Looking to the right and the left before you cross the street was a lesson taught early in my life. For some reason, it has stuck with me not so much for its safety value, but for its value in expanding my peripheral vision. I wish more people would look to the left and the right before they do anything.
One of the challenges of growing old in a culture that demands we produce something all the time is that we lose sight of those peripheral jewels. In our goal to live longer and longer we miss out on the expansiveness of what has accompanied us on our journey. Looking to the left, maybe you caught a glimpse of yourself wearing bell-bottoms or a beard and can laugh at what used to be considered fashionable. Looking to the right, maybe you have found that music, books, poetry, and dance evoke all the emotions and spark cascading memories that cross over decades and now you crave them because they represent vitality.
In asking you to look to your left and right, I invite you to affirmatively challenge what tends to be a habitual way of thinking and behaving somewhat unique to our species! We have tasked the artist with the job of paying attention to the peripheral for us. I am inviting you, dear reader, to take up this task as the artisan of your life.
To do this requires several changes in your thinking, one or two changes in your doing, and lastly one single change in your being. To wit: You are required to be willing. Willingness is the incubator of creation. Willingness is the repository of action. Willingness is the root bed of change.
I am not talking about willfulness. For most of us willfulness is, unfortunately, an intimate familiar. It is the place of “I have to have it my way!” and “Unless it is as I expect, it is not worth it!” It is the exclamatory stance in the face of true awareness. It is crossing the freeway while tweeting.
Willingness, on the other hand, is the openly brazen acceptance of what is and the faith (or perhaps grace) to not be attached to outcome. Attachment to willfulness brings with it fear and mistrust, and anxiety, and worries, and all those uncomfortable and unwelcome feelings, which, ironically, will melt away if you are just willing to stay with the experience.
Willingness comes as a pre-loaded app in our infant selves. It is the mercurial change of emotions based on sensory information; one minute a gleeful burp, the next a tearful response to loud noise. It is the joy of playing endless games of peek-a-boo and the soothing calmness of being rocked to sleep with a lullaby.
What happens as we age, however, is our willingness is tempered through disappointment, unmet expectations, criticism, and loss. These events work on our willingness like buildup of plaque on teeth. At some point, most likely without any awareness at all, we find ourselves focused on one or two things, acquiring regret and investing in a future that is filled with anticipatory pain.
Here is where the other elements I noted above are essential. Change your thinking and change your ways of doing things and you can rediscover willingness.
How does one change one’s thinking? The very first step is to be aware of the thought itself. Ironically, people who are very anxious and worried are already skilled at this recognition. They can identify every mote of terror, catastrophe, and pain in excruciating detail. The rest of us may experience a “thought” only occasionally or as part of yoga, meditation, or other forms of brain training.
The second step in changing one’s thinking is to let go of the thought instead of holding on to it. Many metaphors exist for this – watching clouds in the sky (each cloud is a thought), watching leaves on a river as they float by – but my favorite is looking for space between railroad cars as they make their way, clickety-clack across the rails. The slower the train is going, the easier it is to see the space!
The next phase is changes in doing. We are creatures of habit, sometimes to the detriment of our overall health and well-being. For example, once we find a food we like, we may continue to choose it over other types rather than try something new. Or, we may take the same route to a location instead of trying the road less taken. Or, we may find ourselves listening to rhetoric of people we “like” rather than making an effort to understand people we “disagree with” because former is easier. These actions need to be systematically challenged in order to keep our brain active and flexible.
You don’t need to start with the big things. You can actually make small changes that will have a big effect. One example is to brush your teeth with your “other” hand. Another is to sleep on a different side of your bed. Still another is to challenge yourself to eat something new or listen to a different type of music. Results will be swift and most instructional. Pay attention to how irritated or resistant to doing these things you are – that will tell you how wedded you have become to doing things your way.
So what are you willing to do that will open your experience and widen the focus of your life? What will you see when you look left and then right before your cross the street? The Roman philosopher, Seneca reminds us: “Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come, lies in uncertainty: live right now.”
Thanks for reading!