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12. Instead, let’s unwind that tension

Waiting for the takeaway coffee he’d ordered at the café near his work, he overheard some people talking at one of the tables behind him about a recent incident that he’d also been hearing a lot about lately.

“There was a thing in the news just the other day about someone in the US who let another person into the queue in front of them when buying a lottery ticket, which must have been one of those random number picks. Anyway the person who was let in ended up with the winning ticket and got a squadrillion dollars or some ridiculous amount. It apparently really happened, and wasn’t just one of those urban myth type stories that gets dragged out now and then, which is what I first thought, but it was on the news and in the papers the next day, although I didn’t see it. It became a bit of a hot topic.

“A lot of the talk was of course about how unfair it was, and that’s what the conversation behind me was all about. People said the winner should have handed at least something over to the person who let them in, with others even saying they had some sort of right to a share and would be justified if they ‘went over there’ and demanded some money.

“I don’t even know how anyone would have known who bought what ticket, unless the loser recognised the winner from a photo after they won, and assuming they would still remember what the person they let in the queue looked like. But then, how could they prove that they had really let the winner into the queue, and that the whole scenario really happened? There was a lot of talk about should they have let the other person in, or shouldn’t they, or how something or other really sucked about it.”

Benny’s thoughts were interrupted when his coffee was ready. ‘Flat white for Ben’ the guy called, and he stepped up to the counter to get it but had to put the change he’d been holding in his hand into his pocket to be able to grab the takeaway cup. A quick look — “year before last… that’s when I started this job”, and into the street.

“But I got to thinking what if the two people’s positions in the queue were swapped … there wouldn’t have been any guarantee about which ticket would win and which one wouldn’t, or if any one of them would. There was no way to know anything really — but a lot of people seemed to get worked up about it all, or at least about what they seemed to take as the main sticking points. Essentially these seemed to be something along the lines of ‘what I would do if it were me’ variety, and every scenario seemed to hinge on the fairness or unfairness of something that no-one had control of. I mean, how can blame or accusation hang on a random coincidence that no-one at the time would know the outcome of anyway?”

And so Benny’s thinking was taking a general direction that could be given a gentle urge along, could lead him to infer a view that would be more helpful in the long run than latching on to that habit of making any first response be a ‘not my fault’ reaction — that sort of self-protection that fends off perceived negativities by distancing oneself from any association or identification, to readily seek out and blame external factors.

And it’s easier to do that. We want to be justified. We want to be able to explain what happened, and how there’s nothing in it that should stick to us, or be seen by others as having happened because of anything that we’ve done. And to Benny it seemed close to being able to be expressed on the same breath as a runaway shopping trolley… which in that case was an instance (the new mark on his car) that was aching for a chance to point a finger, but for the fact that there wasn’t a target.

So here again there lay a half-formed thought (that, as I say, needed a little kick-along), another side to the same coin of needing an excuse, a justification. And the thought that was simmering slowly on the back burner was along the lines of how the fall-back ‘it’s not my fault’ can end up being less effective than one imagines to deflect blame, relieve tension or aggression or the pressure from imagining oneself perceived to be ‘not up to scratch’.

And then came an incident to seemingly give Benny a chance to allow action to colour between the lines of his thinking. On the next corner waiting at the red light to cross the street he took a spot next to another on-the-way-to-work person who also carried a takeaway coffee, but she took the lid off as they were waiting so as to take a sip or two. It was a blustery autumn day and had been raining earlier. Benny took a step back away from a small puddle on the road in front of him to avoid a possible splash from an approaching car tyre (it didn’t happen) at the same time as another gust blew along the street, picking up leaves and grime with it. The trouble was, Benny’s body had obviously been acting as a bit of a windbreaker, and must have sheltered the coffee sipper temporarily. With the latest gust, her now unshielded cup got a sprinkling of street grit across the top.

It all seemed quite choreographed, but of course just came together in a random way. The holder of the ruined coffee let out a quiet ‘arrh!’ and half looked towards Benny, or maybe towards where the wind came from, with an ‘oh no’ expression frozen on her face. Of course we sympathised, but without prompting and all on his own mettle Benny’s musings led him to venture the comment “I think maybe I did that.” For the immediate group around them, any guardedness (which people can walk around with like a shell) fell right away — “Hah, yeah… what? No,” she squinted and, holding her cup by the top edge, turned towards a rubbish bin as the pedestrian light went green.

Sitting at his desk later, Benny had the impression that he had just experienced a good morning. He now felt more certain that situations can be made lighter from someone stepping up, to take responsibility in a small way, or at least showing that there’s really no one to blame. Like that morning, for example, when the web connection went down. Being in a good mood, he saw a joke in the disconnection and said loudly “Sorry everyone, I kicked out the power under my desk, I must have unplugged the internet. Sorry.” It was another instance of him getting an amused murmur.

 

 

(Drive all blames into one)
< Chapter 11 Chapter 13 >

11. Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson

An unfortunate feature of the open-air car park at Benny’s local shopping centre was that it had a gradient in one area. Not exactly a hill, or the sort of slope that made it harder to walk up, but enough to mean that pushing a shopping trolley was made a little more challenging — not only did he have to contend with erratic directional pulls from at times dodgy wheels, but may also have to make allowances for the added difficulty, depending on where he had to leave the car, of parking bays that ran side-on to the gradient. Directing a heavy full trolley between two rows of parked cars that ran side-on to the natural pull of gravity was especially difficult.

In this particular area of the shopping centre car park, it was not unheard of for a trolley to occasionally roll away if left unattended. Any such escape was usually fairly leisurely, as the slope was gentle, but it could be interesting from a directional point of view due to the rough mechanics of those wheels. There was more chance of a runaway cart if the last user didn’t bother to return the thing to one of those trolley bays, but had just abandoned it somewhere. And this was exactly what happened one day when Benny was sitting in his car, after he returned the trolley he’d been using and having just sat in the driver seat. Before he had even reached back for the seatbelt, a clang and a bump to one the back panels of his car had him flinging open the car door and jumping out, ready to confront whoever had dinged into his car.

