The Illusion of Control

Stilling the Mind

In my last post, I offered the concept that choice is all we really have and to choose wisely but after a recent painful event, I pondered, do we really have choices?  I will get to that event but for now, if one considers the philosophic concept of determinism, one abandons free will which in turn points to having no choice whatsoever. The definition of determinism is thus: it is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Take for instance the case of Covid.  If we choose to follow the recommended CDC guidelines, we will greatly reduce our chances of getting or spreading the disease.  Furthermore, it is suggested that we stay home as much as possible to reduce our chances of becoming a vector of transmission.  At this point, we all pretty much know why it’s a good idea to flatten the curve.

And still the pandemic goes on, month after month as hot spots move about the American landscape, this is a fire that has yet to be stamped out. Many people are getting tired and stressed by the length of our vigilance. We are an independent thinking nation of people and while many are embracing the challenge to not become another statistic, others are venturing out. I’ve seen more and more cars on the road as summer progresses and we “quaran-cheat” with parties, gatherings and celebrations.  We’ve needed this social time; humans are social animals.  Some choose to camp out in secret backwoods spots or spend time on a beach if it hasn’t been closed. As an avid backpacker myself, I watched as the Pacific Crest Trail association implored hikers to not attempt thru-hiking the trail this year.  Permits were revoked, trail angels and support faded away and hikers groused about it or applauded the decision depending on their ideas about the pandemic crisis.

In the effort at maintaining good mental health, I continued to hike my local trails as I am blessed to be in a place where I rarely run into other people.  My wilderness plans were focused on more remote locations away from the PCT which has become pretty well trod of late so I am in agreement with the PCTA’s decision regarding Covid-19.

The choice to stay within my comfort zone of risk, as in backpacking and horseback riding was sound as far as I was concerned.  I am very well experienced in both these things and have whittled down all risk as to be non-existent.  I am a safety star, careful my middle name.  Surely these activities will pose no risk to the general public, right?

Yes, and no.  Here’s where personal choice comes into play.  If you eliminate all risks, as much as is humanly possible what else can go wrong?  But it is exactly why we call things that go wrong “an accident” because life is unforeseen and unpredictable even when we do the best we possibly can.

Which is how I came to be in the emergency room of a hospital getting multiple x-rays to determine how many bones I may have broken on a remote national forest trail while riding my 100% safe and trustworthy horse.

Basically, shit happens.  Sometimes even when you use the power of your choices to become as well informed and as well prepared as you can.  Even when you are experienced and conscientious, aware and careful. One cannot factor on everything, and especially those factors you are unaware even exist.

Who knew that on that fated moment a deer would scare my husbands’ horse (they aren’t usually scared by deer) and that he would dump my husband then wheel into my horse and she would  jump in response and at that moment my saddle fittings would fail and dump me onto my shoulder?  Who knew that a second deer would boldly linger in the brush, then leap out, charge at our dogs and further frighten the already unsettled horses? Who knew that my shoulder would tear and I would be left with an unusable left arm to catch a frightened horse sporting a saddle sideways upon her ribs?

No one knew and least of all, me.  The me that not 15 minutes before had checked my girth to make sure it was fastened tight, less I have an accident!  The silver lining was that we hadn’t gone far; the bad part (besides being hurt) was that we had just set up camp for a long anticipated 3-day horse camping trip.  And there we were, just a few hours later, taking it all down and loading up for a drive home with a stop at the emergency room along the way.

Nothing broken, but in a great deal of pain, I took to my bed for days and slept off the pain meds and allowed myself to heal.  My ribs were severely bruised, making it even harder to get up and move about; my arm hung uselessly by my side. In the time between doctor appointments, I pondered all my choices that led up to that point, and wondered what I could have done to change any of the results other than remain safely at home.  And yet, accidents happen at home as well; I’ve personally torn my knee tripping over a wheel barrow.  My friend broke her leg in her back yard and another just spent 7 days in the hospital with complications from gall bladder surgery.  I myself had the same surgery a year ago and then returned with complications as well, both times having to leave the safety of my home with these serious ailments.

