Enlightenment to Go - David Michie
The following is an excerpt from David Michie's Enlightenment to Go:
Many people around the world are making the choice to awaken,
beginning an inner journey which, though less easy to measure than a
road or rail trip, and with a destination more difﬁcult to deﬁne, is
nevertheless just as real. For most of us it begins with a heartfelt
yearning for greater purpose and contentment, the recognition that
‘there has to be more to life than this’.
Whether our recognition builds up over time, or is thrust upon us
by the crisis of a job loss, relationship break-up, serious illness or
other personal drama, the important thing is what we do next. Do we
attribute our unhappiness to our heartless former employer, our
deceitful ex-partner, the ﬁckleness of fate? Or do we recognise that we
have some say in the way we feel? Do we believe that external
circumstances force us to experience certain emotions we’d much rather
avoid? Or are we not the inevitable victims of circumstance?
In short, can we choose the way we feel?
As a society our answer to this question is ambivalent. So much
of our behaviour is based on the assumption that happiness is to be
found in things which are external to ourselves—in particular, material
comforts and relationships with other people. We spend a lot of our
lives working to achieve or sustain a certain standard of living, a set
of relationships, and sometimes the acquisition of inﬂuence or
status—all the things which society seems to promote as the basis of a
happy and fulﬁlled life. When these don’t deliver the required levels of
happiness, we see no paradox in turning to mood enhancers, be they
alcoholic, prescription or some other variety, which we know will do
nothing for our external circumstances, but which we hope will make us
feel a whole lot better about them.
Like most people, until I got quite some way into adulthood I
never gave a moment’s thought to whether or not I could choose the way I
felt. Looking back on the major psychological landmarks of my early
years—the anxieties I experienced at the start of my career in public
relations, the frustrations of my work as a writer, the indignation that
landlords and roommates and innumerable others could be less than
scrupulous—I realise that all these feelings seemed normal, even
inevitable in the circumstances. As for the biggest landmark of them
all, when my ﬁrst serious girlfriend dumped me, the dark abyss of
depression into which I fell seemed to me all too unavoidable. When
someone pointed out the irksome truth that not all dumped ex-boyfriends
reacted with quite the same dramatic intensity, I understood the point
being made but—at least initially—came up with all kinds of reasons to
explain why I wasn’t like other dumped boyfriends.
Like a bird whose cage door is opened yet who does not ﬂy to
liberty, sometimes we ﬁnd all kinds of excuses to remain in painful,
familiar conﬁnement even when the possibility of freedom is offered. It
was only later that I was ready to explore the idea that I didn’t
actually have to live in despair.
Changing our inner reality
If the starting point of our journey to awakening is dissatisfaction
with the status quo of our lives, our ﬁrst step only becomes possible
when we choose to do something about it. The Buddhist term for this is
‘renunciation’, which approximately translates as ‘turning away from the
causes of our suffering’.
In the West, such is our preoccupation with external reality that
the word ‘renunciation’ instantly evokes images of monastic austerities
like sackcloth and ashes—in secular twenty-ﬁrst-century terms perhaps,
giving up our favourite high-cholesterol foods for a grim, low-calorie
regime in an effort to lose weight.
Fortunately the Tibetan Buddhist view of renunciation is somewhat
different. It is not the external reality which we are renouncing, but
our inner reality. The whole point is that the causes of our suffering
are to be found not ‘out there’ but ‘in here’. If we want to turn away
from them, the focus of our efforts has to be on our mind.
Which brings us to the ﬁrst stop of our highlights tour of
Shantideva. And, perhaps appropriately, to one of the most quoted verses
of the entire Guide. It is a verse you may have already encountered:
the power of its message and economy of expression make it a perennial
favourite with lamas, psychologists and self-development teachers alike.
Where would I possibly ﬁnd enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
Yet wearing leather just on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.
With the simplicity of genius, Shantideva explains the whole
point of renunciation. In just four lines he illustrates the
impossibility of trying to control everything in the world around us,
contrasting it to the more manageable alternative of controlling the way
we experience the world.
This explanation is based on the understanding that on our
journey through life we will inevitably experience the psychological
equivalent of stubbing our toes, stepping on thorns, cutting our ankles
and worse as we encounter harsh emotional terrain. Without protection we
suffer pain. Just as shoes provide a defensive layer for soft feet, we
should safeguard our emotions with a layer of protection—a shielding
barrier of interpretations, values and beliefs.
Long before psychologists began to tell us that every emotion is
preceded by the thought that determines it, Shantideva was saying the
very same thing. To understand why we experience any feelings, be they
pleasant or unpleasant, we ﬁrst need to identify our thoughts about and
interpretations of any given situation.
Which is all very well, you may be thinking, but I already have
my own set of interpretations, values and beliefs. If that’s the pair of
shoes Shantideva is talking about, why do I experience dissatisfaction
Could it be, perhaps, that the shoes you’re presently wearing simply aren’t up to the job?
© David Michie