It is hard to believe that tomorrow we will be flying home to celebrate Christmas in British Columbia. Christmas seems a very remote concept at the moment because for almost seven weeks we’ve been sitting our silent retreat in 37°C (no air conditioning) at a meditation centre in rural central Thailand. We were completely cut off from the outside world. Well, I should say we did our best to ignore the outside world, which periodically blasted late-night Karaoke into our inner lives. Asia can be a very hot and noisy place.
I know our chilly Canadian friends right now will have trouble mustering any sympathy for us. Canada has by now descended into winter and the thought of sitting quietly in Thailand would sound pretty appealing. But before you start relishing some romantic fantasy about tropical sun and sandy beaches let me flesh out reality a bit. It was hot. Like, really hot. Unimaginable “this can’t possibly be happening to me” kind of heat and humidity.
For nearly seven weeks I can count in single digits the number of hours I spent with dry skin. I showered at 7am, 12pm, 5pm, and 9pm each day for the first three weeks just to deal with the heat. And then only twice a day after that. My fellow meditator comrades, including the Thais and even the monks sitting the course, all had several showers every day. The very idea of snow was so obvious an impossibility, as ludicrous as flapping your arms to fly. The thought of Christmas, with pine trees and sleigh bells, reindeer, and a big man in red wool and white fur, felt totally alien.
Adding to the alien feel was the soundtrack accompanying our retreat. I don’t mean the human one either. Loud music and karaoke, construction next door, freight trucks, motorcycles and tuk tuks – all of that was very present. But you can encounter that kind of noise anywhere. What I am talking about is the sound of the creatures that saturate the jungle surrounding us. This is a meditation centre run by the Muppets. And I didn’t mind it a bit. All day long and through the night there was a constantly changing Muppet symphony being played by a vast array of reptiles, frogs, fish, birds and insects. This music was oddly comforting. The only trouble came from an insect that sounds identical to a hockey whistle. Imagine a three-year old with free reign of a hockey whistle, blowing it with gusto for hours and you can appreciate what I’m talking about. But even that really just made me laugh once or twice when I had one right outside my window. It’s extraordinary and so powerfully shrill to come from a creature so small. Amazing.
Back in Bangkok
As the humidex still reaches into the 40’s, we are resting and drying out in the AC of our Bangkok guesthouse and getting ready to fly home for Christmas – and a much colder climate.
In preparation, we have already started on some of our Christmas traditions. Anyone who knows Karen knows that she loves Christmas. Loves it. Christmas music starts playing in our home basically right after Halloween and I have to push hard against the pressure to set up the Christmas trees and hang lights in November. She tells me she had the song I’ll be home for Christmas running through her head frequently during her course. Given our context, sitting (sweating) in a meditation cell five feet square inside a golden pagoda in the middle of the Thai jungle, I immediately thought of the lyrics – “If only in my dreams.”
Since 2013, one of our annual traditions is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. We know we have a lot of followers on our blog who don’t live in Canada or America, so if you haven’t seen this movie we highly recommend it. You can watch it free online here. It is a North American Christmas classic and one of my all-time personal favourites.
Given Karen’s strong affection for all things Christmas, you’d assume this would have been our annual tradition for much longer. But Karen refused to watch the movie for years. We would argue every year over it. That and stuffing. For many years, Karen would only eat StoveTop Stuffing (a filthy, instant, boxed abomination fraudulently posing as turkey stuffing). Each year I would make real stuffing from scratch. She’d push it out of her way to reach for the fake version. I could do nothing but shake my head in disbelief. One year, in what I assume was a moment of weakness, Karen tried my stuffing. And she agreed to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. In the wake of the tears streaming down her face at the end of the film, we have watched it every year since. We never bought instant stuffing again, either.
In truth, we sometimes watch the movie at other times too. That’s because it isn’t really a Christmas movie. It’s actually a poignant meditation on what it means to live life well, and it happens to be set at Christmas.
The film is the very definition of sincerity. It opens with the sound of several different people praying for a man named George. We see a couple of star clusters in the night sky talking. They represent two senior angels in the bureaucratic hierarchy of heaven who are discussing a man named George Bailey. Heaven has heard the prayers and realizes they have an emergency on their hands. They summon a junior angel named Clarence and assign him an important task:
“A man down on earth needs our help.”
“Splendid! Is he sick?”
“No. Worse. He’s discouraged.”
Clarence must go down and convince George Bailey to go on living despite the difficulties he is facing. Bailey is about to commit suicide in the belief that everything would have been better for everyone he knows and loves if he were gone. He wishes he had never been born. So Clarence grants him that wish and then accompanies George as he experiences the trauma from seeing the world where he never existed. In the end he understands the effect his interactions with others has had on the world. After all, life is a series of interactions. One interaction, and the decision or choice made in that interaction, produces a result. That result in turn becomes the cause for another result. Every effect has a cause, each cause an effect.
