So things were starting to get tough. The constant searching, the hope and dashing of hopes, the feeling that what I had expected was not coming to fruition… it all started to get to me. I wasn’t my happiest.
Enter Helen… my best friend since college. We’ve lived together, traveled together, and gone in and out of touch in various ways over the last seven years. Recently, she was in town after finishing a 40-day silent meditation retreat, and was able to come stay with us for a few days.
It was perfect timing, because I was able to open up and talk about some of the feelings I’d been having… some of the difficulties finding ways to approach my current situation. I had started to explore some ideas from Deepak Chopra a few months ago: being mindful of your body, finding true self-esteem separate from the outside world, giving up being right, and focusing on the present. I’ll talk about those in another post, I think. But Helen had been studying many of those same ideas (many of which are Buddhist in origin) in her retreat, and she was able to offer a slightly different perspective on them, which helped me really understand them. Some of them are difficult ideas, and she had some metaphors that really helped me.
One of the key ideas we discussed is that we’re not in control of our lives, yet we spend a LOT of energy trying to be. As Sharon Salzberg puts it,”The basis of the Buddha’s psychological teaching is that our efforts to control what is inherently uncontrollable cannot yield the security, safety, and happiness we seek.” But, usually, that doesn’t stop us from trying. When things are bad, we worry about how bad it is; when we’re in a happy moment, we grasp it tight, fearful that it will leave. I like how Salzberg says it: “The unrelenting flux of life’s changing conditions is inevitable, yet we labor to hold on to pleasure, and we labor equally hard to avoid pain.”
So? Shouldn’t we push away that which is bad, and clutch tightly to that which brings happiness? Helen had an image that really helped me with this idea. Think of holding something good in your open palm. A happy moment, for example. If you close your palm and hold that good moment tightly, you’re spending negative energy trying to get the happiness to stay… you can’t fully experience the goodness. Similarly, if something bad has happened, most of us spend energy being sad that we’re sad, or worrying about our worrying, and thus end up just adding negative energy to something that is already bad. If instead you can just BE with that bad thing… observing how it makes you feel, and working to accept it without trying to change it… it tends to be easier to be at peace with that thing.
So, one way to feel peaceful over the long term is to understand that good and bad things will come and go. One more quote from Salzberg… stick with me here: “Everything in life changes. The path to true happiness is one of integrating and fully accepting all aspects of our experience.” If you think of the (albeit trite from pop culture overuse) yin and yang, you get a good visual image of how to do this. “Even in the depths of darkness, the light is implicit. Even in the heart of light, the dark is understood, acknowledged, and absorbed. If things are not going well for us in life and we are suffering, we are not defeated by the pain or closed off to the light. If things are going well and we are happy, we are not defensively trying to deny the possibility of suffering. This unity, this integration, comes from deeply accepting darkness and light, and therefore being able to be in both simultaneously.”
This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t work to make change in the world. I’ll keep working for environmental justice my whole life, I hope. But what we’re talking about here are the things you CAN’T change… a death, an injury, a loss of job, how someone around you acts. It’s the whole “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” idea.
So, anyway, this feels like just the tip of the iceberg as I try to write about it, but I wanted to start sharing these ideas, because they have really produced a noticeable shift in my life. I feel like I’ve entered a whole new phase. My way of approaching everything has changed, and it feels awesome. I’ll try to talk more about it in a post not too distant in the future.