Life is hard. They don’t teach you that in school, although maybe they should. Why do we spend the formative years of our lives learning mostly information that we need to pass an exam and then immediately forget, yet we are never formally taught a basic understanding of our own minds – the same minds that create our entire human experience on this planet? Until there is a fundamental paradigm shift in our education system, we are generally on our own to explore the nature of our feelings and how they impact the decisions we make and the results we manifest.
Like most human beings, I have spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to feel good. In fact, I realized that everything I do and we do as a species is in essence driven by the desire to feel a certain way: accomplished, loved, admired, beautiful, chosen, strong…the list goes on. Our formal and social education communicates and rewards these standards for being. Yet, they completely ignore or deny that the only reason we can recognize and comprehend these feelings, is by living and understanding their opposites, or the contrasting states.
A retreat I attended a few weeks ago brought this reality into sharp focus for me. I knew very little prior to the event other than it was recommended by a trusted advisor. While my expectations fell somewhere on the gamut between revolutionary self-discovery and empowerment to simply learning something new about myself, what I experienced was a completely sobering (figuratively and literally) emotional immersion. Although I’ve always considered myself relatively in tune with my inner world, the workshop unlocked a new understanding about what it is to really feel the entire spectrum of emotion and express raw, unabashed vulnerability in a group of complete strangers. That act of stretching my range of feeling was the embodiment of the concept of contrast, which has been showing up repeatedly in my awareness and interactions over the last few months.
While we live in a world of perceived contrast, the irony is that although that contrast is what allows us to appreciate the “positives,” we generally want to drown out the “negatives” – at almost any cost. We armor up by resisting, hiding, deflecting or numbing out the experiences and emotions that we deem bad or uncomfortable, as if the ultimate goal is to live in a world where everything is “good” – an oasis of sorts. As Pema Chodron says in her book When Things Fall Apart, “Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.” What I am starting to comprehend (and slowly learning to accept), is that overall, life is on average about 50% positive and 50% negative. There are no alternatives no matter how thick your shield.
In her book, Pema references the concept of the eight worldly dharmas – four pairs of opposites, four things that we like and become attached to, and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, and finally, gain and loss. She observes that we cause ourselves to suffer immensely in the avoidance of the negatives, when in reality, all these concepts are inseparable compliments, one cannot exist without the other. I cannot know real pleasure – that ecstatic feeling of complete joy and rapture – without having felt the darkness of agony and sadness. Her point isn’t to cultivate one thing as opposed to the other, but rather the capacity or awareness to relate to where we are. Our sense of being alive lies in this fundamental understanding and appreciation for our human experience, one in which these conditions of “good” and “bad” are subjective judgements contained within our singular selves.
Following this premise then, conceivably we do not actually live in a world of contrasting feelings – we just live through cycles and hopefully learn to judge ourselves and our feelings less, while trying not to disassociate with them. What if instead of a spectrum, we saw life as one continuous circle of events and circumstances where the goal was to just stay awake to the solidarity of the experience? Universally, everything is cyclical; endings are just the beginning of something else, judge it how you will.
While I am still struggling to accept – much less appreciate – the harsh reality that life is hard by design, I resonate with the unity versus the duality of this view. In essence, we can think about our emotions like the famous quote “all for one and one for all”, united in the common cause called life. Instead of struggling with our feeling of being bad or wrong, with our guilt and shame for our darkness, we have to befriend it. Pema says, “the point is that we can dissolve the sense of dualism between us and them, between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away.” German philosopher Nietzche exemplifies this notion in saying that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. As noted in the book Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, “in this kind of baptism, rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life. Your vision is your home, and your home should have many mansions to shelter your wild divinity. Such integration respects the multiplicity of selves within. It…allows them to cohere as one, each bringing its unique difference to complement the harmony.”
In sum, a hard life is also a harmonious one. Reality is often uncomfortable. These concepts are the closest I can find to universal truths, aside from the fact that all living things eventually die. Instead of focusing on the discomfort of these notions, rejecting the opposing forces that encourage us to expose only a small part of ourselves to the world and show up for only half of the journey, my pursuit – perhaps one that requires infinite practice – is to see them as evidence of a life well-lived and a cycle that is ready to start anew.