I was driving in Ventura the other night. While I was stopped at a light, a ragged man, apparently homeless, rode his rickety bike across the intersection in front of me. A jumble of personal possessions was secured under plastic in a basket on his handlebars.
My initial thought was “There but for the grace of god…”
But that’s not really accurate, and not just because I no longer believe in a personal Christian god. It’s not the grace of god that leads to a homeless, nomadic life on a bicycle. What are the right questions to ask?
What does lead to such a life? Is such a life bad, or is it only bad through the filters of my experience? Or is it bad through the filter of my desires? Is the man on the bicycle unhappy? Is he happy, but less happy than I am? Is he more happy than I am? Is he right where he wants to be, or does he dream of something better? Does he dream of something just out of reach? Does he dream of the impossible? What are his thoughts as he crosses the intersection? Is he suffering? If he’s suffering, is he suffering for the reasons I think he is, or is there some other aspect I can’t even see? What is it that leads me to think that the quality of life I lead is an ideal for this man? Do I really think I’ve got it right and he’s got it wrong?
I can’t actually answer those questions, but I can explore where the question comes from.
The quality of life I lead is an outgrowth of my desires. These desires both inspire me to meet my goals and create suffering when I miss the mark or don’t achieve that which I desire. The choices I make in the pursuit of those desires can be skillful or unskillful.
I think the first step is to remember that the idea of Quality of Life is an artificial construct. The one true quality is enlightenment, right? To be truly present and awake. The creature comforts we enjoy are part of the impermanent landscape. Not to be pursued, but still to be enjoyed, I would think.
I have a loving wife of nearly 24 years to whom I’m very close. We are deeply devoted to each other. We are best friends as well as beloved. The comforts and security I do pursue I intend to give her the space to be herself, and to find contentment and enlightenment for herself without the constant worry of our own sustenance. We have three beautiful children who are getting to the age of being launched out on their own. Part of what I pursue I intend to provide them opportunities to find their niche in life, to find what fulfills them as members of society and of this world.
I do try to recognize the impermanence of it all.
But is that enough? Is it wrong to focus on those temporal means of comfort? Should I not rather be encouraging them on the dharma path? Encouraging them to find the raft?
Thinking about it now, still so young in the practice, I think it’s alright to pursue the good of my loved ones in a temporal sense. But true practice is to pursue as skillfully as you can without being attached to a particular outcome. If I desire outcome A and instead get outcome B, and I accept that B is the present, then I am awake.
If I pursue A and instead get outcome B, and I don’t accept that, I suffer – with worry, anger, denial, and whatever else I lose trying to change B back into A.
I’ve made the best choices I can. I still try to live skillfully – in light of the practice. Awake to the possibilities of the present. I have a pretty comfortable life.
So when I see the man on the bicycle, perhaps it’s not so much that I’m grateful that I’m not him, but rather that I didn’t make choices that would have me out riding a bicycle in the middle of the night.
In that manner I don’t impose any disapproval on a manner of living that, while I would consider it suffering, may be very simple and peaceful for that man. Instead, he chooses what is peace and presence for him, and I choose the same for me.