“The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess.”
Life is full of unexpected circumstances that happen independently and outside of us. We can refer to them objectively: “The market crashed”, “There was a personnel downsize and I got fired”, “There was a street protest and I was an hour late for work”. It is easier to recognize their cause and be able to point it out. However, sometimes these phenomena are much more complex to understand. For example, “This person doesn’t get me” or “My boss is against me”. The first examples are concrete, unlike the second ones where there is no clear distinction between what is truly happening and what I am interpreting. In either case, what is a fact is that I am uncomfortable because the rules of the game are changing.
Normally, when this happens our tendency is to try to find the cause: “Why did the sales fall?” “Why doesn’t my boss like me?” We venture looking for the motive that will confirm that, in fact, it is not our fault that we are failing. In other words, our attention and energy focuses on that which happened to us, or that is happening to us. This is a survival instinct response: If we are late to a meeting because on our way there was a strike in the street, our instinct tells us we must save our image. The most effective way is by explaining that we were late because of external reasons that were beyond us. Although, in the beginning we might feel we looked good, the fact is others see us as weak. What is happening is that we are losing control over our capacity to respond to the situation. That is, when something happens to us, the natural thing is to find the reason to be able to respond to it. It is useful to understand that the cause and what happened to us is something that is beyond our reach and beyond our control. It is something that, in fact, has already happened: “I was late to the meeting,” “I got fired,” “The market already crashed”.
Nevertheless, things happen temporarily and the phenomenon manifests and passes. To try and cling to what already happened is, then, a way not to open to future possibilities. It is a way to subtract intellectual, physical and energetic capacity to our way of responding. We stay hooked to what is happening. In a National Geographic article in which they interviewed survivors of different types of catastrophes, they discovered that one of their main characteristics was that they centered their attention and energy on surviving. They focused on what was coming next, instead of on why it happened.
Whether it takes us two years or thirty minutes to achieve it, the shift to accepting what happened and focusing on what we want to happen next, makes a profound difference in our ability to face challenges. Sometimes this can take much longer, for example, mourning the loss of a loved one as opposed to having a momentary conflict with our spouse.
This change in our focus is said easily but it’s hard to accomplish. Archetypically speaking, we can observe this in the book The Hero’s Journey, where Joseph Campbell recounts what heroes have overcome in their lives. It is a journey where out of control circumstances change the way in which the character -you and I –lives their lives. The hero starts a downfall; as if falling into a hole, rolling until reaching a moment of absolute darkness: the dark night of the soul, the author would say. It is a moment where our knowledge is useless in understanding what happened to us. Everything is meaningless. We can’t understand it. We don’t feel effective enough to be able to face it. The dark night of the soul appears, figuratively speaking, as a monster, as a being of our shadow, someone who comes to confront us. But in turn, we come to understand there is a way out. And it is precisely our capacity to understand what happened, what frees us to experience it in a different way, shifting our focus and allowing us to come out of darkness. In most cases, this shadow takes the form of a teacher, or of someone who knows there is a way out, because they have traveled this path. So we then start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. We start to understand that we don’t control what happens to us, but we do control how we approach it: “This happened and it affected me in this way”, rather than “They did this to me.” We are not what happens to us; but rather who we are is reflected in how we respond to circumstances. Joseph Campbell explains that when the hero finally comes out of darkness, he or she emerges at a higher level of develolpment. This experience has allowed the character to become a better person. In this way, it is not important what others do to us, but what we do with what others do to us. From an Integral perspective this is called Transcend and Include. It is not about forgetting, it has nothing to do with denial. On the contrary, it is about an absolute acceptance with heart, mind, and body– our whole being. Accepting that it happened and then asking myself: what do I want to do with it?