The film shows us that over the course of George’s life, he has consistently put the wellbeing of others ahead of his own desires. Those people praying on his behalf at the beginning of the film are all the people he has interacted with over the decades of his life. Each one mentions the gratitude they have for George Bailey and all the ways large and small that he has helped them. By the end of the film, George realizes his life has not been meaningless and irrelevant as he believes, not banal and anonymous.
Since his childhood, George has dreamed of being special. A famous explorer or a builder of large structures; someone that matters. His plans were to spend years exploring the world’s distant and exotic places, going to college, and then becoming a big deal. He would kick off the dust of his crummy old town and do something important.
Instead, at every turn he faces a choice between pursuing his own dreams or doing something in service to his community. Without hesitation, George Bailey always helps. Even when it was unpleasant or meant giving up his most cherished wishes. He doesn’t think of his choices in transactional terms, he just chooses to be helpful when the opportunity arises. Clarence shows him the profound significance of the sum of those seemingly mundane choices.
Looking at the mind
Sitting these long weeks in silent meditation we get the opportunity to look at the mind we use to make decisions. It’s an insightful, edifying experience. It’s often not pleasant. We experience the whole of the mind we carry around, not just the parts we edit for public consumption. But the mind is not a separate thing from our body. It’s not just the jumble of discursive notions that run constantly through our thoughts.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, each of us is always in touch with what we feel in our body. And we base our decisions on these sensations. The sensations colour the way we feel about what we are doing or how we see a situation. When we experience a pleasant feeling in the body, we do what we can to try to keep that feeling alive, making decisions, rearranging life, saying or doing something, anything, to prolong that feeling. When we experience an unpleasant feeling in the body we interpret it as a sign this situation is not good or we need to change something, say something, move something, do anything to avoid or get rid of the unpleasant feeling. Because I feel unpleasant, something must be wrong.
In reality none of our responses to the sensations we experience in our body may be accurate at all.
People familiar with the type of meditation we practice, either through having taken a course or reading something about it, often question how one would otherwise make decisions if not on these sensual signals? If this is how each of us makes decisions, what do you do if you’re not reacting?
George Bailey offers a good example.
There are several episodes in Bailey’s life where the immediate effect of his decision to serve the needs of others was extreme personal discomfort. He rescues his younger brother from a frozen river and contracts a severe infection that renders him deaf in one ear. Later on, he disobeys his boss when ordered to deliver medicine to a family whose child has diphtheria. The pharmacist punches him in his damaged ear repeatedly until George finally explains the pills had contained poison. On the eve of his journey around the world, he instead stays in Bedford Falls to manage his father’s business after he dies. He runs the family building and loan and allows his younger brother to go to college instead of him. He uses his own savings meant for his honeymoon to lend out to the community in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash.
These were each difficult decisions to make at great personal cost to George. They felt very unpleasant in the moment. But they were the right decisions; choices made on the basis of kindness, compassion, truth, morality. In each of those moments, Bailey made a choice that had a beneficial effect on someone else. Without thinking, he puts himself through an unpleasant experience because he’s driven to help people.
Some people are exactly like George Bailey. But for most of us it doesn’t come naturally. We have to learn how to do this, and then we have to practice. Our minds generally tend toward our own self-interest at the expense of others and it actually goes a long way to making us miserable. It’s easy to be generous when it doesn’t really cost you anything or when you get praise and credit in return. But a true sign of generosity is when you give (or give up) something you cherish for yourself in order to improve the wellbeing of another person.
People think we’re nuts for spending weeks in retreat.
When they find out the experience isn’t even really very pleasant, let alone blissful, they sometimes think we must have lost our minds altogether. But we know differently. After all, what we’re doing as we sit there for those long hot and uncomfortable hours each day is trying to hone our minds to become better decision-makers. We’re trying to train ourselves to be more explicitly objective and less implicitly reactive in how we respond to the sensual feelings we experience as we contact the world moment by moment. With practice, we have found there is much more room inside for the wellbeing of others. And that is a wonderful feeling indeed.
It is a wonderful life, even when it doesn’t feel like it. And it’s made more wonderful by the love and kindness that we share with the people we encounter. One of our favourite quotes in the movie is actually written on a plaque that hangs in Bailey’s office beneath the portrait of his father who founded the building and loan specifically to help people build a home of their own. He never made much money doing it and spent decades serving the needs of the community.
The plaque reads, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
After all, at the end of life all you’ll have is the sum total of your choices and the effects they have had on the world around you.
Despite the fact I am not a Christian, I do appreciate the underlying message of Christmas and – like Karen – I like it a lot. The season’s message of goodwill and peace, kindness and generosity is not a sectarian one dependent upon a belief in miracles. One year, we spent the month of Ramadan and Eid al fitr conducting a meditation course in Indonesia. It was our first experience of the Muslim holiday and we were both struck by the similarity of message to Christmas. Truth is truth, after all. What matters is how you treat the people you meet and how you greet the experiences you encounter.
So, if you haven’t watched it in a while, or if you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, grab some tissue and settle in for a good story about how to live.
Tomorrow we head home and will post again in the New Year.
Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate.
We wish all of you the very best