Saturday, October 3, 2015

The profundity of choice

One of the most profound, most defining, moments in my life came about 15 years ago when I was reading (for the umpteenth time) portions of Gary Zukav's book, The Seat of the Soul. I remember so clearly -- sitting in my car eating lunch in Eastsound, Orcas Island, WA.  I no longer have the book so I can't quote exactly, nor can I explain why this short passage resonated so strongly with me in that moment. But it did. I think that sometimes things simply enter our consciousness at the time we're ready to hear it, and when we most need it. I'm open to better explanations if anybody wants to offer one up.

What Gary said, paraphrased, is that we have a choice in every moment how we feel, how we react, what our outlook on life is for that moment. The proverbial light bulb lit up for me as the words sunk in. At the time, I was struggling with deep, deep, clinical depression and had been for about 20 years. My body didn't react well to most anti-depressants and their side effects, and most seemed to have little effect on the depression. I fought feelings about death being the best solution, although I never reached that suicidal moment where I actually tried to die. There was a really close moment in early 2000, not long before I moved to Orcas. A moment that scared me for its intensity. Had I been somewhere I could have done something, I think I would have. Fortunately for me, I was sitting in a theater watching some kind of ballet performance, with my housemate. By the time the performance was over, the intensity had passed and my inner strength was once again in control.

I mention all that merely to illustrate the depths of my state of mind at the moment the light bulb went off. What I took from those words in that moment was that I could make a choice in every moment to not be depressed. To let go of the overwhelm, the tension and sadness, for that moment. To feel the relief, find a little sunshine and change my outlook for that moment. I thought deeply about this while I finished lunch, then began putting the idea into action. I found that yes, I actually could make that choice. The relief from the overwhelm only lasted for that moment. There was no miraculous healing. But I was desperate, and thus driven to keep trying whatever I felt might work. I kept making the choice, as many moments of the day as I could manage. One moment at a time. Soon, one moment would become two moments. There were shorter time periods between the moments. They began to merge into longer moments.

Every small moment of success fed hope, and hope dislodges hopelessness. I was on the right track and I persevered until enough moments merged together, over and over again, until I felt that I, not the depression, was in control of my life. It was a powerful lesson. I was still depressed, but the intensity of the depression was considerably lighter.

Fast forward a few years and I attended my very first Buddhist meditation retreat, a grueling 10-day ordeal filled with exploding emotions and searing back pain. It wasn't until the 9th day of this retreat that I made a similar discovery about choice. I was sitting in the meditation hall in the morning, and realized that while the back pain was insignificant at that early hour, I was already creating suffering by thinking about how bad it would become as the day progressed. Another light bulb moment for me about making choices in any given moment. I could choose to focus on the pain that would be coming later in the day, or I could choose to go with what was happening in that very moment. I chose the latter, and it was a huge lesson for me that has had truly profound ramifications in my life over the past 10 years.

There's an adage around that says what you focus on increases and what you ignore decreases. I don't know the source of the adage -- pop psychology, real psychology? Doesn't matter, but it's something I've found to be true, certainly. If I sit around and whine, feel sorry for myself, about something or other that's happening in my life I end up being obsessed with it, keep the tapes playing around in my mind over and over, getting more and more miserable as a result. Even if it's something I perceive as a good thing, rather than a bad thing, the obsession eventually wears off and reality intrudes.

On a simplistic level, we all also have a choice in every moment whether or not to let something bother us. It's easy to get huffy, resentful, frustrated or any of a myriad other feelings when something doesn't go the way you want it to and is out of your control. Just as easy, but requiring a little effort until it becomes a habit, is shrugging it off. Choosing not to let it bother us, then going on with life.  I use that one a lot for things like noisy neighbors and yappy dogs.

It took me a few years of Buddhist study after that 2005 retreat to begin to really understand and use the Buddhist theory of impermanence, or anicca,  which can be seen as an underlying basis for making choices in the moment. I've referenced impermanence more than once on this blog, most thoroughly in the link that's highlighted. I urge you to read this if you want to understand the theory more thoroughly.

Basically, impermanence means that nothing is permanent -- big surprise there! If we look at the world, our own lives, our own bodies with honesty we can see the truth easily. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes every day, moment-to-moment. Wanting things to be any different creates struggle and misery, because stopping change is impossible. Observing life with an open mind will show you the truth in this. For me back in 2005, it meant that depression wasn't permanent. In 2010 it meant that back pain wasn't permanent. And it meant that I could choose to not focus on these things, thus stopping the proliferation of the depression, or the back pain.

Once I actually began to really understand the Buddhist teachings on impermanence on a personal experiential level, rather than simply reading about it in a book, my life changed profoundly once again. No matter what is happening in my life, I can see it in the light of impermanence and its power over me disappears. Big things, little things. I simply choose to not focus on the negativity. Changes within the aging body (inevitable!) or frustrations with a living situation, other things that arise from day to day, are all impermanent and do not merit the waste of my energy that comes with focusing on them. Granted, some physical conditions are here to stay and more will probably come as I continue to age. I may not be able to cure or heal such afflictions, but I don't have to sink into misery by focusing on them, either. I can make other choices. The choice is all mine, free for the asking, and available in every moment.

What choices could you make in your life that could lessen your physical or emotional suffering? Look closely, openly and honestly. Ask yourself the question sincerely and if you see something, give it a try. What do you have to lose?

What you have to gain is wisdom.