When we sense something is important, it’s an illusion. When I feel something is important, it’s easy to feel it is - or at least should be - important to everybody. If not to everybody, then at least to the people who are close to me and care about me. If it’s important to me, and others don’t care about it, then obviously they don’t care a lot about me.
This is a good way to divorce, broken friendships and war.
I suspect the sense of importance is similar to our sense of reality. It’s a way our nervous system has of arousing us, of convincing us something is genuine and deserving of our attention and efforts. Like any of our thoughts or sense processes, it is filtered through my particular lenses, and often reinforced by social consensus. I’ll tend to associate myself with people who share my sense of what is important and what is real. We often equate the two: the more important something is to me, the more real it seems. This is not necessarily true.
For example: I treat the issue of global climate change as very important. I also think it’s real. I educate myself about it, and most of what I read or listen to reinforces my sense of its existence and how critical it is to the fate of future life on this planet. I won’t break off a friendship with someone who disagrees with me, but I won’t spend as much time with them as with someone who works with me in efforts to mitigate what I see as a crisis.
In fact, climate change remains uncertain. I think the preponderance of the evidence supports it, but the physics and meteorology is fantastically complex, so even the best-informed scientists can’t be certain of their projections. While climate change is highly probable, I can say it’s likely but I can’t say it’s “real.” I base my commitment to mitigating climate change on the idea that even if the odds of its occurring are small, the possibility that it is leading to mass extinctions of multiple species makes it unethical to continue on our current course. So it’s an important issue to me. However, there are many people who believe the human species holds a divine dominion on this earth, including the extinction of other species. (If you recoil at this idea, pause before killing the next Lyme-disease tick which bites you). Other people believe that technological progress will enable us to manage climate change, so we don’t need to worry about it. Furthermore, if we expand our view beyond that of humans, perhaps there are species which will rejoice (or increase in numbers, or involve) if climate change expands their ecological niche. And for all I know the stones at the bottom of Yosemite Falls are yearning for an increase of temperature that will dry up the creek above and give them some respite from the water’s incessant pounding.
The point is, things are only important insofar as they are important to me. If, as Buddhism teaches, there is never anywhere any thing with an abiding self, then “importance” is as inconstant as the weather. Like rain and snow, sunshine and wind, “importance” is local: relative to time and place. To the extent I become convinced something IS important (and “importance” likes to emphasize itself in capital letters) it bounces back and creates the illusion that I AM IMPORTANT. Then anything which doesn’t confirm this, or which gets in my way, is an attack not only on what I hold dear, but on me myself and I.
Our hubris insists on our importance and protests against any insults. I see my two-year-old grandchild throw a temper tantrum if his raspberries are cut in half today, rather than given to him whole. (Yesterday it was the other way around…but it was important.) I see the same thing when white people feel “Black Lives Matter” discounts them, or I’m in the grocery store during this pandemic and others aren’t wearing masks. How dare they!
Perhaps we were less easily incensed when we used to blame such things on people being “liverish” or their astrological charts falling out of alignment. Maybe Hitler’s spleen made him so angry. Now we’re so wise we know to give great weight to peoples’ individual choices….after all, if people are just heaps of causes and conditions, what importance can I assign to my sense of myself as someone important?
It’s important to not feel diminished. Much of our striving for importance - to gain status, or love, or material security - serves to reassure us of our importance. People can get aggressive when they feel they’re not taken into account. But your sense of importance and my sense of importance can easily bump up against each other. I’m may feel crestfallen if my partner feels it’s no big deal the covid crisis has forced us to postpone our second honeymoon, or cancel opening up a zendo, while I feel it’s a major disappointment.
But not treating something as important doesn’t imply you diminish it. We so easily fall into dualistic thinking: if something’s not important, then it’s devalued as unimportant. This simply isn’t true, even for matters of life and death. We use this phrase to indicate matters of the utmost importance, but these shift with time and circumstances. The older I get, having lived a full life, the less concerned I am with whether I Iive or die. It’s not just a matter of age, though: any time could bring up a situation where it might be more important to you to die in the service of some cause, or in saving someone else, than to cling to the life you have. When your parents or siblings die, I will feel for you and with you, but the deaths will feel more important to you than to me. Mourning is as universal as joy, and unique for each person.
Life and death may seem to be absolutes, but they are relative; a close examination reveals each as a mystery, and also how much they depend on each other. So the key here is to treat everything as neither important nor unimportant, but with equal respect. (You could treat everything as both important and unimportant, but that’s more tiring).
“Importance” is nothing more than a flavor, a timbre, a tint of self, subjectivity masquerading as an objective fact. Everything is just so. Where it is, it is. When it’s not, it’s not. How we meet “just this” is not a matter of important or unimportant.
This is why, when we begin qigong or taiji practice, we check in with each of our toes and let the weight distribute evenly across all the toes. The big toe is big, the little toe is little. Neither is more or less important. You feel this way, I feel that way; we can respect each other without getting stuck in “right/wrong,” or in “important/unimportant.”
My teacher Sojun once said in a lecture: “You are the center of the universe - but everyone is the center of the universe.” It's not that everyone is the center of his or her individual universe. That would be terribly sad in its isolation. Rather, all centers touch the center. This is tathata - the truth of suchness.
The center is not an in-between. The center is not a half-way point, bland in compromise. The center is not important or unimportant. It shimmers in suchness. It’s simply pivotal - the path to peace.
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