Monday, 6 July 2009

Book Review (Part 1)

How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
by Cheri Huber (Soto Zen teacher, writer and leader of retreats)

I bought this book in the Works yesterday because it was on sale for £1.99 and the title caught my eye. The first paragraph clinched the deal for me:

Earlier in my life, I read many wonderful, informative books about what is possible for us. I was inspired and enlightened by them. But in each case, the inspiration faded, and I was essentially left in the same place I started--with only a little more intellectual understanding, and a stronger belief that I should somehow be 'different' as a result. But I wasn't different in any significant way. I still wasn't able to be the person I felt I was capable of being. I didn't know how to be that person, and none of the books I read helped much.

Well, that sounds just like me. I have read books that have made me want to change the way I live my life and I have made those changes (anything by John Robbins, for example). I have also read books that make me want to change how I am, but I haven't been able to figure out how to get from the me I am to the me I want to be (Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle and so on). Just a few hours before we went to the mall yesterday, I had been trying to explain just this feeling to my ever-patient and supportive husband. I was attempting to work out how I manage to go from zero to meltdown at the seemingly slightest provocation. It really is all to do with my vision of the person I want to be clashing continuously with reality. My disappointment, embarrassment and deeply rooted belief that I've failed to live up to what I should be is what leads me to meltdown, or 'triggers the pain-body,' if you like. When you subconsciously expect yourself to be flawless, you begin to disappoint yourself from the moment you wake up, until the 'tiny' thing that sets you off feels like a really, really big deal. And you're not even aware that you're registering these constant failures to live up to your own expectations, at least I'm not. So you're going through your day, keeping a subconsious tally of screw-ups and boo-boos, then when you can't instantly recognize who gets priority on a roundabout, for example, it might seem like the first insignificant blip of the day, but to my subconscious little scorekeeper, it's mistake number 3,000 and it's one that involves other people--a life-or-death situation--real danger! All the bells go off in my head and the 'pain-body' is unleashed to beat it home to me that I'm a useless nothing, that since everything I do goes wrong I should just give up entirely. 'I try and try and try,' I end up saying (usually sobbing), 'but I just can't seem to figure out how to be good. All I want is to be good. I try so hard and all that happens is people tell me I'm trying too hard. How do you not try hard? Aren't you supposed to try? I don't understand, I just don't know...' and so on and so forth.

It occurred to me yesterday that most of my life has been directed at trying to get to this point of 'goodness' I long for. Looking at my day-to-day life, I realise that most of my spare time is spent trying to 'improve' myself or the world in some way. My diet reflects my concerns for health and the environment. I vote Green. I work out regularly and spend a lot of time and money on it. I use a detailed journal where I make attempts to exercise some control over my days, make my plans, set my goals. My interest in Buddhism, yoga, chakras and even flower essences are all about the attempt to find a way to get me from where I perceive myself (deeply flawed but yearning to be better) to what I want to be: at peace, serene, having the emotional intelligence to deal with life's vicissitudes. During our talk, I realised that all my life I've been searching for some way to turn me from the roiling little wreck I feel I am to the serene and graceful being I want to be. When I was a Christian, it was the same. My favourite song was a prayer asking for 'clean hands and a pure heart.' All my interests have been attempts to find my way to...well, perfection. Even though I know no one is perfect and can't be perfect, the illogical part of me won't seem to allow me to be anything less. And since I cannot possibly live up to my own expectations, my constant disappointment with myself leads me to these meltdowns. There's nothing wrong with the things that I do, it's the meaning I assign to them that is causing the problem. I'm only a quarter of a way through this book, and this realisation has shaken me.

Clinging to our beliefs about what things mean is how we avoid seeing that those meanings aren't true. Most of are terrifed of questioning the validity of those meanings, because that involves going against out internal programming, which we think keeps us safe. But not examining the hidden meanings prevents us from addressing the issues in our lives that cause us to suffer.

For instance, I think that if I take more than my share, I might be seen as 'selfish', and being selfish means I am a bad person. But does it? Taking 'more than my share' doesn't mean anything except that I am a person who on this occasion took more than what was considered (by someone) as 'my share'.

Doing acts identified as kind does not make you a good person; it does not even mean you are kind. Doing kind acts makes you a person who is currently doing what someone has labeled as 'kind acts'. Yelling at the kids does not make you bad parent; it makes you a parent who is yelling at the kids.

When we can separate behaviours from all the 'meanings' that define a person, we can sort them into groups and address each for what it is, like sorting socks...

This is an extremely subtle and enormously important point. What would the issues of your life look like if none of them meant anything?

Wow. I am not a bad driver who will never pass the driving test. I'm just a driver who at a particular roundabout was momentarily confused.

I am not an idle slob. I'm just a person whose weight is a bit higher than it was yesterday.

I am not anti-social and mean. I'm just a person who didn't want to go out when invited.

I am not a capricious wastrel. I am just person who bought a pair of shoes that she then never wore.

I am not a terrible housekeeper and therefore undeserving of a nice home. I'm just a person who hasn't dusted.

According to the author, we start to create meanings for everything as soon as we start dealing with other people--in other words, from birth! This is our social conditioning, and comes about through the same process, although the content will vary from culture to culture or even from family to family.

'Eat your vegetables, people are starving.' What in the world does that mean? What message are we to derive from that? As a small child, I don't know that there are people other than the ones I've seen. I don't know that there are other countries. What is a country? I don't know what starving means. I don't know what eating my vegetables has to do anything--with growth, with health, with money. I've never not had food. I don't know what gratitude is. All I understand is that the idea of not eating what's on your plate makes you a bad person in the eyes of the people around you. Here is the point to keep in mind: children cannot allow their survival to rest with an unknown. If a message is not clear, the child learns to make up meaning from what the message sounds like or feels like or seems like.

So we grow up creating a duality: who you must be and who you must never be. You must always be strong, good, right, kind, selfless, smart, successful. You must never be weak, bad, unkind, selfish, stupid or a failure. The list could go on.

People want to believe that being, feeling, thinking,and doing what they are supposed to will get them everything they want. No problems, no hassles, no disappointments--do the right thing and get the right result. The flaw with this kind of thinking is simply that life is not that way.

The author's answer to this problem is almost a koan:

It's not what, it's how

Instead of focusing on what should be happening, focus on what is happening, and then ask How?

You notice that I didn't ask why, I asked how. Because it doesn't matter why. Why just takes us into our conditioned thinking patterns and away from the situation at hand. In the course of answering how, one will often answer the question why. How takes us to interesting places. How is the movement. How reveals. How is process.

When we stop making judgements about ourselves, we can see the how.


Derek said...

I think yesterday was a real epiphany for you. Wasn't it odd that we found that book only a few hours later - hope it proves useful!

I like the "sorting socks" analogy. :)


Tess said...

Yeah I liked the sock bit too. Metaphors tend to work for me. With my OCD I often get confused understanding and reading things so when someone puts it into a metaphor it clicks in my head.

Gotta love cheap book stores.

Anna Down Under said...

Sounds like a very interesting book, Carla -- I'll be interested to read more once you've finished it.