“If OK, then OK. If not OK, then OK anyway!” – An Indian man I met in the bus.
That was a while ago. I had been working full time with a respected Buddhist teacher for two years and didn’t notice any improvement in my life, so I decided to tell him that he was probably not the right guide for me.
Looking back, it was a pretty callous thing to say, knowing that he had spent great care in my spiritual education for all that time.
But my teacher didn’t budge, I remember him just looking through the window, with the same tender and relaxed expression. Later on, he continued to be respectful and caring as he always was.
I left him, and for the following years I carried a weird mixture of embarrassment and gratitude: I had left somewhat brutally, and instead of dismissing me in return he had responded by being supportive, always worrying how I was doing. I guess he didn’t need me to feel OK about himself, he only cared about me.
That was the most impressive display of self-reliance I’ve ever seen, and I kept thinking about it since then.
The purpose of this post is to give an alternative view self-reliance, I wanted my arguments to differ from classic self-help and more in touch with…reality as I see it.
Every self-made man has had a mom (sorry)
Let’s face the humbling reality: we are all born naked, incontinent and with a brain under construction. It takes someone to take care of us for the first, say, eighteen years of our life. During the following stages (majority and beyond), our survival depends on the economy, the political and climatic stability of the place we live in, etc…
Where am I getting at?
That we’re not self-sustaining beings, we’re vulnerable, we need others, we need an appropriate environment, and that’s OK.
Our fate is largely influenced by circumstances, and these circumstances are out of our control. The idea that we’re entirely responsible for our destiny is not true in the course of a lifetime. We depend on a complex network of factors, and the amount of freewill we have is limited.
We can improve our lot, to a certain extent, but the “unlimited potential” promised by personal development literature is not necessarily true on the material level. People born blind won’t be able to drive a F-16 fighter jet and those living in extremely poor countries have little to no chance to join the 1% even if they read “The Secret”.
My point is not to be harsh, here, but to object the self-help claim that we can do “whatever we want if we want it bad enough” and that if we fail, we can only incriminate our laziness. There’s a need for kindness and acceptance toward ourselves, it’s not always our fault when we fail.
We can’t entirely design our life, and while we need to imagine a better future, blaming our misfortune on ourselves only is unfair treatment. Outer freedom is limited, our time on earth is limited, and the same goes for every material resources we need as human beings.
So far, I’ve said what self-reliance is not: a capacity to thrive regardless of material conditions.
BUT, I think there’s a window of freedom, it’s in our minds and it compensates for our material limitations.
Safe from harm: this place of freedom
Although we can’t decide on what life will throw at us, we have power over how we feel about it, usually more power than we think. Self-reliance is yet another way to name that power, which enables us to be mentally free of circumstances (to some degree).
Roughly speaking, there are two types of methods available to us, both allowing to gain control of our states no matter what:
- Changing the way we think
- Developing awareness
Changing the way we think (or trying to)
Bending our beliefs to our advantage is what self-help is about, to a great extent. Some schools advocate for gratitude as a daily practice (your FB timeline is probably full of those statements), other offer methods to “reprogram” your mind via positive thinking.
A lot of these mental techniques seem to bring results to people coming from all walks of life, but I can’t really advocate for them as they didn’t help me that much. I discovered that I’m not alone in that case.
Actually an increasing number of people report that positive thinking makes it harder for them to face tough times: visualizing an ideal environment full of wonders and love doesn’t prepare them well for the inevitable waves of personal disaster. The worst part is that if they don’t succeed at feeling better, they blame themselves for not “programing their mind” or sending the wrong message to the universe. Something is probably missing here…
There’s a simpler approach than trying to scream yourself into satisfaction.
Although being aware of something doesn’t solve a problem right away, it enables the mind to stop being in conflict with situations and gradually experience more freedom over them.
You can develop awareness using various supports and techniques: rock climbing, chess, computer programing, raising a child. I chose sitting meditation because the purpose of that practice is awareness (as opposed to other approaches for which awareness is a by-product).
The benefits of meditation are not immediately felt, but there is a realization that everyone seems to have practicing it for while: we create most of our problems in our head, and we really don’t have to.
We don’t have to feel guilty if our partner is going through hell, we don’t have to resent our parents for being republicans, and we don’t have to be afraid of global warming. It is possible to relate to all these situations without adding our personal touch of anxiety or anger.
In short: we can be free of the stories we tell ourselves all day, not all at once, but gradually.
The process takes time of course, time to sit, watch the inner mess and refrain from taking action. In the long run, though, a window starts to open beyond the commotion of our thinking process. That’s freedom burgeoning right there.
I fell in love with the straightforwardness of meditation, it’s somewhat simpler than manipulating your patterns of thinking, yet it gradually frees you of old and negative habits. At worst, it gives you more distance from your worst neurosis.
I’m aware that the notion of emotional self-reliance is not as sexy that the unlimited powers promised in the self-help isle, but at least this one works, if you’re willing to invest energy in the long run.