Robin recently said something, in one of her many uplifting comments, that really got me thinking. She asked how I came to be so insightful about human nature.
I agreed with her that I do have a pretty good sense of what makes people tick, and I pondered for a bit how I got that awareness. Eventually, I realized I got it by being kind of withdrawn and alone as a kid.
When I was little, I didn’t feel very comfortable relating with other children. The way they communicated and played looked easy, but when I tried to get involved it didn’t come easily to me. So I took to hanging back and observing, hoping to get a sense of how I could have the fun they seemed to be having.
This was a painful time, but it had wonderful benefits. All that people-watching did give me a strong sense of what motivates human beings, why they hurt and how they heal.
Is Personal Development About Avoiding Pain?
As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the story of my own growth is very different from what we normally hear about personal development and how to create it.
Often, it seems to me, personal development is presented as a bunch of “tips and tricks” for avoiding suffering. Common examples of what I mean are:
* If you master the right lines and body language, you’ll always “get the girl” (or guy), and you won’t have to feel alone.
* If you learn the right way to organize your e-mail, you’ll be super-productive, and you won’t have to feel anxious about your work.
* If you use these super-savvy-SEO marketing tips, you’ll escape the 9-to-5 grind, and you’ll never feel trapped and frustrated again.
And yet, I think my most profound periods of growth have been the times when I’ve suffered the most – like those hours I spent on the outskirts of the playground as a kid.
What’s more, in moments when I’ve matured the most, suffering has been unavoidable. When I was little, I had to go to school and be with other kids, and no one was around to teach me “social skills” and make relating easier. But if I’d been able to somehow escape that situation, I wouldn’t have gained an acute understanding of people’s inner lives.
Sitting With Suffering
Experiences like this have taught me that, when I find myself suffering, turning to “tips and tricks” to escape isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes, it’s more helpful to “sit with” the hurt — to let go of distractions and turn my attention toward what I’m feeling.
When I’m feeling lonely, for instance, I’ve taken to getting intimate with my loneliness. I try to tune into the body sensations that tell me I’m feeling alone. For me, aloneness shows up as a heaviness in my solar plexus.
Interestingly, the more familiar I get with that sensation, the more comfortable, and the less threatening, it seems. I start to realize that, as Michael Jackson put it, it’s “just another part of me,” and there’s a peace that comes with that realization.
Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone seek out suffering to mature more quickly. As I’m sure you know, there’s no need to go looking for pain in this world — it’s here in abundance. The Buddha put it simply: “existence is suffering.”
What I’m suggesting is that “crappy” times in our lives are often our most powerful periods of growth — and that the deepest self-development happens when we open ourselves to pain, instead of numbing ourselves to it.
(This is an unofficial sequel to my piece at The Change Blog called “What To Do When Meditation Gets ‘Hard.’”)
Nearly 100% of the time (and it happened again last night), when someone asks me a question about meditation, it goes like this: “I can’t meditate because I can’t empty my mind.” Because this seems like a common concern, I thought it might be helpful to offer my take.
Notice that this question assumes that meditation is supposed to give you a particular experience — an experience of mental emptiness. If you don’t have that experience when you meditate, you’re “doing it wrong,” and you need to change your approach.
“Getting It Right” And Suffering
Of course, this is a familiar way of thinking. For example, we tend to assume that, if I’m feeling unhappy, I need to change some aspect of how I’m living — maybe get a new job or relationship. If I’m feeling angry, I need to vent my anger, or do something to “improve” my mood.
In other words, we’re deeply conditioned to treat certain experiences as “right” and others as “wrong.” If we’re having a “wrong” experience, we assume, we need to do something to make sure we have a “right” one going forward.
The trouble, as the Buddha pointed out, is that this is the very mindset that creates suffering. We suffer when we label our present experience as “wrong” and demand a different one — making complaints like “I should have more money,” “I should be happier,” “I should have a better relationship,” and so on.
A Place Where It’s Okay To “Get It Wrong”
As is often said, meditation gives us a chance to let go of this habit of judging our experience. Instead of resisting our thoughts and sensations, and grasping for “better” ones, it allows us to simply permit whatever experiences arise to be, just as they are.
We miss this opportunity when, as so many do, we see meditation as just another way to seek out a “good” experience. Many of us, like I said, see meditation as a method for chasing the experience of mental blankness. Others are chasing inner peace, relaxation, and so on.
The irony, I’ve found, is that letting go of the judgments we put on our experience is actually what produces peace. We’re at peace when we’re no longer fighting against our current reality and trying to force it to be different — saying “no, I shouldn’t be thinking, I should be empty.”
Experience-Chasing In Moderation
I don’t mean to say that avoiding certain experiences, and pursuing others, is always “bad.” After all, as human beings, we couldn’t exist if we weren’t chasing certain experiences from time to time — fleeing the experience of hunger and chasing the experience of having a full belly, for instance.
My point is that meditation gives us an opportunity to take a break from the cycle of constant experience-chasing — also known as the karmic wheel, or the cycle of suffering. When we learn to see it that way, I think, it can be an intensely liberating thing to do.