Recognizing Growth

childrenLearnDummy. That was my nickname when I was a boy (around ages 7 to 12). It was given to me by my step-dad: a Vietnam-vet and ex-POW, a raging alcoholic, a failed hermit and an abuser. At that age, the nickname bored into me and told me something I grew up believing was true, despite evidence to the contrary.

As a young man, I devoted my life to hiding from what I thought was a deep truth: that I was stupid. I developed behaviors surrounding this deep dark secret of mine. The most prominent is the rage I would feel if I thought someone was questioning my intellectual capacity. The most ingrained was the inability to allow people to get close. I kept the world at a distance, because I didn’t want to be dumb, but believed I was and no one could find that out.

ChangeIn high school, I began meditation and focusing on growing and repairing the damaged parts of myself. The latter I’ve carried with me my whole life. The former, I struggle with off and on in life (I feel like I’m not alone there, however). As a result of both, I’ve developed a habit of paying attention to my intent in most every situation. It helps me keep focus within rather than pointing my finger at the world. As a result, I improve. I am a better version of myself each day.

Looking back on myself as a young man and my reactions to people who appeared to me to be questioning my intellect, I see a major difference. Before, even if in jest, I would react to people by fully withdrawing, obsessing for days without sleep. That person, even if for a short time, became my enemy. Today, I have one of those jesty-centered friendships with a guy I’ve known for several years. You know those types of relationships: it’s all about who can get the best rib-shot in. We have serious moments, but most of the time we spend together is criticizing each other’s (real or imagined) flaws… and laughing about it. He pokes at my intellectual capacity more than anyone ever has in my life. After knowing him for five years, I only just made this realization only yesterday: that his joking critique didn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, somewhere along the line, somehow — without noticing that it actually happened — I became confident in my abilities to understand, to learn… to be smart.

As I sit here now, I know I am intelligent and it has nothing to do with my intellectual successes in my life. I dropped out of high school, thinking I was incapable of rising to anything higher than beating video games. But I passed my GED exams in the 97th percentile, and a year before my class graduated. I taught myself how to program web pages, graduated college summa cum laude, and so on. None of those successes had anything to do with my intellectual capacity, and had everything to do with how I feel about myself.

Striving to be authentic, looking within for the answers to our biggest questions and learning to not judge (ourselves and the world around us) are the keys to personal growth. I feel like I want to say that patience is a factor, because it takes time to reprogram yourself, but I cannot because I don’t know when this change happened. I don’t remember the last time I felt horrible because someone seemed to imply I might be a little stupid.

Now, I can laugh when someone pokes fun at me in that way (if the joke is funny, that is — if it isn’t, then I get to poke back).

Knowing my place

The Dalai Lama’s Facebook post for today sparked some thought I take for granted, so I thought I’d flesh it out for #myDailyShare (not that I will improve upon what has already been said).

We are all the same.

I’ve spent a lifetime “learning my place” in the world. The world I have lived in has classified my as this or that, has taught me who my betters are (basically, everyone), and given me all the tools I need to compare my insides to the outsides of those I encounter. Because of this, I learned also to internalize and protect myself, allowing only acceptable parts of myself to show… depending on who I was around. This can become very complicated, but what is important is that this belief of separation has created within me an automatic “othering” process that keeps the distance between me and others exactly as it should be. My distance from you is directly proportional to how much better than me I think you are — and of course, how much better I think I am than you.

The problem with this — and it’s a major problem in our culture — is that there are vast distances between everyone. It’s rare to find one person in a lifetime that can bridge that gap. And I am responsible for my part in building that bridge.

But the truth is, the gap is illusory. Beyond my perceptions of other people, they are just like me.

Celebrities are our royalty. We listen to them. We believe them and trust them. If we meet them we behave erratically. But they are no different than those of us who are not famous. Beneath the external qualities that surround who I think I am and who I think others are, there is a very simple concept: We only want happiness.

We might not know what happiness is, but we know we want it. The drive to have it is what fuels us to get up in the morning. It comes in so very many different forms — sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful; it permeates every experience we encounter throughout the day.

We guard our right to it with the ferocity of fight-or-flight reactions in the shape of our middle finger when someone cuts us off in traffic. That dude wants happiness too. Maybe his happiness is threatened by being late for work. Maybe that’s why you flipped the sonofabitch off in the first place.

When we have it, we want to share it. We freely give it in the form of kind apologies delivered with a smile when our grocery carts are in the way of another’s in the bread aisle.

This is what drives us. This is why there is no actual distance between me and you. Our beliefs, values, talents, weaknesses… these are incidental. They might shape how I am delivered to the the world, but they are not who I am. Who I am, is the exact same as who you are… who anyone is. We can’t get to who we are completely, but in trying, we come to see that those distances that keep us apart from each other are nothing more than fictions we create within ourselves so that we know our place within our society.

