Purposeful Wanderings – Bradford L. Glass – April 2022
“To pay attention. That is our endless and proper work.” – Mary Oliver
My upbringing was intended to prepare me for real life. It didn’t. The lessons were so consistent – across family, school, friends, media – that I believed them: master a bunch of facts, develop skills, work hard, avoid mistakes, achieve, value social acceptance over inner truth, trust others over self. I may have been prepared for one thing – perhaps to see life as a “struggle of the fittest” – but real life wasn’t a world of one thing; real life needed me prepared for anything. It was a world my preparing couldn’t even ask me to imagine – complex, uncertain and unknown – a world that changed faster than my ability to keep up. This world was asking me to master a set of capacities, not a bunch of facts and skills. It invited me to be mindful of how I approached life, and to not fixate so much on the outcomes. It invited me to look at who I was being, not what I was doing. I see these capacities as being of two varieties: presence-based and action-based:
Presence-based capacities allow us to hone trust – in ourselves, in others, in life … amidst life’s uncertainty:
awareness, of what is true, now; of who we’re being, now; (vs. living from what we think “should” be true);
patience, to wait for opportunity as it arises, and to allow the impact of our choices to manifest (vs. forcing our [often-unconscious] agenda on today’s issues);
acceptance, to realize that we’re all the same, just in different ways … different, but not necessarily wrong; and that understanding someone else is not the same as agreeing with them;
courage, to open our heads and hearts to learning rather than judgment whenever we get to the edge of what we know; to be persistent with our commitment to truth in the face of judgment, criticism and uncertainty;
resilience, to see life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks as teachers, not as signs of failure; to devote our life’s energy to expressing our personal passion and truth, while not attaching to the results;
trust, to know that, even though life is uncertain, we have what it takes to respond with confidence;
Action-based capacities allow us to bring ourselves and our gifts into the world effectively:
critical thinking – the tenacity to ponder the nature of truth, ask life’s tough questions, be objectively open to new answers, to know the difference between evidence and belief, and to tap the innate creativity needed to solve insanely complex problems … along with the will to stand strong in the aloneness the search often creates;
effective communication – the commitment to listen, speak and relate to others with dialogue and with mutual respect – where no one is excluded or judged, and where everyone learns and grows;
collaboration – the compassion to relate to and connect with others (and self) with acceptance, reciprocity and oneness; to be with the emotional reality of others, so as to hold the polarities of a subjective world.
While facts and skills can be tough to master, capacities are innate. We knew them well as children – curiosity, wonder, possibility – yet we traded them away when we adopted the thinking of others (to be a “prepared adult”). How twisted. Although the unconscious, habituated and rules-based thinking of our command-and-control world may say it’s a waste of time, it may serve us better to nurture these capacities back to life, back to the core of who we are. We can do this through regular practice of self-reflection aimed at continually regenerating oneself around these capacities.
We may have been taught that seeing life as a struggle offers a valid coping strategy for its inherent uncertainty, yet to see life as an invitation instead asks for our biggest dreams, unbridled curiosity and creative genius … a way to approach life’s uncertainty with intention and self-trust (not control and fear) … so we can enjoy the ride and the outcomes. The path ahead depends on which voice you choose to hear – “theirs” or your own. By the way, it’s never too late in life to do this.
Exercise: Without critical thinking, we’re easy prey for those who want to manipulate us. Without self-trust, we tend to believe falsehoods and blindly follow others more than when we do trust ourselves. (Without an inner compass, we’re lost anyway; any direction will do.) Nurturing capacities noted above opens you to the courage to ask big questions, and to not shy away from life’s uncertainty. Try some of these out in your everyday life, perhaps starting with “simple” issues, only then moving on to what you see in the news, or pondering life’s big challenges (health, education, environment, etc.) A few questions: How do you know what you know? By what inner process did you come to know it? (Evidence, experiment, intuition, faith, etc.) What alternatives to this truth might you have considered along the way? If you don’t know your truth, is it because you tried to find it and came up empty, or because you refused to look? And for each: Does this feel right? Does it make sense? Am I willing to ask one more question before I move on? Lastly, try to see this same topic from the perspective of someone who disagrees with “your truth.” How might their thinking have brought them to their position? As you ask these questions each day, expand into more and greater aspects of yourself, life and world. Embracing the unknown with conscious awareness is a far more effective strategy than fighting the unknown unconsciously.
Personal transformation is more like tending a garden than it is like building a house. When you plant a garden, you don’t “make roses grow.” You create conditions that allow roses to grow; roses seem to grow quite well on their own. Similarly, you don’t “make yourself change.” You create conditions conducive to change; changes then happen naturally, easily, on their own, when conditions are right. The way you nurture such conditions is through practice – of allowing your innate capacities (not old skills, rules, assumptions and lessons) to guide your life. By being open to opportunity, the power of creative genius becomes far more effective than command-and-control.
Life Lessons from Nature: Everywhere in nature, we see examples of capacities meeting uncertainty. If you step back and look, it’s actually “how nature works.” Nature’s hunters offer clear and compelling evidence. An example: polar bears are the Arctic’s ultimate predator. Almost 100% of their diet is seals, which they catch either on the sea ice or from holes in the ice where seals come up to breathe. If a polar bear adopted our common strategy of skills/effort/force, it would either sit at one breathing hole forever, stamping its feet, hoping for a seal to surface (thereby scaring it away), or worse, swim down and find one (which always nets zero, as seals are masters at swimming). Instinct (capacities meeting uncertainty) tells them to do otherwise. With no assurance whatsoever their search will be successful, they use, and rely on, the same capacities noted in the article above – awareness, patience, courage, resilience, trust. Not every search is successful … but they are … successful. Big difference.
Book of the month: Wabi Sabi: The Wisdom in Imperfection, by Nubuo Suzuki. A wonderful little book about an ancient Japanese concept, a concept turned into a way of living. Wabi sabi is acceptance that everything in life is imperfect, temporary. It’s just the way life is – reality. Only our desire to make things certain and permanent, combined with the futile effort it gives rise to, causes us such stress. There’s no one right answer or one right way or one right result; everything is just as it is. Yes, we may aspire to something greater, yet by being unwilling to accept things as they are, now, we create the stress we so often suffer and complain about in our lives. A favorite line: Ambiguity is beautiful; it leaves the door open to possibilities. If you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.