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How the Environment We Create Is a Reflection of Our State of Mind

So, what's in your backseat?

In the collection of Shambhala teachings entitled Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaks at length about personal dignity, self-respect, and discipline. He suggests that the environment with which we surround ourselves—both our physical environment and our personal comportment—is a direct expression of dignity and self-respect. This notion is coincident with the Shaolin Buddhist aphorism taught to me by my own Grandmaster, "Never sit when you can stand. Never ride when you can walk. Never lean."

For my part, the way that I get this lesson across to my students—both Yoga and Kung Fu—as well as my patients, is through one of the in vivo metaphors, like the silverware drawer, of which regular readers of this blog have by now discovered I am so fond—a simple question, "What's in the backseat of your car?"

For most Americans, their automobile is a very personal space. It tends to be more personal than their house, apartment, or office because it is typically not shared. Thus, it tends more to be an expression of sense-of-place (psychologically, spiritually, and metaphysically speaking) than does any other compartment in their lives.

The environment with which we surround ourselves is very often a direct expression of where we are emotionally and psycho-spiritually—our global state of mind. If we are distracted, we tend to lose things. If we are disorganized, the piles begin to collect. If we are feeling disconnected, the emails pile up, and the voicemails remain unreturned.

If you are starting to unravel, the first place that it is likely to show up is in the backseat. If you are in a state of relatively perpetual emotional disarray, it is also likely to be evidenced by what's in your backseat, just on an ongoing basis.

The point here is not personal cleanliness or discipline. It's about paying attention. It's about not getting distracted by the eventualities of emotion and markers of spirituality that come up in our lives, but, rather, staying mindful of messages that we receive and remaining proactive in relation to them.

If we leave our clothes lying on the floor, are we lazy, or is that about self-respect and self-valuation? If we stand with our hands in our pockets, are we comfortable or are we hiding? If we don't shave on the weekends, are we sending a message to our community that we don't care what they think or that we don't care enough about ourselves to be attentive to our appearance at all times? More to the point, when did every day become Casual Friday?

There is a story about a Chinese Magistrate who needed to select an assistant. There were three men who were qualified for the job, and he invited them to spend the weekend at his home. The first was a dignified older gentleman who had been a civil servant for many years. The second was middle-aged, but the son of a highly placed official who had also distinguished himself as a great soldier. The third was a young man, unremarkable in every way.

The story goes that the magistrate welcomed the three men into his home and, as the weekend progressed, he observed each of them carefully. He noticed that the older gentleman had poor table manners. He noticed that the soldier was unkind to the servants. And he noticed that the younger man tended to speak before listening. He was still at an impasse.

The last night the men were there, he slipped into their room under the cover of night as they slept. He saw that the older gentleman had hung his clothes on a chair, but his jacket was casually tossed on the end of the bed and his shoes were left where he had removed them. He saw that the soldier's clothes were neatly folded, but that he had left some of his personal toiletries sitting out.

When he looked at the young man's space, he saw his clothes neatly folded, his shoes tucked under the chair by his bed, and pointed toward the door (important Feng Shui) and all of his other belongings neatly stowed and in order. He now saw his decision clearly.

The spiritual warrior remains clear about all things, at all times. This both begins with and is reflected in the environment with which we surround ourselves. The austerity associated with many of the Eastern spiritual practices is not about self-denial—it's about discipline. And this is not the discipline of punishment, but the discipline of mindful attention and expansive awareness.

So, the backseat is a symbol. Just as Grandmaster would yell, "Farmboy!" when one of us stepped onto the Temple floor with our jacket unbuttoned, we must make that same effort to attend to every detail of our lives and be impeccable in that attention.

Remember the IT slogan, GIGO—"Garbage In, Garbage Out"? Think of this imperative as SOSI—"Sloppy Outside, Sloppy Inside".

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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