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It is what it is

I can’t decide whether this now apparently ubiquitous phrase is great for getting one’s head around those things that we can’t change – or whether it is a deeply irritating cop-out, used far too often to avoid effecting any kind of meaningful difference in the world.

Genuinely I can’t say which side of the fence I come down on with this; I think I have been known to use it myself. Perhaps it’s ok, if it’s used in the real Buddhist sense of non-attachment, or even as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

And yet, there is still a fist shaker in me, who wants to shout no, this is wrong, there clearly is good and bad in the world. Like bodies dropping out of the sky over Ukraine, or people being bombed in Gaza and Israel and Syria, or a polar bear trapped in a zoo in Argentina and elephants chained up in temples. If all of us were to habitually go round saying it is what it is, then where is our compassion and evolution of kindness- where is the change?

I suppose it’s at times like this that one should invoke the last line of the serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr and try and find somehow the wisdom to know the difference.

Here’s the version I’m going with…

Practising non-attachment to things

Warning: this post contains metaphysics that might be irritating to some readers.

It’s not easy to do, but when one experiences suffering it can act as a signpost that we are too attached to things: objects, thoughts, feelings, outcomes, even people. I went to some Buddhist classes (last year now) and this is what we were taught: attachment causes suffering. I don’t follow Buddhism especially, but this is one teaching that has stuck; the other was that of observing the mind through mindfulness.

Anyway to illustrate the point in the case of objects, today, when I dropped my phone, face down, in the supermarket car park and cracked the screen, I immediately began to suffer. I felt angry with myself, with the phone. Then I was upset because it looked spoiled, with a big spider crack across the top of the screen. Then I rang someone to moan, and they didn’t say the right thing, so then I was cross with them too, and after a couple of minutes of making this big ball of anger and upset and frustration and the whole why is life just so damn unfair? shebang… I caught myself at it.

I was causing myself to suffer all these feelings simply through attachment to an object. Ok, it’s a nice object, and I use it a lot, and I wouldn’t want to be without a phone for the rest of my life, but still… phones break if you drop them, and people drop things (I drop things a lot). It’s just what happens.

I looked at the crack again. It struck me that I go round taking photos of rusty things and old things and dead things and generally say that imperfection is more interesting than plain old perfection, so why was I freaking out about a crack? As cracks go, it wasn’t that bad. And it could be fixed, if I wanted.

Now, I must admit at this point that the phone had not lost all functionality. I think I would have suffered a little longer over that, but maybe one day I’ll be able to let that go too. Now that really would be some proper non-attachment to something. It might sound odd, but it helps me step out from the old suffering loop, which in turn keeps the mind in balance, so I just wanted to pass it on.

La vie en rose

I don’t suffer from this as a rule, preferring to see things as they really are. A counsellor once told me that people who are able to reach for the rose-tinted spectacles, people who are unrealistically optimistic, have basically got a protective shield around them that helps them to cope with the vagaries (and worse) of the world.

Life is interesting; ‘may you live in interesting times’ being more of a curse than a blessing. Today has been interesting too. I am conscious that even the most committed rose-tinted spectacle wearer might have struggled with getting up this morning to multiple stomach upsets (via the dog) on the rug in the front room and on the staircase carpets. Or the early call to cover a class when I had children to drop off (via the car) and a meeting to take at the same time.

Or the necessity of still travelling, via the car, with the heaters on 32 degree heat, full blast because the question whether to save or scrap the car is too vexatious. Or the meeting summary that morphed into a 1500 word report that I wasn’t expecting to have to do today. Or the threat of bailiffs next week and the mix up about the university library fines I swear I paid. Or the two car parking tickets that are probably in the post.

I didn’t reach for my sun-tinted spectacles though. Instead I took the rug out into the garden and employed some washing up liquid and my watering can. And later on I did some cleaning up the stairs. The rest can wait. I found myself saying to someone earlier this week, ‘Well, it’s not the things that happen to you that are the problem, it’s how you respond that matters’. If someone punched me on the nose for saying such a thing, well I’d understand. It might be fair enough. It would be how I responded that mattered more than the punch. Wouldn’t it?

Sometimes, when I think things like this I wonder if I am becoming somewhat certifiable. Don’t mention this to my mother.

Hmmm…. The jury is out.

Nb The dog is fed three times a day, but he still has the figure of the waif and stray that he was. Eat your heart out!

‘Our Daily Bread’

This programme has been on Radio 4 all week. I only caught episode 3, but it was worth it for this introduction which I have transcribed. I thought it was beautiful. If this is it, then life is far more simple than we like to make it.

When you are holding bread… you are holding the cosmos in your hands.

Bread is a microcosm of the macrocosm.

In the bread, is the sun; if there is no sun, there is no bread. In the bread is the moon. In the bread is the rain. In the bread is the soil. In the bread is the farmer. In the bread is the baker. In the bread is the eater. In the bread are all the elements because the bread is made, only, by all the elements put together. So, when you make the bread, bread makes you.

This complete non-duality and complete wholeness of life is represented by bread. Therefore, in Buddhist tradition, also in Hindu and Jain tradition, annam (food), which is bread, is very holy, very sacred, very precious; and through bread you can find your salvation, your nirvana, and your moksha.

Satish Kumar, Editor, Resurgence Magazine and former Jain monk.