“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us
what we need to know.” ― Pema Chödrön
As usual, Pema nails it.
Meditation teacher Richard Miller calls it out in a different way – degraded wisdom. The way I understand this is life wants us to be whole and so it gives us information and prompts on a regular basis so we can move toward wholeness.
But we don’t always listen (insert snorting laughter at the understatement). We dismiss, avoid, or forget these prompts. We override them. We stuff them away.
And then that wisdom degrades into all sorts of not so straight-forward or pleasant attempts to get our attention: maybe physical symptoms, trills of anxiety, Netflix binges, taking on projects we don’t really want to do that become huge time monsters, feelings of being off or away from ourselves… you know these feelings. You get it.
An example: The impulse “Don’t give your writing to that person, it’s not safe” is overridden because you want his approval or to impress her – whatever the reason, you send along your writing. Said person never responds. Initially this radio silence convinces you that your writing sucks and so you never work on the piece again. Then it convinces you that you can’t trust anybody EVER to give you the feedback you need and so you never ever give your writing to anybody again… including editors who might want to buy it.
Another example: The feeling you have that you need a rest, an unplugged vacation, before you begin a big new project gets overpowered by your old story that if you don’t say yes to every single freelance assignment, you will starve. So you take the next assignment without resting – even though it feels heavy and cranky – and then you get truly sick halfway through and can’t meet the deadline. Your client gets pissy, and there go your chances of ever getting hired by them again. You start to believe you’re getting too old to take on big projects and that somehow translates into you lowering your rates and…
Oh how adorable we humans are, not listening to ourselves and all the wisdom available to us. Who would blame us? Listening takes time and requires practice and patience. All three of those are (we proudly claim) in short supply.
Of course, letting degraded wisdom run your life is a lousy way to live your life. You can turn away so long and so resolutely, you lose the thread of your life. You can lose who you are here to become.
Here’s the good news: it’s never too late to start. You can find home so naturally if you only keep it simple.
Back away from spiritual perfectionism. You’ll never listen to these inner promptings and act on them ALL the time. So please don’t make this a project for a spiritual Pinterest board. A kinder approach would be to set aside a few minutes before bed with a journal in hand and and ask yourself, “What needs to be heard?” or “What am I willing to become aware of now?” Keep your hand moving by writing anything – blah blah blah’s great! – for four minutes. Or ask yourself these questions toward the end of long run or swim or in relaxation after a yoga class. I often check in this way at the end of my meditation practice.
Don’t expect what comes to be spectacular or even very interesting. Do not override “Call my sister” because you don’t know why or it doesn’t feel life changing. Value the info you get enough to act on their behalf.
Tame the hungry mob. If you’ve been turning away from your wisdom for a long time, it can feel overwhelming when you first open the door for it. It can feel like a hungry mob clamoring for bread – pick me, feed me. Richard Miller advises that you ask everybody to line up and take their turn. Which works, but only if you’re fairly consistent in continuing to listen and act on what comes up. Otherwise the mob gets pissed – not good.
Forget the llama farm. If something big or out of character pops up for you, check in with a trusted friend or mentor before taking any action on it. When it comes to my life, I have to check in with myself on a daily basis. And it mainly has to do with the little things. For example, it isn’t that I need to move to Big Sur and start a llama farm but rather, I need to stop pushing myself so much and I need to stop being on the computer when Bob comes home from work. In other words, I’m constantly up against painfully familiar messages that ask me to humbly grow rather than dramatically change. It’ll be similar for you.
Don’t miss the point. Like most concepts of the inner world, degraded wisdom is a distinction whose purpose is to help you see and work with what gets in your way of being whole, being creative, and living true. The distinction itself is only useful because of what points you to do. A road map is not the territory. Don’t worry about doing this correctly or making it a big ding dang do. Instead, take to heart that paying attention to your inner life with regularity, curiosity, and kindness will pay off in big and surprising ways. And all it requires from you is a bit of time and patience. That sounds like a great ROI to me!
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