I’ve been reading a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. It’s fascinating, especially for people like me, long-steeped in the The Secret brand of optimism so pervasive in the metaphysical world.
First, to be clear, positive thinking is great! I love a good affirmation as much as the next person. This life can be a joy and I pretty much live there most of the time these days. But then there are the other days where, from our human perspective, awful things happen, where sorrow blows up out of nowhere, or the sucker punch of grief lays us low.
At the root of all suffering, says the second of the four ‘noble truths’ that define Buddhism, is attachment. The fact that we desire some things, and dislike or hate others, is what motivates virtually every human activity. Rather than merely enjoying pleasurable things during the moments in which they occur, and experiencing the unpleasantness of painful things, we develop the habits of clinging and aversion: we grasp at what we like, trying to hold on to it forever, and push away what we don’t like, trying to avoid it at all costs. Both constitute attachment. Pain is inevitable, from this perspective, but suffering is an optional extra, resulting from our attachments, which represent our attempt to try to deny the unavoidable truth that everything is impermanent. …
Non-attachment need not mean withdrawing from life, or suppressing natural impulses, or engaging in punishing self-denial. It simply means approaching the whole of life ~ the inner thoughts and emotions, outer events and circumstances ~ without clinging or aversion. To live non-attachedly is to feel impulses, think thoughts, and experience life without becoming hooked by mental narratives about how things ‘should’ be, or should never be, or should remain forever. …
“Without aversion … non-attachedly.” Do I really want that? To live in some always-centered state where I’m unaffected by anything? Would that be numbing? dull? Possibly. Coming out of one of life’s periods of chaos, it could have an appeal. A lot of days, though, that doesn’t even sound like living.
But wait! He suggests “to live non-attachedly is to feel impulses, think thoughts, and experience life,” the whole of life, only without being hooked by shoulds, nevers, or always.
Good stuff there, I think. In my view (which I wrote about here), we come here for the wheeee! of it, for the hard stuff that our human selves mostly hate, but our souls find divine. We had perfection before we came down the chute. We didn’t come here to live perfect lives. We are always already That/THIS/The All of It. We wanted the human adventure in all of its mud and glory.
So what does this mean, this non-attached living? Meditation is supposed to lead us to peace and happiness, some mystical place of neutrality, but again, why even do earth life again if we’re not going to embrace the human experience, which includes wanting things, attaching to things, and so much more? Doing human is troublesome. We have to develop a script, a persona, stitch together a costume, and an ego to go with it. That ego insures that I will want things. It’s in the rule-set.
Personally, I want a lot. Good friends, family, knowledge, experiences, travel, music, enough money to be safe, tasty food, wild places, meaningful work, excellent coffee, dogs and cats and other critters, and so much more. Even waking up, a spiritual delight, was on my list of wants from before I knew what to call it, that nagging sense there had to be (had. to. be.) something more.
I’m living a human life. I attach and cling. I especially attach to the wish to have none of the rough stuff, though fat lot of good that’s done.
Burkeman goes on to talk about attachment and clinging and how even the most subtle spiritual practices can be that, as in “I want more peace,” so let me meditate for another 15 minutes. “I want to be happy,” so let me tap tap tap on my forehead and hands. “I’m scared and worried,” but a mantra will fix that. To be clear, I am not at all downplaying these wonderful practices. I love all of these useful tools ~ and a lot more. I use them and they work to realign with the truth of who we are.
But maybe the point is to learn how to not attach, how to not clench onto or against anything and, especially (I say, attaching to the avoidance part of this), how not to flee the things we don’t like. What if we were to settle in to non-peace, to non-happiness and allow it to swirl around and through us? What if, absent my resistance, those unwanted states then just flow on?
My I-don’t-want-this is an attachment and a clinging, and in the clenching that comes when I reject what is, there is a binding up and stopping of the flow. I get stuck in what my most beloved spiritual teacher, Suzanne Giesemann, calls “an eddy.” The eddies in the flow of life can be temporary swirling diversions, or they can become violent, sucking whirlpools that keep us trapped. What if we were to just boldly swim into the eddy, drift in those circling waters, experience it, and flow on? Is that even possible? (Was that so bad?)
Burkeman suggests this, quoting a zen Buddhist and psychiatrist, Barry Magid:
“… the quintessential point, Magrid told me, is that if you flee it, it’ll come back to bite you. The very thing from which you’re in flight ~ well, it’s the fleeing that brings on the problem. For Freud, our whole psychology is organised around this avoidance. The unconscious is the repository of everything that we’re avoiding.”
