In the previous two posts, we explored how happiness is an intentional choice. How might we manifest this intention in our lives? Here’s a story…
A Native American elder was sitting around a campfire with a child. She said to the child, you know there are two wolves that are fighting a great battle within you. One wolf is filled with anger, hate, greed, envy, and impatience. It snarls and howls all day long. The other wolf is filled with love, kindness, generosity, and patience. It smiles at everyone. These wolves are locked in a battle for your spirit.
Grandmother, asked the girl, which wolf wins?
The answer, the elder responded gently, is very simple. It is the wolf you feed.
If you feed yourself love and compassion that’s who you become. If you feed yourself compassion and gratitude, that’s who you become.
Happiness is a practice. It is our ability to practice positive behaviors that make us happy.
In the last post (http://spiritualsushi.com/the-now-of-happiness-vs-the-pursuit-of-happiness/), I wrote about how our existence is like a wheel with an outer rim that interacts with the world — the friction of stones, ruts, and mud — and a central hub that is our inner state. We can absorb and internalize the friction of what is coming at us from the outside and become the snarling wolf. Or we can use our internal intention to transform how we engage the world with kindness. The rim and hub are joined by spokes that connect the two elements.
The wheel is a symbol in Eastern traditions — a symbol of Buddhism and at the center of the Indian flag. The spokes on the wheels are practices. These allow us to engage the world from a place of intention. One of these practices is gratitude.
‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” — Albert Einstein
A practice of gratitude enables us to count the good we have in our lives. In doing so, we remind ourselves of the many good things we have that we can gloss over and counter-balance the things that aren’t good. A longitudinal study of 700 nuns who were asked to keep autobiographies over a period of 50 years found that the ones who expressed positive emotions such as contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, and hope stayed healthier and lived longer — 90% of the happiest nuns lived past 85 years compared to only a third of those who were the least happy. Gratitude not only helps us be happier, it improves our immunity against disease. It can also shield us from life’s wounds.
The Dalai Lama who is credited for being happy was once asked how he could be happy given what had become of Tibet. He said, it is true that we have lost so much, but yet must I also lose my happiness? Happiness is not just for the good times. Its greater power is in shielding us from the bad times.
If you ask many of us what is the purpose of life, we might answer: it is to be happy. The American Declaration of Independence called for the pursuit of happiness as a founding principle. What does it mean to pursue happiness and is it possible that happiness actually flees when we pursue it? Take this story.
A busy New York businessman was persuaded by his wife to take a vacation in Mexico. Strolling on a beach late morning he encountered a fisherman leaning back against his boat on the beach, gazing lazily out at the ocean.
“It’s a beautiful day,” said the businessman to the fisherman, who nodded back. “Shouldn’t you be out fishing”? he asked. “Well,” said the fisherman, “I have already made my catch and I am done for the day.” The businessman grimaced and responded, “Yes but couldn’t you catch more if you stayed out longer?”
“I could but why?” asked the fisherman. “Well!” declared the businessman, “you’d make more money.” “What would I do with more money?” asked the fisherman. “Well,” gushed the businessman, “you could buy another boat and hire someone else to fish for you. With the profits, you could even get more boats and employees, perhaps even open up a canning plant and grow quite rich!”
“And then what,” asked the fisherman, amused. “Well, then you could retire happily,” proclaimed the businessman. “Okay,” said the fisherman, “and what would I do then?” “Well then,” said the businessman, “you could sit out on the beach and relax by the ocean.”
“Ah!” smiled the fisherman bringing his hat down over his eyes, “that’s exactly what I am doing now!”
The two characters in this story had two very contrasting views of happiness. The businessman saw it as the final reward of a long life of effort and achievement. For the fisherman, happiness was something to be enjoyed as a daily practice. The businessman may indeed get to retire with a lot of money to enjoy a bit of luxury and leisure, but there is no guarantee that he’d live that long or enjoy good health, or even make the money in the end despite a lifetime of effort and risk.
So, is happiness something to be pursued into the future or enjoyed now in the moment where we can find it? There is a lot to enjoy if we look and notice — the blue sky, being alive, the next breath. In looking for big things, we lose the small things that we already have and take for granted in the daily flow of our lives.