Those distances are a poison in our culture. The antidote? Compassion (the guy who cut you off wants the same thing you do).

So… What now?

I have been “struggling” with uncertainty lately (part of the reason I’ve been slacking on posting daily shares). The semester is over and a lot of my friends are graduating and moving on with the next phase of their lives. While it’s sad to say goodbye, there is another feeling that is arising for me: what am I doing?

This happens to me when I pause at way stations on my life’s journey. I graduated last December and, while I like the metaphor of a new chapter in life, it felt (and feels) more appropriately to be the end of a book in a series. Some days I feel as if I am the author. Other days, I am only the main character. Some days, my book is non-fiction and my character is real and full of life. Other days, I am a puppet wondering where my direction and motivation are going to come from.

The truth is, I am riding an eddy of uncertainty. As we know, uncertainty is a beautiful thing. What I have in front of me are possibilities. When I’m happiest, uncertainty and possibility are synonyms and my creativity runs blissfully rampant in life.

But then there are those times when the two appear to be antonyms, when possibility is hidden behind the question: “What now?”. These are the days when I feel like I am going through the motions. Ego questions all the things that appear to be lacking in my life. My focus rests on what I don’t have, which is another way of describing all the things I desire.

My life right now is exactly where it needs to be. I have considered options for the future, but none of them feel right. I am beginning a new book in the series of my life, but I am stuck trying to determine what should go in the prologue. Writer’s block, if you will.

Sometimes, it’s important to let those outside forces guide me. I want to allow the Universe to provide me with the options (or, as I like to think of them, miracles and possibilities) I have not even considered. I don’t want to lock myself into a choice that will hinder me. This is called fear.

stayPatientMy life — the entire series so far — has taught me that fear is a very useful tool. It is a difficult one to use properly, but when it arises, it is clear. From that point, I can choose to allow the fear to make my decisions or I can start probing it. Fear really is nothing more than the packaging material for uncertainty-as-possibility. If life is a lush garden, fear is the odor of the compost. It is the manifestation of uncertainty-as-anti-possibility. One of those two dynamics function properly; the other, of course, does not function. It is clear which one does and which one doesn’t. Functional dynamics allow a system to continue expressing motive energy if in an altered state while dysfunctional dynamics grind the whole process to a halt.

Clearly, for my life to move forward from this point — to write the prologue for my next book — I need to embrace the uncertainty. I need to dwell within the space of “What now?”. To keep moving, I need to pause and be present in the stillness of this moment in my life. There is no fear, no worry here. That all exists in the nonexistent future.

 

possibilities

lifeIsAJourneylightThroughDarknesslightAtTheEnd

Riding to Mindfullness in a Jalopy

I read this article this morning on Elephant Journal about “Is Mindfulness First World Bullsh*t” (by Monica Careless). It was a great read and I agree with the sentiment fully: humility is a key to the practice of mindfulness. I certainly do not want to be perceived as disagreeing with anything in this article, but I do want to examine a different perspective. To do so, I’ll use my own life as an example.

I grew up “first-world poor”. I’ve never lived in a different culture. As such, I’m accustomed to surviving in a first world, but pressed hard against the edges, wholly unimportant to the culture in which I belong, and as such have rebelled against it (in many ways) in my lifetime. My culture is one of consumerism, where my worth is measured in what I can display. I am valued more if I have the nice car, big TV perfectly edged lawn. Growing up on the edge of my culture, I have learned a different way of looking at these things. I like to accumulate them when I can, but I have no real attachment to them. I see them as emergency savings… “pawnables” if you will.

Though in comparison to people surviving in third world countries, I live in riches, my concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy comes from the culture in which I grew up. So, while I struggle wondering how rent will get paid, or if the food bank will let me go again even though it has been less than a month since I was last there (maybe just some eggs?), or what I will do if my leaky car breaks down, or… None of this is to raise sympathy, but to point out the frame of reference I have to work from.

I have two stories to illustrate. The first is the biblical story of the Rich man and the kingdom of heaven in which Jesus tells a rich man that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The second story is one I heard (but cannot find in any scriptures) about Buddha and his disciples. Invited to feast at a rich landowner’s house, where Buddha and his disciples were showered with gifts, one of his disciples condemned the rich man for his display of attachment to material. Buddha chastised his disciple by telling him that the rich man was closer to enlightenment at that moment than was the disciple. The rich man displayed vigorous generosity, where the disciple displayed only judgement.

anyRoadThe distinction here is attachment to the material world. That is where the first world (rich man) faces difficulties, and why it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle. But I can develop attachments to beliefs as well as objects, which can be just as harmful. Mindfulness negates the frame of reference from which my perception originates. As Careless’s article pinpoints, humility is key. I can be mindful and practice mindfulness, no matter what my circumstances, but if humility escapes me, I am not actually being mindful. Without humility, I am being analytic (as I am doing now), which limits my perceptive capability to a narrow set of causes and conditions relevant only to perceivable stimuli existing in a moment. Mindfulness allows me to see events as they occur. Analysis picks out pieces for judgment. Compassion (aided by humility) allows me to see past the limits of mind and judgment. I can recount witnessing a car wreck in such a way that I am not adding any of my own personal bias to tell the story; I am not judging fault or cause of the wreck.