But there was no-one to shout out to, and nobody to be annoyed with. Just a loose shopping trolley, now resting against the car, right next to a small but visible mark. Benny looked around, but there wasn’t even anyone close enough to hear his “What…?!” or be able to share a this-really-sucks shake of the head. There was no-one to blame, and not a thing to be done about it, and his sudden flash of being riled kind of petered out into nothing, because there was no-one to direct it at.

His mood was lightened slightly by another trolley slowly trundling past, on its way to bump into a small tree at the end of the row. So it wasn’t a personal attack. It was just one of those mishaps that happens — a shopping trolley made a break for it, and he just happened to be parked in the wrong place.

And seeing that next runaway trolley made Benny realise another thing. He obviously wouldn’t have been the first person to have their car bumped into in this way. Someone else must have had that same angry flash. And who knows, maybe they could have even falsely blamed another shopper who was nearby for letting their trolley get loose. It could happen. And it could so obviously turn into one of those misdirected reactions he’d seen before, an anger or aggression that in this case, with no-one to blame, would be simply pointless, but that would have already needlessly become an unsettling twist in an otherwise uncomplicated calm day.

But the noteworthy outcome, Benny realised, was his acceptance. Yes, a crap thing happened and his car now had a new mark on it, and he would have been very happy if it didn’t. But then again, if the trolley had been safely stacked in its bay and the calm day sailed on uninterrupted, Benny would not have had this moment of knowing that he could actually handle adverse occurrences quite well. He felt a growing sense of both practicality and resourcefulness, but knew that in this instance this positive approach was not manifest in what would generally be seen as a usual way (and I had not whispered a word, honest).

Benny sat in the driver seat and got to thinking about another instance of damaged property, a favourite uncle he had long ago, and a pragmatic approach to a problem that was still fixed in his memory. His dad’s much older brother, who had since passed away, had always seemed to like his nephew, and when Benny was a kid he let him ‘help’ do things all the time. “Uncle Ted was a great guy. He knew what to do when it came to the practical stuff, like building things or fixing plumbing. So this one time we had a delivery of something or other, I actually can’t remember what it was, but what I do remember is that the back edge of the truck clipped our house and took a chunk of wood out of the weatherboards, or the corner bit of the house anyway. It wasn’t a huge piece, but it wasn’t tiny either, and I guess my parents thought it couldn’t be ignored.

“So Uncle Ted was called on to come over and fill in where the truck ‘took a bite out of the house’ (that’s what he said it looked like), and I was hanging around like I always did. Uncle Ted had some two-part filler gunk that would ‘do the trick’, and he let me help. ‘Mix this together for me Benny, like it says on the back of the tin,’ he said, and left me to it while he got the ladder and tidied up some bits and pieces.

“I guess I would have been about 12 or something like that, and really glad to be helping, and I probably wasn’t listening to the last bit of what Uncle Ted just said. I was probably rushing it too and not really thinking. Anyway I just ended up putting a scoop of the gunk into a container and squeezed some of the hardener into it and stirred — but then stirred in more because I wanted it to be a darker pink. Uncle Ted came back a few minutes later, saw what was happening, and quickly put the ladder against the house, climbed up and tried to smooth some of the mixture into the hole, but by then the gunk had turned into something like dried out peanut butter. He tried to force a lump of it into the damaged hole but it wouldn’t stay there, and pretty soon it had hardened so much that the stirrer was stuck upright in the middle of what was now like a round piece of plaster cast.

“I had pretty much guessed that I had made a mess of it somehow, and was getting concerned about what sort of trouble I’d be in — from my parents, not from Uncle Ted. He was grinning, holding the handle of the stirrer with the hard lump of filler hanging from it, swinging it around. ‘You didn’t read the back of the can, did you Benny!’ And then I must have looked a bit worried. ‘Look, don’t worry about it. I’m always buying this stuff. I’ll just come back with more next time. The hole in the wall’s not going anywhere. Hey I’ll even get you to mix it again for me, but this time….’ and he shook a finger at me, but it was in a joking way.

“So the corner of the house wasn’t fixed that day, and stayed damaged for a few more days just to remind me. Later on, before Uncle Ted left, I said I was sorry I’d messed up mixing his filler. But he just said: ‘Listen, forget the mistake, but don’t forget what it taught you.’

“So that was my lesson from that time way back then, which I still remember and I was reminded of it again today. Yeah some bad things can happen, but it doesn’t always have to mean a disaster.”

Benny suspected that he knew this all along, and that in the back of his mind, right here, he would have known that the secret to being able to ride over any setbacks that are thrown our way has more to do with correcting an attitude than constructing some sort of justification. This was something he would try to remind himself about. And so would I.

 

 

(When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi)
< Chapter 10 Chapter 12 >

10. Look after the pennys

“I ended up at the end of one day with a real gut ache. It couldn’t have been from something I’d eaten that I could think of — everything I’d had seemed very safe from the point of view of whether it could have been contaminated or not. Toast in the morning, sandwich later, that sort of thing. Nothing that you normally think can sometimes go off, like deli meat or eggs or leftover takeaway that’s been in the fridge too long.

“I’ve noticed that this is something that can happen in the run-up to pay-day and a fresh lot of money going into my account, which I’d been waiting on — I’ll start to rely more on the cheaper food staples or whatever is in the cupboard, like pasta or more bread, or potatoes. Generally ‘safe’ foods I would have thought. But this queasy stomach made me splurge on some plain yoghurt as I’d heard that’s good for digestion. I couldn’t tell if it really helped, but by the morning I was feeling a bit better — though I wasn’t sure if it was just the time passing during the night that made a difference or whether the yoghurt’s ‘good’ bacteria did its work.

