October swim

It was the 3rd of October in 2004 and my girlfriend (now wife) and I had just moved to Long Beach California from Chicago. We were so excited that it was 70 degrees outside that we took the dogs and went to the beach and immediately ran into the water. It was glorious to be able to walk to the ocean and to swim in October. As we emerged from the water we saw that everyone on the beach was staring at us and pointing. We looked into the water to see if there was something we missed, a shark maybe? And then we noticed that they were all in long pants and wearing light coats – they thought we were insane. It was almost “winter” there and definitely too cold to go into the water.

Their conditioning for experiencing cold and for determining swimmable weather was different from ours, and yet we all firmly thought the other was “wrong”. I casually just said that it’s all relative, as I have so many times in my life. What I was realizing without realizing is that all of our habits are conditioned and relative only to what we know and experience.

The Psychiatrist Mark Epstein so brilliantly pointed this principle out in his book Without a Thinker;

“When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are made so that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution”

The good news is that we can shift our constitution. There are a few ways to create a wider awareness without fully having to experience someone else’s pain or happiness. When we move our perspective outside of ourselves and imagine what it may be like to live someone else’s reality. We are all seeking happiness, contentment, pleasure and we get in our own way because we don’t expand our scope – we don’t realize that without contrast in perception or experience we become conditioned and thus don’t appreciate the relativity of our situation.

I grew up poor in a very wealthy suburb of Chicago, which had its pro’s and con’s. I was fortunate to go to one of the best public school systems in the area, but I was surrounded by people who lived very different lives than me. One of my best friends grew up very wealthy and during our senior year her family lost all their money, her parents divorced and she and her mom moved from their beautiful home to an apartment just a mile down the road from the condo complex my family lived in. She was miserable, her whole life had fallen apart. I remember feeling that it was harder for her to experience being a “have not” and the divorce of her parents than it was for me. My family was on food stamps, we received donated Christmas presents, picked up food from a pantry, it was the reality I knew – so while unpleasant I found contentment in it. For my friend the extreme of her reality shifting so severely was much more difficult. She grew up getting all she wanted and needed, Christmas Break skiing in Vail, car at 16, you name it. To go from that to not having money is a shock to the system. I found compassion in that and it helped me gain perspective on my situation and cultivate a tiny bit of gratitude.

Take a moment and think about what in your life is causing you pain or suffering, now shift your perspective, just slightly – think of someone somewhere that may be experiencing this is a more extreme way. Think of a time in your life when this situation was better, what was different. Now a time when it was worse. I am not suggesting that this will eliminate your pain, or frustration, or anger or whatever emotion/feeling that is associated, but it will shift your perspective. When we take the time to really dig in to our suffering we can see the relativity of it all – and maybe it subsides just a bit. This is the beauty of impermanence, thoughts, feelings and emotions alternate all the time, we just have to pay enough attention to when it happens to appreciate the nuances.

Two years later, still living in Long Beach, California we wouldn’t have dared swim in October – it was too damn cold!

with love.

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