BLOG #8 - RIGHT AND WRONG
There’s a misconception among many spiritual seekers that the more perfect we can make ourselves, the holier we’ll become, and when we’re finally without fault or blemish, we will have earned a pain-free life — certainly after death, but ideally while we’re still in these bodies.
We want to be all “good” and no “bad,” all light and no dark, always “right” and never “wrong.” We think we can make it happen if we just do the “right” thing in every situation. We feel driven to improve and purify ourselves, believing the more effort it takes, the greater our ultimate reward. We tie ourselves in knots ferreting out faults in ourselves to correct and devising ways to punish ourselves for giving in to the temptation to relax and have a little fun.
We know we should be humble, and we try, but we can’t help being proud of our humility. We strive to be pure and perfect but inevitably meet with failure and humiliation at every turn. French psychotherapist and Zen scholar Hubert Benoit (1904-1992) points out that all our efforts to realize enlightenment (satori) are doomed to failure, but we have to continue to make these efforts because only in this way can we come to realize that all our efforts really do inevitably lead to failure and humiliation — and always will.
“Real humility,” Benoit says, “is not acceptance of inferiority, but abandonment of the vertical conception in which I saw myself always above or below.” In accepting our failure and humiliation we give up our dualistic judgments of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” “superior and inferior,” and accept the world simply as it is. This is Enlightenment.
Our efforts to be perfect are based on the misconception that “right" and “wrong” are absolutes. But there is no such thing as “absolute right” and “absolute wrong,” just as there is no such thing as “absolute good” and “absolute evil.” (See Blog #7.) To the extent we think there is, we probably conflated our parents and other grownups with God when we were too young to know the difference. We took whatever they taught us about right and wrong as carved in stone, forming habits of thought then that we may have had no occasion since to reexamine.
Humans develop sets of laws and codes of ethics to help them decide what’s right or wrong. The specifics of these laws and codes vary from culture to culture, and if you don’t conform to your own culture’s opinions about right and wrong, you’re likely to be punished.
We call an action or situation “right” if it’s good for us or a person or thing we want to benefit, and “wrong” if it’s harmful for them.
Right and wrong are relative to what’s good or bad for a person, or a society, or a country. Once we decide who or what should benefit, we can say that whatever furthers the health and survival of that being or thing is “right,” and whatever degrades their health and hastens their demise is “wrong.”
But when it’s the Universe as a whole, All-That-Is, that we want to benefit, there can be no right or wrong because all things that exist are present and have a rightful place within the Universe as a whole. Nothing is inherently more worthy than anything else.
The tricky part, as we make our way through life and try to figure out what’s right, is deciding who should benefit from our actions, what ideas we want to foster, and what unintended consequences are likely to ensue.
We generally rely on the teachings of parents, teachers, philosophers, and religious leaders to guide us, and we need that guidance. But blind adherence to the directives of past authority figures is a serious trap. As we struggle to be “right” in their eyes — eyes which may have closed in death long ago — we cycle through pride, feelings of superiority, fear of punishment when we fail, and shame for our lack of perfection, in an endless ego game that can’t be won.
This is a major obstacle on the path to Enlightenment. There are two mistakes involved: (1) we think if we always do the “right” thing God will reward us with Heaven (or Enlightenment), and if we do “wrong.” God will punish us; and (2) we think we know how God judges right and wrong. (If you’re a humanist who doesn’t believe in God, you can omit the word “God” and translate the previous sentence according to your beliefs. It will still be about
mistakes in thinking.)
No code of laws or “unwritten rules” can be “right” in every situation.
No situation is exactly like any other. The “right” thing to do in one situation isn’t guaranteed to get good results in any other, no matter how closely they resemble each other.
Nevertheless, we’re constantly looking to shortcut the process of weighing the merits of our actions in each and every situation by finding some principle or code of laws to follow.
We’re hard-wired to do this. We form habits, patterns of behavior that run automatically without us having to make decisions about them, such as brushing our teeth twice a day, saying, “Thank you” and “Please,” or driving to work without stressing over where to turn. This frees our minds to focus on other, more important things. That’s probably why we value the moral precepts we learned in childhood in the first place. “If I just follow these rules,” we tell ourselves, “I’ll be fine. I won’t have to think too hard or agonize over whether or not I’m doing right.”
