A few weeks ago, I visited my grandmother who lives in Stockholm. In Sweden, people call their grandmothers by two different names: farmor, which means father’s mother, or mormor, which means mother’s mother. Because I am speaking of my father’s mother, to me she has always been called ‘Farmor’. In fact, because I grew up in Switzerland, all of my friends also call her Farmor, and many of them think that this is her actual name. But like most people, Farmor has many names. To her parents, her siblings and her friends, she is usually known as Eivor. To her son, she is Morshan (mum), and to his children, my sister and I, and all of our friends, she is called Farmor. These are but a few of the names she has been called throughout her life.
Reflecting on this, we can begin to understand what Shakespeare had in mind when his character named Juliet said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. We often wonder who we are, and tend to take our names and our titles very seriously. And yet, by the time we are Farmor’s age, we have been called by many names! This to me is a perfect illustration of the Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence. Once, Farmor was Eivor, a young girl who enjoyed playing and running with her siblings in the Swedish countryside. And now, to me she is Farmor, an elderly and wise lady who sits by the fire quietly and peacefully. And one day, if I were to live in Sweden, perhaps my grandchildren would know me as Farmor, and all of their friends would then know me by this name without realizing that this is but one name and one part of me. So as we can see, throughout our lives, we take on many identifying names in various forms. And yet, as Farmor has shown me, there is always something still and peaceful beneath all this chaos: our being.
Indeed, visiting Farmor gave me the opportunity to practice some of the Buddha’s other teachings, such as mindfulness. Farmor’s days are very simple – she takes her time doing things and revelling in simply being. One day, as we were slowly making our way down to the underground system, a train arrived and many people started rushing down the stairs. Farmor continued on calmly, but as our eyes met, she said very reasonably: ‘I do not understand why they are all rushing, there will be another train in two minutes’. I had to laugh looking at everyone scrambling into the train before the doors closed, very stressed and irritated with each other. After all, Farmor was right: is it really worth putting ourselves through all that stress for just an extra few minutes? Perhaps a couple of these people really were in a hurry, which is certainly understandable. But I suspect that to the majority, arriving two minutes later at their destination, would actually be of little significance. And, as Farmor predicted, another train arrived very soon, and I was pleased to be stepping into it calmly and mindfully.
After all, life is the journey itself, not the destination. It is therefore very important to take the time to stop and experience our existence, instead of living in what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the autopilot mode. Farmor reminded me of this daily, even when I was performing simple tasks such as setting the table. She was often amazed that in the three seconds in which she had turned her back, the table was already set. And when she told me this, I realized that I hardly remembered doing the task at all! How many parts of my life happen this way, without me even being present as they are taking place? And how much more fulfilling would it be to take more time in doing these things, enjoying them with my entire being, instead of treating life like a long list of tasks that need to be done. This is a lesson that many elderly people have learned; and we are very lucky that they can share their wisdom with us, so that we may live our lives more fully, instead of going through life as if in a dream.
As do the truly wise, Farmor also has the gift to recognise wisdom in others. She told me a story about my younger sister, who, when she was little, asked an interesting question to my Dad. We were all in the car and she said: ‘Daddy, is Switzerland a big country?’. Given the fact that it is one of the smallest countries in the world, my father replied that it was not. After having driven for about an hour, my sister asked: ‘Daddy, are we still in Switzerland?’. When he answered that yes, we were, she said simply: ‘ah, you see Switzerland is a big country’. After all, isn’t it all relative? As adults we tend to take things for granted, and having been told that Switzerland is small, we see it as such. But to my sister, who was very little at the time, the world and its many facets seemed like a vast and amazing place, filled with new things to discover.
It is very important to keep in mind the fact that our existence is relative. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that as human beings we are scared, because we know that one day we will return to a speck of dust; and this seems like an insignificant existence to many of us. And yet, to the sun, our own existence would seem minute and very fleeting. That is why it is important to fully experience every moment of our lives, no matter how insignificant it may appear. If we live life in a mindful way, we will bring much happiness to ourselves and to those whom we love. And because of this, we will never need to fear becoming a speck of dust, for we will know that in each child there is a farmor, and that in each farmor there is a child. In this way, our loved ones and we will always live on in each other.