Monday, July 28, 2008

How to Live with a Big Decision

A while back, I wrote a post about the process of deciding. About how hard it can be simply to choose one path over another, and the paralysis we often suffer from in making that choice.

However, one of my readers posed an excellent follow-up question to that post. It follows:

It's one thing to actually MAKE a decision about something huge, but what about living WITH that decision? How do I live knowing i've broken my parents' hearts by telling them that they'll only get to see me once a year (they can't afford to travel over here)?

She describes the decision to stay in the U.S. even though she's from England, leading to the situation she describes above. How, then to live with the facts of your choice?

So, how do you live with a tough decision?

Whenever I face a difficult question like this one, I first ask myself what Joseph Campbell has said about it. Not because he was the smartest man to ever live or anything like that, but because he has looked at mythology as an instruction manual for living the most authentic, blissful and right-thinking/right-feeling life. He has taught me how desperately we need mythic structures in our lives, and how out of whack our lives are for the absence of a functioning mythology.

My first thoughts are these: Campbell talks about the danger of living in fear of the dragon whose scales are inscribed with the countless "thou shalts" that other people have for you. So, for instance: Thou shalt get a college degree. Thou shalt study this field. Thou shalt live in the suburbs. Thou shalt have 2.3 kids. But also, Thou shalt be easy to get along with. Thou shalt not cause controversy. Thou shalt obey the rules. Or, if you belong to a subculture, Thou shalt get a tattoo, because everyone else has, or whatever.

Do you see? The thou shalt is the command other people throw your way. We allow so many of these to control us and steer us off our right path that Campbell invokes the image of a conglomerated dragon ruling us with thou shalts.

His advice? We must slay the dragon and live according to what is right and proper for our own lives.

My feeling is that Campbell would say that if you have been true to yourself in your decision, if it the thing that is best for you or your children or the way you want to live--and by no one else's command--you will be able to accept, in time, the decision, even with all its sacrifices.

Of course, that doesn't mean others will, and that's where it gets tricky. Not everyone is capable of letting someone go, of allowing them to live their own lives. Sometimes they do this out of a misguided attachment, believing that they must have control over that person or else they will have nothing, and sometimes it's downright selfish.

Sometimes, it is because of deep grief for the end of something. Childhood. A full house. Fertility. Life. If the grief is based in normal feelings of loss, it will ease over time.

The bottom line is that you are the only one who can live your life. You can do your best to explain your decisions and soften their impact, but until another person can live your life for you, they cannot torture you for a decision you've made in good conscience. Which is precisely the reason you must not torture yourself.

From The Power of Myth:
Moyers: There is an old prayer that says, "Lord, teach us when to let go." All of us have to know that, don't we?

Campbell: That's the big problem of the parent. Being a parent is one of the most demanding careers I know. When I think what my father and mother gave up of themselves to launch their family--well, I really appreciate that.

My father was a businessman, and of course, he would have been very happy to have his son go into business with him and take it on. In fact, I did go into business with Dad for a couple of months, and then I thought, "Geez, I can't do this." And he let me go. There is that testing time in your life when you have got to test yourself out to your own flight.

Moyers: Myths used to help us know when to let go.

Campbell: Myths formulate things for you. They say, for example, that you have to become an adult at a particular age...You have to have a feeling for where you are. You've got only one life to live, and you don't have to live it for six people. Pay attention to it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When Bliss Clashes With Harsh Reality

The economy sucks. By now, everyone (except our elected "leaders," of course) has noticed that the dollar just doesn't go as far as it used to. The price of everything is going up, and going up fast.

This has been on my mind a lot lately, partly since I work for myself and need to be extra cautious about saving and spending, but also because I see the evidence when I do go out: Bars and restaurants are much, much less crowded, and the grocery and gas bills just keep growing and eating away at what I am earning.

I'm struggling to maintain faith in the ability of our country to support people's bliss. I'm doing OK so far, but everyone is cutting back, and while prices are increasing, wages are not. How are you all doing?

I wonder if we're at a point of regression, where our standard of living has reached its peak and will begin to decline as overspending and debt and unsustainable promises either bankrupt our country or make it less free. It's something that keeps me up at night, I'll tell you that.

I worry that artists will not be able to pursue their art in this kind of climate, that business owners will struggle, that parents will toil extra hard to keep their family fed. While this has always been true for the working poor, prosperity is becoming a distant dream for more and more hard-working, honest (and here's the new twist) highly educated Americans.

I guess this post is an attempt at figuring out how to keep going and believing that bliss is attainable when the going gets really tough. Joseph Campbell wrote about his experience in the Depression that it was a time of coming together, of people helping each other, and of a kind of peace with what was. He couldn't change it, so he didn't worry about it. Then again, he had no family or obligations to worry about either.

My hope, I guess, rests in our ability as Americans to reach out to each other and begin to re-strengthen our relationships and reliance on others. In one sense, we've had it so good that we have fooled ourselves into the illusion that we are self-sufficient. Neighbors barely know neighbors, friendships fall away too easily, families have scattered.

Humans are not capable of going it alone, so I guess what I am suggesting is that we take this relative calm before the storm and we begin to reach out to each other, mend the social fabric, and work together. Pursue your bliss, but do not pursue it alone. Tell people what you need, let them know how they can help, but also be willing to assist when they need you, be willing to listen when they speak about their dreams.

It's my belief that strong relationships will be the salvation of life's great desires and hopes in this dark time, so if you need to get your relationships in order, I suggest not wasting a moment.

