Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion. ~ Machik Labdrön
It would be lovely if being on a spiritual path somehow meant that nothing would bother us anymore. We’d either become immune to the things that used to make us angry or sad or scared, or else maybe they wouldn’t even happen to us anymore! I wish.
I’m as averse as the next person to going through painful and uncomfortable circumstances, but I’ve come to know that wishing (or pretending) them away never works for long. In the end we’re forced to confront them head on and simply submit. The Buddhist story of Milarepa and the demons is a wonderful illustration of this:
Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived in a cave. (You could definitely say he was on a spiritual path.) One day, when he returned from gathering firewood, he found his cave filled with horrible demons. First, he did as we all do and tried to chase them away. Predictably, this did not work.
Next, he tried talking with them sweetly and reasonably, trying to persuade them to leave. This is the strategy of “spiritual bypass,” when we try to convince ourselves that we really aren’t bothered by the demons – we’re above that, right? If we can just stay Zen and use our affirmations, surely the demons will leave and we won’t really have to deal with them… But they didn’t.
Finally, Milarepa realized that they were not going to go away and leave him in peace. Looking each one in the eye, he bowed to it, accepting it as his teacher. At last, they disappeared... All but one.
The most ferocious one of all remained. It was terrifying! Milarepa would have given almost anything to avoid doing what he knew he had to do, but – and this is the truth for all of us – he really had no choice. The only way out is in. Surrendering completely, he placed his head in the slavering mouth of the demon, and it too disappeared.
Once we truly turn and face what scares us most, it no longer has any power over us. We learn that we can actually bear the discomfort. This is real spiritual maturity – not to be without pain, but to face pain (fear, sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness, embarrassment, rejection) without running, fighting, or pretending we’re above it.
Writing [and life!] is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ~ E.L. Doctorow
When I’m going through a stressful experience, my first tendency is to project myself into the future, exploring all the possible outcomes and what I would do in each case. There’s a certain amount of comfort in this, but the trick is to learn when to stop! Once you have a basic sense of the possibilities, it’s time to pull back into the current moment or, as a friend of mine says: this 24 hours.
Right now I’m heading back to court with my ex-husband. The details aren’t really important, but the overall situation is one of financial uncertainty, acrimony and fear. My mind is having a heyday with this, imagining disastrous outcomes and trying to figure out and control what is patently uncontrollable. When I go down that rabbit hole, I feel instant anxiety, anger, panic, despair.
Not fun – and not even helpful. Those imagined things aren’t happening to me now, and might very well never happen. Even if they did, my distress right now won’t help me to deal with them in the future. That same friend once gave me a great visual touchstone for how to remain anchored to the present moment, even in the midst of uncertainty and fear.
She was on a motorcycle with her husband on the winding Blue Ridge Parkway (no guard rails, steep drop offs) when a thick fog and rain descended. With zero visibility, she was terrified that they would fly off the side of the mountain at any moment, and yet there was no safe place to stop and wait it out. As they cautiously made their way down, she kept repeating to herself: Right now, in this moment, I’m safe. Right now, in this moment, I’m safe.
In reality, we never know what’s going to happen in the next moment - even when we think we do. We only ever know for sure about the moment we’re currently experiencing. Am I okay right now, in this moment? Yes, I am. Right now I have enough money to meet my needs. Right now I’m warm and safe and dry and well fed. I have some contingency plans in place as a sop to my mind’s most pressing fears (because I’m still human, after all).
Court cases can drag out for a long time. I don’t want to give away my happiness and peace of mind for the next several weeks or months, and so I pull my mind back, continually, to this 24 hours. What is happening right now? That’s all that I need to respond to, and all that I have a hope of influencing anyway. Just this 24 hours.
The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly. ~ Richard Bach
Sometimes I have to say this over and over to myself: There are no mistakes. There are no mistakes. Because often it feels like there are lots of mistakes in this world! My mind tells me that so many things are wrong. Global warming is wrong. Children starving is wrong. Having guns all over the place is wrong. It’s also wrong that I have to wait in line so long at the post office, that the checker at the store was rude, and my hair doesn’t look right today. From the tragic to the petty, it seems like there are mistakes everywhere.
