A stray cow is walking toward me. I cross the street to give it space, careful to avoid stepping on a tail of one of the many sprawled out, potentially rabid, dogs that lay on the other side. Honk. I turn to see a car driving behind the cluster of people I’m walking among. We’re too far out in the middle of the narrow road for the car to pass, so we squish oh so close to the indiscernible cow-munched trash and liquid-lined gutter. Another honk, this time totally unnecessary, just a byproduct of Indian drivers having grown accustomed to honking their horns. The honk serves as a reminder to come back to the present moment, as Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh would call a “bell of mindfulness.” Good thing too, since straight ahead of me lies a veritable minefield of shit. A fecal collection of strays for me to scatalogue — a cow pat here, some donkey scat over there, dog poop scattered all around. Breathing in, I smell cow dung, breathing out, I smile at the cow dung — I’m reminded of a mindfulness gatha of Nhat Hanh’s that teaches us to equanimously appreciate the “bad” with the “good.” Walking along I feel a splatter across my chest. I look up to see a construction worker three stories up splashing mortar on the wall. I’m thankful. It could have been a lot worse. Farther down the road I spot a sidewalk, a rare sight. I enter the crowded market, guarding my wallet as I walk.
The checklist of items to be aware of while walking the streets of India is exhaustive. Off-street brings a host of different problems: watching what food can safely be eaten, getting ripped off, contracting malaria, developing altitude sickness, the list goes on. India hands out these regular reminders as presents for us to use as we choose. As bells of mindfulness, we can see them as opportunities to constantly be aware of each others’ presence or we can get exhausted from living in constant worry. The first choice is to live in the present moment, the second to live in the future.
Fear is simply a working of the mind based on future-oriented thought — we can control it as long as we are conscious of it. India is a fine place to put this perception of fear to the test since the regularity of present moment reminders provides consistent practice. Travelers to India tend to love or hate the country. It’s even more common to swing back and forth between loving and hating it while on the trip. But, it’s not that the country is “good” or “bad.” How the outcome is determined, like everything in life, depends solely on our perception.
Equanimity, the acceptance of everything without avoiding the “bad” and desiring the “good,” is easily practiced in India. Lack of choice is one reason. After all, if we can only get one type of chocolate bar, we might as well be happy with it because the alternative is nothing. Second, questioning everything that happens on a daily basis would be pointless since there wouldn’t be much room left to actually live a life between all the fearful thoughts. In Indian cities, it’s possible to walk down a street and get asked by shopkeepers every few steps you take to buy their goods. If we had an opinion about what is “good” and “bad” about the sheer volume of interactions and potential mishaps that happen on a daily basis in India, we would live in unhappiness. There are just so many opportunities in India to practice equanimity we might as well practice it, otherwise end up in the “good” and “bad” trap.
India does have its share of problems, but as usually happens in our fear-obsessed world, what we perceive and what is reality are worlds apart. With a resident population of 1.2 Billion and a large tourist population adding to that, the proportion of incidents isn’t really as high as it seems. Some issues are real and need to be avoided, but most are made-up wanderings of the fanciful mind.
Equanimity neutralizes fear. With billions of people living on Earth, problems happen. That will never change. What can change is our response. We determine whether an event is to be feared or if it just an event. If something “bad” happens, the choice is ours to label it as “bad” and then live in fear of it happening again or we can drop the label and just see it as an event that happened. The more difficult the outcome, the harder it is to deal with, but the larger the lesson we need to learn. On the rare occasion, even when going with the flow of equanimity, we can get hurt. It could be that we thought we were in the flow, but unconsciously were not. Or it could have been a result of our karmic conditioning from the present or a past life. There’s no sense questioning it. Equanimity can be our greatest ally in determining the truth of a situation. It helps us accept what has happened and move on in the present moment, rather than being frozen in the future. As Buddhists speak of equanimity, eventually everything becomes just an event, not to be liked or disliked. Losing our attachment to fear helps us abide in that place of peace. A place where every event is pure joy.
Just like a master of chess plays the game with strategy rather than passively reacting to an opponent’s every move, as masters of life, we can play the game with a strategy of mindfulness and equanimity to act in the world rather than react to events with desire and aversion. In this way, life cannot lead us along in a game that we do not control. In fact, the game never even began. We called checkmate from the very start.