Thursday, November 17, 2016

Newsflash: Life Doesn't Care What You Want

    When I started practicing Zen back in 2013, one of the things that got me hooked was the incredible bleakness of the stories that I read.  There were students getting smacked by their teachers, guys realizing enlightenment by stubbing their toe, and hermit monks getting their huts burned down by angry old ladies.  The general message was always something along the lines of, "Life sucks.  Deal with it!"  And that appealed to me because I was broke, my personal life was in shambles, and my favorite pass time was drinking until I passed out.  In short, my life sucked, but it felt good to find a spiritual practice that didn't sugarcoat that fact.  Instead, Zen gave me a tool in sitting meditation that allowed me to look at my life from a distance, investigate why everything seemed to suck so badly, and then come up with creative solutions to make things more manageable.

     It wasn't easy.  There were days when sitting on the cushion for 30 minutes felt like psychological torture.  But I always felt better when I was done... So I kept going.  I learned a lot about myself and the world in general, but the biggest lesson that I learned is that most negative emotions (anxiety, anger, depression, etc.) come from wanting something from life, and then not getting it.  Furthermore, wanting things from life is a losing game because life doesn't care what I want.  To be clear life also doesn't not care what I want, necessarily.  In fact, I don't think life thinks about me at all.  It just kind of does what it does.  The only choice I have is whether I'm going to keep pissing in the wind, or get with the program and stop waiting for life to hand me things (peace, happiness, fulfillment, etc.) that I can only find inside of myself.

    There was an incident early in my professional career that hammered this point home for me.  At the time, I was working in middle management for a home security company in Indiana.  My job was pretty straight-forward.  I had a department of about 25 agents who were responsible for taking calls from our installation technicians, keeping track of what had been installed in the customers' homes, and accepting payment for any additional equipment that had been purchased.  For my part, I was there to make sure people showed up on time, make the schedule, and to answer any questions the installation technicians might have.  Things were running smoothly until a new manager, we'll call him "Mark", was hired to help me cover the department. Mark and I had been good friends before he was hired, so I was happy to have him come on board. But my attitude quickly changed after our first few weeks of working together.

     The short version is that Mark had ideas about he wanted to run the department, and I had completely different ideas about how I wanted to run the department.  Coincidentally, a new call center director was hired right around the same time that this was happening, and he tended to like Mark's ideas more than mine.  As a result, in the span of a few weeks I went from being able to run my department exactly like I wanted to having to defend every management decision that I made at our weekly meetings.  Sadly, words like "compromise" and "chill out" weren't in my vocabulary back then.  So Mark and I argued... a lot... about everything.

     After one especially epic argument I stormed back to my cubicle full of self-righteous fury and started slamming things around on my desk.  I'd only been meditating for a few months at that point, but I knew enough to know that I should at least take a few calming breaths before I completely annihilated my work station.  While doing that, I noticed something about my anger.  It didn't feel good, and I don't mean that in a new-age "my frequency was lowered" kind of way.  I mean that my anger physically didn't feel good to me.  My shoulders hurt from being hunched over.  My head ached.  My heart was racing. And to top it all off, I'd managed to spill coffee on my keyboard.  Why was I doing this to myself?

     Asking myself that question allowed me to calm down just a little bit and take in my surroundings.  I looked around and saw Mark joking with the other managers.  Mark didn't care that I was angry.  Next, I looked at the phone reps.  They were all diligently hunched over, entering data into their computers.  The phone reps didn't care that I was angry.  Finally, I looked out the window. The sun was setting behind some office buildings in the distance just as it had done countless times before.  That's when it hit me... No one cared.  Mark didn't care that I was pissed, the phone reps didn't care that I'd spilled my coffee, and the sun didn't miss a beat as a result of my shenanigans.  Life was moving forward just like it always had.  And the only person that was suffering because of my anger... was me.

     Coming to this realization was very empowering because my emotional state was suddenly completely in my control.  I was angry because I wanted to have complete control of my department, and life wasn't giving me that anymore.  But once I accepted the fact that life (and Mark) didn't care what I wanted.  Then I stopped expecting to get anything from them.  Instead, I learned to focus on the things that I could control (making good recommendations for the department, coming to work on time, being polite to my employees, etc.), and I did my best to stop caring about the outcome of my actions.  I did this not because the outcome didn't matter, but because the outcome was not in my control.

     It's been several years since I had that realization, and this way of thinking hasn't completely cured me of my negative emotions (anxiety, anger, depression, etc.).  But I've noticed that focusing only on the things that I can control causes my mood to level out much faster than it once did.  Also, I'm able to live with more openness and compassion because I'm not so afraid of what will happen from one moment to the next.  All I know is that something will happen, and then I'll respond in the best way I know how.   If something bad happens and life starts to suck again, I'll respond to that too.  Honestly, I want more certainty than that.  I want to feel like the whole world is subject to my will, and nothing unexpected will ever happen to me.  But life doesn't care what I want.  I just gives me what it gives me.  And I'm learning to be okay with that.

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