The weather has finally warmed up enough so that I can have comfortable outdoors, early morning meditations so, I brought out a folding lawn chair and sat under the dark sky yesterday. It was just a simple Insight Meditation, a time of formal mindfulness on the breath and physical sensations.
After the meditation, I looked across the river and noticed the light in a window of a house directly opposite to mine go out. A few moments later, I heard an engine start then headlights soon illuminated. The pickup backed out of the driveway and drove west, down the street.
Just then, I wondered about the pickup driver. Was he/she going to work, or just a run to the supermarket on an errand? Then I asked myself, what it must be like to be that person. What if I wasn’t me but was somebody else?
Regardless of who we are or our station in life, we are very familiar with our own lives and feel reasonably at ease about who we are, within our minds. We have routines that we usually follow, and expectations of ourselves and life, in general. Also, I think everybody has had fantasies about wanting a different life, because there is something unsatisfactory about our own lives.
Who hasn’t wished they were some important, famous, wealthy celebrity? Perhaps you imagined yourself as someone who lives on a tropical island enjoying perfect weather and sipping delicious beverages under palm trees at the seashore each day. Maybe you’ve wondered what it would be like to be a spiritual hermit spending hours in deep contemplation in a hut or a cave in Shangri-la. Perhaps, like me, you simply wondered what it might be like to be your neighbor.
Some years ago, two friends and I walked through a very impoverished area near Mumbai in Panvel, India. I was astonished to see a large, bright red, Chinese Communist flag flying over the decrepit slum. The sights and smells of extreme poverty were everywhere to be seen. Lining the highway, on one side, were large cardboard appliance boxes. My host told me that people live in those boxes.
At an intellectual level, I analyzed and understood the plight of the people who live in that area. Deeper within, I felt the beginnings of an existential crisis. I honestly felt uneasy about being who I was, a tourist whose party inadvertently found itself in the middle of a dire slum. This was the first time I ever witnessed extreme poverty.
Who was I to ever complain about not having enough money to live in a large house and drive a fancy, new car? After all, I had managed to scrimp and save for a dream vacation to India.
I’ll never forget how I wondered what it must be like to be the old man, sitting near one of the cardboard boxes, who looked at me with disdain. Who was that man? What was his name? What were the details about the circumstances of his life? What did he think about the three people who accidentally stumbled into his neighborhood?
A few days later, my host drove me on a daytrip on his Suzuki motorcycle. We took a busy thoroughfare out of town to the lush plantation home that belonged to one of my host’s clients. It was situated in a large grove of mango trees and coconut palms.
We sat and enjoyed an intellectual conversation with the plantation owner. A servant served fresh vegetable snacks and non-alcoholic drinks while we enjoyed the Hollywood movie-like view from the veranda. The host told me that he studied architecture in Vienna and economics in Berlin. In fact he designed the home and grounds himself. The tiny village that he owned was laid out according to plans he had drawn up. Before my host and I departed, the plantation owner took us to his garage so we could view his collection of exotic Italian sports cars.
On the motorcycle ride back to Panvel, I contemplated the vast wealth of the plantation owner and wondered what it must be like to be him. Before the motorcycle arrived back at my hotel, we rode past the outskirts of another dire slum. I thought a lot about the social contrasts I had seen during my visit.
I like to keep my beard short and neatly trimmed. During my stay in South Asia, the beard had grown bushier than I like. I asked my host where I could have it trimmed. He suggested his own, personal barber.
Inside of a rundown wooden shack was another world. The slightly overweight barber invited me to sit in an antique barber’s chair, then he placed a large apron across my torso. I explained that I only wanted my beard trimmed, not removed. The friendly barber honed a straight-edge razor and went to work. I contemplated the small shrine to Ganesha, the Elephant God, in front of me on a bottle-filled shelf.
The delicious aroma of the spicy unguents and lotions combined with the barber’s rhythmic movements with the razor caused me to enter a state of reverie. I day-dreamed that I was a middle class Indian having a busy day, and that the beard trimming was just another part of my regular routine. I visualized working in an office in Mumbai, consulting with business clients. I briefly imagined living in a humble flat near my office.
After the beard trimming, I slowly walked through the business district of Panvel and took in every sight around me. I kept the fantasy of living as an Indian alive, then allowed it to fade away. Instantly, I noticed that the lingering existential crisis was resolved. I felt glad to be exactly who I am, experiencing life exactly the way I do.
I blinked my eyes and snapped out of the nostalgic memory. Here in Nebraska, I craved a cup of coffee. It was time to resume my day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes recording artist Sean Lennon. “I’m trying to use the language of today to express a general existential crisis that I think the World and I are going through.”