Grow Like Your Life Depends Upon It

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I often hear people making comments such as “I wish I was 21 again,” or “what I wouldn’t give to be young again.” Without a doubt, there have been times where I would have reminisced about a past event, or worse, considered what I might have done differently were I able to turn back the clock. It’s beyond tempting to imagine traveling a road not taken, or to consider the jobs we passed up or the partners we didn’t contemplate past the first encounter. “What if?” is a question asked by many millions at one time or another. Surely we can ponder this question also, but at what risk?

What we often fail to realize is that life is like traveling one-way on a highway on which there is no doing over, no turning back, a road on which we will never pass the same spot twice. We must make every inch of the journey count, knowing we are constantly moving forward. What we are moving toward is a matter of perspective, yet it’s also a matter of uncertainty. We may plan for the road ahead, as we would on a real road trip where we pack the map, (or the smart phone with built in navigation), some jumper cables and plenty of food and water. However, as prepared as we may be, we don’t know for certain what lies ahead. Unexpected individuals and circumstances cross our path. Each new event requires a choice and a decision from us. How we act in those moments sets us up for the next set of unforeseen encounters. Before long, we are way down the road and we may not fully understand how we got to where we are. But we keep going because we are compelled to.

I believe there is an innate desire in all of us to want to improve upon our present circumstances, to push forward, to become better versions of ourselves. Sometimes we don’t live up to our own expectations and we may become despondent or even downright depressed as a result. But if we can remove expectations from the equation and just understand that life is a sequence of continued learning as a matter or process, we may just take a little pressure off ourselves. It’s not always easy to grow. We have so many distractions and people and things that are vying for our attention. Our families, our jobs, our innermost desires, are all scrambling to be heard by us. We must be strong enough to push through the clutter, free of expectations, determined to be who we believe we can be. Life is not always easy, but life always finds a way to survive. Like a weed pushing through the pavement we must find our way, and grow like our life depends upon it, because it surely does.

There Is No Ground

Rocky Ground HD Desktop BackgroundI recently read several books written by renowned Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron. In her works, she writes often of being “groundless,” or of living with uncertainty and the realization that there is no real ground underneath our feet. I devoured her works with great interest, knowing that for much of my life I more than anything craved ground under my own feet, and sought in earnest for anything that I could hold on to. My early life was full of chaos and constant change. My parents divorced when I was eight, and then my mother went from being a Jehovah’s Witness to an Episcopalian to a Born Again Christian before I was even 16. My father remarried and brought three more children into the world. We sometimes did not even live in one place for an entire year. I went to four different elementary schools, three different middle schools and two different high schools. In the midst of all these shifts, I desired more and more to have solid ground to stand on, something to count on, something that I knew would always be there, and yet I could not find it. When I was 15, I often found myself up on top of the hill behind our home at the time, praying to whomever might be listening for guidance, direction, and above all else, certainty with regard to where I was headed. I sincerely believed that someone greater than me would finally provide the answers I was seeking.

At 16, I traveled by myself to a town two states away to be with my father for two months. He had recently moved and I’d been missing him dearly. My father had remained a Jehovah’s Witness and I knew there would be an expectation that I would attend the meetings with him while I was there, knowing that there was no way they would leave me in their home alone. So while that was expected, what was unexpected was how in that first meeting I would hear what was indeed music to my confused ears. For most of their followers, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have all of the answers, and that day, at that meeting, I felt the same way. No more would I have to worry or dwell on the uncertainty of my own future. I quickly made a formal dedication to this way of life and never looked back. For the first time in my short time on earth, I felt I had a purpose in life! This purpose included going to three different meetings each week, preaching 90 hours a month to others, and ultimately serving in the world headquarters of the group in Brooklyn. I believed I knew exactly what each day would bring, and at the end of the repetition of all of this work was the grand prize of someday living in an earthly paradise! My hope was strong, the earth felt firm under my feet, and nothing could knock me off course. Nothing, that is, until I came to realize that what I believed and what I asked others to believe was not the truth that I once thought it was.

