Saturday, January 7, 2012

On Embracing Life’s Unexpected Turns and “Mishaps”

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Like many of you out there reading this, I started 2012 with a few New Year’s Resolutions that I would like to achieve.  In addition to building on the life balance that I cultivated in 2011, I have set these specific intentions for myself:

1.     Exercise more regularly and vigorously – ideally in activities that bring me joy.
2.     Eat a healthier diet – i.e. fewer processed foods, more veggies, less sugar, less red meat/pork.
3.     Develop a more regular meditation practice – ideally meditating 5+ times / week.

Of course, none of these intentions are things that I wasn’t already striving towards in 2011 and none are them are completely out of whack with what I am already doing.   Plus, there are some other ancillary goals that I am continuing to work towards, too – like being an effective contributor at work, keeping my place organized, staying better on top of the laundry, etc. 

Still, I took an inventory of how I am “doing” against my ideal “balance-o-meter” and determined that if I can add these three key habits to the mix in 2012, I will have more health and wellness and my life will be in greater balance.

After the first two days of the New Year, I was off to a good start – and feeling excited.  I went to my weekly meditation group on Sunday night (Jan 1st) and had a really good sit.  Then, on Monday (Jan 2nd), I spent my last day of Winter Break cleaning my apartment, shopping for healthy foods, and attending a challenging Aharaj / Vinyasa Yoga class at my favorite studio.  I felt energized and confident that with two productive days under my belt and an organized and ready living space, I couldn’t help but achieve my New Year’s Resolutions.

Unfortunately, life had other plans for me, and on Day 3 of the New Year (Tuesday), I headed back to work and within hours came down with a full-blown cold virus.  Not an “ Oh, I’ll just suffer through this minor annoyance” sniffle-ly cold, but a full-on, get the tissues ready, nose-blowing, sneezing, achy, “Get me some NyQuil! “cold which took me right back home from work and into bed for most of the week.

For the first day or so, I was devastated by this turn of events.   I railed against the universe, threw myself a pity party, and bemoaned my fate.  What about that new Hip Hop class I was going to start?  What about getting a jump-start on projects that needed to get done at work?  How could I handle losing momentum on my New Year’s Resolutions?  What did I do wrong to deserve being sick so soon into 2012?

From there, I proceeded to get angry with myself about not handling this turn of events in a very “Zen-like” spirit.  I felt like a Bad Buddhist, a Resolution Failure, a Germ Bucket, and a Loser.  Basically, for the third and fourth day of the New Year, I was not a very pleasant person to be around (bless my boyfriend's heart for putting up with me) – and I was definitely not a glowing example of progress.  The perfectionist part of me was not a happy camper.

Now that my days of pouting have passed and I am slowly starting to rejoin the land of the living, I’ve been reflecting on this situation and recalling some of the teachings that this episode exemplifies.

First of all, I told this story to a Buddhist friend on the bus this week, and as soon as I finished relating what happened, he immediately noted what a wonderful example of the Four Noble Truths it was.  I hadn’t fully thought about it, but he is totally right – this story is an excellent example of the first two noble truths of Buddhism.  Sylvia Boorstein gives this insightful  description of the first two noble truths in her book, It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness (p. 19)

“The First Noble Truth declares unflinchingly, straight out, that pain is inherent in life itself just because everything is changing.  The Second Noble Truth explains that suffering is what happens when we struggle with whatever our life experience is rather than accepting and opening to our experience.  From this point of view, there’s a big difference between pain and suffering.  Pain is inevitable; lives come with pain.  Suffering is not inevitable.  If suffering is what happens when we struggle with our experience because of our inability to accept it, then suffering is an optional extra.”

Looking at my illness from this perspective, my being sick was not the cause of my suffering.  Being sick was unfortunate, yes.   But, what was really making me miserable was my initial refusal to accept that my New Year’s Resolutions and goals weren’t going off as planned and my frustration at myself for somehow doing something wrong and “getting myself sick.”  Beyond drinking fluids and resting, there wasn’t much I could do to make my body heal faster – but I had a powerful opportunity to stop my suffering about being sick.

