Choosing skillfully

Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things.

Dhammapada v. 53, translated by Gil Fronsdal

Here’s a whole new idea from the flower imagery: we create our lives through our choices. What will we make with the pile of flowers (our skills and imagination) we have before us?

There is an element of immediacy to this image; flowers once picked have a relatively short shelf life. They go brown and must be replaced if we want to have fresh, fragrant flowers on hand. Similarly, we are creating karma with our actions all the time; one action is finished and another begins. The wholesomeness of one action predisposes us to make the next one wholesome too. If we start down an unwholesome path, that also creates momentum.

The “mortal life” referred to in this verse is a reminder that we don’t have forever; it’s a limited-time opportunity to make or do something.

A wise person once said to me: the most important question we ever face is “what should I do NOW?” In a stripped down fashion, this describes mindfulness. Maybe the thing to do NOW is nothing. Maybe it’s listening or maybe it’s saying something. Maybe it’s getting started on what needs to be done today or this week or this year. Maybe it’s continuing with something that is no longer as exciting as it was when we started it. Maybe it’s planning ahead or reflecting on something in the past. What should we do with our mind when walking or doing physical tasks (like hanging out the laundry)? Where does our mind go when we disengage from what’s happening in front of us? What sensations are registering in the body? What is occupying the mind right now?

Just asking ourselves these questions refreshes our actions and reflections. Through this inquiry we come (slowly) to know our deepest inclinations and motivations, and through knowing them, can nudge them out of the dark corners and towards the wholesome and bright.

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