That’s when I trot out one of my favorite mantras: Nothing is random, nothing is a mistake. I take it to the extreme and try to see even minor annoyances as somehow purposeful. For some reason I was meant to be stuck in traffic (why else would I be here?). What can I get out of this experience? It’s both easier and harder to apply this to the big, bad things. Most of us will admit that good often comes out of suffering, but does it follow that the suffering was part of a plan? That can be hard to swallow.
To many people, the idea that tragic events are part of a plan for good is an affront. I get that, and yet for me the idea that the same events are simply random mistakes (being in the wrong place at the wrong time) makes me want to jump off the planet. I don’t want to live in a world where it’s simply a matter of chance whether I get hit by a bus this morning or win the lottery. I take great and active comfort from the belief that there is a plan, and that the plan is ultimately for the highest good of all concerned (whether I ever figure out how doesn’t matter).
Karma is another concept I think is often misunderstood as an explanation for negative events. I do believe in karma, but to me it isn’t a punishment. I see it as more of a growth experience that we voluntarily take on (maybe not consciously, but at least on a soul level) in order to directly experience the opposite side of a situation, relationship or action. It’s a balancing movement, like the natural swing of a pendulum. Of course, we may also take on challenging experiences – big or small – simply to learn and grow. It’s what we’re here for!
So instead of seeing “negative” events (whether life-changing or only briefly maddening) as mistakes, why not view them as expressly picked for your highest good? We don’t have to understand the details of metamorphosis for it to work, any more than the caterpillar does.
The ego never has enough of anything, so if we listen to the ego, we will feel that we don’t have enough, even when we do. ~ Gina Lake
How often – even in the midst of a generally happy and comfortable life – are you aware of a sense of lack? Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough appreciation or recognition for your efforts. It’s too hot, too cold, too short, too long. He’s not really reliable. Or he’s too reliable, and boring. She could be a little less picky. If only I were younger, prettier, luckier. (And on and on and on.)
To the ego, there’s always something missing. It’s basically the ego’s self-appointed job to point out what’s wrong – with you, with everyone else, with the world in general, and this moment in particular. That’s how the ego stays in business: by creating problems, which it can then attempt to solve. And if it can’t solve them, at least it has something to complain about. Either way is a win for the ego, because it captures your attention and keeps you involved with your thoughts and judgments about the world rather than simply experiencing it as it is.
The mind (ego) is a judgment-producing machine, and usually the judgments are negative. It’s like having Debbie Downer as a continuous voice-over in your head, but we’re so used to it, and so conditioned to believe that these judgments are ours and therefore important (and correct), that we simply accept them as the truth. We identify with that voice in our heads, give it our attention, and believe what it’s saying. And suffer because of it.
But there’s another way to experience life. When we focus on what’s missing, we miss what’s actually present. All the wonderful qualities – of a person, place, situation, moment in time – are ignored in favor of the one thing (or many) that we wish were different. Underneath that voice of discontent is another, very quiet, voice that is humming with contentment.
The only way to hear that voice is to turn down the volume of the ego’s constant complaints and judgments. You’ll never do away with them completely; they’re the nature of the mind. But when you see them for what they are – just thoughts, and not very helpful ones at that – it becomes possible to step back just a bit from them. This is how you dis-identify with the ego. You don’t kill it or “transcend” it or make it go away. You just stop listening to it so fervently and automatically believing what it says.
Learn to recognize the “channel” in your mind where the ego is constantly running its negative commentary. When you notice that you’re listening to it, simply call it out for what it is – Ego. The more you do this, the easier it is to tune in to the other voice, the one that says:
Everything you need to be happy is present in this moment. Nothing is missing.
A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen. ~ John O’Donohue
I confess that I have a love/hate relationship with goals. On one hand, I've always loved making lists and scenarios of what I want to do and have in the future. Frankly, I can daydream till the cows come home. But as I travel further down the road of spiritual growth, I'm becoming very leery of this "living for the future" mindset.
I know that the future and the past are both ego territory. The mind loves anything that keeps it planning and scheming, or reminiscing and regretting. Meanwhile, we miss what's happening right under our noses. It's possible to live your whole life without ever truly being present.
This year I decided to approach my usual new year's resolutions from a different standpoint - more as aspirations and targets to aim for than destinations to reach or accomplishments to tick off a list. The ego is all about what we can accomplish (Doing), while the soul cares more about how we do it (Being). Ego also relies on white-knuckled willpower to get the job done, which isn't nearly as effective as the simple power of intention and attention.
