There might even be room for some of those other wingy concepts: right speech, right view, right intention, and right action. So, will that be two all-beef patties, special sauce, on a sesame seed bun — with a side order of equanimity and compassion?
I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a mineral,
And then I died and was reborn as a plant.
I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a plant,
And then I died and was reborn as an animal.
I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as an animal,
And then I died and was reborn as a human being.
What have I ever lost by dying.
Rumi, as translated by Robert Bly
Not a pitch for reincarnation — but then who am I to pronounce on that one? Rather a reminder of how a compulsion to cling to the status quo informs and directs our lives at so very many turns. What’s the expression — better the devil we know, than the one we don’t. The presumption, I suppose is that, in most cases, change will, at best, be a (scary) unknown; at worst, for the worst. So better to entrench right here. . . as a rock, a tree, or a mole.
I had a conversation this week with a farmer — not a wholly difficult thing to do in Perth County. We happened to be passing fields nearing what ought to be the apex of their growing season; and, with them, talk of the annual ups and downs of crop yields, weather, drought, deluge — good years and bad. He shared a story of a fellow farmer, an emigrant from Europe many years ago, who had prospered in his adopted country; having arrived with next to nothing as a young boy with his parents. Each year of this man’s farming cycle is . . . well, what it is. He is described as applying best practices; then allowing things to unfold. In particular, I was struck by this man’s apparent sangfroid around the possibility of having built and built — only to have it undone by the vagaries of market prices or weather or some other uncontrollable element in the equation that is agriculture. The ever-present risk of returning to his ‘roots’ (as it were) and being penniless once again. My friend characterized him as having a very ‘balanced’ attitude around this possibility: he would simply begin again.
It put me in mind of the villainy wrought by the alternative — that would be remaining attached to what is, fearful and avoiding of the unknown, of change. Two other conversations this week: one that had seen a man dig a progressively deeper financial hole in a (failed) attempt to maintain a standard to which his family had become accustomed — and his equally vain effort to keep it all a secret; and a second, which saw a man stay in a job that was ‘secure’, but soul-destroying, again because the alternative would be seen (and perhaps experienced) as irresponsible, risky, self-indulgent. In both cases, fear-based decisions to maintain the status quo fostered relationship unhappiness, bordering on disaster, anxiety and depression.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, in Wherever You Go, There You Are, his little book of thoughts on mindfulness practice, talks of ‘letting go’ in very similar terms:
Letting go means just what it says. It’s an invitation to cease clinging to anything — whether it be an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding, to let go means to give up coercing, resisting, or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them, in the intrinsic stickiness of wanting, of liking and disliking. (p. 53)
And one final word on change. Our tendency to see impermanent things as permanent, is, in a mindfulness framework, the very antithesis of a healthy meditative practice. The underlying tenet of such a practice is that change is inevitable and constant. To attempt to artificially hold to stasis, the ongoing state of sameness (no matter how desirable that state might be; or no matter how fearsome the alternative is expected to be) is to work against the universe. One writer, in fact, describes mindfulness as the awareness of change as it unfolds. Not a bad working definition.
Mindfulness seems to be well on its way to becoming treat of the week. Applied to everything from anxiety to adolescents, post-trauma to pain, sadness to stress, one half expects to pull into the local take-away drive-thru’ and, with every McMindful Meal receiving an extra large soft drink of your choice. So why not marriage?
I happened upon a review of a new book recently, How Can I Be Your Lover When I’m Too Busy Being Your Mother?, and it dawned that this might just be the mindfulness entree into this domain. The male and female authors, Toronto-based psychotherapists, appear to have nailed a number of the commoner, ‘he said, she said’ complaints that find their regular way into our offices. Sort of a ‘Mars and Venus’ look at the usual laundry lists and the knee-jerk defenses they elicit; with a bit of gender-specific perspective — and some alternative approaches that might just avert the typical tape being played out yet again. They consider the male’s ‘convenient blindness’ — a penchant for walking past that pile of clean laundry waiting to be helped upstairs, or the emptied garbage can at the curb — generally viewed by this lad’s partner as laziness, shirking, not caring, or just plain obliviousness. They offer the alternate possibility that the male view may be as much driven by his immediate goals (where he’s headed at the moment) and that anything not representing an impediment to that goal is generally (and easily!) ignored.
Leisure and how it’s defined comes under the microscope too. The authors maintain that men ‘make a sharper distinction between work and play’; women frequently ‘do a different kind of work to relax’. How often have I heard the ‘I work all day; when I get home I want to read the newspaper with my feet up’ defense; generally in response to the ‘I could use a little help with the kids, cleaning up supper dishes, and walking the dog’ plea. To the male, the maxim of ‘a woman’s work never being done’ is more a matter of female choice or compulsion, than job description.
In the crosshairs as well is nagging. To the woman, her partner is just one more child that she can reliably count on to ignore the first five requests before being threatened into action; to the man, it’s an ‘I’ll get to it . . . no need to go ballistic!’ The gatekeeper/woman: ‘If I want it done today, and done right, I may as well do it myself’; the man: ‘nothing is ever good enough!’ Meeting a standard or perfectionism; slap dash incompetent or never satisfied control freak.
Even raising the family is grounds for a disparate take on things. Smother-mother or lackadaisical dad. Helicopter mom contacts the university control tower for landing instructions as little Billy settles into his first ‘home away from home’; dad hands three-year old Bobby the can of lawnmower gas to help jump start the BBQ. Is there no middle ground?
The authors of course have their own, generally pretty grounded suggestions for reframing and resolving the above scenarios — on both sides of the matrimonial fence — in a less dysphoric way. I was equally impressed, however, just how many of the general tenets we associate with mindfulness practice and principles have salutary application. How about non-judging: adopting the observer’s role (vs. that of the ‘fixer’ or ‘quality control monitor’), foregoing a critical, judgmental, evaluative posture. Or perhaps being a little more present: might this involve noticing that laundry, garbage can, or milk left on the counter and addressing now vs. later.
Does letting go have a place in all this matrimonial chaos? Could that look like being a little less attached to a particular outcome or standard; perhaps accepting what is vs. compulsively measuring the distance between what’s before us and some ideal. Oh and how ’bout patience? The old grit in the marital machine of just whose timetable are we operating on (‘gimme a minute and I would have gotten to it!’)
Non-striving, the soothing of the need to have things the way the should be, or the way we need them to be, just might find a place in the mix. And what of the beginner’s mind? That would be seeing a situation stripped of expectations, standards, negative predictions; and allowing that it may just be handled a little differently (and more satisfactorily) — if I’m only non-judgmental, accepting, and patient! And finally, trust — of self and our significant other. Seeing both self and other as competent, interested, concerned, and caring.