Bundles of Sticks, Ajahn Brahm, and the Ten of Wands

Finding closure on experiences that don’t make any sense.

Should we carry our past with us or just throw it away?

The Ten of Wands shows a person plodding along, carrying a large bundle of sticks.  The, “sticks,” are wands, the suit of the Tarot that represents ideas, so he’s actually carrying a massive number of ideas.  

If we take a little closer look at the card we notice a few odd things about it.  First, he’s not at all carrying the sticks the way that we’d expect.  If we pick up a big old honker of a load of sticks, we’d throw them over our shoulder, right?  Instead,  he’s carrying them in front of himself, with his head pressed into the bundle. 

Second, the sticks are all crossed up at the bottom and going in different directions at the top.  If someone asked us to lug a large pile of sticks across the yard, we’d probably throw a rope around them and tie them together, not carry them in a loose, unwieldy mess.

Third, he’s definitely not watching where he’s going.  His head is tilted down, as if he’s watching each step he’s taking, rather than keeping his eyes on his destination.

So just by looking at the face of the card, we can deduce quite a few things about it.  This guy is probably an intellectual, or at least someone who thinks a great deal, because he has many, many ideas that he’s carrying around.  His ideas don’t really, “fit,” together, and they’ve become quite a burden for him.  In fact, he’s so involved with carrying his ideas that he really has no idea where he’s going.  He’s so lost in his ideas that he has no perspective on his life.

The Australian Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm, tells a funny story about sticks.  When he was a novice monk he was strolling through the forest with his teacher, the head monk at the monastery where he was studying.  The master suddenly picked up a stick from the forest floor and asked, “How heavy is this stick, Ajahn Brahm?”  And then he threw it away and asked, “How heavy is it now?”

The point, of course, is that something is, “heavy,” only when we hold on to it.  It’s the act of PICKING IT UP AND CARRYING IT that makes it heavy.  We don’t look at a stick on the ground and say, “Oh, crap, that’s heavy.”  We only say it when we try to pick it up.  It’s our act of grasping something that makes it seem heavy, not the thing itself.

Human beings are natural storytellers.  We all reflexively try to make sense out of our lives and weave the events we experience into a coherent, sensible narrative.  We have an innate drive to try to make sense out of what happens to us and so we’re constantly reviewing our pasts and rearranging the puzzle pieces of our lives into some sort of a rational structure.

We don’t just say, “Well, I lost my fucking mind and decided to quit my job, leave my husband, and move to Montana to grow dental floss.  Just for no particular reason.”  Instead, we say, “After several years of marriage I felt a yearning for solitude and spiritual growth that could only be satisfied by disconnecting from social obligations that had become increasingly mundane.”  

That feels ever so much better.

We need to feel that it all makes sense, somehow.

From a Buddhist perspective, constantly trying to make sense out of our pasts is tantamount to picking up that stick.  It only becomes heavy, it only becomes a burden, when we grasp it and carry it around with us.  In fact, Ajahn Brahm actually recommends writing, “this is my past,” on a stick and throwing it as far away as we can.  Just let it go.  When we’re not carrying it, it’s not heavy.

Now, modern psychology has a different take on it.  Therapists tell us that it IS important to try to make sense out of what’s happened to us and to strive for a sense of meaningfulness in our lives.  Bottom lining it, that’s why we go to therapists:  because our lives aren’t making any sense and we need someone to help us sort it all out.

I suspect that for most of us, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  If we wake up one morning and have no past, we may have suffered a psychotic break.  Or, in the case of people like Eckhart Tolle, perhaps we’ve had a massive revelation, a huge psychic shift that made us realize how absurd our previous thinking was.

For those of us who are neither psychotics nor enlightened spiritual masters, though, just tossing our pasts out the window isn’t an option.  It seems we can’t just NOT think about it.

Which brings us to that tired, but still valid, word:  closure.

