No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Years ago I lived in Santa Cruz, California for five to six years. It's a beautiful area, and one I appreciate visiting still. The terrain is incredibly mixed, ranging from eucalyptus and cypress trees bordering right up to the coast of Monterey Bay, and giant redwoods throughout the hills on the just-inland side. Santa Cruz county is a narrow, long strip of land pushed between these two formations--the coast of the Pacific Ocean, on the one hand, and the rise of the Santa Cruz mountains on the other. We visited recently to spend time with two dear friends. One, Josef, was my mentor for four of the years that I lived there while I volunteered at his ranch that offers animal therapy and lessons for physically disabled students. The other, Becky, is a dear friend that recently faced a profound personal shift that we wanted to be there to spend time with her through. It was an invaluable trip, though I'll admit also tiring to make. We drove 13 hours across the Western edge of the Colorado Plateau, through the Mojave Desert, and then up along the Eastern side of the Santa Cruz mountains to get there, then turned around three days later and drove back.
Being there reminded me of the new age community I'd become connected to when I lived there in the '90's. I was outside of a traditional university education at the time and so invested my thirst for learning in non-traditional methods. I would pick a topic and read all I could on it, but also take training courses in various topics as well. My goal was to learn whatever I could get ahold of, but also, more importantly, I was invested in learning how to be more comfortable living in the world, and such interest led me to various types of personal study.
Shortly after moving to the area I was driving down Highway 1 south through Santa Cruz county and caught myself completely scared that my car would break down. The thing about this section of road is that it is almost viciously traveled; that is, there are cars on it at all times. It's also heavily populated with driver call boxes, just for this purpose--in case your car breaks down. This was before people readily had cell phones. Realizing I was gripping the wheel, driving scared of the fate of my car, I decided to spend time tracing my thoughts. What was it exactly I was afraid of? Well, that I'd be stuck on the side of the road. What would happen then? Well, I'd have to wait there. And what would happen then? I'd have to get the car towed, and get myself a ride. And, then? I'd have to pay money to get the car fixed. Tracing this line of thinking I realized that the fear I was feeling far out weighed the actual horror of the situation. Basically, if my car broke down I'd have some sort of hassle, but I wouldn't be dead, my life wouldn't be over, I wouldn't be at risk for something terrible. I'd just have to problem solve, and face down the reality of my car in that way--solving the problem of how to deal with it. From that perspective the situation of driving wasn't that scary at all.
Having noticed I'd been dealing with driving in this way, I started wondering how often I engaged in everyday activities with this kind of latent fear that something would go wrong. I made a commitment to paying attention to that sort of thing, and then simply asking myself what it was I was afraid of in that kind of simple but systematic manner whenever it came up. Quickly, the result was that I was able to eradicate many of the fears that had been populating my everyday life pretty much of the time. This kind of process made me realize too though that I probably had other fears that weren't so everyday life oriented and I decided to seek those out too. My thought was that if I was going to enjoy life I'd have to make room for that feeling of enjoyment. Being scared of driving because I was worried my car might break down seemed to be taking up that space of enjoying the driving itself, and the gorgeous scenery of the place. So, the thought was, if I got rid of that fear, I'd be more freed up to enjoy how great it is to have my own car, and how beautiful the area I drove it in really was.
I decided to start exploring the possibilities of "personal growth" type classes in order to try and face deeper fears so that I could be more aware of my own habitual ways of operating in the world, and free up more space to enjoy myself. Though some of my friends now find it hard to believe, I didn't really know how to laugh at the time, and had a hard time smiling for genuine reasons too. Life for me felt deeply serious.
One of the things I discovered in the midst of all this is that it's often the positive possibilities of life themselves that we're afraid of. It wasn't only things like my car breaking down that worried me. Fears that were kind of hidden to me actually made it hard to just enjoy what was good in my life, and made me even afraid to enjoy what was good. Without realizing it I'd push away some of the positive opportunities that came to me because I was afraid I might not be able to meet them adequately, or because I was afraid I'd screw up and then lose what was good about them. The positive possibilities were scary because of how it seemed they might reveal to me my limitations, they might tell me I wasn't able to live the good life I wanted for myself. The fears that I felt made it almost painful to simply enjoy what was great in the life that I lived, and to embrace that it was that kind of great life that I wanted to be committed to.
