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THE RED BALLOON: A STUDY IN MINDFULNESSDocument Transcript
THE RED BALLOON: A STUDY IN MINDFULNESS By Dr Ian Ellis-JonesWhen I was about 5 or 6 I was given a delightful book entitled The RedBalloon. A photo of the cover of my, by now well-read and well-worn, copy ofthe book is pictured below. The book, which tells the story of a young boyand his best friend---a bright red balloon which appears to have a life all ofits own---has become a modern day childrens classic since it was firstpublished in Paris in 1956 (in French, as Le ballon rouge). 1
The book contains the most wonderful photos of 1950s Paris---and a mostwhimsical story. Later, I saw the film on which the book was based and fromwhich the photographs in the book (stills from the film, directed by AlbertLamorisse) had been taken. I have loved the book and the film ever since. Asa kid I would spend literally hours just looking, again and again, at thephotos of the street scenes of the Ménilmontant section of Paris where muchof the film was shot. I was simply transfixed by the cobblestones, the narrowalleys, the long flights of stairs, the dilapidated but still formidable oldbuildings 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 thefilm again. (I have seen it countless times over the years.) The film sobeautifully captures both the innocence of childhood as well as our innatepotential for cruelty.So much has been written over the years about the book and the film. Forsome, the red balloon represents the reincarnating ego or, at the very least,the human soul---and its immortality or indestructibility. Certainly, thewaste ground where the final battle takes place has a Golgotha-like feelabout it, including a resurrection and ascension of sorts which follows thedestruction of the red balloon. That (last) part of the film always reduces meto tears---every time I watch it.Yes, when we die to self---as well as the past---from moment to moment weare born anew, and we discover a whole new life. Its called living mindfully.Pascal, the young boy in the film (played by the director’s son PascalLamorisse), is a living study in mindfulness and mindful living. Even hisinitial discovery of the red balloon---he spots it before we, the audience, areprivileged to see it---is the result of choiceless awareness and bare attention.His every movement and action is deliberate and purposeful, and he remains 2
‘awake’ at all times. His responses to changing circumstances---even whenfaced with threats and open hostility---is appropriate and proportionate.Children are much better at living mindfully than adults. That is undeniablythe case. Perhaps the main reason that is the case is this---the process ofgrowing 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 thinkand act spontaneously in a free, unfettered and unconditioned manner.We---that is, all of us---need to undergo a radical transformation. We need tototally de-condition ourselves. Indeed, we need to let go of all ourconditioned thinking---including all inculcated beliefs and ideas about howlife ‘should’ be or supposedly is. You see, unless and until we start to livemindfully, we shall never attain enlightenment. 3
Living mindfully is living non-mechanically. In order to do that, we mustdispense with all so-called methods and techniques, for the (hopefully)obvious reason that methods and techniques are nothing more than tools bywhich some people programme others.Heres a Zen story I like. A disciple says to the Master, I have been fourmonths with you, and you have still given me no method or technique. TheMaster says, A method? What on earth would you want a method for? Thedisciple says, To attain inner freedom. The Master roars with laughter, andthen says, You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of thetrap called a method. So, my friends, please forget all about methods andtechniques. You dont need them. Indeed, they will never---I repeat, never---bring you freedom or enlightenment. Just wake up---and stay awake. Thatsall that is required.Now, rest assured that mindfulness is not a method or technique as thosewords are ordinarily understood. Mindful living is living naturally---that is,spontaneously, and without programming (whether by self or others) of anysort. Mindless living is living artificially---that is, in a conditioned,programmed and mechanical fashion. Whenever we are trying to conform tothe beliefs or expectations of others, we are living mindlessly.So, what are we to do? Well, we need to become more like children---in thesense 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 likelittle children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3) [NIV]. AsI see it, those who live mindfully have entered and dwell in the kingdom ofheaven---especially if they also exercise loving kindness and compassion.Here’s another thing I derive from The Red Balloon. What is ours by right ofconsciousness (that is, the fruits of our mindfulness practice) can never betaken away or destroyed---at least not for so long as we are alive---providedwe live, and continue to live, mindfully and also exercise loving kindness andcompassion. Yes, nothing is permanent, and everything is constantlychanging its form, but that which we attain as a result of living mindfully 4
and lovingly can never be taken away from us. We ourselves can, of course,forfeit or lose what is rightfully ours by inattention, carelessness andmindless or selfish living---but not otherwise. 5