Monday, March 5, 2007

The unsatisfactory nature of life

photo/image by sean

Rain dripping from eaves
Sounds nature's poetry.
We speak and write to
Explain to ourselves.
~ Deng Ming-Dao

by Sean M. Madden
Mindful Living Guide
March 5, 2007

This morning I felt restless, and thought a trip into town, to a café, would be the thing to do. While I knew that meditation would be the better thing, I had that cooped-in feeling of being in the flat alone, rain pouring down, and the computer at hand, always, ever at hand. I wanted to get out, to get some respite from the musty odor of our British-winter moldy mousehole.

I telephoned Rebecca, at the restaurant, to let her know where I was going. She made a minor request — Could I, if I felt like it, stop by Fenwick's in Victoria Place for a pot of Burt's Bees lip balm? She would be in town in a couple days anyway so not to feel obliged. But I was happy to incorporate this tiny to-do within the larger plan to take myself off to a café to write.

And so I drove, quite mindfully, into Tunbridge Wells, around and around in an irregularly shaped circle, found a parking spot on a residential side street, parked — almost got my legs amputated by a car speeding down the one-lane road and missing my just-opened door by millimeters — and pushed my small black umbrella through the rain, toward the shopping mall.

Rebecca and Luka would have known just where to go. But I am seldom here. When I am, it's mostly to accompany the two of them, in which case I tend to walk in bare awareness, purposely letting causal connections, interpretations and judgments slip cleanly through me so as to better maintain my equanimity amidst discordant chaos, professionally designed to maximize profits by way of, first, fragmenting our souls.

I found the longest path possible to the department store I was looking for. I then surprisingly quickly came upon the lip balm section, finding the Burt's Bees display seconds thereafter — only to discover, however, that while every other imaginable beeswax-based product was fully stocked, there was no lip balm, their flagship offering. I inquired at the counter, but the answer, when it came, was, well, unsatisfactory in that it contained no real information.

In the meantime, I had imbibed a barrage of marketing messages — garish signage, product displays, lingerie-clad plastic women, women who were no doubt wearing the same undergarments beneath their designer garb, Stalinesque billboards of open-lipped, hair-fluttering models — their eyes watching me, each of us — ever-shifting, nauseating music, costumed furry things beckoning.

And harried humans scarcely being.

Mothers shopping with their daughters, both dressed as if going to a nightclub, no more awareness, wisdom or insight in the one than the other. Consumers consuming.

By this time I was "desperate for the loo," and so continued my butterfly flight pattern in search of a toilet, navigating sexualized single-digit girls alternately skating then stepping, gliding then hopping, toes up heels down, super-conscious of their own image, each a copycat cutout, a two-dimensional doll reared, and now being towed along, by their menopausal-pubescent mothers. Both on the lookout, perhaps for love, satisfaction, the perfect purchase, inner peace, but looking in all the wrong places. Sunday morning.

And, still, the water drops without judgment on the chewing-gum-strewn bricked walkways. Forming sparkling, appearing-instantly-vanishing rings, emptying again into emptiness. Small pools collect, settle smooth. A foot descends, splashes and, still, no judgment, no interpretation, immediate resolution, ripples accommodated without hesitation, the individual at one with the whole. Other drops fall on cheeks, on eyelashes. Others catch and, then, tumble down the sharp descent of domed umbrellas, just a few more feet to the pavement.

Teenagers with blackened lungs, ignoring all the warnings — image over well-being, willing victims of city-hip ad agencies and corporate greed. A dance with death. The steadfast refusal of a cheap Bic lighter thumbed again and again within the empty space of a fake-fur-trimmed snorkel, tilted against the wind.

Kids scream. Parents pander. Cars roll on by. The sky darkens, already. Windshield wipers wipe, over-compensating for the slowed rain. Boys slam their young fists on the table. Mothers talk of male aggression. Popular psychology.

Lips are lined and then filled in. Cell phone-cameras double triple as compact mirrors. Point, click, view, point, click, view. Jackets, patrons come and go.

Couples with matching raincoats amble arm-in-arm. Hoods are held to head. Some prefer to feel the rain. Parents get younger, and older. Boots higher, pointier, sometimes more blunt. White to black, and back. Men's faux running shoes gaudier.

Black remains the new black. Stripes go every which way. Shoulder bags color coordinate — knitted hats too. Another single-digit girl is pulled along, toes up heels down. The slightly older brother walks on his own steam, heel to toe. Scarves are tied like all the rest as if this were always the only way, folded in half, the ends looped through.

And still the raindrops fall ...


  1. Great writing - a real treat! Many of your comments I find myself identifying with.

  2. I should perhaps note that this piece is not meant to indicate that life is inherently unsatisfactory. We need not fear nor tremble nor fall into a state of existential void or despair or nihilism.

    Rather, we can simply recognize that all phenomena -- of which our present moment of existence (or life) is one -- are transient, temporary, ever-changing.

    If we forever search outside of ourselves for satisfaction, it shall forever elude us. Or, rather, we shall elude it.

    Due to the temporary nature of all phenomena, there is nothing that we can forever hold onto. Thus at some point when what we want fades away, we will suffer, unless we have developed our capacity to be complete, free within ourselves.

    Nor need we fear that any phenomenon will forever hold us in its grasp. Because it, too, shall eventually pass. Or, we may recognize, first, that that something which had held us in its grasp for many years can simply be let go of as excess, unwanted baggage. And, even when the condition remains longer than we wish, we can, still, modify our response, or our relationship, to it.

