Every mystery or philosophical tradition from the beginning of time has invented mechanisms to help adherents pay attention to the right things, or stop paying attention to the wrong things. I’ve always been fascinated by Zen koans, Sufi teaching stories, and parables of all kinds. After all, that everything that is communicated contains messages at more than one level, geared especially for those at each level who can grasp the meaning, has always been more appealing to me than the idea that there is hidden knowledge out there in the world that requires learning specific hand signals, and paying certain club dues, to learn. Of course, the big thing you learn after investing in any system of this kind is that NO KNOWLEDGE IS HIDDEN. If it’s actual and real knowledge, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and right there in constant view. Again, we return to perspective. You wanna know how small and unimportant you are, and how ultimately ineffective you are likely to be in this lifetime, go out every day to the beach, find and examine the same single grain of sand each day – if of course you can even find it. You can after all only be humble by practicing humility. For years, I’ve practiced imagining looking down at myself in space, starting from just a few feet away, and gradually pulling away, seeing my house, the neighborhood, our town, the state, the continent, the Earth, slowly becoming smaller and smaller and ultimately lost in the everything else that there is. Having a GPS system and playing with the zoom gives you a taste of that. I mean, where ARE you as far as the universe is concerned? And why even bother considering the universe? There are so many infinitely closer and more immediate things that are so much bigger, and grander than we are.
An interesting little trick that is worth trying is the Stoic imagining of the happy death – to imagine yourself on death’s doorstep, imminently departing this mortal coil. With what in your life are you satisfied? What mistakes would you rectify? Most importantly, what that you could have done have you left undone? Whether there is a judgmental overseer to be faced at the portal of the next Bardo is irrelevant. To appease an unfair or despotic deity is no great show of worthiness; likewise, to bully your way past an ineffective and less than omnipotent ruler with an excess of bravado or cash shows no surplus courage or chutzpah. So stripping it down to the bare bones, to the essence of the thing in itself, life, what use have you made of it? Montaigne suggested that a true Stoic approach would be to approach death believing that you either did everything you could, and lived that life to its fullest, wearing it out, in which case you have nothing to regret and can leave this world satisfied – or if you did not fully life, to realize that the opportunity was lost, and that the life was wasted on you in the first place. In either case, no cause for sorrow, no occasion for weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There are of course little tricks you can play every day. One I recently noted was that every night I go to bed hoping to be happy to be alive when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes that works; so I keep doing it. Of course, they are all games we play with ourselves – and often with those who live with us. You say, “good morning” even if you don’t believe in either goodness or the state of the current day. Just like so many “religious” people keep icons, guru pictures, shrines, and happy little “churchy” slogans or out of context Bible verses strewn profusely around their houses to “remind” them that they are “good” people and will act accordingly, the games we play with partners, lovers, children, parents, friends, co-workers, and incidental strangers on the street help us maintain a premise (usually only shared in part with others) not about how the world actually is, but how we believe it should be, or could be.