Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L. Glass - January 2024
“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” – Anaïs Nin
No matter where life’s path led me this past month, I encountered reminders of how powerfully the idea of “life as a struggle” impacts us. I’ve written a lot about this topic, exposing a consistent, cause-and-effect relationship at work underneath the struggle: Summarized, here’s what’s happening:
1) Life is a struggle because we learned it’s a struggle: work hard, get things right, life “should” be like this, there isn’t enough, we aren’t enough, follow the rules, strive, achieve. With these harsh lessons firmly embedded in our minds as truth, we unknowingly live them out each day … thereby making life a struggle. It’s as if we’re “behaving old lessons into being!” but it’s the only reality we know, so we can’t imagine a reason to question it. So we don’t.
2) All the while, life is a perfect reflection of our thoughts … even thoughts we don’t know we’re having! Worse, the thoughts we “miss” aren’t even our own, but someone else’s (all those we’ve listened to from early in life). So we keep letting our “thoughts” push us, unaware we’re lost in an illusion … of our own making. We’d even swear this isn’t true, either.
3) Why is this so? Because the cause of our struggle (old lessons) and its effect (the struggle itself) are separated in time by 10, 20, or maybe 30 years … so we entirely miss the connection between the two. But it’s still true.
I want to suggest a path beyond the struggle life may have become. Stop for a moment, step back, and imagine what life might be like if – way back then – you’d instead learned two lessons: (1) you are a being of limitless potential, (2) life is a grand adventure into that potential. In this world, curiosity is your guide, the answers you seek live inside you, you have all it takes, and you just need to listen, learn, follow your heart. What if?
To take it a step further, what if life were more of a game than a fight? A game you “play” by being your unique potential, a game about letting go of old thoughts that rob you of that potential, a game where you make up your own rules rather than trying so damned hard to live someone else’s. I first heard this idea from coach Dave Buck, and back then, it sounded fun, intriguing, frivolous and scary … all at the same time. But as I learn more about how our mind keeps recycling old thoughts (perhaps to give it something to feel important about), this game idea felt like a way I could take life more seriously (the game I choose to play is for real) while not taking myself so seriously (my unconscious thoughts are messing with me). A bit odd, perhaps, but taking myself less seriously freed me to explore life more deeply, which also enhanced self-trust … which freed me for even more!
What’s the unique-to-you inner truth that continually draws you … even if you don’t yet “go there”? (See exercise for a process to discover this … the clue to your own personal game.) It’s your greatest potential, your gift to offer the world. What if the life game you chose were to be the very best there is at being that gift? Not only would you discover that you matter, but that you’re already “enough,” that you have what it takes, that no one can stop you, that you can yes to what matters and no to what doesn’t, that life truly is an adventure, and that all you need to do is to practice being the best you you can be. (How great would your life be if you just did these things?) As you “listen” to what happens with each step, life’s natural feedback will guide you (and help you learn “what is so”) … the next steps in the adventure. Life becomes a possibility to live into, not an expectation to live up to. You will never know what comes next, yet you will unequivocally trust yourself to create it.
Your “life work” is to practice being your best; that’s it. Life is your practice. Practice is your life. You practice by doing what matters to you, doing your best, loving to learn, enjoying the challenge – regardless of conditions in the external world, and regardless of the win/loss record. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about continuing to improve. And lastly, you can have fun playing. You’re going to win some and lose some (just like any game, any life). That’s why you chose a game you love – because it’s your love that sustains you when the losses don’t.
Exercise: Discovering your personal truth. Name distinct phases in your life (perhaps childhood, school, jobs, relationships, family, transitions). Overlap is OK. Look inside each phase, independent of the others; ask yourself: Who was I always being? What was I always drawn to? What did I do or be whether I gained approval or not? What did I imagine or wonder? After you’ve done this for each aspect of your life, go back to your lists and find common threads across lists. These are clues to “the real you,” the you you may have lost in all of life’s pressure to conform. When you discover what you can’t not be/do, you find that piece of yourself that is so naturally you that you might not have previously recognized it as your own unique, deepest essence (soul, purpose), your gift to offer the world.
Life Lessons from Nature: A polar bear’s diet consists almost exclusively of seals, which they hunt from cracks and breathing holes in the sea ice on Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. When the ice melts each spring, bears are stranded on land until it freezes again, usually the beginning of November. For 4 - 5 months, they don’t eat. So by the end of October, they get a bit hungry. For over 15 years, I led nature tours to experience these creatures in their wilderness home. I was always awed by how creative polar bears could be, stranded as they are without food. Tides here run about 20 feet, and coupled with flat topography, a low tide can expose up to half mile of land, covering it again 6 hours later. Seals often sun themselves on rocks exposed above the surface, and head back to sea as the tide ebbs. I once watched as a female bear and her two young cubs sat motionless on shore for nearly three hours, staring attentively at a basking seal … aware the tide was going out, aware that the seal wasn’t. A polar bear is no match for a seal in the water, but a seal is no match for a bear out of the water. When the tide had ebbed “just enough,” the bear leaped into action, heading for the seal at a dead run (which, for a polar bear, can be 45mph on land). It wasn’t long before the hapless seal realized the cost of its lapse in awareness. Too late; an early feast for the bear and her cubs. New possibility.
Polar bears are hunters; it’s their essence. They can’t not be that. So with no assurance whatsoever her wait would pay off, she nevertheless put into her day all it means to be successful in nature – patience, to wait for possibility; awareness, to notice when it shows up; acceptance, that things will turn out however they do; and trust, in her own power to thrive in this unforgiving land. She could never have known ahead of time how it might go. I suspect she wins some and loses some (perhaps loses many). Yet in all my years with these creatures, I never saw a bear hunt this way. Reward went to one willing to put more into it, clueless (then) as to what might come out of it. And in the process, a new generation of offspring now “knows” the power of creative genius.
Book of the month: On the Brink of Everything, by Parker Palmer. I’ve recommended this book before, and likely will again. It’s perhaps my all-time favorite book in terms of the impact it’s had on my “way of being in the world.” In its exploration of life’s meaning and potential, I found myself in tears and smiling, both at the same time. Said to be about wisdom and perspective we often associate with aging, it’s truly about wisdom which, if “discovered” sooner, could allow us to live happier, more meaningful, less stressful lives. “Once I understand that I am not the sun, I can get out of the sun’s way and stop casting a shadow. I can step aside to let the true sun shine on everyone and everything.” … And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.