I was paralyzed. It was like being pulled, helpless into a whirlpool. Some distant circumstance fueled her anger and my presence was just kindling for the fire. I was in the wrong place at the right time.
In a fifth grader’s life there are lots of rules and I’d done a pretty good job keeping up with them. But this one was about to be a problem: Don’t ever hit a girl.
She grabbed me in a head lock, dropped her body and pulled me to the ground. She didn’t hurt me, but I was stunned. I tried to wrestle loose, push her away and escape to some safe distance. But she was determined.
I don’t remember her name or much else about that day, but the memory of utter powerlessness remains. Boys just can’t hit girls. There is no caveat for when a girl strikes first. All I could do was give up. I fell limp and waited for the teacher to separate us.
To add insult to injury I was left to face the ridicule of my peers. To any onlooker, it was a fight and I lost. But it wasn’t fair.
Almost as persistent as gravity, is the yearning to answer questions like; How can I live a good and happy life? Rules abound, but at best they are slippery. At some level though, we settle on assumptions, a religion or a philosophy, that put us right with how we make our living and carry on our relationships.
The influence these choices have over our lives is powerful. They are the moral framework we act in. When our assumptions are challenged or found lacking, we are often stunned. Some of the benchmarks of growing up are the struggles we have filling the gaps that rules don’t handle. My fifth grade brush with involuntary pacifism was that kind of experience.
Are rules useless? No, especially if you’re young or inexperienced. But are they the best tools to guide us through life? Not really.
My oldest son is learning how to drive. He just got his permit. When we’re out driving, I can tell he prefers to have clear rules, especially after rough patches. He doesn’t have the experience to draw on to make good judgments.
What gives me confidence that he’s going to be OK is when I see how he takes his experience and turns it into good decisions. Experience is the best teacher. This is true for driving and for putting our religion or philosophy into practice.
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha
The Buddha prescribed a way to live a full and happy life. But he insisted that it be borne out of experience. By walking the walk.
The eightfold path is both the rules and the result. As a beginner you rely on the eight points to guide you. But when you look back on them, you realize they were the benefit.
Learning starts by seeing life in the light of the noble truths. You have to work to extinguish the habit of looking for happiness in temporary things (wisdom, right view, and intention).
You make an effort to be kind in speech and actions. Find an ethical means to make a living (ethical conduct – right speech, action, and livelihood).
Then through mindfulness to experience (mental development – right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), we secure the virtues of wisdom and compassion.
Ironically, having cultivated these two virtues, we look back on the eightfold path and the contentment it affords us and wonder, how could we have desired to act any differently.
With each turn and stop light, my son becomes more adept at driving. He develops the ability to skillfully respond to surprises. The rules helped form the foundation, but the experience is what becomes good driving.
When I look back on my fifth grade playground tussle, I see it through older eyes and I understand I wasn’t equipped to handle the circumstances. While I had the rules right, I didn’t have the experience to handle the situation skillfully.
Religion and philosophy can serve as a wonderful foundation for a rich and well lived life. But unless we engage the precepts in experience, we miss the point. Buddhism’s primary exhortation is to walk the walk. For me sitting in meditation and mindfulness in daily life are infinitely more useful than reading or talking about Buddhism.
Reading or talking about it helps to form a foundation for newcomers, and it is important for me to continue to do so. But remember, nothing will move you more towards a fulfilling life than putting your intentions into action.
Editor: Braja Sorensen
About the Author:
Andrew Furst is a Meditation Teacher for Buddha Heart USA, a yogi, a backup guitarist for his two teenage boys, a lucky husband, a third dan, and a self employed software consultant. He’s generally forgetful and generally interested. He’s constantly trying to remind himself that he’s in union with the great divine, and willing to send reminders to anyone needing the same.