To bring this back to the beginning. Practicing mindfulness is first world bullshit, but it’s the vehicle we have to get us where we need to be. All mindfulness practice is bullshit while it seeks to penetrate the rebelliousness of ego. We of first world western culture flock through fads, this is true. Mindfulness helps us release judgment of what that means (sort of an Infernal Irony going on here). If you want to travel far, you may have to ride in a jalopy part of the way.

Do you want to change the world too?

I have many dreams. There are so many things I want to do in life. Sometimes, that list seems quite daunting and impossible as a whole. Sometimes, some of the things on that list are daunting by themselves. Some of them are simple curiosities I wish to one day experience; some are ways I may contribute to the happiness of all. I am a dreamer. This is true. I’ve let my culture tell me in my life that this is bad. That dreaming of life is not life. That practical action is required and that I should leave my dreaming in childhood so that I may better pay my taxes and my bills. The old punk-rocker in me has always said, “Fuck you!” to these social standards imposed on me, but the spiritual being within has helped to unveil a different perspective. Actually, they’re not all that different…

One thing I absolutely do not want is to reach the end of my life and wonder what it was all for. In fact, that thought has come to be a powerful indicator to my state of being in a moment. When I start thinking, “What’s the point?”, I know that my will is out of alignment with my life. I know that I am not doing what I should be. I know this because when I’m doing the things I need to be doing, I am happy and content and everywhere I place my gaze, there is living, vibrant beauty.

So, my dream is to change the world by writing. Sounds simple enough, yeah? The complexity of that statement is not apparent in the statement, but it means having experience enough to gain wisdom, which means taking action to experience new things, which means letting go of insecurities enough to put myself out there, which means coming to know myself and my preferences and learning out how to distinguish between preference and fear, which means having the courage to walk through fear, which means ….. and waking up in the morning. Get the idea?

 

So, here I am writing on my own experience and wisdom. Am I changing the world? I am certainly changing my world.

“You can feel yourself. Not as a stranger in the world. Not as something here on probation. Not as something that has arrived here by fluke. But you can begin to feel your own existence as absolutely fundamental.” ~Alan Watts

Creating the Ideal

aNewStoryI’ve talked about it before, but I have this vision of my “ideal self”. I’ve had this vision for many years and have spent a good portion of my life daydreaming about it. That’s not entirely fair. Some of the work I’ve done (a lot without realizing that was what I was doing) involved discovering internal obstacles. But the real work, discovering/creating the means with which to overcome or circumvent those obstacles have been within the last year. I’ve only scratched the surface. I have a long way to go, but the point isn’t about arrival… it is the going. The further I go along my path… the more positive changes I make in my life… the more that “ideal self” changes. So, it’s safe to assume I will never reach that ideal, and that’s good, because if I ever do, there will be no life for me to be living.

To get to this point, I had to hit bottom. I had to find myself with no other course but to look inward. All outward answers had to stop working for me. And they did… magnificently! At the time, my life felt like chaos reigned, but I remembered something I heard a very wise man say — “Chaos is resistance to change”. It took (is taking —  will always take) practice to embrace rather than resist change, but the more I do embrace it, the happier I am; the better I can stay in the now.

That is the real secret to living a life on a quest for the “ideal self”… you don’t work your way toward your goals, you live your way toward them. The journey and the destination are the same thing. The same thing. Let me repeat that again. The journey and the destination are the same thing. I am my ideal self because I want to be better than I am. I am the best version of me because I strive to be better than I am. I have a whole list of things I still want to change about myself, but they are incidental and mundane (regardless of the strong feelings I have about them –> I hate being a smoker). The incidental and mundane are the stepping stones of the profound path. The trick is to not perceive the pavement for the path.

attractWhatYouAreHaving said all that, I want to apply this to my idea of an “ideal world” (and, consequently, the purpose for today’s post). I believe know that what we all want is the same on a very fundamental level — to be happy. We live in a very exciting time. Everywhere I look, I see people pushing themselves and each other to a deeper understanding of the Universe; to living in such a way that happiness pervades daily life; to touch spirit and know. People want to walk the path towards an ideal world. And they’re willing to use the paving stones of the incidental and mundane to walk the path of purity. It’s everywhere. And it is beautiful. Because we want to create an ideal world, we have created it. It’s easy to see all that is wrong, but it really is just as easy to see all that is right and good. And it is.