Readers, I was away last week. I meant to post something for you before I left, but then - well, then life. Life demanded something else. Life demanded I take the 9th Grader to the doctor the morning we were to depart via airplane for a long weekend. The doctor’s visit resulted in the need to pick up antibiotics and probiotics and conbiotics and all the biotics. And then I had to pack, because I hate packing so much that I had put it off until the morning of the trip and then had to use the morning of the trip to get the biotics. Thus, no post. Which, I’ll admit, I figured no one would notice. (Cue tiny violin playing in the key of self-pity. Poor me, writing into the void.)
But then, just at the moment I needed it, serendipitously, I heard from several sources about people who hardly know me, or only know of me, some who have never met me, who read my blog, and I felt so GREAT! I felt uplifted and inspired.
Which brings me to my topic of today, avoiding the hell realm as a strategy for success. Or if not for success, for happier living.
What is the hell realm? Well, it’s that place I go to when I read the news. And I know I’m not alone. I know this because not only is my former shrink easily as upset as I am about our current president’s violent and repulsive rhetoric and behavior, but so is my accountant, my cousin, and my esthetician (yes, I do have one and she is fabulous), to touch on a few people.
Anyhoo, I decided that when I walked the dog yesterday, a beautiful, albeit disturbingly warm for February in upstate New York day, I would skip the pundit podcast I’ve been listening to (Pod Save America, if you want a really partisan take on current events delivered with humor by guys young enough to be my children). I decided to skip that podcast in favor of something more conducive to peace of mind. A dharma talk, for example, by a leading Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein. I figured I’d ramble along the water line with Milo and let him sniff to his heart’s content and get uplifted and inspired to be a better me.
Next thing I knew, Sylvia Boorstein was talking about her struggle to be positive in the current political situation. And how anguishing over the news puts one in the hell realm. And thus it goes, throughout the day, one is in and out of the hell realm. She said, as I walked along, looking for uplift, that these are troubling times. Contentious times. She said, when people ask her how she keeps her mood up, she says her mood is continually affronted by current events. Her advice is to pay attention to moments when she feels uplifted. Because whatever the mind dwells on by that it is shaped, according to the Buddha, as well as to Daniel Kahneman and other research psychologists at Princeton and elsewhere.
But there are moments of joy. Those come when one takes one’s attention back and focuses on the present and maybe notices someone nice doing or saying something nice. Or one might spend an hour or so at a concert, enjoying the music. The world is the same afterwords as it was before, but you got out of the hell realm and enjoyed yourself for that period. I will say this, that Sylvia Boorstein’s mention of the hell realm reminded me of Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist As A young Man describing Hell as separation from others. If I remember correctly - which I may well not, since I read that book during my Junior Year of college. But this idea that there is a possibility of realms we can inhabit struck me as hopeful. While there is a hell realm, there is also a not-hell realm. These realms exist simultaneously, and where your brain goes, thither into that realm goeth you.
The point being duofold, like that two-layer cotton and wool long underwear I used to wear in the late Eighties. The escape from the hell realm is those moments of joy - that’s one layer. The second is to realize, comprehend, grok that your anguish will not save the world. This is a common type of magical thinking employed by the anxious. I ought to know, being an anxious person. And I do know. I am telling you. Part of what sustains anxiety is magical thinking that if you worry enough, you will finally solve the problem. But this is untrue. Thus - magical thinking. Your anguish - my anguish - is simply one response to the world, and it’s a response that doesn’t do anyone any good, least of all yourself. So try to let go of it, because that state of anguish is the hell realm.
Ever since the election I have had this weird delicacy in dealing with others. By delicacy I mean an instinct to be polite. My road rage has diminished. My reflex to wonder about how any stranger I encounter voted on Nov. 8 has been tempered with this need to be polite. Maybe because I suspect that in my circles, there are many bruised people going about their daily business. And maybe because I think that if I do happen to cross paths with an angry person who voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named or others of His ilk, I had better leave a good impression. Just a little doubt sown in his or her mind about the whining liberal snowflakes flurrying around him or her. Seems like a good idea, don’t you think?
That said, I did flip off an obnoxious cab driver who honked at me in a merge onto I-90 yesterday. So - oops. Try is not the same as succeed. Except when the trying is a success in itself. In that case, oh boy am I successful these days.