Searching for peace

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy (Burl Ives) in a sad voice says to his son, Brick, played by Paul Newman, “Son, you know you got a real liquor problem?

To which Brick replies:  “Yes, I know.

“It's like a switch, clickin' off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the cool one on and all of a sudden, there's peace.”

The billions spent on alcohol every year indicate most people, whether they know it or admit it, are looking for peace. We want to feel good about ourselves, to accept who we are and what we have.

That peace would be easier to find if we’d accept we can’t satiate our hungry minds that say we will be happy, healthy, and content in the future when we have more stuff, win the lottery, can go on more exotic vacations.

We keep striving for more even when we know it can’t deliver contentment, otherwise we’d have been satisfied when we achieved our (former) heart’s desires, when we married the one of our dreams, had kids, grand kids, paid off the mortgage, bought a bigger house, got a plasma TV for the bathroom.

Louise Hay, whose book You Can Heal Your Life has sold more than 35 million copies, was asked what it means to straighten out your mind.

“To be at peace in your own mind, to get the garbage out, to get those negative thoughts out that are constantly nagging at you and to have different ways of looking at life — not necessarily the way your parents taught you.”

We don’t find peace when we lock onto the thought that things should only happen in a particular way and if they don’t, we’re angry, resentful and make life miserable for everyone, particularly ourselves.

Peace is elusive when we’re plotting and scheming, trying to get even or straighten out the world and shape it in our image.

Most of us deify logic and analysis and in our frantic bid to understand, to feel in control, reduce life to its parts instead of seeing the whole, the big picture. We think we’ll be safe if we understand why things happen, but it only offers a worm’s eye view of reality. 

(Logic and analysis are, of course, wonderful tools when used appropriately.)

We want to freeze reality; when we find something that makes us happy and comfortable, we don’t want it to change.

We want our kids to become doctors and not plumbers; we want our parents to go into the old folks home we picked because it makes our life easier; we don’t want the housing market to implode just as we put our home up for sale.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote that we have “to find composure in the face of the fact that everything changes.”

To have a peaceful mind is being a quantum wave instead of a particle. According to the Many World Interpretation of quantum physics, a wave is everywhere at once, smeared out across creation and identified with nothing, but when the mind locks on a thought and identifies with it, the wave collapses and becomes our reality.

(The theory also says that every possible permutation of every decision we make is also “out there” and that’s true of all seven billion of us. That gives a whole new depth and width to our understanding of infinity.)

We find that ever elusive peace when we can accept with equanimity that we can’t freeze frame life, but accept that everything we know is a blip in eternity and will soon be gone — friends, family, dog, pet rock.

We can find peace in our own private Gethsemane moments when we admit that we would prefer events — a fire, a firing, an accident, a divorce, a death — to be different, but can summon the courage and faith to say, not my will, but thine.

Peace and joy come when we accept that everything changes and we can surrender to that which is beyond our control and can sing Que Sera, Sera with Doris Day, or Let It Be with the Beatles.

Of course, the black irony is that we usually do eventually accept, but only as we age, after putting a lot of wear and tear, a lot of stress on ourselves and everyone around us.

We always have the choice, but not often the wisdom, to forgo the mental masochism and go straight to the peace. The pain will be there, but the suffering isn’t.

Life is pain, but suffering is a choice.

We’ve all known peace — even without the help of wine or beer — but we’re so conditioned to acting like angry chipmunks that even when we’re in the zone, the world tugs at us, urging us to do anything except sit there.

Those mental patterns that say the devil finds work for idle hands make us insecure and uneasy about looking into the innermost part of ourselves.

When we can turn off the world like we do our chirping cell phone, we find peace, and when we’re ready, we can turn the world back on, just like the cell. The world is still the same, but if we do it often enough and long enough, we’re not.

We have to let go of who we are before we can become who we will be; we have to give up what we know to discover what we don’t; we have to stop regurgitating knowledge to acquire wisdom.

Real courage is not defying the odds, not running with the bulls, not jumping out of airplanes, but in not demanding that infinity yield to our demands.

“When the heart grieves over what it has lost,” goes a Sufi epigram, “the spirit rejoices over what it has left.”


Getting what we don't want

Even though we know better, we re-inforce and re-affirm what we don’t want.

The more we think and act in a particular way, the more we become unconscious of how we behave.

If we’re in a hurry, we hunch over, clench our teeth and the steering wheel while muttering we won’t make it. And if our worst fears are realized, we take perverse delight in claiming we knew it would happen like this.

Our thoughts are repetitive and negative; what ifs taken to absurd conclusions. We zero in on what we can’t do, about lack, fear and resentment, habitual responses that happen if we’re unaware or unwilling to negate the negativity.

Whenever we’re depressed, we project that feeling into the future, believing it will cloud our lives like the dismal February sky. We must enjoy the despair or we wouldn’t choose it so often.

Thoughts do leap, often unbidden, from the unconscious, but we have the power to choose another thought.

Yet, when we’re as expansive as a sunny, July day, when life is humming along like our favourite song, we fear it won’t last, and cling to the pleasure like an over-protective mother with a wayward child. Both are destructive and push away what is held dear.