I don't think that this kind of fear of the positive always shows itself quite so dramatically as how I'm describing it here. Some of the time it shows up as far more buried than any of that, or just as a subtle limitation in our willingness to believe that our life can be good in the ways we've dreamed up. Sometimes it's as simple as telling ourselves that we're not ready to take up the positive possibility presenting itself to us, and that surely we'll just do it later in another way. It might be that we are lucky enough to revisit a choice we had at some point in our life previously. But more often that that, what is unique about a choice is only there that one time. The opportunity that comes later is simply different; valuable in its own way to be sure, but simply different. We have to ask ourselves, then, if we're willing to let our fear (perhaps of something like not being ready, or not being good enough) keep us from stepping into our own positive life right now, under the guise we're pretending for ourselves that we'll do it later when we're ready for it.
We don't always, and for some of us maybe not even often, get the chance to feel ready for all that life throws our way. Sometimes the best way to live what we want is to go ahead and risk it. Risk it being hard, risk it being things we don't already know how to do, risk it being totally frickin' worth the difficulty because of all the good that also comes along with it. Risk it for all its fabulousness--the fabulousness of our own lives, that is. It seems like living a good life is at least worth that.
Chasing down opportunities to become more self aware led me to having contact with the new age community of Santa Cruz. It wasn't that I ever was learning how to talk with aliens, or anything as dramatic as that. My commitment took me to other types of hooky sounding courses like Inner Child Workshops instead. There were people there though that did, "in fact", "speak" with aliens.
I was thinking yesterday about how people interpret the idea of living a positive life, or being a good person. This is, admittedly, a commitment I have. It's important for me to strive to do well by others, to be conscious of my own reasons for the choices I make, to care for myself in a way that strengthens my ability to care for others. Living some version of a positive life is a tenet common to many new age practices as well. It often takes a different form than how I described my version just now, but what's common is this idea of "being positive", or "thinking positive."
My sense of this notion is that it can be easy to misunderstand what that means. The naive view would have us be positive all the time, to commit to finding the positive in all things and telling ourselves that everything works out the way it is supposed to. I have to admit I deeply disagree with this interpretation. Having had one of my closest friends commit suicide you're never going to convince me that "things happen for a reason" or that "things work out for the best." The truth is some times things that are really crappy happen, things that cause us immense pain, things that will leave us ever after changed. It's also true that there are times when we're simply scared of something. Both of these truths are reality of human life, I think--we are scared sometimes, and sometimes stuff feels like and simply is crap.
Another way to think about this idea of living a positive life would have us imagine it in a slightly different way. I was talking to a couple of my friends about this analogy earlier. We might have as our intention keeping a clean backyard. It's a positive goal to be sure. In all kinds of ways, it's going to make our lives better, it would seem, to fulfill this goal. But the bare reality of fulfilling this positive intention is that we probably have to bend over and put our hands around a whole bunch of dog or cat poop. Being that close to it is going to mean we have to smell the stink, we have to handle it directly (hopefully through gloves), and we have to decide the best way to dispose of it. If we're willing to do the work of getting the crap out of our yard, then we're in a good position to meet our positive intention of the clean backyard. But if we trick ourselves into thinking that being positive means only dealing with the positive, pretty soon the dog poop is going to pile up and smell and ruin the atmosphere of our lovely living space. I have a friend or two that likely thinks this is why they don't bother to have a dog or a cat. Well, then, shift the analogy to your own bathroom toilet. Eventually you have to scrub the thing.
I'd mentioned in my last post that I've been having a hard week. A friend of mine early on encouraged me to just change that--that is, to just shift to having a better week. I appreciate the positive intention of that kind of encouragement. Encouragement from my friends is crucially important to me. But I have to say that I think it's important to go through the crap in the backyard sometimes. I don't have a dog, or a cat, but there seems to be lately a plethora of kitties coming to visit me. I told a different friend the other night that I must have a lot of witchy magic lately for the kitties to work so hard at coming over to hang out. It's quite an honor, really. But it turns out sometimes they leave behind cat poop. Time to get out the plastic bags and clean things up.