Sometimes I think that our journey in the wilderness of life should run backwards. It would make more sense if it did. For example, we would begin our relationship with a life partner and have children in our seventies and eighties while we actually have some wisdom.
By the time our children reached adulthood we would we would be well on our way to getting younger and dumber. All of our important tasks in life would be completed while we still had wisdom. Then we could go out into the world, have adventures, build careers, drink beer, go to parties, and do all the dumb things we do when we’re younger. But we would do them at a time in life when it wouldn’t matter any more.
Unfortunately, like so many people, I went through the beer drinking and party stage while I was working on an engineering degree. Then degree in hand, I moved into marriage, began raising a family and struggled to succeed, to be happy, and to achieve. I worked hard but looking back I realize I didn’t have a clue about what was truly important in life.
I worked in the corporate world as an engineer and later in engineering management. My dream was to be a millionaire by the time I was thirty. Then disillusioned with the corporate world, I dropped out and tried homesteading for six years. I quickly learned that our ancestors did not live in the “good old days”. They worked from morning to night simply surviving. So I stopped milking goats and went back to school, got a masters degree in theology, trained as an analytic pastoral psychotherapist, opened a counseling practice focused on helping people heal and grow, and eventually went through the pain of a divorce.
There was a slowly growing awareness that I was on a relentless journey into the future. The awareness that life doesn’t give us the option of going back and living it over again. I was living the only life I would ever have.
Eventually the pain of living my life unconsciously caught up with me. I entered therapy and began the journey into “self”; a journey that took me into the shadows of my pain and my own dark nature. For the first time in my life I was working on my own issues.
Like many people, my lack of self-awareness and unconscious living had caused me to make mistakes and choose behaviors that were hurtful to others as well as myself. As I reflected back on that time in my life I was amazed at my lack of awareness, and saddened at the pain I had caused others.
It was the decision to enter therapy that began my love affair with growth, insight and wisdom. As I awakened and began to grow in self-consciousness, I vowed that I would never again live life unconsciously or unaware. The commitment to live a more conscious life has driven my growth and become my primary purpose in life ever since.
A friend asked me recently what I thought the most important insight or learning has been for me these last thirty years; the time of life I call my second adulthood. I thought for a moment and then said, the insight that has most impacted my life is the knowledge that my relationship with reality is far and away the most important relationship I will ever have.
The puzzled look on her face told me I would have to go a bit deeper and explain what I meant.
I went on to explain that our development as a human being begins in childhood. It’s in those first six or seven years of life that we develop our primitive ego, or childhood psyche. Our childhood ego tends to be narcissistic and self-focused. It uses an either-or, black-and-white thinking process that splits the world into safe and unsafe, good and bad, and right and wrong. It also picks up beliefs that tend to distort reality. I told her I call these beliefs bent nickel beliefs.
Before she could give me another look of puzzlement, I went a bit deeper into the concept of a bent nickel belief.
For example, in early childhood we assume the world should give us what we want, when we want it. If we have a dirty diaper we want it changed right “now”. If it’s not, we open our mouth and scream until someone does change it.
We come to believe (a bent nickel belief) that we are the ruler of the universe. We think that others should be able to read our mind and meet our needs without our having to ask (more bent nickel beliefs).
As we grow older, instead of modifying these primitive ego beliefs, we tend to make them more rigid and inflexible. We pour concrete on them. I told her virtually all of the pain I have caused others, and myself, are the result of black-and-white, either-or thinking, or from holding too tightly to bent nickel reality distorting beliefs.
Then I shared with her my bent nickel metaphor; how bent nickel beliefs create poor self-esteem, frustration, unhappiness, and a lack of success in life.
Let’s define a successful life as a tall pile of nickels stacked one on top of another. Most of us could easily create a reasonably tall, or successful stack of nickels if we were careful. In this metaphor, our life would be happy and successful.
But now try that experiment by placing a “bent nickel” at the base of your stack.
No matter how hard to try, you will never get the stack more than a few nickels high before the stack falls over. In other words, your stack (your life) will never get very high, happy, or successful. In fact, the harder you try to get your stack of nickels taller, the more frustrated and depressed you will become. Eventually you will assume you just don’t have the ability to create a happy and successful life. You will quit trying.
Instead of blaming the problem on the bent nickel reality distorting belief at the base of your stack, you will assume you’re not competent or capable.
I shared with her that this metaphor taught me the most important wisdom insight of my life. The realization that the bent nickel beliefs that most distorted reality and created virtually all of the pain and unhappiness I was experiencing in life were a) judgmental dualistic, either-or thinking, and b) the primitive ego belief that my self-identity was based on the need to be right.
It helped me realize that my ego driven dualistic thinking had me at war with reality; at war with the whole universe. When ever reality presented me with something that conflicted with one of my many firmly held beliefs, instead of accepting the reality of “what is”, I resisted and attempted to change it so it would more comfortably conform to my beliefs.
Like all bent nickel beliefs, dualistic thinking and the need to be right almost always led to conflict and frustration; which left me feeling weak, overwhelmed, unhappy, and anxious. Doing battle with the universe was annoying and exhausting.
When I was unable to shape reality to what it “should” be, I tended to become frustrated and more self-absorbed, self-focused, and irritated. Because my ego had created my self-identity around my bent nickel beliefs, rather than questioning the beliefs, my ego harden them and moved me defensively deeper into my false self and away from my true, essential, authentic self.
Of course, whenever this happened, I was so focused on being right, my ability to embrace mutuality, compassion, flexibility, affirmation, unconditional love, and caring all but disappeared.
More than any other form of conscious, dualistic thinking made it all but impossible for me to drop certainty, embrace humility and move into an emptiness of ego; the three qualities essential to living a happy, successful, spiritually grounded life.
My journey in the wilderness has taught me that black-and-white, dualistic thinking, and the need to be right that emerges from dualism, are the primary unconscious enemies of happiness and peace in life.
The opposition to reality left me unable to live awakened and conscious of the present moment; the ability to live in the reality of “now”. Today I choose to accept life as it “is”, not struggling to change it to what it “should” be.