In Part I I reflected on busyness as a response to a fear of space which we try to cover up through activities and distraction. Another way to look at busyness is as a reaction to an underlying “poverty mentality,” a fundamental sense of dissatisfaction or lack. I think we can probably all identify with that feeling that things are not quite right, not quite good enough. We don’t have enough money, enough time, enough recognition, enough love, enough success. (And of course, my greatest fear – not enough chocolate!) Clearly, there are forms of suffering that arise out of true lack; there is real hunger in the world and a bag of rice really does make a difference. But there is also an insidious form of suffering that comes from a subtler sense of dissatisfaction. It’s a sense that somehow right now is not quite it; life is not quite what it should be; I’m not quite what I could be. Maybe in the future, over there in that better place, when I’m that more perfect me, then things will be right. Maybe. But tomorrow is always a day away. So we drag our sense of poverty, our sense of dissatisfaction around with us like a dead weight. Advertising takes advantage of this basic sense of “poverty mentality;” ironically, millions of dollars are made from it.
The Buddhist teachings on karma can lend some helpful insight into the source of this “poverty mentality.” Karma literally means “action.” In the Buddhist framework, the “Karma Family” relates both to encumbered patterns of envy and jealousy, and to enlightened wisdom described as “all-accomplishing action.” Envy and jealousy, of course, arise out of the feeling that someone has something we would like, but do not have. They reflect an underlying sense of lack and craving. If we didn’t want it ourselves, we wouldn’t care if someone else got it. Because we don’t have it (or feel we don’t have it), we are painfully aware of someone else’s success, luck, accomplishment. Having toyed with the idea of completing a PhD for the last 15 years, I can feel the twinge of pain when I hear someone talking about finishing their dissertation. It pokes at that raw sore that reminds me of my self-doubt, of not being quite fulfilled.
Staying busy and distracted is a great way to cover up this feeling of lack. When I feel that uncomfortable rawness, I can turn on the radio and be distracted by the latest political upsets. I’ll dig into the sink of dirty dishes or start sweeping the floor; my activity keeps me from having to sit with and inquire into what this sense of nonfulfillment is really about. I put my nose to the grindstone, crank out those emails, and feel that “at least I’m staying busy.” Something is being checked off the list. Whether it’s what I really need to be doing right now (or with my life, for that matter) is another question.
The wisdom aspect of the Karma Family is “all-accomplishing action,” or better yet, “all-accomplished action.” This is the wisdom of our inherent Buddha Nature, which has been perfected from the “beginningless beginning;” it is not created or manufactured. It is our true nature. We do not need to busy ourselves with fabricating or establishing it; it is already accomplished, it is already perfected. The point of all our spiritual practice is “simply” to realize this. Because we don’t realize this, however, we madly engage in actions to try to fix this seeming imperfection, fulfill this perceived lack. But no action can ultimately fulfill us because that which we are searching for – the total fulfillment of our true nature – has already always been present. Thus the great teachings point to the “doing of non-doing,” the “action of non-action,” or as Machig Labdrön, the great 11th century Tibetan yogini, writes, the “supreme conduct of no conduct.”
So do we just do nothing from now on, into all eternity? No, of course not. We keep engaging with the world, we keep visioning and manifesting, creating and helping, making gardens, raising children… But our actions do not come from a place of needing or wanting to fix anything; they are “wisdom’s play,” an expression of the ground of perfection, an embodied celebration of the compassionate human heart. Our activity isn’t covering up a basic sense of lack, but is rather an expression of the fullness of our humanity. It’s a subtle, but profound shift.
We can cultivate this sense of “all-accomplishment” with very simple actions. I often find that I’ve barely completed one task before I’m on to the next. I’m wrapping up a meeting, already making a list of what I need to get at the grocery store when I head home. One activity catapults me right into the impatient arms of the next. I don’t take the time to ever rest in the experience of fulfillment. I notice this in as tiny an action as chewing a bite of food; I’ve hardly bitten into the cucumber before I’m busily forking up my next one. What might it be like to just chew that cucumber, taste it fully, swallow it and feel it entering my body, truly feeding me?
Any karmic act is described as having three parts: the motivation or intention; the actual activity; and the satisfaction that comes from its completion. It seems to me that we very often skip over that last stage of satisfaction. How often do we engage in an activity and rest for a moment in the recognition of completion? Satisfaction is like the exhale; it is the late summer afternoon when we sit on the porch and release after a day of activity; it is the golden years of aging when we can reflect on a life lived fully. It doesn’t have to mean that everything went according to plan, that it all worked out as we had hoped. But we recognize our effort, we acknowledge our doing. And we rest for a moment. That moment is the fullness of the harvest; it is no longer striving, no longer attempting to fill. It’s a taste of “all-accomplishment.”
I had the grace of such an experience when I gave birth to my first son, Mateo. It had not been an easy labor (though easier than many); the final phase of pushing the baby through the birth canal had gone on far longer than I or others had hoped. But with one final push he was here; and after some initial concern about his lack of oxygen, all was well. The nurse and my husband had taken him out of the room to be washed. I lay alone in my bed, glancing out the window at the grey spring sky. A sense of absolute relaxation flowed over me as I had never felt before. My work was done, my labor completed. But it was more than just the labor of giving birth. It was as though my life’s work had been done; and for that moment, of course, it really had. I felt no sense of urgency to do anything more, no drive to move to the next thing. Just this, just now, was absolutely completely perfect.
Giving birth is a unique and rare experience, of course. But that feeling has remained with me as a reminder for the possibility of feeling true satisfaction, a genuine sense of completion. Every act offers us the opportunity to taste this. Every sip of tea, every bite of food. I write that email I haven’t gotten to in weeks, and as I push “send,” I take a moment to connect with that other being, wherever they may be, and I acknowledge that I have completed that task. This doesn’t have to take much time; it’s a fraction of a second. But savoring the moments of satisfaction – of the little as well as the big accomplishments in life – can perhaps begin to relieve us of the poverty mentality that so often haunts us.
So where does all of this leave us? For one, I realize that much of my continual activity or distraction is my own responsibility. It’s easy to think that I’ve been hijacked by my circumstances and am a victim of our busy world. While this may have some truth, I must also take ownership of the ways that I perpetuate this never-ending cycle of running on the wheel of activity. This awareness can then inspire me to step into my experience with ownership and agency. Could I just stop? Could I rest for a moment in the satisfaction of completion?
Right now, the sun is rising on another day, bathing the mountain side with warm rays. Life is generous. Every moment is a new opportunity. Maybe, indeed, this is enough, just as it is.