The research about flow sees that contentment is about finding yourself in the zone where you forget yourself. You just are present, fully absorbed in what you are doing, not stuck in the past or thinking about the future. Picture a musician playing, a painter painting, a sportsperson in a game, a pair of lovers. They are focused, absorbed in the joy of what they are doing. Time stops. Thought stops, Even the question of happiness vanishes. There is only being in the present.
At the end of his time, John Lennon sang of ths awareness in his song Watching the Wheels:
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
The thing is that the wheel of life is always turning. The rim and hub both turn but the pace is not quite the same. We can latch our sense of being to the rim and spin around dizzily as we work to do more, or we can center ourselves at the hub of the wheel, staying calm and present in the midst of motion. If our being is centered at the hub, we can radiate a sense of calm to the activity at the rim — much like the athletes playing in a state of flow. If our sense of being is anchored to the activity at the rim, we transfer this busyness to our core, feeling frenetic and harried. I often find myself in both places and have to remind myself to return to the center. Finding a way to intentionally claim calmness in motion, and peacefulness in activity, is key to being happy. Here contentment becomes a practice, a habit, much as it did for the Mexican fisherman reclining on the beach.
The fisherman fished to live, but he made a habit of being happy, every day. So, perhaps the challenge is not to pursue happiness to the end of our days, but to claim it now, while we can, wherever we can, and in whatever we do.
Following the four-part post on suffering, time to flip the coin to the other side and explore the face of happiness. Happiness, just like suffering, is very much a choice.
Here’s a story. There was a wise sage who lived happily in the forest by a swamp. People came to visit him to seek his counsel. Word got to the emperor who sent a team of ministers to invite him to the court. The sage couldn’t refuse the emperor. On the way over, the ministers told him that he would be asked to serve the court — a great honor, they beamed. The sage knew it wasn’t his place. He was quite happy with his solitude in the swamp and didn’t wish to leave.
At the palace, he was ushered into the imperial court where the emperor sat in a great hall on a gilded throne. Above the throne, mounted on the wall, was a giant bejeweled turtle, the symbol of the emperor. The emperor extended a welcome to the sage and after quizzing him and confirming his great insight said, I would like you to take a distinguished place here and to offer your wisdom on matters of the court. You will be richly rewarded and greatly esteemed. The sage bowed and said to the emperor, your majesty, it is indeed a great honor you have extended to me. May I ask if the turtle that is in a place of great glory above your throne would be happier here or in the swamp? Well, the swamp, of course, said the emperor without hesitation. Well, your majesty, that’s the same for me too. I would be honored to be here but I am most happy with my life in the swamp. Will you grant me my happiness? The emperor nodded, sadly, and allowed the sage to return home.
In a less mythical story, I read about a humble sanitation worker who was surprisingly happy at work. Asked why, given his job dealing with garbage all day, he said that it was great because it allowed him to care for his family. He knew his why.
Happiness is then about being true to yourself and your purpose. Joseph Campbell expressed this elegantly as a call to “follow your bliss.” This is not about the easy road, but it is being true to what makes your spirit come alive. This bliss is not the same for all of us. And it often isn’t money and fame. The thing about money, fame, and power is that there is never enough. Happiness also doesn’t increase as wealth does. It hurts to be poor but once you have enough to live on, more money doesn’t translate into more happiness.
Real happiness, as researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky found, is much about being happy for no reason. She found that while half of our happiness is genetically-driven, only 10 percent is based on circumstance and 40 percent is driven by our attitude. Our happiness depends on us. It is a choice that is largely independent of our circumstances. If happiness is dependent on external things, those go up and down, and may go away. This is why suffering sits on the other side of the coin of happiness. Suffering surges when we lose things. The things we create for ourselves on the inside are ours to keep.
It was what the sage knew living in the swamp. He knew his why. He was living his bliss. He was creating his own happiness on the inside. I believe it is also what we are all challenged to find and manifest. I am working on it.
In this final of four blog posts on suffering and transformation, I wanted to explore how hardship is the crucible for helping us become our higher selves. A crucible is a container where objects are subjected to great heat so they can be remade. The lives of great change agents, people who became great souls and transformative leaders, were shaped by suffering that they transformed into immense good.
