Often times when some negative event befalls someone we know, everyone shakes their heads in sympathy. “What a shame. Poor guy. He’s such a good person. How could this happen to him? He was always so kind and caring.” We make the mistake of thinking that this bad thing that happened is some kind of misfortune. A stroke of bad luck. Perhaps a consequence of the victim’s poor choices even. But this kind of thinking traps us in suffering. It is a victim mindset – that we are all hapless victims of a cruel and random fate.
This is how most people live life from within, but it is not the right way to live.
Bad things happen to good people all the time. Being a good person, or always making good smart choices, doesn’t protect us from negative events. Not even a little bit. Ultimately, death comes for us all. It’s one of the only certainties we have. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Of course, grief, or loss, or illness, can be terribly painful, but there is an important distinction to be made about the actual pain we experience, and the larger story we hold about the experience. The actual suffering is one thing, the larger perspective is another.
It is a misunderstanding of cosmic justice that bad things only happen to bad people, or that by being a good person we can somehow stay on fate’s good side, preventing tragic outcomes. That’s not how it works. Each of us has a particular life experience to live and work through. All of the things that come into our lives, good and especially bad, come to teach us lessons we have chosen to learn. At their core, all the lessons are about love – how to do love in human form.
When we hold negative events in the wrong perspective, we feel afraid and powerless. we hope for the best and constantly worry about the worst, living in a perpetual state of anxiety. We end up entirely missing the very lessons we came into this life to learn. Life is not about success or failure, as we ordinarily understand those things. It’s not about achievement. It’s not about controlling all the variables to make sure everything goes according to our plans. We have only an illusion of personal control.
Life is an opportunity to learn really profound lessons. It’s an experience of love, manifested in human form. It’s a beautifully designed play; orchestrated by an incredible intelligence, full of pain, and joy, and grief, and bliss, and heartbreaking injustice and suffering; all intricately mixed together, in just the right amounts for us, individually, to learn what we came here to learn. It’s all a dance of light and shadows in three dimensional form. We have to turn towards all the events and embrace them fully, as much as that’s possible, changing the larger perspective, so that we might endure the actual pain with less resistance and more personal agency.
Mystics have been writing about this for centuries, trying to share this wisdom of perspective. While it can be very hard not to feel victimized by fate in the throes of pain or grief, pro-actively, intentionally shifting the larger perspective, accepting circumstances and taking ownership of ourselves within those circumstances, letting the resistance drop away and finding the power we do have, actually helps us to move through and out of the pain, getting us out of our suffering much faster.
There is a subtle but pervasive tone of frustration in the writings of all the mystics, that no one understands this, or if they do intellectually understand it, they don’t put it into practice in their own experiences. These aren’t just lofty poetic ideas, they are actual tools of practice. They have to be implemented and lived, but people seem to reject these ideas, therefore seemingly choosing to remain in needless suffering.
“One of the marvels of the world is the sight of a soul sitting in a prison with the keys in its hand”
When I was in my pre-teen years, the powers that be in my family decided to enroll me in a beauty pageant. I will leave the debate about the wisdom of this decision for another post; suffice it to say it got me off the couch, away from the television, and taught me some amazing (deeply traumatic) lessons. In true “tiger mom” fashion, my mom proceeded full steam ahead, dragging the rest of us behind her; no expense was spared. For the talent portion of the competition, my mother choreographed a beautiful ballet, that conceptually involved me emerging from an imaginary oyster shell as a newly formed pearl. This particular choreography required me to dance on my toes (“en pointe” as it’s called).
The problem was that I was an amateur ballet dancer with nowhere near the technical mastery required for that caliber performance. “No problem. You can do it. I believe in you. We will find a way. We have six months to get you there.” I would need six years, not six months, to get to the level of dancing this ballet required. But for better or worse, my mother’s faith in my ability to do just about anything in a fraction of normal time is infinite.
And with that, my parents hired a retired ballerina from one of the famous Russian ballet companies, moved her into our house, and turned one of the spare bedrooms into a complete studio (installing a full wall of mirrors and regulation height ballet bar). If memory serves, Ludmilla was the name of my new tormentor. She kept me in that studio for hours, and hours, and hours, every single day. It was all the militancy of Soviet-style training in the comfort of my childhood home in Brooklyn. Awesome, right?
I can’t say that I hated all of it, but this training coincided with summer vacation, and while all of my friends came over to swim in our pool, I was trapped with Ludmilla, in my new studio, endlessly practicing my pirouettes, as the sounds of laughter and splashing water wafted in through the open window.
