When Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the "ontological ground of being", I try to think of a way to state this principle more simply, free of the philosophical term, "ontological". Ontology is the study of being. Nhat Hanh, I think, is asking us to examine not so much what we are (what I am), but what each of us be. That's not proper English, I know. But the word "am" makes it sound like the answer to the question of ground of being is answered, is finished, is right now. If I say,"I am cold", it's not ongoing. If I turn up the furnace, I can say, "I am warm".
But if I think of what I "be", I'm thinking of my being, of what is enduring, what is at the bottom or the ground of my existence.
What I am trying to get at is whether "what I be" at the ground of my being is substantial enough to form a basis of happiness that is not dependent upon feeling happy, or, really, dependent upon feeling at all, but is deeper than feeling, more sustainable than feeling, and more durable than feeling.
Can I trust in the strength of the ground of my being (what I "be") for contentment, for confidence, for being at peace, that is, for happiness, even if I feel lousy, disappointed, sad, depressed, or frustrated?
One of the most sustaining realities at the ground of my being is the length, breadth, and depth of my friendships.
In just the last three weeks, I traveled to Gladstone, OR and then to Albany, OR to spend time with Terry Turner and Jim Byrd in Gladstone and then Terry Turner and Mike Stafford in Albany. Terry lives in Gladstone. Jim lives in Coeur d'Alene, but comes to West Linn every few months to visit his son. Mike lives in Yakima and came to Albany, as did Terry, for the Northwest Fly Tying and Fly Fishing Expo.
I've known Mike Stafford for as long as I have memory. We lived in the same neighborhood in the East Portland/Market St. part of town before I went to kindergarten and used to play together. I've know Terry since Farm League baseball days when I was eight years old and I've known Jim since I was about nine and he was a member of the Union Legion Lanes Little League team.
In other words, the ties that bind our friendships go back fifty years and more and when I am with them I experience the trust, confidence, reassurance, and connection that comes with shared history that strengthens me. It's not based on feeling. It's based on strength, a strength built on longevity, shared experience (fun, painful, joyous, disappointing).
We share a deep past, but we don't live in the past. Nonetheless, as we tell stories and sort things out from the past, it's a source of affection, it's the sharing of stories we were a part of together, and we realize what brought us to where we are today.
These friendships and many more like them, with other fellow Kellogg High School mates, with friends from college, both NIC and Whitworth, with friends I made at the U of O, some of whom I still teach with today, and with friends I've made at church and in my work at LCC, all contribute to the ground of my being and contribute to my sense of sustained happiness.
It's hard to measure the strength of what I be. I don't know what's stronger or strongest.
But, I know that my being is grounded in family. I used to think, when I said this, that I meant my immediate family, my mother, deceased father, and sisters. But, now the strength I experience at the ground of my being because of family includes my West/Baugh cousins (first, second, and third) and includes, more strongly than ever, the Deke, her adult children, our grandchildren, and members of the Deke's extended family.
I never dreamed I would know such breadth and depth in family life.
Years ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would do all I could to never let anything having to do with politics or possessions or spiritual practice anything else come between me and my love for and fellowship with family members.
I might have made this commitment around the time my dad started getting pretty sick, maybe earlier. I know I made it as I was entering my forties and became increasingly aware of people who didn't speak to their parents or had had a falling out with a sibling. Most often, these divisions occurred over possessions or property, often in the aftermath of a death in the family.
I saw this very kind of division occur with family members in my extended family. When I married the Deke, she had stories about such occurrences in her extended family.
I couldn't stand the thought of being alienated from my mother, sisters, or any of my cousins over petty things like possessions or differing political perspectives.
In time, and this had little to do with the commitment I made to myself, we family members began to seek each other out more. My sisters and I began to share writing assignments and got to know each other better. This way of being together grew into what we call Sibling Outings, times when the three of us go on a day trip or overnight, with only the three of us and take pictures, eat, drink, laugh, tell stories, and have fun.
Two family reunions among the members of the Baugh/West clan got organized. It sounds like another might be in the works.
It's not political agreement that binds us together. It's not the ways we worship alike or understand ourselves spiritually. It's not our shared interests, not playing around with the possessions we love in common. If these things were the basis of our strength as a family, we'd fall out.
It's what we've been through together, even when we weren't in the same place. We come from the ranch. We've suffered the loss of our matriarchs. We love the Clearwater River. We have stories, and even though we weren't in the same place when they happened, they overlap, and we laugh.
And we learned decency. We learned it through what we were taught. We learned it through our failures, sometimes because of the company we kept that wasn't so decent. We learn it from each other as we work out the challenges of our aging mothers and of our own aging.
Increasingly, as the family I married into matures and as my marriage to the Deke ages, I have experienced great strength in our family, too. We have all been together now for over fifteen years, long enough to have developed our own stories and to have been faced with a number of traumatic and grievous family events. I had meningitis. Molly got burned. David died. There's divorce underway. There's illness among us. The stories are fun and the mutual respect that developed from how we've faced the difficulties have strengthened this family, brought us to deeper love for each other, and makes the ground of my being all the more solid.
I have more to write about sustained happiness and the ground of my being. I think I'll add Part 3!