Take Gandhi. Gandhi was a young lawyer during the colonial British Empire. He tried hard to make it in the system. As a young man, he set out to become a barrister in London. Having passed the bar, the young lawyer was engaged for an assignment in apartheid-era South Africa. On a journey, he purchased a first-class ticket and, dressed smartly in a Western suit, claimed his seat. A fellow passenger complained about his presence in the cabin to the conductor. When asked what he was doing there. Gandhi produced his ticket and credentials which was met with a sneer; he was told that only Whites could sit in a first class cabin. When Gandhi refused to budge, he was thrown off the train into the cold night. Shivering on a deserted platform, Gandhi had an awakening about discrimination. It could have turned to hate, but it didn’t.
Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest leader in recent times, spent 27 years jailed by the government on an isolated island in South Africa. He emerged with a powerful message about reconciliation that steered South Africa to a remarkably peaceful transition to democracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. too was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned in the struggle for equality in the US. He was consistent in his call for freedom and love. In each of these lives, great injustice led not to anger and revenge but empathy and compassionate action. Why did this happen? Here’s what I see.
In an interview, Mandela was asked how it was that he came to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation after all that had been done to him by the apartheid regime. He explained that his many years alone and in silence in prison had enabled him to see his own soul, his own failings, and need for forgiveness. In this encounter with his soul, he became committed to the path of forgiveness and reconciliation for all peoples.
Gandhi expressed this very idea as Satyagraha or truth-force which encompasses three principles:
Satya/Truth – commitment to openness, honesty and fairness Ahimsa/Nonviolence – the refusal to inflict injury upon others Tapasya/Sacrifice – a willingness to sacrifice oneself in action
Sacrifice in Satyagraha is a test of love. Martin Luther King explained: “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.” This alchemy of turning bad into good is connected to practice of “attend and befriend” (http://spiritualsushi.com/attend-befriend-part-2-engaging-transforming-suffering/) discussed explored in an earlier post.
In contrast, many other freedom fighters channel exploitation and inequality into rage. They turn adversity into a call to defeat the adversary by any means “necessary.” In the bargain, they can lose their soul and start to mirror much of what they started out fighting against.
Great change agents, in contrast, operate from a place of oneness and love for all people, even their adversaries (http://spiritualsushi.com/one-love/). Martin Luther King stated, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King believed that it is possible to resist evil without resorting to violence and hate: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Elsewhere he said, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you.”
This path seeks the high ground and is willing to take the long road. There is the belief that ends don’t justify the means and that justice can take time to unfold. As MLK eloquently stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Nonviolence is the path chosen not because it is easy or expedient but because it is morally right.
With this moral clarity, these great change agents were willing to put themselves on the line. They led from the front, by example, in protest marches and public fasts, being beaten and imprisoned, and, as in the case of Gandhi and Mandela, encountering a violent death at the end. The day before his assassination and perhaps anticipating his end, MLK acknowledged difficult days ahead and said, “it really doesn’t matter, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa made the difficult journey up the mountaintop of freedom and justice with love and grace because they also simultaneously journeyed up an inner mountain to rendezvous with the soul within. To truly “be the change you want to see in the world,” you have to authentically become it. Gandhi’s words are a call to action and a call to our own transformation.
Further back in time, another agent of liberation, the Buddha, made a similar call. He indicated that he would be reborn until all beings were free. I believe he was calling us to be reborn as Bodhisattvas of liberation much like the great change agents. Like other great souls, he demonstrated that the way to create our capacity for courage and compassion in the world is through inner work. This was work, the Buddha said, that we must each do for ourselves:
No one saves us but ourselves
No one can and no one may
We ourselves must walk the path
Buddhas only show the way
As someone who has spent a lifetime working on social change, I am challenged by the examples of these great souls and the way they pointed to. Moved by suffering they saw in the world, they stepped up to address injustice at great personal risk. The difficult struggles they waged were powered not with anger and hate but with compassion and love. And– ultimately — they sought not just liberation from injustice in the world, but liberation from the animosity that suffering can create within us. Through their lives, these great souls shine a light on the path to fostering great change and liberation. It is a path that flows from within us into the world. It is a journey towards love made in the company of the soul. It is a journey that they beckon us to join. In doing so, our suffering is transformed into grace, a sacrifice offered on the highest altar of love.