And so this is how I'm hoping to live the coming year:
When it comes down to it, I’m convinced that if we just did the first thing on this list, to the best of our abilities and as often as possible, all the rest of the list – and everything else we hope to accomplish – would take care of itself.
That is my #1 intention this year – to simply be present and live each moment with awareness.
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. ~ Henry James
As my daughter grew up, there were many times when I found myself trying to put challenges she faced (often academic) into perspective. Although I don’t actually believe in the traditional “pearly gates” version of heaven, I once jokingly asked her whether she really thought St. Peter would require her to know her multiplication tables before he’d let her in. It’s absurd – but it highlights the chasm between what seems so urgent and necessary in a day-to-day, worldly sense and what is actually, truly important.
On that score, I’m with Henry James. If we simply try on a consistent basis to be as kind as we can humanly manage, I think we are doing very well. Being kind is different, in my opinion, from being nice. Niceness seems to have a lot more to do with keeping up superficial appearances and/or an unhealthy desire to please. (I’m sure you’ve noticed that plenty of “nice” people are not actually very kind!)
Kindness is all about the other person. Oddly, many of the kindest people are very shy and actually loathe being caught in the act. True kindness is more often extended to the outliers, anyway – those who have no way of returning the favor. What it’s really about is simply recognizing the basic humanity that makes us all, utterly and forever, equals. Kindness may be as simple as looking someone in the eye and truly seeing them.
Kindness is also something that we need to extend to ourselves. In fact, being critical or judgmental or even cruel to others inevitably means we treat ourselves the same way. We have to recognize and love our own basic and flawed humanity before we can allow ourselves to do that for others.
I wish that kindness (not niceness) was actively taught in schools and homes, along with all the other skills and achievements that are more apt to be emblazoned on proud parents’ bumper stickers. I’m happy to say that my daughter is a very kind person, even though she still doesn’t know her multiplication tables. I hope that she will be happy and successful in life, yes – but the fact that she is kind is what really makes me proud to be her parent.
The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. ~ Mary Oliver
What you do one day, or a couple of days a month – whether for good or for bad – ultimately won’t have much impact on your life. What you do most days most certainly will. It’s like compound interest: A couple of cents or dollars a day seems meaningless in the first few years, but over the course of a lifetime it can make you rich. Or conversely, a small, insignificant poor choice, made regularly, can sabotage your life by barely perceptible degrees.
I’ve been taking a hard look at my own habits lately, after reading Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits, by Gretchen Rubin. The book gives an exhaustive list of strategies that can help or hinder attempts to change behavior patterns, and some good reasons to pay attention to what you actually do on a daily basis (as opposed to what you wish you were doing).
Rather than attempting a total overhaul – since I’m more of a Moderator than an Abstainer, in her terms – I’ve been looking for ways to make my wanted habits easier (and therefore more regular), while making the less desirable habits, like visiting the very tempting bakery down the block, or having a glass or two of wine at dinner, into more occasional treats.
But before getting too far in the process, I found that I had to back up a bit and figure out what I actually value the most, because there just isn’t time to cultivate every good habit I’d like to take up. What I found was that in some areas I was already doing a pretty good job. For instance, I value reading, and make sure that I get a lot of time for it. I value connection with my friends and family, and I also have a good track record of maintaining those ties (although I did decide to increase the frequency of emailing my parents!).
In other areas of value to me, my habits needed some tweaking. I value spirituality, and as an important part of that I value meditation. However, I wasn’t as consistent with my regular sitting practice as I wanted to be, because I was always physically uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Once I found a meditation bench that allowed me to comfortably kneel, and then – bonus! – downloaded an app to track my sessions and connect with other meditators (it’s called Insight Timer), I suddenly found myself on an almost effortless roll.
I was actually surprised by how motivating I found the app to be. This is the strategy of “monitoring,” and I’ve decided to see if it will also jumpstart my generally non-existent exercise habit. Health is definitely a value of mine, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw how much I don’t exercise. I’ve ordered one of those fitness trackers that look like a bracelet, and signed up for a somewhat pricey gym where you work with a trainer. (If I have an actual appointment, I’ll probably keep it.) I’m also using the strategy of piggybacking one habit onto another by doing 15 minutes of yoga immediately following my meditation.
