Shadows on the wall

Treasure - Joseph Campbell

I came across this quote from Joseph Campbell a while ago and it struck me immediately. Yes! Of course. Life is hard. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

If you’re having a hard time, you’re not doing it wrong. It’s hard for everyone, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Most importantly, you’re ready for it, even if you don’t know it yet.

Humans are equipped for difficulty. We are outfitted for adversity by design with our big creative brains. We are hard-wired for problem-solving. We have the ability to think about the past, the present and the future; to remember and to anticipate. We can visualize our place in time and space.

We can control our thoughts. We can learn from mistakes. We are able to empathize with other creatures – to think beyond ourselves and our own needs. We can anticipate and avoid danger, and this has helped us survive as a species.

Somehow, however, we have become so averse to experiencing hardship and it’s accompanying emotional pain that we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not supposed to happen. Worse, we believe that there’s something we can do or something we shouldn’t do, that will ensure a carefree life.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy!

But here’s the reality: That’s not the way life is, and it’s not how it is meant to be. It just is what it is. Up and down, good and bad. There’s nothing you can do, or anything you can stop doing to ensure a smooth journey through a joyous life. You can’t avoid experiencing the bad stuff. Full stop.

Every being on this planet experiences hardship.

Sadly, though, you can avoid dealing¬†with the pain of those experiences and that’s what’s getting us in trouble now. Our big brains have solved the “life hurts” problem in the short term with all sorts of distractions – food, drugs, sex, social media – it doesn’t really matter what the distraction is as long as it pings the pleasure centers in our big brains, and gets those magic endorphins swimming around in there.

I say in the short term, because typically you can only employ these methods for a relatively brief time before they start contributing to the “life hurts” problem more than solving it, and that’s only if your distraction doesn’t kill you and/or something in your life that matters to you.

Honestly, our happy shiny/everything’s fine/I’m okay you’re okay/skating on the surface/ first world existence is killing us and the planet. Everything is not okay, and our belief that if we’re not “happy” all the time, and doing everything “perfectly” according to society’s whims we’re doing something wrong, is sad, dangerous, and just plain incorrect.

Give yourself a break. Life is hard, and if you get that and you’re facing it head on, then you are doing it right. Bad stuff happens, good stuff happens, and your reaction to both is what has the potential to make your life meaningful, to yourself, other people, and to the planet.

Instead of trying so hard to avoid stumbling, and avoiding the dark places, the problem we should set our big brains on solving is how we can better help each other go in after the treasure, holding hands, and reassuring one another. No more distractions. No more shadows on the wall. Let’s get real. In this year of perfect vision, let’s take the blinders off, and gently, kindly, help each other find our way through in the dark.

If your life is going smoothly right now and you’re having a blast, good for you! Enjoy this time. Regroup and recharge.

If you’re stumbling, do the best you can to keep going. You’re not alone. It doesn’t seem that way if you spend a lot of time on Facebook or Instagram or watching TV, but that’s all fiction. Rarely is real life depicted there. Hang out in the dark for a while until you come out with the treasure. It’s there, and you’ll find it if you look for it, rather than trying to distract yourself from the pain. Be brave.

Feel the pain, but don’t dwell on it. Listen for what it’s trying to tell you and then let it go. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

You may need a guide to lead you through, or maybe just a helmet and some rope. Get what you need. Take care of yourself. Take sandwiches; you may be in there a while. Wear warm clothes. It’ll be scary, but don’t give into the fear. Find your way through, grab the treasure – the wisdom, the healing, the fundamental truth about yourself, and/or your life, the understanding, the ability to go on – and come back into the light.

We’re waiting for you with open arms.

 

Rolling along

Fluent

I have been working on developing a mindfulness meditation practice the past couple of years. I do as well with sitting regularly as I do with doing anything else regularly, which is to say, with varying success. But I keep trying, cuz it helps me and I think it’s important. Every day since January 1st I’ve been doing a series of guided meditations online. I do better with guided sessions and these have been really interesting.

The theme this first week has been setting intention. I like this better than goal-setting or resolutions, cuz it’s immediate, addressing how we feel right now, not in the future. It’s something to hang onto and check in with every moment, rather than thinking I’m working toward that thing or that some kind of pay-off is coming down the road. It’s now. Am I being true to my intention right now? In this immediate situation?

On day 4, the meditation included the question, “What is my life asking of me this year, and what quality must I cultivate to answer that call?” The words that floated to the surface immediately for me were:

Open.
Generous.
Committed.
Disciplined.
Patient.

I was surprised they came so easily, but I immediately understood how all those words applied to my situation at home with my mother, at work with a project I’m involved in and my co-workers in general, and with my friends.

And then the quality – what will make it possible for me to embody those intentions?

Trust.

Ack. Not my best thing. Not anyone’s best thing, is it? Nothing in my life, and I mean no thing has given me any indication that people can be trusted, even those who claim to love you and seemingly have your best interests at heart. Even if they don’t mean to, people will hurt you. Over and over again. I think most people over the age of 2 have trust issues and have good reason for them.

So I thought about it a lot, and I wrote about it in my journal, and all of a sudden it came to me. The trust that’s required is not in people, but in the process. The path. The river.

The flow.

