Uncertainty about what is to come, not knowing, might stop you and I in our tracks. Perhaps like me, you thought you knew where you were going.
We are still in the midst of COVID isolation time. With the exception of folks who are essential workers, we are all advised, or in some places told, to stay home. I am “seeing” my counselling clients by phone, I go out for daily walks, and go to shops once in a while. Other than that, I am in semi-isolation with my wife, perched on the 11th floor of our apartment building. I am, as some of you may know, a long-time meditator, but I have not attended any meditation retreats for a long time; perhaps they are a little too regimented for me. Yet, here I am, in an extended retreat situation. Not so surprisingly, perhaps, I have found my current extended retreat to be quite valuable. Nowhere to (need to) run to, and with less distractions from the external world (although, yes, the media can act as that), I am engaged in self-study and various forms of learning, including inspiring and educational films, podcasts, and videos. All in all, I find that my consciousness is increasingly focused into my inner and inter-relational worlds. I am grateful for this extended reflection time, and very aware of the world circumstances that create this possibility.
Uncertainty about what is to come, not knowing, might stop you and I in our tracks. Perhaps like me, you thought you knew where you were going. We keep going on the path that was stretching out before us. That was the feeling that I had before the COVID crisis. Now, the path that was there seems to have been seriously eroded, leaving some faint trace, but not a clear way. I cannot go forward as before. So, I pause. I am now asking anew: What do I want to do with this “one wild and precious life” (a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day)? Indeed, what really matters now?
What has become increasingly apparent to me over the years is that, no matter what the current issues are in my life, the question as to what really matters is nearby, just below the surface. What matters is always related to deeply held values, the values that a person holds as most important, even dear, for the most heartfelt reasons. It does not mean that these values are all great, viable, or praiseworthy, in the eyes of everyone. Just like beauty, the values you hold are truly in the eyes of you, the beholder. You could, out of the pain of having been betrayed, hold a value of revenge. Thus, it is most important in your life to take revenge to mete out justice. The point I’m making with examples like this is that, if you carefully examine the patterns that are played out in your life, you can see deeply held values that guide, often unconsciously, your life. You can also see the relationship between your deeply held values and the kind of person you have become, which often is not the person you most truly are.
As in my case, perhaps the current crisis is providing you the chance to re-examine your values. And you may decide to change your deeply held values so as not to continue on the path as before. Such value shift will almost certainly involve a shift of your way of being and who you think you are: your identity. Let me put it another way: Do you wish that your life would go differently and that you could be on a different path than previously? You are in a position to re-examine your values and make changes as you see fit. Or, indeed, you may reaffirm your currently held values, in which case, you may become even more dedicated and empowered to pursue life in accordance with these perhaps long-held values.
I will share a personal example. You probably are aware that my last field note used the corona virus as a launch point. I was at first reluctant to even write about the virus: one more person commenting on the virus! Maybe not really needed! Yet, before I knew it, there I was, carrying out a dialogue with the virus! I gave the virus a voice to speak to different levels of our individual and collective experience. Crazy? What this writing spree revealed to me is my own deeply held values: dialogue and connection. It has always been important to me to connect with people and as many aspects of life as possible, including Corona, in ways that I felt were multidimensional, complex, and most meaningful, which is what dialogue aims to accomplish. I felt that by giving a voice to the virus, I could say something that I felt was important and meaningful. This particular Field Note received a lot of responses, some of which were posted on the site, and some of which came to me directly. I was happy to receive so much response, and felt the re-affirmation that honest and authentic dialogue is indeed one of my most deeply held values, and that this seems to be so for many of you, as well.
