P N C O

Mostly photography, with the occasional philosophical contemplation

25: Priorities

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Sometimes i wonder if i’ve got my priorities straight. The amount of distraction can be overwhelming from time to time. Willingly i let myself get carried away by endless little things which keep me from seeing what truly is important. Yet all of this existence, whether i am aware or distracted, will dissolve in the end. Like a bubble floating on the surface of a rapid river, my life can end at any point.

I used to fear death and i tried to hide this fear from myself by endlessly distracting myself. I could get caught up in gaming, having fun with friends or randomly surfing the internet. But i knew that i couldn’t hide forever. When i was younger, death had already visited me a couple of times. At one time, thinking about the incredible size of the universe somehow ended up with thoughts of death being the only certainty. And a few years later, in my first year of high school during a lunch break all over sudden i realized that all of these individuals that were there with me at that time sooner or later would die. Not an easy thing to digest as a young teenager.

So i know death has always been with me. Not so much in the physical sense, though i did see my grandparents go. Death has long been a reality in my thoughts and mind. I just wasn’t ready for it just yet. I first had to undergo suffering. The lesson came when out of the blue a former roommate of mine died. It took me many years to really deal with his loss. Eventually i found a way to cope with the loss which death brings. But i hadn’t come closer to death itself.

This all changed once i got interested in Buddhism. Death is a major part in philosophy and religion and Buddhism is no exception. When i read Buddhist teachings i soon found out that there was this openess about the reality of death, the emphasis on the importance of understanding our own mortality. It would be foolish to ignore such a basic fact, and yet if i looked back at my life, it was precisely what i had done. And what was taught to me in school, by the media and the social structure. Death was ugly, something to put away and not to look at.

In the last few years i’ve learned to look my enemy straight in its eyes. And i saw that he was not my enemy at all, but a teacher and a friend. Death taught me to see the fear within me. Death itself is nothing to fear, but the change which accompanies it, is something we may find hard to accept. But death is coming regardless. So every now and then i try to take some time to really experience the reality of death. Each moment, each second brings me closer to death. It is not something to become depressed about or sad. Rather, i use this as an opportunity to check whether i have got my priorities straight.

Life became so much simpler, so much easier once i’d accepted the reality of death. There is always this basic ground to resort back to in times of difficulties. Is this really worth all the suffering? Does it help me to understand and accept my mortality? Or is it just a mindless distraction which does not help me on my life’s path? Most of the time i’ll know within an instant that i was taking a detour, instead of being aware of the reality of death. I now try to be guided by the certainty of death. In a way it can be liberating once you allow death into your life. As long as you keep death out, you keep yourself from being whole.

I’d like to explain the image i choose with this blog. The patterns on the photo remind me of bubbles. The bubbles in the stream i’ve talked about earlier. They represent our lives. Vulnerable, very easy to break and very short lived. Yet we think we will live eternally. But reality shows us that everything which is born, will ultimately die. Next time you see a stream of water, or perhaps even your cup of coffee or tea, be aware of the few bubbles. That’s us, our lives, fleeting moments within time. Choose death as your friend and teacher, instead of as an enemy to be feared. If you become more aware of death in your life, you’ll be able to appreciate the value of life more. You’ll find it easier to make a distinction between what is important in life and what is not. And you will be able to let go of a lot of things you don’t really need. Realize that our life is like a bubble. Don’t hold onto it, you’ll have to let it go in the end anyway.

I’d like to close with a few lines from the Diamond Sutra, a famous Buddhist teaching which has inspired me a lot and helped me to deal with the subject of death

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

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Self-Improvement

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Self Improvement

Like so many of us, at one time I became somewhat obsessed with the idea that I could improve myself all the way up to enlightenment. I was convinced that I was here to make that realization and the best way to do it seemed to be improving myself on all levels. So I started reading a lot of philosophical and spiritual books. Also I started having some mysterious and unexplainable experiences which seemed to come from a different world. I was intrigued by my own success and it never came up to me that these things could just happen by themselves.

Alan Watts explained my situation to me in a video on self improvement. As a start, he pointed out that our whole educational system – and after that the business world – is only occupied with the idea of improving and growing. In school we get grades and degrees to show that we have learned something. But instead of seeing the learning as the real goal, the degree has become the goal in our society. So the curiosity of a child who just wants to learn about the world is seen as bad and is replaced by the insatiable mantra “improve yourself and you’ll become the best”.

The same goes for work. When we work because we like what we do, we tend not to focus on the money we earn with it. The money is not a goal in itself, but is a necessary good since you need money to survive and eat in this world. So far there is no problem with money. The problem arises when the money becomes the goal. The reason why you started working in the first place (e.g. because you like making good clothes) is pushed to the background and is replaced by the need to earn as much money as you can. Success is no longer measured by your ability to do what you really like doing, but instead is measured by the amount of money you can accumulate. More money means more improvement.

But it’s just an idea in our head. What if there is nothing to improve?  What if the world happens to be just as it is right here, right now? We’re in constant conflict with this idea. Because we feel the need to improve ourselves, we’re unconsciously telling ourselves that we’re not good enough. We think we need to overcome all our flaws in order to be a good person. But what if it is actually perfectly fine to have flaws? I’m not saying we should stick with old and toxic behavior; we should try to let go of the idea of improving ourselves.

Just look at growing up as a child. As a child, you’re not busy improving yourself and yet you grow. It’s a basic characteristic of human existence: you are born as a child and inevitably you will start to grow and learn. It’s part of being human. And it explains why we are so curious by our nature. If we can see that there is nothing to be improved, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with us at this moment, we can start to relax and breathe. We can start to observe the world in a new way. There is no need to look for something to be improved. Why make the world a better place, if it is ok right now?

To me this is a powerful mirror. If I look at my own situation; I think I want to help other people. What does this actually mean in the light of self improvement? It still reflects that I want to improve myself, helping other people being the disguise.  So I still believe at some level I need to improve myself in order to be whole. But where is me? If I look I can’t find it anywhere. The world seems to be rolling by itself just fine!

*The quote used in the image comes from the website https://www.tinybuddha.com