I was walking across the courtyard between buildings at the psychiatric institution where I work yesterday. Several people who have lived here for many years sat on benches under shady trees and we waved hello to each other, enjoying the beautiful day. Over the years I've been honored to have many people tell me about their lives. Like most people, I have felt that our life stories largely define us. The story of my life was my life. I have felt that the stories people told me about their lives- the childhood experiences, relationships, successes and failures, health and illness, good fortune and bad fortune- told me who they were: I was riveted by the story. I wanted to do whatever I could to help people have a happy life story. I wanted to do whatever I could to also have a happy life story myself.
But more and more I realize that life is not a story. Life is not primarily a string of experiences in time. I realize my attention has been captivated by and confined to concerns about the life situation, while life itself has been largely taken for granted, overlooked, and ignored.
Eckhart Tolle makes the distinction between life and the life situation. We all know what life situations are, we all know what the story of our lives is: but what is life? Not even the greatest scientist, theologian, or philosopher can say what life is. We are alive, we are life, but no one can really pin down exactly what this life that we are is.
After years of paying a lot of attention to my life situation, I am now beginning to pay more attention to this life that I am. This life that has nothing to do with any story or situation; this present life can be felt, sensed, known directly, inhabited, noticed, attended to, realized. Thinking about the life that I am at this very instant takes me away from it. Every day I am enjoying being more deeply and consciously this life that I am, without thinking about it.
As I put less weight on the particulars of my own story, I am noticing a shift in my experience of the people at the psychiatric institution. Whether the story of someone's life seemed overall "good" or "bad" had seemed terribly important. The goal in life was to have a happy story. If the story was unhappy, that meant it needed to be fixed. As for those at the opposite end of the story spectrum, those celebrities who seemed to have fairy tale success stories- beauty, wealth, talent, accomplishment, recognition- I was, along with so many others, many pressed up against the "window-pane" looking in longingly through the magazine and television pictures, feeling that my hum-drum life was pale by comparison.
So it comes as a shock every day that this life that I feel myself to be in this instant is an endless wonder of vibrancy. The story, the situation, is no longer the be-all and end-all of my life. The particulars of the life situation are no longer my primary focus when I talk with people at the hospital. I sense the life of the person I am talking with, I sense who they are apart from their story.
There is a shift in attention. Attention had once been constantly plotting how to improve the story of my life, how to improve my life situation, and how to improve the life situations of the people I work with. I still want a happy life story and I work to achieve positive situations in my life. I still wish to help people at the hospital to improve their life situations. But attention is drawn more deeply every day into the wordless wonder of being alive, the wonder of life itself independent of the life story. The life force is inherently joyful and it doesn't need to win the lottery to be happy. There is a deeper happiness available in every instant that has nothing to do with the circumstances in one's life.
When I said hello to the people in the courtyard, the inherent joy of being was present as the life within myself and as the life within the people who live here at the hospital. Our life stories don't separate us from the joy of being and our life stories don't separate us from each other.
A Window is Where the Wall is Absent
The life impulse to express and to connect arises in me and in all of us. This blog is a celebration of these life impulses. Please feel free to join in the conversation or to just visit. There is a Family Photo Album beneath the posts so you can "meet" my family and I. Welcome!
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- Distinguishing interpretation from actuality
- "You either love what's broken or you don't love."...
- Thinking doesn't solve problems, it creates them.
- "Mastery of life is the opposite of control."
- The Background
- Not knowing
- Touching peace
- Trust is true power
- Life in a psychiatric institution
- ▼ April (11)