A woman once visited a friend of mine – a Dharma Teacher – for meditation instruction. He showed her how to sit, how to maintain good posture, and he even gave her a mantra to use to stay present when her mind would inevitably begin to wander. They sat together for ten minutes.
When the sitting period finished, the woman said to the Dharma Teacher: “I did awful. My mind kept on wandering away from the present.” “Tell me what happened next,” he requested of her. “The mantra you gave to me would lead me back to the present.” “And how many times did that happen to you in ten minutes; how many times did your mantra lead you back to the present moment?” “Ten times. It happened ten times, so I would give myself ten grades of F.” “It happened ten times, you said? And you came back to the present each time? Well then, I would give you ten grades of A.”
Life is a never-ending recovery. Much like the behavior of clouds in the sky, our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and life circumstances, so often form out of nothing and return once more to nothing. Nothing can stand still, especially the mind which perceives itself. But when the mind perceives that it ought to stand still and shames itself for the wandering it will inevitably do, we give ourselves “ten grades of F.” Somehow, even though we know no one is perfect, we feel ashamed of our own imperfections.
A mother who in one moment experiences herself as the perfect mother she ought to be – at-one with her baby and perfectly attuned to his needs – will in another moment experience herself as helpless to soothe him as he cries for what seems like an eternity, and she may regard that moment as proof she is actually ‘unfit’ to be a good mother…
A heterosexual man who feels confident in his ability to attract women at one point invariably feels lost once a long-term relationship ends and he is out of practice in the dating scene, and he no longer believes he has what it takes…
People who struggle with substance use addictions frequently cycle through periods of sobriety and using. The first relapse is often the worse because of the failure that is associated with relapse. The person believes that relapse is evidence that they cannot succeed at sobriety, that sobriety should have been constant. The resulting shame only fuels the relapse so that substance abuse becomes a form of self-punishment. Ten grades of F…
Some of us know that life is a series of peaks and valleys; that the ebbs and flows and highs and lows make up the rhythm to the song of life. But as I often say, there is a difference between knowing and feeling. When the mother feels helpless to soothe her baby, when the newly single heterosexual man begins dating women again, and when a person relapses with substances, it is the feelings that are associated with these events that cause psychological injury; not the event itself.
Life is a never-ending recovery. Moments come and moments go. The feelings we refer to as ‘good’ appear sometimes, but so too do the moments that we label as ‘bad.’ Because we all learned from an early age that ‘good’ is what we should hold onto, and ‘bad’ is what we should ward off like the plague, our minds have developed in such a way that we are overly attached to what good and bad mean.
We don’t necessarily feel uneasy about the way we think of our lives when things are going ‘good’ because, after all, they’re good. But little do we realize that because we have developed such strong emotional attachments to what good and bad mean that sometime later when things are not-so-good will we indubitably suffer. Again, it is often the feeling that causes injury, not necessarily the event itself. Our minds are our own worst enemy, and it’s not your or anyone else’s fault, really.
There once was a time when many of us were insouciant children, agog and curious. We would run for the thrill just to run, laughing the whole time. When we fell down, we got back up and kept running and laughing. We would sing our favorite songs, and when we didn’t know the words or missed a beat, we would find a way to sing more. If we didn’t win a game, we zealously asked the other, “want to play again?” There once was a time when losing wasn’t so synonymous with failure, and when failure didn’t equate with worthlessness. We accepted life as it was, once upon a time.
Throughout our lives, we learn from many directions that mistakes are “bad” and that apparent perfection is “good.” Culture has done a monumental job at convincing us that perfection is obtainable (and conveniently for the three easy payments of $69.99). The character judgment seeping out from various religious doctrines – the kind of character judgment that inspires people to develop their public persona in contrast to the baser human instincts – has infiltrated culture to the point that virtually everyone fears the shame of judgment for not being perfect. And many of our parents have stood up for us against teachers who gave us a poor grade that we actually deserved. We’re imperfect, we know it, and we’re not supposed to show it.
At some point, the messages we internalized from culture and our parents about what makes us good and what makes us bad, about what makes us lovable and what makes us unlovable, became so automatic in the mind that no one else was needed to say it for us any longer. We say it to ourselves. It’s not so different from internalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, when the oppressors are no longer needed to remind you how to be hard on yourself. We came to believe that good and bad were real tangible concepts, as if we could touch them, and that if we feel bad about ourselves, there should be a way to become good and stay good.
Many patients who come to psychotherapy believe that therapy will help them to perfect who they are, and don’t see as much value (at least initially) in the idea that therapy will help them to understand who they are. Many imagine that there is some end point where anxiety will cease to exist, where confidence and success are constants, where the people around them will change into who they want them to become, and that there exists a point in which the light at the end of the tunnel won’t lead them back into another tunnel one day. Unfortunately, the truth about change isn’t so pretty. The only constant is change itself. Clouds forming, clouds dissolving.
Life is a never-ending recovery. Sometimes new peaks are achieved and inspire feelings that lead us to believe that “this time I’ve made it once and for all.” Other times new lows are achieved, igniting incendiary feelings that act as the catalyst for what seems like the worst depression of our life. Other times, the peaks are not as high as they once were, and we worry that the best of our lives are behind us. Still other times, the lows don’t seem quite as low as they once were, and we realize that we must have matured in order to tolerate these moments.
Indeed, life is a never-ending recovery. A never-ending series of ebbs and flows. A never-ending noticing of coming and going, of observing the whole process, of practicing getting out of your own way, of becoming re-centered in your being.
But when does it finally stop? It stops once we stop. It stops when we die, and that might just be the greatest gift. Living your life as a recovery – as if it were a training experience for death – could be as meaningful of a human existence as any other, for it is only in the final breath that one can truthfully say, “I did it.”