If, for some reason, my pessimism proves to be unwarranted, there is no harm and only benefit that can come from these bonds. If, however, my dismal premonitions come to pass, there is only harm and no benefit in going it all alone.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear how you plan to pursue bliss and joy in your life when the world isn't exactly cooperating...

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Sacred Place

I was flipping through my copy of Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" today, when I came across this exchange:

Moyers: You write in "The Mythic Image" about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder. What does it mean to have a sacred place?

Campbell: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don't know who your friends are, you don't know what you owe anybody, you don't know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

Obviously, a sacred place could be an actual physical space--a room, a backyard cove, a nearby park. But I read this to include mental sacred spaces, such as those that are created through meditation, or time you carve out and defend ruthlessly. (As Randy Pausch advises.)

Wherever it is, find it. This place of "creative incubation" truly is necessary, and unfortunately is getting harder and harder to lay claim to, with technology, economic worries and endless news cycles. But see if you can find that place, because once you are there, no one can intrude. And that blissful solitude is something I think we can all benefit from.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Balance is a Dance

Spiral staircase at the Hotel Gerloczy in Budapest.

So many people are throwing out the term "work-life balance" these days, you may not even think much about what it means. Surely you know what balance is, and you know that it means that work and life should be split, and if you had to put a figure to the ratio, you would probably think of it as 50-50, right?

The trouble that most people have with this concept is that they see it in fixed terms, like a pie chart or an image of scales hanging in balance, motionless.

Why is this a problem? The moment you envision balance in your life as a fixed ideal is the moment you begin to get out of balance. Stand on one leg. Go ahead. Stand up right now and do it. If your balance is good, it shouldn't be much effort, though you'll probably feel your muscles making small adjustments to keep you upright. If a strong wind comes or someone brushes you on their way past, you will have to recalibrate to stay standing. You will waver a bit, maybe even sway, maybe even fall out of balance right before finding equilibrium again.

In this equilibrium, things appear motionless, fixed. But you know better--your muscles and body and brain are working in concert to keep you standing. Try to stand on one leg, but this time, close your eyes. Having trouble? It's very hard to stay balanced without the information from your eyes. Advanced yogis can do it, but it's not easy. In other words, real, intrinsic balance takes practice.

So, if things feel out of balance for you, don't despair if you're not living up to the pie chart of balance in your head that's 50% white and 50% black. Think of the symbol for yin and yang instead, and see the flowing lines and the bit of dark and white that dot the opposite halves. Observe the motion implicit in that symbol.

Realize that finding balance is not a fixed ideal, but a dance you practice. So you fall out of line a bit. That's OK. Dance back into balance, and don't worry too much about what you look like, or how perfectly your life is apportioned. Keep things moving. Feel the energy, gather information, keep dancing, and balance will follow.

And, for heaven's sake, don't mistake rigidity for balance.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Money, Bliss and Patriotism

While the three words above may not be obviously connected, I submit to you on this Wednesday before Independence Day that they are.

Joseph Campbell has asserted in many of his books that by saving yourself, you save the world. That by following your bliss, you become a force for life and vitality and positive change in the world, a light beating back the ever-encroaching darkness.

One of the things I've tried to highlight on this blog is the connection between money and bliss. Or, actually, that bliss is not dependent on money, and in fact, is squeezed out by its pursuit. Ironically, many of us spend our days worrying about making money because we are in debt, or because we want something material: a nicer car, a bigger house, a fancy handbag. Lest you think I sound self-righteous here, rest assured, I am not immune to the siren song of that fancy handbag. I want one, I really do.

But pursuing something if one cannot afford it is not wise. And so I stop. And I say, if I have money, I will buy the fancy handbag. But the handbag is not a goal. I do not want to make myself miserable for that handbag.

Unfortunately, many in our country--and in the world--have eyes only for the things they want. And so they either work jobs they hate to get those things, or they spend money they don't have (courtesy of our friends in the credit industry) to get those things.

And because no action comes without an associated reaction (thank you, elementary physics!), we can see here what the consequences are to making obtaining things our primary goal: misery or debt.

Thus starts the cycle. The cycle of servitude to a job you hate to pay the master (card) that owns you. Now, I'm not saying there aren't things we still need, and of course we'll always have bills to pay, and we'll always need to do work in exchange for some kind of wage.

The question is, how much choice do you have in that work, and how much freedom do you have if you need to walk away?

My argument is that it's patriotic to get yourself out of debt, or to aim for work that fulfills your soul rather than filling your living room or your closet. You may not much care for the idea of patriotism or loyalty to a nation, and that's fine. But it will be patriotic whether you call it that or not, and that's what matters. Save yourself, and in doing so, you save the world. It's a powerful idea.

Reduce your debt, eliminate your crushing dependence on your paycheck by eliminating unnecessary spending, and begin--even if only in your off hours--to plan for something more. To start writing or drawing or sewing or dancing or doing whatever it is that gives your heart and your mind ease.

I've often said that disease is an interesting word, since it is literally the "lack of ease." While you may be physically healthy, are you at ease with your life? Do you feel serenity and concentration when doing your work? Or are you suffering from a profound dis-ease that gnaws at you, that keeps you up at night, that makes you dream of high-priced handbags as a balm for your ills?

Diagnose your dis-ease. My bet is that it begins with money and work. Once you have real freedom again, once your work feels (and is!) in a way voluntary, once you have the flexibility to pay attention to other areas of your life, your family, your community, you will find wealth (in the narrow and broader sense of the word), happiness and health.

And as we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on Friday, I think you'll agree that the more people with those three things living next door, the better.

So go ahead, declare your own independence. And if you need some inspiration, the words below should help:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...