Having recently observed my 65th birthday, I’ve been rather surprised at how often of late I find myself thinking about my past. Perhaps there’s some sort of life-review process that gets activated with the passage across this iconic birthdate, upon which one officially becomes a “senior citizen”. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of the past making itself more present in consciousness, as our once seemingly infinite future begins its inevitable shrinkage into a much more finite size.
Whatever the cause, this sudden spurt of memories has prompted me to take my blogging in a new direction. In what I hope will become an ongoing series of occasional biographical posts, I plan to examine old experiences in the fresh light of my current understanding of mindfulness practice and Buddhist philosophy. These posts will constitute a much more personal form of “engaged mindfulness” than the more conceptual entries usually featured in this blog. I hope that they will be as useful and enjoyable for you to read as I expect they will be for me to write.
The series title “So Far” refers both to my appreciation for all that I’ve experienced and learned in life so far, and to my anticipation of all there is yet to experience and learn in the time that remains. I still have so far to go….
“To Take or Not to Take”
I’ve never been very skillful at asking for what I want, but I’ve never had to wonder why that’s so. My mother, quite unintentionally, made certain that I would always know why. She had a favorite tale about my early childhood, and for many years she told it over and over again to relatives, friends, and – much to my discomfort in late adolescence – to almost every girl I ever dated!
According to the story, when I was around two years old, my parents had some friends over to visit one Sunday afternoon, and there was a bowl of pretzels on the coffee table around which the grown-ups were sitting and talking (and no doubt smoking – it was 1951). In the midst of this gathering, I toddled over to the table, reached into the bowl, and raised a pretzel toward my mouth. With my arm still in motion, my mother told me that I should not have taken the pretzel on my own, that the polite thing was to wait until I was offered one. And without a word of protest, I returned the unbitten pretzel back to the bowl.
This prompt and unquestioning obedience of mine must have impressed the guests, and it surely must have made my mother very proud of me. I was such a good boy!
I actually have no memory of this event, and know of it only through having so often heard the story. But here’s a related incident that occurred a year or two later, when I was around four years old, and that I remember perfectly well.
I was at a birthday party for a boy who lived just a short way down the block from the three-family residence where we rented our apartment. When it was time for dessert, the boy’s mother brought out a large platter overflowing with chocolate-iced, cream-filled chocolate cupcakes, which happened at the time to be my favorite dessert.
Apparently it was the favorite dessert of all my fellow partygoers as well, for as soon as she placed the platter on the table, there was a stampede of shouting children, everyone with outstretched hands grabbing for those cupcakes and gobbling them down with a ferocious, gleeful abandon.
Everyone, that is, except me. I stood frozen in front of the table, unwilling to take one for myself.
The boy’s mother noticed, and asked me what was the matter, didn’t I like these cupcakes? I answered her, “Yes, I like them very much, I was just waiting for you to give me one.” After all, wasn’t that what I had learned two years ago with that bowl of pretzels?
As she handed me one of the few cupcakes still remaining, she said, “You know, if you just wait to be given something that you want, you might never get it.”
Long before I would come to know what the term meant, I experienced for the first time in my life the uncomfortable sensation of cognitive dissonance. I still, to this very day, remember viscerally the physical jolt I felt at those words of hers. I had been taught – or at least, so I thought – by my parents that I always had to be polite and wait for food to be offered, that it was wrong to take it just because I wanted it, and that I might be reprimanded if I did so. And here was this woman – a parental figure of authority – instructing me to do exactly the opposite, and to my immature ears it even sounded a bit like she was reprimanding me for not taking something that I wanted.
So, which was correct? Take it? Don’t take it?
I had no idea.
But, I had gotten my cupcake! So, I simply went home from the party, forgot about the conundrum, and continued to abide by the rules of my upbringing. As I grew older, the injunction against taking food before it was offered morphed into a more generalized inhibition about asking for anything that I wanted. For many years of my adult life, I approached any situation that called for me to state clearly what I wanted much like that little boy at the party – holding back, waiting for the other person to somehow intuit what I wanted and then offer it to me.
Unsurprisingly, this strategy never worked out as favorably as it had at that long-ago party. There was never any sympathetic woman or man on hand, puzzled by my behavior but ready to give me what I was too afraid to take for myself. Instead, in my personal relationships there were repeated instances of unskillful communication resulting in misunderstandings and hurt feelings. And, over the course of my professional career there were repeated incidents of unskillful communication with supervisors resulting in missed opportunities and disappointing assignments.