 “But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings; Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here,” Max Ehrmann wrote in Desiderata.

Indeed we do. We have our beliefs about why we’re here, some consider it a blessing, others a curse and some scamper between the two like a bipolar hamster.

But we were invited here by the Universe and nothing was preordained. Life is not something that happens to us, we create it with our thoughts, with the way we think. If we persist in thinking negative, dark thoughts, life mirrors those thoughts.

If we are adamant that good things only happen to other people, but never to us, guess what happens? And if the Universe should shower us with blessings, we soon fritter then away because we don’t believe it will last — and, consequently, they don’t.

“We control the frequency of our energy through our thoughts, feelings and beliefs,” it says on The Secret calendar for the ides of July. “If we are predominantly positive and feeling good, we are attracting like positive energy in every area of our lives. If we are in fear, powerless ness, blame, or any negative emotion, we are attracting like negative energy into our lives.

“As every single thing is energy, positive energy draws positive people circumstances, and events into our lives. Negative energy attracts negative energy, which we will experience through negative people, circumstances, and events.”

Our refusal to dance with life, our desire to ignore its music, create tension, which we don’t notice because it is so much a part of us. But it does make us anxious about life: about what we get, what we don’t and whether we’ll lose what we have. It shows up as a pain in the head, an ache in the stomach, or something much worse.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus put it this way:

“Therefore I say to you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than food, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. 

"Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by anxious care can add one cubit to his stature? And why are ye anxious for raiment?

“Consider the lilies of the field how they grow? They toil not, neither do they spin? And yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clotheth the grass of the field, which to-day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”

Until we shed light on the cause of our fear, anxiety, and anger, we deal only with the symptoms. We don’t acknowledge the emotional stress, or if we do, blame someone or something for our perceived problems.

We push it away, resist it, pretend we’re not feeling it. We get pulled into a whirlpool of dark thoughts like the event horizon of a dark hole; if we’re not careful, gravity will suck us in.

“If we are confused, it’s absurd to deal with the confusion; we have to decipher what is causing the confusion?” said Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the spiritual greats of the last century.

A wise teacher does not tell us how to live, but asks the right questions so we can illuminate our own path. We are our own best teachers; we all have the answers to our questions. We can each be the high priest(ess) of our own truth, our own resolve, our own good intentions.

And the more we look into ourselves, the luckier we become, understanding at last what the Roman philosopher Seneca meant when he said luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment,” Eckhart Tolle, one of the spiritual greats of this century, writes in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

Shout yes at the silver moon

Life doesn’t ask much of us; only that we say yes, especially when we want to say no.

It’s easy to affirm life when things are going our way, when we always get 21 at the blackjack table, win the lottery, our children are on the dean’s list and our grandchildren look like the offspring of Brad and Angelina, with the IQ of Einstein.

But life wants us to say yes when we hit 41 or 61, when we lose what little money we have, when our kids are on the wanted list and the grandchildren look like an experiment gone wrong in a horror movie.

“Security is mostly a superstition,” said Helen Keller. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

We have to say yes to menopause, andropause, sagging body parts, wrinkles, aching joints, the kids leaving home, then returning home, to being fired, being retired….

“To say yes, you have to sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows. It is easy to say no, even if saying no means death,” wrote French playwright Jean Anouilh.

When we say yes, we don’t have to protect our persona, our stuff, or prove our worth by winning the game, whether tennis, tiddly winks or one-upmanship.

Saying yes opens doors to endless possibilities; yelling no slams that door while we run and hide under the bed.

When we say yes, we develop the rhythm of a tai chi master, or a dancer moving with the flow.

We don’t have to lead the dance, just move with the music and in the midst of the movement, stillness comes to us.

“All the things we do to protect ourselves from suffering is what’s causing the suffering,” wrote Hale Dwoskin, author of The Sedona Method. “Our filters hold in the suffering and keep out the exquisite joy and pleasure that comes from just being with whatever’s happening in the moment.”

When we were young, we said yes with gusto to the endless opportunities, and sampled enthusiastically from the overflowing buffet of wonder.

Life didn’t change, we did.

We always have the choice of how we act. Sometimes the situation is too big for us: a war, a catastrophe, a disaster, but how we respond determines who we become.

Viktor Frankl overcame the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, where his wife and parents died, forgave his captors and shaped a philosophy, logotherapy, from it.

To say no re-inforces a victim mentality and we affirm that status most in our vehement denial that we have that mindset: when we pound our fist on the steering wheel in a traffic jam; when we’re terse with the clerk became we had to wait too long for our coffee, when we adopt a get-them-before-they-get-us philosophy; when we complain.

 “Like everyone else, Canadians love to complain,” Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote a few years ago in her Canada Day column.

“Our taxes are too high and our social services are too low. Our winters are too long and our politicians are pathetic. We have no sense of national unity. Our neighbour to the south has gone temporarily berserk. Gas prices are going through the roof, and global warming is melting the  Arctic ice.