Following this series on suffering, I’ll turn to the other side of the coin — the pursuit of happiness. I welcome your insights and experience on the nature of suffering and the path of transformation.
The Laughing Buddha was a jolly monk who lived in the 10th century in China. He’s often pictured with a big belly and a giant sack. The sack was key to his work. He wandered around town carrying the sack with things in there to give away to people he encountered — money for someone in need, a bit of food for people who were hungry, toys for children, and a smile for everyone. When he encountered people with means, he asked for something to add to his sack.
The Laughing Buddha was recognized by the people around him as compassionate and in touch with a deeper source of being. One day, an admirer asked him what is the essence of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha smiled, put down his sack, and settled into a seated meditation. The observer was puzzled and then asked his question again, reframing it, what is the expression of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha opened his eyes, laughed, grabbed his sack, and went on his way to continue his work.
This story was a revelation to me. Through this illustration, the Laughing Buddha expressed where he found inspiration for his compassionate actions — the space within — and how he expressed this inspiration — with his work in the world. I have found this pattern in the lives and actions of many great souls who spent much time in meditation and solitude as an enabler of their efforts. But why does this work?
Meditation is about turning within, to silence, to the space of emptiness. One of the things that happen here in this infinite space of emptiness is the ability to connect with the oneness of all things. As we’ll explore in a future post, form (physical or mental) is bounded while emptiness is boundless. God, in many traditions, is understood to be formless, boundless, infinite. In dropping boundaries, it is possible to feel the divine and a deeper sense of unity and connection. This state of being can’t really be expressed in words, but it can be experienced.
Another aspect of meditation or prayer is about becoming more centered and rooted in how we respond to the outer world. Gandhi once said I have a busy day today so I need to meditate an hour extra. What he indicated was that this inner work was needed for him to show up as present, calm, and intentional regardless of the external turmoil. This is often the reverse of what we may tend to fall into when there is greater stress and demands. I tend to tip into trying to do more, working harder to milk more output from time. But, of course, under duress, we’re often not equipped to do — or be — our best.
The Dalai Lama indicated that while meditation was not about thinking, it was not akin to sleep. It is, he explained, about being able to see more clearly. Our minds are busy, cluttered with a flurry of thoughts and emotions, especially under stress. We can’t see or think clearly unless we can let this noise settle. Part of seeing, is turning our sights to what’s within us and becoming aware of our own thinking, emotions, and behaviors.
To practice Attend and Befriend (http://spiritualsushi.com/attend-befriend-part-2-engaging-transforming-suffering/), we need to catch ourselves in the throes of unconscious and uncontrolled reactivity (http://spiritualsushi.com/making-sense-of-suffering-part-1/) and move our response to conscious choice. It is not easy to do in the moment unless we are predisposed to doing so — roots after all take time to set. This is where steady spiritual practice comes in.
In the end, spiritual practice serves not to help us escape the world, but to live more intentionally in it. What do you think?
As humans, we are wired to react to threats with a fight or flight response. We respond by fleeing the source of the pain or turning around to attack it. Our brains are wired for this. The amygdala at the root of the brain stem is quick to respond automatically — almost unconsciously — to save us from threats. To turn this around, we need to engage consciously instead.
The teacher Tara Brach offers a way to do this with the path of “attend and befriend” in place of fight or flight. The “attend” stance is to turn to see the other — the source of the threat or attack — with conscious awareness. The “befriend” response is to engage them with compassion.
The following story from Terry Dobson when he was studying in Japan illustrates this well.
An American aikido student in Tokyo was headed home one afternoon on the train when at a stop, a big, drunk man stormed into the cabin roughly shoving a slow-moving woman with a baby ahead of him. He glared around the cabin looking to see who might challenge him. The aikido student thought if there was ever a reason to apply his practice it was now.
