“Thickly Settled.” This is a phrase I saw on a road sign recently while traveling in rural Massachusetts. I figured it was the equivalent of a “congested area” sign back home. But this phrase, “thickly settled” really gave me a chuckle. But the more I thought about it, the more I drew parallels between that phrase, and our human tendencies. Not so much literally, as in our tendencies to closely settle our homes together in communities, but as in our tendencies to get “thickly settled” and often stuck in our ways of thinking and reacting to our circumstances. We are even thickly settled in our concept of ourselves and others. As Ram Das says, "In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight."
As a child, I remember looking up at the clouds in the sky, thinking they were solid, like big, floating puffs of cotton. After my parents went on a trip (in an airplane), I remember asking them how the plane flew around the clouds (not realizing that the clouds’ real-ness was an illusion). I was so thickly settled into this idea that it really took a while to convince me that you couldn’t sit on a cloud.
As adults, we settle into our labels, our perceptions of reality, even our circumstances -- be they pleasurable or painful. We sink our teeth into these temporary illusions like I longed to sit on passing clouds in my childhood.
If we can just be still long enough to witness the clouds, we see them morph and change and pass. Everything in our lives is of the nature to change, just like the clouds in the sky. We will all grow old; we will all go through both good times and bad; we will all experience happiness and sadness. This is just the nature of our yin and yang world. But if we get too “thickly settled” into one of these stages, clinging to it, even when it’s time to change, it’s like grasping at a cloud. Can you hold it in your hand? Nope, it’s just passing through. And the more you desperately try to cling, the more sorrow and pain you bring yourself. Everything -- our ideas, labels, feelings, beliefs, longings, judgements and experiences -- are just passing through. Even our bodies are just passing through time. As Buddha said, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree, in the midst of them all."
The question is, how? How do you rest like the tree? How do you shake off that thickly settled, foggy, illusory state? When I find myself there, clinging to my idea of “the right” way to do things, I recognize that I’m there because I feel tension in my body. It’s my inner signal that I am clinging to some changing, out-of-my-control detail of my life. I’m grasping at clouds. This is the first step. Catch yourself in the act.
Then I use my map to find my way out of my “thickly settled” state. Auto-pilot does not work in these situations, but instead leads you deeper into a stubborn, reactionary state that invites in more frustration. My map primarily consists of two thoughts:
- Can I change how I’m reacting to this situation?
- What am I supposed to learn from this?
Answer those questions for yourself the next time you feel frustrated or resistant to something in your life. You might just realize that you’ve been grasping at clouds. With a little practice, and a good map, you’ll steer clear of those thickly settled areas and find yourself again in wide open spaces where you can breathe deeply and smile.