At a parent meeting recently, my four-year-old’s teacher described what she sees as her role in the classroom: She endeavors to model a way of being and working; she tries to do one thing at a time, to do things well, and with mindfulness. This is what she subscribes to in principle. In practice, it is a monumental task, if not impossible. The most important thing we can give to a child, she explained, is to demonstrate that we are striving. We will not be impeccable in every moment, but we will be working towards something finer.
Leaving the meeting I realized that this is a beautiful and realistic goal—not to become someone who has attained something, but to actually be someone who is working, in the moment, to embody the qualities we value and admire; to be someone taking even tiny steps in the direction of being more conscious and mindful, of being truly human.
This is a helpful insight as we enter a phase of greater collective difficulty and hardship. As everyone feels the need to tighten our belts, we are thrown back to the question of what we truly value. The objects of success in the world seem a little further out of reach, and striving for them seems a little more absurd, in view of the masses of people on the planet that struggle every day simply to survive. It is clear that we will have to change our lifestyle. And when we give up the material goodies, what do we have left? We have the goodies within.
And we have the goodies without, the abundance of the impressions of the world—absolutely free (paying attention notwithstanding)—without any assistance from some new mediating gadget or labor-saving device. The experiences of the day are a garland of rich moments and opportunities to strive. A few from today come to mind:
As I walk along the wooded road, the bright orange leaves on a maple tree catch my eye. Only half the leaves on the tree remain and the branches, tributary branches, and tiny capillary branches cut a striking design against the sky. The wind gusts, shaking another flock of leaves from the tree, and light and dark grey clouds speed toward the horizon. I am startled by the drama and beauty of the scene.
Raking leaves in my yard I feel the pleasure of being the caretaker of this tiny piece of earth. I feel my emanations flowing into the ground like fertilizer as the rake combs grass, scratches soil, and teases bits of branch and stone from the lawn. Last year, the yard was just dirt but my son and I threw hundreds of handfuls of grass seed on it all spring and summer. To our abundant pleasure we watched tender shoots come up all over, and by October the lawn was verdant and almost lush. Now, raking, I feel as though I am caring for the grass I planted, and preparing it to come into greater fullness in the spring.
Standing at the gate of the school, I wait and watch with eager anticipation for my son to emerge. I see his mussed curly hair among the teeming heads of children carrying little knapsacks and looking for their parents or the school bus. I realize how small he is. I see he needs a haircut. I see that he looks contained, well. His face glows with youth and health. He is beautiful and I am so glad to see him. “How are you?” I ask. “Good,” he replies, and we walk together hand in hand across the street and down the trail.
Now that it is autumn, the mice are coming back inside. I spent weeks quietly requesting the mice and their devas to steer clear, but they showed up anyway, eating our crackers and quiche and pooping all over the larder, so I resorted to traps. Before I sat to write, I set 3 traps. Two detonated in the first few minutes. I went downstairs to find those perfect beings caught with broken necks and bugged-out eyes. They were caught with peanut butter on their lips, lives snapped out in an instant. As I open the trap and pull out the still-warm body of a mouse I compliment its long whiskers and cute silky ears and apologize for killing it before bringing its body out to the woods.
The true human striving is not for some future result. It is the striving to be, here, now, to be aware of, accept, and appreciate everything that is present in this moment, including (and especially) my own feelings and reactions. As a spiritual teacher once whispered in my ear at a blackjack table in a cruise boat casino—“It doesn’t get any better than this!”