I was crushed, I was rocked, I bounced all over like an errant spring. Walking away from my beliefs meant no longer having a purpose, as well as losing my friends and family. There was no certainty about anything and I lived recklessly, as if I had no tomorrow to live for at all. There was no longer any ground beneath my feet, and I was terrified. Within a year of leaving the Witnesses I found another small piece of ground to hold onto when I found my first wife. Her life was ripe with turmoil and emotional disorder, but once again I had a purpose, to help heal her and see her become the person she was meant to be. Ultimately my actions never proved to be enough to help her and I grew despondent. We parted ways, and once again I found myself adrift in loneliness and despair. It would only take another year for me to find someone to latch onto once again.

In the years that followed I brought children into this world. I was never certain if I was doing the right things as a parent and I did not manage my finances well. I lived in constant fear of the groundlessness of the situation I was in, just dying for someone or something to show me the way out. I prayed to God endlessly for direction once again, much as I had done as a teenager. Sometimes things improved for a short while, only to plunge into chaos once again. I rode a fast running train of anxiety all through my adult life, seemingly moving from one disaster to the next, or at least that’s how I viewed it.

It is best to realize that our lives are generally in a state of flux. The stress comes when our lives do not meet our expectations or desires, when we are not flexible or adaptable enough to adjust to the constantly shifting sands that swirl all around us. We don’t have full control over what is happening, as w cannot control the actions of those we are connected with. By resisting the changes we experience, we actually can make the situation worse. How many times have we been told that when driving a car that is skidding off the road due to hazardous conditions that the best course of action is to steer into the skid? In addition, living with a higher level of chaos, disorder and uncertainty may cause us to crave that certainty on a much higher level.  We may stay in jobs that we are not well suited for, with romantic partners we really have no business being with, and follow religions that dictate and direct our every move. In other words, we may remain stuck in a situation out of an irrational fear of not knowing what may lie on the other side. While stuck where we are, we may fervently cling to a hope that things will get better. But if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, no amount of hope is going to change our situation.

Only by accepting our current reality and by acknowledging that there is no real ground under our feet will we be prepared to deal with uncertainty while maintaining inner strength and peace. We must not cling to hope as a crutch or an escape from what is really happening. By doing so we may not make the proper adjustments that will enable us to keep moving forward despite what is happening around us. However, we must realize that life does not owe us a thing. We are not entitled to be rich, or happy, or good looking or healthy. If at any time we don’t have one or any of these things, then our acceptance of the situation will make a huge difference between peace and despair. Life is more like a turbulent river than a calm lake. Make peace with the raging rapids as they move you along from place to place, while doing your best to keep your boat, and your head, above water.

The World Within Me Is The World Around Me

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It’s often said that our inner thoughts create our outer reality. I didn’t always believe this. When I was first presented with this concept I scoffed at the idea, believing like so many that we are molded by our circumstances to become who we have become. While to some extent there is truth in the notion that we are products of our environments, (the parents or family members who raised us, the socioeconomic conditions we lived in, etc), we do not have to view these formative conditions as the final definition of our existence. Believing that we cannot rise above our current or former conditions is a “limiting belief,” and one that will certainly stand in the way of our creating a new and exciting story for ourselves. For a good overview on channeling the power of our beliefs to change the course of our lives, check out Dr. Bruce Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief (http://www.hayhouse.com/biology-of-belief-10-anniversary-edition-paperback).

It is highly unfortunate that most religions, especially controlling groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, teach that only God can change someone’s life. There is no credit given to the power of the individual and their own mind to create a beautiful life. Jehovah’s Witnesses generally look forward to a “New System of Things” which is based on a belief that God will restore the perfection to mankind that was lost in the original Garden of Eden. Having once been a Jehovah’s Witness, I completely understand now how my firm belief that God was going to bring about changes in me, my family members and the world at large, completely drained me of any understanding I may have had about how to personally make my own life better through my own actions. Indeed, when I left the group abruptly just prior to turning 21 I had no idea what to do with the forlorn lump of clay that was my life at the time. It took me another 21 years to be introduced to, and then accept the idea that it was my own thoughts, my own beliefs, my own choices, and ultimately my own actions which would chart the course of my life.

