Dear Still Water Friends,
Last week my wife Ann-Mari and I returned from a trip to Mexico.
Fifteen years ago my sister and her husband bought a small house in San Miguel de Allende that includes an accessory apartment. She often invited us to visit her for a few weeks during her annual winter visit. And each year I declined. Until this year.
Although there were several reasons for my hesitancy, perhaps the predominate one was San Miguel’s reputation as a prime destination for retirees and snowbirds from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. (All included in a group collectively known in Mexico as “gringos.”) At an altitude of 7000 feet, in the mountains 160 miles northwest of Mexico City, the winters are relatively warm and the summers relatively cool. There is a historic town center and a full array of services, entertainments, high-end restaurants and shops, and social activities has arisen to meet the needs of the gringos and fill their days.
Something about San Miguel didn’t seem like the right fit for me. But I like my sister and looked forward to being with her, so this year we went.
When we got there it was lovely: the town was picturesque, the weather was sunny with highs in the 70s, and my sister and her husband were gracious. And almost immediately I became irritated and cranky.
As I’ve learned to do when difficult emotions arise, I sat in meditation embracing whatever arose and then I wrote in my journal about what had come up. What was really arising? I realized I was feeling an antipathy to “comfort and consumption,” almost an allergic reaction.
As I kept writing I remembered the energy of my late teens and early twenties when I rebelled against the upper-middle-class life style within which I was raised. It seemed to me then that the adults I knew were so occupied with maximizing comfort and consumption that there was little room for other priorities or values. I didn’t want to be like them.
But am I really different? Now as a grandparent much older than my parents were when I rebelled, I am hardly an ascetic. We live a comfortable life in suburban Maryland, right next to Washington DC. We have a pleasant house, restaurant meals when we want them, entertainments around us, and all we need for our comfort.
Then I remembered the Buddha. He lived and taught that there is a middle way between the denial of asceticism and the excesses of comfort and consumption. There is nothing inherently wrong with a tasty meal or a beautiful object, especially if it can nourish us and support us in being more alive, generous, loving, and inclusive.
Thich Nhat Hanh has written in the second mindfulness training:
I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair.
One of the dangers of comfort and consumption is that we can anesthetized ourselves so that we no longer notice or feel mind-states such as suffering, guilt, meaninglessness, and fear. And if we can’t feel these mind-states, we can’t embrace them, understand them, and transform them.
Interestingly, once I had a different perspective on comfort and consumption, my experience of San Miguel changed, too. Yes, San Miguel has the highest income inequality of any city in Mexico. Yes, many of the gringo visitors are primarily focused on their own comfort and consumption. However, I saw much more than that. Many gringos are actively working to better the lives of the less advantaged city residents. Some have started nonprofits or volunteer to teach English or art. Others come to San Miguel to rest and restore themselves. Some come to start a new life, often with limited financial resources.
More importantly, what matters most is not what they are doing, but what I am doing. How in my life can I follow the middle way, falling neither into unnecessary denial nor into over-indulgence? What are the conditions that allow me to be more alive, generous, loving, and inclusive?
I learned some unexpected life lessons in San Miguel, and also had a meaningful and joyful visit with my sister and her husband.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will read together the five mindfulness trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the second training: True Happiness.Has an attraction to or avoidance of comfort and consumption created issues in your life? What have you learned?
You are invited to be with us.
The text of the second mindfulness training is below.
The Second Mindfulness Training: True Happiness
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and stop contributing to climate change.
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