An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Buddhist non-attachment’

Works in Progress

Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book, The Snow Leopard, helped me survive an arduous month of playing granny-nanny in two households with newborns, mothers recovering from C-sections, and toddlers. In the early mornings or late evenings, I escaped crying children and traveled to Nepal with  Matthiessen’s powerful descriptions of the Himalayas:

Toward four, the sun sets fires on the Crystal Mountain. I turn my collar up and put on gloves and go down to Somdo, where my tent has stored the last sun of the day. In the tent entrance, out of the wind, I drink hot tea and watch the darkness rise out of the earth. The sunset fills the deepening blues with holy rays and turns a twilight raven into the silver bird of night as it passes into the shadow of the mountain. Then the great hush falls, and cold descends. The temperature has already dropped well below freezing, and will drop twenty degrees more before the dawn.

I had little time to sit and meditate for long periods as the author did while his companion, a naturalist doing field research, studied the blue sheep of the high mountains. I did, however, use time pushing a stroller with a napping toddler to free my mind to delight in the peace of a country road—to gaze in awe as clouds swirled and finally released their load of water droplets from the North Pacific onto the hills and vales of western Washington.

Connection with nature fortified me for the three Cs of my life—child care, cooking, and cleaning. While performing my seemingly endless tasks, I thought of the loyal Sherpa porters serving the crazy Americans who insisted on traveling into the mountains in late autumn. In the words of Matthiessen:

The Sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible? “Here, sir! I will wash the mud! “I carry that, sir!” . . . Their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake—it is the task, not the employer, that is served. . . .They know . . .that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.

Those words buoyed me as I caught up housework left undone by a high-risk expectant mother, did diaper duty, and told endless tales of the three bears to send toddlers to sleep. Another thought from Matthiessen’s book which helped was the advice given by his Buddhist roshi before he left on the trip: “Expect nothing.”  

Expect nothing! Such a liberating thought. How often we set ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating rewards and blessings so great that only our imagination could fulfill them. Expect nothing leaves us open to simple joys that come our way.

Despite glimpses of enlightenment while meditating in the lofty mountains, Matthiessen retained his human failings—as we all do. Reading his book helped, but no way could I keep a positive attitude for an entire month. Let’s face it—human beings are not perfectible. We can search, study, pray, and meditate, but we always remain fallible mortals—works in progress. I suspect that the most we can hope for is to catch glimpses of something greater than ourselves and try to detach ourselves from things of lesser importance.

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Aging Past Attachment

“Life is suffering for all life ends,” the Buddha said. “And the cause of suffering is attachment.”

I thought of these words when visiting my 86-year-old neighbor this week. Opal suffers from heart disease and Parkinson’s as well as the assorted pain, feebleness, and general perversity of her aged body. Opal lives alone. Despite dizzy spells and blackouts, she drives when she has strength enough to walk to her garage. “I told the bishop that there’s people in the ward older and in worse shape than me still driving their cars,” she said—reminding me of a kid ratting on her siblings when caught with her hands in the cookie jar.

Opal’s care has worn out our ward. Her next door neighbor checks on her each morning and administers eye drops at bedtime. Opal needs meals brought in, laundry and yard work done, groceries and prescriptions picked up, and transportation to doctor appointments. She should be in assisted living. The bishop has told her this. Her son has taken her to visit several facilities.  I tried to talk her into making the change. She argued, “I’m just so attached to my house and to my neighbors and our ward.”

Opal suffers from loneliness and worries about being a burden to the ward. Her attachment to her house and ward—to the past—cause her inability to make the change that would improve her quality of life.

I’m beginning to wonder if our ward’s compassion is part of the problem. Help from ward members enables Opal to stay in an unsafe, unhappy situation. Of course, it’s great for older people to be independent and to enjoy their home and yards while they can care for them. Still, the time comes for nearly everyone when houses and yards become burdensome. And here is where I see a role for churches.

For generations the Mormon Church has emphasized preparedness for the Second Coming, for natural disasters, and for hard economic times. Now that many people are living into very old age with its accompanying limitations, I think these teachings should be expanded to include preparation for declining years.

Golden oldies need the message that the Second Coming likely will not happen soon enough to remedy the decline and fall of their frail bodies. They need to deal with the fact that even with clean living and priesthood blessings, at some point they may not be well enough to live alone. Checking out alternatives ahead of time is wise. Why not some RS/PH lessons on accepting change, on not being attached to houses—even seeing the positives in no longer having windows to wash and rain gutters to clean?

The pain of losing healthy, functioning bodies and leaving long time homes is inevitable for most of us—but suffering can be diminished if we’re emotionally prepared. Buddhist non-attachment is a good principle to practice when dealing with temporal possessions.

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