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.

Separation

Separation, differentiation, comparison and competition, these are all ways in which we must have survived from the beginning of time, in order to evolve and survive. I can’t help but wonder why we haven’t stopped to ask ourselves if these means are still critical to survival, our habit to separate has continued yet I think instead of propelling forward it is now holding us back. What drives us to think that our well being, happiness, ect… feels greater if someone else’s is less than? You making more money than me, or being happier than me does’t take away or add to my reality. I think in the end it is a zero sum game, we don’t need others to “lose” in order to “win”.

Our conditioned ego’s have taken over and many times we only feel good when we think we are smarter, happier, richer, funnier, better looking, kinder, more loving, wittier, than the next person. My triggers are endless, probably like yours. When I find myself being particularly triggered by another person and I can pause enough to make the choice to separate or come closer to together, I imagine both the person and myself as children. For me it works almost every time. When I picture the person as an innocent two year old playing in the grass and smiling and only needing love and protection I can’t help but soften.

We are all part of one another, nothing exists by itself. The Prajnaparamita or better known as the Heart Sutra, tells us that there is no attainment, nothing is produced or destroyed. This paper that I am writing on is part of the sun, without the sun the tree could not grow, without the sun the logger would not have food, without the logger the tree would not be transformed into paper, and so on.

In emptiness is everything – it isn’t nihilistic, devoid of anything, it is that we are all part of one thing. We all just want to be happy, healthy safe and free at the very core of who we are – and that brings us together. Ponder that for a while.

With love.

Pursuit of Happiness

I was just perusing facebook when I can across a friend’s post, “Life can be amazing and miraculous one minute and horrible the next, here’ to waiting for the next amazing moment”. And it got me to thinking – We hear a lot about the pursuit of happiness and our right to it. What we fail to see is that it is precisely our pursuit of happiness that causes our suffering – and thus keeps us from that “happiness” we are looking for. I have spent much of my life in that same pursuit – barely tolerating the less than pleasurable experiences in desperate search of the next happy moment. When that moment comes I cling, and maybe you do too, not wanting the feeling or experience to change or dissipate.

I remember the day I gave birth to my son Henry. It was the mist intense experience I had ever had – anticipation, joy, pain, absence of pain and pure joy. I felt each emotion as if I imagine it would feel like if I were born blind and one day was able to see. The visceral feeling of each moment of that day will never leave me. And while I was very focused on the moment and appreciating each second (with the exception of the excruciating pain of the last stages of labor of course) I was terrified for the experience to pass. I instantly started worrying that my 12 weeks of maternity leave would not be enough – and I mean immediately, as in hours after giving birth I was crying and anxious. So I clung to each day as if it were my last – and I cried each day anticipating the day that I would have to leave my perfect little boy at home while I went to work. That extreme clinging to the moment and anticipation of the future took away from my ability to just enjoy and cherish where I was.

And then one day, a month into my maternity leave as I was rediscovering my meditation practice and study I read a paragraph from Mark Epstein’s “Thoughts Without a Thinker” that jolted me into a brief glimpse of awareness. Awareness that I was causing my own suffering. It was around the idea that the pursuit of pleasure leads to dissatisfaction as pleasure itself is not sustainable, primarily because we become content with what felt “pleasurable” initially, so we seek more.

“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” – Epstein

It was an awareness that the contrast of my pain from labor allowed me to appreciate the absence of pain once he was delivered. And that if I continue to seek that moment, even if I have the moment again, it won’t be the same, it is not sustainable in a constant way. By yearning for my environment to not change I was not appreciating what I had in the now. So I slowly let go of clinging to the idea that this utopia we had created in Henry’s first few months would change, and pursuit of a constant state of anything only leads to discontent. We are not wired for contentment.

So if you are like me in any way, and are clinging to a moment, a feeling, a touch, anything – let it go and know that the next painful, frustrating, or even mildly annoying experience you have will only help you enjoy the next “good” moment that much more.

Roman Ruins

I fell in love with the burden of my pain and rather than wallowing in my self pity I used it as a pulpit to preach and defend upon. In the end, I was not better off than having wallowed in self pity because I hadn’t leaned in and looked it in the eye. I told the story as a detached third person and masked it in self acceptance but it was fear and martyrdom.

I can hear the defenses before the alarm has been sounded – no one could call my shit because I had a story for everything – I better defended than the Roman Empire.

And the reward was great, my sad story guilted people into submission – I was left alone and revered for making it- for not becoming just like them. No drugs, no alcohol addiction, graduated high school and college, successful and in a big job, married with a child in a beautiful home.

And it worked until one day it didn’t. As I told the story and deceived myself into believing I had done the work – after all I meditated and had a therapist – my world began to breakdown – slowly at first. Like a small crack in a pipe, water slowly leaking, and suddenly it is hit, ever so slightly in a way it has been hit and cracked before, but this time in just the right way that it fully bursts. And I moved directly to blame and escape. I blamed my wife for all the things she wasn’t doing and took the high road – I latched onto someone who found me smart and interesting who liked the stories I spun and thought I was funny and wise – and I escaped to the false comfort of a fleeting intellectual crush. I was a distraction from the sad story – and she was a piece of the “make me feel special plan”. Along the way I crushed my wife and almost ruined my family – the solid city – the Roman Empire of the story I had created had crumbled.

How honest could I be with myself, could I look the raw truth in the eye and resurrect my life?

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