    Our task is simply to observe all phenomena without and within ourselves, and to do so with equanimity, peace, calm.

    This capacity to remain alert, relaxed and peaceful within no matter the external circumstances is developed gradually over time, strengthened by our mindfulness meditation practice, and comes only with gentle patience ... deep, compassionate patience with ourselves no matter the thoughts, the feelings or the emotions which bubble up in the present moment.

    Nothing falls outside the scope of mindfulness meditation. We can accept ALL phenomena unconditionally. All emotions, thoughts, sensations and feelings, for instance. We do not necessarily condone or justify them, nor do we repress or ignore them. Rather we accept, accommodate or open ourselves to all of our experience, without judgment. We do not act out, nor do we suppress. We simply observe ourselves with tremendous compassion, which will, over time, naturally be extended to others. And when we act, we will act with greater compassion, greater wisdom and greater efficacy. We will act on purpose, not out of blind habit.

    Simple, not easy.

    But with each moment of awareness, mindfulness and clarity comes a moment of wisdom, insight and enlightenment. The result is instantaneous within the moment. We needn't wait for fruition.

    That moment of being awake, peaceful is its own reward, and it will strengthen our capacity to act well, calmly, in future moments.

    In other words, a single moment lived well will plant a seed for future lived-well moments. The gaps between such mindful moments, if we practice, will shorten in duration. Or, from the other perspective such moments of freedom will begin to be strung together with other present moments such that we lose our way less often.

    "The unsatisfactory nature of life" describes the first of the Noble Truths. However, the incorruptible drops of rain, the drops of water, are there to remind us that so, too, can we learn to be dropped from great heights and, in a moment, return to total stillness.

    May you all be well in this very moment.



  3. Nice Post definitely sounds like a typical day at some of the busy malls we have here in the US . I was stumped for a minute when I read "the loo" then i read on and figured out what that was :-) I too should do Medittation And Yoga more as most times I go out I run into some idiot thats had a bad day and decides he wants to make everyone elses life miserable too.

    By The way did you finally get the Burt's Bees lip balm?

  4. No, no luck with the Burt's Bees pursuit. But, my wife found a pot at another shop a couple days thereafter, yesterday actually.

    Thank you for stopping by MLG, and for leaving your comment.


  5. Sean -- this approaches poetry. Bravo.

    I live in the world headquarters of consumerism (USA), and, as someone who is exposed 24/7 to many of the things you write about during your trip to town, I have ceaseless internal arguments with myself about judging others who "seem" excessively immersed in it.

    This is my challenge, too. In times like this I need to remind myself how alike I am to others, Pema Chodron often talks about something she learned from her great teacher, repeating the phrase: "Just like me."

    This of course, translates into my meditation practice, too. When my mind constantly wanders, I find it incredibly hard not to judge myself for practicing, so-called "poorly." Tsk, tsk. I would be better off remembering that I am only human...and that my distractions are part of the process.

  6. Thank you, Don. 'Tis good, as always, to hear from you.

    Yes, the challenge of not judging, either ourselves or others.

    I was starkly aware of this Sunday as I made my way around the mall, and then sat, nursing a corporate cup of joe at Caffè Nero, writing.

    I was at once interpreting, making critical distinctions, and recognizing the wisdom of the raindrops outside as well as our shared capacity to, as quickly, return to a state of stillness, of pure reflection, if we practice.

    As the piece was written, much as it stands now, I shifted from a traditional time-driven narrative to, roughly halfway through, a place within which is close to bare awareness whereby I can observe, assess, interpret (no doubt inaccurately, as our interpretations of limited external data tend to fall far, indeed, from the mark, sometimes with tragic consequences) without being hooked, without it affecting my state of mind.

    I allowed myself in the latter half to let apparently disconnected observations flow through me onto the page.

    This, I think, is what writers refer to as the Muse. As meditators, we have developed the ability to, deliberately, enter and write from this place. This is largely why I asked the following questions, in my recent interview with you, about your meditation practice and your writing:

    "I love to read your writing in response to your meditation experiences. What can you share with us about this process of meditating and writing? Your meditation obviously informs your writing; but, I am curious as to whether, and if so how, your writing may inform your meditation?"

    The latter half of my piece is perhaps what you're suggesting is approaching poetry, and is similar to how I wrote my recent UPI piece as well. I prefer not to make a sharp distinction between prose and poetry, as I like writing and reading poetic prose.

    In part, this stems from my philosophical inquiries into language, logic and the limits of human understanding, and where this all fits in with true wisdom.

    The upshot is that words, to me, are pointers which those of us who share a common language can use to, roughly, communicate meaning. This is the nature, too, of poetry.

    I tell my meditation students to take what I say with a grain of salt, that I often explain things in slightly different ways, recognizing that all I can really do is point to experiences which we may have shared and can, thus, relate to. So, my teaching, like some of my more creative writing, is sort of impressionistic.

    I find that offering multiple such impressions often gets us closer to sharing meaning than a more direct or expository style of writing or oral presentation.

    At any rate, dear sir, thank you, again, for writing! :-)

    Mindfully yours,


  7. I loved this. No bad feelings about your experience contained within, no bitterness or anger or frustration. Simply a fly on the wall look at the total madness around us. Fab!