Wednesday, March 12, 2008

vagabond mind

The vagabond mind

George Clark, Oct 2004


The vagabond poet Wm. Henry Davies penned the famous lines "What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare"[i].

Time to stand and stare has been thought desirable since Biblical times. The fourth of the ten commandments goes as follows:

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But (on) the seventh day thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. (Exodus Chapter 20)

Such periods of rest allow you to cease striving and to be still and know. Know what? "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

From another spiritual tradition Dogen Zenji's main recommendation[ii] was to 'Just sit'. Everything else will follow. In reflecting on everyday Zen Tim Burnett[iii] notes –

"Dogen says "have no designs on becoming a Buddha" and he also says we are "already actualized Buddhas who go on actualizing Buddhas." So we do need to practice to express our Buddhahood. But true practice is beyond the realm of desire. It happens daily in our lives whether we like it or dislike that particular day. But it's not something we do to get anywhere or get anything, either. When you sit. Just sit. Really. That's all there is".

So you make time to stand and stare, you just sit and become still – then you will know. Know what? You will know how to be true to your Self ie to the God within. And so? Shakespeare[iv] caught the essential long term moral point:

"This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man" [v].

But there is a short term more psychological point which Swami Krishnananda[vi] recognises. He identifies the need "to search for one's True Self through an acute analysis of the variety of psychological involvements in which the essential Selfhood of Being seems to be enmeshed." His suggested means to this end are hard line and very practical:

"Stay for a while, for a month at least, in a place where you are unknown to people and you have no connection with anybody. You have plenty of time for yourself; nobody will disturb you. When you have your little breakfast or lunch, etc., sit and cogitate about what is happening with your mind. The first thought will be that you have lost something. You may have pain in the body or feel that you are not fit for this, that your desires are not being satisfied, something looks odd, not quite all right ..."

So it is not an easy process. An anonymous writer in nineteenth century rural Russia[vii] had a clear view of the situation:

"The trouble is that we live far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to ourselves. Indeed we are running away all the time to avoid coming face to face with our real selves, and we barter the truth for trifles."

So can we, should we, be otherwise. Hear from three English speaking quotables:

"He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts." (Samuel Johnson) 

" When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal " (Bob Dylan)

"No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep or cows". (W H Davies)

[ii] Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman outlines Dogen's thinking with enthusiasm and compassion

[iii] Tim Burnet – everyday Zen - warts and all -

[iv] For the context of the quote see 

[v] (Hamlet II 78-80) William Shakespeare  (English playwright and poet. 1564-1616)

[vi] "To Thine Own Self Be True" an online book by  Swami Krishnananda

[vii] The quote was taken from an Owen O'Sullivan article which gives an interesting modern perspective on our present theme


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