Man should discover his own reality and not thwart himself. For he has his self as his only friend, or as his only enemy. A person has the self as friend when he has conquered himself, But if he rejects his own reality, the self will war against him. Hinduism. Bhagavad-Gita 6.5-6 There is a children’s tale about a woman who felt that her house was too small, so she went to a wise man to advise her, and he told her to bring in one animal to live in her house. Each time she felt the house growing smaller, she was advised to bring one more animal into the house, when the house was so crowded that she could no longer move, she was told to take them all out of the house. When she did this, her house seemed large and roomy, and she was grateful for the space that she had.
The house did not change. Her perception of the house changed and the same house that she once hated became a house for which she felt gratitude. That gratitude opened her to feeling joy. Imagine for a moment, that it rains for two weeks straight how beautiful and joyous you feel on the day you look out and see the blue sky and a brightly shining sun. We spend our lives wanting what other people have, the job that provides for the house on the hill, the job that pays for the Porsche or the Mercedes, instead of the job that affords you the junkyard reject on wheels that you are driving. Imagine that you walk in today and you get your pink slip. Now you can’t even pay for the junkyard wreck let alone your rent, food, children’s clothes etc. Go one step further and imagine that the phone rings and they offer you the same job back. Now you don’t care about the house on the hill, you don’t care about the Porsche or the Mercedes, instead you thank God for that phone call, and that dirty office, or that lousy cash register which shines like a brand new penny!!
For a time, generally in proportion to the time that you spent without the job, you are grateful for every difficult day that you go to work and you don’t even give a second thought to what it doesn’t give you because you are so grateful to have what it does. I had some jewelry that had meant so much to me when I received it, but, as time went on, it became stale and valueless to me. Then one day the jewelry was gone, I panicked, and when, after two days of searching, I found it, it was like the first day I had ever laid eyes on it. I felt such overwhelming joy and gratitude that it was actually mine. All of these things, the sun, the sky, the job, the car, those things that shone for one moment in your life and now were dull, overlooked and underappreciated, like the basic fact that you woke up and saw one more day, are always the same as they are in empty situations, like cups to be filled by you with whatever you choose—gratitude and joy or resentment and sorrow. This is life, a chain of consecutive experiences void of emotion until we fill them with whichever emotions we choose.
‘Man struggles to find life outside himself, unaware that the life he is seeking is within him.’
Whether we believe that the things occurring in our lives are pre-determined or the result of our free will really doesn’t matter in the end. The indisputable choice that we have is what emotions we fill our experiences with. This is where our free will is at it’s purest. Things don’t fill us with joy or sadness—we fill them. Life doesn’t emote—we do. We enliven our world, we color it, first as individuals, then as generations, as societies, as a species, and finally as souls. Even so, the world in which we are born has been colored, to some extent, by those who have preceded us, our personal world, our subjective world—the world that is there for our particular journey is, for all intents and purposes, colorless and formless until we give it color and form; until we label each person and each experience good, bad, painful or joyful.‘We choose our joys and our sorrows long before we experience them.’ Kahlil Gibran
My daughter, Lia, told me that she could deal with anything so long as she could label it. This is because “out there” is meaningless until we bring it inside, label, and classify it. We must give it meaning and color within our own description of the world. When we are young, we learn language—we learn the descriptions of the impressions that we receive from the outside world. We are told that a certain object is a table, that a table is a flat surface supported by four legs. In our brain which is our personal computer, we are not able to make infer that all flat surfaces with four legs are tables. Our brains take the labels that we are given for the object as a whole, then they dissect the object into its parts. By doing this, our brains can automatically make connections to things that are the same as or different than.
Labeling and classifying becomes more difficult when we deal with intangibles, such as experiences. When we are very young we dissect, label, and classify experiences in the same way as we do everything else—we record what we are told and what we see, i.e., the reactions of our parents, who are our first teachers, to the appropriate stimuli. When we are faced with situations that our brains tell us match one of the experiences to which we have a recorded parental response, we mimic that response. Whenever we feel a contradictory response coming from within ourselves, we push it away as inappropriate relying on the blueprint of the world that we received as children.
As children, we live in the world of our families. We spend the major portion of our time with them and so, we live in their world. Our survival instincts tell us that we must know and understand the world in which we live. More than a thing or an experience, life is a language. As children we learn the words, the idioms, the nuances of the languages of those around me. That language tells us where to go and what to do so we may find our way around and live as best we can within their world. As we approach our teens, we find ourselves spending the better part of our time in a new world, the world of our peers. And because of the large amount of time that we spend, because of the dictates of life at this point, within our peer group, we must create a new language, one which is distinct enough to distinguish one world from the other. This is generally opposite to the language that we grew up with. This new language is contrary to the language of our family environment not because it is a period of rebellion, but because of evolutionary design. We refuse to acknowledge our initial language, the one given to us by our parents, simply because we are unable to maintain two contradictory beliefs. The language of our parents is a combination of the language of the greater whole, the society within which we live, the language of their generation, and their own personal language.