“But where else would we rather be? Canada is the lucky country, blessed with more beauty and abundance than any other place on Earth. We have the spectacular good fortune to dwell in a scenic backwater, far from the crossroads of history — an insignificant suburb, really where nothing ever happens, but the quality of life is great.”

It’s a matter of perspective: Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up a hill for eternity, can be a symbol of deepest despair or  shining hope. Prometheus, bound to a cliff and sentenced to have his liver ripped out by a vulture every day, a re-affirmation of the value of life in the face of a seemingly unjust fate.

But it is saying yes in a hopeless situation that allows us to find victory and growth and what caused Frankl “to come to the conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that therefore even suffering is meaningful.”

Oriah Mountain Dreamer, a Toronto writer, has a similar, hard-won, outlook.

“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing,” she writes in the prose poem The Invitation, which eventually became a book.

“It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.

 “I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon,  ‘Yes.’”


Searching for the big secret

Some people spend a lot of time and money looking for a philosophy, a concept, a belief, a way to make our lives more bearable.

We take yoga, martial arts, meditate, pray, hang out at Starbucks looking for that something that will bring peace and reduce stress.

Some practise the Golden Rule, others the Categorical Imperative while still others go deeply into the esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, Christian mysticism or the Kabbala of Judaism, all searching for the secret weapon to go one on one with life.

Others keep searching, sampling the buffet of spirituality, looking for another morsel to satiate the insatiable hunger, to fill the void.

“In every heart sits a great homesickness,” said Rabbi Seymour Siegel.

Our search to overcome that homesickness is defined by our society. We in the Western world were taught that we could have everything. We’ve learned that isn’t true.

We also know that even if it were, it wouldn’t help because the more we get, the less satisfied we become. If having things – a new car, a super-sized digital TV, a new house, a new relationship – was the answer, we would be the happiest people since Eve bit into that apple.

The one worthwhile lesson Hollywood teaches is that fame and fortune don’t ease the gnawing at our innards – and that’s not a new discovery by movie stars and high-tech billionaires. It was ever thus.

In the Age of Faith, Will Durant quotes Caliph Abd-er-Rahman III, who ruled Spain for 30 years in the 10th century.

“Riches and honours, power and pleasure have waited on my call, nor has any earthly pleasure appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness that have fallen to my lot.

“They have numbered 14.”

That’s not much of a payoff for having everything, but it does prove once again that looking outside ourselves for the answer is not the answer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most quoted American ever, said the purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself.

“There is really nothing external, so I must spin my thread from my own bowels.”

Harry R. Moody put it this way in the Five Stages of the Soul: “the struggle is the way… As we see in the folk stories and scripture, the angels and demons of nature appear to us as beggars and genies as well as fountains of darkness or light; little things can be enormous things; the world is not what it seems.”

That’s a recurring theme, from quantum physicists to New Agers, mystics and meditation teachers.

Moody interviewed meditation teacher Natasha Noor, who spent time with many of the sages of India, and she echoed those sentiments.

“The world is not what you think it is at first glance. It is an illusion; it’s something else. One picture of reality has been superimposed over another. You have to refocus your inner eyes.”

Democritus, one of the first Greek philosophers, agrees. “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”

The Buddha said the same thing a few hundred years earlier: “With our thoughts we create the world.”

And, of course, Proverbs said it just as eloquently: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.”

If they — and the creators of the Matrix trilogy, which said the same things in the language of science fiction — are correct, we should be careful what we think and when thoughts we don’t like erupt from our unconscious, should we not try to discover what prompted them?

We have been shaped by beliefs we don’t know we have, beliefs crammed into our minds by well-meaning parents, priests and politicians.

Challenging negative beliefs is not an easy or quick task. Rooting out the cause of a thought is as demanding and backbreaking as ripping out dandelions after a spring rain. But with persistence and diligence, we can have a green lawn — and a peaceful mind.

As we stuff the dandelions into the compost, we should also remember that the only difference between a weed and a flower is a judgment, just as we judge that some thoughts are good and some are bad.

The people in the know, such as the Zen master Joko Beck, meditation teacher Eckhart Tolle, writer Wayne Dyer and countless others, suggest we simply observe our thoughts, and not get emotionally involved with them, just watch them pass like clouds across a blue sky.

With practice, we will be able to intercept the thoughts that create tightness in the chest and knots in the stomach and eventually see them as clouds, sometimes flimsy, sometimes cumulus, but just drifting by.

Peace will come when we learn not to judge ourselves, when we can live that old cliché: “It’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

We can start by slowing that river of thoughts by using our teeth as a dam, by keeping our mouth shut. This dictum is underrated, maybe because we first heard it from mom. Her lesson: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

In other words, shut up. Silence is indeed golden.

The flood of thought will abate, with time and a little dental work, and we will no longer have to defend the indefensible, and we won’t have to man the ramparts of an ill-chosen stand.

Unlike writers, Zen masters didn’t need a thousand words to make a point; they cut right to the heart of the matter.

“If you wish to know the truth, only cease to cherish opinions,” said Seng-Ts'an, the third Zen patriarch.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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