Embodied Life™ Newsletter Archive

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First World Problems and 'Non-Comparing Mind' from September 2018 newsletter

September 20, 2018

Early in my Feldenkrais practice I was confounded by a paradoxical observation about pain and suffering. Sometimes I would work with someone who was struggling to regain function after a debilitating stroke or some other life-altering situation. My next client might be someone who was feeling devastated by a comparatively minor challenge. My judgments would arise based on some kind of "objective" view of the degree of challenge and suffering. My students taught me how unhelpful it was to compare suffering.

Back in 1978, I had a session with a young man, who lost the use of his arms and legs in a car accident. My next session was with a woman who was inconsolable because of her objections to her daughters wedding plans. A part of me wanted to have her visit with the young man, push his wheel chair and hear his story. At the beginning my heart was closed to her grief, my mind full of judgments. I needed to learn how to listen deeply to her experience with care, openness and to unconditionally respect her life situation. I learned how hard this was for me and I saw clearly just how unhelpful it is to compare suffering.

Over the next 40 years, through experiencing the enormous diversity of joys and sorrows in the unpredictable unfolding of life, I learned gradually (and am still learning) to listen more deeply to my own heart, my own thoughts as well as those of my students. It seems trite to say that my students have been my teachers, yet there is no false modesty or hesitation in acknowledging this fact. Bearing witness to the full range of experience, what I call "presencing", with love, the joys and sorrows of everyday life is the great, ever-growing, ever-demanding lesson of this school called Life.

Each of us has our own very private experience of pain and suffering. The existential experience of pain is so very personal that comparison is meaningless. Paradoxically, I also notice that sometimes, with deep listening, the right tone, respectfulness and sensitive timing, it can be extremely helpful to use comparative thinking to assist people in gaining perspective on their life situation. The old expression "there but by the grace of God goes I" can be helpful and even liberating.

Currently, I often use the expression "First World Problem" to remind myself and others that many of the anxieties experienced by people like me - well fed, comfortably housed, safely ensconced within the dominant culture - are self-created suffering. How can it feel so devastating when our computers crash, when we don't get the new job that we seek, when we feel hurt by a rejection or encounter the challenges of finding a new home? How does one compare the situation of a homeless family or a refugee from war with a financially secure person seeking a new home and struggling to sell their own? In an unfortunate neurological tendency, when we are not truly aware, our brains are biased toward responding to everyday challenges as if they are life threatening. Our bodies can carry everyday disappointments, rejections and obstacles as if we are literally confronting a wild animal. So painful, so unfortunate!

Over the past few months I have been engaged in the distinctly first world challenge of selling and buying a new home. Through the ups and downs of deals falling apart at the last moment, the difficulty in finding a home that feels just right, plus various unexpected obstacles, I have had the opportunity to "walk the talk" of my years of practice.

There is a sense of ungrounded-ness that comes from not having a home. Finding our "ground in ungrounded-ness" is an essential skill for living this life well. As many wise teachers say, we are always in a fundamentally insecure situation. We never know what is coming next. Our minds try to create the illusions of security yet deep inside we know this is an illusion. Everyone we love will suffer and die, including ourselves. How do we truly live with that! Alan Watts expressed this perfectly in his exquisitely titled book, "The Wisdom of Insecurity".

Being grounded in our physical bodies and on this earth is a central embodied practice and extremely helpful for living in uncertainty. Facing the reality to our total life situation requires standing up to our utter lack of control with great fortitude. Our embodiment literally gives us the feet to stand on and a bottom to sit on so that, supported by the great earth, we learn to show up, more and more often, in our lives.

Awareness is the key to noticing and unwinding the thoughts that produce mental anxiety and contracted bodies. Noticing, welcoming and being present with unhelpful thoughts and feelings is the key to freeing ourselves from life-defeating patterns. One of the main purposes and gifts of awareness practice is to prepare us for both the truly life altering losses that we will all encounter, as well as the more ordinary life challenges. Always, in each situation, there are more and less skillful ways of being in that situation. Judging oneself and others is a common, unskillful way of adding fuel to the flame of suffering. Kindness, humor and authentic acceptance are like soothing balms that help us to navigate our choices more effectively.

This term "first world problem" is helpful for creating perspective and for reminding oneself of "reality". Bringing warm-hearted, clear awareness to the unhelpful thoughts is curative. Noticing the thoughts, feelings, sensations with clarity and care, while including all aspects of the external situation, brings great relief. This also functions to return one to a sense wholeness and connectedness. I am so grateful for the power and reliability of this kind of awareness. In one sense, the whole path of Self-realization, is learning to return to the "larger space" in which we view the temporary circumstances of everyday life from a larger, more timeless perspective. The challenge is to enter that larger field without discounting the pain of one's current situation.

Recently, I have come to see an unhelpful consequence of the term "first world problem" - an unintentional discounting of the very real, in the moment at least, sense of desperation that can arise when one's life plans are thwarted. I notice that I sometimes fall into the unhelpful trap of minimizing my own challenges and judging my struggle, as if I do not have the right to my painful experience because others have an "objectively" more tragic situation.

First world problems come from having choices. Unlike having bombs exploding in your village or not being able to feed your children, these are of a different order. Still, when these moments arise, the grip in the belly is real, the accelerated heart not imagined. Friendliness toward these reactions, without either rejecting them or getting hijacked by them, is essential.

A few of the profound lessons of these months are: 1) it is unhelpful to belittle one's experience through comparative thoughts, 2) it can be very helpful to gain perspective through seeing from a larger point of view, 3) rather than security, look to uncover the ground within ungrounded-ness and 4) learning to be aware in caring, holistic, and embodied ways is an indescribably freeing and unsurpassable gift.

(By the way, We found a new home, we hope! Linda and I are in the process of buying a home on Cape Cod that might be ours in about one month. We hope that the right buyers of Sophia's Sanctuary will appear very soon! Life unfolds..........)

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