So, he locked eyes with the man, who snarled and stepped towards him. As the student braced for the physical engagement, a voice from the other side of the cabin called out– hey! The two men wheeled around in the direction of the voice. It was an elderly man with kindly eyes. Have you been drinking sake, he asked the drunk, beaming? What’s it to you? said the drunk, now stepping toward him. Well, I love sake too, said the older man. Every night, I sit with my wife in my garden with my wife and we enjoy some warm sake. Do you also sit with your wife in the evenings? he asked the drunk, who was taken off guard. The man blinked and stuttered, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a job, I have nothing. Then, tears burst down his cheeks. Here, here, said the older gentleman, patting the seat beside him. The drunk tumbled forward, slumping into the arms of the older man. The student watching it all unfold in amazement observed: Today, I learned what true aikido is.
This story illustrates the power of compassion. It may seem idealistic but, as we’ll explore in the next post, is exactly how great social change leaders have created great change.
This practice of attend and befriend can also be applied to ourselves. When we are upset with ourselves or our circumstance, we also tend to resort to the fight or flight response — to blame ourselves or others, or try to avoid and bury the anger. The attend and befriend response is to tune in and acknowledge our feelings with compassion. What I have found is that many things, when acknowledged, are released.
My daughter, when she was a toddler, liked to run. Unsteady on her feet, she’d often fall, sometimes on the sidewalk. I found that I could tell her to be careful but this would cause her to wail more loudly; if I gave her a comforting hug instead and asked if she was okay, she’d quickly smile, nod, and so be back to her cheerful self.
Kindness offered is not quickly forgotten and paid forward.
You may recall the classic Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion. Androcles, a runaway slave who had taken refuge in a cave, found himself face to face with a fierce lion who was sheltered there. The lion roared and Androcles was terrified. But the lion then raised a paw. There was a giant thorn there. Slowly Androcles summoned his courage and approached the lion and gently removed the thorn. The lion licked Androcles in gratitude. When they parted ways, Androcles and the lion were both captured. Androcles was put into an arena to be fed to the lions. As he was pushed into the ring, a lion was let loose from the opposite side. The lion charged at him but then recognizing Androcoles turned into the likes of a puppy, embracing and licking Androcles. The stunned emperor who was watching the spectacle summoned Androcoles. On hearing the story, both Androcles and the lion were released.
Attend and befriend doesn’t avoid or seek to avenge harm but heal the cycles of abuse and hurt that ripple through the world. The truth is we all have plenty of thorns stuck in us that cause us pain and anger. These may be hard to see and frightening to engage. Yet, like the lion, we want someone to attend to our pain and offer us kindness. We too can offer compassion to others for the hurt that they may be carrying.
In a future post, I’ll write about how we can build our inner capacity for compassion. For now, what has been your experience in how to respond to harm with compassion?
Experiencing pain and suffering are a salient part of being human. We have all have been served with hardships and loss, some of us to a far greater degree than others. Pain experienced repeatedly and left to fester becomes embedded trauma. Trauma unhealed metastasises and is triggered again and again. In this pattern, a lot depends not just on what happens to us, but how we process and heal the hurt. I had an ‘aha‘ about our response to suffering reading the framing of The Book of Job by Stephen Mitchell. It cast that Biblical story in a new light for me.
In this telling, Job is a righteous and successful man. He has a big family, good health, a good reputation, and a prosperous business. One day it all changes. His business fail, his children die one after the other, he loses his health and is reduced to being destitute, living by the side of the road, sick and covered in sores. His former friends passing by accuse him of having done something evil in order to be punished thus. Job knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve his lot and lamented endlessly to God. One day, God takes him up to heaven where he sees for a moment with God’s eye. In a flash, he takes in the breath of the universe and its many interlinked connections that ripple across the span of people, place, and time. It all makes sense. Job bows down with acceptance and humility, Who was I to doubt?
This story recognizes that we don’t know why bad things happen to good people and we may never know what ripples forth in the grand scheme of things. It offers that there is meaning beyond what we can see and our job is to accept what has happened with grace. This acceptance is a way to release the mental suffering that can eat us up on the inside.
