I have finished this article on January 7, in a sad coincidence with the dreadful terror attack in Paris. I have always wondered what makes us really different from animals and this question is more than relevant after what happened. What follows here is not directly about this attack but you will see how deeply related it is from both sides of the coin. For we all live in stress and all of us have experienced at least once in his or her life how does it feel to be a minority for any reason. You may just be minority for an hour when you meet new people or start a new job, but you may be Muslim, or Jewish or Christian for that matter, which may put you in a position of Minority and Otherness for whatever amount of time.
Coming back to the difference between humans and animals perhaps the real difference is in the choices we have. As Janos Selye the famous ethologist put it, you only have 3 choices when you are in stress. Fight, flight or seek protection. The fourth is to get sick or die.
It is about the seeking proctection part though, where it really gets interesting. The rest of it (fight and flight and gettins sick) is easy, straightforward reptilian reaction. It is a reaction you saw in Paris with a magnifying glass and in crazy and brutal way, but if we want to really deeply look into ourselves we cannot escape facing that we all have brutality and aggression somewhere in our nature. Our parents used to kill for survival only a few generations ago. It is not that we don’t have a bad side it is about how we respond to it and how we respond to the world. We do have a choice.
But how does one seek protection? Is protection inside or outside?
Traditional psychotherapy and coaching was very focused on fixing the individual. If you were in stress and showing symptoms, you had to be sick. You needed to get medication and fixing by the therapist. The treatment is your protection and the protection is outside, coming from a professional who knows everything(!?). All in all, you are the problem.
It is my impression, that nowadays we seem to be stuck with the same idea, but in a very different way. Now it is all about your inner abilities and mental strength. Nothing is real and all you need to do is shift your filters and everything will be allright, no matter what happens outside and around you. In this new haze, it is all about you again, and your magical abilities to change everything INSIDE you which in turn changes everything AROUND you.
There’s a well-known story about a sitar player (in some versions, it’s a lute player) who was discouraged by his meditation practice and went to the Buddha to ask for instruction.
“What happens when you tune your instrument too tightly?” the Buddha asked.
“The strings break,” the musician replied.
“And what happens when you string it too loosely?”
“When it’s too loose, no sound comes out,” the musician answered. “The string that produces a tuneful sound is not too tight and not too loose.”
“That,” said the Buddha, “is how to practice: not too tight and not too loose.”
I guess we are stuck with the middle way/path problem again. Are we suppose to change everything around us to make them fit to us and us only? Or on the contrary, are we suppose to accept everybody and everything as they come and change our reality inside?
It seems to me that based on all the research I know on the subject, a happy and successful person is one who remembers and practices the ability of seeking protection inside and hence the practice of mindfulness and the development of other inner capabilities are very useful. At the same time, happy and successful people also seem to remember the words of Rabbi Hillel, who quoted the following in his sermon: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
This is about the ability to face and realize that if you do not act for yourself nobody else is likely to do so… And also, the realization that you must not only act for yourself but for others too as you are part of a larger field and system around you… And finally, the ability to focus what you are doing now, today in this very moment for what you stand for is absolutely crucial.
However, remember that the tuneful string is neither too tight (to much will and tense blindness) nor too loose (waiting for salvation from outside and doing nothing).
So, the art is to know when to leave when it is no longer good for you, and to know when to start something and follow your bliss. You also need to know when to stop something because the string is too tight. It is the dialectic art of embracing reality and at the same time be able to let go when needed that makes a lot of difference.
So what will you start in 2015?
What will you stop?
What will you to embrace this year? And it may be something, that you thought you needed to fight against for a long time?
And what will you finally let go of?
I believe it is this ability to reflect and have choices that is the difference that makes the difference between man and animals.
So, are you using the freedom of choice? If you do, you have the chance to transcend Selye’s view and to take the 5th choice: transformation. This is the fifth element that our society and civilization misses badly. Transformation is the dialectic art of understanding that the best thing you ever going to have of reality is just a map while the only way you ever going to change anything is by acting for yourself. Be mindful though, you are not alone. Change in the world starts with You. Don”t think this is about France and Paris and Muslims only.