An Inside Job


"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." - Andre Gide

I spent my thirties feeling really cranky. I had been told that happiness was an inside job, but with all the difficulties, and downright pain that my external environment was causing me I wasn’t buying this cliché. Then I moved, fully expecting to be just as burdened in my new town. I never believed in geographic cures. You’re a neurotic in this suburb you’ll be neurotic in the next.

But, life got easier when I moved to Amherst. Suddenly, much of the external data on which I had blamed my irritability vanished. In this "Happy Valley" the volume was turned way down on traffic, grumpy people and cost of living. Local politics and even the crappy infrastructure made just a little more sense. I was impressed to discover that life didn't have to be so hard.

In New York, I had always thought of myself as the sober, saner one in the room. None of us knows just how crazy we are until we start hanging out with people who are not. With this uncomfortable awareness came the need to change. Why not be as happy and serene as my new peers were pressuring me to be? A new non-suffering bar had been set.

“If you want to view paradise, simply, look around view it.”

I got what Willy Wonka was singing about. Without that ton of crap reappearing each morning, I had nothing to blame. I was responsible for my own interpersonal and intrapersonal wellbeing. No more quoting my mother who was convinced she'd get to that self-care and self-discovery after she "just got through… (Fill in the blank.)"

Despite spending twenty plus years prior to moving in deep exploration about the nature of reality, knowing that all I had to do was surrender the thing I called self, I had only scratched the surface of the blessed me.

Sure, I had learned which substances and behaviors cause me inflammation, heartburn, weight gain, irritability and other forms of pain. I knew how to avoid compulsion, rage, exhaustion, depression, and even mitigate my ADD.

I had learned all about fear (adrenaline/cortisol imbalances,) and while I couldn’t make it simply all better, I knew precisely how my wonky nervous system messed with my ability to be a patient friend, spouse and parent. I had learned to accept hormonal fluctuations as an occasional reality rather than a demon possessing my “naturally” peaceful heart.

But, even with all this self-knowledge, I had many surprises in store on this new, more solid ground. Free of so many emotional survival distractions, I could take a brand new inventory of my habits of mind; privileged, partisan, racist, self-centered, over-sensitive, under-motivated habits. I was digging deeper and it sucked. But like life, it beat the alternative.

Luckily I had brought along a full toolbox. Tools like Buddhism, mindfulness, NLP, 12 steps, happiness science, neuroscience all had to be taken out, sharpened, upgraded and re-applied to the increasingly subtle challenges of being a flawed human with a spouse, kids, job and home. Mostly I needed to keep the pressure on that whole surrendering thing. Awareness, acceptance and action are the pattern of change. Noticing, loving and then discerning the usefulness of behavior, this is the regimen required to continue my quest for freedom from the bondage of self.

The self is like leg hair; if you resist it and shave it off, it will keep coming back stronger, thicker, and darker. But, if you accept it with compassion, it becomes a manageable aspect of your mostly unseen calves. I stopped shaving and waxing altogether when I moved to the Happy Valley. I enjoyed lively discussions about hair as a huge feminist issue. I could authoritatively assure young women that after wrestling with vanity and self-centered fear for decades, there comes a gift of self-love. A gift that is always on the table, that we can open any time. Folks find some relief in this news. The wisdom they don’t want to hear is that while opening this gift is simple, using it is never easy.

So, when you move away from the fiery dragons of one locale, you may find an inexplicable need to wake your sleepy inner ones for a few rounds of reckoning. Turns out, even paradise can always stand a little weeding.

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