What do you know for sure?

“In the beginning….” That’s how the greatest bestseller in history starts.

It has been on the bestseller list since before there was a bestseller list.

It has the best-known creation story, but all cultures have these stories — they tell us how we came to be and attempt to make sense of what seems incomprehensible.

And we have our personal creation stories that explain who we are and why we are the way we are. There are good guys and bad guys, and often we’re both. We can, however, change our story, add a chapter, delete another.

We can even write a new saga.

We hesitate became changing stories can be painful and it means a new way of looking at the world. We change.

For the butterfly to be born, the caterpillar must die; it liquefies in its chrysalis before transforming and leaving the prison of the leaf for the freedom of the sky.

Playwright Tennessee Williams said sometimes there is a time for departure even when there is no certain place to go. That can be any time; it can be now. What if we re-invented ourselves from the inside out? People re-invent themselves all the time. They lose the moustache, get contacts, have laser surgery or liposuction.

While that can make us feel better, it’s the equivalent of giving the car a paint job when the transmission, the clutch and the pistons are shot, and the radio doesn’t work.

But it looks good.

If bodily changes made us different, aging would make us wise, confidant, happy, joyful, but our essence isn’t changed by the subtraction from or addition to various body parts.

That’s not to say we should never shave our moustache — or our head — or have a nip and/or tuck, but it would be insightful to find out why we want to do it.

Where does it fit into our story? And what is our story. We have told it to ourselves — and other people — so often we don’t really listen any more; it slips past our consciousness like a ninja in the night.

Maybe we should tell it one last time so we know what we’re re-writing or tossing into the trash.

But we have to absorb it in with our whole being, rather than just our ears. Good listening is more than sitting silently and waiting for our turn to speak; we must be totally there and accept the person no matter what is being said.

We owe it ourselves to listen to our story with the same presence a good listener gives to others.

“There should be only one consideration when making any decision: is this a statement of who I am? Is this a statement, an announcement of what I choose to be?” Neale Donald Walsch is told in Book Two of Conversations with God.

“All of life should be such an announcement. In fact, all of life is. You can allow that announcement to be made by chance or by choice.”

What if we could pick and choose who we want to be? What if we aren’t our job, our labels, the things with which we define ourselves?

What if we lost our entire sense of self, our identity?

What if we released our beliefs, tenets and concepts, our faded picture of who we are, if we cut the anchor that holds us to that image of who we think we should be, and just be?

What if we consciously built a mental, spiritual edifice of who we want to be? If we don’t do it consciously, we still chose, maybe by letting others pick the attributes that become us.

Let’s grab a piece of paper, a big piece, and write every label we have about ourselves :

  • spouse
  • parent
  • offspring
  • employee
  • boss
  • runner.

After the list is complete, put a big X through it, rip it up, burn the pieces, vacuum up the ashes and scatter them to the wind.

Who are we now? What is the new story?

Sometimes it’s best to be pre-emptive because the Universe can get tired of waiting for us to become who we should be and start the process whether we’re ready or willing.

In The Journey, Brandon Bays, a trainer with Tony Robbins, had to deal with:

  • a huge tumour in her stomach
  • fire that destroyed her uninsured Malibu beach house,
  • a fight with the Internal Revenue Service
  • a disintegrating “legendary romance” with her husband
  • her daughter getting away from her mother’s influence.

“Source had been teaching me so profoundly, using my life as the classroom. With the tumour: you are not your body. With the fire: you are not your material possessions. With the IRS: you are not your money or your ability to survive. With Kelly: you are not your relationships. With Don: you are not the romance or the marriage.

“You are this love that is present when all else comes and goes.”

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti recommends we ask ourselves one question: What do I know for sure?

“When you look deeply into the question, it actually destroys your world. It destroys your whole sense of self, and it’s meant to.

“You come to see that everything you think you know about yourself, everything you think you know about the world, is based on assumptions, beliefs and opinions — things you believe because you were taught or told they were true. Until we start to see these false perceptions for what they really are, consciousness will be imprisoned in the dream state.”

It isn’t just spiritual teachers, fringe dwellers and weird people who make that claim. Many quantum physicists and string theorists, make similar observations.

“Asking yourself the deeper questions opens up new ways of being in the world. It brings in a breath of fresh air. It makes life more joyful,” said quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf.

“The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery.”


Times are a-changin'

Uncertainty, upheaval and unrest, whether caused by politics, economics or forest fires, offer a great opportunity to practise being comfortable with discomfort.

Having our lives turned upside down is a wonderful chance for growth. Our default position is security, but Life demands that we be out in the wind and if we insist on hiding, it rips apart our hiding places.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood dimm'd tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

That’s how Irish poet William Butler Yeats described Europe after the First World War, when empires fell, 16 million were killed and another 50 million or so died in the flu pandemic that followed.

