermanence, nonself, and nirvana. The Three Dharma Seals, as stated in Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, are described as follows: “Any teaching that does not bear these Three Seals cannot be said to be a teaching of the Buddha.” The Three Dharma Seals are essentially the marks which indicate any true teaching offered by the Buddha.
Another way to phrase nonself is to say no self, to which I then like to add the word “separate” in between, for clarity of purpose, as in: no separate self. And yet another way to say this would be to use Thay’s word “interbeing.”
Nonself is easy to misunderstand. Nonself is not a nihilistic approach to life’s human construct or some fancy metaphor explaining how everything is just an illusion and doesn’t really exist. Nonself speaks to the simple truth of how we cannot exist by ourselves alone. We are a collage of our blood ancestry, experiences, relationships, and interactions. There is no separate self we can point to as being disconnected from the whole of everything else. We are because everything else is. Just as a tree cannot exist without the influence of the sun, air, water, and soil we cannot exist without the collaborative entirety of our past and present influences. As Thay states, in the same book as mentioned above, “Nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about how wonderful it is that there are people who gravitate towards different causes, do different jobs, and are impassioned about different things. In short, as Charles Schulz’s book title states above: Thank goodness for people.
Thank goodness for the writers, artists, and musicians. Thank goodness for those working for human rights and the environment and better treatment of animals. Thank goodness for the grocery store stockers, clerks, and managers. Thank goodness for the long-haul truckers, pilots, and train conductors. Thank goodness for moms and dads, grandparents, and babysitters. Thank goodness for the roofers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, inspectors, painters, and window installers. Thank goodness for those drawn to public service, social work, and mental health. Thank goodness for nurses and doctors and EMT’s. Thank goodness for the local coffee shops and eateries. Thank goodness for the farmers, ranchers, and growers. Thank goodness for administrators, financial advisers, tech people, and CEO’s. Thank goodness for the miners, drillers, and factory workers. Thank goodness for the president and those who serve our government. Thank goodness for teachers and faith leaders. Thank goodness for the staff and volunteers at homeless shelters, suicide prevention numbers, 12-step meetings, and rape crisis centers. Thank goodness for good people drawn to doing good things in a million different ways.
OK. So, you may be wondering where I plan on going with this post (me too, by the way). How will the topic of Santa get woven into the thread of mindfulness? Well, honestly, I’m not really sure yet. But I thought I’d just start typing and see what happens.
The other day I was reading our local news online and came across a story about the Parade of Lights, which happened here in town a couple of weeks ago and involved family friendly activities throughout the day, pictures with Santa, and a parade and tree lighting downtown in the evening. The article mentioned how one of the daytime activities was for kids to write letters to Santa, hosted by a local downtown business. It stated how last year the business collected around 300 letters before Christmas and then wrote back to each kid in response using a set template with certain areas left blank so they could be filled in with a personal touch and be individualized.
There was part of me that was proud of the local business for spending so much of their time and energy devoted to our community’s kiddos. However, there was also part of me that was sitting there reading the article shaking my head back and forth in disgust at the deeply penetrating and pervasive lie that sweeps our nation this time every year about the existence of Santa. In being a weekly blogger I’m often thinking of what to make my next blog post about and tuning into things with the mindset of how to tie it into the art of mindful living and write about it later on. As soon as I read the article mentioning the letters to Santa I thought, “How can I turn my frustration about this whole societal Santa ordeal into a blog post?” While I’ve mostly grown out of my ranting states of self-righteous infused monologues that prevailed when I was in my twenties I’m still holding onto this one rather tightly. When I think about or read about the certain Christmas related fantastical myths of Santa Claus or flying reindeer or elves at the North Pole I feel this sense of anger well up within me. But rather than going off on some long diatribe about the perpetuation of these myths and how I think it’s wrong to lie to our children about Santa I think instead I’ll keep with the nature of this blog and delve more deeply into my reaction.
If I had a slogan or a message I’d like to pass along to future generations to keep in mind it would be this: Sometimes that happens.
It can serve in many practical functions. It’s a great way to respond to children about all sorts of things:
- Little Billy breaks his favorite toy – “Oh darn, sometimes that happens.”
- Little Sally complains about eating her broccoli – “I know it’s not your favorite, sometimes that happens.”
- Little Frank falls down and skins his knee – “Ouch, sometimes that happens.”
It’s a great way to respond to our own inner and outer environments, or other adults, as well:
- You or someone you know has a crappy day – “Sometimes that happens.”
- You say to yourself: Gosh I feel sooo lousy today – “Sometimes that happens.”
- The roads are super icy and challenging to drive on – “Sometimes that happens.”
- The lady in front of you in line at the grocery store is taking FOREVER! – “Sometimes that happens.”
- The dude in the car behind you is honking at you for stopping in the middle of the street because he doesn’t see that you’ve done so to let a pedestrian cross in front of you – “Sometimes that happens.”
It’s a widely adaptable phrase. One to carry with us in our pockets on the go. And we don’t have to necessarily say it out loud even. We can say it in our minds, in our hearts, and in the our actions that follow. We say it with love, care, and a deep sense of connection and understanding. We say it as a way to acknowledge, embrace, and let go.