“Just as well too because I’d planned a big meal out with a bunch of us a day later… after the monthly funds injection into the bank. I’d been whinging about those gut aches and the general opinion was that I should stick to whatever stomach-calming choices were on the menu. I didn’t, as I’d been looking forward to a better dinner. But you know, I felt a lot better after the steak and salad I opted for.”

Benny’s belly situation was up to him to sort out, and he seemed to be getting some perspective on it. But what we did confirm, again, was that other people’s ideas or opinions or view of what’s what did not of course always apply 100% to his own needs. It was up to Benny to work out his own best approach — as we’ve seen him finding lately.

It was more or less a case of him working with what he’s got — taking on the task of ‘Ben in this world’ from the starting point. It might have been tempting to try to improve and refine all the involved elements — such as those we’ve been witnessing — but really, pared back to the core, what was being worked on was himself. Those bits of gravel in his shoe, uneasiness, some anxiety, knotted memories, those feelings of provisionality, regrets, fears, the whole flavour range of what the world dishes out to all of us; Benny felt the stirrings of recognition that getting issues straightened out in anything like a wider context first had to start by locating, and dealing with, those local curly conundrums that are his own.

It seemed certain that the best effort he could make was to make a difference ‘here’ before attempting to make a difference ‘there’. In a very recognisable way, one would of course lead to the other.

 

 

 

(Begin the sequence of sending and taking with yourself)
< Chapter 9 Chapter 11 >

9. Silent thoughts can also make an echo

“What are those sayings called, the ones that you can use to remember other things? Sometimes they rhyme, like ‘i before e, except after c’, or that one about the weather; ‘red at night, sailor’s delight’… or is it a shepherd that gets delighted? And that one about how many days are in a month, ‘thirty days hath September…’ — it tries to rhyme but gives up mid way.”

Benny was thinking of mnemonics, and how handy it would be to have reminders like these at hand, sayings that were easy to recall but could prompt him to remember a lot of the ideas and conclusions he’d been coming to. It was a fine thought — and I’m all for taking a ‘first thought, best thought’ sort of approach; especially if based on the refocused view of things that Benny had been delving into.

Of course, our boy wouldn’t ideally need smart rhymes or mnemonic devices and reminders… eventually. I could fill in the gaps anytime; all that was needed was to clear the otherwise cluttered communication channels between us. And if Benny were to assign a flavour to the thoughts he sought to keep in touch with, he’d find they were mostly coming from the same spice shelf — for him to lose the tired and predictable assumptions; to ditch the self-absorption and egoistic values and take a wider view, for all of us; to be prepared to learn from experiences, not be further closed off by relying on convention or the ‘tried and true’.

It was like that time one day after work, coming home in a warm twilight, when Benny came around a corner and was startled to see a snake on the footpath, which made him freeze in fright. When it didn’t move he peered closer, and saw that it was just a dark thin strip of bark that had come off a tree and was left on the concrete, about a metre or more long and that just happened to have a particular shape and be lying there in such a way that made it look something like a snake. So his stupid scaredy brain just thought ‘hey, snake’ without really knowing. And when he realised what was what, the ‘snake’, and the fear, disappeared — it was just a construct of mind, a concept that was never real in the first place, that dissipated through a clearer perception of what, in the end, always was. Of course there are a lot of things in our lives that can be that way.

So here was a verbal reminder Benny could take up — ‘Is it a snake, or…?’ — and obviously not just for objects he physically sees and is confused by, but as a reminder that things may not always end up being what they first appear to be (or how our fretful minds construct them). Of course he needn’t be tied to those words, and he could create his own saying. It was just a suggestion, but this is where his thoughts were taking him, thankfully.

 

 

(In all activities, train with slogans)
< Chapter 8 Chapter 10 >

8. Not as we assumed, and attitudinal tweaking

It was at least a few days or maybe a week later, and Benny’s approach still resonated quietly and sometimes coloured his viewpoint on the occurrences around us.

“I was near the corner of my street and the main road, just making my way down to the main strip of shops, and had to edge my way passed a huddle of students with their big bags, laughing and craning to see one guy’s phone and what must have been a new video or meme or something. Then I heard a loud voice coming from behind, or that sort of surprised and pained yell someone makes when they hurt themselves, just back behind the distracted knot of teens.

“Looking back around them, I could see someone had fallen over and was sprawled half over the footpath and the concrete gutter, her legs and bag still on the road between some parked cars. She’d obviously hurt her arm and was crying and holding her wrist, and it seemed she had tripped or lost her footing somehow and landed heavily on the pavement. Another guy was rushing to help from a few metres up the road, and he got there before me. When I arrived it looked like a shoe heel had given way, as one shoe was off and its long heel folded forward. I couldn’t do much, and the other guy was helping her up to sit on a milk crate that was nearby, but I brought her the bag, and me and this other guy looked at each other — we were both sort-of grimacing, in empathy with her pain I suppose.

“He asked if she thought her wrist was broken and she said she felt like it was her forearm but wasn’t sure if it was broken or not, so I said I’d call an ambulance and she was okay about that, and told me her mobile number to give to the emergency operator.

“So it was all being dealt with, and this other guy seemed to have the situation under control. But the one thing that stuck in my mind, as all this was going on, was the reaction of the group of students. After a glance back, most of them just went back to their video viewing or whatever it was. Only one kid lingered, looking on at the scene behind them, but then, incredibly I thought, brought his phone up and took a picture.

“The complete disinterestedness coming from this bunch seemed almost unbelievable, and what little attention came from them, as shown by the brat picture taker, came across in my mind as showing an indifference to other people that was almost toxic. What’s wrong with these idiots? There are real people going through some real experiences right here under their noses … and they’re focused on a distraction, on some stupid temporary nothing.

