The dialectic of everyday life

keeping it simpleHappy New Year!

I’ve often considered the break afforded by the Solstice / Christmas / New Year celebrations as the one time of year I can truly ‘break’. And having been off work for the best part of 3 weeks, I can honestly say I have needed that time to unfold: to truly rest. The time also allowed my now traditional ritual to reflect upon the outgoing year and plan for the new. For some reason, this year’s review was one of the most straightforward ones I have done since I started the exercise in 2012.

Maybe this is because I am living closer to my values and aspirations than ever? In some ways my aim is closer to the target each year. I sense this is part of it. I believe it is also because I am happier with a more fluid approach to my life: to respond to change rather than resist is. Its a moving target, so I know I can never expect to hit the bullseye.

Each year, my review process gives me 3 or 4 “rules to live by”; and it also throws up one word to hold in the front of my mind. Previous years have seen words such as ‘trust’, or ‘surrender’. This year, the word I have chosen is ‘simplicity’.

At the beginning of the break, I became aware of an anxiety. I know this anxiety, it often visits when I break from my normal structure and enter a period of space. I’m thankful I know this of myself; and I am thankful I notice what I habitually turn to in order to distract myself. I am even more thankful that I have a practice that allows me to sit with, tolerate, soothe the restlessness that courses through my veins. It is far from easy, but I am building confidence and faith that this is the only path for me…and I’ve tried a few solutions believe me!

I share this in the opening of this post to provide some context to the ‘dialectic’ that often play out in everyday life. Somewhat similar to polarities, of which if you are a regular reader of my blog you know I am a fan, dialectical thinking offers an ability to look at an object from multiple perspectives, and to arrive at a reconciliation through their contemplation. Ideas that have been on my mind these past few weeks are the poles of freedom-responsibility, and rest-action.

I was walking to Waitrose with my wife on New Years Eve and I sighed “ahh, Monday morning…this time next week I will be back to work”. She asked me how that was. I replied “its okay, but it doesn’t feel as easy as ‘this’, as now”. She asked me what I meant, and it came down to how I feel I have freedom when I am on leave; and how I lose that when I start my working life. It can feel like I enter a bubble each Monday morning, and something of the ‘aliveness’ when on a break gets lost. This past week, I have been contemplating why this is so; what do I take on that means I lose ‘freedom’? And I know its related to my childhood belief that I am ‘responsible’…for everyone, for everything. Its more and more subtle because of my work in therapy and through my therapeutic training, but its my default shield against anxiety. When I get anxious, I get busy and I take control.

Freedom and responsibility are well aired in the existential traditions of counselling and psychotherapy. We naturally aspire to freedom, but freedom comes with responsibilities. As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, individual freedom of consciousness is humanity’s gift—as well as its curse, since with it comes the responsibility to shape our own lives. My role as a therapist who works with such an underpinning is to help raise client awareness as to where they are free, what choices they have…to take responsibility for those choices, and there consequences. And I see a range in where people are in that process: some spend many years needing to develop awareness, to see the gaps where they DO have choices. No, we can’t control life…but we can control our response to it: we are indeed response-able. And this takes me to another facet. If a client is not able to see their freedom, to see the choice points that arise, it can be tempting (and very tempting at times) to accept the invitation to do the choosing for a client, to take on the responsibility of the work.

I was meditating on one of the lojong slogans this morning (one of 59 practice phrases encouraged on the buddhist path of the Bodhisattva), “Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence”, and this where the second of the dialectics I mentioned above arose: rest-action. You can read more about this slogan on Judy Lief’s excellent commentary, but here is brief summation of what she says:

“In this weary striving world, rest is hard to come by. A luxury. From time to time we simply flop from exhaustion, but in general we don’t have many chances to slow down or to stop the momentum as our life flies by. Especially when we think of cultivating kindness, and the activities of a bodhisattva or compassion warrior, we think “Lights, camera, action!” We don’t think “Rest!” But bodhisattva activities are not like regular activities—they come from a place of rest.”

Maybe you can see how the two pairings of freedom-responsibility, and rest-action relate? For me there is contemplation as to how I maintain a perspective of freedom and an ability to rest; so that I don’t take on responsibility and act from that place. And, to do this to serve my clients in two ways: to allow them to pick up the work and develop response-ability; and to model a more spacious and less restless attitude to living well.

The way Hegal encouraged us to consider the dialectics at play in our lives was to the consider the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis and then find resolution at a higher level of truth (synthesis). The Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way encourages a “not too tight, not too loose” approach to life i.e. to avoid the extremes. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as once saying “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. Whichever way we view the appearance of opposites, extremes, polarities there is a common understanding that to know their existence is incredibly powerful…

And to then contemplate them is even more so. Certainly for me, noticing their energies has helped me arrive at the need for simplicity. To strip back my life to find more space, to find more rest so that wiser and more compassionate action can arise. 

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