A wave crashes on a person. They begin to drown, and then breathe as the wave passes. They can either be afraid to go into the water for the rest of their life or they can try and look at the experience in a novel way. We all experience life, but the key is how we interpret it.
- The past influences how we experience the present
- How we experience the present focuses us on the path we want to take in the future.
This is known as our personal narrative. It is the way we choose or have been trained to understand moments in our life. This time of year is all about how we understand the past year to help us as we move into the future.
So much of our lives are predicated on the filter we use to understand our experience. Consider the idea of personal narrative and filter in the context of the story of the Dali Lama. The Dali Lama was exiled from Tibet, his homeland and birthplace, for over 60 years. Despite this event shaping his life and the things he has done he would say that he lives a life of joy. He understands his joy as not despite his exile but as a result of his exile. The Dali Lama in his book “The Book of Joy” says pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. He was asked why he was not more of a morose person given his life’s story. About his exile he says, “there are different aspects to any event. For example, we lost our own country and became refugees. But that same experience gave us new opportunities to see more things. For me personally I had more opportunities to meet with different people, different spiritual practitioners, and also scientists. If I remained in [my homeland] I would've stayed in what has often been described as a golden cage… So personally I prefer the last five decades of refugee life. It's more useful”.
Personal narratives are tricky things for people. Mainly because there are two different sources of information and these two sources often are not communicating well with each other. These two feeders are thoughts and emotions. The thing to understand when it comes to thoughts and emotions is there exists a gap between the two.
The story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis is a great example of this gap. Cain offers a sacrifice to God and Abel, his brother offers a sacrifice to God. God finds Abel’s sacrifice to be pleasing and to Cain’s sacrifice he pays no heed. Cain becomes crestfallen. God sees Cain’s reaction and ask him “why are you angry?” Then God says, “If you do what's right will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right sin is crouching at your door and you are it's object of desire but you must master it”.
Cain is struggling between what he is feeling and what his thoughts are about the situation. God is trying to get Cain to appeal to his higher senses, but Cain is so overwrought with emotions that he cannot think about the issue rationally. Because of this he goes out into the field and kills his brother.
Intellectually perhaps he could have understood that it wasn't the end of the world that God accepted Abel’s offering, but his feelings of anger drove him to act poorly. There were hundreds of ways Cain could have interpreted these events, but he chose to go negative. He chose anger over gratitude. He chose to see the bad in the situation instead of the good.
So what could Caine have done? First is to admit the emotion. SO often we deny an emotion and try to intellectualize it. The problem with this is, even if we say we are okay with something, if we are not that emotion is going to come out somehow. Second, to live in it. Emotions pass, but if they are not given their proper time, they remain unresolved and can become an albatross weighing us down. Third, to subdue it. Only after we have lived with the emotion and given it its due can we start to intellectualize it. So often people want to skip the first two steps and jump to the third. The problem is that this can create a poisoned personal narrative and makes it near impossible to raise yourself up to take a novel approach. Fourth is to find out what in the experience can you be grateful for. IF you can find gratitude in an event this is the way we can find an antidote to the poison.
Emotions aren't good or bad, they are a lens that are useful and serving you or they are working against you. I often see people try to dismiss their feelings in favor of intellectualism before the emotion has been allowed to run its course. Fear, anxiety and sadness are fine so long as they're working for you, it’s only when they become counterproductive to progress that emotions become problematic. The way to get those emotion to stop working against you is to let them be the experience and not necessarily the guiding force. If we get comfortable sitting in our emotions, even if we do not know what to do with them in the moment, I believe we become stronger mentally. We become more able to cope with life’s challenges. By doing this we gain agency over our emotions and this lets us control our emotions not letting our emotions control us.
Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world. The creation of the world was a great act of imagination. This coming year we can fall into old patterns of familiar thoughts or we can emulate God and create from experience a world of possibilities.
What I am suggesting is not a switch we can flick at will. Rather it is a discipline of the mind and habit we must cultivate. Anyone who is ambitious is going to feel frustration from time to time. Anyone who strives to be great is going to feel discontent on occasion. As I said earlier. A wave crashes you begin to drown, and then it passes. You can choose to be sad. You can choose to learn fear. Or you can choose to find the positive. There are at least four basic emotions: fear, sadness, anger and joy. Of these emotions three are considered negative emotions, one positive. It is easy to understand the bad in the world and the bad in ourselves. It is an act of strength, defiance and will to take facts and find the positive in them. In any situation you have three out of four chances to find something bad and only one to discover the good. I challenge you to find that good, it is not as elusive as you might think.