Ludmilla was intense. People who know me well think I’m pretty intense, so believe me when I tell you that Ludmilla was really really intense. I was terrified of her most of the time. She rarely smiled, and seemed preternaturally to lack any ability to display warm human emotions. (Occupational hazard, I suppose. Being a professional ballerina is not typically a warm and fuzzy sort of profession). When the floor of the studio would get slippery, from all the polishing my toes had done, Ludmilla would sip from a glass of water, and spit-spray the water on the floor to create traction. When I would get excited about some delicious thing cooking in the kitchen, Ludmilla would say “Food smells better than it tastes. Smelling it is enough. You don’t need to eat it.” You get the idea…
She was a fierce teacher, and I was a less than enthusiastic student. I was lazy, indolent, and performed what was required of me as if I were doing her a favor. Looking back, I don’t envy her at all, having to spend those months training me. I was a pain in her ass, for sure. To her credit though, she never yelled or displayed any abusive qualities. The only validation I got from her were somber nods when I finally mastered each movement to her satisfaction. Over time, I actually started to enjoy our training, and really saw the results of all of that work (or maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, who knows).
One particular day, I remember it like it was yesterday, I decided that I wanted a break. I was tired, bored, and wanted nothing more than to just spend the day playing in the pool. Ludmilla got me out of bed, and I decided to use my trusty “I don’t feel well” excuse to get out of practice. I hadn’t used this one before, so I was sure it would work. She asked me what was wrong, and with my best puppy dog eyes, I lied that I had a stomachache. I doubled over a little, for effect.
She left the room (and just as I began to celebrate my freedom), Ludmilla returned with some pills. “Take these. You’ll feel better. Then we can get to work.” I looked down at the pills in horror, and realized that I’d been caught. What now? Take pills for a stomachache I didn’t have? That seemed, to my eleven year old self, like a dangerous thing to do. I couldn’t believe her heartlessness. I’m sick and she wants me to take pills to feel better? What?? She won’t let me suffer in my (pretend) pain? She thinks practice is more important than my (fake) stomachache? She doesn’t care about me at all. What a bitch!
I tried to finagle my way out of taking the pills, desperately attempting to elicit some kind of human emotion from Ludmilla; pity, sympathy, compassion, something. I was met with a cold hard stare. “No,” she shook her head at me. “This will not work with me. I don’t care that you don’t feel well. Unless you need to go to the doctor, we are going to the studio to practice today. You can have your stomachache later.”
I realized in that moment that my malingering and pity-party tactics won’t work. I had no choice but to comply with Ludmilla’s demands. She was not susceptible to my emotional manipulations. Begrudgingly, I did. But what I learned that fateful day was that using pain, real or imagined, to avoid responsibility doesn’t work. At some point you will get caught, and that will feel bad. You can try to avoid difficult things, things you don’t want to do, by wallowing in your pain or creating victim stories (helpless disempowerment stories about how you can’t, or you’re just not strong enough, or you don’t have what it takes, or you can’t make it on your own), but sooner or later those things catch up with you anyway, and then it’s worse.
Lots of people use stories of pain, suffering, victimhood, or martyrdom to avoid dealing with the real difficult situations in their lives. It’s really common. There are solutions available, but they don’t want any solutions, much like I didn’t want Ludmilla’s pills. Some of us learned early on that being sick will keep us safe, will absolve us of responsibility, will garner love and attention we didn’t get otherwise. These were necessary survival tactics, often in abusive dynamics, but they become very unhealthy adult patterns. Letting them go can be really difficult and scary, healing can be scary, but holding on to them keeps us stuck in unnecessary suffering.
The thing is, as Ludmilla (God bless her) taught me years ago, you will have to face the music sooner or later. At some point in your life, someone (your best friend, your partner, your child) will see through your crap and will work up the courage to confront you and call bullshit. That won’t be fun for you, and you will hate them for it. That will lead to all kinds of relationship conflicts. You might as well get it over with, and save yourself all that drama. Save yourself the emotional cost of the avoidance – it’s not making you happier anyway. Wallowing in self-pity doesn’t make you happy! Confront whatever you need to do, and then when it’s done, you can go play in the pool (or have your fake stomachache, as it were).
Gaya always told me “life demands action.” The lessons that life offers us can be very challenging and legitimately very painful, and they often have a Ludmilla quality to them – ruthless and no room for excuses. Life doesn’t believe our phony excuses. We don’t get to choose the circumstances that life presents, often the lessons come veiled in extraordinary hardships. Sometimes you end up stuck with a Ludmilla, whom you fear and hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But when that happens, we must accept those circumstances, and bring all of ourselves to each present moment, embracing those challenges, using them to cultivate courage, all without making excuses.
