Picking and choosing

October 2nd, 2007

If you wish to know the truth, then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
– Seng-tsan

A reader wisely pointed out in yesterday’s comments that the things I identify as my sources of unhappiness are probably also my sources of happiness. Exactly! I alone choose how to view them: as a plus or a minus, a keeper or a weeper. That choice changes all the time. I’m forever judging every aspect of my life. As I make those determinations, I’m using what we in Zen call “the picking and choosing” mind. The deliberative, evaluative, ruminating mind. I’m particularly fond of this mind. This is the mind that each of us calls “myself” because it is the mind that we use to talk to ourselves.

This is the voice that pipes up and says, “This is good. I like this. I’m happy.” Or that might say, even about the very same circumstance that once gave me pleasure, “This is not good. I’m tired of it. I’m not happy.” Very often, nothing has changed about the circumstance but my determination of it. One time my mom let me eat a whole bowl of whipped cream to my heart’s content. (I think she knew what she was doing.) I ate myself sick and I never liked it again. The whipped cream didn’t change. My view of it did.

In Buddhism, we call this endless cycle of like, dislike, good, bad, up, down, happy, sad, hot cold, in, out samsara. There’s nothing new about it, even though it might seem like we’ve become particularly aggrieved with our lives lately. There has never been a human being who lived anywhere else but samsara. But we can escape it, and we do, whenever we don’t pick or choose. Now I don’t mean that we go brain-dead. That we can’t tell right from left or our arms from our legs. I just mean that we stop blaming the whipped cream.

There’s a survey published every year by the very smart people at the Harris Poll that tells us The Most Popular Places People Would Choose to Live. Reading the poll, you might surmise that – no surprise – the most popular places to live are California, Florida and Hawaii. But then I noticed the question that they ask people. They don’t ask, “Where would you choose to live?” No, they ask “Where, except where you live now, would you choose to live?” At first I wondered why they asked it that way. Then I realized that if they asked the first question they might not have a poll at all. Perhaps people would say, “You know, I’m just fine right where I am.” I’ve lived a lot of places, and the thing is, my home is always my home. The poll question is nothing but a grass-is-greener question. It’s a pick-and-choose question. It’s a “Gee, come to think of it, I’m sick of whipped cream” question.

My first teacher Maezumi Roshi was famous for saying simply, “Appreciate your life.” He didn’t mean conjure up some contrived sentiment of gratitude, or humility, or abundance about your life. He didn’t mean count your blessings. He meant don’t count anything. He meant don’t pick and choose. Make your life your life and swallow it whole. When you do that, things have a way of getting happier right quick.


  1. yes!

    “yes is a world
    & in this world of
    yes live
    (skilfully curled)
    all worlds” – e.e. cummings

    Comment by Wendy — October 2, 2007 @ 11:09 am

  2. “don’t blame the whipped cream” Good point. I’m putting this sentence on my bulletin board.

    Comment by Shannon — October 2, 2007 @ 11:44 am

  3. I strive so much to appreciate my life. Sometimes I feel I do. But then my homesickness will attack. Born and raised on the coast of California, where I was surrounded by hills and mountains, sand, the ocean, the cliffs overlooking the ocean… It’s a change from my home now. Flat, no ocean… In general, not many trees.

    I always half joke witht eh family about how there aren’t any trees. But in the neighborhoods, there are. From my home, I see the beauty of the trees changing with each season. Here, I see the beauty of snow, and I always love it.

    And that is such a small portion of my life!

    Comment by Momma_Phoenix — October 2, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

  4. It makes me happy that you will be talking about happiness this week. 🙂
    This post got to me. The swallowing it whole thing. I felt that in my gut and bones. You just don’t get to pick and choose, in the end. Things come together and we don’t get one without the other. So I am realizing I cannot separate them even. It just is and sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t but I can’t get one without the other.
    Anyways, looking forward to hearing more.

    Comment by bella — October 2, 2007 @ 10:05 pm

  5. My mother-in-law says anyone can be happy anywhere–it’s all in the attitude. True to a point. A bit unfair to expect someone in a gulag to be happy. Sometimes I think a person can be unhappy. I don’t think being unhappy is always bad. I think this inability to accept unhappiness as a fact of life is what fuels all manners of addictions and unhealthy ideas.

    But the brief reference to Florida got my attention since I grew up there. It is strange to be in a group that other people think is the lucky group. When I left Florida (because I was unhappy there) people were shocked, SHOCKED, that anyone would want to leave the sunshine state. And to leave it for Indiana was mind boggling to most.

    It is also weird to hear how being tall, thin, blond, and blue eyed is supposed to be ideal. Yeah, in this racist world it is in some respects easier (apartments are available, I don’t get followed by security in department stores) but it didn’t get me love. I got through 4 years of college without having a boyfriend, so if anyone thinks dieting themselves thin and dying their hair blond will get the guy–think again. (Aside from the fact that guys don’t bring happiness).

    And then I love it when Ir ead in some magazine or book advice that suggests readers should be bold or daring or grab life and do something crazy–like join the Peace Corps! Look, I did, and I don’t care what country you’re in or what you’re doing, bills must be paid and laundry must be done. Join the Peace Corps by all means–but it is still a job with hours, coworkers, and a dress code.

    Okay, i’ve felt talky this evening and have commented a lot. Well, it will happen if you keep bringing up interesting topics…but they make me happy!

    Comment by marta — October 8, 2007 @ 5:40 am

  6. Marta,
    I love it when you stay up late and join the party. Fascinating reading.

    Comment by Karen — October 8, 2007 @ 3:41 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month