Often on Mondays, I will try to think of something related to learning that might be of value to write about. Today I’m taking a different tack. I am going to pass along one of my favorite anecdotes. This story, told by Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who resides in Australia, puts into perspective the nature of the human mind in a tangible, amusing fashion. I urge you to relate this to your life once you’ve read it – it can lead to greater equanimity and happiness.
Many years ago, Ajahn Brahm and his fellow monks bought land in Australia to create their monastery. The land was vast, the resources plentiful, but there were no structures or buildings. Being a group of Buddhists – and having just spent quite a lot on land – they didn’t have enough money to simply pay for the construction. In lieu of that, they had supplies donated and set to work building their new homes.
Ajahn Brahm, who had studied Theoretical Physics in college, was now put to the task of bricklaying. He was in charge of constructing walls. For those of you who have never laid brick, it is a tedious process that most people want to do perfectly. I mean, you’re building a wall – you don’t want cracks, holes, or ugly deformities.
So he would lay bricks and, if one of them went askew, he would scrape the mortar, fill in the crooked area, and adjust the problem to perfection. This was a painstaking process that took days, but at the end of his project, he looked at what he had created. Stepping back, the first thing he noticed was that there were two bricks near the center of the wall that were off-kilter. There were two bad bricks.
He tried to scrape the mortar, but it had dried. He went to the leaders of the monastery and asked if he could destroy the wall and start over. “Do we have a bulldozer? Dynamite?” But they simply said there was not enough money and he would have to leave the wall is it was.
This tormented Ajahn Brahm. For several months, he dwelled on the fact that the ugliest wall in the monastery was the one that he had built. If people came to the grounds for a tour, he often volunteered to lead them – just so he could skip going past that wall!
One day, though, he saw a group coming back from a tour with another monk. One of the visitors raved about the quaintness of the buildings and made a comment about a singular wall that he particularly adored. Naturally, it was Ajahn Brahm’s.
The monk looked at the guest and said, “Are you serious? Are you blind? What are you talking about? Couldn’t you see the two bad bricks?”
What the man said next puts the inherent nature of depression and obsession into perspective.
He said, “I did see those bricks. But I also saw the 998 good ones that surrounded it.”
Too often in life, we focus on the two bad bricks instead of looking at the many wonderful things around us. It’s incredible when you think about how the cancer of a relative, or the unrequited love in our life, or the debt we are under can make us forget about the many fantastic things that are a part of our life. We focus on the one or two bad bricks and conclude that our life must be miserable.
This is absurd! When put into proper perspective, our problems are all, in some way, temporary. There is nothing so consuming – even our own illnesses! – that we cannot appreciate the “good” we have. I once heard someone say, “If you are alive, then more is right with you than wrong.” Think about that – it’s true.
Years later, when Ajahn Brahm told this story to an audience, a man came to him afterward and said, “Don’t worry, I do construction and make mistakes all the time. Only in my line of work, when we screw up, we just call it a ‘feature’ and let people know it costs more!”
So from now on, when things go badly in your life, try to think of them as “features,” things that make you more valuable. And don’t forget to pay attention to all of the parts of your body that don’t have cancer, all of the people in your life who do love you, and all of the things you can experience that don’t cost money. Because they far outweigh the two bad bricks.
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