It was over my morning cup of coffee today that it occurred to me that as much as I like to think of myself as a spontaneous and free spirit, there are realms in which I am very much wedded to my habits. The coffee itself is a case in point. If there has been a day in the past decade that I didn’t begin the day with ‘the black water medicine’ I can’t recall it. I can stumble out of bed, dreams still clinging, barely awake, and make my way, eyes closed if I wanted, and find the drawer with the filters, the cabinet with the ground beans, the bottled water dispenser, the electric pot… each in a different place, and complete the morning ritual. At about 6AM everyday, you will always know just where to find me.
And so it was with the philosophy students and the beggar. Each day, a certain beggar would cross the bridge into the university district, and occupy his customary spot, propped up against the wall next to the coffee shop. Tin cup in hand, he would bless those who offered him a coin or two. At precisely 3PM, he would rise, proceed to the corner grocery for the makings of a simple meal, and walk back across the bridge to his humble home.
It happened that that he became an object of curiosity and discussion for the students, who at the time were engrossed in a heated back and forth about the nature of constancy and change. “It is clear the everything changes, and yet, it appears that for some, nothing changes at all. Take the beggar for example. Day after day, year after year, no matter the weather, there he is, at the same place at the same time.”
They wondered if it might be possible to disrupt the constancy of the beggar by drastically changing his circumstances. To this end, they found a way to put the proposition to a test. Each of the students contributed a gold coin, and this small treasure was deposited in a brightly colored small chest. Just before the beggar passed by the next day, one of their party, placed the open chest with gleaming gold on the bridge where the beggar could not possibly miss it.
Remarkably though, the beggar did not pause, nor slow, nor show the slightest interest in this treasure that would have substituted for a years gleaning from his battered cup. He continued on his way, then took his place by the coffee shop just as he did every other day.
A fierce debate now ensued about the beggars state of mind, his convictions, intentions,the vagaries of existence, the persistence of habit, and other associated matters of more or less great depth. But by the end of a long evening, they could agree on very little, other than that it might be best to ask the beggar himself about his experience earlier that day.
The following day they gathered outside the coffee house to question him. “ We often walk the same path across the bridge, and were wondering if you noticed anything unusual yesterday morning?”
“It’s so interesting that you would ask,” the beggar replied. “No, I did not see anything different or unusual at all. But then I actually didn’t see anything usual or unusual. This morning, just before I crossed the bridge, a curious thought came to me. What a creature of habit I am! Everyday it’s the same thing. Day after day after day! So yesterday, I wondered, just for a change, just for fun what life would be like if I was blind. So I walked across the bridge with my eyes closed. Blessings to you, young men. May your studies serve you well!”
(I’ve adapted this tale from a wonderful collection called Walking into the Sun, Stories My Grandfather Told, Collected by Jon Schreiber, California Health Publications, 1991)
I took my coffee out to the back porch. It’s the time of year now that the hummingbirds predictably return southward from their earlier spring migration. I closed my eyes, Suddenly the close buzz and whoosh of tiny wings woke me once again to the moment.