So where does choice figure in when sudden emergencies occur?  One can choose to stay home with the hope that they stay out of harms way, but harm can find you at home.  One can choose to live life and venture out as safely as possible and still, harm can find you there as well.

Which leads me to control and the illusion of control.  There are times when we may think we are in control of our destiny, that the choices we make, make a difference. We eat healthy, exercise, reduce our stress, contribute to society, brush our teeth, are kind to others. And then there are times that clearly point out how little control we have; control of our life isn’t always available, we just thought it was ours to choose, but it wasn’t.  It’s in these times of perceived tragedy and accidental injury that we see that control may not be ours to hold. No matter the free will we exercise over ourselves, ultimately, we cannot control everything.  Is this what is meant by faith and trust? Is it not the realm of faith that something, someone, some higher power has control and purpose and that there may be meaning in the chaos of circumstances beyond our control?  Is this the ultimate in trust?

I don’t subscribe to determinism, nor do I believe that we are entirely subjected to free will.  Perhaps it’s a combination of both a higher power and our own free will.  But, and here’s the kicker, one has to be aware of the choice before we are free to choose.  When someone reacts out of anger, triggered by old programs and patterns, they are not choosing if they are unaware there is a choice.  Choices come when one is aware.  It is our sacred mission in this life to awaken enough to see the choices before us, to transcend old habits and programs and find the free will that belongs to us.  Not all of our life is steered by our own free will, sometimes fate steps in and removes that illusion of control over our destinies.

Meditation may just be the easiest, simplest way to awaken to our egoic patterns of mind control that robs us of our free will and choices. In meditation, we exercise our ability to control wayward thoughts and old programing that keeps us from awareness and we bring our attention to the moment at hand. There are many techniques but the goal (if there must be a goal to stilling the mind) is learning how to find space between who you think you are and who you really are.  It’s listening to your inner voice and finding quiet knowing and clarity.  It is that clarity that awakens your mind to the choices in life that are before you.  Choices you never even knew you had.

And when you find your clarity to make awakened choices, you also may find the illusion of control and relax, surrendering yourself to something bigger and more beautiful than your own small self.  And that is a choice I can get behind.

Secrets and Lies

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This is Bailey.  I painted Bailey as a Christmas/Birthday present for his owner, even though Bailey has been gone for some time now, this piece was a loving testament to a wonderful dog.  Bailey’s owner shed a tear or two, it was a wonderful surprise; her husband had arranged with me this summer when he saw my body of work and knew at that moment just what to get his wife for the upcoming eventful day.

We communicated in secret, sending texts and photos; I kept him apprised of my progress until I reached a point in the process where I ask my clients, “Do you want to see any more or would you like for the rest of the painting to be a surprise for you as well?”

He opted to be surprised.  Just the few initial sketches and the start of the color blocking was enough as he wanted to see the finished piece all at once. He wanted in on the surprise.

When I ask this question of my clients who commission pieces, the answer is always the same.  After the initial start to the painting (which perhaps confirms their faith in me as the right person for the job) they say the same thing, “let me be surprised.”

Now, I realize, there are quite a few shows on TV where the “big reveal” is an anticipated moment.  It becomes the crux of the whole program; Fixer Upper comes to mind as the designer/construction team of Chip and Joanna Gaines show the shocked, awed and always, thrilled, homeowners the fabulous renovations on their newly remodeled home. And then there is the whole Publishers Clearing House thing where they come to the unsuspecting winner’s front door with a big check and a flotilla of balloons, everyone is always ecstatic in their joy at receiving big checks! I think perhaps the thrill of Christmas morning is banking on this surprise factor in a very big way.

