I’m the oldest, but my mom was pregnant twice before she had me. First, she had a miscarriage. Then her second child died at birth. Her short umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and strangled her on the way out. The loss was devastating. When I was born, a year to the day later, my mom was filled with fear, afraid to get attached to me.
About 10 years ago, my aunt, a psychologist, told me babies pick up on this and it creates intense insecurity, which is deeply hard-wired because it happened so young. This rang terribly true to me. “So this is why I’m so screwed up. This is why it’s so hard to transform!”
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for over 20 years. Some things have changed and some things haven’t. The key thing I’ve learned is I don’t have to change who I am to be happy. All I need to do is accept the moment. I’ve learned that I’m not in control of most things, and that trying to control everything is not only pointless, it’s the source of most of my suffering. As one of my teachers posted on the door to the meditation hall – “Relax. Nothing is under control.”
We don’t control other people, the weather, the economy or politics. We don’t even control our own bodies. We get zits, get sick, get old, and there’s little we can do. Except worry and think about it constantly. We drive ourselves nuts! The answer, as crazy as it may sound, is to practice being happy no matter what. After all, happiness is something that goes on inside.
There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.Thich Nhat Hanh
Though I use the word “happiness,” I really mean open-hearted. Of course, if your mom dies, you’re not going to be happy. But can you connect with the love that fuels your grief, rather than the despair? Can you make letting go your highest purpose and just let yourself feel the profundity of the moment, no matter how painful?
In my experience, keeping my heart open always results in better decision making than letting it close and acting from a place of anger or hurt. Who doesn’t prefer kindness over cruelty, compassion over harsh judgement? It certainly makes the moment a lot more enjoyable. Not only that, it transforms our very being.
I’ve learned that being insecure is only a problem if I don’t accept it. Acceptance doesn’t mean I don’t work on being more secure. It means I accept my present reality, the moment just as it is. I may be able to change the future, but I can’t change the present moment. And I can’t change the past. So I let myself feel the insecurity. I befriend it and try to drop any effort to defend against it. And through this practice, it lessens. It becomes not such a big deal.
Transforming lifelong habits isn’t easy, but you can start with the little annoyances, like the weather, lineups or traffic. The energy of those irritations is low enough that you can work with them, developing the ability to be aware of and let go of resistance. It’s like learning to play the piano. You start with the scales, not Mozart.
The moment in front of you is not bothering you. You are bothering yourself about the moment in front of you.Michael (Mickey) Singer
I recently ordered some Indian food on Ritual. I was really looking forward to it. When I went to pick it up, they didn’t have my order. What? How could that be? I checked my order, and I had made it at a different place. I had mis-remembered the name of the place! The place I ordered from was crappy! Just a few blocks away, but crappy! My mind reeled at the prospect of eating crappy food instead of the deliciousness I was looking forward to. And it was all because of my own stupidity. My forgetfulness. A trait I know and dislike so much.
But then a moment of grace. “Is this worth closing my heart? Do I want to give away my happiness? Heck, no! No way!”
In an instant, everything changed. There was still some anger, frustration and shame – but now there was also joy. The thoughts were still there, the desire for what I wanted was still there, but they were no longer a problem. I could let them be. I laughed! At the cosmic joke of my forgetfulness, attachment and reactivity.
When reactivity happens, the outer problem (e.g. the loss of my yummy dinner) seems like the most important thing in the world, and it’s difficult to release the pull of the thoughts about the outer problem. But I’ve realized that whenever I resist reality, the difficult experience is stored in my heart as an internal blockage, becoming a trigger for future emotional reactivity. I really don’t want that! I want to release what I have stored inside me, whether it’s from a small annoyance like a disappointing dinner or something much bigger like my sense of insecurity acquired at birth. So I try to let the energy of the moment pass through me.
I know that as I go through life, my internal blockages will get triggered, and that when they do, if I don’t resist them, they will expend their energy and lose some power. And the love and joy that lie at the core of my being will flow more freely.
What you resist, persistsC.G. Jung
I find this analogy of Michael Singer’s quite powerful: Imagine that you have a thorn in your arm, touching a nerve. Whenever you touch it, there’s great pain. You have two choices. You can pull it out, which will be painful. Or you can do your best not to touch it. So you go to great lengths to prevent it from being touched. You invent all sorts of devices to protect it, even when you sleep or have sex. And then you might say “it’s no problem, I’m free of it.” But if you look clearly, you’ll see it’s running your life!
So now I’m clear. When reactivity comes up, I know this is an opportunity to release a blockage. I say to myself “Yes! This is a chance to let go. It’s not worth closing my heart.” And I do my best to remember – “you’re not letting go of the pain. You’re letting go of your resistance to feeling it.”
Then I scan for resistance in my experience. It may be strong or subtle. When I recognize resistance, I drop any effort to resist. I say “silly mind” and am thankful for this moment of clarity and for the fact that I’ve come across these teachings.
Thich Nhat Hanh used to say, “make good use of your suffering!”. I’ve discovered that if I can laugh at the silliness of my mind, and accept the reality that I’m not in control, then I’m home free. I get to keep my happiness. To nourish it. And to be a better person in the bargain. Even if it sometimes means eating sub-par Indian food.
[This essay was first published in the November newsletter of the Consciousness Explorers Club.]