This topic reminds me of an exercise described by Joseph Campbell, wherein each person is given 8 stones and each stone represents something precious to that individual. Something they can’t live without. The participants are led through a cave and at certain turning points must sacrifice a precious item of their choice, thus illuminating their true priorities. I’ve often thought about that exercise and if push came to shove, what I might choose to discard? What I would choose to keep until the end, the essential ingredient to living?
There’s oxygen, of course, water and food, the survival game. Friends and family and love. Music, the lake and furry beasts. Weather, information and ideas. Freedom, choice and independence. All of these are incredibly important to me and my daily life. But are any of them things I consider really and truly essential for living?
I think for a question of this magnitude, I must turn to the venerable Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Buddhist monk extraordinaire and a personal hero of mine. Over the years and the struggles and the illuminations, I have become aware that the most essential thing in my life, the one thing I can’t live without, is my ability to be present. To be right here and right now. Being present underlies everything I do, want and could ever want, since it informs my direct experience with everything that is happening in my life. This is an idea that is at the heart of Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings about mindfulness.
One of the things that really illustrated this idea for me was his description of doing the dishes, a task that I have found irritating many times in the past. Thich Nhat Hahn says “do the dishes like you were bathing a baby buddha”. Everytime I wash a plate, I smile and think of washing a baby buddha and it is this awareness to the present, to the water rushing out of the tap, the plate in my hand, the delight of making it clean, the gratitude of being able to eat, use the plate, clean it, have running water, etc. etc. this awareness, this mindfulness is what brings such happiness.
It is a skill and a habit that can be applied to any situation, any experience and any moment. I can’t live without it!