While we’re being whipped by hurricane winds, especially if we lose our jobs and homes, we don’t appreciate that creation always follows destruction, as the new growth after forest fires so vividly testifies.

When we find a situation we like, we want to stop, and resist the upward thrust of life, even when we know we’re stagnating. Our worm’s eye view doesn’t let us see much beyond our tempest of the moment.

“All growth is from within,” Charles F. Haanel wrote in the Master Key System in 1912.

“This is evident in all nature. Every plant, every animal, every human is living testimony to this great law, and the error of the ages is in looking for strength or power from without.”

As the baby boomers stagger into older age, as Donald Trump turns the world political order and the stock market into a frenzy with each tweet, now is a good time to take Haanel’s advice.

Many boomers have examined bank accounts, checked RRSPs, scrutinized pensions.

We debated whether we could continue to live the way we planned, keep the old car and visit the in-laws instead of taking a cruise.

But did we examine our spiritual investments? Did we dust off our priorities to see if the investments in our beliefs and relationships are giving us the return we want?

“We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get too tired, read too little, watch too much TV, and pray too seldom,” said comedian George Carlin.

“We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life.”

Political and financial disasters can do wonders for our spiritual life because we’re often more willing to flow with the universe instead of insisting on doing things our way.

When we’re flying as high as the surging economy or at ease with the political system and the state of world affairs, we’re too busy having a good time to worry about the inner life, but our attitude quickly changes when the outer world crumbles.

“Once you deprive a person of their security blanket of materialism, they are left with only themselves,” said author Stuart Wilde.

There’s a martial arts concept that is effective, but counter-intuitive and difficult to accept:

when pushed, pull; when pulled, push.

By moving with what is happening, we reduce the threat. But usually we resist even when logic and common sense say surrender.

Of course, aging baby boomers staring in horror at their dwindling investments have the experience to accept the new order because they were formed by foment.

They came of age in the turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s when the birth-control pill, the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement changed the worldview.

A song of protest then can be an anthem now. The sentiments Bob Dylan expressed way back then is still true today.

The line it is drawn/The curse it is cast
The slow one now/Will later be fast
As the present now/Will later be past
The order is/Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now/Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Are you a fox or hedgehog?

Many of us still bear the scars from high-school science classes, from memorizing facts, figures and laws — Boyle’s law, the laws of motions, thermodynamics.

It was dull, dry, boring stuff and we couldn’t wait to write the final test so we could forget it.

But with the perspective of time, we know science isn’t as much a collection of facts as a worldview, one that most of us use when the fireplace won’t turn off or the TV won’t turn on.

We ask questions, check assumptions and figure it out.

While life is more art than science, we can use scientific method to fine tune our philosophy if we but awaken from our slumber — what Deepak Chopra calls the psychosis of social conditioning — and develop a central vision that’s part of a broader world view.

Werner Heisenberg, who devised the Uncertainty Principle, one of the cornerstones of quantum physics, said real advances are made at the intersection where two different lines of thought meet.

We are always at that intersection and the light is always green, but we spend so much time looking ahead, attempting to anticipate what will happen so we won’t be surprised, hurt or embarrassed that we don’t see what’s here now.

We jitterbug from one thing to another, juggling commitments and being tugged to and fro on our electronic leashes, but don’t take the time — think we don’t have the time — to figure out who we are beyond the labels and job description.

Granted, it’s easier to ignore the bigger picture and the bigger idea because they appear overwhelming and intimidating. It’s less threatening to grab a beer or a glass of wine and watch the hockey game or another rerun of NCIS.

But if we’re willing, we can reduce the seeming immensity of the problem by using the elephant-eating method: one bite at a time.

We don’t have to ask all the questions about all the issues. We just have to ask one.

“In science, we take great pains to design experiments that ask only one question at a time,” biochemist Scott Strobel is quoted in The Canon.

“You isolate a single variable, and then you see what happens when you change that variable alone, while doing your best to keep everything else in the experiment unchanged.”

That’s what the ancient Greek poet Archilochus had in mind. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

“Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations,” Jim Collins writes in Good to Great. “‘You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs.’

“Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labour — they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it.”

We tend to admire foxes, or their human equivalent, for their cunning, smoothness and slyness and disdain the hedgehog for its simplicity and single-mindedness.

“Hedgehogs aren’t simpletons,” Collins writes. “They have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns. Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.”

Cutting through the minutiae and seeing what is essential is a wonderful gift. Some of us spend so much dithering, trying to choose between A and B that we never decide either.