For a long time in my adult life, I interpreted my poor communication in these situations as the product of what I called “my deferential personality”, and I traced it all the way back to the pretzel and cupcake incidents from my childhood. I often engaged in the unskillful practice of “if-only” wishful thinking. It would go something like, “If only my mother hadn’t forbade me to take that pretzel, then I would be a much more assertive person today.” This thought was comforting in that it offered me an excuse for my poor communication skills, but damaging in that it gave me no incentive to change them. In this interpretation, I was simply the victim of an unfortunate circumstance.
In recent years, my meditation practice has helped me to see the fallacy in that kind of wishful thinking. The most helpful insight I’ve gained has come from beginning to understand the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination”, according to which each event in our lives can be seen as originating out of, and therefore dependent upon, everything else that has happened to us up to that point. This accumulation of all the events making up our personal history is often referred to as the “causes and conditions” from which all things arise.
Viewing the pretzel incident through the lens of dependent origination, the fallacy of my wishful “if-only” thought is clearly revealed. From this perspective, there was no “unfortunate circumstance” that shouldn’t have happened. Rather, what happened in that circumstance was exactly what should have happened. My mother’s admonition arose out of her lifetime of experiences, which made her place a high premium on what she saw as polite social manners on the part of her 2-year-old son. And the little boy who obediently put that pretzel back did so because in his brief years of experience, he had come to place a high premium on being obedient and getting praised for it. Parental approval was more satisfying to me than any pretzel could ever be.
I was hardly a victim in that situation. I got exactly what I wanted – praise and approval. The problem was not the incident. Again, to cite dependent origination, what happened in that situation was the natural outcome of all that had preceded it. This was the case both for my mother and for me. The problem was that, in my youthful naiveté, I learned the wrong lesson. My mother wanted me to learn how to be polite and exhibit what she considered to be good social manners, but what I mistakenly learned instead was that wanting things could get me reprimanded.
And so, continuing with the notion of dependent origination, it becomes very clear that my erroneous learning at the age of two contributed substantially to the making of the four-year-old boy who refused to take a cupcake that he really wanted, even in a situation where “polite social manners” were the last thing expected of him, and the last thing on display among his peers.
Looking back now, I’m fairly certain that my behavior at the party was the last thing that either of my parents intended for me as well. And, just as I can’t remember the pretzel incident, they never knew about the cupcake incident. I didn’t know how to tell them. I even thought, at the time, that somehow they might be angry with me.
In terms of how it continued to play out in my later life, the conclusion my two-year-old self came to in that moment at the pretzel bowl – that it was always wrong to take what I wanted – was momentous. But in terms of what dependent origination has shown me, it was nothing other than the natural outcome of all the causes and conditions of my upbringing up to that point. Another two-year-old in a similar situation, but coming from a different set of causes and conditions, might easily have drawn a different conclusion – such as, always ask before you take a pretzel, or always make sure your parents aren’t looking before you take one without asking. But my two-year-old self, with my unique set of causes and conditions, concluded that it was best just to never take one.
Likewise, the behavior that arose for me at the birthday party two years later was based upon the accumulation of the causes and conditions of my life at that point in time, including of course the pretzel bowl incident. And so on, in each succeeding occasion where I failed to ask for something I wanted, I was acting under the accumulated weight of a lifetime’s worth of causes and conditions prompting me not to ask.
It was always unskillful behavior. But for me to wish “if only that incident with the pretzel bowl had never happened” was even more unskillful – and totally irrelevant. Everything that happened on that fateful (for me) day, and everything that happened subsequent to it, was simply a matter of the preceding causes and conditions giving rise to each new instance of unskillful communication.
So here I am now, with what feels like a more skillful understanding of my life-long pattern of poorly communicating my wants and desires, and with what I hope will prove to be more skillfulness in communicating them going forward, thanks to this new insight regarding dependent origination.
One unskillful tendency I still struggle with a bit is regretting that it took me such a long time to come to this insight. I’m sometimes tempted to wonder how various situations in the past would have turned out if I had been more able to state what I wanted.
But dependent origination helps me with this as well. It took such a long time because that’s how much time was needed for the appropriate causes and conditions to emerge such that I could arrive at the insight.
And with this understanding, I’m able to let go of all wishful thinking, and then I’m left with no regrets.
Well, actually, I do still have one regret ….
I never saw the birthday boy’s mother again. My family moved away from the neighborhood not long after the party, and a year or so after that, the entire block was razed to make way for a neighborhood playground. So she – and all our other neighbors – had to move away as well. Our families never saw each other again.
When she handed me that cupcake and offered me her advice, she became my first teacher – a full year before I entered first grade in elementary school. I wish it were somehow possible to let her know that, even now, some sixty years on, I still see her handing me that cupcake, and I still hear her well-meaning words.
I know that I won’t ever get to fulfill that wish, but I’m grateful that I get to keep the memory.