Today we’re minding mindfulness about meaning. How do we create meaning around the events and objects in our lives?
We call it God’s will, karma, intelligent design, the stars. Just for today, maybe we could abstain from labeling what directs us. Maybe we can allow ourselves to free fall and then float in a nameless river.
A pretty tall order, I know. God hates me is a common reaction to life serving up a big dish of unexpected crap. If it turns into a four-course meal, we are even more convinced that this order came from some malevolent force. Even an atheist can feel smote.
I was in New York recently. Every turn I took led me into another traffic jam. I felt like the fates were against me. Feeling powerless, I decided to let whether or not I could find a parking space dictate whether I would visit people or not. After driving in gridlock traffic for 90 minutes, with a headache and a bad attitude, I gave up and headed out of town.
But, I didn’t let it go. I needed to blame some preternatural power for this inability to visit with people I cared about. I have worked on eradicating magical thinking from my core belief system for many years. So, while I do believe in miracles, I usually credit collective consciousness for my many serendipitous rescues.
So why do I still need to find reasons, or takeaways for the very good or the bad things that happen to me? Why can’t I just experience the emotionally challenging events in my life without attributing some meaning to them? Why dig for causes beyond the usual, shit happens? I tell myself things like, maybe this event is guiding me in a direction I'm supposed to take; perhaps this shit sandwich is an evil spirit stalking me; or most commonly, I am being punished for a shortcoming.
We like thinking we’re being aided, abetted, protected, undermined, or thwarted. We feel like we’re balancing some karma, or getting some life lesson.
But what's the mindful truth?
As for the traffic, when I gave it some thought, I remembered that June is a big time of year for New York City. A Sunday in early June was a likely time for graduations; weddings, concerts and parties. A lot of babies are born in June! It was a very real possibility that Obama was in town. Plenty of reasons why June 5th was a day you didn't want to be in NY unless you had to.
So, why the conjuring? Why attribute meaning beyond all that logic?
We take events in our lives so personally! But, our experiences are relatively random. They are often not about US. They certainly aren’t sentient.
Sure, they teach us things, IF we’re paying attention to our own reactions. They teach us the best way to cope with life on life's terms.
We can choose how to feel about what is happening right now. Pain is inevitable. Misery is optional. So, what’s the problem?
Well, there's something kind of lonely about that reality? If the universe isn't trying to guide me or fuck with me, there is the very real possibility that I am just another Bozo on the bus, that the universe isn’t really giving me a second thought. When I contemplate this possibility, I can’t help feeling a little lonely.
The good news is that when I face that loneliness, I naturally start to think about other people. In that traffic, I was with thousands of people all stuck in our cars. What were we all thinking? Were we all frustrated, wondering; why can't we get to where we want as quickly as we want to get there?
Each and every one of us has our own story about why me, and a positive or negative attitude determines what kind of story we write.
Some may have been thinking, “What a great opportunity to slow down a little bit and think my thoughts!” or, “Cool, I get to spend some time in the car with the family.” or “Hey, I should write a blog using my phone app with voice recognition!” (That’s fun until you discover autocorrect has rendered it incomprehensible.)
Folks with negative attitudes were likely to have felt, “why is my life such hell?” “Why does this always happen to me? “I am trapped in the car wasting precious time!” “I have been robbed of two hours of my life”
Ownership of time is a funny idea. How can I be robbed of time? It’s a sci-fi concept. Am I stuck in traffic or being abducted by aliens? Is MY time getting erased or sucked into some vortex while I inch along the interstate?
It may feel like feel like time is moving slower. But, even when we’re doing things we didn’t plan, time is still ours to live through, to age us at the same mathematical and even biological rate. (Although, I’m pretty sure my wrinkles deepen rapidly whenever I’m on the Cross Bronx expressway.)
I understand the indignation of being forced to go slower than the speed limit. Being in the car and thinking what the hell? Who can I blame? Where did I go wrong? Where was my intuition, my center, my ability to do the next best thing for me? How did I take all these wrong turns? What led me to this purgatory?
(Purgatory is the place where we undergo an uncomfortable purification before getting to the fun places in our lives.)
On June 5th, I took some wrong turns, turns onto roads that slowed me down, frustrated me. Turns out that may or may not have purified my soul.
But, mostly I am a positivist; another kind of magical thinking I indulge; that pain is going to bring me somewhere I will be much better off. And this happens fairly often! I get lost, or choose a route that is slower, stupider, more annoying, but I end up where I experience something better than I had originally planned. This commonplace serendipity, being somewhere I didn't expect, only to find that it is pretty good. This really perpetuates my magical thinking and my addiction to meaning. Why? Because it is a pseudo confirmation of the existence of luck. Even if we don't want to admit it, most of us feel that luck directs the fortunate or unfortunate events in our lives.
But, karmic retribution and good fortune are just a fable. A life lesson we can teach our kids if we ever get out of this traffic jam.
Why do we write the story?
Why do we need to excuse and explain what is happening in a way that abdicates our personal responsibility?
What if there was no luck?
What if there were no luck, no karmic retribution, and no moral lessons?
What if experience added up to nothing but physics, the laws of cause and effect? Personal cause and effect like; if I do a lot of push-ups I am more likely to get great pectoral muscles is an observable law of nature. What if you believed that your so-called fortune, good and bad, was simply shit happening based on immutable laws and the choices of all beings… including yours?
Would you still play the lottery? Would you continue to do good in the world and expect that the more good you put into your life the more you get out of it?
Why not? I do both those things.
Ethical practices like generosity, morality and patience – that’s like putting money in the bank. They aren’t random shots at happiness; they’re a practice that feeds a very real sense of well-being and fuels our connection to our community. This connection to something greater than self alone is a powerful solvent for isolation and self-centered fear.
As for playing the lottery, unless I am a compulsive gambler or spending money I don't have, it may be a harmless impulse. Because, even if it is a million to one shot, there is a shot.
I have a dear friend who fully believes that her God has a good reason for everything. I envy that. But, I can't help wondering, good for whom? What precisely does good mean to a god? It is clearly not the same thing for most of us. So since the gods define good differently from us, and nature seems indifferent, wouldn't it be a greater comfort if we didn’t look for reasons? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we didn’t judge anything good or bad?
What if I simply allow my various reactions to events? Allow Joy. Allow sadness. Allow disappointment and excitement without needing to fabricate a reason for any of it.
Just for today, what if, instead of good and bad, we used words like pleasant or unpleasant to describe our experience? What if we embraced the temporary nature of that experience without anchoring it in defining labels? What if we didn't require an explanation, a reason, a meaning of the phenomenon beyond our control?
We can't always control circumstances. But, we can often alter our response to them. We can deliberately modify the sensations by toning our nervous system. This toning is easier to do when more accurately label reality. By naming experience, we can begin to turn that experience into something beneficial, and at the very least more sustainable.
Truth about cause and effect is sustainable. Our common reasons why the world MAKES us suffer or enjoy don’t often agree with the laws of nature. These reasons are games we play with ourselves. Mysticism, fabrication, falsehood are just feedback loops. They have nowhere to go.
If we’re lucky, they die at first light.
If I am vigilant about my nervous system, my reactivity, I can learn to breath in the truth that isn’t personal, a truth that doesn’t put me at the center of a conspiring universe.
Tune into experience, experience that is just pleasant or unpleasant, nothing more. Sit on the shore of not controlling, not storytelling. Then immerse yourself one toe at a time until you are fully in it. Explore your perception of that unlabeled phenomenon some call an event.