“To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”– Ajahn Chah
This morning, I was finishing my morning matcha and getting ready to do a zoom workout with the gym I belong to (pandemic realities). I was cranky, I have been for much of this week. You know when things just feel terrible? One thing after another after another, and soon the spirit feels weary. My husband was comforting me, indulging my crankiness, and accidentally knocked my hand. I felt in that split second my matcha bowl slip out of my hand and time slowed down, I felt the falling and heard the crash.
In that instant, many thoughts came up at once. The first one, the resounding one, was the Ajahn Chah quote at the top of this piece. Perhaps the first time I’ve truly understood what that quote means (I think of it often).
I enjoy the ritual of making my matcha. I even started making my own almond milk a few months ago, a practice of patience and effort to start my mornings in a thoughtful and nourishing way. A reminder that slowing down and choosing with intention is what life’s little moments are made of – and those little moments are what life is made of.
I use this tea bowl every morning. I made it with my two hands, and helped tend to its wood firing for 48 hours. Every morning I felt the rib pattern in my hands as I drank my tea. I thought about my two weeks at a pottery workshop in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I made it. Studying a new approach to throwing pottery, firing pottery, and thinking about how to make useful objects (a metaphor for life). This tea bowl was my connection to those memories, or so I thought.
Another thought that came up was how much it hurts to use and love something precious only to have it ‘taken away’, often when we don’t expect it (spoiler: we should expect it, because it was always going to happen that way). A metaphor for so many of our human experiences.
Do our human brains grasp for permanence in an effort to grapple with our existence? As a way to argue with the foundational fact that the nature of our lives is impermanence, as are all of the beings and objects in it? It is interesting that we attempt to argue with reality by grasping, and yet we know that leads to so much suffering. Waking up to this, and truly understanding it, allows us to take our personal power back.
I have been thinking lately about one of my dogs, the older one. He turned eleven last month and he has a couple health issues. Sometimes I find myself petting him, and thinking into the future when he’s gone and the hurt (devastation) I will feel.
When I catch myself I wonder at how ridiculous that is – he is sitting in front of me right now, alive and well. I have his undivided attention and he is always there, available to teach me how to be present. And off I go, leaving him behind (the irony), indulging in painful thoughts about ‘what if’. If I replace ‘what if’ with ‘it will happen’, and be honest with myself about the reality that he will be gone some day, then a simple shift happens that allows me to come back to the present and fully enjoy him in the present moment. The only one I know we will have.
This is what our brains do, if left to their own devices. They ruminate, worry, catastrophize, grasp, cling. In a freefall of grief over the little and big losses we face every day, our brains try desperately to find pleasure in between. And attempt to buffer future pain by ‘preparing’ for it in the present. (I’ve done this a lot. It doesn’t work. I know this and I still do it. A life lesson.)
This brings me back to the quote. If we know, which we do without a doubt, that what we have in this moment will ‘break’ – leave, die, fade away, shatter, disintegrate – then we must enjoy it in this very moment. There is nothing else.
I thought, in that first second after the cup fell, that this tea bowl was the representation of my memories at Penland. Of the people I met, the unique experience of knowing no one and going anyway, of the hours I spent practicing a craft that I enjoy so much, of the time I spent feeding wood to the fire, the mornings I’ve spent since having my matcha and cherishing those memories. The risks I took to go, and the friendships I made. I found a little more of myself in those two weeks. That’s what I’m really trying to hold onto.
So, where does this leave us? For me, it’s a wake up call that I can and must appreciate the present moment. What is here right now. I already know it will be gone – some day, eventually, in a few minutes, etc. None of us know. That is the magic of being alive.
We believe that we will enjoy things more in the future. Our brains think, ‘if only…”, and set us up to seek something else, more, this or that. But that seeking sets us up to be future dwelling, missing what is here right in front of us, and what we will some day be sad to have missed. It is truly mind altering to understand this, and a relief, because you realize that you have a choice.
I could only enjoy my tea bowl in the present – those mornings I used it. I can’t use it anymore. The memories that I associated with my tea bowl are still with me. Charlie is still with me. And I have learned a wonderful lesson from this morning’s catastrophe.