Posts Tagged ‘choice’

We’re the Product of Many Forces, but We Are Not Helpless

For the months of March and April, I’d been in an odd place spiritually—not traumatic, just unsettling. Sorting through it took some serious work: a number of journal entries, an intense session with my spiritual director, an intriguing metaphor or two, a great deal of turning over the situation in my head.

Also for the months of March and April, winter kept threatening to stay through summer.

Two weeks ago we had our first warm, sunny day. Poof. Odd place gone. Euphoria washed in. I was happy as a clam. It was just seasonal affective disorder. All that inner work and mental energy wasted.

Or was it? Not quite. The reality was more complicated—and more beautiful—than that.

For one thing, the sparkling sunshine reminded me of a humbling truth about us humans. Our lives take place in a context, consisting of myriad systems that affect us profoundly and are beyond our control. The weather impacts our moods and lives. So do our genes, the state of our health, our birth order, the places we’ve lived, the political/media climate, etc., etc., etc.

Buddhism has a fascinating way to think about this, summed up in the phrase causes and conditions. The way Buddhism sees it, there’s no such thing as a permanent self, or a permanent anything: we are just the product of the ever-changing causes and conditions that shaped us and continue to shape us.  

So…did your parents suffer from depression? That could account for your dark view of life. Are you an only child? That may impact the whole way you deal with self and others. Do you live in Indonesia? You’re almost guaranteed to see the world differently than if you’d spent your life in Sweden.

I find this oddly comforting. It fosters humility: a clear-eyed view of who we are in a very large and complicated universe. It tells me that I can’t take myself too seriously, that I must embrace what is true about me.

Perhaps that sounds fatalistic. But it’s not.

Even if winter-in-April did factor heavily into my malaise, I can still learn from it. All that journaling and spiritual direction and reflection is practically a requirement for contemplatives anyway. Paying attention to the work of the Divine Spirit in our lives is what we do.

And we don’t do it just for ourselves. What we learn inwardly can equip us to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s part of how spiritual direction operates: the profession calls us to spend time on our own inner work, so we can more deeply hear the inner work of our directees.

Buddhism also notes that we can affect the causes and conditions, as well as the other way round. No wonder one of the “eights” in the Noble Eightfold Path is right action (inspired in part by right mindfulness, which is closely connected with contemplation).

A whole complex of causes impacts us. But we can reflect on what happens in that complex. And because of that reflection, we can act more clearly, more decisively, more effectively for the good of the world.

Hard Knocks and the Choice to Be Happy

My beloved cat is in decline.

She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”

We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.

Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.

As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.

There’s very little control here.

And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.

Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?

What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.

But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”

And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.

Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.

Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.

Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.

Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.

Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.

 

This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017.