The poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns, (subtitled "On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785") begins -
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,and that opening line is justly famous. It's a long poem - people didn't have so much to entertain themselves with back then - and it ends -
O' what a panic's in thy breastie!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!How very Zen, I thought, the way I do, on coming across this poem today. The animal knows only the present; the poet thinks his large mind is more complicated, busy with bad memories and anxiety about the future. Before that last stanza, he has been contemplating human life and said -
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men,a justly famous line that touches right down on uncertainty. As I get it, the poor mouse is also uncertain when the rude poet disturbs her nest, but not until that moment. I must say this: it is not all good to just bumble around in the present; it means you don't have foresight. The Dalai Lama has commented that life is harder in the animal realm, because animals have so little control over their lives. In the moment they have to find food and water and safe shelter, and be alert. They have no emergency supplies or FEMA. Had this mousie been able to predict the plough, she might have built her test somewhere else, anywhere but in a field under cultivation. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, one of my all-time favorite books, centers on a field mouse, a widow in fact, who does realize the plough is coming, and furthermore has a sick child. Humans on the other hand, who are, in theory, able to imagine probable futures, build house on sand, and when a hurricane wipes them away, they build again in the same place.
Gang aft a-gley . . .
American society has latched onto mindfulness meditation as a secular activity divorced from Eastern religions and designed to lower stress and blood pressure and aid in healing. I noted with some amazement today that our health club is offering what they call Mindfulness Express meditation, a course that costs, I think, $75. Why don't people commercialize prayer like this? On the other hand, why do people feel free to secularize Buddhist practices?
I know the great Chogyam Trungpa believed that Americans needed an essence of Buddhism without a lot of folderol, so invented Shambala; and I don't know much more about it, except that a friend of mine loved it and stuck with it. Coming at us from the medical establishment there's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction meditation, inaugurated by Jon Kabat-Zinn and eagerly adopted by the medical profession as "complementary medicine." Both men had more access to (bona fide) Teachers than I've had, and I greatly admire their work. I have always hoped that MBSR leads some people to explore the religion that gave birth to the idea of being present in this very moment. A Teacher I know hopes it opens that door.
Yet, I wonder. Even if people without Teachers can hang on to a meditation practice and do it right, if they are not getting to know themselves, if they are not attempting to practice the, ah, lifestyle of the Eightfold Path and to gain wisdom, does it get them anywhere? Or does it just enable them to stay on the hedonic treadmill, and refresh the energy to keep striving madly, and get stressed over and over again.
And that's all I know. Except that mice are so cute, it's a wonder Facebook isn't crawling with them. All those cats, I guess.