We think of closure as having worked through a problem or a process in life until we’ve made sense of it, until it fits logically into our coherent narrative of what our lives mean.  If we go through a divorce, for instance, we may go to a therapist and try to figure out why it happened.  What was our role in the relationship breaking apart?  What was our spouses role?  What did we do wrong?  What did we do right?  What can we learn from it to make our future relationships better?  Eventually, when we’ve talked through all of those issues, we start to achieve closure and we’re ready to move on from it.  We haven’t necessarily thrown the stick away, but we’ve made it a hell of a lot lighter to carry.

There are other issues, though, that we can never seem to make any sense out of.

– If you were badly abused as a child, that doesn’t make any sense.  You didn’t do anything to deserve it and there’s no logical or emotional reason it should have happened to you.

-If you’re an open and loving person and you got chewed up and spit out by a malignant narcissist, that doesn’t make any sense.  You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t deserve it, and it shouldn’t have happened.

-If the new boss from hell fires you from your dream job because he’s a sexist or a sadist, that doesn’t make any sense.  You were a great employee, there’s no justice in it, and it shouldn’t have happened.

So there’s a kind of a subclass of experiences that we all have that we could call, “doesn’t make any sense,” experiences.  Those are the experiences that get really, “sticky.”  Those are the experiences that we pick up and carry with us.  We go over and over and over them, trying to figure them out, trying to make them somehow fit into our narratives, our story.  But they never do.

“Doesn’t make any sense,” experiences are the ones that are most likely to wound us spiritually and emotionally.  They keep us stuck.  They keep us wounded.  They keep us living in pain.

Oddly, though, they’re also the experiences that are easiest to let go of, if we think of them in the right way.  If we’ve honestly, sincerely, conscientiously tried to figure them out and we can’t do it, we can just say, “Well, fuck it.  This doesn’t make any sense.”  And then we can put that experience in a nice, “doesn’t make any sense,” box, tie a brightly colored, “doesn’t make any sense,” ribbon around it, and toss it in the nearest river.

Maybe we’re not enlightened or smart enough to throw all of our, “sticks,” away, but we can throw some of them away.  We can consciously choose which parts are valuable and which parts are worthless.  We can drop some of the burden and make it a little easier to move forward in our lives.  

And that’s a good start.

Happiness, Meaningfulness, and the Four of Pentacles

The importance and differences between happiness and meaningfulness in our live.

In her wonderful book,The Power of Misfits: How to Find Your Place in a World You Don’t Fit In, Anna LeMind references a study by Roy F. Baumeister on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness.  In some cases, the two experiences may overlap, but they aren’t always synonymous.

It turns out that human beings crave both happiness and meaningfulness.  The Buddha tells us that all sentient creatures want to feel happiness and avoid pain, and we share that drive with the birds and the bees, the turtles and the spiders.  Bring on the happiness, baby, and take away that pain.  That’s an old blues song, I think.

Where we differ from most of the animal world (we believe) is that we also need to have a sense of meaning in our lives.  Having a lot of orgasms may make us extremely happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring any meaningfulness into our existence.  If we’re lying on our death beds reviewing our lives, we’re not likely to say, “Man, I had 20,000 orgasms.  Now that’s a life well lived.  My life really meant something.”

According to this study, it’s actually pretty easy to define what makes us happy.  Being happy involves three major components:

  1. – having our needs satisfied.  That’s a pretty simple one.  If we’re hungry, it makes us happy to eat.  If we’re cold, it makes us happy to get warmed up.  If we’re horny, it makes us happy to have sex.
  2. – having the sense that we can obtain what we need and want.  In other words, not just eating when we’re hungry but knowing that we have the powers and abilities to get out there and get that food all on our own.
  3. – feeling good most of the time.  That’s kind of a no-brainer, but it’s true.  People who mostly feel good are mostly happy and people who feel lousy are mostly unhappy.

None of those three factors necessarily make us feel that our lives are meaningful, though.  Feeling good, for instance, is very strongly associated with being happy, but not necessarily with feeling meaningful.  People who are very healthy tend to be happier than people who are sick, but both healthy and sick people have an equal shot at leading a meaningful life.

