Monday, August 28, 2017

Some thoughts on unloading the emotional baggage from our "failures"

When I find myself in an unproductive funk, instead of seeing it as a period of wasted time, I try to increase my mindfulness of what is really going on in and around me. When I do this, I realize that at least some of my inertia is coming from the weight of the negative emotional baggage attached to concepts that otherwise would have a neutral presence in my life. While endeavoring to unpack this baggage is easier said than done, I find that at least trying to goes a lot farther toward helping me eventually get back on track than trying to force myself to get busy or beating myself up for being lazy would.

The most recent concept I examined is failure. To clarify, I am not referring to blameworthy failures, such as giving up, not trying, acting maliciously, taking shortcuts that erode our integrity, or losing someone’s trust through our willful carelessness. I’m talking about what we label as failure because we didn’t achieve what we wanted to: A specific job, maintaining a romantic relationship, breaking out of an addictive behavior pattern, et cetera.

In a great series on YouTube called “The School of Life,” one of the videos ties failure in with rejection: We wrap up so much emotional baggage into the idea of rejection, when all it really means is that what we want does not fit into the life plan of the person who said “no” to us. It’s not that we’re inherently unattractive, not good enough, or whatever, it’s that the person we were trying to connect with had a life plan already in mind before we came along, that didn’t include the possibility of us.

If we write these lacks of desired outcome off as failure, then even if we still analyze them for what we can learn from them, we’ve made the course-correction process that much more difficult by contaminating our experience with the negative value-judgment of “failure.” 

My most recent insights about recasting failure actually came from a training session at work about the new efficiency program our company is implementing. This efficiency program looks at the idea of failure in terms of sustainability, which I hadn’t thought of before. While the “School of Life” video about rejection provides a great alternative to feeling awful about ourselves when someone says “no” to us, this idea of sustainability is great for the situations we label as failure that don’t necessarily rely on a yes or no answer from a particular person or group.

From this perspective, when we try something and it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted—by not working at all or working for only a limited time—it wasn’t viable as a solution because it wasn’t effective to keep us from backsliding into our original way of doing things. In manufacturing, this means people reverting to less-organized and perhaps closed-minded production methods; in our personal lives this may mean relapsing in an addiction, getting fired from another customer service job because customer service just isn’t in alignment with who we are no matter how hard we try to fit ourselves to it, or being frustrated at our inability to find and sustain a romantic relationship because we haven’t yet learned how to.

A couple of videos we saw during the training give fascinating insights into how our minds work during this process of trying to change one of our personal paradigms. Rather than describe them here, I encourage you to watch the videos about the “Backwards Bike” and the “Five Monkeys” experiment (which you can see by clicking on their titles in blue text).

How we turn these seeming failures into successes, then, is to find out why they weren’t sustainable, and keep making changes until we do achieve the success we want.

A great piece of advice from Buddhist teacher Josei Toda ties in perfectly with the idea of trying to get ourselves past the inertia we may find ourselves stuck in regardless of the list of goals we have set for ourselves. Sometimes, before we can start and sustain actions toward achieving these goals, we need to chant (pray) first to break through our stagnation.

That’s what I did yesterday morning, and as a result I was finally able to produce a new blog post.

Image: “Transition Tree” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; oil pastel

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Some great commentary on relative happiness versus absolute happiness in the fairytale to end all fairytales...

I enjoyed fairytales when I was a young child. As an adult, I get so distracted by the obsolete cultural ideas coded into them that I can’t bring myself to enjoy such tales as Snow White or Cinderella anymore. If someone puts a spin on them that voids their sexist and two-dimensional cultural tropes, however, that piques my interest.

When I watched season one of the TV show Once Upon a Time, I realized that not only did it break the clich├ęd boxes of many of the most well-known fairytale characters, it also provided some fascinating illustrations of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment versus seeking salvation from outside yourself.

Last week I hinted at Rumplestiltskin’s role as a main factor in the tug of war between enlightenment and fundamental darkness in the fairytale character’s lives, and how they are the source of his power because they keep being tempted to do things the lazy or desperate way by relying on his dark magic for anything from getting out of poverty to having a baby.

I particularly threw Cinderella under the bus for originally being one of the laziest and most dishonest of the “good guys” while she was a princess in fairytale land. Once the curse that propelled the characters into our modern-day world started to weaken enough for the characters to be able to think, she was actually the first to try and change her life through her own intelligence and efforts, despite everyone else’s assertions that she wouldn’t amount to anything. As a poor single mother instead of a married princess, she decided to take the difficult path of keeping her baby, and going to night school so she could gain skills to create a better life for her and her child.

Jiminy Cricket, once again in human form and working as the town’s psychologist, had been at the mercy of Queen (now Mayor) Regina to brainwash her adopted son (and presumably anyone else) who believed in magic in Storybrooke; a few episodes in, he stood up to her and revealed he did have power he could use against her, if he was ever called to testify in a court battle between her and her child’s birth-mother (who happened to be the prophesied “savior” whose arrival in town is what started to weaken the curse).