"We could be less fox-like and concentrate on the one big thing, like Alexander the Great did when he cut, rather than untied, the Gordian knot.

It isn’t just scientists, philosophers and writers who tell us to simplify, simplify, simplify.

“Got to ask yourself one question, where are you now?” James Blunt sings in Wisemen, on the Back to Bedlam CD.

How many know the answer to that question?

How many have even asked?

Journalism students are taught five Ws — and one H — but the one most neglected is why, and what’s true of journalists is true of the rest of us.

Ask why. It’s a simple, yet insightful question.

  • Why do we get angry over nothing?
  • Why do we fear the unknown?
  • Why are we the way we are?
  • Why do we do what we do?
  • And if we’re not happy, why don’t we change?
  • Why do we…?

Even if we ask, we often let ourselves wiggle free with a weak answer or no answer at all. We must ask with a single-minded purpose, never settling for because or we don’t know, but peel away each layer of deception until we find out.

Knowing why is important because we create our lives with our thoughts, our decisions and indecisions, our choices and lack thereof.

Each moment is a crossroads — and an intersection — and we are free to go one way instead of the other.

“Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then, ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question,” said Carlos Castaneda.

“Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

As wonderful as science is, eventually we have to go into the deepest recesses of ourselves to find the answers to the central questions we pose.

We have to find the mystic in ourselves and part the veil we have hung to hide us from who we are.

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature and it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve,” said Max Planck, the father of quantum physics.

That's no bull

Zen has a wonderful, 900-year-old pictorial story, which, in modern terminology, would be called no bull.

It's actually called the Ox-herding Pictures, and since Zen essentially teaches without words, it's appropriate to depict man's search for himself in illustrations.

The ox is a metaphor for the mind, which refuses to conform to any discipline, and the oxherd is the Zen practitioner trying to find his true self.

The mind was compared with a wild ox because it had to be captured, tethered and broken, a long, slow process. Following the example, the Zen student is encouraged to directly experience his own mind through meditation, subdue anxieties and desires, experience oneness with all and to find peace.

But it isn't just in Zen; all literature is rife with search stories, variations of the ox-herding story.

Prometheus, Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Knights of the Round Table, or a native American on a vision quest — it's about anyone who confronts adversity, is changed in the process and then brings back something to his community.

Fairy tales are a variation of the search motif.

"The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth," mythologist Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

"The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand."

The process is always the same: departure, initiation and return. All the stories are really the story of all of us, on a personal search for fire, the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the bull.

Once we start on the path of self-discovery, there's no going back. We might never discover who we are, but we'll never be content with who we were.

"The journey begins as an exhausting search for an elusive quarry," Timothy Freke writes in Zen Wisdom. "The seeker is pictured in search of himself, but all he can find is rustling leaves and singing cicadas, and he does not yet realize that these are the very clues he seeks.

"During this stage, the student is often confused and discouraged. He doesn't really know what it is he is looking for."

The ultimate irony is, of course, that the bull only appears lost because the oxherd thinks he is alone, separate from others, from the world, which both religion and science argue is an illusion.

So the oxherd, the searcher — us — seeks, reaching crossroads, uncertain which one to take, going one way, doubling back, taking another until he discovers a teaching, a method that works, and he sees the bull's footprints everywhere. He sees through the illusion and realizes everything is a reflection of himself.

"Better keep yourself clean and bright," wrote George Bernard Shaw. "You are the window through which you must see the world."

The student must train his mind so it doesn't conjure fantasies or watch movies in his head and begins Zen training until the mind is tamed and he accepts that it is not other people who cause his anger and angst, but himself.

With practice, vigilance and discipline, the mind is calmed and the oxherd is no longer concerned with success or failure, or what the world thinks or demands.

"He realizes that the bull has only been a temporary subject of his quest," Freke writes. "His search has led to the realization that the separate self, that he previously took himself to be, is not his true self. The seeker knows his Buddha-nature — his deeper identity."

With that comes the realization all is one, that everyone and everything is but a reflection of a deeper reality, the Absolute.

"Although the vision that the seeker has been seeking has finally been attained, there is no self to glory in this achievement. Mind, clear of all limitations. Confusion is replaced by serenity. Ideas of holiness are irrelevant," writes Freke.

That brings joy, which encompasses sadness and happiness, but is greater than both. With joy comes acceptance of the self and the world.

The search is often portrayed as something outside ourselves, a heroic quest that summons physical courage and mental strength, but essentially is a journey inward.

The searcher goes "into depths where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world," writes Campbell.

"The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is the "king's son" who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power.

"From this point of view, the hero is symbolic of the divine creative and redemptive image, which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life."

The final word goes to Zen: "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water."

Even the enlightened have to pay the hydro and telephone bills.

More Transitions articles

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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