“It bothered me all the rest of the way, and later when I was walking home I came back to the same spot at the side of the road, and the place was re-transformed and back to its everyday appearance and habits. But in the middle of going over the scene again in my mind, and again being flummoxed about the huge indifference that played out, it occurred to me that I’d been mixed up in something like that. And only recently. Only it wasn’t indifference that tuned me out to the real world, but a sort of angry fixation; a rummaging through issues that belonged in the past, and going over what happened, and maybe what should have been said and done.

“It was just about a stupid argument, or really a disagreement that got out of control, between me and another guy in our general group of friends. It was a year ago and I haven’t talked to him since. Anyway, you know how you just go over things sometimes, especially if you’re left to your own devices for some reason. Well one day last summer that was happening… I was just running through the circumstances, and feeling a bit put out that I was dragged in to it all.

“But this is the kicker. This is what made me realise today that I’d been in a similar place before, of non-connectedness, because of where I was while my mind was re-lost in that past aggressiveness.

“It was a hot day and a few of us had been swimming at the beach for most of the afternoon. The rest had made their way home to get ready to go out, but I decided to hang around. It just felt too comfortable, me on the towel, lying there with my head resting on the bag with my clothes and wallet in it, looking out on the afternoon into the west with the sun heading for the watery horizon. It was also really nice with my feet in the water, the sun going down, the day still warm and the sun relaxing faster now. It was so low in the sky you could almost look at it now if you squinted, and if you kept it in view you could see it move. And then it sank to halfway disappearing, then kept sinking, further down, and finally plinked out behind the edge of the sea, and it was twilight.

“But do you think I really saw this? No. I was too absorbed in a stupid re-living of a time when I felt aggrieved to take any of this in at the time; too absorbed in these other past moments to appreciate what was in front of me. When I woke up to this, that perfect warm end to an afternoon at the beach was more of a re-call than a direct experience. I could have kicked sand in my own face.

“There was also that time when a few of us were in this pub in the city. There were pokies in the main bar, where we were waiting to meet some other people and having a beer in the meantime. And nearby, behind us, one woman was seriously feeding her dollars into this machine, almost punching the button, sometimes tapping the screen where she wanted a certain image to appear which I assume would give her a win, and not even waiting for that spin to finish before hitting the button again. The rest of the crew arrived and we made our way out, and as I walked behind the desperate gambler I glanced at her screen and saw that she must have fed about $600 into it already. How the hell could that be ‘fun’? She must have been so keen to have a win and yet all she could do was keep losing. I didn’t know if she could afford it or not, but that’s not the point. She was losing a lot of money, but her craving for winning cash just led her to lose more of it.

“So I knew that this could happen, that you can be re-directed from things you’d be better focused on by stupid inconsequential diversions, and be blind to something that should really be getting your attention. So there was this indifference seen in the street just before. And there was a sort of anger or aggressive attitude as well, even one that re-surfaces from the past. And there can also be a consuming craving for something that blinds you to what might really be going on.

“I made myself a promise to watch out for these toxic situations, for myself and also, if I could, for anyone else around. It seemed to me that even just realising your attention could be tainted by these sort of stupidities would be enough to become the change-over you need to transform your view back to reality. You could even arrive at a much better point of view, just because you kept this in mind.”

Okay, so here was Benny boy, at the point I had assumed he would head for. Maybe this was one of those lessons that could be reinforced and shared, breathed in and breathed out.

 

 

(Three objects, three poisons, three seed of virtue)
< Chapter 7 Chapter 9 >

7. Prompts that lead to counterintuition

There’s an occasional habit I haven’t told you about that slowly developed over many years, without Benny really noticing that he was doing it. But then again I suppose that’s how habits form — we just do the same thing in the same way often enough for it to become customary. It was an action he tended to fall into whenever his attention was not drawn to something else, and that he started to toy with quite a few years after he finally lost track of that little jar of coins he had collected as a kid. Again small change was involved, but in a very subtle manner when a coin or two happened to be in his hand, like when he was getting change at a shop, or feeding coins into a vending machine.

Physically, all that was involved was a glance to his hand, with maybe the added effort of flipping a coin over first. What Benny casually looked for was the year stamped on the heads side — at first mostly done just out of interest, to see how old that money was. Once a coin turned up in his palm that was dated 1968, and it was good to see it still in circulation and doing what it was intended to do. He kept that coin for a while with some other change, but it was only 10c, which he thought was a denomination that was not really needed all that much — until he was exactly that much short at the sandwich shop a few days later. So the 10c coin from 1968 left his pocket and kept circulating its way across the population, just like it had been doing for all those years.

But as well as the mild interest that came from some of the older dated money, there were also occasions when Benny discovered significant years displayed on these coins; significant to his personal history anyway. “I remember what happened that year. Poor old Milo. I always thought my parents named our dog after the drink, and he was that same darker shade of brown too, but some time later dad said that he liked the name from a book he remembered reading once, and as a puppy Milo was always picking up things that were lying around and taking them to his basket — anything… socks, pencils, a roll of bandage — so dad said the name made sense with the book’s character, apparently.

“When he got to about 10 years old, Milo developed a lump under his throat which got bigger and harder over a long time, maybe a year. I was already in college, in my first year and I had moved out of home, and I know I was probably distracted with all that life too. Anyway, I remember getting a call from mum one day telling me that they had to take Milo to the vet as he was really sick and nearly couldn’t eat, and that he had been put down that morning.

“I felt really bad, really sad about it, for days. I remember the year clearly, as it was the first year of a new decade plus was an exciting time for me, but I don’t really know the date or even the month that this happened. Poor old Milo. I hadn’t forgotten him. But I had become sort of uninvolved I guess. But yeah, the year on this coin — I remember one thing that happened that year.”

This was a stirred-up memory that Benny didn’t want to hang on to, and the 20c with that year stamped on it was left in a tips bowl at the next café he strolled into. But it intrigued him too that the sadness of losing his pet dog could be buried and forgotten like that, and then uncovered many years later by a simple glance at a coin.