These two examples show that, while this probably wasn’t his original intent, Rumplestiltskin actually did these characters a favor by removing magic from their lives so they could no longer use it as a short-cut that hindered their ability to do anything for themselves (and to be free of debt to evil people).

This is a fascinating illustration of the Buddhist concept of turning “poison into medicine,” or using what we gain and learn from overcoming our sufferings to attain enlightenment and absolute happiness—victory in life and happiness that are not dependent on exterior circumstances.

This contrasts sharply with the conditional happiness that some of the fairytale characters had in their original world—Happiness that had no foundation because it was dependent solely on maintaining the bliss of their “happy ending”—the longed-for spouse or kingdom or baby or whatever they wanted (and which Rumplestiltskin usually had a hand in procuring for them). Their world’s happiness, then, really wasn’t so much different from what often passes for happiness in our world—and thus, after they got their memories back following the breaking of the curse, it seemed they really were no worse off for being sent here.

When the curse broke in the last episode, the characters weren’t transported back to their world. The implication is then that they will retain both sets of memories—from fairytale land and modern-day Storybrooke—and thus actually have power without having magic. In contrast, Regina and Rumplestiltskin have no power without magic, so they are now at a potential disadvantage to their former victims who now no longer need magic to figure out how to solve their problems.

Now that the characters have actually experienced living instead of just existing and reacting, and can take some ownership of their life-situations, I look forward to seeing if this means they can bring with them the skill-sets they learned in this world back to their own land (if they ever go back) and make a much better world for themselves in which they have ownership of their happiness, and provide more intelligent opposition against any remaining foes.

Or, if they stay in Storybrooke, at least they can learn how to be truly happy and successful without having to rely on an evil, giggling, leather-clad gnome and his purple smoke to conjure it for them while asking for their souls in return.

Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Some great commentary on enlightenment and fundamental darkness in the fairytale to end all fairytales...

For entertainment, I checked out season one of the TV show Once Upon a Time, which mashes together characters from several different fairytales, puts unexpected twists in and overlaps between their stories, and then curses them into a small town in the modern-day, leaving them stuck in tension between two worlds.

Watching this show from a Buddhist perspective, I realized it gives some fascinating symbolism for enlightenment versus the delusion (which Nichiren Buddhists call fundamental darkness) that all power to change our lives must come from outside ourselves. In this story’s world, instead of a deity, that power is in the form of evil sorcerers and sorceresses who can fake being saviors for long enough to dupe the desperate (or the simply lazy) into selling their souls in exchange for fulfillment of desires that they could have fulfilled themselves through their own problem-solving efforts, hard work, and use of their moral compasses.

On one hand, Rumplestiltskin and Queen Regina (Snow White’s stepmother) are the obvious villains—They have no moral compasses, derive satisfaction from other people’s misery, and seek to increase their own power by taking power from other people. On the other hand, all the fairytale princes, princesses, wannabe princesses, and commoners they dupe are just as blameworthy: Not only do these so-called good guys seek shortcuts out of their problems through making desperate deals with Rumplestiltskin (even while telling him to his face how dishonorable he is), they then try to cheat their ways out of their contractual obligations to him, and even imprison him so he can’t come after them in revenge for their trickery.

These “heroes” then rationalize their own virtue with the justification that they made their bargains with him for good causes—to save their kingdoms, or get out of poverty, or connect with their true loves; and it’s a bonus in the backs of their minds if they can out-trick the trickster by turning his own greed against him in some way. It’s the old “the end justifies the means,” which has always been morally problematic, and in the end, didn’t work, because almost all of their so-called “happy endings” were illusions that Rumplestiltskin created, and thus owned—just as he owned their social status or their earthly treasures or their first-born babies—and could take back at any time.

In their quest to out-smart and then try to neutralize Rumplestiltskin, the heroes missed an important point: The source of his power was them. Evil can only be as strong as we allow it to be, and they created and maintained the need for him. They even continued to make deals with him for information about magical fixes after they imprisoned him, demonstrating that they learned nothing in their supposed victory over him. 

Regardless of his reputation and other people’s warnings, one character after another had continued to fall prey to his temptations to take a supposedly easy way out, despite Rumplestiltskin’s own warnings that magic comes at a steep price, and in some cases even his reminders that they had the option of doing the work themselves instead of making a dubious deal with him. He told Cinderella, “You don’t like your life? Change it!,” and she still chose to give in to her desperation and the idea that hard work and patience were beneath her, and made a careless deal that cost her a price she wasn’t willing to pay.

Rumplestiltskin got the last laugh from his prison cell by giving to Queen Regina a curse he created, which dissolved all those “happy ending” delusions at once and plunged everyone into our world. Once they were “cursed,” with all their magical crutches and shortcuts taken away, the characters were then forced to do what they should have done all along: Use their own brains and actually work to solve their own problems. When they started to do this is when the characters actually became likable to me, and when the show started to get interesting.

I’ll continue my explorations of this fairy tale to end all fairy tales in my next post.


Image: “Clashing Magic” by Karla Joy Huber, 1992; centrifugal-force splatter-painting