The Master and one of his disciples were at a time visiting another monastery that was situated on the coast. Early every morning after his morning practice, the Master went for a walk along the beach. After some days, the disciple became curious and wanted to know what the Master was doing. Early one morning, he went to see if he could find the Master. He saw the Master down on the beach. As they approached each other, he could see that the Master bent down once in a while. When he came even closer, he found that the Master was picking something up from the sand and throwing it into the water. Finally, he could see that it was starfish.
’A starfish?’ he thought to himself and looked back over his shoulder. There were hundreds of starfish washed up. Not to think about the millions of starfish on all of the beaches. When they reached each other the Master smiled at him. It was such a contagious smile that he had to smile in return. ’What exactly are you doing,’ the disciple asked the master, who looked calmly at him. Then he bowed down and threw another starfish into the water. ’I throw starfish back into the water,’ he said. ’They have been washed up by the high tide, and they will die where they are now, when the sun shortly begins to warm.’
’But there are millions of starfish washed up. What difference do you imagine you can make?’ asked the disciple. The Master looked calmly at him. Then he bowed down, and threw another starfish back into the water. ’I made a difference to this one,’ said he. Then he slowly continued his walk, bowed shortly after, and picked up yet another starfish.
We normally think that we are either asleep, or we are awake. The truth is that we can be wide awake; that our normal consciousness with all its self-indulgence, tension and lack of focus actually is not wakefulness compared to the mind’s original nature, a nature that is empty and compassionate. The essence here is that we can train, practice and cultivate our minds, so this wakefulness can break through.
When we look at our own lives, and at the world in general, the fact that we are ‘sleeping’ stands out very clearly. We live in a world in deep crisis. It is like a violent nightmare that requires us to wake up; as in truly wake up. We are like sleepwalkers, walking closer and closer to the edge. As Einstein put it, “problems can not be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them”. We know that he is right, yet we struggle to accept the consequences. We know enough to wake up properly, but do we dare?
Yes, we know enough. Yes, we can wake up. We may not dare to do so immediately. Basically, our normal consciousness is terrified at the prospect of the recognition of the nature of the mind, but we need to wake up. It is time. If we have been in doubt about the crisis in the past, it’s depth and extent, the events since 2008 have spelled it out for us. At the individual level, many of us if not sick or about to become stressed, then certainly in doubt about the deeper meaning of all our daily running to make ends meet – we are easily frustrated, our bodies are tense and our relationships with other people likewise not nurtured. Many organizations, both public and private, are struggling to find new ways to market while budgets only getting smaller. And at the macro level, the environment is gasping after fresh air just like the world economy is. Our challenges are colossal.
Perhaps, many of us hope that everything will be back to normal soon. That, I would argue, is probably a mistake. For it is normal, that has brought us into this deep crisis. The crisis is really about our thinking, our values and our lack of intimacy and compassion. We should rather, hope that nothing will ever be normal again. Instead of getting back to normal, we should come up with something new: a higher consciousness, to ensure that we never come into a similar crisis again. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, all agreed that communism in its known form was not the solution to tomorrow’s challenge. It is time to now recognize that capitalism, in its current form, is also not the solution to tomorrow’s challenge.
Our current mindset, the mindset of industrial society, is short-sighted. From here to there. We work towards one goal and are so self-absorbed that we oppose everything that might stand in the way of achieving our goal, including humans and the environment. It is not too complex to understand, recognize and experience that everything is interdependent to provide holistic wisdom. Do we have enough spirit to see that there is only one planet, and can we be insightful enough to know, that deep inside, all living things on the planet are interdependent?
The thinking that has brought us here can probably best be described as separatist and exclusionary: I think that I am something separate from you, this business is separate from that, we Danes are separate from populations in other countries, we humans are separate from animals and the environment. It is a meaningless form of thinking which is dominated by condemnations, cynicism and fear. It appears that anxiety comes out from our self-centeredness.
This old way of thinking does not allow us to see ourselves as part of a larger and interdependent whole. Instead, it creates a world where we experience our selves as separate from other people and everything else. It is a thought that appeals to our greed and constantly brings us into battle against others. This thinking has brought us to where we are today – in a world where many people are ill due to malnutrition, obesity, stress or loneliness, where companies are frenetic as they chase profits, where people with a background in different cultures and religious beliefs seek to kill each other, and where animals and the environment suffer to such an extent that it poses a threat to the survival of humanity.
If we continue to project our experience of the past into today, as the MIT-professor Otto Scharmer calls it downloading, then our future will resemble the past. One possible definition of in- sanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result! As a race, we may seem insane.
There is a need for intimacy and compassion in all of us. Meaning, sensitivity and a sense of responsibility must be the new center from where we act. Products and profit a consequence no longer an end in itself. The prerequisite for change to happen in the outer world is that each individual requires changing from the inside out. Relaxation, focus and clarity are needed for that process.
We are reaching a critical mass of people who are intuitively aware that a holistic approach is the only way forward. Such cognitive development will have an impact on all levels of society, consequences for the individual, for the way we organize ourselves in businesses and for any leadership. When we sit still, we know, we can sense, that the old forms of thought are not resilient. We discover that what we have hitherto considered as normal is actually abnormal; that what we have accepted is in fact utterly unacceptable.
The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, whom I have had the pleasure to meet on several occasions, uses this metaphor: The caterpillar will at some point need to develop beyond being a caterpillar – or it will die. It is forced to unfold as the butterfly in order to survive. Likewise, humanity needs to evolve beyond the level of consciousness that has controlled the world for centuries, otherwise we take the planet with us in the fall. Otherwise, we like the caterpillar are killed by our own lack of evolution.
If we are to break this cycle, what is needed is a return to the Mindful state, focused and clear-sightedness. We must turn our attention inward to be able to act more usefully on the outside. We need to start with turning our attention to attention itself; striving to act as a Buddha here and now; act as if we have recognized and stabilized the nature of the mind. We must train our ability for clarity and compassion. Mindfulness is both the path and the end.
Only when observing ourselves, can we rest and lean into the center of our lives and ourselves, and become aware of the present moment. It is here, in the present, that we may find our compassion, our true purpose and ourselves in life. The true purpose is the one which is always inclusive, that always takes care of others, that focuses on the whole and on how we can best manage ourselves, emotionally intelligent and responsible for the benefit of family, friends, employees, businesses and the larger global context in which we are a coherent part of.
The realization of the nature of the mind is not for our selves. It is for the benefit of the whole. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche stated: “Only self-existing original wakefulness, Buddha nature, can put an end to karma. When stable in self-existing awareness – or rigpa – karma, cause, and effect are exhausted.” Everything is on the line. It is up to you and me. If not us who else? And if not now, when?
Excerpted from Freeing Your Mind – an introduction to Mindfulness and basic Buddhist philosophy.
Featured image by LEVEKUNST art of life based on photo from Skitterphoto, Holland. Photos of arena and houses by Unsplash, USA. Photo of mother and child by Kevin Phillips, England
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