It is so much more than material possessions.
In the age when life on earth was full, no one paid any special attention to worthy men. Nor did they single out the man of ability. Rulers were simply the highest branches on the trees and the people were like deer in the woods. They were honest and righteous without realizing that they were "doing their duty." They loved each other and did not know this was "love of neighbor." They deceived no one yet did not know they were "men to be trusted." They were reliable and did not know that this was "good faith." They lived freely together, giving and taking and did not know they were generous. For this reason, their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history. — Chuang Tzu
When we think of prosperity in this culture, we usually think of material wealth — the accumulation of money and possessions. There's even a "tongue-in-cheek" popular saying about it: "Whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins!" As I look around at what people seem to want and to pursue, more often than not, it is the acquisition of material wealth.
But if there's one thing my work has shown me, it's that when we are facing death, we're not thinking about how many things we "own". We're thinking about what our life has meant, who we have shared love with and what we have come to understand about the meaning of life, itself. The great paradox about these things that really matter (love, compassion, wisdom and understanding) is that we "accumulate" them by emptying ourselves, rather than by filling ourselves.
My all-time favorite song is "The End" by the Beatles: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make!" We get love by giving love. We learn about compassion by bestowing compassion — on ourselves and others. We gain wisdom and understanding by emptying ourselves of our preconceived ideas of who and what we are and what the world is about. We learn by opening our minds to be able to see, more and more deeply, what the truth really is.
There is a reality. It is simply what is happening in this moment! The problem is that we live in unreality and have so much suffering. We are continually making something more in our minds than what actually is. Even now, you are making something in your mind out of what I say here. In fact, if there are 1000 people reading this, there are 1000 different versions of this article.
We are always creating our own (un)reality out of the reality that is occurring in this moment. We create our realities, ultimately, in an attempt to avoid pain and seek pleasure. We try to control what is, at least in our minds if not in our lives-in-the-world, in a way that we can be free of pain. This is precisely what causes our suffering — our poverty of spirit. Mother Theresa, when visiting the United States for the first time, was asked what she thought of life in America. Her response was, "I've never seen so much poverty anywhere."
"The nature of the Universe is such that the emptier it is, the more it can hold." — Taoist saying
The "wealthiest" man I've ever encountered was a monk who had taken a vow of poverty. When I first met him, I walked into a room where he was chanting and spinning a prayer wheel in his hand. I immediately knew that he was giving all of himself — every ounce of his being — to something bigger than himself. He was completely empty.
When he heard me enter the room, he turned to look at me. Now he was giving all of himself to me! I had gone to ask him for guidance in my spiritual practice — to tell me what to do. Without my saying a word, this humble monk looked at me and said immediately, "Just do what you're already doing." He was so empty that he could see me for who I was in that moment. He could see what I needed from him, too. He also had the wisdom to see that I was already doing what I needed to be doing. The emptier one is, the more one can see!
I have a friend who is a Native American medicine man. Once, he did a vision quest. He went up on a hill (in the middle of the winter, with only a blanket) and cried for a vision for his people for 21 days. As he was deeply grieving the loss of the wisdom of his people (by the systematic extermination of the medicine people and elders of the tribes), the trees started talking to him. "Why are you crying?" they asked. "Nothing has been lost. It's all here! Where do you think the elders got it from?"
By emptying ourselves out of our ideas of the way things are, we get to see how they really are. The wisdom and understanding we seek is all around us all the time. We need only to open ourselves to it. Sometimes we get to experience this "emptying out" in moments of extreme crisis, where we are forced by our situation to be fully present.
In these moments, we may glimpse a larger awareness. It's larger than our self-created realities in which we usually spend our waking lives. In these moments, there may be a knowing that comes to us that would not ordinarily be available to us. This knowing becomes available in these moments precisely because we are forced to be empty of thinking we know anything. In this emptiness, true wisdom and understanding exist eternally and arise spontaneously in our consciousness.
We become empty by being fully present in the moment. Sometimes it is helpful to see what is in the way of our being present. The following exercise may be useful in seeing what is in the way for yourself.
Sit facing a partner and have your partner ask you the following question: "What's in the way of your being fully present right now?" Answer as directly as possible (no long-winded explanations). When you're finished, your partner should say, "Thank you," and then ask you the same question. Answer again, this time looking a little more deeply into the matter. Perhaps, use your previous response as a springboard to deeper inquiry.
Repeat this process until you feel you've gone as far as you can, but for at least 10 minutes. During the process, the person asking needs to remain totally neutral. They should say nothing other than "thank you" and ask the question again. They should show no emotional response — essentially being a blank mirror to you. When you are complete, switch roles with your partner.
Barn's burnt down. Now, I can see the moon. — Masahide