– Arthur Schopenhauer
My grandmother, my spiritual teacher, used to tell me that the pain we associate with the great change called death arises from our innumerable selfish attachments. One day she illustrated this in a simple way by asking me to sit in a chair and hold tight to the arms. Then she tried to pull me out of the chair. She tugged and pulled at me, and I held on tight. It was painful. She was a strong person, and even though I held on with all my strength, she pulled me out.
Then she told me to sit down again, but this time not to hold on anywhere, just to get up and come to her when she called. With ease I got out of the chair and went to her. This, she told me, is how to overcome the fear and pain of death. When we hold onto things – houses, cars, books, guitars, our antique silver teapot – we get attached and tied down.
Eknath Easwaran is one of my favorite writers about spirituality. One major reason for this is his ability to illustrate abstract ideas with concrete and clear examples. Sometimes I think his ideas and illustrations may be too simple and that spiritual practice is not largely about meditating only by silently reciting sacred passages to oneself or about dispelling distracting thoughts and emotions by silently chanting an ancient mantram to oneself. Yet, there is something about his teaching that rings true to me, or, at least, true enough to incorporate within a broader and deeper understanding and approach to spiritual or integral practice.Today's "thought for the day" is certainly no exception. Indeed, it seems uncommonly clear and compelling, even if it raises more questions than it answers. For, on the one hand, it seems indisputably true that so much suffering in this life comes from clinging to our possessions and loved ones such that we live in constant anxiety and fear of losing them or ache with the pain of having lost them. On the other hand, when we truly care about something, is it not natural and even desirable to do what we can to keep it alive and healthy or within our possession, or to mourn when we lose it?
I worry about losing my TV, books, car, computer, house, cats, friends, family, and wife someday, and I can only imagine how anxious I'd be about the possibility of losing my children, if I had any, to drugs, disease, accident, or crime. But if I didn't feel this concern, would I take appropriate steps to guard against these losses? Can I take appropriate steps without being motivated to do it by anxiety, fear, and a certain kind and amount of clinging?
The great sages seem to say not only that we can, but that we must if we're to know the joy and peace that surpasses understanding and know heaven either in this life or the next. But I still don't understand how it works. Maybe I don't need to. Maybe I just need to do what sages like Easwaran suggest, and someday I'll understand all I need to know, like the man in the Buddhist parable who removes the poisoned arrow from his body and lives, even if he never knows who made the arrow or shot him with it.
And perhaps I need to begin by relaxing my grip on the chair.