When I was in my late teens and came across Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I thought I’d found the magic key for how to live. As she portrays it, selfishness is a virtue. The people who focus on their own self-interest in her novels are the ones who make the great inventions, form successful companies, and live happy lives. If I could be like them, I’d have no more need to feel guilty for concentrating on my own needs and ignoring those of others. If I just did what was good for me, I’d be fine, and the rest of the world would be fine too because if they weren’t already doing this themselves, they should be.
Rand wrote her books in reaction to the hypocrisy and oppression of the Soviet Communism she had experienced in Russia, which conclusively proved to the world that altruism (enforced by autocratic rulers at the end of a gun) creates corruption and chaos. It took me a few years of noticing how the “virtue of selfishness” actually played out in life to decide that Rand had overreacted.
Selfishness doesn’t work any better than Soviet Communism. Humans aren’t really the rugged individuals of Rand or movie Westerns. Humans depend on each other to survive, and if we neglect to care for these others as well as ourselves, we soon find ourselves cut off from the sources of the food, shelter, and companionship we need to keep us alive.
I still see people today letting Rand’s teachings guide their lives. They may have read “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged,” and seen the movies, and like me felt they had finally found the Answer that would allow them to quit thinking. Why bother, since she gave them such a simple formula for discerning right from wrong. Unfortunately many of those “Randites” are now running the country. They consider selfishness to be the prime virtue, even though they pretend to care for others’ welfare — but their actions show they really don’t.
People like this are called “ideologues,” fanatically adhering to some idea or principle to guide their behavior instead of making the effort to respond to new situations in thoughtful ways that bring harmony and well-being to others. They’re too lazy, or scared, to do the mental and emotional work of authentically engaging with things as they are.
Will they experience any spiritual growth in their lifetime? Unlikely. They’re trapped in the illusion that their egos are their true selves.
Each situation presented to our awareness is a new gift from the Universe, not a repetition of what came before, though there may be similarities. Each new situation gives us a chance to exercise our compassion and creativity, to react, or refrain from reacting, in harmony with All-That-Is in that moment. When we divert our attention from the here and now to search our brains for a law or principle to apply, we lose contact with reality as it actually exists; we fail to respect the livingness and uniqueness of that particular moment of life.
Applying a few canned principles to judge a situation is like trying to repair a watch with a hammer. It does more harm than good. We can get a little dopamine rush for our ego, thinking we did the “right” thing, while the real situation, with all its unique beauty, distorts and slides away. And we probably don’t even realize what we did.
The Universe of All-That-Is doesn’t issue moral commandments like our parents, our legal systems, or our priests. It gives us plenty of room to act on our own choices. It doesn’t praise us for being “right” and punish us for being “wrong” like parents, or lock us up for infractions like courts and judges, or guilt us into conforming to religious laws like priests.
The Universe doesn’t split our thoughts and actions into categories of right and wrong at all. From the point of view of All-That-Is, if we’re teetering on the edge of a cliff, why would there be anything “wrong” with letting us fall so the hungry vultures below could have a nice human carcass for dinner? Why would it be more “right” to miraculously prevent us from falling? Much as we’d like to think so, humans are probably not the most valuable beings in the Universe.
No code of right and wrong fits every situation, but luckily, as individuals we develop a conscience to help us tell right from wrong, usually made up of the rules of our culture, our religion, and what our parents taught us. We also evolve our personal conscience as we mature into greater recognition of the reality and value of others and their needs. We begin to exhibit compassion and care for other beings.
Nature seems to favor “survival of the fittest,” driving us to actions that benefit ourselves to ensure that we survive. But as Edward O. Wilson, founder of modern sociobiology, points out, nature works through evolution not only at the individual level by favoring those who act to ensure their own survival, but also at the group level to favor groups with enough altruistic members willing to sacrifice their own interests (including their lives) for the well-being of the group.
Nature drives us to act to benefit both ourselves and our group, and as Wilson points out, this puts us, as social animals, in an ethical bind. Our inherited drives to act for our own well-being and to act for our group’s well-being often conflict. When we have to choose whether to join the military to benefit our nation or stay out of danger at home to benefit ourselves, how do we choose? We may be praised as a hero if we join up and survive, but feel cheated and used if we get injured. On the other hand if we stay home we can be safer and free to develop our unique talents, but feel guilty and cowardly for not “doing our part." Our gut feelings urge us both ways, fluttering between altruism and selfishness. We can’t rely on instinct alone to make these decisions. Again, we’re thrown back on our individual consciences to weight each unique situation in the moment and decide what values to favor.
