Think again: If you stop clinging to life's uncertain possessions,
life will stop possessing you. You will then be truly free
to enjoy life's possessions. Get it?

AN OLD monk and a young monk were out walking one day when they saw an excessively beautiful girl standing in front of a large puddle of water. Unable to cross without getting her elegant kimono soiled, the girl looked appealingly at the approaching monks. Without a word, the old monk lifted and carried her piggyback across the muddy water. After putting the young lady on her feet, the old monk and his companion continued their way.

The young monk became perturbed because their monastic code forbade them touching a woman, much less giving her a piggyback ride. For an entire day he waited for the old monk to say something to justify such unseemly conduct. Towards dusk when the old monk still didn't utter a word, the young fellow could not contain his agitation any longer, and said in anger: "We monks are not allowed to touch women. Can you explain why you carried the girl just now?"

"Oh, that," replied his friend. "I've forgotten about it after I've let her down. Why are you still carrying her?"

It is difficult to stop "carrying" pretty girls and other attractive things in our heads. Yet nothing appears simpler than this attitude of detachment. All we need do is: Drop it. If we can't "drop it" immediately, perhaps we can lean back a little and see the thing we're attached to, coldly, without emotion, motive or possessiveness. This is called maintaining a detached outlook.

Once we get the hang of such an outlook, we will find it refreshing. We become unagitated, we begin to understand that most things in life are really non-consequential. Some things are even amusing, and some downright absurd. With this attitude, we want to laugh, first at ourselves, then at others.

An old man was standing on top of a hill. Two passing youths stop and watch him. "He must be waiting for someone," said one of the young men. "No," said the other, "he must be watching the sky for a change in the weather." After some argument they approached the old man and asked what he was doing. He replied: "Nothing in particular, just standing here."

To everything people do, we ascribe a motive (usually an ulterior one) and an agenda. We scratch our heads and become suspicious when we encounter people who appear to live and act without motive, good or bad. Detachment comes when a person has no motive. Yet the detached man does not live a directionless life. If anything, life for him acquires significance because the man acts as if nothing matters AND as if everything and everyone matter.

Nothing matters because he lives in the context of eternity. He sees things in eternity's perspective. Hence, he does not conduct his actions and life from motives of present self-preservation or long-term profit. He does not scheme over the future, he lives only for the moment, ever mindful that the moment is all he's got. He savours in full that precious moment, that eternal Now. Everything thus matters to him within that moment of time, moment by moment.

Ordinary folk too want to enjoy life's blessings. But they mistake possession for enjoyment. "If I can possess this car, this apartment, this solitaire diamond, this woman, then I will be truly happy." They plan and scheme and goad themselves. They forget there is no such thing as possession. You hold a diamond in your hand: what can you do with it? Rub it, stare at it, stuck it to a ring. Perhaps if you want to physically possess it, swallow it! But then it belongs to your stomach, not to you.

My neighbour Malcolm owns a fairly expensive car. At dawn each day without fail he washes and polishes the vehicle; late at night without fail he washes and polishes it again. The car exudes a perpetual gleam as Malcolm devotes all his free time to it. He is extremely possessive about the car but through his slavish labour, the car actually possesses him.

We laugh at Malcolm and we envy those meditation practitioners shut inside monasteries and caves, without care, without fret, without attachment to worldly possessions or ambition. We know that to achieve genuine, inner happiness we have to first achieve detachment. Since we can't shut ourselves in monasteries, what is the next best thing to do?

How do you wash dishes? One, wash dishes because you want the chore done with, so that you can enjoy a cup of tea as quickly as possible. Two, wash dishes to wash dishes.

That's it: Wash dishes because you want to wash dishes. This is the motive-less way to wash dishes, or for that matter, to do anything. When you get up from bed, just focus on getting up from bed; when you eat, eat, when you walk, walk, when you sit, sit. What motives do you need to justify your action?

Thus a man lives content and dies content. When he lives, he lives. When he dies, he dies. Without fuss, without anxiety, without fear. Like a flame that goes out when the oil is spent.

– Francis Chin, 1979, updated October 2001

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, that moves
To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustain'd and sooth'd
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
  –William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis

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Living in the context of eternity