When I look down, I miss all the good stuff
When I look up, I just trip over things
Ani Defranco – As is
There’s a book that captivated me when I was a youngster. It was The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. Whether it was the beautiful girl at uni that gave it to me insisting I read it or the fact I had never really ever read anything like it before I am not sure. But I loved it.
Now in hindsight I can see that it is a little embarrassingly self-helpy but let’s forget that bit because there were some great passages in it – none better than a story that was embedded within the story.
The sub story was set in ancient Persia and it told of a boy who was seeking “the answer” (no wonder it resonated with me at that tender age). So he sought out the wisest king in all the lands. After journeying for weeks across deserts and foreign lands he reached the palace and was despondent to see the queue for the kings audience stretching for miles. But he had journeyed long and far so he patiently waited. When he reached the throne he paid tribute then humbly asked “What is the answer to how to approach this life?”
The king said that he didn’t have the time to explain but he gave the boy a spoon with a drop of oil on it and the instructions: “Go forth and explore my domain and return in several hours – but you MUST bring back this drop of oil.”
So off he set with the kings command ringing in his hears – walking and walking through the palace diligently watching the drop of oil in case he spilt it. He returned proud of his achievement and lined up to see the king again. He handed him the oil and waited for praise. Instead the king merely smiled and asked: “So…what did you see? Did you see hall of tapestries from centuries past? Did you see the gardens with plants from the four corners of the world? Did you hear the musicians in the gardens playing the greatest music ever composed? Did you see the snow on the mountains beyond my palace?”
The boy answered dumbly “no” and cast his head down. The king then said “Here – take the spoon of oil again and go and explore”.
So off the boy went with filled with the joy of a second chance – exploring, running, watching, marvelling, listening. And he returned to the king bursting with stories of awe and wonder.
He reached the king eagerly waiting to be asked what he had seen but the king merely asked: “Where is my drop of oil?” Of course it was gone. He had dropped it in his unbridled joy and excitement.
Then the king gave the simple lesson – as you can probably guess – that the secret was to take in the world and explore without ever losing sight of the oil on the spoon. Those unadventurous, simple, essential things like cleaning a house, feeding the children, cooking a meal or working.
So my second Buddha moment came hot on the heels of my first. We finally made it to the Bangkok temple that I have wanted to take the girls to for as long as I can remember – Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I saw this as a child myself (aged 3 mum and dad?) and it literally stamped itself into my gentle, pliable little neural network. The overwhelming smell of incense that greeted you before you stepped into the grand hall where you are met with a 47m long reclining, gleaming gold Buddha. The head scraping the cavernous roof above you and the eyes staring all knowingly into eternity. Walls of impossibly ornate mother of pearl that make you almost groan in appreciation of how long it must have taken. All the while the clanging echo of people dropping coins into the 108 copper pots that line the walls. A form of meditation as you make your way around Buddha towards enlightenment.
So we entered the hall and made our way around Buddha. As part of the experience we made a donation and all got our packets of 108 coins and then proceeded to drop them into the copper pots one by one. I focused on not missing a pot and I did what I thought a good monk would do and I breathed slowly in and out meditation style as I focused on nothing but the coin and the pot.
Here we go I thought – no mind…little Buddha…no mind…coin…pot…coin…pot…coin…pot….coin….
About pot 56 I stopped and realised I had just walked past most of the famous reclining Buddha. Missed it completely in my focus on coin and pot. I laughed at myself and looked out the window near me at the sky and the clouds and the trees. Then I looked up at the reclining Buddha towering above me and I looked around at my beautiful quirky little family dropping their coins intently into the pots. That story from The Alchemist came back to me and I smiled. I dropped a few more coins in the pots then stopped and looked around. Dropped a few more coins then stopped and looked around.
Taking it all in – both oil on the spoon and the tapestries on the walls. Buddha all the way.
(Tully, God bless her little soul and love of shiny trinkets, asked me “what happens at the end of the 108 coins” and I replied flippantly that “you reach enlightenment”. She dropped in her 108 coins then doubled back to Mel and quietly asked “Mum….did you get a lighter?” Mel responded “No?” and Tully looked disappointed. “Why?” Mel asked and Tully replied “I thought Dad said we got a lighter at the end or something….”)
Oh Matt I still have my copy of The Alchemist that you gave me so many years ago, self-helpy or not, it’s a great book!
August 1978, age 4, heading for Peshawar.
I was struggling to remember… You were so small in Newcastle on Tyne. “D” reminded me of your time in Peshawar… of course you were older. Such wonderful reflections. Thanks Mat.