In his forward to the book Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Jesuit priest and spiritual leader Anthony de Mello, the editor shares a story about an eagle’s egg that was (mis)placed in a nest of barnyard hens by an unassuming man. The baby eaglet hatched and grew up with a brood of chicks; as a result, he thought he was one of them his entire life. He clucked, pried insects from the earth and thrashed his wings, only flying a few feet in the air. After many years passed, the old eagle happened to see a bird soaring high in the sky above him. When he asked his fellow chicken who it was, he learned that it was an eagle, “king of the birds.” The chicken declared matter-of-factly, “he belongs in the sky while we belong to the earth.” This simple yet profound tale illustrates the omnipresent power of a conditioned mindset – an acceptance of reality as we are told to believe it, rather than one in which we challenge normative ideology and choose instead to not only question our own mental models, but more importantly recognize our unbounded potential and the innate freedom we have as the creators of our experience.
Naturally, the conditioning in our formative years establishes a distinct framework through which we view the world. We are raised with a strong predisposition to adopt a mindset from our parents or caretakers, which is heavily influenced by their own rearing. Whether consciously or not, our thoughts, attitudes and actions for the rest of our lives are governed by those markers of reality, as if we are wearing goggles that filter out anything that does not fit our programmed standards. In our humanness, we perpetuate the adaptive conventions that seem to keep us safe within our social and cultural environments, and the cycle continues. We write manuals for our family, friends, partners, and even the stranger driving the car in the next lane as if somebody granted us with the perfect, most “objective” judgement of what should be. We believe that if life looks a certain way, meets our stipulations, then we will be okay. Not only does this lead to conflict among the almost 8 billion humans walking around wearing their own unique pair of goggles, but it predominantly generates resistance, disappointment, anger or some other negative emotion. Ironically, those conditioned views can be so rigid that they keep us trapped in a cell of our own making; we are the jailed and the jailer. If only we were more aware that we ourselves hold the key to our liberation.
This inquiry continues to confront me through my own life circumstances: whether it be a yearning to fill a void by uncovering my life’s purpose, the desperation I feel that I can’t cure the ruthless disease that is attacking my beloved mother, or the mourning of a relationship that “failed” to endure as I imaged forever after. I am constantly reminded that I have conditioned my happiness on the satisfaction of particular qualifications of my own measure. As easy as it can be to fall prey to the identification with my own drama through the ego lens that is “me”, a glimmer of peace surfaces when I manage to step into the consciousness that is “I” the observer. As de Mello describes in his above-referenced book, “suffering exists in “me”…but the “I” is never threatened.” He goes on to say: “We never feel grief when we lose something that we have allowed to be free, that we have never attempted to possess. Grief is a sign that I made my happiness depend on this thing or person, at least to some extent.”
The author acknowledges that this may sound inhuman, and indeed it does. For all intents and purposes, the idea of accepting illness, injustice, heartbreak, and everything in between feels wrong. But maybe that wrongness is just another emotion on the spectrum of our own making. Although I want to believe that we come from a source of absolute love, I also have to consider the possibility that we produced all the conditions and our associated clinging or resistance so that we may evolve through the experience of life in its rich, full entirety. Even when I cannot understand why I would create a reality in which I or anyone I love faces adversity, I strive to compassionately accept and embrace my human condition: one that is all-encompassing. By nature of living on this relative plane, I have no choice but to receive its full spectrum. On my better days, I relax the reigns and trust that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be. This doesn’t mean that reality is any different, I am just judging it a little less. In actuality, life rarely conforms to our preconceived expectations, especially when confronted with the difficult and downright tragic parts, yet the grace is found in unconditionally loving ourselves and each other through the process. Only then can our souls soar freely above it all, just like the eagle.