So you can see that it was from this year-on-the-coin association with remembered moments from his life that cemented Benny’s inclination, in a casual sort of way, to take up the occasional habit of observing the heads-side of various coins that came along — not with an aim to chase after melancholy memories, but just to see if something gelled with his remembrance or prompted a random reflection. Half the time this was not even a conscious action, so that he found himself more often than not looking for the heads side of a coin without really intending to, or at least not overtly searching.

And not every year made an obvious connection. In fact, Benny would often have to think of another year that was close to the one on a coin he had, and that did mean something, and then in his memory work forward or backwards in time until he could work out what took place over that year — just one thing that he remembered from it. And it was not like he was obsessed and gazed at every single coin. It was just an occasional thing.

There was one lucky find Benny had one day (of sorts, because it wasn’t a big one), which was a shiny dollar lying under a shopping trolley in the supermarket car park. The year proved to be the current one, so this dollar also tied in with his boyhood habit of keeping at least one present-year coin — and the prompted recollection from it was his boyhood coin collection in that little jar, by then long disappeared. He didn’t really feel compelled to keep this one though, so it just went in with the other change in his car’s coin tray. But finding that dollar definitely had the flavour of being a good sign.

Another recollection, brought to mind because of another coin snatched from a busy road, was when Michael disappeared. An added coincidence, which Benny realised when the year revealed its connection to this memory, was the abnormally huge break in the traffic at that usually swarming intersection that gave him the time and opportunity to dash out the metre or so needed to pick up the 50c he’d seen lying there.

The traffic was similarly busy, and also similarly interspersed with helpful gaps, on the day of the dash to Michael’s dad’s house to tell him the news, that empty upwards-palm gestured news Benny and his friends had for him that day — nothing known for sure, but that his son was somewhere unexpected, and then he wasn’t.

Driving on that day, sliding from lane to lane, across and in front of cars that glided clear and out of the way at the right time, braking into gaps that widened helpfully at right or left, then sliding up to find yet another widening escape forward, the speedy drive on the road full of football fans after a big match was like a practiced level of a familiar game. One car companion sat white-knuckled on the passenger side, but another gave an impressed ‘yeah’ from the back seat.

Michael had been hospitalised after a breakdown, had taken up smoking because of it (Benny had the impression that it was encouraged) along with a pill habit, and a practised ability to stare. It wasn’t long, about two of Benny’s visits later and probably just enough time to get through the expected processes – induction, settling in, routine – that Michael made a break for it.

No one knew for ages. There was a party on that night, and the day was filled with its expectation, so it was at the coming-together end of that Saturday that Michael’s whereabouts, or not-whereabouts, triggered Benny’s race to the dad’s place.

Michael had turned up at her flat, completely out of the blue, and had just left when a car-load of them turned up to give her a lift. He wasn’t right. Unbalanced, chased inside – pursued invisibly. And it was too much. Later, when the suicide was indelible, there was the inevitable coulda-shoulda rewinding the day and the recent weeks and even years to try to see why everyone missed what must have been all the big clues, why everyone was so thick.

So this coin had meaning, and brought back into focus a weighty time and mixed feelings for Benny — and for this witness of his. Should we have known? What could have been done to help? What would we do differently — all of us?

That 50c jangled in his coat pocket all the way into the city, because he kept it loose in there, not in the change pocket of his jeans, which is where he’d usually put a coin. So his hand felt it every time he hung his fists in his coat pockets, or he might grip the 50c piece idly, or play with it hidden in his coat as he played with hidden thoughts about Michael and his mental state and what had happened.

“I’d just jumped off the bus and crossed the road when this guy asks me for some money to buy food. There seem to be more and more people asking for handouts on the city streets, or maybe they were always there and I just hadn’t noticed so much lately. I’m usually wary of anyone like this, especially if they add in a story, like they had their bag stolen, or have to buy a train ticket, or need petrol to get their kids home. This guy said he was hungry and nearly had enough to get some lunch, and if I had any spare change… But I kind of believed him. He looked a bit down and out, and hungry, and he didn’t actually come up to me, but sort of half-turned when I stepped up to the footpath, like I’d just entered the space around him where he notices things. I also had the impression that he was sort of disturbed a little too, in a small way, a bit off-centre — just the way he spoke, and the way he held his hands.

“There was also that coin in my jacket… and memories of that day back then, when we were helpless. So now I could do something. I could help a little — for all of us. This guy obviously had some issues, which I didn’t really know, but the least of them seemed to be that he wanted something to eat. I grabbed the 50c and handed it over… and was kind of glad to see him walk into the shop we were in front of and buy a takeaway container of fried rice. Hmm… so he really was hungry.”

And it was okay, it was good. Benny felt he’d really helped someone in a real way. It was only 50c and that guy actually needed it. But also there was the added secret significance of a connection to a past aberration that seemed to be made a little lighter from that small act of giving. Of course Benny realised that this wouldn’t have really made any difference at all to those events of long ago, but maybe now, he thought, maybe this time, an effort could be made towards a positive outcome — no matter how small that might be. I knew Benny would not really be able to verbalise his wanting to put right a past situation, but his actions this day and his frame of mind said much.

And he felt better for having made the connection — it ‘worked’. Benny found a sort of ‘satisfaction-factor’, if he were to label the result he felt from this coming together of circumstances and thoughts. There was definitely a very slight re-balancing on the plus side that came from the way this all unfolded… and Benny realised it was an attitude worth repeating. Because it was just that, an attitude, more than a simple string of happenings. Yes, this whole moment was carried along on actions and context, but Benny felt (and I knew) that the outcome he just realised had more to do with the view he took than the physical circumstances that surrounded it.

