Frank commented on the last post, “Yes a good teaching, but it must not lead to nihilism. We must live our lives and give them purpose.” He touched on something I had been thinking about, so thank you, Frank.
If one were inclined towards depression, one could take Atisha’s contemplations on death and dying (in the previous post) as an invitation to hopelessness. Certainly, that is not how they’re intended to be understood or used, but it could happen. If these reflections raise feelings of depression in you, please don’t work with them now. Focus instead on developing compassion, generosity, gratitude, metta, and other mind states that connect you with others.
Atisha’s contemplations are designed to loosen the boundaries of our views about who we are and what we’re doing here. And they are an invitation to pour more of our attention into what’s actually happening right now, and less into creating the story of “my life” (whether we lean towards the “I’m wonderful” or the “I’m hopeless” story line). If done correctly, this re-direction of attention can be quite freeing.
For example, if we took the reflection, “At the moment of your death, your material resources are of no use to you” to mean that it’s not worth working or being responsible, that would be a misunderstanding of the exercise. Instead, we could take it as a reminder that our attachments come and go, intensify and subside, throughout our life. We can take our possessions as enjoyable artefacts to have around us (temporarily), or we can create an identity out of them. The more we grasp and identify with our possessions, the more dissatisfied we will be. Martina Navratilova once said that acquiring something shiny and new (e.g., a piece of jewellery) makes us happy — for about five minutes.
We’re invited to reflect on the question of ownership and how much of an identity we create based on what we own rather than what we do.
My mother is a positive role model in this. She is in the second half of her eighties and it was many years ago that she gave away all her worldly goods that she didn’t use regularly (jewellery, silver, china). She lives very simply and is not confused about what’s important.
In several places, in several ways, the Buddha taught that our only true possessions are our actions. Every wholesome act, word or thought, creates real positive energy, and conversely, every unwholesome action, word or thought creates negativity. We can mitigate past negative karma with present wholesome karma (action). This is why what we do – NOW – is far more important than what we have.