Two of the qualities that help us greatly on our journey, our spiritual path, are honesty and courage. It takes real honesty to admit the truth to ourselves and great courage to explore our own hearts. This reflection arose for me when I first came across the Buddhist Three Jewels. Ideally these are held to be the Buddha, the Dhamma (teachings) and the Sangha (lay and monastic community). But some years ago when I first reflected on this and asked myself what the three most important things in my life were the answers that arose were very different…
The path to the real is a gradual stripping away of that to which we cling and that to which we are attached. Look at a few of the things in your life of which you might feel, ‘I can’t live without that’. What are these things? What are the real jewels in our lives?
At one point in my past my 3 jewels, the three things which were most important to me (I felt), were sex, alcohol and tobacco. How sad is that! Those were the three things during one brief and dark period of my life that I felt ‘got me through’ each day. It really wasn’t a very happy time for me, but as with all such times, the hardest part can be seeing a way out and believing it can change and be better.
But we need that belief. Look at the way things really are. Change happens, it must happen. Change can’t be stopped. Perhaps I was lucky in my case to have previously encountered some very spiritual people along the path of my life. The peace and serenity they had was what I so badly lacked.
There was no-one to blame for where I had got to in life. My choices had led me to that place and if I didn’t make better choices, they would keep me there. Every journey begins with the first small step and I changed one or two things that I could. Not big changes perhaps but what happens next is that when you take a step towards life, it takes ten steps towards you. A momentum starts to build up. Little by little life improves and with it comes greater freedom.
Perhaps we have to walk a while in the dark to really appreciate the light. And so I began the slow and careful process of simplifying my life. I managed to recognise that the joy I had only really came from the very simple things in life: a leaf, a breath of fresh air, sunlight through clouds, all could stir joy in me. As soon as I added any complexity to that, the joy was veiled. Eventually, after several years of patience and self-encouragement I was living according to the five precepts of Buddhism to the best of my ability.
But still there was this sense of separateness, of not being one with life. Now, I bet you know who said, ‘Truth is a pathless land’. It was of course the great sage Jiddu Krishnamurti. The path of our practice can lead us to great peace and freedom, but not directly to a realisation of truth. Following the simple practices of meditation, generosity and restraint, life was, as much as it can be, happy and full of joy. But it wasn’t till I stopped seeking for an end, that the ending of the sense of self arose.
Why? Because on one level, everything in manifestation is in motion. To be still, utterly still is not to exist. So when we are silent, we become silence. When we are still, ‘we’ are not. Truth is us and all around us but we can be like a fish swimming through the sea looking for water. You don’t have to achieve it, you only have to see it and you can only see it with the silent and empty heart.
But supposing you’re not living with simplicity. Suppose you’re in the midst of a complex and stressful life. How do we start to move our lives in the right direction? How do we get free of those things we feel we ‘can’t live without’.
It’s important to remember that all of these things are things we’ve picked up along the way for ourselves. Before we did so we did get along without them, didn’t we? And if we picked them up we can put them back down again. Within Buddhism there are things that are recommended for daily recollection that I’ve found helpful. Within the things for daily recollection are a couple of lines, ‘All that is mine, beloved or pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me’.
When I first heard that it hit me like a stab through the heart. I realised something. I realised I was going to lose everything either along the path of my life or at the end of it anyway. When I could see this clearly, the thought of giving things up was not so bad. When Billy Connolly was asked why he stopped drinking he remarked, ‘I wanted to stop while it was still my choice.’
What is on the other side of giving something up isn’t loss, it’s freedom. We might not know yet what we’ll do with that freedom but it’s still worth exploring. Yes, it takes courage but if we focus on doing just one thing at a time we can change. We can take a step at a time towards a simple life and find again the joy that filled our hearts as children.
Perhaps it’s a good time of year to remember a piece of advice that has inspired me over the years offered by a very wise individual to his listeners, to change and to become again like little children if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).