People love surprises; the surprise element adds to the excitement of the moment.  The sideswipe of a positive shock often results in shrieks of joy, wild jumping in childlike abandonment. Surprises create a heightened emotional component, and from a neurological perspective, heightened emotions cause the brain to remember the event. Which is what the surprise giver was probably after in the first place.

BUT, while people love pleasant surprises, they hate unpleasant surprises and they hate them even more if they are unanticipated and shocked… the definition of a surprise, I suppose. I used the word ‘sideswiped’ in the above paragraph to heighten this factor about surprises: it’s the suddenness of change that amplifies the surprise and whether that is a pleasant or unpleasant incident, either way, it will be remembered, you can count on that.

When planning a surprise event/gift, one must be able to keep a secret.  Keeping gifts a secret, planning the moment to “pop the question” or perhaps pulling off a surprise birthday party entails quite a bit of secret keeping; one would spoil the event without the deception needed for this kind of surprise. Generally speaking, most people forgive you for keeping these kinds of secrets as the intention is to heighten the positive experience of the moment.  Secrets, like surprises can be kept for good.  But secrets can also be kept out of fear, or even with malicious intent.  Some may be kept out of a sense of protection for others, out of love.  Some secrets are kept for privacy, the keeper isn’t ready to share their personal shame with the world.  However, secrets kept out of fear, such as family secrets of shame and guilt, or even the ones designed to prevent pain of revelation are destructive and toxic.  Secrets can be used to manipulate others, as they take away the others ability to make informed decisions.

Besides what secrets do to the ‘other’ they also do things to the ‘keeper’. Tendrils of fear seep into the psyche of the secret keeper and undermine their very self esteem as their integrity suffers a blow from the internalized keeping of pain. The pain of guilt and shame, jealousy and anger often poison the secret keeper as they hold their knowledge and try to justify why they should hold it.  This is where denial steps in.  As we deny the secret event, our mind will twist and turn and try to create a safe place where it can rest easy from the pain of the secret. We tell ourselves stories to make it okay inside, and these stories, sidestepped away from the truth, are the seeds of lies.  We begin to believe those lies until we can’t tell the difference from the truth of a matter or from our own version.  When we fabricate our own version of reality, we lie.  We lie to ourselves and we lie to others.

Lies are toxic to a relationship.  Even the smallest of lies become the seeds of mistrust.  When people lie about small things, inconsequential things, one wonders how they can be trusted at all? Trust is a precious commodity, once broken, it takes a long time to repair. Small lies are the fractures, large lies become those sudden sideswiping surprise moments that take your breath away as your reality crumbles into a broken pile. But small lies add up, and as my mother used to say, “a fracture is a break held in place, but it’s still broken.”

If the lies we tell others are toxic to our relationship with them, what then do the lies we tell ourselves do to our own psyche?

 Lies told to ourselves undermine our mental health and our ability to forge healthy relationships and hinder our personal and spiritual growth in life. It’s as simple as that.

One of the 5 precepts of Buddhism is ‘do not lie, nor speak falsely, but manifest the truth’. I believe this is also one of the 10 commandments, ‘thou shall not bear false witness’ seems to cover the concept of telling the truth.  While both these ideas have noble sentiments, it is only with further thought and realization of the damage we do to ourselves and others by lying that change will be made.

When considering secrets and lies, one must weigh the prospects of the outcome of speaking the truth. It is not always best to speak the truth, even if you know what the truth may be. Buddhist philosophy reflects the idea, when speaking, one must ask themselves, is it true?  Is it kind? Is it useful?  Is it the right time? Will it matter? To say ‘no’ to any of these questions will guide you in your efforts to honor your integrity and build your self-esteem. To lie in order to cover up shame and guilt however, is to chip away at your own foundation of nobility and honor.  It’s these kinds of chips that keep me from sleeping at night; I seem to awaken in the middle of the night whenever there is a falsehood festering inside.  Even when it’s someone else’s lies.

