Obstacles to Life

I enjoyed Dave Pollard’s recent post on Living in the Here and Now . It’s partly a review of Richard Moss’s book, The Mandala of Being, and partly an adaptation of the book to Pollard’s particular situation.

The general idea (I haven’t read Moss’s book myself) seems to be that what keeps us anxious and depressed — what keeps us from living in the Now — are four things, which are all really one thing — stories that get fixed in our heads and to which we return again and again:

  • our tendency to revisit the past: “we recall stories of what happened, that we may feel guilt, nostalgia or regret about”
  • our tendency to imagine the future:  “where we dream of an idyllic future, or worry about a catastrophic one”
  • our judgments about ourselves: “who we think we ‘are’ and should be, perhaps grandiosely or depressingly”
  • our judgments about others and the external environment: “who/what we think they ‘are’ or should be, perhaps jealously, angrily or bitterly”

Pollard says:

“Ultimately we spend almost every moment of our lives (except those when we are caught up in the intoxication of love, music, nature, drugs, or other ‘escapes’ from the machine in our heads) reacting to everything by defensively relating it to the corresponding stories, and feeling the corresponding emotions. Ultimately we come to think we, and the reality around us, are these stories and these emotions.”

Moss’s suggestion is that when we become aware that we lack presence, we start again from Now. He recommends deconstructing the entrenched stories and casting doubt on them through “a combination of trust and unattachment to the future, continued self-inquiry and empathy for others.”

That prescription doesn’t work for Pollard, so he applies the model to his own life but invokes another book, John Gray’s Straw Dogs, to help him reframe his own stories — in terms of acceptance, patience, appreciation, and pragmatism.

His stories [reframed]:

  • Gaia is dying – evokes grief and anger. [acceptance]
  • Civilization is a prison – evokes anger and helplessness. [pragmatism]
  • Others expect things of him that he can’t or won’t provide – evokes self-loathing (when expectations seem reasonable) and self-righteousness (when they don’t) [appreciation]
  • He lacks the courage to act on his convictions – evokes self-anger and sometimes despair. [patience]

I like his comment about Gaia is dying in particular: He wants to learn to ‘hold space’ for this story, to acknowledge it without letting it devour him: “Learning to accept the death of our planet may not be that different from learning to accept the death of any individual creature we love.”

——–

Of course, I started to think about what my stories are, past or future, and my judgments of self and others.

I. Stories of the future, with feelings of hope and fear:

Like Pollard, I believe Gaia is probably dying and I have no high hopes or regard for civilisation. Neither of those is an obstacle for me, though, maybe because I do accept them. Moss’s suggestion of (loving) unattachment to the future does ‘work’ for me in a way that it doesn’t for Pollard. I have a deep faith in the joyful core of revelation, the idea that whatever happens will reveal something essentially loving and alive, something full of wonder.  That could be denial on my part, an adapative defense mechanism. I think it comes from repeated experiences in my life and in my dreams, from the awe-filled, completely surprised moment of seeing something I could never have imagined before I saw it.  Revelation.

I have some fears and hopes about the future but nothing that feels like it’s tied to a strong story, other than this feeling about revelation.  Oh — maybe that I don’t want a lot of baggage, clutter, stuff as I continue to move along the path of life. I fear that I will be weighed down with furniture, books, tools, the too-muchness of minutiae, and that it will distract me from … anything else.  Sometimes I almost despair of the amount of stuff around me, the maintenance it takes, the decision-making it requires, the physical space it demands, the un-beauty of it.

II. Stories of the past, with their feelings like guilt, regret, nostalgia:

I have begun occasionally to have nostalgic feelings for “the good old days” of childhood, high school, college, young adulthood. It all seems good now, each detail I can recall! So far, the nostalgia doesn’t feel like an obstacle to continuing along the path, not something I compare longingly to my experience here and now. Most of the time. There is some longing. More often, it’s a feeling of deep appreciation for my life, with a hint of wistfulness that it will end (at least in this form) in the blink of an eye.  As far as guilt and regret, I have very little.

III. Stories and judgments about myself, with feelings of self-anger, insecurity, grandiosity:

I have some of that. Not much self-anger, though it can flare. Lately I have felt angry that I’ve regularly abdicated responsibility and allowed others to make decisions that involve me, because it’s easier than making my own decisions or compromising or wresting control from someone else, and I can always blame them if it doesn’t work out.

Similarly, I’ve let others do things I could do, because I’m lazy. Having ‘patience’ with laziness feels like just more of the same! But if Dave can have patience with procrastination, I can have patience with laziness! :-)

I have other stories about myself, which come and go: I’m not lovable, I’m not likable, I’m too harsh, I’m too cerebral, I’m too independent,  I focus too much on my body, I waste time, I’m boring, I don’t do enough, I’m too utilitarian in my outlook,  and so on.  Oh well.  Some days I’m depressed about who I am, most days I’m not.

IV. Stories and judgments about others, with feelings of jealousy, bitterness, anger:

Yeah, I have these, the anger mostly.  People don’t measure up sometimes, not because, as in Pollard’s case, they expect too much from me; that’s not something I typically notice unless it’s explicitly stated.

But I can get stuck in the expectations-lead-to-resentments racket, which blurs my view of the people around me. It’s that utilitarian thing I mentioned above, forgetting that others are not there for my use, to make me feel good, to give me tangible and intangible things, to do things for me, to notice and praise me, etc., but that they’re there as other created and creative beings who are as needy, funny, interesting, desirous, rivalrous, defended, curious, bewildered, and completely loved as I am.

When I expect other people to satisfy me, to make up what I feel I lack, I can get angry, or I can get self-judging.

I think Moss’s suggestions about ongoing self-inquiry, empathy development, and unattachment to the future are strong antidotes to getting stuck here. Reminders help.  A sense of forgiveness also helps: self-forgiveness, and forgiveness of others for not being exactly who I think they should be! :-)

————-

Again and again I come back to the Buddhist idea of friendliness. When I remember it, I can ‘let it be’ in a way that doesn’t feel resigned and tired but that feels like sparked and attentive curiosity, an openness to what will happen, to what I will do, to what you will do. The surprise of the revelation, again.

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