An old Buddhist joke says: The bad news is that you are falling helplessly through space with nothing to hang onto and no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.
I’m a planner.
Constant vigilance describes me well. I instinctively plan my life and I’m pretty decent at it, relying on methods and ways of thinking refined over decades. As I’ve aged, the degree of vigilance has become automatic. I deliberate about my activities in the same familiar manner: how much time will it take, where will my next meal be coming from, do I have enough, what do I need and will I be comfortable? It’s all about comfort and security.
I am neither compulsive nor a visionary who can conjure a challenging and distant objective and by some magic of reverse engineering always seem to know what exactly to do to realize that vision. I know people who do that, or at least say they do. But no, I’m a shorter-term planner and a slightly smaller-scale visionary. I am certainly able to see farther than the immediate future. I’ve selected personal goals that took years of perseverance, delayed gratification, considerable expense, concentrated labor and sustained motivation. That’s how one gets an advanced degree, a professional license and long-term employment. I’ve managed a home, a family, divorce, multiple relocations, career changes, launching a daughter and deaths in the family. And all of that probably makes me more like everyone else than different.
By planning, I also mean a capacity to see the parts of a situation, looking from different angles at personal or logistical challenges of any scale and turning them into something manageable. Having a sense of security in the practical preparedness for whatever challenges may arise is what usually motivates me. And those unexpected challenges do arise, don’t they? Life is always taking unexpected turns.
This is the territory of my attention. I manage to take care of myself. In fact, there have been times when I was so focused on taking care of myself that I neglected to notice, let alone act on behalf of others around me who might have needed some of that caring.
Generally, I prepare for everything or anything that might go wrong: whether it’s a vacation or a trip to the grocery store, it’s my default mode. I’ve also learned that one cannot plan for nor insure against every scenario. So a degree of letting go is required. But in every act of trying to account for everything, I turned myself into someone more solid (i.e. immutable) than I really am. In trying to remove uncertainty, I also removed a little of the spontaneity of the dance. At times I created a more fixed identity, brittle, reified, less adaptable to change, foreclosing opportunities of alternate scenarios that may be just as enriching, if not more so, than anything I had so carefully planned. I have created a considerable amount of suffering by simply being so attached to outcomes and losing sight of the richness, the negotiation with change that inevitably occurs along the way to those outcomes.
I have fought uncertainty and all that it promises for my entire life; the uncertainties of personal disclosure among friends, the greater commitments and intimacies implied by such friendships; resisting financial risk (buying property or investments) and any number of other similarly juicy opportunities. I believed my own manager hype: that I could exert sufficient control to avoid true derailment, control over my relationships, my emotions and my reactions. I was, after all, merely responding in accordance with the major function of the ego. I was just taking it to an extreme. I decided who I was and became so satisfied with that person that my actions became further reinforcements of a pre-determined personality rather than open explorations of reality. This is a self-induced trance. We are all in some trance of our own construction to a greater or lesser degree. Sooner or later, the trance is guaranteed to have an abrupt encounter with a wall.
What fit my idea of self and filled my need for nourishment were the behaviors I naturally chose, with little consciousness of my own trance-induced bias. This is the normal operation of our minds in articulating and preserving our chosen—or only known—identity, narrowly defined as if it has solidity. In my case, it has all been about security.
Not that such a bias is always a bad thing. When life is good, we want it to continue. And it’s completely natural to settle more deeply into that shell of comfort to the point of complacency. Have I been complacent? Yes, I have. I have been a physical therapist for many years. And even though I worked in a delivery system that put some restriction on the range of practice, there was still plenty of room for professional growth. And yet, I reached a point when I knew I was not growing. I was becoming complacent. In my primary personal relationship I became complacent by trying to manage it, avoiding difficult or possibly contentious subjects. I had grand ideas and intentions of being a more effective climate activist. Yet I could not bring myself to let go of the comfort and security of s steady paycheck.
Over time, restricting my field of awareness to the domain of my assumed, heavily conditioned self-perception as a responsible, relatively stable, intelligent, independent, creative, happily partnered, spiritually-inclined, social activist restricted the possibility of alternate lives, narrowing the field of possibility, not to mention other less desirable qualities, as I quietly age. I wasn’t looking for anything more or different…until the “happily-partnered” feature came to an end.