I reflected further, and I came to see how dialogue became the most deeply held value for me. I grew up in a secular Jewish family with very typical middle-class values. I don’t say this latter to demean my family or the values. My grandparents on both sides came to the New World in the early part of the 20th century. I now marvel at the courage this must have taken at that time. As a child, I had no way of comprehending this. They were poor, hard-working, working-class immigrants. They created opportunity for my parents to ‘rise’ to the middle, even upper-middle class. My parents and their children (my brother and me) belonged to the country club. I remember enjoying learning to golf, which I was not too bad at, but I also remember, around the age of 18, being at the club one day and feeling this growing hollow and empty feeling. I wanted something more in life, but at the time I had little ability to articulate this. Lack of articulation via language doesn’t mean that I didn’t ‘know’: I felt it, in my body, mind, heart, and spirit, as this empty, hollow felt sense. Looking back, I now see that I wanted a more meaningful life, and particularly a more meaningful and substantial connection with others. As well, I see how being the second generation born in Canada and not having to actually struggle to have the basics of food and shelter provided me the space to feel my longings in a way that my grandparents and parents perhaps had no opportunity for. Again, I’m not saying that they didn’t feel these longings or existential emptiness at all. Rather, their circumstance of survival struggles and other social conditions probably didn’t activate articulately the existential longings and crises in the way it did in their progeny, namely, me. For them, making it materially so that my brother and I were well-provided for was the goal. Probably it’s fair to say that their success at this was important in preparing the ground for me to have the existential crisis of meaning that I had and that went on over many years: perhaps in some ways it is still going on!
These deeply held values turn out to be the underpinnings for a mission statement for life. I think that each of us has a mission statement in life. However, I don’t think that too many of us have actually articulated such a statement for ourselves, let alone to anyone else. What I have discovered through talking to other human beings for over five decades is that very many people are doing things on a daily basis that indeed do not have substantial meaning or sense of fulfilment for them. Many go to work, not because their work matters to them or because it really exemplifies their values, but because it pays the bills and, eventually, they get a summer holiday and perhaps a Christmas break. Here is a little exercise you might like to try here and now:
Spend some time reflecting on what really matters to you. Do your best to put this into a very short sentence or two that you could say is your statement about what does matter to you in life, and is what gives your life meaning and your purpose: your personal mission statement!
I shall end this Field Note with another vignette from my morning walks and an associated reflection. It has a relevance to the theme of my most deeply held values: authenticity, connection, and dialogue.
One summery Saturday morning, before attending Ki-Aikido practice, I was walking on the street. I saw a small fuzzy puppy refusing to move and eventually just lying down on the sidewalk. The man who was walking the dog seemed to have a fair bit of patience. He waited and gave a few gentle tugs on the leash. I stopped when I caught up to them. I did have the impression that this was a game that they had played out many times. The little dog was most excited to see me and immediately got up, ran over, and we had a warm energetic encounter. My inter=species dialogue moment! I shared with the man that clearly the dog was more willing to move towards me, a stranger, than to him. He smiled and gave a friendly response. As I walked on, it occurred to me that small children will often refuse to move on for reasons that are not always easily discernable. Perhaps what they really want is contact and possibly to be picked up–all in the service of contact and connection. However, the ‘request’ can be seen as in a symbolic and non-verbal form. Responses/reactions from the ‘big’ person can also vary, including cajoling, threatening, physical force, talking, and so on. What also seems apparent in these small vignettes is what is played out throughout history; the titanic struggles between those apparently in power, and those apparently subjected to this power. I walked on, and looked back when I was further down the block. The dog was now being carried in the arms of its owner, and seem to be quite happy about this! I walked on with a most pleasant feeling about what I perceived as a moment of connection.
You and I, like many, are often looking for something. Our task is to facilitate finding out and knowing what this is, how to get at it, and how to communicate in just the right way in the moment with the person with whom we are trying to communicate and connect. I believe that everyone of us deeply longs to be truly known by another person, to know that this is so, and to have a reciprocal connection of the same sort with that person: a deep and personal connection in the moment. Of course, such can be had with any person. I would call that an intimate moment. Multiple events such as this over a lengthy period of time deserve to be called an intimate relationship. That is a worthy high dream for any of us, don’t you think?
And nearly finally a quote from the environmental activist, Joanna Macy; a quote that I view as a dream possibility, and certainly not an instruction: “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.”
May the month of May be a beautifully blossoming one for you, notwithstanding the circumstances of the world within which we are residing, for now!
Again, many thanks to Heesoon for her very active and engaged support with this Field Note.
PS Please share your memories, dreams, reflections (with a nod to Carl Gustav Jung) that may have been inspired by this Field Note. I certainly encourage you to post your own memories, dreams, reflections in response to this Note in the comments section. And, if you are not so inclined, and prefer to share with me directly I am most happy to hear from you that way, as well. And it may turn out that silence is your way at this time…