Our thinking minds aren’t very good either for resolving contradictions when we have to choose between acting for ourselves or for our group. This kind of dilemma makes good literature, but bad emotional health. No wonder almost 20% of the population suffers from anxiety disorders. Deciding what’s right isn’t easy. That’s probably why so many people turn to fundamentalist religions or dictators to decide for them.
Conscience tells us when the laws of our land are appropriate and when it would be better to break them in acts of civil disobedience, as when young reformers in the 1960s held “sit-ins” at segregated lunch counters in the South to protest the exclusion of black people from these venues. It tells us when our actions are likely to hurt others we care about.
How does our conscience know what’s best? An awake Conscience is alive to the present moment, and relies on the heart as well as the mind in its decisions. It wants to alleviate suffering and maximize happiness and bring harmony to its surroundings. If it has an overriding principle, it might be, “Do the most loving thing in each moment.”
As we evolve toward wholeness as a species, our consciousness of who we are will be with the whole planet. We won’t miss our individual bodies any more than we miss the skin cells that flake off when we scratch our noses. Death of one body doesn’t matter much when we know that our Consciousness, which is One with the Greater Consciousness — of All-That-Is — goes on. When we learn to expand our sense of identity out to include the entire planet, we’ll clearly see that what happens to our individual bodies isn’t as important as the well-being of the planet as a whole.
Having an identity as vast as the Universe will feel wonderful, and we won’t miss being our little, ego-driven selves in the least. It’s only our frightened egos that make us think we will. Our egos tell us it’s a long, hard slog to awaken to the Consciousness of All-That-Is. They have many tricks to convince us they’re right. One of them is making us believe that we have to be perfect to get there.
The Perfectionist Trap
We probably all know at least one person we can easily identify as having a “perfectionist” personality. Perfectionists are excessively worried about being “right,” believing they have to be perfect to deserve love and respect.
We all have traces of this personality type within us. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t try to do “right” in any situation they’re faced with. We all try, but we don’t all have the same values, so there’s a lot of disagreement about what we ought to do.
If your conscience is constantly tying you in knots about “right” and “wrong,” you’re probably an Enneagram Personality Type 1. The enneagram is a diagram depicting nine different basic personality types and how they can change and evolve. It has roots in a wisdom tradition with roots in ancient Greece and describes typical ways people with different personalities get stuck in limiting patterns of thought, feeling and behavior.
You know you have a Perfectionist personality if, when someone accuses you of doing something wrong, the very word strike dread in your heart and brings everything in your body to a halt. You exert the full force of your will to do right, and lie awake at night worrying you might have made mistake.
You feel responsible to see that things go as they should, and often resent others who don't take life seriously. You see things in black and white, right and wrong, and have high standards. You feel called to correct others who don’t follow the rules.
You are convinced that you just wouldn't feel like yourself if you broke the rules. Your sense of identity depends on sticking to a prescribed set of behaviors and thoughts.
You believe if you don’t follow the rules and meet certain standards, you’ll surely be punished. Maybe your parents were too strict and made you feel constantly being watched and judged from on high. Even after you grew up you may have continued to feel that judging presence, taking it for granted and never thinking to question it.
On the good side, you are honest, responsible, conscientious, hard-working, dependable, practical, self-reliant, precise, clear, direct, and detail-oriented. You like to be seen as “good” and “right,” and you like to be good and right. Your idealism leads you to work toward social reform. You become outraged at injustice and feel called upon to see that wrongdoers are punished and wrongs made right, but you put yourself under tremendous stress, judging against yourself when you fail to achieve outcomes that reasonably cannot be predicted or controlled.
According to Enneagram teachings, each personality type mistrusts the Universe in a particular way, believing that they lack particular qualities they need in their life and that the rest of the Universe won’t supply them. Each type corresponds to a set of ego strategies they use to cope with the perceived failings of the Universe and themselves as they try to survive and overcome what they think is wrong with them. These habitual ego strategies are stumbling blocks on the Path. They are based, for each personality type, on a sense of being disconnected from a different aspect of the Great Consciousness.
An aspect of the Great Consciousness from which the Perfectionist feels disconnected is wisdom (right action, the ability to see and act on what is needed in the moment).
The Perfectionist doesn’t trust the Universe to be wise and just. Feeling that the divine nature lacks these qualities, it becomes a life and death matter for the Perfectionist to try to make up for the lack. They try to notice what’s wrong and act on what’s needed.
