It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I have sent out a newsletter.
I have lots of good reasons that I haven’t been able to write, including an extremely challenging period of attempting to live on Vashon Island. Long story short, it didn’t work. My partner Nick and I are currently working on moving back to the city, with our tails between our legs. Hey, at least we tried!
There is a part of me that feels like the move to Vashon Island was a total failure, because it didn’t work out the way we thought it would; we thought we would find peace and quiet, deepen our connection to nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city that can be fairly overwhelming and exhausting for us both.
That is not what happened. Well, some of it did; I did deepen my connection to nature a little bit, and when I am on the island it IS quite peaceful. But the story I had in mind about what it would be like to live there and the actual experience of living there were two extremely different things.
It’s kind of comical the way that we all do this; we trick ourselves into believing that we know how things are going to go. We create elaborate stories in our minds about what an experience will be like, or what a relationship will be like, or how our lives are going to unfold. Then we are repeatedly stunned when, time and time again, things do not go as we thought they would!
Life often (always?) fails to conform to our expectations. When I don’t like the way life is unfolding (this was NOT the plan, people!) then I start to resist it.
Resistance is where the cycle of suffering often begins. I know, it seems like it begins when life doesn’t go the way we want it to (stupid life!) but, no. When we slow down and slice it very thin, we can see that suffering starts when we begin to resist life as it is.
Resistance always begins in the body! (I think this is fascinating.) You might not notice it all the time, (it’s sneaky) but if you pay attention, you will see it. It might begin as a fluttery feeling in your abdomen, or constriction around your throat, or tension in your shoulders, (or a million other different things). For example, when I think about the way that living on Vashon isn’t working for us, I get an agitated feeling in belly, a sense of heat in the back of my head and a uneasy feeling in my heart space.
Resistance grows from there; the mind, picking up on the sensations from the body, immediately tells a story about what those sensations mean. Here’s the kicker – because nothing is ever created out of a vacuum, the stories the mind tells about the sensations will be based on past experiences. When resistance starts to come into my body, my thoughts start to spin: “You screwed up AGAIN.” “What’s wrong with you, why can’t you get your living situation right?” “You’ve never had a comfortable home that works for you and you never will.” “You’re not the kind of person who can have a nice home.”
These stories are old. They come from experiences that I have had in the past. They are not actually based in the reality of the present moment.
Yoga calls these stories citta vritti, which means “fluctuations of the mind-stuff”. Buddhist philosophy calls the part of us that spins these stories “the conditioned mind.”
As I mentioned, the conditioned mind has nothing to do with reality, but it sure feels like it does (that’s part of the conditioning!).
So what to do?
The first step, (one that Buddhist nun Cheri Huber writes about in an awesome book that I’m totally into right now called When You’re Falling, Dive) is to practice acceptance:
Acceptance of the present situation as it is, acceptance of the stories the conditioned mind tells us, and acceptance of the fact that while the stories the mind tells might feel compelling, they are not actually true.
Accepting is not the same as condoning, resigning or agreeing. Accepting is simply acknowledging that whatever is in our world is ours and we must own it. Accepting is saying, “This is where I am, this is what is. These are the things I am struggling with, and these are the stories I am telling myself about my situation.”
It has been interesting for me to realize that these stories the mind tells serve a purpose. However, it is not a noble one. Their purpose is to keep our lives small and contracted. In that smallness they give us a secure sense of who we are. Take my story; “You’re not the kind of person who can have a nice home” as an example. When I ask myself what I am “getting” out of this story, there is a surprisingly long list:
- I get to be victim
- I get to feel sorry for myself
- I get to be powerless, which means I don’t have to take responsibility
- I get to be alienated, which feels more comfortable to me (because that’s how I felt as a child)
- Etc. (I won’t bore you with the whole thing.)
I have to say that making this list kind of blew my mind. I had no idea that I was “getting” so much out of my story!
The conditioned mind keeps us stuck in our habits, keeps us stuck in a limited view of ourselves and of life, because our habits and our limited views feel very safe and reassuring to the ego. Of course, many of these stories the conditioned mind spins are actually very harmful; they arrest our potential and keep us stuck in a pattern of resistance to life as it is.
Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not about making these stories go away. In fact, it’s the opposite. I examine my stories to see what I am “getting” out of them and then accept them as an aspect of my reality. For example, I can accept that there is a part of me that wants to be powerless. I can accept that there is a part of me that likes being a victim. I can also accept that there is a part of me that thinks that liking being a powerless victim is despicable. As you can see, the practice is to accept everything, even that which I deem unacceptable!
Acceptance is magical. As soon as I begin to accept all of the different aspect of my experience, I automatically begin to feel and deeply understand that the stories, and all the things I get from the stories, and all the judgments that I have about the things I am getting, are all just different energies that are with me, but they are not actually me myself. As soon as I understand this the stories lose their power.
As the stories lose their power, an unfolding of possibility occurs. All of the possibilities that my conditioned mind hadn’t previously allowed me see begin to emerge. The unlimited potential of my life has an opportunity to actualize.
This is how real change unfolds; not by resisting our circumstances, but by welcoming them and all the “baggage” they bring. Inside of that welcome is limitless potential, possibility and freedom.
“Life is glorious. Almost no one experiences life.
We experience the conditioned mind and think that it’s life.”
– Cheri Huber