Wednesday, May 20, 2009

basics and extras

basics and extras

George G Clark, 20 May 2009

I got frazzled while shopping in Tescos. I felt the need for a session of just sitting. This raised the question of  "Why not sit still most of the time?" The answer that emerged is set out in the following box where three life styles are set on a continuum of worldly involvement.

Life Style

Basic things

Extra things

Just sitting







the middle way










1. Consumer: Life = basic things + lots of extra things

The basic things would include arranging for food, clothing and shelter and stepping out of the way of rampaging elephants and ten ton trucks. This would have been straightforward in the hunting and gathering days but would have got more complicated once agriculture was invented and then modern civilisation with its advertising.

It is easy to make fun of the knick knacks that make up the extra things in our status anxious modern life styles. Think of the grades of rich and poor and how they tend to read different newspapers and shop in different supermarkets. In a given supermarket, think of the range of prices for similar items packaged differently (Who would not be seen dead with value brand products in their baskets in Tesco?). Think more generally of people's pattern of consumption and of how when they earn more they spend more and thus never have enough.

3. Meditator: Life = basic things +lots of just sitting

Most mature cultures have their hermits and recluses. These are the saints who chose to be frugal and prudent and thus to get by with the basic things. They thus have time for just sitting, for being still, for noticing what they notice, for thinking about thinking. They have time 'to stand and stare'. And what good does this do? They get in touch with what Huxley called the perennial philosophy. They become inspired by the interpenetrating oneness of 'reality' and thus come to know the peace that passes all understanding. The spiritual insights of the best of them form the bases of the world's main religions.

Note in passing that those of the saintly persuasion are often gathered together in monasteries where their lives are systematically pared back to the basic things + just sitting. This can be a severe approach and is often caught up in the inadequacies that characterise most mature and institutionalised state religions. But not always!

2. The middle way: Life = basic things + some extra things + some just sitting

And then there is the middle way. The everyday Zen of the householder. The idea is that total absorption in consumer capitalism is an existential cop out and leads to suffering. The goal is to go beyond robotic patterns of craving and aversion, to be unattached to the impermanent things of this world, and thus to find peace.

The good news is that our essential nature is peaceful like a mirror. The problem is that civilisation with its never ending stream of extra things is like dust on the mirror. So how might we remove the dust? By making time for just sitting, for being mindful, for meditating.

Ultimately it is a matter of balance. Set aside some time each day (5, 15, 45 minutes?) for quiet reflection. Notice what is going on in your head. Many of the extras will thus become less attractive and easy to renounce. You will thus be on the road to peace of mind and thus to deep happiness and contentment. Why not memorise the following saying and call it to mind when you are getting frazzled:

Don't just do something,
Sit there!

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