As 2019 came to an end, and we welcomed in 2020, it made me to pause and reflect back on the decade coming to an end, as well as look forward to the one about to begin. The main lesson that I learned over the past ten years is that we have very limited control in this life. Don’t get me wrong. There is great value in planning, visualizing and working towards goals. This serves an important purpose. It is essential to be clear and know the direction that you want to move in: to identify your dreams and values. To set a course towards a destination.
The truth of the matter, however, is that despite the most careful planning and preparation, much of life simply happens to us without rhyme or reason; and it is often presents a very difficult and unpleasant reality. All we truly have control over in those moments is the choice on how we respond. The good news is that there is power in this choice. There is dignity in this choice. There is grace in this choice. It may not be what we planned or hoped for but it is where we are at. Rather than fighting what is, there is an opportunity to change and shape it through how you look at it, and how you choose to move forward. I have taken a lot of solace in this over the past decade and I will continue to lean on it in the years lying ahead of me.
I have always appreciated the parable of the Taoist Farmer, as I think it offers a valuable perspective on life:
There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse. “You are so lucky to have a horse to pull the cart for you!” his neighbours told him. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
One day he didn’t latch the gate properly and the horse ran away. “Oh no! This is terrible news! Such terrible misfortune!” his neighbours cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses. “How fantastic! You are so lucky. Now you will be rich!” his neighbours told him. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The following week the farmer’s son was breaking-in one of the wild horses when it kicked out and broke his leg. “Oh no! Such bad luck, all over again!” the neighbours cried.“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next day soldiers came and took away all the young men in the village to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was left behind due to his injury. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
In each instance, the farmer does not judge the action as either good or bad. It just is. I like this story as it reminds me that even when a difficult thing happens, there are various ways to look at it. There is much benefit in being open and curious to what comes, rather than reactive and resistant. Even if something looks scary at first, you do not really know what it is or where it will lead you; a situation that looks unmanageable could reveal hidden strengths.
When my marriage fell apart three years ago, it broke me open. And although it was one of the most painful and frightening times of my life, it also offered me many gifts: gifts of community; gifts of insight; gifts of growth. I would never be where I am today without having made it through that experience, so I cannot think of it as only negative. It contained elements that were both negative and positive; and in many ways, I am grateful for it.
I have been reading Byron Katie‘s work lately to try to help inform my perspective and shape my response to challenging situations as they arise on a daily basis. She teaches about the importance of investigating the present moment and identifying the thoughts that are causing you suffering. This is done through asking four questions of inquiry:
Question 1: Is it true?
This question can change your life. Be still and ask yourself if the thought you wrote down is true.
Question 2: Can you absolutely know it’s true?
This is another opportunity to open your mind and to go deeper into the unknown, to find the answers that live beneath what we think we know.
Question 3: How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought?
With this question, you begin to notice internal cause and effect. You can see that when you believe the thought, there is a disturbance that can range from mild discomfort to fear or panic. What do you feel? How do you treat the person (or the situation) you’ve written about, how do you treat yourself, when you believe that thought? Make a list, and be specific.
Question 4: Who would you be without the thought?
Imagine yourself in the presence of that person (or in that situation), without believing the thought. How would your life be different if you didn’t have the ability to even think the stressful thought? How would you feel? Which do you prefer—life with or without the thought? Which feels kinder, more peaceful?
Turn the thought around:
The “turnaround” gives you an opportunity to experience the opposite of what you believe. Once you have found one or more turnarounds to your original statement, you are invited to find at least three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true in your life.
All of this speaks to the power of the mind and thought in shaping our world experience. We can cause ourselves great suffering or joy, all in the way that we choose to view a situation. And although I have a lot of work to do in shaping my own thoughts and reactions, it is empowering to have the tools to pull them apart and investigate them: rather than being at their mercy.
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