Having the powers and abilities to get what we need and want is another one that may make us happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring meaningfulness along with it.  In our society, having the power to get what we need and want usually means having money.  If you really, really, really need and want that new computer, you have to have the dough-ray-me to pay for it, right?

But even money has a very strange relationship with meaningfulness.  In the Tarot, the suit of pentacles represents material possessions and money.  In the Four of Pentacles, we see a guy who’s really having a love affair with money.  He’s got his feet resting on money, he’s got his arms wrapped around money, and he’s got money sitting on his head.  What a happy guy!

Probably.

Maybe.

Could be.

The study found that people who have plenty of money tend to be happier people, BUT they don’t necessarily report living a life that’s more meaningful.  On the other hand, NOT having enough money makes people less happy and their lives feel less meaningful.  So it’s not really the money that counts, it’s the lack of it.

Here’s another interesting little snippet of information that’s about life being easy versus life being hard.  We’ve all known people who appeared to be unbelievably lucky.  It’s like anything they want just seems to fall into their laps with little or no effort on their parts.

And we’ve also known people who seem to be unbelievably unlucky.  No matter how hard they work, no matter how much they struggle and strive, life consistently turns into a shit sandwich for them and their desires and goals slip away like vapors in the wind.

Unsurprisingly, having an easy life makes people very happy.  And having a hard life makes people unhappy.  But neither one of those is linked in ANY way to a sense of meaningfulness.  You can have the easiest life in the world and still feel like it doesn’t mean anything.

There’s another fascinating element with meaningfulness and happiness, which is TIME.

We know how the mindfulness meditation people are constantly hammering at us about, “Stay in the present moment!  There’s no unhappiness in the present moment.”

It turns out they’re right!  Happiness is very highly correlated with living in the NOW, in the present moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

But, unfortunately, it’s also inversely correlated with having a sense of meaning.  The more you live in the present moment, the happier you’ll be, but you also sacrifice a sense of your life having any overall meaning.

Why?  Because meaningfulness is a function of time.  The greater the span of time in your life that you’re contemplating, the greater a sense of meaningfulness you’ll have.  If you think about what yesterday and today meant, the odds are that they didn’t mean very much, unless something extraordinary happened.  On the other hand, if you think about what the last ten or twenty years of your life meant, you’re much more likely to see patterns and meaning.

And the same thing applies to the future.  The future gives the present moment meaning because it involves us in taking purposeful actions meant to create that future.  What we’re doing today is meaningful because it has a purpose – making the future.

So we have this odd conundrum.  The more we stay in the present moment, the happier we’ll be, but the less meaning we’ll derive from our lives.  The more we dwell on the future and the past, the less happy we’ll be, but the more our lives will feel meaningful.

The study also found an oddity in our perceptions of happiness and meaningfulness.  People tend to view happiness as being relatively fleeting, something we feel momentarily and then it gets away from us.  And they feel that meaningfulness is more permanent, something that will last long after happiness has disappeared.  Which is just not true.  Both meaningfulness and happiness tend to be fairly stable and long lasting.  We probably just feel that happiness passes quickly because it’s so intimately related to the present moment, which is always appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing, shazam!

Which brings us to the probable reason for why meaningfulness is so important to human beings.  The author concluded that MEANINGFULNESS IS AN ATTEMPT TO IMPOSE ORDER ON FLUX.  Life is chaotic, man.  Life is constantly changing, constantly transforming, constantly shazamming from one thing into another and then another and then another.

And it drives us nuts.  We need a sense of stability, of orderly progression, of the past moving logically into the present which will then move logically into the future.  We need to be able to connect the past, present and future of our lives in a MEANINGFUL way.  Otherwise it feels like life is something that just happened to us, rather than something we lived.

If all of this sounds very complex, it’s because IT IS.  We are very complex.  To seek happiness is to be alive.  Every single animal on the earth seeks happiness.  But to seek meaning is distinctively human.  It’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  Meaningfulness is not necessarily the same thing as happiness, but it’s just as important.