I was off to have breakfast with a friend who is in Australia on a quick visit. I woke up late and was tripping over myself to make it on time. I knocked back my coffee and spilled the milk. In my haste I got cranky at the cats who were trying to trick me into feeding them twice. “Be quiet,” I cursed, as I searched for my red jumper. “Bloody Carol!” I thought, blaming someone who might or might not have misplaced it.
Finally dressed, I headed into the traffic — and yes, in front of me there was a slow double bus, wouldn’t you know. Oh, and look at that idiot cutting back in from the left. “Think you can just change lanes?” I mumbled, even though — hypocritically — I do the same thing myself.
In all the kerfuffle I didn’t see the irony. The man I was meeting is studying to become a Buddhist monk in Thailand, having realised late in life, with grown-up kids having left home, there was not a whole lot of meaning to his existence. He was looking forward to a slow, relaxing breakfast with me — the “enlightened” being that I am: so calm, so peaceful, such a pleasure to be with in the mornings, especially before multiple coffees … not.
When we finally met up, out it came: my controversial monologue on religion.
“Why go to a monastery in Thailand to study? How much more is there to know?” I asked. “I’ve studied Buddhism and Eastern philosophy on and off for over two decades and there’s only one take-home message to know and try to perfect: ‘First do no harm.’ ”
I told him about my morning. That I’d scolded the cats and other drivers and felt anger. “It’s a lifelong effort for me to do no harm to myself first and foremost (referring to the sheer stress I put my body and health under), and then to be compassionate to others,” I said. “I lament all the creatures that we kill, the people and things we inappropriately covet, the jealousy and bad talk, the myriad daily small cruelties or indifferences we do to ourselves, each other and the planet.
“Spiritual practice is like a smorgasbord for most people. Before we’ve even managed to digest this one simple idiom of ‘do no harm’ we’ve loaded up another 100 religious laws, regulations, rituals on to our plates.”
My friend laughed and agreed: “Maybe that idiom is too hard. Maybe that’s why so many other teachings and laws exist — to distract us so we can eventually find our way back to the one essential truth. Two essential truths actually: first, do no harm; second, act with kindness.”
“But why add more scores in when we can’t even get these two right?” I implored. Don’t get me wrong, I love ritual and devotion. Being a meditator and in various choirs over the years, including gospel, I’ve spent decades singing praises to the Divine in various forms: Old Testament God, pagan goddess, Jesus, Krishna, the jewel in the lotus, Nature. It matters not.
Neuroscience confirms that performing rituals opens parts of the brain associated with ecstatic experience. To pray, dress in honour of, light candles to, is truly beautiful and meaningful — but should devotion to a divinity be a substitute for showing basic human kindness? And how many “thou shalt nots” do there need to be?
In my opinion, sexuality, morality, animal ethics, relationships, diet and neighbourly conduct can all be covered under the banner of “do no harm, be kind”. The questions have to linger: “Do I put this in my mouth?” (an animal killed cruelly). “Do I say these words … take this car spot … flirt, smoke, spray, pick this flower? Will it cause harm? Has it come from harm? Is it kind?”
Sadly, I don’t often get it right. But as my Buddhist friend says: “Perhaps just asking is enough of a pebble in the pond of consciousness to create a positive ripple in the world.”
I suggest that developing a moral compass is a key element in achieving peace of mind. Bound up in this compass is a focus on respecting other people even if they are not acting reasonably and rationally at the time. A second essential element is self respect which is not the same as self esteem. You endeavour to act according to what you see as important principles and decline to do something just because others want you.
A third element is having the wisdom and humility to learn from the example of others and from your own mistakes.
Those of us who are retired now have the time to consider our various decisions made over our life times. Looking back you might very well shudder or cringe at some of them. Yes, you are wiser now but wisdom has come too late. Such is the human condition.
Ruth I can see you need to get a good alarm clock.
I use the alarm app on my mobile phone.
It doesn’t tick like analogue alarms, & the backlight goes off so that it doesn’t shine brighter than a full moon like digital alarms do.
Plus you can choose a catchy jingle to wake you up rather than some earshattering screech that some alarms have.
Armed with your better alarm clock you can set it a little earlier to give yourself plenty of time to both kick the cat & meet your friend for breakfast.
PS Forget about being kind to yourslf, just concentrate on being organised & everything will follow from that.