Lacking trust in the innate wisdom of the Universe and themselves, they develop an ego strategy of relying on principles, rules and guidelines to ensure right action in the world and use outrage and criticism as tools to correct what they perceive as “wrong.”
Their ego exerts heroic efforts to do what’s right. They can’t accept being wrong and imagine that others are judging them as harshly as they judge themselves. These efforts ultimately produce the exact opposite of their desired effect and fail, making them more and more desperate and unhappy. Being highly self-critical, they want to control their anger and other instinctual energies by repressing them or expressing them only under strict control.
They’re angry at the imperfect nature of reality, yet at the same time, they know it isn’t right to prove God, the Greater Intelligence who controls the Universe, wrong.
This puts them in a double bind. Their ego strategy actually keeps them away from the divine perfection they feel they lack. The more perfect they become, the more stress and separation from God they feel because in correcting the imperfections in the world they’re proving that God doesn’t manifest a perfect world, and God would surely not want to be proved wrong. They fear that God must feel as angry at being proved wrong as they do, and punishment is sure.
The tension becomes unbearable when they realize that nothing they do will ever be “right.” Faced with the double bind, they have to admit the standard they’ve been using to judge what’s right and wrong comes from their own ego, not from God or the judge they imagine always watches. But try as they might, they can never be sure they know the standards that God (or the judge) expects them to live by. Anything they try to do could be wrong.
This is the end of the road for the Perfectionist. If you identify with this personality type, now is when you get your lessons. When you’re unhappy enough, when you have tried and failed and tried and failed enough, your humiliation becomes no longer "acceptance of inferiority,” an attitude which always previously lead you to renewed attempts to make yourself even more perfect, but now finally, you realize you have to abandon the whole idea of judging yourself as “right” or “wrong” and “superior” or “inferior.”
In other words, you give up the struggle and accept the world simply as it is. You understand that nothing was ever wrong with you or the Universe to begin with.
Accepting All-That-Is just as it is (including your less-than-perfect self), you become enlightened.
You realize it’s not you, yourself, but rather your ego, who always wanted to feel responsible and control things so it can feel good about itself. In your deeper self, you realize there’s no longer any need to strive for perfection. You give up the idea that neither you nor anyone else knows what’s “right” in every situation, and you lay down the burden of judging and being judged.
The good news is that as you evolve toward this final surrender, the way you express the tendencies of the Perfectionist type become more healthy. You become more present and aware of what is going on in the world and in yourself in the moment. You lead with your good qualities, your ability to see injustices and mistakes and find the appropriate actions to put things right. Known and respected for your honesty, dependability and common sense, you can be objective about your own actions and bring positive qualities of peace, creativity and joy into your life and relationships.
Exercise: Take advantage of your mistakes
I had a mean kindergarten teacher. She criticized my drawings because I didn’t color inside the lines and make all the crayon strokes parallel. It put me off artwork for quite some time. But later, when I was grew up, I felt adventurous enough to sign up for a water-color class, and will never forget how good I felt when the teacher told us, “Take advantage of your mistakes.” If we messed up and put a bulge of the wrong color in the middle of a woman’s skirt we were trying to paint, we could stop and see what it reminded us of. Maybe with a few strokes we could turn it into a cat reclining on the woman’s lap, or a bowl of flowers, or a bag of chips — not what we originally intended, but maybe even better.
Mistakes happen. As hard as we try to do everything right and control the final outcome, things rarely work exactly as we hope. And there’s a virtue in that. It’s making the best of what is. No use lamenting the past.
In Japan there’s a concept called wabi sabi. “Wabi” means something like “rustic simplicity” and “sabi” means something like taking pleasure in imperfection. A wabi sabi object is something that gives you a comfortable, homey feeling, like your grandma’s furniture with those familiar nicks and scrapes you remember from childhood, the old cuckoo clock on the wall that still loses five minutes each hour, the faded hand-made quilt with one colored square placed wrong-side-up . . . . Something old and battered, but still cared-for — authentic.
Artists sometimes include deliberate mistakes in their work, as in this Navajo rug. The white line (circled) is called a “spirit line.” It’s designed so that the weaver’s soul can escape from the rug, so that any bad things the rug is exposed to won’t affect her.
We like symmetry in people’s faces and in art, but not perfect symmetry. It’s just too perfect. British poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) called it “fearful symmetry,” and his poem, “The Tyger” well illustrates a breaking of symmetry in its final lines:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.
The poem would be a lot more perfect, but not nearly as memorable, if it ended with a word that rhymed with “eye.”
