Froth and Goblets

I have written a story about a time when my little Buddhist character, Augustus, helped a princess deal with depression. Chapter 14 from “Augustus Finds Serenity” is an extract from that story. Let me quote a little of it for you.

The princess looked up at Augustus and asked, “Perhaps you can explain something for me, Augustus?”

“I will try. What is it you wish to know?

“In between my bouts of depression, I have led a very full life. One would think that that would be an antidote to becoming so self-obsessed as, I concede, I do when depressed.”

“Well, my lady, I suppose it is a matter of what your life is full of. Let me give you an example.” And here, Augustus walked to the table set up for an oncoming feast and picked up two goblets. The princess looked on, perplexed at this. “Here, mind these,” he said and marched off in the direction of the kitchen. He came back with some soap. Taking a knife off the table he shaved some of the soap into one goblet. He then seized a pitcher of water from off the table and poured a little into the goblet with the shaved soap and then filled up the other goblet with water. He took a spoon from off the table and vigorously whisked the contents of the goblet which held a little water and the soap flakes. Very soon he had generated a goblet full of frothy soap suds.

“This,” he said, “Is like your life. This goblet is full, but it is full of froth whipped up by my vigorous attention. Your life is equally full of diversions and pastimes. Let us leave the goblet settle a while.”

As they watched, the froth subsided and the goblet became only a quarter filled with its contents. “So, this is like your life. Unless you are continuously whipping up its contents with your temporary pleasures and diversions, it will soon subside. It has little substance at all.”

He then pointed to the other goblet. “See, this one has not changed because its contents have substance. Occasionally, the breeze may blow hard and cause a few ripples over the top, but underneath, the bulk of its contents remain unmoved. When you fill your life with substance you will also be impervious to the environmental variations and you will be calm and content.”

So, what can we learn from this?

A prime consideration (and often an unconscious motivation) for all of us, is to do something useful, to make a meaningful contribution to society. As I wrote in a previous blog (“The Pursuit of Happiness” June 26 2009) in his book ‘Authentic Happiness’ Dr Martin Seligman asserts that if we are to live a life of contentment we must pursue a cause that is “greater than ourselves”.

Because of our spirituality, human beings are ‘meaning makers’ and ‘purpose seekers’. This is what makes life meaningful for us. We need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.

Life is not easy. (Even a former Australian Prime Minister concurred with this thought!)

M Scott Peck started his lovely little book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ with these words:

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.

These are similar sentiments to those expressed by Buddha in ‘The Four Noble Truths’. The first Noble Truth reiterates that life is difficult and that suffering is man’s lot on earth. But he then goes on to show there is a solution to suffering.

Dr Viktor Frankl, psychologist and survivor of Nazi concentration camps wrote,

When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of the suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

But, as Augustus explained to the princess, many of us are not prepared to confront this uncomfortable truth. So what do we do? We seek diversions, distractions. We spend large parts of our lives watching mindless television, reading about the lives of film stars and pop idols. We go to the pub, we play the pokies and we read our horoscopes. We engage in a huge variety of activities that are in the short term pleasurable and engaging but provide us with no benefit save the short term relief of not having to engage with the universe and its ultimate meanings and lessons. Being so distracted we do not have to think about our mortality, our unsatisfactory relationships, our undeveloped potentials and so on.

The mathematician and philosopher, Blase Pascal confronted this issue in the seventeenth century. In his philosophical work “Pensees” he dealt extensively with the allurement of diversions.

This is all that men have been able to discover to make themselves happy. And those who philosophise on the matter, and who think men unreasonable for spending a whole day in chasing a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase, which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.

And as well,

He who does not see the vanity of the world is himself very vain. Indeed who do not see it but youths who are absorbed in fame, diversion, and the thought of the future? But take away diversion, and you will see them dried up with weariness. They feel then their nothingness without knowing it; for it is indeed to be unhappy to be in insufferable sadness as soon as we are reduced to thinking of self and have no diversion.

Have I overstated the case? Perhaps! Some distractions, some diversions are useful when we want a respite from the world. But they can not be used as a subterfuge to prevent us from confronting and dealing with the world.

Sooner or later we must deal with the world as it is. No amount of diversions can prevent us from finally confronting the world. Life may not have been meant to be easy, but our personal well-being is enhanced by our propensity to deal with the world the way that it is – suffering and all!