When we move into our peer group, we learn the language of our own generations, and the idioms of our own peer society. It is only after we have an understanding of all of these languages that we are able to confidently begin to develop, and respond to a reality based upon own personally formed languages. During these teen years we slowly develop a language that comes from our personal responses as they are weighed against the database that we now have of prior learned responses from our families, our peer groups, our teachers and advisors, and the greater society around us. As we develop own languages, we gravitate towards others whose languages are the same as, or similar to ours. We develop a religious language, a philosophical language, a moral language—a language that as clearly as possible distinguishes good from bad, dangerous from safe, and happy from sad. It is vital to understand that it is in our personal language, and not in the object or experience being defined by that language, that our feelings and emotional responses are defined.
When I was young, in my personal language, marriage meant happily ever after. My definition of marriage included love, security, and escape from sadness. From watching my struggle as a single mother to support my daughter Tana and myself, Tana was led to define the word children, in her language, as sacrifice and burden. I only told her how much I loved her, but still, from observing my struggle, she developed her own personal language to describe, and thus create, her reality of motherhood.
The world out there is not alive until we animate it with our personal definitions, our personal language. Nothing out there can make us feel one way or another. The feelings that we get from anyone, anything, or any experience don’t lie within the person, thing, or experience but they lie within ourselves, within our languages and the descriptions that our languages give to them. Often, we will say, or hear someone else say, “I just don’t know how to react to that”. This is because it is a situation to which the person has not yet defined and thus, has not yet attributed an emotion. Or, someone will exclaim, “Oh, that’s what that was!” and immediately they will replay the scene in their minds so that they can label, define and feel the appropriate reaction. Life is a coloring book with only the lines drawn in and we can choose whatever colors we want to fill in the pages. Or, life can be viewed as a book filled with Rorschach images, and it is up to us to write the story for each page.
It is possible for life to be fated, and at the same time, it can be true that we create our own reality. These terms are not contradictory. In life, fate means that we don’t chose the stage, the scenery or the props with which we have to work. We have to utilize what is there. We don’t choose our entrances or our exits. But within those limits, we live, and how we live our lives is determined by the language we use to define reality. There is no such thing as objective reality. And our subjective reality can either be determined by consensus or by personal design. To create our own reality we need to siphon off reach inside, find our own language, our own meaning, and use it. What has been a life well lived, or life wasted lies in the definition and not the life. We must stop seeking the definitions of others when it comes to living our own lives. God has planted within our souls the keys to the kingdom. Those keys are the symbols of the language of our individual souls. Out there may or may not be real. It may or may not be predetermined. Reality, however, is personal, and our definition of it determines the quality of our lives. We can choose to accept the consensus defined reality, or define it for ourselves. If we define it for ourselves, we will never outgrow it, because it will grow with us. We will suffer if we expect to do what others define as the right thing at all times. If our reality is defined by others, simply keeping up with their language of right and wrong will be stressful enough in itself. There is a difference between being right and being true. More times than not, right is defined by consensus, but true, is the cornerstone of integrity and it is defined by self alone. We can be certain to be true at all times, if we live by a reality that is defined by our truth.
My grandmother’s language was designed around two words, usefulness and independence. Indulgence and dependence were at the core of my mother’s language. Within the same week, both my mother and my grandmother became wheelchair bound. My grandmother was destroyed by it. In her language, my grandmother’s wheelchair caused her to be dependent and useless. Her disability placed her into an environment where her language rendered her unable to communicate with herself. Because the foundation of her language defined everything in terms of black or white, she couldn’t label and therefore couldn’t understand this new situation. Before she could begin to function, to heal, she had to learn an entirely new language—an entirely new language for describing – coloring – her life. Once she did this, once she allowed for the expansion of her own language to allow for her physical limitation, rather than exclude it, she found that she could be almost as useful and independent as she had once been. For my mother, the loss of her ability to walk fit perfectly into the language of her reality. It required no adjustments or redefinitions.
Life, out there, is neither good nor bad. It is incapable of doing anything to us. It doesn’t have the power to make us feel happy or sad, valuable, useless, lovable, unlovable, beautiful, ugly, smart, stupid, fat, or thin. We can expect nothing of life and life expects nothing of us. Our lives are determined by the quality of our living. That quality is derived from our personal language, the labels, the meanings with which we color the props and the backdrops of our living. Out there has no effect on us, it’s in here.