It’s understandable how an artist who has created something so “perfect” it seems real might be moved to add a small blemish as an escape hatch, fearing that anything that perfect might be capable of ensnaring a person’s soul, presenting a “reality” so lovely the soul would never want to leave. Just so, the Creator of our reality might want to leave us a way out, scattering signs that look like violations of nature’s laws as escape hatches for our souls to let us know this isn’t really real. What looks so sharply defined and solid is just another illusion. As singer, songwriter, Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) put it:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Put it in practice:
If you have a perfectionist personality type that fears to make mistakes, try making a few on purpose and notice what happens. Chances are people will forgive you, and even like you more for showing that you’re only human and willing to accept living in an imperfect world.
Exercise: Letting Nature Take its Course
Did you ever have a “bad hair day,” a day when everything seems to go wrong. You can’t get your hair to lie down and behave, the toast burns and the coffee spills. This is a good sign that you’re trying to too hard to control things. Inanimate objects respond negatively to impatient demands. You don’t have to believe me. You can observe it for yourself by noticing what kind of a mood you’re in when things start going wrong.
In my early teens my mother would send me to a beauty parlor for “permanents.” They made my straight hair curly, and usually looked awful until they started to grow out. Later I decided it was better to stay away from beauty shops and just comb it out and let it fall where it would, shaped with some judicious trimming, of course. (No matter how well we like the “natural look” it has to be a little groomed so no one will think we have lice.)
Just like people, things have their own natural ways to move and be. My dad was a chemistry professor, and I majored in chemistry as an undergraduate. I always loved the way my teachers talked about their subject. Hard scientists though they were, they would talk about a hydrogen ion “wanting” to couple with other molecules, or a solution “wanting” to crystallize at a particular concentration. A lot of what scientists do is closely observe things to see how they naturally “want” to go.
Even if you’re not a scientist, you can live more harmoniously and avoid more bad hair days if you pay close attention to how the people and things in your life “want” to move and develop. Then you won’t have to waste energy trying to force them into the arrangements you think they should have. Knowing their tendencies, you can just tweak them a little here and there to get the results you want.
For example, if you like to cook, you’re probably already doing this. You can tell by the noises coming from the pot when to turn down the heat under the rice so it doesn’t boil over, or by the color of the bacon when to take it out of the skillet (even though it doesn’t look quite done), so it won’t be too hard.
If you have a two-year-old, you’ve almost certainly paid close attention to know what sets them off on a tantrum and what distractions work to head it off.
Put it in Practice:
Next time you’re having a “bad hair day” and catch yourself thinking, “I know this is going to screw up,” stop, take a breath, and decide to slow down and give the objects you’re working with time enough to get used to what you want them to do. Imagine they have a spirit of their own and let them know you respect them. And don’t forget to let yourself feel gratified when they operate the way they should.
Exercise to Let Go of Control with Guided Meditation
If you have perfectionist tendencies that keep you stressed, it helps to learn to detach from situations you habitually try to control. You don’t always have to jump in. Sometimes it makes sense to let the others work it out for themselves.
For example, if your children consistently fail to put their clothes in the laundry hamper, instead of reminding and scolding, or giving in and picking up the dirty clothes from the floor of their room, yourself, you could just let them run out of clean clothes and see how they cope.
What’s the worst that could happen? They’d have to go to school in dirty clothes.
Sometimes it’s best to back off and let them get their lessons from reality instead of you.
Imagine a dire situation you feel you have to control.
To prepare for the Guided meditation, bring to mind a difficult situation in which you would normally feel obliged to take control. Let it be something you really worry about.
For example, if you’re an office worker, you might imagine a situation something like this:
Let’s say . . .
You work until 10:00 pm at the office to finish a report due that day and turn it in before leaving for home. You slip it under your co-workers’ reports in the boss's inbox so it won’t look like you were late turning it in. As soon as you get home, you go right to bed, and that’s when you realize you made a mistake in the report. Your first instinct is to get to the office early before everyone else, retrieve the report from your boss’s inbox and correct the mistake before anybody sees it.
Instead, try imagining how the very worst-case scenario might play out. Let’s say you accidentally slept in the next morning — not unreasonable considering how late you worked the night before. You arrive at the office and see your boss’s snitty secretary standing at your co-worker’s desk pointing to a sheaf of papers. They whisper together but suddenly stop when they see you. Your co-worker gives you a pitying look.
You feel a flash of anger and demand, “Is that my report?” The secretary looks guilty and grabs up the papers, holding them to her chest.
