I was traveling this week so there was no class. Still wisdom teachings are everywhere if we are present to notice. Visiting family and friends, it’s been a joy to see so many examples of skillful cultivation. To protect their privacy, I won’t name them or claim our relationship, but over the course of a few days my husband and I spent time with:
- A man in his early fifties, whose professional life has been exemplary and satisfying, but who over the past couple of years has found his work situation untenable due to changes that were beyond his control. He worked hard to shield his employees from the harsher environment but found that the situation was taking a toll on his own health. He also recognized that for most of his adult life he had been living it in the way he thought was expected of him. Now, with children raised and out of the house, he could assess what was working for him and what was not, and he found the strength to make changes. We have never seen him happier.
Buddhist teachings encourage us to see that causes and conditions are not the source of our happiness or unhappiness. Believing otherwise entangles us in cycles of desire and aversion. Through our mindful compassionate practice, we befriend whatever arises in our experience. But the teachings also encourage us to maintain healthy community and to steer clear of those who, for whatever reason, seem to thrive on toxicity. So, when we consistently greet our current situation with friendliness, when we do our best to collaboratively create a life-affirming communal experience, and yet at the end of each day we are miserable, the Buddhist answer is not to ‘put up and shut up’. We are fortunate to live at a time and in a place where we have choice and the power to change our circumstances. All that potential can feel overwhelming and often it’s better to practice being with what is. But not always.
In the last post we explored the ‘lay of the land’ of our lives with the question ‘What am I cultivating here?’ If we have been mindfully cultivating our metaphoric garden, yet nothing beneficial grows, then we may need to make some skillful adjustment. Recently my husband, the gardener in the family, noticed that the bougainvillea he planted last year was not looking healthy even though it was in a sunny spot with regular watering and feeding. With a little research he discovered that this plant wants to be completely dried out and then soaked, and it wants a different combination of nutrients. So he made adjustments, and is hopeful that it will flourish.
Just so, the people we visited on this trip have been noticing, researching and adjusting their lives.
- A woman in her late thirties was so stressed out at work that she went to a nearby therapist, who assured her that she was not alone, that he could write a book on all the patients he saw who worked for her company. This made it clear to her that no matter how much she tried to adapt to her circumstances, it would still be an ongoing challenge because the company’s culture was set up that way. Knowing her, I’m sure she did her best to brighten the lives of her coworkers, but she wasn’t in a position to completely change the culture of the company. So, like any wise gardener, she decided to transplant. She found a different position where conditions are more attuned to her nature, and where she feels valued.
It’s important to note that in both these examples, neither person is in the habit of blaming external conditions for their own unhappiness. They are collaborative cultivators of creative solutions. Only after careful self-examination and a clear eye to all that was going on, did they come to the conclusion that external change in the form of a transplant needed to happen. Of course, we hope our initial seed was well planted.
- A man in his early twenties is so passionate about what he is learning in his last semester of college, and the ways that he is applying it to the internships and part time jobs, that he is a creative inspiration to us all. His girlfriend is equally passionate about her chosen profession. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we all look forward to seeing what they do in their careers. They have put down strong roots in an area that has all the right conditions for them to thrive. The future looks bright!
But you don’t have to be an about-to-be college graduate to have a bright future.
- Another woman in her early forties has been working for a decade at a job that leaves her drained at the end of every ten-hour day. Even so, she has managed to pursue her creative passion in her spare time with stunning results. But she couldn’t see how to transition smoothly into a career that makes the best use of all her natural talents and abilities. A transplant was needed. But just as a plant may need to be trimmed up to put energy in the roots, she has now rearranged her life to lower her expenses and create enough space to pursue what she loves and get paid to do it. She hasn’t chosen an easy path, but it is one that makes her wake up eager to work every day.
How do you know when it’s time to transplant? When you’re leaning so far over to get a little sunshine that you’re practically flat on the ground. When new leaves wilt before they have a chance to open. When you feel choked, stressed from the heavy competition of more aggressive plants. Transplanting is not running away from life. It’s getting a clearer view and making needed adjustments.
Of course, it would be great if transplanting wasn’t necessary. A well-planned garden takes into account the nature of the plants and all conditions. But life isn’t always like that. Okay, life is rarely like that. Maybe a little initial research would have revealed that a plant would eventually overshadow its neighbors, or that it has runners that make it invasive. In our lives we can choose our next move wisely, but there are often things that we couldn’t have known: companies get bought up and the climate no longer suits us. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time, complaining about the situation, or distracting ourselves with mindless entertainment and overindulgences to compensate ourselves for our misery, we instead wisely assess, research, do some inner inquiry and see what needs to happen. Then we make it so.
Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ is a reminder that all the changes in the world will not correct a habitually unfriendly way of relating to the world. If we make a big life change, hoping it will solve all our problems but then neglect to put in the time to cultivate spacious ease and compassion within ourselves and in all our relationships, the results will be a disappointing repeat performance of our previous experience.
But in these examples, there was skillful cultivation, skillful inquiry, and skillful adjustments made. I am excited for them all, and I trust that they will bloom!
What does this bring up for you and your life? Comments welcome.