Sunday, July 22, 2012

Learning to Let Go

Dear Nobody in Particular,

            Today’s letter is the 50th one I’ve written. I began this blog 2 years ago in an effort to reach out to others and share what I’ve learned over this time and how I’ve managed to improve my life. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been in that regard, but a few people have remarked that the letters have helped and so I will continue to write them. While I do believe that much of the change I have undergone is the cumulative effect of various aspects (eating better, daily yoga/mindfulness practices, etc), the single facet that has helped me the most has been learning to let go. This has been difficult for me because I am a particular person. I am regimented and like to have most of my day and its activities planned out. And while I do think I’m much better than I once was, I know I still have a lot to work on in this regard. One of the Post-It notes I keep on my mirror (see “Messages on a Mirror”) is two words: Let Go. Just about every time I step into that bathroom my eyes gravitate toward it immediately, because subconsciously I know it’s the one I need to work on the most. And I’m glad that I have been chipping away at this personal problem, as it allowed me to experience one of the greatest moments of my life about a week ago.

            Erin and I got to Georgia last Sunday evening. It was too late for a hike, so we waited until Monday. We both love hiking in the woods and while there we try to go every day. For whatever reason, we didn’t go that morning and instead headed out for the trails around 2:30 in the afternoon. The sun was shining and an azure ocean of sky dotted with fluffy cloud islands ranged over our heads. We were sauntering through the forest at a rather leisurely pace when we decided to sit down by the river and just take it in. Outside of the babbling water and chatter of birds, it was so silent and peaceful. After a few minutes, Erin asked me if I had heard thunder. I did hear a rumbling sound, but I assumed it was from a car passing over the old fashioned covered bridge that crosses the river about 1/2 of a mile up the trail. We continued to sit and listen, enjoying the experience together. A few minutes later, another rumble occurred and we both heard a slow tapping on the canopy overhead.

            Eventually the light tapping became a drumming. We could see the large raindrops landing in the river and Erin suggested we keep going. We left the river behind and slowly made our ascent up the path. The rain continued to beat against us, but it was manageable for the moment. Then, perhaps halfway between our spot by the river and the bridge, the firmament opened up and the drumming rain transformed into an outright deluge. Huge thunderclaps rocked our ears as the storm drew closer and we began to sprint down the path seeking refuge under the bridge. We couldn’t have gone more than 100 yards down the path before we were completely drenched. It was raining so hard that it was difficult to see ahead of us. The beads of water that slid off our brows kept hanging over our eyes, further obscuring our vision. Coming down a steep hill full of rocks and roots, I somehow managed to lose my footing and both feet came up from underneath me and I slammed down hard onto the ground. I popped up immediately and grabbed Erin’s hand and told her I was fine. We finally arrived under the bridge and almost instantaneously began laughing our heads off.

               Everything was soaked. It was like taking a shower or jumping into a pool fully clothed.  Even the contents of my backpack were doused. Luckily, our digital camera had had some protection from its soft-sided case, but my cell phone along with every other piece of paper (trail maps, stamps and envelopes for more letters to family, etc) was wet and needed to dry out. We spread our stuff out to dry while the storm continued to pound the Earth all around us. The peals of thunder were absolutely monstrous. I’m not sure if it was due to the elevation (this part of Georgia is in the Appalachian foothills and it's about 2, 300 feet above sea level), but the thunderstorm seemed as if it was hanging only a few hundred feet above us. Erin was beginning to shiver due to the breeze that gained speed with the storm, so I pulled her close to me and wrapped her in my arms to keep her warm. We both stood gazing outward at the river and the storm, enraptured by its sublime beauty. I began to watch for the flashes of lightning to count the seconds between the bolt and the thunder to see if the storm was moving away from us, and as I gazed out into the vista my focus changed from watching for the flash to the taking in the scene in its entirety. And that’s when it hit me…

Our view from the bridge
            Though it didn’t last very long, for several minutes I disappeared. In fact, everything pretty much disintegrated and fell away. There was no dichotomy of my subjectivity and the objective outside world. It was one and the same. There were no problems, no thoughts, no stress, just the world and all of life captured in a moment. And I was part of it. At one point I closed my eyes and let my other senses take over as I took several deep breaths, grateful for the moment and its cathartic revelation. It may sound crazy to some, but it’s perhaps the closest thing I’ve had to a mystical experience. Only after I came out of this brief trance did I realize what had happened. For that singular moment—regardless of how long it lasted in real time—I and life were one. The profundity was palpable, almost like I was standing on the axis mundi, the place where the sacred and the profane come into the closest contact. But I also realize that even this is an illusion. The profound and the pedestrian are only matters of perception, but I wasn’t able to see through this until I had completely let go.

            For as much as I’ve counseled others in past letters to live in the present moment, it’s tremendously difficult to do. Our minds are so full of background noise—mental static—that even when we do our best to be present, there’s always some thought pulling us into the past or future. It could be work, relationships, or any number of things, but any thought distracts us from the true essence that is always around us, just waiting to be discovered. When the storm began to ease up, I finally let Erin out of my embrace and the thoughts began to emerge. The first thought that really popped into my head after witnessing all that wonder was how it would have never happened to me before I had learned to let go. The old me would have been flat out irate to have been rained on and it probably would have ruined our hike. Instead, I found myself laughing at our predicament and grateful to be stuck with Erin, neither of us with a care or worry in the world in that moment. The moment was perfect just as it was. It didn’t need to be changed, labeled, or altered in any other way. By learning to let go and accepting the situation as it arose, I discovered that we have everything to gain, NIP. Erin and I will probably live out our lives and never have another moment like that again, which makes the one we experienced all the more precious.