“Give it to me.” You reach out.
“It’s not yours.” She backs away.
You rip them out of her hands, and just as you suspected, it was your report. You shoot her an icy look and head for your desk to make the corrections.
“Look what you did,” she shrieks. “Just look.” You turn back and see that her shirt is open, showing her bra. A couple of buttons have popped out on the floor. “You ruined my blouse.” Other employees rise out of their chairs for a better look, jabbering with excitement.
The boss hears the uproar and comes out of his office.
“It’s all her fault,” the secretary protests.
The boss strides over and looms over your desk, fixing you with a stern look. “Why wasn’t your report on my desk this morning?
“She took it,” you say.
“And you have it now?” It’s clear he’s annoyed at all this female uproar. He turns to the secretary and orders her to “Go home and get dressed.”
“She left out the whole month of July,” the secretary complains. “She’s making me miss the deadline for the Shareholders’ Report.”
“I’ll take care of it,” you say, calm and business-like. “It won’t take long.”
“Too late,” the boss snaps, still annoyed..
“No it’s not,” you assure him. “I’m on it.” Ignoring the curious eyes of your co-workers, you switch on your computer and get to work as the boss shakes his head and turns back to his office.
You work furiously through lunch, and finally finish, but the secretary still isn’t back from changing her clothes and you realize you’ll have to be the one to complete her job of compiling all the information into a Shareholder’s Report.
By the time you’re done, it’s mid-afternoon, and you’re exhausted. You stick your head into the boss’s office to tell him the Report went out.
“Get in here and shut the door,” he says.
You turn all the way around and slowly, with careful concentration, ease the door shut, wanting to delay the moment when he speaks.
Situation Playback with Detachment
In the Guided Meditation, you’ll be asked to imagine how the situation might play out if you could have handled it with detachment.
How would that ugly situation have been different if you stopped worrying about outcomes and took no steps control anything? Let the scene play out in your mind again as if, for whatever reason, you have no way to influence what happens. You can neither speak nor take action — only passively watch.
Let’s say, you decided not to even show up at work that day. Imagine how things might go without you.
For example . . .
The secretary picks up the various reports from you and your co-workers from the boss’s inbox to compile into a Shareholder’s Report. Since your report isn’t on top, she tells the boss she doesn’t think you turned it in.
She takes the papers to her desk and starts to work. When she comes to your report she’s surprised. She had thought that since you stayed late last night, your report would have been on top. Then she notices the mistake you made. You left out all data for the month of July. She shoots a triumphant glance toward your empty desk. She never liked you anyway, and can’t wait to show her friend, your co-worker, the mistake.
They whisper and laugh over it, and to wring a bit more juice from the situation, the secretary complains that she has to get the Shareholder’s Report out by 2:00, and you’re not there. “I don’t know where she keeps her backup records. What am I supposed to do?”
The co-worker, familiar with the secretary’s penchant for drama, sighs and says, “Do the best you can.”
The secretary goes into the boss’s office to complain, “She’s so careless and incompetent she got her report in late and left out the whole month of July. And it’s 10:00 o’clock and she’s not even here to fix it.”
He sighs. “Do what you can. Who else can we get to put in the July information in and figure out the bottom line?”
“I can,” she volunteers, seeing a chance to advance herself. “I’ve been here long enough to guess where she hides it. It’s not rocket science. I don’t see how she could have messed up so badly.”
“Ok,” he agrees. “Don’t screw it up.”
The secretary rifles through the papers on your desk, finds the data for July, and gets busy compiling the Shareholder’s Report. She has all the figures, but doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s supposed to be some sort of calculation, she knows, but she doesn’t know what it is. She decides to wing it and make up a final number for July. Then she emails the finished Report to the distribution list.
Before long the boss’s phone starts ringing. Shareholders, accountants, and attorneys calling to say there’s something funny with the Report.
“What did you do?” he scolds the secretary. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m only human. I made a mistake.”
He casts a regretful look at l your empty desk and says, “I wish she’d get here. She always knows what to do.”
Your co-worker has been listening and says, “Let me see what got sent out. I think I can help.” She takes the Report and scans over it. “That’s easy,” she says. “You must have used the wrong formula. I’ll figure it out and we can send out a revised version. No worries."
After playing out this scene the way it might have happened if you weren’t there, you begin to understand that things really can go on without you. The others muddle through somehow. Maybe you even have an aha moment and realize, “I’m only human too. Humans make mistakes.”