Finally, since I’m a writer and I value creativity, I’ve decided that I should actually write a little bit every day. Formerly I’ve been pretty streaky with my writing. I’m using a wall calendar to keep track of my writing days, and setting the bar pretty low (I count it even if I only write for fifteen minutes, but I’m finding that fifteen minutes often leads to much longer).
What are you doing, or not doing that you wish you were, on a daily basis? What little things can you do that will set you up for success? What’s really important enough to you to do most days? I put a little note on my mirror to remind me of how I want to spend my days, and therefore my life:
Everyday I: meditate, write, connect with loved ones, and move my body.
A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition. ~ David Whyte
I love that old Zen phrase "chop wood, carry water." It brings me down to earth every time I get too wrapped up in the realms of mind or spirit - because even too much spirit isn’t a good thing! We are still physical beings inhabiting a physical body in a physical world. Whether we like it or not, we still have to take out the trash, brush our teeth, pay bills.
After my divorce in late 2015 (following a twenty-year marriage), I went on a spiritual deep dive that ended up lasting two full years. During that period I burrowed deep within myself, spending a huge amount of time reading, writing, meditating and attending classes on personal growth. Looking back now, I jokingly refer to the sterile suburban apartment where I lived as my Himalayan cave! In many ways I was truly living the life of a monk on a spiritual quest.
But eventually the seasons of life change. Recently I moved to a tiny but very cool apartment in the city. The game of life is swirling all around me here, and I'm itching to get off the bench and join in again. It’s as if the past two years of going inward have finally taught me the rules that were never clear when I was playing before. Suddenly my trajectory has changed and I’m focusing outward, eager to take what I’ve learned and test it out on the gritty playing field we call the “real world.” (Never mind that one of the rules is that it’s all actually just an illusion!)
Not that I’m abandoning my inner work – the goal is to take it with me into everyday life. I still meditate, read, journal, say my affirmations. I turned a whole wall of my new bedroom into a giant vision board that I can see from my bed. But I also went out and got a “real” job outside the house (just a regular old job hosting in a restaurant, which I’ve never done before). Joined a gym. Bought some clothes that were not yoga pants and sneakers. Thought about dating (okay – not very seriously). Got some blonde highlights that I immediately regretted.
Let me emphasize that I didn’t leave my cave because I thought I should (and I didn’t go into it in the first place that way either). It wasn’t a decision I made with my mind – it just happened. After my divorce I needed the time apart to process and understand where I had lost sight of myself. It was a restless, ungrounded feeling that told me that phase was ending. To be honest, it’s scary to leave the cave – but then, it was scary to enter it in the first place. We can never know how long a phase will last or where it will lead, however much the mind craves the answers ahead of time.
And, in reality, these phases are simply opposite sides of the same coin. It’s neither better nor worse to be spiritually or physically focused – we can get to the same place by taking either route. For me, for now, it’s about toting that barge and lifting that bale. But my prayer shawl is still hanging on the back of my door, waiting for me!
You live out the confusions until they become clear. ~ Anaïs Nin
Many of my clients – and I, myself – are searching for clarity. I know it when I find it. The swirling energy, the circling, repetitive thoughts, suddenly fall silent. It’s a distinct physical sensation of coming together, of gathering all my energy into a solid, shining core – a calm, grounded “knowing” in the center of my chest, like a low hum.
Have you felt that? It doesn’t come from your mind. In fact, when you attain clarity you often still don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to do, but you stop being worried about that. You know that you’ll know when the time comes. Knowing in this moment is enough. Clarity and certainty are not the same thing.
You find clarity by focusing on the wordless messages of your body, not the clamoring of the mind. You can’t think your way to real clarity – you feel your way. It comes from tuning in, over and over again, to your own energetic/emotional state. Can you feel it? Are you scattered all over the place, trying to guess what others are thinking, imagining consequences to various courses of action, wondering anxiously what’s going to happen?
