October 31, 2014

The Way We Look at Life Determines Our Experience

a simple insight presents each of us with an opportunity to make momentous changes in our lives. The only limits are the ones we create!

We can ask a new kind of question: not simply inquiring into “what is” but inquiring into what we want and what grasp of the universe would nurture and support a choice to be happier, more loving, more peaceful and more secure. Can we move away from the contemporary cauldron of pessimism to find a more useful and inspiring point of view? Rather than wait for a pie-in-the-sky apocalyptic event, we can take charge of our own evolution by changing our world view now.

The current cultural paradigm – the frame of reference from which we view the events unfolding locally and in our global village – suggests a scourge upon the land, with brother fighting brother, new diseases sweeping like plagues through generations of people, poverty and famine snarling at the doorsteps of human dignity, and a general ecological malaise hanging like a frightening veil over the planet’s future.

Current events, as depicted by the news media, bombard our consciousness with one catastrophe after another, reinforcing a “victim” mentality. Reporters and newscasters endlessly parade, for our literary or visual consumption, the bodies of those killed, maimed or noticeably diminished by war, disease, violent crime, economic recession, poor parenting, drug or alcohol addiction, sexual abuse, food poisoning, train wrecks, air crashes, automobile collisions, tornadoes, hurricanes., floods and the like. Although we remain attentive, we numb ourselves, trying to put some distance between us and the brutality of those onslaughts. In the evening, we wonder how we made it through the day in one piece or, worse yet, how we will survive the unseen catastrophes of tomorrow.

We could decide, flat out, to stop watching and listening to the news … and to stop reading it, too. We have made an addiction out of being “informed,” as if knowledge of disasters could somehow contribute to our sense of well-being and serenity. Our lives will never be enriched by the gloomy pronouncements of unhappy people, fearing and judging all that they see. They follow fire engines racing toward billowing black clouds of smoke and ignore the smiling youngster helping an elderly woman carry her grocery bags. One dramatic traffic accident on a major highway sends reporters scurrying, while the stories of four hundred thousand other vehicles that made it home safely go unnoticed. Newscasters replay over and over again a fatal plane crash captured on videotape but rarely depict the tenderness of a mother nurturing her newborn infant.

Simple acts of love, safe arrivals, peaceful exchanges between neighboring countries and people helping each other, are noteworthy events. The media bias toward sensationalism and violence presents a selective, distorted and, in the final analysis, inaccurate portrait of the state of affairs on this planet. No balance here. We feed our minds such bleak imagery, then feel lost, depressed and impotent without ever acknowledging fully the devastating impact these presentations have on our world view and our state of mind.

Why not inspire ourselves rather than scare ourselves? We choose our focuses of attention from the vast menu of life’s experiences. Wanting to be happy and more loving on a sustained basis directs us to seek peaceful roads less traveled. Though we might not determine all the events around us, we are omnipotent in determining our reaction to them. Some of us will live on the earth’s crust searching for horror; others will lift the stones and see beauty beneath. Our embrace of life will be determined not by what is “out there,” but by how we ingest what is “out there.” Our view becomes almighty.

What we have been taught about ourselves and the universe around us conspires to have us believe that living requires awesome energy and great struggle. “No pain, no gain,” we are told. “Life is a constant struggle.” “You have to take the bad with the good.” “You never really get what you want.” “You’re unlovable.” “Something is wrong with you ” (although it’s never quite identified, you know it’s there). “There is no justice.” “No one cares.” “Look over your shoulder and beware!”

These become communal mantras, shared with others and elevated to the status of treasured folklore. They color our vision and send us searching for the experience (rejection, attack, indifference) that we anticipate. Usually we find it! Our vision blossoms into a self-fulfilling prophesy, which each new experience tends to verify and reinforce. I never met a man who lived forever. I also never met a man who believed he could live forever. We become our beliefs. We get stuck in our heads.

Suppose we set aside the rigid concepts we might have learned about how the universe works. If we can now begin to entertain the possibility of many world pictures, then we might want to experiment by putting aside a logical, linear view of existence with fixed points and “hard facts” and consider a metaphor which reveals the ever-changing nature of the known universe.

We swim in a river of life. We can never put our foot into the river in the same place twice. In every second, in every millisecond, the water beneath us changes. Likewise, in every second, in every millisecond, the foot that we place into the river fills with new blood. Instead of celebrating the motion, we try to hold on to the roots and stumps at the bottom of the river, as if letting go and flowing with it would be dangerous. In effect, we try to freeze-frame life in still photographs. But the river is not fixed like the photograph and neither are we.

Ninety-eight percent of the atoms of our bodies are replaced in the course of a year. Our skeleton, which appears so fundamentally stable and solid, undergoes an almost complete transition every three months. Our skin regenerates within four weeks, our stomach lining within four days and the portion of our stomach lining which interfaces with food reconstructs itself every four or five minutes. Thousands, even millions, of neurons in our brain can fire in a second; each firing creates original and distinct chemistry as well as the possibility for new and different configurations of interconnecting signals. As billions of cells in our bodies keep changing, billions of stars and galaxies keep shifting in an ever-expanding space. Even the mountains and rocks under our feet shift in a never-ending dance through time. Life celebrates itself through motion and change.

