The words “abundance” and “spirituality” may not seem to go hand in hand but, Bodhipaksa argues, mindfulness, properly seen, is inherently enriching.
Once, on retreat, I was in a discussion group in which we were discussing the metaphors that encapsulated how we saw our spiritual practice. We all had very different ways of seeing what we were trying to do with our lives.
One person thought in terms of becoming a kinder person, shedding compassion like the sun sheds light; another in terms of really seeing how things are. One saw himself as a spiritual warrior; another as a tree taking root, aspiring to provide fruit and shade for other beings. I was impressed both at the variety of the personal myths expressed, and by the spirit of harmony with which they were shared. We all seemed to recognize that there was no “right” myth and that all these metaphors were valid and useful to the people that held them.
One moment that particularly struck me was where one man said that he saw his spiritual path in terms of richness, while another saw his spiritual life as a quest for simplicity. It struck me that although those aspirations — richness and simplicity — might seem to be contradictory, they were actually both expressions of the same underlying truth, perfectly exemplified in an aphorism often attributed to the Swiss poet, Jean Antoine Petit-Senn*:
It’s not what we have
That constitutes our abundance
But what we appreciate.
We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing. We’re materially rich but emotionally poor. I know children like this, who have a plethora of toys and gizmos, all the latest computer equipment and games, but who are unable to pay attention to any of them, and who are perpetually bored.
We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing.
Appreciation is one of the qualities of mindfulness that most resonates with me. When I’m at my most mindful I’m at my most appreciative; I notice the fine details of my experience, I really look at things, I really taste my food, I notice and enjoy the ordinary sensations that arise in the body as I walk, lift a cup to my lips, or brush my teeth.
It’s possible to conceive of mindfulness as a cool or even cold state, one in which we have a detached and uninvolved gaze. But that kind of mindfulness is purely cognitive — involving the mind — and lacks heart. It’s a form of mindfulness that’s alienated. True mindfulness involves the whole being — head and heart — and we don’t simply notice but appreciate. We notice the fine detail of our experiences, and we also notice ourselves — our feelings, our physical responses, our emotions, the effect that our experiences have on the mind, our thoughts.
Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.
Abundance lies in this richness of response. Poverty is when we encounter experiences in an alienated way. We have sensory contact with the world but we don’t have any depth of contact with ourselves, and so consequently our responses are flattened, deadened, and monochromatic. We’re bored and restless. Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.
To be appreciative through mindfulness doesn’t mean that everything is going to be rosy and sunny in your life. Suffering is inevitable. But even painful experiences are richer and more alive when we pay attention to and appreciate our pain.
Another poet, Ryōkan, who died six years before Petit-Senn was born, is said to have returned to the hut where he lived as a simple monk, only to disturb a thief who was ransacking his few possessions. In his haste to escape, the thief left behind Ryōkan’s meditation cushion. Ryōkan picked up the cushion and chased after the thief to give it to him. Afterward he sat in his hut, looking out of the window at the moon, thinking, “I wish I could have given him the moon as well.”
This was no idle thought. Ryōkan was famous for expressing simple appreciation and gratitude in his poetry. He could find joy in the simplest things — the sound of the wind, the dripping of water from his roof on a rainy day, children playing, the taste of a berry. Ryōkan knew that if the thief had been able to appreciate the moon as fully as he himself could, he would have had no need to steal.
Ryōkan, sitting in a bare hut looking at the moon, was materially destitute but had such spiritual abundance that he had riches to spare.
*2023 Update: Since I wrote this piece, 15 years ago, I’ve found no evidence that Petit-Senn is the actual source of these words. It’s possible that they’re an adaptation from another writer.