Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L. Glass - September 2022
“None but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley
Conflict, stress, anxiety, upset, struggle. Such pervasive, perhaps even growing, signs of our times. I get that “stuff happens” in life. But I’m not a big fan of the “that’s just the way life is” story usually offered up in response. Living that story is a choice you make, not something that happens to you; and it serves only to keep you stuck in the struggle. That might be OK if your highest priority is to prove your life is difficult, but it’s not the path I choose.
Life is filled with ups and downs. Whether it be moments, days or weeks, that’s the way life is. Life is like the tides – natural ups and downs. In fact, ups wouldn’t even exist without downs. No high tide without low tide; not even tides, just ocean! Imagine, then, for just a moment, a flat-liner life. No thank you.
But that’s not how we see it. Even if unconsciously, we can’t accept the way life is. We want to hold onto the ups and deny/avoid/get rid of the downs. In this habituated reaction, however, we miss two points: 1) it’s illusion to think we can control life’s ups and downs. 2) we label ups as “good” and downs as “bad.” Together, these cause us to judge life rather than accept it. Bad means wrong … which means it needs fixing … which causes desire (wanting something other than what’s true in this moment) … which creates suffering. So we suffer, not because of the “bad day,” but because of the desire. Desire leaves us perpetually dissatisfied, because what then drives us is the never-ending energy of wanting (wanting more “good,” less “bad”). Worse, we made up the desire in our heads (yet don’t realize we did so). This is a key concept in Buddhist philosophy. It seems we even believe (or act as if we believe) that if we stay right here, in the midst of the struggle, and fight it to the ground, we will somehow win against the mortal foe. Not so.
The drama we create here gives the mind something to do, but trapped in, and by, this story, we miss altogether the possibility this impossible situation may hold. By misidentifying the enemy as the down instead of our dislike of it, we fail to see how “bad times” can be signals rather than problems – trying to tell us something we need to learn … often about ourselves and our ways of seeing. Perhaps painfully at times, I’ve learned that when a “bad time” pushes me off center, it reminds me of where center is. It’s as if life comes with an “early warning system,” designed to let me know when I’m at risk of losing myself … to life, to its situations, even to other people. Amazing!
Bad days shake you out of unconscious living and bring you into this present moment. In doing so, they invite you to stop, to look, to listen, and to consciously examine what your life is really about. Bad days remind you to be alive … by offering windows into what’s possible, what matters, why you’re here, who you are. When you just try to restore what you already know instead, you miss all that! Sure, you may feel better in the short term, but you could wake up at age 80 wondering where life went. I don’t want to wonder stuff like that. I want to know I chose my way consciously. I want to know I didn’t miss so much – “good” or “bad.” I would rather feel used up than stressed out. Besides, “bad days” simply go away when you start to see life with greater clarity and awareness.
Experience has left me with the view that life is meant to be an exploration into the possible, fueled by innate curiosity, wonder, creative genius, learning and growing – in ways unique to each of us, evoking our own authentic source of meaning and joy. The “more negative” of my critics see my view as pure fantasy. The “more positive” believe the potential is there but may have lost hope of it becoming so. Either way, the potential is there.
Those who experience true happiness are those who fully experience life’s ups and downs – feel the feelings that are part of the “both-ness” of life, then allow the feelings to flow through them, offer their messages, and depart. In this way, they remain resilient – independent of life’s natural ups and downs. They enjoy the ride on life’s waves, releasing judgment of the ups and downs that make up the path. It’s this non-attachment that allows them to choose to be happy (which is different from “up”) … perhaps “happy for no reason.”
Exercise: Toward personal clarity. How do you define “good” day? “bad” day? What assumptions do you make that a day needs somehow to be “good?” Do the actions you take on “bad” days truly restore “good?” These are not trivial questions. In general, we skip over them because we’ve been lulled into a conditioned response to seek pleasure and avoid pain … so we put our energy into “fixing” instead of into inquiry and awareness.
If you get tossed off-center today, it’s likely because you unconsciously give priority to the incessant yammering of all the “shoulds” in your head (life should … you should … I should …), and your personal clarity suffers. The unconscious mind loves this, because its job is to keep you safe, and yesterday feels safer than tomorrow. Yet your true self wants different for you. It wants to stand at the edge of the canyon and scream “yes!” to life, letting the chips fall where they may … as you honor your inner truth. What to do? You don’t need to know more or try harder to change this (you are neither stupid nor lazy). What it takes to shift this imbalance is awareness, so you come to see the world, and yourself, more clearly and objectively. Practicing conscious awareness of “what is” creates openings into life’s limitless potential: (1) it calms and de-clutters the mind, so new ideas can rush in; (2) it brings you into the present, the only place where life happens (life’s drama, fueled by shoulds, leaves you stuck in either the past or the future); (3) it builds self-trust, which allows you to handle reality with ease and grace. As a practice for building clarity, sit quietly for 20 minutes, twice each day. Just notice; nothing more, nothing less. Notice your surroundings, as they are. Notice your thoughts, as they are. Notice your judgments of these things, as they are. Notice, too, that seeing things as they are is not the same as agreeing with them. At the end of 20 minutes, notice how you feel. By the way, until you’ve experienced the results of this practice, your unconscious mind will tell you it’s a waste of time and energy to do it! It’s up to you, and only you, whether you listen to that voice ... or override it with your ability to choose consciously.
Life Lessons from Nature: Nature’s way is a way of rhythms. Rhythms and cycles serve to renew and refresh. Whether it’s tides, seasons, birth and death, day and night, dearth and abundance, volcanic flows or tectonic plate motion, ebb and flow frame all of nature’s amazing creative processes. Few, if any, of her “results” last forever, yet the process that creates them is sustained. Meaning is found in the nature of the pattern itself, not in the events that comprise it. Perhaps we might learn from nature to stop trying so hard to control the outcomes, and instead put our precious energy into the creativity that produces them. You might ask yourself a few questions: Do you greet life’s natural cycles with acceptance and learning, or with resistance? For each event in these cycles, can you discover the pattern to which the event belongs? Where are the edges of patterns you accept with grace, compared to ones you fight? What changes would allow you to become more accepting of patterns, large and small?
Book of the month: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. A beautiful conversation between two remarkable men, known for their love, joy, compassion and humor, along with [and perhaps despite, or maybe even because of] lives of extreme hardship. Filled with wisdom and emotion … and practices to create a life of joy that is independent of circumstances. If you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.