Later, on the way home, Benny reviewed the coincidences of the day, as we saw them, and the resolution he was able to arrive at because of them. In a way, looking at the significances that unfolded, it all seemed to tie in so neatly — finding that 50c, the recollection of some hard times and the awkwardness of dealing ineptly with a friend in unfamiliar trouble, then the guy with a need and then the means, through our hand, of fixing that need. Finding all the correlations between these seemingly separate but meaningfully interconnected elements to this day was in one way very unsettling, and shook his mind like a snow dome. But the shaking in itself meant that a settling would follow, and so the metaphorical snow flakes settled, slowly resting, and Benny realised that the upshot was positive for him, both in the giving out (the coin, the association with a past coming-to-grips) and the taking in (the hungry guy’s off-centred ways, the attempt to make a correction).

He was on the bus on the way home when he had the vague idea that the coming together of everything, both the giving out and the taking in, were amazingly coalesced through the same set of circumstances, but these thoughts were barely focused when Benny also realised that he would have a hard time explaining any of this to another person. That’s why I’m here, I thought quietly. You don’t have to explain anything. “Just a minute. Settle down. Keep it real.”

The bus then came to a standstill. Not at a bus stop, but just where it was, behind the lanes full of cars in front of it. Up ahead we could see that a truck loaded with long orange PVC pipes had been reversing out of a building site when the chains around the tray full of pipes somehow unhooked and the whole truck load had rolled on to the roadway, right across both lanes, and blocked all the traffic on one side, us included. Workers from the building site soon sized up the situation, and had the now almost empty truck and its flustered driver drive back in through the open gates, and rushed out to start carrying the orange piping off the road and out of the way. The clearly not-very-heavy piping was being carried in and thrown into a heap next to the truck. Out of the general kerfuffle ahead it became obvious that their plan was to clear the road first and re-load the truck later — but there was going to be a wait for the road to clear.

Passengers were all looking ahead or standing to look out of windows to see, or craning to see past the driver, who had stood up and leaned out the door to get a better view. The spill would be cleared eventually and nothing could be done until then. The driver even faced the crowded bus load and shrugged his shoulders before ambling back to his seat — and all silently seemed to agree with the shrug assessment.

Everyone on that bus felt frustrated, but they were all in the same boat, as it were, and there was nothing to be done about it but wait for the road to be cleared. Benny took a long deep breath and gave a big loud sigh – but it was a bigger and louder sigh than he realised, and made in a bus full of people who were still just quietly sharing the wait. He got an amused murmur and a few looks in return, and felt a little embarrassed as he smiled and looked around, but it also seemed obvious that he had just verbalised, more or less, everyone’s feelings about the shared annoyance.

Then people went back to talking to each other, or making phone calls or reading — back to being a typical bus load of ordinary people. And in here it seemed natural, because of where Benny’s mind had been, to view the big in-breath as a gathering together of mutual frustration, and the long sigh out that followed as sharing a resolution to be patient. It seemed a natural conclusion — to breath in the circumstances, realise the shared meaning, and then breath out that realisation, for everyone. But also it seemed to be a view couched from a base of collegial sensibility.

And this became another realisation… he couldn’t always find the same or similar circumstances that he found himself experiencing over this very interesting day, and there are not always opportunities to resolve or relieve, even in such a minor way, some long-time thorn in the side of one’s remembrances. But breathing in and out always happened, it was always there. If Benny wanted to, and he concentrated, he could always try to find that satisfaction-factor again, even if it was more-or-less imagined — just by taking it all in, and then letting it all go.

Of course he also didn’t want to take any imaginings too far. That would be crazy.

 

 

(Sending and taking should be practiced alternately. These two should ride the breath)
< Chapter 6 Chapter 8 >

6. Functioning well, while knowing better

It was raining, and it was that sort of constant downpour you only really see now and then. Wet and soaking, it was not so much a heavy gutter-filling deluge but a steady showering, a drawn-out session of rain on a windless day that made everything solidly and convincingly wet. But Benny was still 80% sure he would head out regardless, which I knew didn’t really worry him all that much. In fact, I knew there was an undefined enjoyment about his being outside on a rainy day — a vague recognition that wet weather, while being a collective experience for everyone, could also create an interesting segregation between those who happened to be sharing that drenching.

Benny checked the current state of this rainy day by glancing out of a window. “There’s a bird in the tree outside, just sitting there clutching a branch, but still getting wet from all the rain, even though this tree has bigger leaves than others — it’s a loquat tree, like we used to have at home. I’ve always thought it a bit unfair for all the birds and the wild animals whenever it rains, because they just have to get wet; most of the time there’s nowhere they can go to get away from the rain. I suppose some are smarter than others and can find something to hide under, but that’s probably the exception.

“Anyway, I was just looking out the window to check how heavy the rain was before heading out, sort-of to make sure I’d need the umbrella I already had in my hand, and there was this sparrow sitting there in that tree getting wet and being a bit helpless about it. About two seconds later another sparrow landed next to it on the branch, right up against the other bird, which I sort of assumed must be what birds do; hunch up together like that when they get wet in the rain, all dank and raggedly resigned to their situation.

“But then the one new little bird did something impressive. She seemed to look around quickly then edged herself along the branch with a couple of little sidesteps, and this put her right under a big horizontal leaf that made a personal rain shelter for one smart little bird. What a great thing to witness. Maybe they’re a bit more intelligent than most of us assume… well, some of them anyway.”

I’d noticed before with Benny, that displays of mettle from others can firm otherwise irresolute notions for him — even, it seems, if such displays are provided by a small bird… and I think he was also identifying with the competent sparrow under the loquat leaf — so he headed for the door and stepped outside, opening the umbrella while still under the small overhanging shelter above his front door. It was an action that scared away both sparrows.

