If I did certain things regularly, I would do them well. Graphic design in PhotoShop, for example. I could do that very well if I understood PhotoShop. But why learn to use the program when you don’t use the program enough to remember what you learn about using the program? See what I mean? You have to do things regularly to do them well. If you are not going to do them regularly, you really can’t expect to do them very well.
Which transitions very nicely into dealing well with things when they don’t go our way. We have to practice with the little things if we hope to handle the big things well. We have to regularly do well with things not going our way, if we hope to do well with the major collapses, failures, disappointments, and catastrophes.
If you can handle well running out of milk or misplacing the car keys, you’ll have a better chance of handling losing your job or your partner leaving. “How do you get to Carnage Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice!” Practice with the small things, the daily things, the waiting in line things, the stopping in traffic things, the not having the right change things, and you’ll be ready for the haymaker landing right on the chops and knocking you for a loop things.
And when we practice, what we are practicing is being aware. Being intensely and intently aware of the right things in the right ways—being aware of your awareness, for instance—changes everything. But, not necessarily for the better. We have to be aware of that, as well. Sometimes when people are enraged, particularly with us, they become even more enraged when we don’t play their game by doing our part and becoming enraged back, or by not saying what they think they are setting us up to say. So, not being enraged back is no easy path to calm and peaceful resolution. It’s good practice for handling things that don’t go our way. But, it is not a technique for getting things to go our way.
Understand this: Things are not going to go our way. We simply have to be big enough to understand that, and accept that, and embrace that, and allow that to be. “This is the way things are. And, this is what you can do about it. And, that’s that.” Get it? Mostly, what we can do about it is accept the fact that we can’t do enough about it to turn it around and have it go our way. There is no strategy for making life be what we want it to be. We live in a world that is not the world we wish we lived in.
And, I know what you are thinking. Don’t tell me you aren’t. “What good is having a way if you can’t have it?” Nailed you, didn’t I? Well, I’m afraid we can’t help having a way, we can only help having to have it.
Having a way is the basic survival instinct. Every living thing has a way. Plants move to the light. Paramecium move away from toxins. We know what we like, but it is not always a good thing to have what we want. When what we like is something like cocaine and heroin, and sometimes something like alcohol, gambling, and chocolate, we get in real trouble right fast. What we like isn’t always as good for us as we would like for it to be. We have a way, and sometimes that serves us well, and sometimes, having a way gets in our way. Particularly, when we try to have our way anyway.
This is where awareness is very helpful. We have to have a way, but we don’t have to have our way. We can be aware of our way, and set it aside. Setting our way aside is a healthy, and helpful, survival tool as having a way. “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” How do we know? All it takes is time and attention. We watch. We wait. We see what happens. We talk with the right kind of others about what happened and what we did in response to what happened. We get their perspective. We examine our own perspective. Something shifts and we do things differently. And, if we are of reasonable intelligence, we develop a sense of when and how to do what over time.
It’s called the spiritual journey. Sometimes, it’s called wising up. Sometimes, it’s just called growing up. But it comes down to knowing when and how to do what. You get that down, and there is nothing else to know, or get, or do. You will have arrived, and can move to the mountain top, and speak in riddles to would-be disciples.
Knowing when and how to do what is all we need to know. It is at the heart of religion at its best. Religion, at its best, doesn’t ply us with things to believe, load us down with doctrines to understand and remember, pile us high with names of the saints to memorize, give us holy scriptures to learn to recite by heart, teach us rituals to perform, and prayers to repeat, and symbols to revere. It just helps us know when and how to do what.
It does that best by telling us a thousand conflicting stories about when and how someone did what, and winking at us, while it waits for us to get it. Jesus raises the dead, and leaves the dead to bury the dead. Get it? The Buddha advises living responsibly after abandoning his wife and children. Get it? Lao Tsu says let things take their natural course and tells rulers to wage war when necessary (NOT letting things take their natural course). Get it? The lesson is simple: Live with the tension! Every path that is the true path leads us into paradox, inconsistency, contradiction, discrepancy and disparity. Every path that is the truth path makes fun of us for thinking there is a path. Laughter at the idea of a Spiritual Master is the gift Spiritual Masters give would-be disciples.
Every path that is the true path is a general direction, not a specific directive. No path that is the true path details exactly what must be done when, and where, and how. There are no black foot steps to follow on the path of life. We have to live in the tension of opposites, between the hands, so to speak, knowing “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” and deciding what to do, even when the best we can do leaves much to be desired. That’s called living with the tension.
Every path that is the true path comes replete with conundrum and contradiction. We think if something is true it must be one way and not the opposite way as well. We think in terms of well-defined dichotomies. If something is black, it cannot be white. If something is round, it cannot be square. If something is a particle, it cannot be a wave, and nothing can ever be everywhere at once.
We come replete with our either/or categories, and do not do well on the path that is replete with conundrum and contradiction. We keep trying to fit things nicely into our organizational structure, so that we might label them, tell ourselves what they are and how they work, in our rational, logical, left-brained way, and step into our lives with a place for everything and everything in place. Trouble is we don’t live in a rational, logical, left-brained universe.
In this world, things are as they are and as they also are and as they maybe, one day, might be. All at once, at the same time. It makes no sense, and we can’t think about it without becoming dizzy and sick to our stomachs. We cannot wake up and realize that we have fallen down the rabbit hole into a Wonderland that is more like an insane asylum. We have to remain asleep. It is the only way we get by.
How else does one get by in a world where things are not what they seem, or are what they seem and not what they seem? One doesn’t do it by THINKING one’s way by, that’s for sure. Rational, logical, left brains are practically useless in the world at the end of the rabbit hole. Life is a dance in that world. Blind people see and lame people run in that world. If you have to make heads or tails of things, you won’t have much fun in that world. Yet, that’s the world every path that is a true path winds through.
Conundrum and contradiction are on every side in that world. “The Tao that can be said is not the eternal Tao.” “Those who know know that they can’t say.” “Either you can take it or you can’t.” It’s hell or heaven, depending on who and how you are and what you need to be comfortable. But, you won’t get very far along any path that is the true path if you have to have things spelled out and nailed down along the way.
Get it? No formula! Get it? No black foot prints! Get it? No recipe! No standardized way of knowing what to do when and how! We make it up as we go! That realization is the sterling silver gift of religion at its best! We come to know when and how to do what by knowing that we don’t know, that we can’t know, that we can’t be certain, that we have to take another chance again!
That’s the realization which opens us to the moment of our living and requires us to be intently, and intensely, alert to what is happening and how we are responding to what is happening and what needs to happen, and how what needs to happen and what we want to happen are not necessarily the same thing. Did you hear that? What needs to happen and what we want to happen are not necessarily the same thing. We are not here to have our way and get what we want. If that is our idea of happiness, we are not here to be happy.
The Second Rule of Life is: “There is no necessary connection between what is to our advantage and what is beneficial.” Or, to phrase it another way, “There is no particular advantage in doing what is good.” We know what we want and don’t want, what we like and don’t like, but we have a hard time considering what is good apart from what we want and like, and evil apart from what we don’t want and don’t like. It’s time we learned to make the distinction. What we want and like is not necessarily good. What we don’t want and don’t like is not necessarily evil. So, how do we know what is good and what is evil? There is no formula, no recipe, no black foot prints, no standardized way of knowing when and how to do what. Get it? We make it up as we go, and everything hangs on what we decide. Everything. Get it?