(This post is quite personal, so I’m keeping the details pretty vague. Also, for those few of my friends who know what I’m referring to – please don’t take this post as self-blaming. This post is about growth, and change. I’m not looking to assign or absolve blame for myself or anyone I mention.)
This post is the result of a long, complicated meditation, throughout most of which I was pretty unhappy. And then it just ended, and I am happy, so before I forget, I want to write about it. The meditation is about planning, control, and awareness.
I used to be (in some ways, still am) a creature of control. It turns out that there are Good Ways of Doing Things. If you pay your bills on time, you don’t get late fees. If you go to college, you are (more likely to) get a better job than if you don’t. If you say please and thank you to someone, they will be nicer to you. My brain would take these Good Ways and try to apply them to every situation. Unconsciously, I would convince myself that there was a “good” way of handling situations and that if I just found out what this “good” way was, I’d “win” the situation at hand.
This desire for control led to (I believe) a very unhealthy way of dealing with life. I would separate life into two neat boxes: “problem” and “not problem.” The most vivid example of this is my first long-term relationship. One of two things was always the case: my girlfriend was feeling good (“not problem”) and my girlfriend was not feeling good (“problem”).
Let’s look at the second case, first. When my girlfriend was unhappy, it was (to me) a specific situation that there was a Good Way of dealing with; furthermore, since I’d spent so much time thinking about Good Ways of dealing, and such situations in general, the Good Way of dealing with such situations was Fixing them, and the Fixer would be me.
Of course, it often happened that I couldn’t Fix the problem, either because there was no problem, or because the problem had no Fix, or because I had no business Fixing it. My normal approach to failure would be obsessively looking for mistakes I may or may not have made, and planning to fix them next time. If only I could avoid the mistakes, it would be all good.
Now let’s look at the first case. When my girlfriend was happy, clearly there was no problem on hand, so I would not be mindful. I tended to focus on myself, and not on her or on the relationship we had.
I did this for so long it had become an almost ingrained reflex; this attitude of Fixing, mistake-obsessing, and lack of mindfulness persisted long through one relationship, through my graduation from college, through large parts of grad school. But it slowly got better.
I learned about Awareness. Awareness is not about Fixing, or Best Ways, or mistakes or planning. Awareness is not about control. It’s just about taking a look and/or listen, to the world. It’s about extending that boundary between I and World, and paying attention to other people – the way they act, the way they talk. It’s also about paying attention to yourself.
Once I started to pay attention, I realized that the world was messy and complicated. I also realized that, despite being messy and complicated, the world works. People misunderstand each other and make mistakes in relationships ALL the time. And yet, many people make friends, and fall in love, and have long-term happiness in their lives. Being aware really helps.
Being aware is listening to your friend, and realizing why they’re unhappy. Being aware is also realizing that right now, you can’t magically fix them, or the situation. Being aware is knowing that somebody just wants a hug right now, not a thousand dollars or a logical explanation of how to go about feeling better. Being aware is realizing that your significant other just wants to stay in and watch a movie, and that you really want to go out, and talking through that. Being aware is realizing that your feelings, or your goals in life, are changing, and expressing that.
None of these things require planning, or fixing, or Good Ways. They take some time, and some practice, and they *won’t* necessarily solve problems. Awareness is not good-things-only, awareness includes bad and unhappy things. But without awareness, we are alone and blind. Other people don’t exist, except as blurry objects we bump into by chance or clumsiness, or, worse, except as obstacles in the way of our plans, problems to fixed or puzzles to be solved. When we practice awareness, we can still get hurt, and hurt others; but without awareness, we never get to realize what happened, and we keep hurting. Please, please be aware.