A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was giving me a lift home from work. On the way, she kept complaining that she was so hungry and really wanted to eat. Our plan, however, had been to go for a run, or at least do some exercise, and I generally don’t eat right before exercise (it’s just not a good idea), so I was basically trying to get her to stop complaining and get some control over her appetite.
I’d written previously (some time ago now) about the virtues of being hungry, and I pretty much have the same views on it now, so that was what I was telling her that night.
When people hear the word “hunger”, most people would think of something negative: hunger is painful, it sucks to be hungry, no one wants to be hungry. So, yes, fair enough, that was the mindset my friend had. But having that mindset seemed to be causing her suffering. I mean, I was probably a little hungry myself (we’d just finished a full day’s work, after all) but I saw/felt it differently.
This hunger is not a bad thing, I tried to tell her.
Eventually she did see it from my point of view; she understood that it was only how she thought of the present situation that made it feel unbearable. But it wasn’t unbearable. And even though I’d had these thoughts years before, I had another epiphany from talking to my friend about it.
One of the many things I feel like I’m constantly repeating to myself from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is the idea that “nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. I think that’s how Shakespeare paraphrased it in one of his plays (or maybe that’s someone else paraphrasing Shakespeare). I think Marcus Aurelius actually accredits the concept to another philosopher, and the idea is reiterated several times throughout Meditations in different ways, but this is the one that stuck with me:
That all is as thinking makes it so – and you control your thinking. So remove your judgements whenever you wish and then there is calm
– Book 12, Chapter 22
And, ok, it seems pretty reasonable, right? But the part I kind of struggled with was removing judgement. When I first read this next quote, I didn’t quite understand what he was telling me to do, or how I was supposed to do it. It seemed like a case of “easier said than done” – a lot easier.
Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt’: remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed.
– Book 4, Chapter 7
And what I didn’t get was that if something, looked at objectively, is obviously wrong, unjust or otherwise bad, how can I (or anyone else) see it any other way? For example, if someone drove into your car while it was parked legally on the side of the street, and caused lots of damage (something that’s happened to someone I know), how do you remove the judgement, and not think of it as a bad occurrence?
Well, actually, maybe it does.
What I realised, from talking to my friend that night, was that it’s about perspective: change your perspective by removing your initial judgements. Perhaps “judgement” is too harsh of a word – too forceful – and we could use “opinion” or “preconceived notion” instead. When I realised all this, I couldn’t believe I didn’t understand it before.
And maybe I’d also forgotten that it’s not a simple black/white situation – things don’t have to be either good or bad, but can be somewhere in between, or neither. Trying to say that hunger or traffic accidents aren’t bad is not the equivalent of saying that they’re good. Maybe it’s just ok, or maybe it’s neither, but it’s not bad. Not unless you think it is, anyway.
Is this how I find Zen? I hope it is.