And so Benny strode briskly to the front gate, and his rainy day began. One small element he noted in passing was an indifference to the fact that he had startled the sparrows into flying off. Yes it was a good moment just then, seeing one smarter than average little bird have a small victory over her soggy circumstances. But after that observation, all that followed was as it should be. It’s not like he was going to be able to go over to the loquat tree and have a conversation with the sparrow, compare leaf to umbrella, pay her a compliment on the sidestepping strategy. And of course an umbrella springing open is going to scare away any bird nearby; that’s what happens! As much as it may have been an intriguing whimsy to impose a sort of human attitude on to the bird, this we knew would be a concoction.

Benny, rather, was back into that easy truce he had found before. Not over-thinking his circumstances, not justifying the view he may have of the world at that time. And really, this was the thing — he knew from experience that there was a shiftiness to the way of things, and that observations of the day-to-day can vary, move, change focus, and become re-framed either by external circumstances or simply through an internal point-of-view.

So Benny was thankful to be engaged in the world, and be out on that wonderfully rainy day, while still functionally walking, eating, working, talking or whatever, but all the while having an awareness that concepts are held together by relative viewpoints, not absolute fundamentals. For now, the world was innocent and could be taken at face value, and he experienced it that way today, all the while in the back of his mind (here, right next to me) knowing that all we think about, and deal with, and assume we know, is not necessarily what it seems to be — or at least may not stay that way.

It was also great to find that the weather now made little difference, and was no longer a distraction or factor that had an influence either way. He rested in a better state of mind, and just felt at home — even when out and about.

 

 

(In postmeditation, be a child of illusion)
< Chapter 5 Chapter 7 >

5. Nothing going on, but no vacuity

It’s probably a fairly widespread experience, those annoying occasions when you sit there and re-read and re-read a paragraph because the meaning of the words just doesn’t sink in — your distracted mind is just so lost in thought. I watched Benny go through this one day, getting quite frustrated by it at first, but eventually (and thankfully) dropping the effort of trying to steer our focus back to the page.

It was a great relief. Now and then it’s good to get away from the clatter and noise of that nuisance mind, and this outside Benny, this Ben Yoskin, seems beset by crowded internal commenting all the time. Here, there, look at this, what’s that thing, I’d like to get one of those, will another coffee be too many — all those dumb thoughts always streaming along in a rambling babble all the time. Sometimes I wonder if he is more extreme in this than every other person out there.

Actually, you could say that Benny’s failure to absorb the message of those printed words was not due to being lost in thought, but from being lost in not-thought — which I intimately knew to be a promising state of mind. At that moment, on this day, his not paying attention to the here-there mind, his being beyond concern with meanings, also had a palpably physical outcome. He was sitting, but could not really feel that he was in any particular position. It may have been hot or cold, but there was no bodily sensation, or reaction, either way. He was just being there, no annoyances, no discomfort, no distractions — just being very comfortable, resting without really trying to be ‘at ease’. With no involvement with the mundane of the day-to-day, Benny also became aware that there was something really comfortable in not having to think.

This was not a vacuity, but rather an awareness that the thought process can just be dormant for a time, if one so chooses. This, he found, was really quite restful, and we felt quite at home (and yes, we wished that we had realised this earlier, and had been here already). There was no need to understand particular concepts, or take a certain viewpoint, or follow twisted paths of convoluted logic to arrive at some sort of self-justification. And even though there were distractions, demands on his attention, the usual bombardment of messages of all kinds, from all angles, sounds and visual goings on, and the physicality of the body — it all blended into an easy truce. Benny found that there was no need for a concocted attitude, or to coerce his focus through some situational recipe. There was certainly no requirement to be some kind of character or present a particular sort of person to the world.

The niggly concern was how to keep that comfortable and centred restfulness but still be able to walk around, interact, make sense to everyone else, and generally be able to return to an acceptable functionality. Still, I’d rather he didn’t worry about that right now… this was too nice.

 

 

(Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence, the present moment)
< Chapter 4 Chapter 6 >

4. A grip, after an untethering

Benny found a card in the letterbox one day when he got home from work that said there was a package at the post office to be picked up, and the card was left since no-one was home when the mailman tried to deliver the parcel. He knew what it would be, as he’d bought a belt made out of recycled bicycle inner tubes as well as a t-shirt from an online store more than a week ago, and had been expecting a delivery any day. But he was going out that night, and there was no rush, so decided to get the parcel the next day. The newsagency post office opened early and his usual bus stop was right in front of it anyway, so he’d just give himself a few more minutes to pick it up in the morning.

So there we were, after breakfast and in the bright morning, waiting behind someone else at the counter of the post office. “I had a book in my bag but I was also wondering if I should get a newspaper, and found myself sort of staring at the front page of a paper on top of a stack of them, but not really reading the big printed words. ‘Can I help you buddy?….. buddy!’ What? Did he say Benny? No-one’s called me that since I was a kid. I looked ahead, focused… his raised eyebrows said ‘what do you want?’ at me. Got a note about picking up a parcel I told him, and showed the card. ‘Got ID?’. I did, and fished that out as he rummaged in a box… ‘okayyyy, Ben Yoskin… here you go.’ The taped-together postage bag was smaller than I thought it would be.”

It was also stronger than he thought it would be, but after he finally tore an opening in one corner, just to check that what he ordered was inside, it was shoved into his backpack for later appreciation, as the bus was coming. Then the rest of the day began. But Benny somehow found it harder to stay looking out from behind the dreaming-mind attitude he’d been finding helpful. And a good part of the reason, he suspected, was the dazed and distracted mood he’d obviously been lost in, and woken up from, while waiting for his parcel.

It had seemed okay, for a while, to be lost in that haze — to step back behind the mask and let events flow along outside. Settling on a view based on the provisionality of things going on around him seemed so helpful at first, but once Benny started to really come to grips with what this meant, it became only too apparent that this view itself was also part of a conditions-based approach. It was an attitude, really, not an actuality at all.

