Life in the Age of Grasping
Every day I come back to my apartment there is an old Asian man sitting on the steps leading to an unused door near the alley behind an art college next to my building. As far as I can see he lives on the stoop. When I walk by or as I am waiting for the receipt from the cab driver I think about him. I almost never look at him, but I do think about him. He is different from the rest of the destitute people that hang out around the homeless shelter in my neighborhood. I have never talked to him but I can only assume he is wise, or crazy or both. To live like that you need to be one or the other. Most people on the street who do not conform to societal norms are there because of substance abuse but a few are there of a clear mind, voluntarily. The one time I spoke with him to attempt to give him some food he grumbled and shooed me away. He was not interested in my charity and he did not want what I had.
Perched on top of an empty milk crate clad in a weathered blue overcoat he silently holds court to a group of pigeons crowding around him lazily plumping their feathers and waiting for him to sprinkle a few more bread crumbs on the ground. Does he look at me walking by with two armfuls of groceries or toting the new vacuum I bought up to my apartment? I picture him judging me. He probably doesn’t but I will never know, because I can’t see myself ever actually talking to him. I prefer to have him as my silent arbiter. When I pass him, even if just for a second, I think about my job and my things in my apartment. He has nothing and seemingly does nothing. He observes. He thinks. I am jealous. He could be a Buddhist master who has glimpsed the meaning of life, or he could be nothing, just another person who stopped caring for one reason or another and gave up.
I have a constant voice in my head that is spurring me on to make more money, to save more, to worry about my future. Sometimes it is a pit in my stomach, sometimes it is a headache, sometimes it is that clenched feeling that comes from stress. I am always grasping. Grasping for security, grasping for safety, grasping for comfort but most of the time when I feel satisfied or happy it has nothing to do with the things for which I have been reaching out towards. Contentedness comes in moments. That feeling can wash over me at almost any time. I have been able to appreciate them fully only just recently. I can luxuriate in the space of those moments and I don’t need to worry or hold on to whatever comes along with these experiences. It can be a certain song coming on my iPod, a nice tranquil view from my balcony or an impromptu Frisbee session in the park. They are usually just minutes in my day but in that time the “grasping” leaves me completely. I am in that moment being, and it is good.
I have been reading a book on meditation and Buddhism called the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” and one of the things that Buddhism gets right is tapping into the power of being invested in Now. Wrapped up within its rituals, meditation and philosophies is a manual to attempt to rid oneself of the “grasping” for things that increasingly monopolize one’s thoughts. The worries of modern life are so ingrained in people that a life without those worries is too foreign to even coherently contemplate. What if life was just taking care yourself and the people that cross your path and being invested in every moment? It seems like that is what existence should be yet we have created a culture and society where adopting a philosophy and living like that would count you as clinically insane. Has Western society has done everyone a great disservice by ushering in an age of materialism accompanied with greed and constant (over)consumption? There has been an element of “grasping” in every age but it is now acutely present in every facet of life with no signs of abatement. Have I hurt myself by adopting this lifestyle completely?
So what about the Asian man living on the stoop? Is he the one doing it right? Is he grasping for things just like me or has he checked out of the hamster wheel of corporate bullshit that I haven’t? I would prefer to believe that he has, but I will never ask to find out.