Another powerful reframe is the story of Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. As a young Jewish psychiatrist from Austria, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Trapped in this horrific environment — with brutal labor, bitter cold, starvation rations, beatings, and the constant threat of being killed — there was little reason to feel anything but deep suffering, grief, and despair. But Frankl flipped this script of hopelessness. He decided that he would use the little power he had to make a difference. He chose to comfort his fellow prisoners, help them where he could, and share the little food he had with those who needed it more desperately. Over time, he felt his power grow until he felt more powerful than his captors. He said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What Frankl discovered — the philosophy he called logotherapy — was that we can’t necessarily control what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. The Buddha also focused on this very idea. He said, I come to teach one thing and one thing only. The nature of suffering, and the end to suffering.
If we don’t transform this suffering, we can retreat in despair, become defeated, or grow angry and bitter, weaponizing the pain for attacks we launch against ourselves and others. We see this pattern play out with some powerful people in business and politics who do enormous damage as a result of the inner hurt they have experienced, often as children.
At the same time, people like Mandela, MLK, and Gandhi are leaders who create great change precisely because they have suffered great ills and injustice (I will explore this further in future posts). Mandela wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
In all these examples of engaging hardship — with acceptance, resilience, compassion, or transformation — we see that the hinge that swings us backward or forward is the internal meaning we make of suffering. How we process hurt and the story we create around it for ourselves changes everything. The Buddha, in his parable of the Two Arrows, asks: If you were shot by an arrow, would it hurt. The listener answers, yes, it would. And, continued the Buddha, if you were shot a second time, would it not hurt even more. The answer is, of course it would! The Buddha then says, the first arrow is the thing that hits us from the outside. The second arrow is the one we shoot at ourselves in response to the first arrow. It is the suffering we create for ourselves with our response of anger, fear, hurt, or despair. And, it can become a far more grievous wound. This is a lesson I have to continually remind myself about when bad things happen and I reach quickly, automatically, and unconsciously for the second arrow.
So, the key is choosing not to fire the second arrow but to turn our suffering into an instrument for engaging hurt and injustice with compassion and courage. But how? This transformative practice is not easy but possible. We will explore some spiritual ideas and practices for that in a future Spiritual Sushi post. For now, what is your experience with suffering? What enables you to release or transform it?
At the start of the year, I saw a cartoon showing a couple of aliens in a spaceship watching the fireworks flash over the earth. “What’s going on down there?” asked one. The other replied: “they’re celebrating their planet making a loop around the sun.” New Year’s is an arbitrary event that we infuse with much meaning. For many of us, it marks an opportunity for a new start. A chance to begin again. A time to try to make things better. But the opportunity for change comes around more frequently than a circuit around the sun. The issue of time revolves around how it is spent.
The Greek myth of Sisyphus is a story of endless punishment using the weight of time. Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a giant rock up a hill to cast it over the top, only to reach close to the summit after a day of pushing and have the stone slip and roll down to the bottom. The next day, he is forced to begin again. I wonder what Sisyphus felt. He never gave up, determined that he’d one day get the rock over the top. And yet he somehow never changed his actions, repeating the same failed approach day after day.
There is another story from one of my favorite films, Groundhog Day. In the film (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it), Bill Murray, an arrogant news reporter is somehow forced to live a single day over and over in a small town he detests. At first he tries to escape, then he runs wild and crazy knowing that his actions have no consequences as the day will repeat. In the end, he’s finally redeemed when he chooses the day to make things better for the people he encounters. It is his way out of the endless loop into a life he loves.
I had another encounter with the concept of time that was real and mythical all at once. I had been invited to Chile to receive an award and was seated next to a rather unassuming Norweigan who also was invited to receive an award. He was Erling Kagge, a remarkable adventurer who was the first person to make it to the three poles of the earth — North, South, and Everest. His story was quite remarkable. He had travelled to Antartica to ski to the South Pole solo. On arriving, he disposed of his satellite phone battery so he’d be truly alone. To make the journey with the food he could carry, he had to ski 16 hours a day for 50 days across the endless terrain. I asked him what happened to his mind in this time of being alone, skiing endlessly over an endless terrain. He said his mind just emptied. He was one with nature, the way a tree is alive, present, and growing quietly. This is a target state in mindfulness, to achieve a blissful state of just being in the present.