“The founding myth of Buddhism is practically a mirror-image of all this. The Buddha becomes psychologically free ~ enlightened ~ by confronting negativity, suffering and impermanence, rather than struggling to avoid it. … Buddhism’s path to serenity began with a confrontation with the negative.”
This is a whack on the noggin of a culture where a relentless focus on the positive is proposed as a solution to everything from cancer to a stubbed toe. And yes, there is a balance to shoot for here. As I said, I love positive thinking. It feels great. I adore counting my blessings, because gratitude feels so delicious and making a daily list of ten good things (about my younger, wretched, miserable self) changed my life, a slow motion STE over a decade or so of relentless writing. I relish the surge of heart-opening love that happens when I think of dear friends, family, and pets. I suspect it’s pretty close to heaven.
Is it possible to want and enjoy those things to the exclusion of the other stuff?? “I will allow only sweetness and light and nothing else will touch me.” Can you hear the clinging in that? The resistance to anything not sweet, not light? And it’s human time down here. Promise, something’s going to touch me. All of us.
But what if the objectively horrible, by human standards, not-sweet, not-light thing is really, truly here? A monster has arrived and it’s sitting over there across the room in a chair comfortable enough to sink in to. It’s slowly stirring a cup of tea, calm and quiet and settled, clearly planning to stay for a while. On the face of it, the objectively horrible thing, I see serious illness, death, disaster of every kind. It’s got a tote bag and it’s chock full of worry. “Will this work out? When will I know? Can I survive this? Will he live, my love?” What-ifs of every kind reside there, along with all of life’s great sorrows. But. It. Is. Here.
Can I ignore it? Maybe. Perhaps with a certain strength of mind, with extensive training, I can simply ignore it and go on with my life unaffected.
But I am not particularly strong, trained, or able to ignore things. My human story includes this particular brain through which I view the world (and it’s a little on the OCD side, so take all of this with a grain of salt, you left-brained cognitive disciplinarians). What has worked for me, and the reason why I so resonated with the Burkeman book, is to look at the monster.
It’s already here.
Surprise! It’s always here, just not always in our conscious awareness. It’s human life. All possibilities are flowing in and through us at all times and, dummies that we are, we really did come here for all of this.
So why not look at it, the bad thing, the wretched possibilities, the worst that could happen? I will never forget the tremendous sense of relief my friend Brenda felt and expressed when, about ten days before she died, she admitted that her physical healing from cancer was not to be. “Can we stop pretending I’m not terminal?”
Yes, yes, please. It was such a relief to give in to what we knew was true. And yes, there was stunning transformation and deep childhood wound resolution in a healing she’d experienced two weeks before, but she was still going to leave this human life. In saying “I’m terminal,” she could take a deep breath, admit the truth, and enjoy her last love-filled days, free of the tension of denial. Knowing ~ or fearing the onset of ~ dreadful things but not being able to say them out loud can be a very lonely place to live.
At the lake where I spent most of my childhood summers, there was a swimming hole which was mostly sandy bottom. At the deep end, though, where we couldn’t touch down, it was typical lake mud: layers of rotted moss and dead, decaying things. I was terrified of hitting bottom there. But that little lake, 99 Springs, was heaven and none of us could stay out of the water.
As a hello to the lake for the summer, I would run as fast as I could down the swimming hole dock and fling myself off of the diving board feet first. Then I’d panic and frantically kick-kick-kick to the surface because the fear of the nasty, muddy, child-sucking ickiness on the bottom of the lake was overwhelming. I was sure if I touched it, I’d be sucked down and down and down. For years I was able to avoid that bottom because of my size and height. And then one day, a bigger me couldn’t kick hard enough and there it was.
The mud slithered between my toes. The water immediately clouded. But wonder of wonders, ankle deep in the surface yuck, my feet found a hard bottom. Under that surface nastiness was something solid. It didn’t clutch my ankles and suck me into the center of the earth. It was gross and slimy, but it wasn’t anything like the horror I’d imagined.
Burkeman — and the Buddha — say look at the awful stuff, therein lies freedom. And my toes agree that, at least in a spring-fed lake in southwestern Kansas, what lies beneath isn’t nearly as bad as my uninformed thoughts about it. What if I’d touched that disgusting stuff with my five year old toes instead of my ten year old ones? Nothing would have changed, the bottom was the bottom. It was there all along.