Recently I awoke as I realized a loved one had lied to me. Earlier in the evening, I had been taken aback by the realization that they’d held back information I was looking for; and I’d missed the lie buried within the exchange.  My subconscious however, remembered, and I awoke with the recall that I’d asked several times for disclosure and was told, outright, they had no knowledge when in fact, they did.

And just like that, my trust is broken.

And though my trust was fractured, my ability to forgive is intact. I can forgive because I understand something about forgiveness: it’s not for them, but for me.  I forgive as I understand the pain and the shame and the guilt and all the human reasons why they held back and why they lied.  I understand that lies have been a part of their life for a long time, denial of reality and of truth has been woven into their psyche as a survival mechanism. When you live through drama and trauma, your mind comes up with all sorts of ways to protect itself. Only through deep introspection and inner work can you awaken from the trap of denial. I know this trail, I’ve been on it myself, so I forgive because I understand.

I forgive, but I do not forget.  To forget is another form of denial, my learned forgetting trapped me in toxic relationships as I did not learn the lessons of lying.  I’ve had the lies of others destroy several key relationships in my life but I’ve finally reached the point where I have learned my lesson.

I can still love the liar, but not the lie.  I can forgive the liar, but no longer put my trust in what they say. I can speak my truth, in the way that serves and causes the least amount of harm, but I have to include myself when considering harm.  To harm myself by withholding my own truth from myself, is to cause harm. As my meditation teacher said, ‘You can forgive and still call the police.’ Forgiveness means understanding, but it doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be a part of the wrong-doing.

Now, even though I felt left out and taken aback by this reality, I am grateful it happened. I needed to see this. I needed to see it because I’d not been looking at this loved one clearly, I had a narrow view of their humanness based on what I wanted to see.

How do I proceed from here?  I still love them, but perhaps my trust was misplaced.  We are all human, struggling with our own issues in our own time, at our own pace.  I am reminded that situations that trigger a response based on past traumas are opportunities to learn and grow, but only if you are aware.  To see the secret and lie one must be aware it is there to begin with.  And while there is room for secrets in your life, lies are another matter altogether.

 

Three things cannot be long hidden,

The Sun, The Moon and The Truth.  ~Buddha

Getting Balanced

I’ve felt somewhat out of sorts lately and have been focusing on getting myself back on even ground.  To do that, I’ve been meditating and learning how to trust my instincts again.  A healthy, mostly vegan diet along with more exercise and physical therapy on old injuries has contributed to getting my  body in better shape. My mind has been occupied with new ideas and philosophies, I’ve been working on old wounds there too, so that just left my soul. Body, mind and spirit are part of the whole and I realized I’ve been neglecting this last part for some time now.

I had been drawing mandalas and coloring intricate patterns as part of a meditative effort to balance my mind. One day I noticed I had used rainbow hues every time I sat down to color; page after page in my book was full of bold and brilliant color.  Suddenly it occurred to me, without even thinking about it, I had been choosing chakra colors. Chakras are thought to be centers of spiritual power within the body; if I ever needed a hint on where to focus my spiritual attention, this seemed a good place to start.

In an effort to blend my art and my soul in a more purposeful way, I set out to paint the 7 chakras. With each one, I focused on the corresponding color and let my muse take ahold of my brush. I really had no idea where I was going with these, but decided to trust the process and see what happened.

I started with the root chakra (red) and progressed upwards from there. Each one became more and more complex, unfolding before me. As I worked through these small canvases, I noticed a change in myself.  I felt lighter, happier, more relaxed. Information came my way and seemed to reinforce what I was learning about myself during the process. Even difficult issues leveled out and didn’t knock me out of balance.

I finished the last one the other day, and as I hung them together for the first time I noticed the changes from one to another.  From simple to more complex, one flows into the next. I think of this series as a personal workshop for my soul, an exercise in returning my energy centers to a state of equilibrium.

But because of the blog scroll, to show them to you in the order in which I painted them would be to misalign them.  So, to counter this, here they are in a top to bottom orientation. Just to note, they are opposite of the order in which they were created.

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