I can tell you now, and I know Benny wouldn’t clearly recall this, that this was a conclusion not come upon suddenly, but over the course of several separate moments of suspicion. The recognition of his almost colluding willingness to accept a mind construction that should probably not really be relied upon was a cumulative dawning — not a light bulb blinking on above Benny’s head. But it became clear that a functioning identity was needed to move around in this world. I mean, look at that distracted moment in the newsagency. No-one needed to be saddled with that sort of vagueness all day, and engaging with people at arm’s-length, as it were, was not really engaging at all.

Having invested in that mind construction, it was hard for Benny to let it go. But it became obvious that holding on tenaciously, in the face of lengthening cracks in the façade, only underlined the fabricated nature of his antidote. And this was the problem. Not having a fall-back position to rely upon, especially when this is shown up as untenable through the same conceptual process that led to having that fall-back position in the first place, left a dangerous emptiness — an untethering of surety that left him feeling that he didn’t really want to think too deeply about either the constructed answer or his complicit acceptance.

Benny usually read a book on the bus commute to work, so he got out the second-hand paperback he was reading, an old novel that he always thought he should get around to reading one day. On this particular morning there came one of those serendipitous moments when the world provides an answer, or at least a relatable reference, to a current conundrum. This one was a line he read within one minute of sliding a fingernail behind the shopping docket he used as a bookmark, opening the book and remembering where he was up to. ‘It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary,’ Benny read.

That was it! He could deal with that. Regarding all that went on around him as if it were all happening in a dream could be quite acceptable — as long as he had no compulsion to really believe that this was an alternative reality. There’s an accepted reality, which everyone works around and deals with, and that’s as it should be. If anything, taking a step back inside and regarding everything from his personal hidey-hole underlined the obvious subjectiveness of the accepted world. But doubting the fundamental veracity of his discovered antidote to the pressures of life, his constructed refuge, did not end up, thankfully, dragging Benny into another mistaken conclusion — that nothing mattered, that there was no meaning, that it was all crap anyway. Life did matter. Existence did have meaning. Yes it could all be crap, but that’s okay too. The point was — and this is where the line from his book resonated — it all doesn’t have to be absolute reality, it just has to be acceptably necessary.

“I just stepped back into the world then. I mean I was still sitting there on the bus, but I mean I dropped that distance I’d felt I had to maintain. It was like I just let go of it all, that precious guardedness. I didn’t need a cure or a trick to living and moving around like a real person in this world. Who needs an antidote when really there’s essentially nothing all that toxic around anyway? Just let go, accept it all, everything, and as long as I keep the relativity of things in perspective, it’s all okay.”

 

 

(Self-liberate even the antidote)
< Chapter 3 Chapter 5 >

3. Rain and an early inkling

It’s interesting to consider that a person’s awareness can be influenced in such a way, to carry the perception of observing a dream with you past the front door and out into the world — along the street, on to the bus, in and then out of a shop… But it is also interesting, and vital, to wonder if all perceptions are equally beholden to circumstances.

Just when the idea of a shiftiness to outer solidity establishes a foothold (and the idea takes hold perhaps because of that shiftiness), there can creep over the breathing participant some sort of doubt, as it were, about the validity of it all anyway. Benny considered the perceiver — or at least he thought he considered; it was me at the wheel, remember — and came to a vague sense of recognition. Like he’d remembered finding himself in this sort of position before.

In the time when Benny was a kid, maybe 8 or 10, out the back there used to be an empty scrubby block of land, a big space that was available when he was on his own, which was most of the time, for playing or hanging out in. It was a place for finding stuff, because people were always leaving their rubbish around, or hiding things too. And a great spot for forts and foxholes, tree houses and defensive constructions. A good space to be unaccountable for a time, or to kick around with just himself on his own harebrained capers or with his dog Milo.

One cloudy after-school project of his put to use the tried-and-true method of branches and sticks leaning together teepee style, sort of, but this one time Benny refined the outcome by hanging green branches torn from a nearby pine tree upside down from the top and all around the sides. Well, most of the sides… there was also some small pieces of plastic sheet he found. It was a small construction, but big enough for little him, but it was ‘an ace hut and you can probably sleep in here’, he thought, and the pine branches made it private and will ‘probably even keep out the rain too’.

Seemingly almost to prove his idea, it slowly started to drizzle, in a very light way, and Benny sat under the thickest part of his shelter’s roof, happy and smug that he’d made it all himself. Of course it didn’t take long for small rain drops to gather and make their way through the layer of pine-needled branches — small and occasional droplets at first, and they gradually increased. But Benny sat there, convinced that he was staying dry, and feeling really very proud of himself for it, even though evidence to the contrary was building and starting to drip on his head. Self- complacent, he stuck it out until called in from the house (the drizzle was starting to turn into rain). Although more than just a little dank on his shoulders and back, Benny would go over his adventure in his own mind in such a positive light that his hut became the ultimate survival shelter.

So the feeling was recognisable — that what he rediscovered, or at least vaguely remembered, was the feeling of going along with a willingness to be convinced. In these grown-up times, he knew he had constructed the dreamlike perception that imbued the working world with a provisional solidity, but he knew as well that staying safe behind these eyes also depended on being able to maintain such a view. And the world just didn’t always let this happen.

An inner conviction had been useful — it always was — in order to lend effectiveness to the tool of distanced witnessing. I knew that Benny found being in that observer mind an antidote, a sort-of refuge. And there was an investment of energy and mind in this pursuit that he would be reluctant to relinquish. But an inkling that cracks could appear in that antidotal attitude was a vexing development.

The refuge of viewing all that happened around him like it was occurring as part of a dream started the process of his wondering, behind the scenes, if the person witnessing these phenomena similarly had any independent solidity. He was looking at the looker — and I felt slightly exposed. It was okay when Benny viewed all the rest as being ‘out there’ and fluid, while maintaining the safe place in here from which the viewing took place. But this was unsettling; this was letting the rain in, sort of on purpose.

 

 

(Examine the nature of unborn awareness)
< Chapter 2 Chapter 4 >