A few days ago, I was talking to my young adult son and heard myself telling him the age-old advice that he needed a reason to get out of bed every morning. You may have run into these words of wisdom in your own life, from your parents or friends, or read it in a meme on Instagram or Facebook. They seem like a truism.
One recent morning, I lay in my very comfy bed and wondered what energy gets me out of it each day. I’m in my early fifties, and while I no longer need to work to support my family, I do have many jobs, both paid and volunteer, and many people who rely on what I do. There was a time in my life when my desire to “help others” was what got me out of bed. But as time has passed, I’ve begun to realize the teachings of the Buddha’s Diamond Sutra.
Duty to Help?
The Diamond Sutra is nearly impenetrable, saying things like, “This is how the bodhisattva mahasattvas master their thinking: ‘However many species of living beings there are—whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they have perceptions or do not have perceptions; or whether it cannot be said of them that they have perceptions or that they do not have perceptions, we must lead all these beings to nirvana so that they can be liberated. Yet when this innumerable, immeasurable, infinite number of beings has become liberated, we do not, in truth, think that a single being has been liberated.’”
Here’s how I sum that up: Because we are all temporary manifestations of the cosmos, there is no separate person — me — who can help or serve anyone and, for the same reason, there is no one else to help or serve. Another way to put it is that the best way for me to help the world is to liberate myself. That way, I am no longer caught up in my own striving, and can be available and present in each moment.
Believing that I have a duty to tell others how to live or that I am on a mission to save everyone is the same attitude that has gotten humans into trouble for eons. It’s what some religious fundamentalists, like the Islamic State, practice. If I get out of bed inspired by how I’m going to help other people today, I will only contribute to the disconnection that fuels the continuation of human suffering.
What About Carrots?
So what if I get out of bed simply to meet my hedonistic desires? Thinking about the pancakes I’ll smother in syrup for breakfast or the money I’ll make selling my book (sadly, not worth getting out of bed for) is not the kind of happiness that endures, and so wouldn’t get me up and at ’em.
When I first encountered mindfulness in the teachings of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, I was both excited and scared by this practice of aimlessness — the practice of letting go of our desire to control the outcome of life. It means not putting something in front of us and then chasing after it. It means not using a carrot to get ourselves out of bed every morning, spending the day searching for the carrot and missing out on the authentic life we might be living.
“IF THE WORLD WERE MERELY SEDUCTIVE, THAT WOULD BE EASY. IF IT WERE MERELY CHALLENGING, THAT WOULD BE NO PROBLEM. BUT I ARISE IN THE MORNING TORN BETWEEN A DESIRE TO IMPROVE THE WORLD AND A DESIRE TO ENJOY THE WORLD. THIS MAKES IT HARD TO PLAN THE DAY.” –E.B. WHITE
It is my intention to help whenever the opportunity arises, but if I get out of bed fixated on my goal to make the world a “better place,” I will find myself missing or skimming by the gorgeous details. And in the end, I may have missed the real chances I had to make a difference in someone’s life.
So my aspiration is to get out of bed without any agenda and with a heart full of curiosity. What challenges will I face today, and how will I meet them? Will my mindfulness practice allow me to stay present with it? What mysteries and beauties will be revealed to me today? Will I encounter an angry neighbor who wants to resolve a dispute, a smiling fellow dog walker with an adorable little poodle, a shy red fox coming out from under a rock?