To get ready for the following Guided Meditation, think of a situation in which you feel you have to be present and take control. Who are the people involved, and what might go wrong? Make it a situation you really worry about. Where does it take place, in your home, an office, a playing field, a classroom . . . ? Why does it worry you? What are the worst things that could happen?
In the following Guided Meditation you’ll be asked to bring that situation to mind and imagine it playing out in your absence, as if you were suddenly whisked into another dimension where you could see and hear and feel the events and emotions, but had no way to influence them.
Guided Meditation - Detachment
You can read this meditation and follow it visually, pausing as necessary to do the necessary inner work, or listen to the recorded version here.
We’ll go through a little relaxation module first.
Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down and close your eyes. You may wish to cover them with a bandanna to block out the light.
Take a deep breath in and let it out, . . . and another deep breath in and let it out . . . and another deep breath in and let it out — all the way . . . . . . .
Breathe normally and become aware of the muscles of your face. Let them relax. Flow your awareness into your eyes, upward across your forehead and over the top of your head, and down the back of your neck, letting the stream of your awareness split there to both sides and move from the bottom of the back of your neck across the tops of your shoulders . . . spreading down to your shoulder blades, relaxing your upper back, and moving down your arms, . . . relaxing the muscles in your upper arms, your elbows, your lower arms, your wrists and down through your fingers.
Let your awareness return now to the muscles of your face, . . . and move in to the inside of your mouth. Feel your tongue, the roof of your mouth, . . . your throat, . . . your esophagus that carries food and drink down into your stomach, and your trachea, that carries your breath down in to fill your lungs . . . . And flow your awareness up from your lungs through the back of your nose . . . where the stream of awareness splits to flow inside your sinuses on both sides . . . . then let the two streams of awareness flow down your cheeks, coming together at your upper lip, and flowing inside your mouth to your two front teeth.
Then again split the stream of awareness at the front of your teeth into two streams, flowing right and left along your upper and lower teeth, to the hinges of your jaws, spreading relaxation from the right and left hinges of your jaw and down to relax your neck and shoulders, and come around to the back of your head where the bottom of your skull overlaps the top of your spine . . . .
Let your shoulders relax, . . . and send your awareness spreading down your spine, to the lower ribs, at the same time spreading the awareness downward and sideways to cover your whole upper back, your shoulder blades and the muscles of your upper back and the cartilage of your ribs, . . . moving around your rib cage to cover the front of your chest, . . . penetrating inside your body . . . filling in your chest cavity on the left and right, . . . flowing into the chambers of your heart, . . . your left and right lungs, and down into your diaphragm, which you contract by taking a deep breath in . . . and releasing, . . . setting off deep, slow-moving waves of awareness from the skin of your torso to the inner organs of your body . . . .
Let your awareness continue to move inside your body spreading downward in your spine and mid-back to the bottom tip of your spine, and simultaneously filling into the spaces below your diaphragm . . . around to the front of your body and inside, filling the volume of your abdomen and pelvic region, your stomach and kidneys and liver and pancreas, your small intestines . . . and down further, into your pelvic region, to the bottom tip of your spine, flowing through large intestines and bladder, and your sex organs, becoming aware of your lower back, and buttocks, and your hips and upper legs. . . .
Let your awareness flow simultaneously down both your legs through your knee joints and into your lower legs, your ankles, the tops of your feet, the soles of your feet, and your toes.
Breath in deeply and feel the breath enlivening your entire body, from head to toe, feel the vibrancy of your body in every cell . . . . You might even feel how it radiates out beyond your skin, making the air shimmer with its life.
Take a few moments to rest. There’s nothing you have to think about or do . . . .
Now when you’re ready, bring to mind the situation you thought of earlier. A situation that is unresolved in your life, something that nags at you, perhaps a relationship with a family member or colleague at work, something going on in your life that doesn’t feel quite right — something that makes you feel frustrated, stuck, something you’d like to set right, but haven’t yet figured out how to address. You want to do the right thing, but maybe you haven’t had the courage to confront the situation. Maybe you’re blaming the other people involved for their failure to do right.
You know what should be happening, but they won’t listen or change their behaviors. Perhaps someone you know is treating you or another person disrespectfully, or not taking care of their responsibilities. Maybe they’re lying to themselves or others, or hiding bad behaviors. Maybe you feel conflicted about intervening to set things right. Maybe you have already tried to intervene without success. . . .