We are here now, to live this life, so we must live it fully, confronting our fears and the difficult responsibilities. Yes, we practice radical compassion, but that compassion comes with great personal responsibility, and it does not absolve us of doing difficult things. Yes, we are learning how to push ourselves less (in the wrong directions), and how to listen to our bodies and be more gentle and tender, but that is not a mechanism of avoidance. We still have to do hard things.
Avoiding life, because of fear or any of these other habits, is not the way. It will not lead to happiness.
This is such a beautiful quote by Anais Nin. Do you have any idea what it means? This quote distills the essence of projection into thirteen simple words. It is one of the most brilliant pieces of wisdom that, when understood completely, can liberate us from so much of our suffering.
We see the world through a sort of filter made up of all of the ideas and beliefs we created in childhood. When we started to observe the world as children, we learned how to earn love, acceptance, safety, and how to avoid pain. The beliefs we formed in childhood, created in innocence, are often very very false. If you dig into your psyche and root some of them out, you will see just how silly and ridiculous they are. It’s a kind of rule-book or belief system you created for yourself when you were four, five, six years old… These beliefs make up our ego structure which then guides the rest of our lives. You live your life today ruled by decisions you made about the world, and who you have to be, when you were a little kid. Sounds absurd right?
“Living one’s truth” or “speaking one’s truth” has become a little bit of a cliche in personal development and/or spiritual circles. It’s often mis-used as a justification for selfishness or reckless confrontation; but that is not at all the proper understanding of this concept.
Really living your truth is about getting still enough, and courageous enough, to admit to yourself what you want, and what you don’t want. It’s tuning in to the pit-of-your-stomach feelings, and figuring stuff out from there. It’s about standing in your integrity, and following your internal guidance, especially when it goes against social norms, or the mores of your specific community. This is terrifying. It just is.
It’s not about being rebellious, for its own sake. Rather, it’s about the moment when you realize that you don’t fit in with “normal,” and no longer want to fake it. It’s when you can’t bear to pretend for a moment longer. It’s the moment when you actually have to honestly and directly say “no” to someone (when they’ve asked you to do something you don’t want to do), knowing that your no will hurt them deeply. It’s the earth shattering moment when your integrity pulls you onto a path that is considered crazy by everyone you know. It can turn your stomach with anxiety and shame to acknowledge what you really really want, and to make a commitment to go after that specific thing. But that’s what living your truth, speaking your truth, and being impeccable with your word means. Authenticity. The real you, warts and all. My friend Will published a new post about this sort of truth telling (in the dating arena) earlier today. (I loved it. You will too).
It takes courage, real courage, to live/speak your truth. Courage isn’t about jumping out of airplanes or diving with sharks. It’s not about physical activities that get the adrenaline pumping. Real courage happens in very quiet and subtle moments. In those intimate, vulnerable exchanges when you’re afraid to speak the truth. When you’re afraid to honor your own feelings. When you’re afraid that if you say or do what your heart is asking of you, that you will be dismissed, shamed, ridiculed, or rejected. Or that the truth of your feelings will hurt the feelings of another. Or that saying “no,” will make someone not like you anymore. (This last one sounds like school-yard stuff, but believe me, it’s everywhere!)
In my work with people, I’ve come to learn that it isn’t death that scares people most – it’s being rejected, unloved, and left all alone; that is the biggest fear. If you investigate any fear, at its core you will find that – “I will lose people’s love and admiration. I will lose their respect. I will lose my social standing. I will lose my reputation. No one will want to be my friend. No one will love me. My family will reject me. My wife/husband will leave me…” This is what’s at the core of everything. But your truth doesn’t care. Your truth asks you to stand up, look this fear in the face, learn to be really comfortable and happy being alone, and do what your heart is telling you to do anyway. There is nothing scarier or more empowering than that.
Over the last few years (and especially throughout the last six months) I’ve had some deeply mystical, sacred, and highly unusual experiences. I was more than certain that if I shared the details of those experiences (even very privately, selectively, and discretely) I would be ridiculed at best, or referred to a psychiatrist at worst. But none of those things happened.
The wonderfully loving people that I’m blessed to have in my life accepted those truths without so much as batting an eyelash. (There were those, of course, who weren’t so accepting, and we’ve now amicably gone our separate ways; and that’s a really good thing!). This is what actually happens when you share your scary truths – you aren’t going to be rejected in the ways you worry about. You will instead separate out the people who love and accept the real you, from those who only conditionally accept you (if you fit in to the image of who they want you to be).
If you are brave enough to be the real you, you will find lots of love and companionship from others who are just like you. I hope you find the courage to try it. Being the real you (whatever that means), out in the open, is a delicious experience! 🙂