This newest chapter in my life has also brought to mind some recent teachings from a David Richo book that I am currently reading called, The Five Things We Cannot Change…and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them.

David Richo uses his years of experience as a psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner to describe these truths in layman’s terms.  According to him, we can greatly increase our happiness, freedom, and fulfillment by embracing five “givens” of human existence:


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1.     Everything Changes and Ends
2.     Things Do Not Always Go According to Plan
3.     Life Is Not Always Fair
4.     Pain is a Part of Life
5.     People Are Not Always Loving and Loyal All the Time

During the early part of this week, the only one of his five givens that I wasn’t complaining about was #5 - luckily the people around me were great.  Otherwise, I was upset that my Winter Break and illness-free state were ending; I was upset that my New Year’s Resolutions weren’t off to the start that I planned, I was upset that I keep coming down with colds even though I work hard to have healthy living habits, and I was upset that I kept blowing my nose and sneezing my head off every two seconds.   

According to Dr. Richo, it’s not just that these five givens are unfortunate and we need to learn to “deal with them” in order to be happy.  He takes it a step further to explain why we should actually be glad that these five givens exist – because endings clear the way to new beginnings, and changes in plan can lead to serendipitous opportunities, and pain is a a powerful teacher which can lead us to empathy and compassion and wisdom if we let it.  

When we spend endless energy trying to control our experience (as I often to) by strictly abiding to resolutions, hanging on to jobs and relationships for dear life, and planning every moment of our life down to the smallest detail, we miss the opportunity say “Yes” to whatever opportunities comes our way. 

Doris Day
As Dr. Richo puts it (p. 13), “To focus on being in control hinders our chances of finding the new possibilities that arise when surprising directions appear on our path.”  He mentions several examples of famous people who stumbled upon their destiny after a wrong turn came their way – like Doris Day whose injury ended her dreams of being a dancer but cleared the path towards her becoming a famous singer/actress and Margaret Mitchell whose injury held back her journalism career but cleared the way for her to stay home and write the novel Gone with the Wind, her legacy to the world. 

Braised Spinach - Yum!
In my own case, staying home this week allowed me to enjoy several opportunities that might not have otherwise come my way.  For instance, by being at home, I was able to experiment with cooking several new healthy dishes and get my eating resolution off to a good start.  Also, by being able to work from home a few days instead of jumping right back into the office right away, I was able to better prioritize which task items needed attention right away and start this first week of the New Year in a more proactive rhythm rather than falling into my usual habit of clearing my Email Inbox first, meeting with students, or procrastinating when I really should be devoting time to getting projects done.   Finally, who knows what other opportunities I may have set into motion by getting sick and staying home this week – sometimes our karma and destinies aren't revealed until later down the line.

All in all, if you are also working on some New Year’s Resolutions or goals of your own, I encourage you to remember these noble truths and givens and try not to be so hard on yourself.   In the end, January 1st is just a figment of our imagination and a date that we put on the calendar.  Each moment is an opportunity for a fresh start, and sometimes a “mistake” or “wrong turn” can actually lead to greater gifts. 

Beautiful Oops!
I gave my little niece/cousin a book for Christmas this year called, “Beautiful Oops” in an effort to encourage that very spirit and openness to life in her as she grows up in our high-pressure society.  Barney Salzburg's key message is, "When you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful."  It’s full of fun little examples of art that can be created by a folded piece of paper or an Ink Stain or other “Oops” that both big kids and little kids make from time to time.  If you have any little kids in your life, I encourage you to check it out with them!

For now, I leave you with this quote from the Five Things book.  I’ll also leave you with several songs/videos that strangely (loosely) seem to convey this theme of accepting life and finding beauty in unexpected places.  Enjoy!


“May I trust the forces that help me know who I am and where I am going, and may all those who doubt themselves and disregard their destiny likewise be surrounded by inescapable evidence of their limitless identity and destiny (Richo, Five Things, p. 33).”



Beautiful Oops - a Video Read-a-long for the Barney Salzburg Book


"Try" by Nelly Furtado (note - this one is more subtly connected related)





"This Too Shall Pass" by Ok Go (Rube Goldberg Machine Version)


 

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