Birth. You wake up in a giant room that is so large you cannot see its end in any direction. The ceiling is too high to see and the infinite floor is comprised of simple weaved tatami mats. You’re not sure what direction you’re facing or where you are because your borders are unknown. Where are the walls? Will you live five years? Twenty-three? Forty-six? Seventy-one? 100?
You cannot know if one direction dead ends before another. The concept is too vast for your awareness. The only option is surrender. So what does surrender look like? Surrender is when you forget the room and just look at the next step. Each tatami will connect to many others. Your life is comprised of which ones you choose.
When you are a child you enthusiastically crawl aimlessly and happily across the mats motivated by nothing more than your own sense of self. You live with a sense of wonder about what you don’t know. And you are most often happy.
Eventually you are taught ideas. You learn concepts from other people like right and wrong and so you think you need to start to plan for the future. The very act of planning leads you to believe that such a future will exist. It is assumed there will be no deadly car accidents, no falls into a wheelchair, or divorces or just points where you’re just plain exhausted. You ignore those possibilities and start to think you can outthink the room itself.
You start to believe you can beat this thing. That you can be smart enough, play your cards well enough, choose the right path through the tatami and somehow you’ll be saved from the wall. Maybe it’s being rich or being popular or maybe pious. And that belief leads you to come to expect certain outcomes, and an attachment to outcomes and expectations is not a healthy sign for your advanced spirituality. It is where disappointment is born.
Maybe you decide in your thoughts that you want no debt. Or more money. Maybe a better body. A boyfriend? Nicer boss? Nicer car? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you forget the tatami you’re on and you start imagining one a long way away. And to get there you follow the instructions of others who have been there or claim to know where it is. Except they too have no idea where they started or what direction they were facing or where their borders were. So while their path may have worked for them you will have to do it originally. You cannot follow their path to get to their destination. Your path is yours and your destination is yours–unless you surrender it to egocentric desire.
It is fine to have a tatami preference and to choose to spend some time there when you find it, but searching for it means missing out on everything else. If your mind is on that destination tatami then it is not on the tatami you are on now. And that’s important because you need the real you to steer that other you so you can discover the tatami you’re looking for. Not find it. Discover it.
It’s like a friend who spent half a day mixing paint trying to get the exact colour of orange she was imagining. She saw a fellow artist in the studio had mixed the exact tone. When she asked him how he found it he simply told her, I just kept mixing until I saw something that made me stop.
If you want to be a success in the ego world you know how. I know people whose bookshelves are filled with books on making money. That information is all over the place. Work hard, work smart, invest, be better, or marry rich, cheat, commit a crime–there’s many ways to get material success. But there’s loads of people with that success that killed themselves so that obviously can’t be the answer everyone’s really looking for. Who cares if you walk into the wall in Ralph Lauren if you’re miserable?
The happiest people I know are the ones who are still like children–they have no plan. Many are fantastically successful in the traditional sense too but that was never their aim. That wasn’t where they were trying to get. It was where they ended up after taking the steps they found rewarding. So you can plan to date someone or hope to earn this or that, but the happy people are foregoing planning for living. They simply looked around them and their next move is toward the most appealing tatami. It isn’t a step on the way to somewhere. That tatami is an experience unto itself. It should be chosen for itself.
So what’s all this tatami stuff mean in your real life? It means you want to avoid putting your career before your kids because your boss won’t visit you when you’re dying but your kids might (if you step on some loving mats). It means don’t waste singledom by waiting to date. Don’t squander extra meditation and calm-time by calling it waiting. It is just time. All else is a value judgment made using your thoughts.
So you don’t have to calculate which path is best. You don’t have to study and name and classify every tatami. All you have to do is look at the mats immediately in front of you and pick the one that is the easiest to appreciate as being worthwhile.
Forget where the walls are. Forget trying to beat the room. Forget trying to climb or race or achieve. Forget trying to get anywhere specific. It’s the how, not the where. Just be on the tatami you are on and step to the tatami that feels appealing next. All the rest is truly pointless rumination.
Scott McPherson is a writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.