That’s how you “live out the confusions” and none of it feels peaceful, although to a certain extent it’s an inevitable part of the process. I once read that when a missile is launched at a target, it initially veers back and forth quite a bit. As it approaches the target the oscillations become smaller and smaller, until it eventually “locks on.” I think finding clarity is like that. We have to experience the oscillations in order to find the target – but we can get better and better at recognizing when we’re not locked on.
Although analytical, “left brain” thinking won’t get you to clarity, it does help to hold the question loosely in your mind and slowly let it turn over in your subconscious. I like to let my mind wander over situations or future possibilities and, as long as I’m not trying to “figure things out,” I usually get some good information. It comes in the form of feelings and sensations – the body again. This general direction feels good, that one feels bad. This thing is important to me; the other, not so much.
It helps to avoid specifics and keep your focus a bit hazy – otherwise your mind will jump in and start trying to figure out the “cursed how’s.” For clarity, you really don’t need to know how, only what. What do you really want in this situation? What is actually important to you here? Knowing the answers to these questions is what brings clarity. You will feel it on a visceral level, as your body gives a resounding yes!
Once you have that yes, your job is to keep your focus there. Again, the mind will ply you with all manner of suggestions, cautions, excuses, caveats and the like. Ignore it (this gets easier with practice) and keep tuning back in to the feeling of clarity or inner knowing, however it shows up in your body. Use it as a touchstone to evaluate future courses of action, and it will lead you unerringly. It will also speak volumes to the people around you, because we all respond instinctively to clarity, in ourselves and in others.
A person susceptible to “wanderlust” is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation. ~ Pico Iyer
I love to travel, and yet I often find the act of traveling to be extremely uncomfortable – which is probably, in the end, why I love it so much. What seems delightfully charming and exotic prior to leaving home is often (in reality) strange and unfathomable and sometimes even downright unpleasant. Traveling hurls you out of your comfort zone – and yet you gladly pay for the privilege.
I grew up moving around the country with my family (both coasts and the middle), but my first real travel adventure was as an exchange student in Australia. I cried for most of the first three months, even though I loved my host family. And then I cried about the same amount of time when I returned home. That year opened my mind to the realization that there are many different and equally viable ways to do... everything. My family and country represented just one of those ways.
After that, I was hooked. I went to London to work as a nanny for a summer when I was 19, practically paralyzed with fear on the flight over. I traveled Europe alone for six months later in my twenties, experienced adventures on six continents, crisscrossed the US several times on mammoth road trips and lived in Germany for eight years. I traveled in planes, trains, cars, boats and on foot.
And every trip I took turned out to be some combination of the sublime and the wretched. That’s what makes travel so addictive. That’s why people buy travel memoirs called Worst Trips Ever. Once you get through the rough spots (assuming that you do) they always make the best stories. Experiencing the challenges and discomforts of exploring a totally new corner of the world – which you can do in Chinatown as well as in China – is what makes travel so transformative.
At home we set things up, as much as possible, for our own comfort. We know which restaurants we like and what to order there, the best way to get to work, and where to buy whatever we need. We can ask for directions or help in the unlikely event that we get lost or accidentally leave our ID in a taxi. Traveling, on the other hand, can make even the most accomplished and successful adult feel like a child – and that’s good for the ego every now and then.
Traveling is often an exercise in patience. Unless you have enough money to ensure a five-star experience everywhere you go (which somewhat defeats the purpose) things are often not at the level of comfort or convenience you might wish for. A lot of traveling is downright boring too: waiting for planes, looking for something to eat, deciding what to do in an unfamiliar town that shuts down unexpectedly for several hours in the middle of the day. The only way to really travel happily, I’ve found, is to suspend all expectations and allow yourself to be delighted when things do turn out well.
With all of that, I sometimes wonder why I keep on traveling, especially when I’m in the midst of one of those uncomfortable experiences. Robert Louis Stevenson said that to travel was to feel the “needs and hitches” of life more clearly, to “come down off the featherbed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot.”
Travel keeps me growing: I learn about myself while I’m learning about the world. Traveling forces me to question what’s normal, and makes me feel more alive and awake. It’s much easier to be mindful in a place where everything looks, sounds and tastes new and different. And I keep those fresh eyes for a while even after I return home. The toothpaste or shampoo I bought in another country reminds me for a while that there are other languages besides English.
And when I gradually start sinking back into my comfortable routines, it’s time to start dreaming about another trip!
Join the family!