Although we can certainly see continuity – seasons come and go, trees grow taller and people get older – we can acknowledge that each unfolding moment, nevertheless, presents a world different from that of the last moment. We could say that we and the world are born anew in every second and our description would be accurate scientifically. Therein lies an amazing opportunity for change. We can stop acting as if our opinions and perspectives have been carved in granite and begin to become more fluid, more open and more changeable, even inconsistent. We are in the river. We are the river!

Every stroke we make, every thought or action we produce, helps create the experience of this moment and the next. And the beliefs we fabricate along the way shape our thoughts and actions. Sounds rather arbitrary, some might say. It is! Quite simply, we try to move toward what we believe will be good for us and away from what we believe will be bad for us – operating always within the context of our beliefs. Even our hierarchies of greater “goods” and greater “bads” consist only of more beliefs. We hold our beliefs sincerely and defend our positions with standards of ethics or “cold, hard facts.” We treat much of what we know and believe as irrefutable. We talk in absolutes. Once our beliefs are in place, we use all kinds of evidence to support them, quite unaware that we have created the evidence for the sole purpose of supporting whatever position we favor. In essence, we have become very skilled at “making it up.”

Many years ago, my mother had surgery for breast cancer, followed by radiation treatments. Several years later the cancer reappeared in other parts of her body. Operations and additional radiation therapy disfigured and disabled her. Her dying process overwhelmed her and the rest of our family for years.

Not long after her death, we received a phone call from a researcher at the famed hospital where she had been treated, inquiring as to her current health. When informed of her passing, the researcher asked for the date of her death. I realized, on reflection, as he did, that she had died only a little more than five years after her initial surgery, although the cancer had continued to spread and more invasive treatment ensued. Since she had survived five years past the initial surgery and the study did not inquire into the quality of life during those years or the possibility of recurrences, the hospital representative indicated that my mother would become a favorable statistic for the hospital’s cancer clinic.

Months later, major journals carried the news of this hospital’s success in treating and effecting breast cancer cures based on a five-year survival rate. The agony of my mother’s final journey had been filtered through the statistician’s hand and transformed into data supporting the hospital’s claims. The evidence had been gathered to support the beliefs of the gatherer and to further enhance the reputation of his facility and its methods. And so often we, the consumers of beliefs and evidence, buy just such “facts” as gospel.

Exploration of the belief-making game becomes even more beguiling as we pursue it further. Many years ago, after trying unsuccessfully to deal with a minor medical problem I sought the input of an elderly Chinese physician and acupuncturist who had been educated in Beijing and Shanghai. In accordance with his beliefs, he began his examination by checking the twelve energy meridians in my body. He placed his fingers gently on my wrist and then, to my surprise, continued to stare at his watch. Finally, he shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Weak heart,” he declared with great conviction.

My mouth dropped open. “Impossible,” I countered.

“Weak heart,” he repeated pointedly.

Surprised and concerned by his comment, I asked for further explanation. He noted that my heart beat only fifty-two times per minute, rather than the “normal” seventy-two to seventy-six times per minute.

“Oh,” I sighed with relief, “I’m a runner. I jog six miles every day and have done so for over twelve years. My cardiovascular system has been well exercised,” I added. “That’s why, at rest, my heart beats so slowly.” I had had a complete physical exam recently, including a stress test with an electrocardiogram, which determined that I had a well-toned and strong heart. I repeated what I had read, sprinkling my summary with additional information from my regular physician and the latest cardiovascular statistics.

“Now understand why weak heart,” he said authoritatively. This eastern physician then explained that because of my continuous running, my heart had been fatigued; thus, it was no longer capable of putting out seventy-six beats per minute.

“Ever watch dog?” he said. “Breathe very fast. Heart beats fast. Twelve years, maybe fifteen years, dead. Big whales. Hmm, breathe slowly. Heart slow. Easy. Can live one hundred years. More, maybe.” Then he explained that, in accordance with his “vision,” the heart can beat only a finite number of times in a lifetime. By running, breathing fast and making my heart beat fast, be maintained, I had been using up those beats unnecessarily and had exhausted my heart muscle as well.

The exact same evidence in the hands of two different doctors led to profoundly opposing conclusions. I did note that the Chinese physician was a lively man in his late eighties (perhaps he had been saving up his heartbeats). What did I want to believe? In this case, my intention was to be healthy. Although keenly aware that two cultures held different “truths” about the same data, I still wanted to find a meaningful way for me to select beliefs and behavior which would support my health. I resolved the dilemma by choosing to consult what I call my “nonverbal/nonconceptual resource within.” I would make a decision about running based on what felt good to me physiologically. I had pushed myself for years to make a certain quota of miles each week, sometimes ignoring fatigue and an internal inclination to ease my standard. I decided now I would run only as long as I felt energized to do so. I would gather new evidence to support my new criteria or new belief. Within weeks, I trimmed my mileage by almost fifty percent.

Our conclusions follow from our chosen biases (our chosen beliefs).

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