There are so many who look to religion to fulfill their need for guidance and direction. I’m not against belonging to a church and enjoying the fellowship with others of similar faith. However, if we are not happy with our present state, we must go inside for answers. We need to take time to get to know ourselves. How to best do that? I have found meditation to be extremely helpful. Cleansing the mind of all thoughts, worries and anxiety is a good start. A therapist I once knew, who helped me immensely, said that meditation is like a “brain shower;” we cleanse the physical body so why would we not also seek to cleanse the mind? Meditation knows no religious affiliation. Contrary to what many religions teach, meditation is not a practice that runs in opposition to a belief in God. To the contrary, by meditating we can make contact with the higher power that exists within each one of us, which many believe is from God. Whatever you believe, this power to change your world is there, ready for you to harness. There are many great resources for guided mediation. I have been enjoying one from Deepak Chopra (www.deepakchopra.com). I suggest that if you have never tried meditation that you approach it with an open mind and give it a chance. Find a quiet place and be still. You might be surprised at how quickly the world around you changes when you begin taking a closer look at the one within you. Namaste.

The Sky Above

Have you ever embarked on a plane ride from an airport enshrouded in rain? Perhaps it had been raining for a day or two prior to takeoff and you may have wondered if the plane would even have any way to get off the ground. After all, how could the pilots of the plane have any idea where they are going? How could they possibly steer the plane through thick clouds and rain?

Undaunted by the elements, the plane barrels down the runway at over 150 miles per hour. You wonder if the plane may slam into another plane right after takeoff as there is nothing to be seen several hundred feet above the runway. Somehow, the wheels leave the earth and the plane is completely free of its struggle with gravity. As you look out the window into a sea of white, you have no idea where you are and how far you’ve come since takeoff. For all you know, there is no world anymore outside of your window. Lost in thought, staring into the mist, suddenly a flash of light appears. Splashes of blue are interspersed with yellow and white. You realize where you are at last; you are slowly making your wait out of the troposphere, on your way to the lower stratosphere, where you leave the rain and turbulence behind. Here, if it is still daylight, you find the sky is blue and the sun is shining brightly, despite what was happening below.

There are times when we feel we are dealing with more than we’re capable of. We feel like our storms will never end. We can’t imagine the sun is shining anywhere, ever. We are told that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we have no freaking idea how long the tunnel is, and so we grow despondent, hung up on the idea that our troubles will never end. But realize this, no matter how hard it is raining, no matter how many flashes of lightning crash all around us, the sun is still shining, even at night! We must reach out, we must look up, to the sky above, to the sky where the air is clear, to the place where we can advance against space with minimal resistance. By focusing on the light ahead we can endure whatever it is we need to in our present.

No matter how hard things seem today, there is a place where the troubles you are experiencing today don’t exist. Keep your gaze steeled upward, on that great, clear sky above. Right now, in this moment, the sun is shining, even though you may not see it. Look past the storm and see the light.

 

 

You’re Completely Free

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In continuing the theme of favorite movie quotes, I now turn to film/comic book series “V for Vendetta” (brilliantly created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd) for inspiration. In the film version, Natalie Portman portrayed the character Evey Hammond, who midway through the film is taken as a prisoner. After being continuously tortured and starved, she is asked if she would divulge the whereabouts of the film’s main character (the mysterious V) to her torturer, to which she defiantly answers that she “would rather die.” Her unknown captor then tells her, “Then you have no fear anymore. You’re completely free.” Immediately after, he walks away, leaving the cell door open for Evey to walk out without struggle or opposition.

How liberating to live a life free from fear, free from considering the opinions and judgements of others, free from concern that our actions are approved by others. For the majority of my early life, I so wanted my father to love and accept me. This came with a price: he made it clear to me that his love for me was tied to my love for his God and for my public display of obedience to this God. My star shone bright within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization as I became a super-human adherent of the faith. My father’s approval of me came with a sacrifice: that of my own mind and free will. I soon grew weary of being micromanaged and scrutinized by men, being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it on a daily basis. I felt that I could never be good enough for this God or his earthly appointed representatives. I grew despondent and lost all joy in doing what I believed my father wanted from me. I crumbled under the weight of all of it and lost my way, feeling my way around the darkness of a void of my own creation. It was a long time before I realized that my father’s conditional love was nothing more than a prison for the expression of my truest self. When I let go of trying to please him everything changed and I evolved to become the person I am today.

At times, I still struggle with trying to please others, whether they be bosses, children or other family members. There is no freedom to be had when one is afraid of moving forward for fear of what someone is going to think of them, or how they may react. This fear has without a doubt stopped many from fulfilling their goals and desires, and kept more than a few held back by a notion that they may be “less than” or not good enough to become the version of themselves they really can be. We have to be fully invested in our own personal growth; what others wish for us may not be what makes us happiest.

