|“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting
and autumn a mosaic of them all.”- Stanley Horowitz
It’s that time of year again. The days shorten, the nights grow colder, and in the Bay Area the closest we get to snow is rainy weather. It makes me think of Thoreau’s quote, “Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” As my own birthday is fast approaching, it strikes me fitting to reflect upon the lessons I’ve learned in the past year.
Everyone claims to want enlightenment. There’s a Zen proverb that goes “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” If what you’re doing before and after enlightenment is exactly the same, then what’s changed? It seems pointless to seek knowledge for just the sake of knowledge, after all people are wont to say that ignorance is bliss.
However, the point of enlightenment is to gain illumination, to obtain some wisdom. It is a state of nirvana in Hinduism and Buddhism because you’ve broken the the cycle of reincarnation; characterized by the extinction of desire and suffering and individual consciousness (according to the definition you can find if you google “define: enlightenment”). If you look deeper into Zen Buddhism, the Ten Bulls is a useful story that draws out the reason for why what you do before and after enlightenment is physically the same, but what’s changed is your state of mind. Enlightenment is sought because it lightens one’s load, we do not need to struggle once we break through and understand why we are suffering in the first place. This is why knowledge and education are considered good things to obtain, because when you know better you do better.
People tend to dislike autumn and winter as they’re the preamble and final act for Mother Nature to furlough and lie fallow. They’re a subconscious reminder of death, which is often considered a somber topic. So we avoid talking about it and thinking about it and convince ourselves that what we’re doing in the moment is important, even if it really isn’t. We live our lives trying to ignore that one day, death will find us, too. The reason why legends of resurrection are so powerful in our human psyche is because death is scary (I’d like to quote Shakespeare, but won’t). There are four seasons and they are all part of one cycle; they cannot exist without each other. Life and death are also interconnected.
Personally, I find the mythology of the phoenix particularly illuminating. As I’ve mentioned before, the stories we tell matter
. The phoenix is a bird of fire, and while its flame burns brightly it eventually dies, but rises again from its ashes. It’s an enlightening legend, given that it shows that death and life are one; they’re two sides of the same coin. Running with the money metaphor, the only question you need now ask yourself is this: how will I choose to spend this bit of wisdom?
The answer for me lies in making sure I’m living each day doing what matters to me. If you haven’t seen Steve Jobs’ commencement speech, you definitely should (although after his passing, I’m fairly certain that everyone on the planet saw it). I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to fit a certain mold, because I was convinced that down that path lay happiness. On the surface, everything looked great: I did the “right” stuff because jumping through the enough hoops would make me somehow be successful. Somewhere along the way, I forgot that external validation was meaningless if internally, I wasn’t happy. If the race towards success feels self-destructive, it is – and it’s only a Pyrrhic victory when you lose yourself to win a battle against yourself.