THE ESSENCE OF LIFE
by Gregg Krech
“The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes and opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100% healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.” – Pema Chodron
There are dreary, rainy days and there are beautiful, sunny days. Most of us prefer the latter. And sometimes we get a nice string of sunny days and we spend some wonderful time gardening, hiking and biking and we’re very pleased with the weather (unless you are a farmer). But the dreary, rainy days are part of the mix. It would be a waste of time to try to eliminate them, just as it is a waste of time to complain about them. We prefer sunny and sweet, to dreary and bitter. But we have to learn to cope with and work through the dreary, bitter and even painful chapters of life.
When we’re going through rough times – health problems, relationship problems, financial problems – we experience the pain of life not unfolding as we wish it would. From our standpoint it’s a problem. But from Life’s standpoint, it’s just life.
Last week, our beloved Golden Retriever, Barley, died from cancer. He was my dear companion for twelve years and the ToDo Institute’s “mascot.” For me, this was a very sad and challenging event and I miss him every day. But from Life’s standpoint, death is just part of life. The moment we are born we arrive with the assurance that we will die. From Life’s standpoint, this is just the way things are.
One of the reasons that we suffer during the most challenging times of our life, is that we assume that it is our job to transform life. We build a house, we plant a tree, we create a garden, we write a book, etc . . . We leave the world around us different from the way we found it. What we don’t often acknowledge is that Life’s job is to transform us in the process. As Hubert Benoit, the Zen teacher and French psychotherapist states, “The only task incumbent upon us is to understand reality and let ourselves be transformed by it.” This may not be the only task – but it is the one we forget or ignore as we become caught in efforts to plan and transform the objects, events and people around us.
Inherent in this question of “who’s doing the transforming?” is the tension between acceptance and control. Japanese psychiatrist, Shoma Morita, asserted that our inner world – our thoughts, feelings and body sensations – are fundamentally uncontrollable by our will. For example, we do not will ourselves to fall in love, or out of love, with a particular individual.
But the list of things which are beyond our control is monumental, starting with other people’s behavior and ending with illness and death. So it is understandable that the more we try to control life – get it to unfold according to our plans and desires – the more we are likely to create a living hell for ourselves — one composed of anxiety, fear, depression, resentment and anger. All of which are the byproduct of Life failing to give us what we want.
The alternative of acceptance need not be passive. But it is a way of being that acknowledges the limits, significant limits, of our own power and instead searches for ways to work with the conditions and circumstances that we face as we move through our days. The trick is to find joy in being flexible – like a willow branch in a gust of wind. This is not an easy skill to master.
Pema Chodron adds that “to be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” What is that nest? It’s our little world of comfort and convenience. It’s the place that we feel safe and protected. But eventually we must each be tossed out of the nest, at least once, and, perhaps, even once a day during the rougher periods of our lives. Our job is not to build a stronger nest or to smooth over the rough spots in the road. Our job is to learn to navigate, as gracefully as possible, the storms and potholes, and that is why our suffering almost always points to a deepening of our spiritual practice. In that practice we find ourselves transformed by Life, instead of trying to make the world the way we want it to be.
Gregg Krech Author, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-reflection (2002)| Author, A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (2004, 2011)| Author, A Finger Pointing to the Moon (2000)| Editor, Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living (1993-Present)| Director, ToDo Institute (Vermont) (1992-Pr......