            We ended up having to stay under the bridge for half an hour. Those thirty minutes will forever be etched in my memory. Erin and I spent much of the time in silence, letting life whisper in the wind instead. When we did speak, almost all of our sentences were punctuated by laughter. I even celebrated the moment by publicly declaring our love on a wooden beam that supported the underside of the bridge. When we finally left, it was still raining but not nearly as hard. The thunder and lightning had dissipated and we made our way back down the way we came, still smiling about what had just transpired. It was certainly a lesson in letting go, whether letting go of preconceived notions of what a perfect hike should be like, the potential anger pointlessly directed at the rain, or any other idea or attitude that could have ruined an exceptional moment. We always have a choice, NIP, even in the way we view the world/life and our place in it. Learning to let go of those thoughts that only inhibit our potential for spontaneous happiness might not be easy to do (it certainly takes constant cultivation for me), but it is possible. In fact, it may be easier than you think. Though it may seem that we lose something by relinquishing control, the truth is we have everything to gain. To be emptied out, paradoxically enough, means to be filled completely. Filled with something that is wholly other yet equally the same. It is life. It is being. It just is.

Learn to let go, NIP. For me, it has made all the difference…

- Ryan   

Monday, July 9, 2012

Embrace the Ethos

What’s up, NIP?

            I hope your summer months are off to a good start and that you’re getting some time to spend with family and friends. Many of you probably just did, in fact, last week. When I was poolside grilling burgers on Independence Day, I really reflected on what it means to be an American. Not out of patriotic pride or anything, more along the lines of putting my life into perspective and what I’ve manage to change for the better over these last few years. As my nieces swam in the pool and I listened to the sizzle of the grill, a thought kept coming to me—how much have these changes in my life been brought about by our cultural context? A few letters ago, I mentioned a neuroscience book I had read titled The Brain That Changes Itself; one of the appendices in the back of the book was about “the culturally modified brain.” If—as current neuroscience suggests—we are what we think and constantly devote our attentions toward, then perhaps part of my personal transformation has been influenced by the American ethos. And the more I wrestled with this notion as the day wore on, the more I became convinced that the initial step to real success in our lives is to embrace our ethos.

            The American ethos is not easy to define. There are so many varying underlying beliefs to our culture and society that it’s difficult to single out any crucial aspect. We’ve always been a culture defined to some degree by our individualism, but equally tempered by our ideal of the public/body politic /national community. Undergirding both of these aspects, however, is the notion that any person can make something of him/herself in this country. That as Americans we can always reinvent ourselves if and when necessary. That we can become who we want to be. Our ethos encourages all of us to dream and to pursue those dreams with fervor. But often something happens to many of us along the way—we stumble, we lose hope, we give up the dream...and it is precisely in these moments that we must urge ourselves to press onward. What many people often lose sight of is that part of this same ethos is our resilience, our instilled ability to pick ourselves back up and begin again.

            If you want to be resilient, NIP, regardless of what your individual dream may be, it takes three Cs: courage, conviction, and commitment. Courage is the first step because without it we can never get back up when we’ve fallen down. Courage is the ability to scream YES to life when it wants to kick you in the teeth and growl NO while we’re down. Every single second is a chance to say yes, to begin again, to reinvent ourselves, to become a better person, but it takes courage to do so. Once we’re standing tall and ready to face life, the second component is conviction. Not just any conviction, though; the conviction is the same for each and every one of us—that we are worthy. We must believe in ourselves first and foremost, because if we don’t believe in ourselves others will not believe in us. We must also see ourselves in a positive light, deserving of whatever rewards we receive for our efforts. To doubt our own capacity for change is a fundamental error that many of us make from time to time, so to counteract that doubt we must ardently believe in ourselves and our dreams. The third step is without question the most difficult: commitment. Commitment is necessary because if we don’t pursue our dream whole-heartedly nothing will ever change for the better. The first two steps are mental in some sense because those battles are fought and won in the mind; commitment is transforming those thoughts into action. Only with action does our external world change, whether it’s trying to lose weight, changing careers, or whatever other dream you are trying to pursue. But if we are committed to our dreams with a sense of purpose and are always trying to move forward, we find our resiliency only grows stronger over time.

            In today’s political debates one of the phrases that the pundits like to harp on is “American exceptionalism.” I personally don’t think that Americans or America is exceptional across the board. There are many facets of our culture that greatly disturb me. But if there were one aspect that I think we are exceptional and does shine through, it’s our ability to become who we want to be as people. The freedoms we have can be exercised in a way that really does foster “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To me, though, the key word in that whole phrase is “pursuit” (notice it doesn’t say guarantee). The pursuit is all there is. The struggle is all there is. Life is not meant to be easy, which is precisely why it’s so rewarding when we strive to do our best in all endeavors. Success—like happiness—isn’t guaranteed. But if we try our best to integrate the three Cs of courage, conviction, and commitment into our daily living, our individual resiliency builds; minor setbacks become that much easier to take in stride, and in time might not even be noticed at all…

Throw your arms open wide and embrace our ethos, NIP.

- Ryan

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