Monday, October 29, 2012

THE RED BALLOON: A STUDY IN MINDFULNESS



When I was about 5 or 6 I was given a delightful book entitled The Red Balloon. A photo of the cover of my, by now well-read and well-worn, copy of the book is pictured left. The book (text in English, minus the pictures, here), which tells the story of a  young boy and his best friend---a bright red balloon which appears to have a 'life' all of its own---has become a modern day children's classic since it was first published in Paris in 1956 (in French, as Le ballon rouge).

The book contains the most wonderful photos of 1950s Paris---see these 'then' and 'now' photos---and a most whimsical story. Later, I saw the film---a full copy of which can be found here---on which the book was based and from which the photographs in the book (stills from the film, directed by Albert Lamorisse) had been taken. I have loved the book and the film ever since. As a kid I would spend literally hours just looking, again and again, at the photos of the street scenes of the Ménilmontant section of Paris where much of the film was shot. I was simply transfixed by the cobblestones, the narrow alleys, the long flights of stairs, the dilapidated but still formidable old buildings of postwar Paris,  and the typically Parisian shops and street signs.

At a recent retreat I facilitated I had an opportunity to screen and watch the film again. (I have seen it countless times over the years.) The film so beautifully captures both the innocence of childhood as well as our innate potential for cruelty.

So much has been written over the years about the book and the film. For some, the red balloon represents the reincarnating ego or, at the very least, the human soul---and its immortality or indestructibility. Certainly, the waste ground where the final battle takes place has a Golgotha-like feel about it, including a resurrection and ascension of sorts which follows the destruction of the red balloon. That (last) part of the film always reduces me to tears---every time I watch it.




Yes, when we die to self---as well as the past---from moment to moment we are born anew, and we discover a whole new life. It's called living mindfully.

Pascal, the young boy in the film (played by the director’s son Pascal Lamorisse), is a living study in mindfulness and mindful living. Even his initial discovery of the red balloon---he spots it before we, the audience, are privileged to see it---is the result of choiceless awareness and bare attention. His every movement and action is deliberate and purposeful, and he remains ‘awake’ at all times. His responses to changing circumstances---even when faced with threats and open hostility---is appropriate and proportionate.

Children are much better at living mindfully than adults. That is undeniably the case. Perhaps the main reason that is the case is this---the process of growing up is essentially one of conditioning or programming. We are told---ordinarily by so-called adults or grown-ups---what to think, what to believe, how to act, and so on.

The result? A chronic and progressive, and even terminal, inability to think and act spontaneously in a free, unfettered and unconditioned manner.

We---that is, all of us---need to undergo a radical transformation. We need to totally 'de-condition' ourselves. Indeed, we need to let go of all our conditioned thinking---including all inculcated beliefs and ideas about how life ‘should’ be or supposedly is. You see, unless and until we start to live mindfully, we shall never attain enlightenment.

Living mindfully is living non-mechanically. In order to do that, we must dispense with all so-called 'methods' and 'techniques,' for the (hopefully) obvious reason that methods and techniques are nothing more than tools by which some people programme others.

Here's a Zen story I like. A disciple says to the Master, 'I have been four months with you, and you have still given me no method or technique.' The Master says, 'A method? What on earth would you want a method for?' The disciple says, 'To attain inner freedom.' The Master roars with laughter, and then says, 'You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of the trap called a method.' So, my friends, please forget all about methods and techniques. You don't need them. Indeed, they will never---I repeat, never---bring you freedom or enlightenment. Just wake up---and stay awake. That's all that is required.

Now, rest assured that mindfulness is not a method or technique as those words are ordinarily understood. Mindful living is living naturally---that is, spontaneously, and without programming (whether by self or others) of any sort. Mindless living is living artificially---that is, in a conditioned, programmed and mechanical fashion. Whenever we are trying to conform to the beliefs or expectations of others, we are living mindlessly.

So, what are we to do? Well, we need to become more like children---in the sense described in this post---if we are to live in a more enlightened fashion. No wonder Jesus said, 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' (Mt 18:3) [NIV]. As I see it, those who live mindfully have entered and dwell in the kingdom of heaven---especially if they also exercise loving kindness and compassion.


Here’s another thing I derive from The Red Balloon. What is ours by 'right' of consciousness (that is, the fruits of our mindfulness practice) can never be taken away or destroyed---at least not for so long as we are alive---provided we live, and continue to live, mindfully and also exercise loving kindness and compassion. Yes, nothing is permanent, and everything is constantly changing its form, but that which we attain as a result of living mindfully and lovingly can never be taken away from us. We ourselves can, of course, forfeit or lose what is rightfully ours by inattention, carelessness and mindless or selfish living---but not otherwise.






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