Thursday, September 18, 2008

Who's To Say if It's Good or Bad

It was Monday. Walking home from having returned our rental car, I decided to go by way of the Grand Canal. We had hiked on Sunday in the Wicklow Mountains. Forty-seven euros plus another 8 for gas afforded us that privilege. But I didn't think of it that way--as "afforded" or as a "privilege"--until I came upon the man stretched out across the park bench. The canal path runs parallel to the street and sidewalk but one level lower so it is slightly underneath and so, on some occasions (such as this one), slightly underbelly.

His bench wasn't exactly private, but it wasn't as public as most of the city's benches; perhaps he'd chosen it for that reason. I was startled at first by his presence. I'd walked this canal path--the more tranquil, greener alternative to taking the sidewalk above--several times before, and as yet I'd only seen remnants of its other life (empties: cans, bottles, condoms), not their source. I glanced but did not gape at the sleeping man, in the way you do when you're trying to give a person due privacy and respect even as curiosity is getting the better of you. I saw he had something for his head to cushion it (newspapers, perhaps), and a light sleeping bag covering, in blue. Late August on the cusp of September means cool nights--at least the previous night had been. He couldn't have been fully warm under that. Still, he was asleep. Still, in a mere minute's time, he took me quite a distance.

First I blessed him. It wasn't a "bless you, son" sort of blessing. It might be more accurate to say that I loved him, or that I sent him Love. Because that's what I did: I silently sent love over and through his being the way any of us does when we say to a dear one "I love you," and mean it.

I can see the presumption in that now, and in what I'm about to say. Who says he needed a blessing? Who says he was looking for love? The man was sleeping on a bench, and I
immediately jumped to judgment, a judgment so subtle reached by a process so automatic that it occurred beneath my awareness. He had asked for neither my love nor my blessing. My thought at the time--my assumption, I see now--was this: this man hasn't available to him even the most basic of privileges. I assessed the situation as one of deprivation. For him, a very private act must like it or not occur publicly: I was privy to what should be private. I saw a man on a bench and all at once something stirred in me. First a blessing: I loved him, I say. Then I filled with...empathy? I entered his skin, his experience, and I felt the violation of having been stripped of the basic privilege of privacy. I was acutely aware of the extent of my own privilege: to take a car, to leave a car, to walk on a crisp sunny Monday back from the Europcar agency to my luxurious apartment with its hob and double sink and glass walls looking onto the mountains I had just hiked, its hot-hot shower with the strong water pressure, its fridge and larder stocked. What a luxury, to pluck snapdragon seeds from the dessicated stalk of a street side garden border, to take them home and plant them. To water and tend to them alongside the pansies, viola, stock, geranium and African daisy. What a privilege, to wonder about the course and content of my day, to choose a direction, how to spend it. I felt wealthy for having a bed, fine linens, a comfortable room with walls and doors in which to enjoy it in whatever way I choose to enjoy it.

Later, I return to that moment of happening upon the man, I step back inside of it and I think, "but he is not complaining. He is sleeping." Rest: a basic human need. The body must balance its motion with pauses in order to properly function. He was fulfilling his body's requirement, and I was glad for that. But were it not required, would he be choosing to sleep this way, on a hard public bench in full view? Surely not.

Was this a violation of his privacy? Where have I gotten the notion that sleeping should be private? Sheep, cows, cats, dogs, lions, ducks, swans, geese: all manner of beasts needn't private sleep. We are animals too, aren't we?

Following this line of thinking, it wasn't long before the tables had turned. I thought I had blessed the man, but I soon realized the reverse had transpired. His materializing along my way pointed me to acknowledging and appreciating the countless privileges I enjoy every day which have become so ordinary, so expected that I take them for granted. It is a lie to say I am anything but wealthy for all the riches in my midst. Yet so many in like positions seek to acquire. Acquire what? Money, possessions. What are these, money and possessions? Money and possessions for what? To enjoy, some say. For ease, comfort, others say. For independence, perhaps: financial freedom. What is that, "financial freedom"? What sort of freedom is a freedom that requires acquisition first? Do not misunderstand: I am by no means denouncing material wealth. I am only pointing out the faulty logic potential in holding it out as an ultimate solution to discontentment about one's circumstances.

"I have all this, I'm not cold and hungry and sleeping on a park bench somewhere. I should be happy, but..."

Goods don't buy peace of mind and heart.

We live in a ridiculously abundant Universe. There is plenty; plenty is our inheritance.
We are all fundamentally wealthy. With our free will and other more mundane inheritances, we do what we will. We cherish, we squander. We struggle, we relax. We give, we grasp. We accumulate, we circulate. We sleep on beds or on benches according to our choices, according to the content of our individual dialogue with the limitless supply and source which I call Love.

I thought I had blessed the man, but the man, it turns out, blessed me--not only by eliciting my appreciation, awakening gratitude for my privilege and riches, but also by provoking me to question my assumptions.

Who is freer, him or me?

Many a Claritywork client has come to me feeling trapped:

"My heart's not in this work, but how can I leave it? I have kids, a mortgage--the bills have to be paid!"

And in every case, there is a passion awaiting attention, wanting their time and their love. A spouse, a child, a salary, a home with all its comforts: indeed these are riches. But they are riches that were never meant to be cinches.

Who is freer, him or me?

This is a good subject for debate. But regardless of the results of such debate, my choices
have put me here, wherever and whatever constitutes "here," and if I am not happy with "here," I ought to change it. I say that change always involves a shift in thought. And sometimes that shift is sufficient unto itself. I think I need something more, something better or different. But it turns out it is not what I am looking at that needs changing but rather what I am looking through. I am rich apart from my circumstances, this is clear to me. I am rich because I say I am rich. I am rich by virtue of my heart and lungs, hands and feet, eyes, ears, mouth and clear air to breathe.

"I have plenty."

"I need more."

Either of these can be true from one moment to the next depending upon one's perspecti
ve. I see more clearly than ever: it is not the presence or absence of particular circumstances that makes one or the other so.

The sleeping man on the bench: is he rich or poor? I cannot presume to know. Only he can say. I do know that in a mere snap of a reflex or two I can make him something he is not, make you something you are not.

Just as I am who and what I say I am, you are who and what you say you are and it is not my place to tamper with that. This might just be the most basic of human dignities: one's own freedom and prerogative to name oneself, to create, to destroy, to recreate oneself. To fly or falter. To sink or swim. To flourish or to flounder. Who the hell am I to say it should be some--any--other way for you than the very way it is? And who's to say that either face of any of those coins is preferable to its other?

How true it is that often we find
our teachers in the most unlikely places.


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