In the mindfulness teachings, the message is that all we have is now — the present. In the Power of Now and Be Here Now, we are reminded that we only exist in the present and we often miss it reliving in the past or planning for the future. But what do you do when the present is what you want to escape from?
There is a lesson about this in another one of my favorite films is the Damma Brothers. It focuses on a group of prisoners in a maximum-security prison who are locked up for life. They are angry and trapped. Many feel that they don’t deserve their punishment. In the film, they learn to meditate using Vipassana and find a measure of freedom. While still locked in prison, they find a place of peace and joy within themselves to escape to. The endless weight of time is lifted.
Truth is that we don’t know how much time we have. But we have a choice about what we do with our time. Do we act like Sisyphus, helplessly bound to fate and routine? Do we choose to be like Bill Murray at the end of Groundhog Day and find meaning in making a better life for others? The choice of focus on the outer world is also contrasted by the choice to tune inwards. In Vipassana, the teacher Goenka repeats the catchphrase at the beginning of each session: “Start Again.” Every moment — not just the New Year — is an opportunity to start again. This echoes words attributed to the Buddha, “Each day we are born again. It is what we do today that matters most.”
In the end, it’s not just what we do with time but also how we engage it. Sisyphus perhaps found meaning in his endless pursuit as much as the Norweigan skier did and the prisoners did by shifting their mindframe. The Bill Murray character transformed his endless day through a simple but profound shift in mindset. The day that dawned as a result was the same and yet completely different. This in the end is the power we have over time. We can’t stop time but we can still ourselves. We thus transform from being slaves of the clock to masters of our days.
The mystic Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
We are in a time in history when fierce battles of righteousness are being waged. In the US, in the wake of the bitterly contested elections (and long before), we are outraged by the actions and perspectives of others, who are also outraged by our own actions and perspectives. There are calls for unity but often these call for adversaries to unite behind our own positions. Is there another way?
When I worked in Africa I heard a story at a school that stuck with me. At the boarding school, a student was caught stealing from other kids. Based on the honor code, the student had to be expelled. On the morning he was to depart, he was encircled by other students and teachers who knew him well. One by one they spoke, sharing the things they appreciated about him, naming the good he did and was, and wishing him well. While the student was expelled for his actions, his actions didn’t negate the good that he represented. It was important for him to hear this. It provided a basis for healing — for him and them.
When I was in Arizona visiting a Native American settlement, I heard of a tradition of how spirits would come to visit a village seeking out naughty children. The parents would loudly call out an apology for the child’s misdeeds but also name all the good qualities they had, beseeching the spirits to spare the child. The spirits were of course fellow villagers in costume and the calling out of the good qualities by the parents was not for the spirits to hear, but for the child. We can certainly name the wrongs others have done, but we can also see and acknowledge the good that they do?
Along with a couple of colleagues, I have created a tool for community dialogue named I See You (https://cometta.co/i-see-you). It is meant to help us see and hear others. The expression I see you comes from the Zulu greeting Sawubona. What does it take to see someone more fully? Part of this is hearing their story, their struggles, their hurts, and their dreams. This builds empathy.
In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill attacks in the US, I was struck by a statement offered by a protestor from North Carolina, the state where I now live. The 67-year-old retired landscaper had said: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”
Indeed, people everywhere are hungry to be seen. I believe that much of the harm that we do to others is a result of the pain we feel. The columnist David Brooks who writes about the state of America honed in on this as well. He said:
“Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone. People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension. Employees feeling invisible at work. Husbands and wives living in broken marriages, realizing that the person who should know them best actually has no clue.”
The call to see others is a call not to ignore them but it is also not a call to ignore the actions that have may have caused harm and hurt. In the African practice of Truth & Reconciliation, truth-telling precedes reconciliation. Our actions have consequences and there is a need for justice and restitution. Yet, the Truth & Reconciliation process recognizes that we truly want in the end is peace and reconciliation.
