One of the best pieces of feedback I received from a student in my recent online course was that she felt safe and open to learn from me because I am also a work-in-progress, like her.
So much of our unhappiness, self-doubt, and fear come from the concept that we “need to know”. I am beginning to see that my violin school was built upon the false concept that I needed to know how to fix everyone’s problems. I can also see how the path of medical training and the system of health care delivery reinforces ideas that doctors “should know” what to do in every situation.
I spent my whole life as the “A student”, the “winner”, the “leader”, the one who was supposed to “know more”. We’re conditioned to “look up” to people like this, to aspire to be in their position someday. But the truth is that we all share one diagnosis – being human.
In many ways, we have been conditioned to forget one hemisphere of what it means to be human. We have been taught only to acknowledge the bright lights, the shining moments, the things we “ought to be proud of”, the items that make it on the year-end highlights list when the holiday cards go out.
The reality is that human experience includes a full spectrum of moments, ranging from intense emotions of rage and fear and inadequacy to completely serene periods of silence and calm. We are carefree and joyful, and we are threatened to our core. We are goal-oriented and focused, and we are desperately lost. We believe in everything we’ve ever been taught, and we are dissolved into a pool of not knowing.
ALL of this is our human experience. When we begin to deny one half of the equation, either pretending it doesn’t exist, or arranging our circumstances by any means possible to avoid acknowledgment of it, our soul begins to hurt. Part of us withers, atrophies from lack of use and attention.
And while the messages from the outside world – primarily those based on marketing products and services in this wonderfully industrious capitalist economy we have – tell us that our problem can be fixed by a procedure, our pain can be alleviated by a pill, our troubles can be forgotten by a vacation, our image salvaged by the right car or pair of shoes, it becomes even more challenging to muster up the courage to listen to the voice inside our hearts, and to do the work of being compassionate with our whole selves.
In the past two years I have been slowly, gingerly learning to question without fear. I have learned to listen and receive without needing to fix. It is a way of being that I am committed to practice each day, and that I am also challenged to keep practicing in each moment. If I don’t pause and become aware, my reflexes are still familiar with old patterns. If I don’t get out of my chair and look up at the sky, stretching my body and clearing my mind, I am easily left with the tangle of thoughts that once used to drive my every action and decision.
In my current work, as a teacher and life coach, there is the old temptation to feel like “I need to know”. To feel that old sense of being a fraud for claiming to have an answer, when in many cases I did not.
The only difference now is that I am aware. I continue to learn, as I have always done, although I now model my learning process not from valedictorians and Ivy League graduates but from nature, animals, and 3-year-olds. I continue to make mistakes, the kind I previously avoided at all costs by restricting myself to a narrow range of possibilities. I continue to be very observant of myself and of others, as I have always been, although I now judge and label a little less. I continue to encounter situations – every day, actually – where I simply do not know.
The difference now is that I am starting to smile at these moments. I greet them and welcome them with a friendliness and openness that I once reserved only for that dose of approval and praise from others that I lived for. Now I can distinguish between smiling at myself and waiting for others to smile at me. I have glimpsed the sensation of more gentleness and kindness than I ever received from another person. I am becoming familiar with the tenderness in myself – the tenderness I now believe I share with every other human being at their core. I am my own gardener, as someone wisely posted the other day on my Facebook page. It’s true.
With the number of “inspirational” people in my world, it’s easier to “think positive thoughts” than to smile at my own fear, or to smile at my own judgment of others. The challenge is finding a smile to greet ALL aspects of life – and to acknowledge the wholeness of feeling fearful, doubtful, angry, and just plain crappy. Not to resist or avoid these feelings, or try to eradicate them, or wallow in telling about them, but simply to be with them, allow them their time, and then let them go.
Our suffering comes from resisting. Our suffering comes from turning away, and not wanting to look at what’s really there. Our suffering comes from blaming ourselves, or feeling bad about ourselves, when the darker, lower, “negative” sides of our experience show their face.
What would it be like to sit with all of it, calmly, receiving it without needing to label it as “good” or “bad”, without needing to find a solution, without needing to know the answer?
I feel relief…and a little smile along with it.
Photo credit: Grant Kwok, used under a Creative Commons license