It’s Not the Thing You Fling

Richard Beck’s latest posting is on the money: Experimental Theology: On Maps and Marital Spats: A Kantian Reflection.

“As I stepped back from this incident and took in a wider view it dawned on me that this is the way it is everywhere in my life. When I noticed myself getting upset at people it’s generally the case that I’m treating them as a means rather than an end. The person I’m interacting with is viewed in functional terms. Are they helping me get what I want? And if not, well, I get frustrated.”

I find myself in this place more often that I’d like. I think there are ways to work with it. A few that come to mind now include:

1. Want less. Practice letting what is be what it is, without rushing to change it. Refrain as much as possible from engineering circumstances to give you what you want. Refrain from asking (or, even more likely to end in tears, expecting without asking) people to give you what you want.

I happen to have an example to hand. Recently, I asked a few friends to arrange a birthday party for me this summer. I wanted this party, with a small group of friends around me, for a variety of reasons; I thought this planned party would provide me: relief (from organising it), happy anticipation, a feeling of well-being, joy from seeing my friends and family get to know each other better, a memorable birthday.

What I am noticing, though, is that I am still doing quite a bit of organising, I’m anxious about the lodging and transportation details, I’m anxious about the money this is costing me and others, I’m a little disappointed when people RSVP “no” (even those who were invited on a whim; I didn’t expect them to come but I hoped they would surprise me by coming, and I guess that’s close enough to an expectation to lead to disappointment), and I’m reacting to miscommunications by feeling pulled to negotiate the varied styles and desires of those doing the organising. (This last may or may not be true, but it feels true to me.)

All of this arises, I think, because I set up a situation where I am using my friends as an end to achieve my desires. This includes the friends who are planning the party as well as those who would be guests.  Their role is to help me feel good, as described above. What now, having done this,  and having, at least for the moment, these desires that I’ve listed and am trying to meet with the party? I could cancel it, though non-refundable reservations have been made. Or I could, perhaps:

2. Expect less. Continue to want and to act towards achieving those wants, but hold expectations lightly and be aware of them. Don’t expect desires to be satisfied. Or not. See what happens. Be curious about how it will all turn out.

With regard to the birthday party, I can step back and allow it all to be a hot mess or a cool moment of perfection or something in between.  I can even step in and allow this to be. I find that I am more able to act without attachment to outcome when I keep myself aware that doing so is a possibility, that expectations are something I create and carry with me and therefore something I can choose to set down, or hold loosely, or re-create  in a different form.

One way to do that is to remind myself of some things that are true: I have a sense of aliveness and being now; I can choose to not take personally a “no” response and remember that people act for their own reasons; my family and friends for the most part know each other already, thanks to past events, and that’s a lovely and satisfying thing for me; the friends who are planning the party are grown-ups who can handle their own interactions, expectations and irritations without me — In fact, they may become closer to each other by doing so.

When I remind myself of what’s available to me already, I feel less need for my expectations around this one event to be met. I feel less need for my friends to “give me what I want” and more grateful for their presence in my life as they are.

At the same time, it helps me to think about the wants under the wants — the deeper desire:

3. Explore what underlies the obvious desires.

I think, foundationally (and this comes from a mimetic perspective), what we all want is to feel valued, loved, appreciated, worthwhile, alive — that is, imbued with being. We achieve this often by comparison to others: who has more friends, or better friends? who has a better job?  who has more money? who is slimmer, fitter, happier, more content, more dutiful, more effective, more spontaneous, more balanced, healthier, more sociable? Who loves more passionately, more deeply, more widely? Who is more giving, more selfless, more collaborative, more creative, more honest, more free, more successful, more needed, more desired, more admired? Starkly, who’s in the obits column and who isn’t? It doesn’t have to be this way but from the Garden of Eden, comparison has been an easy way to measure self. It’s compelling. Others seems to have what I want, to embody the way of being I want.

And even if there is no identifiable ‘other’, sometimes there is simply a feeling of not having “enough.” Not being happy enough, not being valued enough, not having enough fun, not doing enough to make the world better, and so on.  My feeling and experience is that this sense of scarcity comes from lack of felt connection to life itself, to the vitality and fulness of God, to the abundance and enjoyment of fully living.

So one way to work with underlying desires and to tap into the fundamental possibility that all desires are already fully met is to reconnect with life itself. For me, this means meditation, silence, time alone, gardening, being outside, encouraging my own curiosity, exploring new and old things, listening, participating with an open heart in friendships, thinking, taking photos.

Back to the birthday party. When I realise that it’s just one possible vehicle to achieve deeper desires, the more fundamental ones such as those I named above, it’s easier to take it lightly, particularly when I am feeling satisfyingly connected to life. It’s more workable to admit, accept and even embrace that this particular event might not give me the feelings and outcomes I want, might not help me satisfy my desires.

(I say embrace because I have wanted things in the past that I wasn’t granted and it was, I think from the vantage point of years, a very narrow escape. That could be cognitive dissonance speaking, and anyway, the jury is still out on how things will turn out in the long run, but as far as how they turn out every day, I’m pretty sure that sometimes what I think I want is not what I really want; instead, it’s the wrong vehicle, a canoe for rowing up a mountain, a Hummer for negotiating narrow, winding European roads. Or, it’s any vehicle when staying in place is enough.)

In fact, this party might be a nightmare: Someone might have a terrible accident on the way to the party, the planners or my sisters or I might have something come up at the last minute that keeps us from attending, the scheduling might get all screwed up or just feel onerous and irritatingly complicated, or, more likely,  we might be crabby (ha! we’re eating crabs!) and petty (but we’re not eating pets).

What I feel I want from this party is joy, the joy that comes for me when people I like are in relationship with each other.  I recognise that I already have this, and I’m aware that there are lots of other ways these relationships can grow without this birthday party, or in spite of it.

I think that recognising that what we really want is a full sense of being (however that appears and feels to each of us) decreases attachment to that one necessary-feeling means — that one event, one response, one outcome, one relationship, etc. — as a way to meet that desire. It’s not the party, it’s not the vacation, it’s not not being lost.

Or, as Chris Stevens put it in a Northern Exposure episode: “It’s the groping. … It’s not the thing you fling, it’s the fling itself. “

I’m reminded of this lovely blog posting about tree pose in yoga:

“[I]n Vrikshasana, tree pose, the power of the pose does not come in the balancing. The wonderful moment when one bursts up and grounds down that feeds the ego with it competence, does not create balance. It is the moving in and out of the pose that creates strength. A tree will snap if it does not sway. “

When I use friends, spouses, and strangers as functionaries to help me get what I want, I’m feeding my ego, strengthening my identity, increasing my sense of security, and encapsulating and hardening myself in some way that harms my being as it abuses theirs. It’s by not becoming fixed or attached to a desire, expectation or outcome — by continuing to move and be moved like a tree in the breeze  — that life is free to flow within and without.

Maybe my friends can help give me what I want, maybe not. But that’s not what they’re here for, in my life or anyone else’s.  We’re all here for the fling. The fling with the universe, with the source, with life itself.

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