So, we have much that we disagree about today, much to feel angry about, and much we want to change. We want others to tune in and pay attention to us. Will we offer them the same? Listening is not offering agreement, but in listening, we might find an open space to build a fresh relationship. This is the field of possibility that I believe Rumi invited us to discover. Let us meet each other there.
The New Year is a time when we focus on setting goals, framing intentions, and sharing aspirations. We think about what we want to create in our lives. Wanting things that are different and better is a part of being human. It is also a delicate dance with acceptance of what we get and may not want. There’s an old story that illustrates this.
A stonecutter was laboring chipping away at the face of a mountain. It was hard work, and it was his reality day after day. As he cut the rock, a wealthy merchant passed by, carried on a palanquin by a team of porters. How fortunate is he, said the stonecutter to himself, while I labor endlessly his life is effortless. How I wish I were him. There must have been some magic in the air because he was immediately transported into the body of the merchant. He found himself on some plush cushions. Ah, this is life, said the stonecutter. But in a few minutes, he began to sweat profusely. It was a hot day and the sun was beating down. His silk gown was soon soaked. Glancing up, he said, how I wish I was the sun. It is up there unencumbered, overlooking everything.
Once, again, in an instant, he became the sun. Up in the sky, he could see the world. But soon the sun found his rays blocked. There was a giant cloud. Again, discontent kicked in, the stonecutter wished to be like the cloud who could float through the sky and block the sun. And, in an instant, he was the cloud, floating freely in the sky. Suddenly, however, he found himself being pushed firmly against his will. It was the wind moving him around. How I wish I was the wind, said the stonecutter quickly. And he became the wind. The wind roamed about, rushing through the sky, through the trees. And then, it was stopped abruptly. It had collided with the mountain. I wish I was the mountain, said the stonecutter, and once again, there he was the mighty mountain, standing tall and firm. But, only for a moment, for there was a sharp pain at his base. Looking down, he saw a humble stonecutter, chipping away. The stonecutter wished himself back to his original form.
This story illustrates at one level that desire is endless and no existence is beyond hardship. Many spiritual teachings emphasize acceptance. This act of making peace with our lot and finding meaning in it is illustrated in another story, that of a stonemason.
A man was walking through town when he saw a team of men stacking rocks. What are you doing, he asked one of them. The man glanced up, annoyed, can’t you see?, he said, I am stacking this pile of rocks. The walker turned to a second man and asked again, what are you doing? The man looked at him with a joyful smile and declared, I am building a cathedral.
This story illustrates the power of transforming our lives by transforming the meaning we attach to what we do. As you likely have, I have encountered and been inspired by people doing repetitious and difficult work with a sense of grace and joy. I wrote about this in a blog post when I lived in Mauritius (The Power of Positivitylink).
Yet, desire and discontent is an essential trigger for improving our lives. Because we want things to be better, we work to address problems and create new things. Without this, we’d be relatively static, stuck wherever and with whatever we find ourselves. Our modern socialization emphasizes agency, empowerment, and innovation; it differs from the times when people were encouraged to be content with their lot and not rock the boat. People thus accepted lives of great hardship and poverty because that’s what was expected. Yet, because they accepted this, they may have suffered less than we who have much more and are less satisfied.
Finding the balance between desire and acceptance is among the biggest balancing acts we face as humans. Continual desire for what we don’t have can place us in a constant state of stress and turmoil, where nothing is good enough. Passive acceptance of what is given to us can put us in a place of being at the mercy of circumstance and sometimes exploitation.
Finding the place between action and acceptance is delicate dance. The sweet spot is expressed in the Prayer of Serenity by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
The quote speaks of wisdom. Finding the wisdom to know the difference between what to accept and what to change is not easy or obvious. In the parable of the stonecutter, it is often what we only find through lived experience, finding that advancement doesn’t necessarily mean that problems go away. As we set our goals for the future, we need to leaven our desire for change with grace and acceptance for what happens. Finding ways to rise with courage and fall gracefully is a dance (much more on this in future posts). 2020 has given us much experience in encountering the unexpected. We can build on that, even as we reach forward with new hopes for the future. The future may not be as we hope but our effort matters in shaping outcomes. May you step boldly towards your goals in the year ahead and may you find grace in the dance.