Those who criticize us can only affect us if we let them. I am a firm believer in controlling my response to my external environment. If someone is trying to put me down, I reason that there is some internal struggle or issue that they have not been able to overcome, and will separate myself from the personal attack. I know who I am, and I do not let anyone convince me otherwise.

I’d rather die than give up my free will and independence. I am completely free; are you?

“V for Vendetta” Copyright © Warner Bros. Pictures / FX Network

The Problem is Choice

I believe that The Matrix is one of the greatest cinematic stories ever told. For me, the scene that stands out above all others occurs when Neo meets The Architect of the Matrix, the man who is the machine that created the Matrix, the virtual world that all captive and ignorant human batteries exist in. It is at this point that Neo learns that there were five like him before he existed, five who also arose from and against the Matrix in the ultimate exercise of free will.

Why? Why in this supposedly all too perfect virtual world would someone wish to consciously awake from an ignorant sleep to take the hard road and live as a criminal in a cold, dark world absent the creature comforts so widely and readily available in the Matrix? The problem, as Neo so succinctly expresses it, is choice. The choice to be real, to feel everything there is to feel. To experience the full range of human emotions, happiness and despair, the joy of love and the pain of loss.

I was once part of a Utopian religious sect which provided for “built-in” friendships while the promise of everlasting life in a perfect world enveloped me like a protective bubble. However, choice was not a part of my vocabulary. Oh yes, I could “choose” to exit this group and lose all of my family and close “friends” overnight, as they would no longer be allowed to speak with me once I left. But the “architects” of this group know they are not providing a reasonable choice to their members and so millions remain enslaved to the notion of a perfect world “just around the corner.” I did leave and my departure was painful. I made many mistakes and found myself mixed up with people most would not associate with. But I learned from all these experiences what no textbook or religious literature could have taught me. I would not trade my life experiences for any so called protection from the outside world that someone or some religious group would pretend to offer to me. 

Likewise, many take pills to avoid dealing with raw, uncomfortable or even tormenting emotions. Some have real chemical imbalances that are near impossible to cure so I’m not saying all drugs are bad; but I do question the relative ease with which doctors prescribe SSRIs. To me, the number of people on these drugs, as well as the millions on Opiods, represents a growing need to disconnect from the difficult decisions that life calls on us to make. In our blissful, altered state, have we fallen asleep at the wheel as a society? Our choice in elected leaders may be the ultimate manifestation of this.  

Whatever reality you are struggling with please always know you DO have a choice. You can choose to face an uncomfortable present, deal with the source of your pain and find a way to eradicate it. You can choose to deal with bullies, whether they be bosses, partners or family members. You can choose to believe what you want to believe and how you will believe it. Your choices may then very well be a problem for others, but as the saying goes, “that’s their problem.” 

Fly Paper

dead-flies-on-sticky-yellow-fly-paper-AXYYRNAs anyone who has lived 50 years or more knows, the old memory bank is just brimming with millions of recorded events, some buried deep beneath the surface, unseen but felt, while others are right there in plain view, a ragtag collection of good times, bad times and everything in between. Not everyone I know has the ability to recall nearly every significant event in their lives and while I consider this both a blessing and a curse to have vivid and at times total recall of my own past, my memories are very often effective in holding me back from fully and completely experiencing the present. In fact, my memories have done an exceptional job at helping to frame the way I see myself, serving as the lens through which I see myself. In reality, my thoughts about the past have done nothing more than help form a set of “limiting beliefs” about myself and what I’m capable of.

It’s easy to get stuck recalling our past “failures,” which really were nothing more than practice runs through this game called life. I don’t believe in mistakes, bad choices or errant paths; we are always walking with intention and purpose. If we’ve encountered great difficulty or other trials, these were merely life lessons that we sorely needed to learn. Sometimes it takes a lifetime (or more) to understand what it is we need to learn. I am fully engaged in this process of discovery and may well be for the rest of my life. My advice for today is to not allow yourself to be stuck to your memories of the past, the decisions you have been made, or the things others have told you about yourself. These do not define who you are. Like fly paper, they can be powerfully attracting to contemplate, but linger too long and you risk getting stuck in a place that you won’t easily escape from.