Chapter one of The Importance Of Living opens with the line:
In what follows I am presenting the Chinese point of view, because I cannot help myself.
Which I think is a pretty hilarious opening line. I’ve actually found, despite what that sentence actually says, that’s it’s very easy to read this book in a Mark Twain sort of drawl. Like, imagine Mark Twain writing a first person novel about a Chinese person, and I don’t think it would be too different from what we have here.
The chapter goes on:
For after surveying the field of Chinese literature and philosophy, I come to the conclusion that the highest ideal of Chinese culture has always been a man with a sense of detachment (takuan) toward life based on a sense of wise disenchantment. From this detachment comes high-mindedness (k’uanghuai), a high-mindedness which enables one to go through life with tolerant irony and escape the temptations of fame and wealth and achievement, and eventually makes him take what comes. And from this detachment arise also his sense of freedom, his love of vagabondage and his pride and nonchalance. It is only with this sense of freedom and nonchalance that one eventually arrives at the keen and intense joy of living.
Whew. That’s a lot of philosophising in one little paragraph.
This is something I’ve always attempted to do. Take a step back and view the world from a slightly elevated vantage point, or with detachment. Not in an “I’m better than you” sort of way, but more in a “this world is insane, I’m just going to enjoy the ride” kind of way.
Of course, this is often easier said than done.
Maybe my students were falling asleep during class, and I can detach sand say well, they’ll do that sometimes.
Maybe I get home and my dogs have peed all over the floor. And I can detach and say they’re just dogs, that’ll happen sometime.
Maybe I’ll get a pile of bills and look at my bank account, and realize the amount I owe is nowhere near the amount I have, and I can detach and say well, I can get by until next month. I’ll worry about retirement later.
But maybe things just keep adding up one after the other and all of the sudden my stomach is clenching and my teeth are grinding. I’m yelling at my dogs (who just stare back with stupid, sweet eyes) and I’m mad at myself and my wife for not making more money, and who do those students think they are, I’m an amazing teacher?
I heard something silly once that I’ve come to think is profound. I don’t remember who said it, it might have even been on a bumper sticker, but the phrase was simply:
You can either fight the waves or you can learn to surf. *
Which is a tad simplistic, but it also runs through my head like Keanu running after the Ex-Presidents whenever I’m facing an obstacle, or several obstacles, that I just can’t remove myself from (and then I point my gun in air, scream and pull the trigger several times, and wonders where my Oscar is).
My other mantra or choice when circumstances feel out of my control, and I’m losing perspective, comes from another eighties era classic motion picture, Lethal Weapon 2.
Riggs: Oh, this stinks. This stinks. This stinks!
Captain Murphy: I don’t give a f—, Riggs. That’s why I don’t have an ulcer, because I know when to say, “I don’t give a f—.” Now here’s where he’s staying. It’s a nice hotel; all the expenses are being picked up by the Justice Dept, so enjoy yourselves. And Riggs, one more thing!
Riggs: [turns back] What?
Captain Murphy: [tosses him a small “no smoking” sign] You know what that says?
Riggs: Yeah, yeah, same thing as that. [points to the larger sign next to him on the door, smirking] But I don’t give a f—. [throws the small placard back and walks out]
Take it from Riggs (this was before the whole antisemitic-sugar-tits Mel Gibson came to light), sometimes, when the world is out to get you, you just have to not give a f—.
An when all else fails, I force myself to take six deep breaths. It’s been shown that it takes six breaths to lower your blood pressure, so when you need to remove yourself from a situation and calm down, one breath won’t cut it. Six is the minimum.
And in fact, you should probably just keep on breathing after that. Scientifically speaking, that’s been found to be the secret to living forever. Just keep breathing.
*Jon Kabat-Zinn actually said that surfing quote. Which I guess is about as legit as you can get when it comes to mantras.