Once again I come back to just being. Being the true me, with intention, and integrity.¬† True to my inherent spirit. Open, generous, committed, disciplined, and patient. Two of those are easy for me, the other three, uh…not so much, but they’re in there somewhere. And trust?¬†

The very hardest thing. But this isn’t pass or fail. There is no judgment. There is only what is, not what should be. I can either do it or I can’t, and either way I’m being true to my intention – it remains the same. As Yoda said, there is no try.

Being present in each situation, with each person, in each moment, one moment at a time. No small thing, that, but the idea is that it comes about in each moment. It’s not something I’m striving for or working toward; all that’s required is being. Being true to my nature, which is, I think, all of those things; they’re in me. Covered over by debris and not easy to see, but they’re still there.

Now, lest you think I’m being incredibly naive in thinking that everything’s going to be sunshine and light from now on and I’m going to just “be” my way into a perfect life, let me assure you that I have no such illusions. Quite the opposite, in fact. I think I’m going to get beat up pretty bad. That’s where the trust comes in. If it comes, I have to trust that pain is part of the process. Same with pleasure, by the way.

If I’m true to myself, true to my intentions, and trust that I’m on the right path, it’s all good. In each situation, we receive a reward or a lesson, and both are worth our time and attention. Each person offers us a mirror so that we may see ourselves more clearly.

Stay present in the moment and be. Am I open, generous, committed to, and patient with myself? That’s a good place to start. I can’t expect to give others what I don’t have. Do I trust myself? I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so that’s hard, but yes, I’m getting better at it. The important thing is that I trust the flow and where it’s leading, and keep moving forward.

And hope. In all things, hope for the best. It can’t hurt.

What is your life asking of you this year, and how will you answer that question?

 

The kindness of strangers

Mostly I have my hands full just trying to get done all I need to get done on any given day, but I also think about what good I can do in the world, and what my legacy will be. I live a very small life, and it seems to me most of the time that anything I am able to do wouldn’t make much of an impact. When I’m feeling low and the responsibility of my current life weighs heavy on my shoulders, I get discouraged about the future, and I feel powerless to change anything; certainly not any of the seemly intractable problems facing our world today. It’s easy to fall into that trap; after all, everywhere we look lately there is really bad news.

And then, something small happens, the jaws of the trap are pried open, and I’m reminded that anything is possible. Most importantly, I’m reminded that I can’t do it all myself, nor do I have to, but I can do more.

Monday winter reclaimed December in Michigan. We had warm temperatures and no rain or snow last week – no white Christmas (fine with me). Unusual, but not unheard of, and we all knew it would end. We got about 6″ of wet heavy snow on Monday, and the city plows were out working hard all day. It stopped snowing for a bit around 5 pm, so I decided to go out and clear out the driveway before the next round. I don’t have a snowblower, so I started working on the mountainous snow boulders blocking the end of the driveway – courtesy of the plows – with a shovel. When I tried to break up and move the first one, I knew I was going to be out there a long time.

Just after I started, however, a man in a maroon pickup pulled up and signaled for me to move out of the way. He dropped his plow and cleared all that big heavy stuff out of the mouth of the drive with a couple of swipes. I waved and smiled and mouthed THANK YOU! He smiled, nodded, and drove off. The whole thing took about 3 minutes.

Just that easy. I have no idea who he is. With that one kind act, in that short period of time, he changed my life. Suddenly, unexpectedly, what I thought was going to happen – an hour or more of hard physical labor in the cold and wet – didn’t happen. It changed in an instant from an anticipated difficult experience into something wonderful. Not only did he make something physically easier for me – spared my back and shoulders – but he lifted my spirits with that plow, and opened the world up to me again.

It’s easy to get cynical and to believe the worst about people and their motivations and actions. It’s easy to lose hope in the future and in our ability to solve problems or effect change. On the face of it, honestly, the future looks bleak. I get very discouraged sometimes.

That man reminded me that ultimately, one-on-one, it doesn’t matter who we are so much as what we are. I don’t know anything about that man except that he has a maroon truck and that he was kind. I don’t know his name, or where he lives, what he does for a living, what his political or spiritual beliefs are, what his sexual orientation is, where he’s from, or whether he is a cat or a dog person. What mattered yesterday was that he had the opportunity to be kind and he acted on it.

He made a difference.

It’s not the big things. It’s not doing the “right” things or what society tells us we should be doing. It’s not a bright shiny life on Instagram or Facebook. It’s not friends or “Likes” or the newest, latest, coolest. It’s not all happy, smiling and lovely. It’s not all gloom and doom, either. The world is complex, and so are human beings. There are no easy answers.

But sometimes it is simple. Ultimately, it’s not who we are that makes the difference, but what we are. I have a limited realm of influence and not a lot of money, but I can be kind. It’s a decision in any given minute. I can be kind to myself, to my mom, my co-workers, and to strangers if given the opportunity. That’s really the message of Christmas we take into this new year, this new decade:

Make room for the gift.

That’s the challenge. Open to others. If you are able, give them what they need.  Sometimes that’s something you can touch, sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s just a smile.

Smile. Let someone know simply that you see them and that you wish them well.

I can do all that. I don’t always, sadly, but I can. I want to be better at it, so I have to keep practicing. You only see these opportunities if you are paying attention in the moment. That’s the key, and that’s what makes it hard. So hard. The future is exciting, and the past is comforting. The only thing that’s real and important, though, is now.

For me, this year, this decade: In each moment, do what you can, be what you can.

Thank you, sir.