If thinking about this situation is making you feel stressed, that’s good. Take a mental step back and be aware of the situation and your stressed feeling. Become aware that your stress and the situation are two different things.
Who are the people involved in this situation? . . . How are they behaving in bad or stupid ways?
Imagine yourself inside a theater on the stage . . . and call the people involved in your situation to appear on the stage with you, along with any props and furniture required to enact the situation — it might look like a room in your home or office, or some other place.
The curtains at the front of the stage sweep together, separating the stage from the rest of the auditorium, and as you look around at the people involved in your situation, you might notice that you’re automatically beginning to sense the potential for something ugly to happen and start planning what you need to do here.
But abruptly, a man in a T-shirt and jeans enters the stage from the side and introduces himself as the director of the performance that’s about to take place. He politely informs you that you are not there to participate in the show and won’t be allowed to be on stage while it’s going on.
He grasps your arm firmly and escorts you down from the stage into the auditorium where an audience is beginning to gather. He waits while you take a seat, fixing you with a stern look to let you know you have to stay there, and then turns back to the stage.
As you settle down to watch, the lights dim and a sturdy transparent barrier comes down from the ceiling around the stage blocking people in the audience from access to the stage.
The Director’s voice comes over a loudspeaker announcing that the barrier has been set up to separate the audience from the actors. “We’ve actually removed you people in the audience into a parallel dimension,” he says. “The barrier is to hold the events on the stage in the original dimension. All of you in the new dimension will be able see what’s happening on the stage through the barrier but no sounds from your dimension can penetrate through to the actors.”
Just as you’re wondering if you’ll be able to hear what’s happening onstage, he adds, “Don’t worry, You’ll still be able to hear the performance. The actors’ voices are being transmitted into your dimension.”
A dissatisfied hum breaks out in the crowd and the Director raises his voice: “There’s nothing anyone here can do to communicate with the actors or affect the performance onstage. The actors can neither hear nor see you.”
A few people get up and leave in disgust, shaking their heads and muttering.
But you decide to stay and see it through. The Director adds that the experience has been arranged to isolate the audience from the actors, so that “no one can interfere with their karma. They know certain people will want to run onto the stage to stop them from getting hurt,” he continues, “because the scene that’s about to happen is likely to end in the worst possible outcome. The actors have asked to be isolated from the public so they can work things out among themselves.”
The curtains open and as the scene begins to unfold, you can see and hear everything, and even feel the actors’ emotions and empathize, but there’s nothing you can do to let them know you’re watching or that you care.
In the past you may have agonized over what you could do to modify the behaviors you now see playing out onstage, trying to keep situations from boiling over and protect people from getting hurt. Now you can’t do that. You feel you know what’s right, what ought to happen, but you are completely powerless to affect what’s going to happen. You can only watch. . . .
Imagine the situation playing out by itself. Visualize the mistakes the actors make — mistakes you were always afraid they’d make. Let them act as they will, out of ego and ignorance, out of greed and carelessness. Let your worst fears about this situation be realized. . . .
Welcome your own reactions, the feelings triggered by what’s happening in the situation onstage, whether they be fear, or horror, or frustration, or even rage. Remember that emotions are nothing more than energy in motion. If you don’t try to block them, they’ll pass through and out naturally.
You might notice others in the audience murmuring in frustration because they can’t intervene. They, like you, are here to see and face their worst fears and fully experience the feelings that arise when they can’t change what happens.
You wish they’d be quiet, but there’s nothing you can do about that either.
Keep watching the scene, as the people on the stage, people you know and care about, act out scenarios you previously dreaded, situations you worked and worried to prevent. Let them do as they will, making the messes you always feared they would — or just maybe, they might surprise you by coming into harmony and resolution. Whatever happens, you can only watch. You are powerless to affect it in any way.
The audience may gasp and groan, but you keep silent, somehow knowing there’s a lesson for you here.
Let the scene play out until it’s over. . . .
What happened? Did the actors resolve things among themselves, or did they end up dead or destroyed?
Is there anything that surprises you about how the situation played out?
Now let the curtains close, and both the stage and the audience dissolve, and notice that you are no longer constrained in a theater seat but are free to bring your awareness back to the place where you began this meditation.
Move your body, stretch, and open your eyes.
What did you learn? What surprised you? What attitudes were changed, what fears were faced and transcended?
You may want to journal about what you witnessed in this meditation, how it affected you, and what you learned.
I’d love to hear from you about your experience with this Guided Meditation. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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