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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

The Way In.

Changing the channel away from The Good and the Bad

So often we're driven by the compulsion to fix everything that seems wrong in our lives. "Fix" usually means to us something like: get rid of the stuff happening that I don't want (the "bad" stuff) or get hold of the stuff happening that I do want (the "good" stuff). Although the good and bad stuff is different for each person, there are trends in what people think is the good and the bad, because we're all human beings with the same basic biology, which hard-wires our physical experience of the world, and partly determines the framework for what "good" and "bad" mean for each of us.

A physically healthy body would be high on most people's good list, just as having cancer is high on most people's bad list. Food, shelter, and water - high on the good list. Loss, grief, and anxiety, on the bad. Those are some of the universals. And yet there is plenty of disagreement about the good and bad - having children might be considered good or bad differently by various people. Even for the same person, raising their children moves back and forth on the good and bad lists all the time. Good when they smile, thrive and have nice report cards. Bad when they disappoint, challenge, or make life difficult in ways you don't want them to.

One same channel, all day long

What's common with us humans is that it's “good and bad” all day long, every single day. That’s the one same channel we’re tuned into most of the 24 hours. We have thousands of options of different shows to stream but all we do is watch the good and bad show. We fool ourselves into thinking we’re watching different shows, because one part of the day we’re thinking about what’s good and bad with our job, and then later we’re thinking about what’s good and bad with our partner, then with our children, then our parents, friends, neighbors, the news, the "world." So it seems like different shows, but it’s an illusion – it’s all the same show: the good and the bad. We are stuck in a process (or call it a mindset, or a perspective) rooted in good and bad. What are we doing in this process?

We assess: Is this thing good or bad? Do I like this or not like this? Do I like this better than that? How much worse can this get?

We plan: How do I get that good thing over there, and get rid of this other crap over here? How do I get a better job, partner, home, body, life? How do I fix or get rid of this shit job, partner, home, body, life?

We blame: It's his fault I'm stuck with this bad stuff. Why is she not giving me the good stuff I need? The world is so unfair giving those assholes over there good stuff and giving me and these nice people here the bad stuff.

We go existential: I'll never find the good stuff I want, it's hopeless. I deserve the bad stuff because I'm worthless and should suffer.

When unreality meets reality, which is just experiencing, then slowly the unreality fades away. - Charlotte Joko Beck, Contemporary Zen teacher

Does most of this sound familiar? It's familiar because we all do it to some extent or another, and we've been doing it most of our lives. This process, although it is completely dysfunctional, has become normalized for most of us. Sometimes that's because we've never encountered a different process to try, it's the only way we've ever known. Sometimes we stay with it exactly because it's familiar. The compulsion to keep doing things the same way over and over again is very strong, even when it doesn’t work, because the familiar brings the illusion of being safer and easier than the strange or new.

The way out is to go in

What's the way out of this dysfunction?

One way "out" is to go in. Into what? We turn in to our direct experience of this very moment. We shift from "thinking about" to experiencing, to being present. As a simple example, imagine you're waiting on a long line on a hot day, and you're sweating and uncomfortable and it's going to be a while more. You find you're caught up in endless "thinking about" - how hot it is, how much you hate the heat, how it's not worth the wait, why you're so dumb for not arriving earlier before the line got long, how these stupid people are taking so long to do their thing, how you deserve better than this, and on and on and on.

The way out is to bring your full attention to what is actually happening, instead of giving your attention to all those thoughts about what is happening. What are you seeing? A street, people, sunlight, cars. What are you hearing? Voices, traffic, music playing in the distance. What do you smell? Fresh-baked bread. Mowed grass. What do you feel in your body? What does "being hot" actually feel like? Sun warming the skin of your arms. Sweat beading on your forehead.

Being fully present to all of that, even for just a moment, creates a break in the anguish that arises from all the compulsive thinking about what’s good or bad. It might be a short break, maybe only a minute or even a few seconds, but in that short gap there is relief. In the total attention to seeing, hearing, and bodily feeling, we find a refuge – a refuge from the storm of unending thoughts pulling us away from just experiencing what’s going on right now. Thoughts are often like fake news, telling us something is wrong with this very moment and that we need to change it into something else, even when this moment is just fine exactly as it is. Sure, there are rough moments, sometimes a lot of them. But that's all the more reason to not create anguish with compulsive demands that things ought to be someway else. Things are what they are, and we can respond to things as they are with curiosity and openness instead of demands. We have options and choices, other channels to stream.

This immersion in our experience is not passive, we still act to change situations. We wipe our sweating brow if it’s hot, or we get off the line, because it’s not worth it right now to feel hot and sweaty. And then we’re acting, instead of anguishing over the good and bad of it all.

It’s not easy to just turn on this kind of attention in a difficult moment. Our lifetime habit is to “think about” and it’s a strong habit to change. The practice of meditation is one of the great ways to cultivate such change. By getting still and silent and just sitting with our attention on the breath, we slowly build up a power of attention that we can then bring into all the difficult moments of our life. That’s the real purpose of meditation and Zen practice – it’s not about relaxing or visualizing some happy places for a few minutes. It’s about developing a strength we take into our difficulties (and into our joys!) that helps us navigate them, instead of being blown around by them. If you’re already meditating, keep going! If you’re not, try it! There’s nothing to lose and there is the possibility of opening into something new and different.


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