Friday, 17 February 2017

New tools in the spiritual toolbox

When it came to retiring from my job at in December 2009, my office mates had thrown me a farewell party on the final day of my working life with them. The inevitable farewell speech was required of me and I stood up hesitatingly not knowing what to tell them initially. Then I remembered having read a book by Ajahn Brahm, the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Western Australia.

Out of the many memorable and inspiring stories in the book, a few had left an impression in my mind and I resolved then and there to share my version of one of the stories with my soon-to-be-former colleagues.

It was the story of the emperor's three questions. Before I go on further, I may say that when I related it, there was full concentration from my former colleagues. Not a sound from them. I hope that the story had left an impression on them too.

Here then is the story of the emperor's three questions, as related by Ajahn Brahm in his philosophical book for all ages, Who ordered this truckload of dung? With apologies to the abbot, I have taken the liberty to exclude what I feel would be adding unnecessary length to my own post.
Long ago, an emperor sought a philosophy of life. He needed wisdom to guide his rule and govern himself. The religions and philosophies of the time did not satisfy him. So he searched for his philosophy in the experience of life.
Eventually, he realised that he required the answers to only three fundamental questions. With those answers, he would have all the wise guidance he needed. The three questions were these:
1. When is the most important time?
2. Who is the most important person?
3. What is the most important thing to do?
After a long search, he found the three answers on a visit to a hermit. What do you think the answers are? Look at the questions again, please. Pause, before you read on.
We all know the answer to the first question, but we forget it too often. The most important time is "now." That is the only time we ever have. So if you want to tell your Mom or Dad how much you really love them, how grateful you are for them being your parents, do so now. Not tomorrow. Not in five minutes. Now. In five minutes it is often too late. If you need to say sorry to your partner, don't start thinking of all the reasons why you shouldn't. Just do it right now. The opportunity may not come again. Grab the moment.
The answer to the second question is powerfully profound. Few people ever guess the correct answer. It saw deeper into the question than I'd ever imagined. The answer is that the most important person is the one you are with.
I recalled asking questions of college professors and not being fully heard. They were outwardly listening but inwardly wanting me to go. They were outwardly listening but inwardly wanting me to go. They had more important things to do. That's what I felt, and it was a rotten feeling. I also recalled rousing my courage to approach a famous lecturer and ask a personal question, and being surprised and so pleased that he was giving me his total attention. Other professors were waiting to speak with him, I was a mere long-haired student, but he made me feel important. The difference was huge.
Communication, and love, can only be shared when the one you are with, no matter who they are, is the most important person in the world for you, at that time. They feel it. They know it. They respond.
Married couples often complain that their partner doesn't really listen to them. What they mean is that their partner doesn't make them feel important anymore. Divorce lawyers would have to look for other work if every person in a relationship remembered the answer to the emperor's second question and put it into practice, so that no matter how tired or busy we are, when we are with our partner, we make them feel as though they are the most important person in the world.
In business, where the person we are with is a potential customer, if we treat them as the most important person for us at that time, our sales will go up and with it our salary.
The emperor in the original story escaped assassination by fully listening to the advice of a small boy on his way to visit the hermit. When a powerful emperor is with a mere child, that boy is the most important person in the world for him, and saves the emperor's life. When friends come up to me after a long day to tell me about their problems, I remember the answer to the emperor's second question and give them total importance. It is selflessness. Compassion supplies the energy, and it works.
Most of the time in your life you are by yourself. Then, the most important person, the one you are with, is you. There is plenty of time to give importance to yourself. Who is the first person you are aware of when you wake up in the morning? You! Do you ever say, "Good morning, me. Have a nice day!"? I do. Who is the last person you are aware of when you go to sleep? Yourself again! I say goodnight to myself. I give myself importance in the many private moments of my day. It works.
The answer to the emperor's third question, "What is the most important thing to do?" is to care. "To care" brings together being careful and caring. The answer illustrates that it is where we are coming from that is the most important thing.
So what again are the emperor's three questions? Here they are again, with the answers:

1. When is the most important time? Now.
2. Who is the most important person? The person you are with.
3. What is the most important thing to do? To care.

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