Saturday, September 29, 2012

Beneath the Surface

Well, I’m back!  Sorry for my long absence.

As many of you know, we have been in a long slow process of moving from BC to Manitoba.  It has been a journey filled with sadness and joy, of loss and discovery.  And it has had many things to teach me.  Despite my careful planning and organization, and regardless of my careful attention to detail, things had a way of getting “off track”.  Just when I thought everything was finally coming together, things would fall apart once more. 

For sure I got lots of practice in riding the waves of uncertainty, and of not getting so caught up in the undertow of emotional attachment. Through it all I sought to be open to the moment; to have a 360 degree view of what was happening – not just around me but inside me as well.  Of course, what I intended and what actually happened were often not the same.  But, my intention to be present and to “be there” with what was happening helped me to notice when I was sidetracked and to bring myself back to centre.
As I witnessed my internal processes in this manner, I was reminded of Socrates’ bold statement that "The unexamined life is not worth living."  This great teacher believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth.  As I took time to examine and reflect on what was happening, I was struck with how much our minds are like icebergs, only a small part of what is really going on is easy to see.  It is a challenge to catch a glimpse of what is going on beneath the surface.
The other day I realized how much part of me loves to “think”.  I notice this especially when I sit to meditate – this part of me tries to convince me that thinking would be much more interesting than being present to what really is.  Some thoughts seek to create an alternate reality through fantasy, or wishful thinking.  Others are worries – most often about things that may never happen or happened in the past and about which I have no control.  And then there is planning. Sometimes my thinking is one big attempt to control the world and make everything work out well – for everyone, including me!  All of this “thinking”, ironically, made me realize some of my thoughts needed further exploration. 

For sure thinking is very near and dear to me; it is an integral part of who I am – a very curious part who loves to explore ideas.  I love the challenge of searching for answers and the satisfaction of finding them.  Thinking keeps me engaged with life.  It is also a way of demonstrating that I am competent.  When I feel competent, I feel safe, and that I can keep others safe as well.  In that sense it is clearly a defensive strategy that seeks to ward off dangers!

Many of my thoughts are mental chatter.  As I become more authentic and true to myself, I am learning to recognize them with a measure of compassion as “just thoughts” and gently let them go.  One morning, for example, as I awoke to discomfort, a part of me began to worry that I might lose my mobility.  In the past I might have spent many hours – perhaps the whole day – worrying about being chronically disabled, thinking how I might try to avoid it, and planning what I needed to do if it became a reality.  But this particular morning, I saw it for what it was and had a good laugh.  In reality, the pain was not that bad; it might even get better as I began to move around and gently stretch. I not only knew that my fears were not facts but that if I needed to deal this issue, I could do so “when the time came.”  This sense of inner wisdom and personal strength was empowering. With that inner authority I was simply able to calm the chatter and release my fears.

Other times thoughts have a strong charge and are very persistent.  I have come to see them as more than just thoughts. They have strong emotions and physical sensations; they demand attention.  Surprisingly, by simply following these thoughts and the emotions they stir up, I have found a way to understand issues that otherwise might remain hidden and protected.

A recent incident underscored this point.  I found myself dealing with a nasty bully, and I was thinking up a storm.  Thoughts of “what to do” were taking up a great deal of my time and energy.   And so I decided to spend some time following the trail to see where it might lead and what I might need to learn from the situation.

As I listened to what various parts had to say, I discovered that the part of me who prides herself on being skilled at working with others and finding amicable solutions was being stymied.  After more than a month of attempting to resolve the issue and expecting a reasonable response I finally had to accept the obvious – no resolution was forthcoming.
Another part of me was angry that I was being bullied and attacked for a problem I did not create.  And then there was a part who feared the confrontation of dealing with this difficult situation.  Complicating this was that she, this fearful part, even felt intimidated by “my” anger.

Not so long ago, these fears would have scared me off.  I would have swallowed my anger in an attempt to nurture my internal distress.  I would, at least to the outside world, have let it go.  People might even have complimented me on my composure.   Reality, however, would be quite different as my anger would not have been “let go” but buried it deep inside where it would continue to fester.  Not this time!  Rather than being scared off, I decided to examine the urge to “let it go”.

There was no doubt; I didn’t like what was happening. I felt violated and I felt I needed to protect myself.  I also realized that part of me feared what would happen if I did stand up for myself.  I discovered that even my conciliatory, peace-making approach, though dear to my heart, was perhaps partly a response to that fear.  Simply by being open to all these conflicting emotions and hearing what they had to say deepened my understanding of what I needed to do.

Accepting my anger and exploring what it had to teach me opened up options.  I began to own my anger and under this new proprietorship wonderful things began to happen.  In owning my anger I found new energy; energy to facilitate my internal dialogue, energy to address the situation, and most importantly energy to take care of myself.  My first task was to assure my fearful, timid parts that I could and would do that.  In the past I had often ignored their voices. But as I continued to listen with the intent to take care of “all of me”, my fearful parts gradually began to trust me and calm down.  Once we were all “on the same page” and working together it was my job to carry through and provide the necessary leadership.

The energy that my anger gave me and my commitment to myself ensured that I would do whatever I could to let this bully know he could not treat me with impunity.  I could and would protect myself and my own needs.  This violation would not be swallowed.

I knew there was no guarantee that my actions would result in a satisfactory outcome. I doubted that this bully would accept his responsibility; for several months now he had aggressively refused to consider my concerns.  And sure enough, the requests and deadlines outlined in the strongly worded letter from our lawyer were ignored.  When the deadline and waiting period passed, I was advised that taking him to court would be an option, but it would cost me.  And given this bully’s track record it was unlikely he would ever pay up even if the courts found in my favour.

The question that now faces me is what should I do?  Do I put myself through months of further stress and incur additional costs to no avail?  Do I continue spending quality time on a problem that seems unsolvable? Should I keep on fighting a losing battle?
Is this how I look after myself?  I think not.

As I reflected on these questions, I realized that following my thoughts down to the anger that fuelled them had served its purpose. Those persistent thoughts of how I had been treated and “what to do about it” were no longer there.  I had demonstrated that I could be there for my fears and protect myself in a very challenging situation, and I was stronger for it.  It was time to let it go.

With some surprise, I discovered I could easily do that without stuffing things inside.  In fact, I have a deep sense of peace about it.  I have demonstrated that I can look after myself.  I can stand up for myself against a nasty bully, and I can do that without vengeance.  My goal has been to look after myself and now the best way to look after myself is to know when to stop pursuing a losing battle. My energizing anger has served its purpose and I am left with a sense of peace.  I have done all I can do.

Following those highly charged thoughts not only helped me deal with a very real and pressing issue in my life, it also nurtured my personal growth.  Life is not always fair and justice is not a sure thing.  This much, however, is sure.  I have done all I can to serve notice that this behavior is not acceptable. 

“The effect of contemplation is authenticity – authentic presence and authentic action.  If contemplation doesn’t lead to authenticity, then it remains only navel-gazing and self-preoccupation.

~ adapted from “Simplicity: the Freedom of Letting Go” by Richard Rohr