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Archive for March 20, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the Power & Consequences of Our Choices

[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

—C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87

The Fight for Our Heart: Feeding the Right Wolf

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful, resentful, and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his father which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And his grandfather answered, “The one that will win will be the one I choose to feed.”

A person does something that brings up unwanted feelings, and what happens? Do we open or close? Usually we involuntarily shut down.

Yet without a storyline to escalate our discomfort we still have easy access to the natural state of our heart.

Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing off, and instead allow a gap, a crack, and leave room for change to happen and for our self-protective reflexes to relax and gentle..

In Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight,” she points to scientific evidence showing that the life span of any particular emotion is only one and a half minutes.

Just 90 seconds!

After that we have to revive the emotion and get it going again.

And we do this automatically by the story or stories we tell ourselves about what has happened. We revive the emotion and amplify it by the habitual patterned ways we have of talking to ourselves—which unless we have trained the mind through mindfulness meditation, or therapy—will likely be counterproductive and just antagonize our emotions, instead of deescalating and re-centering ourselves and seeing and experiencing more directly what happened to us.

Our usual way of dealing with a negative emotion is that we automatically do revive it and feed into it by uncritically feeding it with our internal conversation and the stories we tell ourselves of why the other person did this to us, or why this shouldn’t be happening to us, or why this isn’t fair. . . .

This is a very ancient and basic habit. And it allows people like you and me who have the capacity for tremendous empathy and warmth and understanding to get so clouded that we can actually do harm to each other.

Understanding this, I’ve become highly motivated to make a practice of doing the opposite. I don’t always succeed, but year by year I become more familiar and at home with dropping the storyline and trusting that I have the capacity to stay present and receptive to other beings.

Suppose you and I spent the rest of our lives doing this? Suppose you and I spent the rest of our lives not avoiding what we fear but befriending it, staying, becoming less reactive, and not feeding that reactive self-protective uncharitable wolf? Suppose instead we began a practice of feeding the other wolf, the wolf of forgiveness, charity, kindness, understanding, courage, and love? What might happen to the quality of our own lives and the lives around us? What impact might this have on our community and even the world as a whole? . . .

Look what the opposite does.

When we avoid those who activate our fears and insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, we dehumanize them. This just cultivates a more aggressive and anxious and isolating and self-protective society.

Yet it can also become a daily practice to humanize people. We can make that choice. We can feed that wolf.

And when I do feed this wolf of friendliness and understanding unknown people become very real to me. They come better into focus as living beings who have sorrows and joys like I do, people who have parents and neighbors and friends, just like me. I also have a heightened awareness of my own reaction and fears, judgments and prejudices that pop out of nowhere about these ordinary people I’ve never even met.

When we see difficult circumstances as a chance to grow in bravery and wisdom as well as in patience and kindness, when we become more conscious of the ways we get hooked and we don’t take the bait and escalate, then our personal distress can become a means of better connecting with the pain, discomfort and unhappiness of others.

The primary intention in writing this book is that we might prepare ourselves to look beyond our own welfare and consider the great suffering of others and the fragile state of our world. As we change our own dysfunctional habits, we are simultaneously changing society, for society is nothing more than sum of all of our relationships, interactions, exchanges or lack of exchanges. Our own awakening is intertwined with the awakening of an enlightened society. If we can lose our personal appetite for aggression and addiction, the energy on the whole planet will become a bit more loving, tender, compassionate.

For the sake of all sentient beings, I hope you will join the growing society of aspiring and full-fledged spiritual warriors who are emerging from every continent on the globe. May we never give up our genuine concern for the world. And may our lives become a training ground for awakening our natural intelligence, openness, and warmth.

– Pema Chodron, adapted from “Taking the Leap,” pp. 3, 78-81, 98-99.

The Comfort Zone

We all live within the comfort zone. It’s the arena of activities we have done often enough to feel comfortable doing again—all those once-difficult and fearful things that we now find easy and comfortable.

Imagine the comfort zone as a circle: inside the circle are those things we are comfortable doing, outside is everything else. The wall of the circle is not a wall of protection, it is a wall of fear, a wall of limitation. The illusion is that the wall keeps us from bad things and keeps bad things from us; the illusion is that we are wise enough to know which things will prove beneficial over the long-term and which things will not and weed them out accordingly. The truth is we will err on the side of caution and weed out too much, we will be over-cautious and weed out much that is beneficial and would operate for our benefit. When we do something new, something different, we push against the parameters of our comfort zone. If we do the new thing often enough, we overcome the fear, guilt, unworthiness, uneasiness, hurt feelings, and anger, and our comfort zone expands. If we back off and honor the limitation, our comfort zone shrinks. It’s a dynamic, living thing, always either expanding or contracting.

When our comfort zone expands in one area, it expands in other areas as well: when we succeed at something, we take that self-confidence and esteem with us into other endeavors. This is known as “positive transfer.” When we give in to our comfort zone, the zone contracts. For some, the comfort zone shrinks to the size of their apartment—they never leave home without anxiety. For a few, the comfort zone shrinks to a space smaller than their own body, these are people who in every aspect of their lives are paralyzed by fear and self-doubt and not being good enough. This is when the comfort zone has won its greatest victory. —That and suicide. The “it” some people refer to when they “just can’t take it anymore” is the need to constantly be confronting the comfort zone just to keep the fear at bay. Here is one of the great ironies of life: those who are doing what they want to do and are consciously expanding their comfort zone at every opportunity experience no more fear than people who are passively trying to keep life as comfortable as possible.

Fear is a part of life. Some people feel fear when they press against their comfort zone and make it larger. Other people feel fear when they even think they might do something that gets them even close to the ever-shrinking, in their case, boundary of their comfort zone. Both feel the same fear. In fact, people in shrinking comfort zones probably feel more fear. They not only feel fear, they feel the fear of feeling fear, and the fear of the fear of feeling fear, and on and on. The person who develops the habit of moving through fear when it appears, feels it only once—“a coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but one.”

In the air conditioning trade, the “comfort zone” is the range of temperatures on the thermostat (usually around 72 degrees) in which neither heating nor air conditioning is needed. It’s also called the “dead zone.” That’s the result of honoring the comfort zone too much, too often—a sense of deadness, a feeling of being trapped in a life not of our desiring, doing things not of our choosing, spending time with people we don’t like.

This is my favorite method of expanding the comfort zone: learn to love it all.

(Peter McWilliams, adapted and modified from “Life 101“)

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