Oh, but I’d have missed out on five years of anxiety and fear. I’d still jump off the board and swim fast to the top, but not in panic. Just with a preference to not touch the mud.
The horrors in our imaginations are often much worse than reality. I’ve learned this over and over. There was a time when my husband’s death seemed the most terrible thing possible. When he became ill, I affirmed his health, bargained, ranted and raved at God, and tried everything to make it not true, even pretending it wasn’t with mantras and affirmations. And then another prospect arose of an emaciated Mike confined to a nursing home, unable to communicate, bedfast. His last breath freed him from what would have been a hell for that beautiful, vibrant man. Death — the worst thing — became a gift.
There’s a big difference there: the denial of terrible things (for me) glosses over a simmering panic and fear. I had it throughout most of Mike’s illness. Looking at the ugly that’s here can release the clench of aversion and allow all of that simmering possibility to just flow on. I’m left with a fully informed preference. “I’d rather have another outcome, but that awful thing is definitely possible.” There’s peace in that.
When my friend Raven* and I drove to San Diego for death doula training, she’d just been diagnosed with a severe, life-threatening illness. Metaphysical / spiritual people almost universally suggest embarking upon a program of affirming health, positive-outcoming the diagnosis, looking for the sunny side, silver-lining it. (That’s after they look down their noses at you because surely you brought this on yourself. “Haven’t you heard of Louise Hay?”)**
Instead, we spent a week talking about dying and how it feels to face death sooner than expected and with more immediate certainty. We admitted that even knowing life is eternal, the thought of dying could be scary when it becomes a real and present possibility. We listened to every podcast by Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. Kate was living a charmed life when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at the age of 34.
“The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors.”
So we talked about the ugliness, about death in all of its potentialities. The monster took up residence in the back seat as we drove to California. It was heartbreaking and hard and honest, and truly, being sick to #%@!@#$% death of losing people, I was feeling nearly as over and done with this life as my friend. “Let’s just go. It’s too damn hard, this human thing.” We both felt so intensely through with this life.***
But there was also something freeing in refreshing the monster’s cup of tea and settling in with it, in touching the sucking, slimy, nastiness of what had shown up and sinking down into it. Just being able to say the truth out loud was a a relief, and it allowed the fear and sorrow to expand and thin, to dissipate and blend back into the flow again as just one part of the All.
Fear stopped being the whole thing as when panic surfaces, and it was no longer the never thing, as when we fight to keep the ugly at bay. It was just life. In that is everything. All things. Embracing the whole is liberating. It’s so hard to remember that our souls count all of this life as joy, even the mess of it.
And once I know what I’m dealing with, the monster loses its power. I may not want what the monster brings, but I know its parameters. It’s not sneaking up on me. What’s the worst that can happen? Whatever the answer, there’s freedom in it. Now I can use all of my tools to come back into alignment with the never-changing nature of my soul. Now I can look for the good, holding a happier outcome in mind, tap out that tension and more.
Talk of death in our oh so positive world is verboten. Death itself is one of our greatest (probably the greatest) fears. It certainly was mine. Speak openly of this absolute, and people will sidle away, searching for some happy talk to smooth over the top of the truth that we are all going to clear out of here, some sooner, some later, but ~ in other ugly news from the monster in the back seat ~ we have no idea when.
It helps in this to be one of the lucky ones who knows that we don’t die, that this human life isn’t all there is. Being able to view this life with the eyes of my soul or Lynette’s makes all the difference. We’ve “gone off on a little journey” of experiences but all roads lead Home again.
Embracing the mess, the ugly, frees me to move on. Trying to put icing on a dirt cupcake doesn’t help me. It’s still a dirt cupcake. There’s a time and a place for focusing on the positive, but that can only come after I really know what I’m dealing with in all of its potential outcomes.
This is a reallllly long post and if you’ve read this far, thank you. I’d love to hear your thoughts too, so tell me how it strikes you and whether or not you’ve found a way to ignore the heavy-breathing monster back there. I’m all ears and wide open to evolution. It’s what we’re here for, yes?
*You can hear the beautiful healer, Raven Valencia, on Suzanne Giesemann’s Messages of Hope radio show here.
**Not knocking Louise. She was a great teacher. Good stuff there.
***Raven is alive and well, remarkably so. She’s vibrant and shining, a treasure to those who love her.
Post magic: as I was rethinking whether or not to actually hit publish or to consign this to draft mode forever, I came across this sweet thing. Never forget we are purely made of love and that never changes, no matter the monsters of human life.