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© NOVA NOVEMBER 2010
Eric Harrison sees the clarity of impermanence.
Seneca was one of the richest men
in Rome, but he was also a Stoic.
He knew his wealth and fame
were no insurance against fate.
So when the emperor Nero demanded
his suicide, he was fully prepared. He
had imagined his final day many times
before as a deliberate philosophic
exercise. Surrounded by friends and family,
he slit his wrists and died in his bath with
A stoic like Seneca inoculates himself
against misfortune by keeping life's
uncertainties firmly in mind. He reminds
himself that loss, injury, sickness and
death are always close by. The peace
and prosperity of today are no insurance
against the dangers of tomorrow. Any
disaster that could happen to us in the
future could also happen today. Life is
short. No one has the time or the
opportunity to do all they hope to.
The situation around us is always
changing, decisions are often difficult,
disappointments and regrets are inevitable.
Still, it is quite possible to be happy if
we have the right attitude. We can choose
to accept the world the way it is, since it
is pointless to fight against it, and we can
face misfortune without complaining.
The Buddha went a step further than
the Stoics. He said that if you can't control
a thing in the way a king controls his
country, then you don't own it. Since you
can't control your body, you don't own
it. As it is subject to sickness and death, it
can't be part of your true nature. He said
we should regard everything that
doesn't last forever, which is pretty much
everything, with the phrase, "This is not
me. This is not mine. I am not this."
Of course no one, not even Buddhists,
takes as extreme a position as the Buddha
originally did. We all feel we own our
bodies, our possessions, our opinions to
some degree. We belong in certain places
and definitely do not belong in others. We
feel that we belong within nets of mutual
affection or at least obligation. As the
song goes "Take good care of yourself,
you belong to me!" Our relatives and
friends are 'ours' and we are 'theirs'.
We think of ownership as a positive
addition to our lives, but when we look at
what it actually entails, the waters become
muddy. The Commonwealth Bank no
longer owns a share of my flat, but the
local council insists that I still pay rates
for the privilege of being here. Similarly,
I own most of the money I earn, but not
all. The tax office feels it also owns a
percentage of what I take in, and it will
punish me cruelly if I don't pay up. The
tax office even owns a percentage of my
time. It takes me nearly a week each year
to handle my tax obligations.
All possessions carry responsibilities.
Mothers own their babies, but at times
it must feel as if their babies own them.
Many rich people spend most of their
"free" time attending to the consequences
of owning far more than they need. At my
gym, I often overhear conversations about
the difficulties associated with the newest
purchases, the renovations to the house,
the complications of buying and selling
almost anything, the planning of the next
overseas holiday. Do those men own their
possessions or do their possessions own
Possessions give pleasure but they
often come at a heavy price. Many people
are money rich but time poor. They have
large discretionary incomes to indulge
their appetite for spending, but have little
time for anything else. I've been penniless
in the past and I know that the poor
often have more discretionary time than
the well off.
I also know what they do with it.
They don't go shopping for goods they
don't need. They socialise. They relate to
others. When I lived in the country many
years ago, conversations would commonly
last two or three hours. Nowadays, I
schedule an hour or so here and there.
It's not quite the same.
If we read the news or have some
knowledge of history, we know that
'This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.' -- the Buddha
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