"The long and winding road that leads to your door will never disappear. I've seen that road before. It always leads me here." ~ Paul McCartney
I am 65 years old now, my birthday still a fresh wound as I write this. What have I learned in all these decades of human existence in this incarnation (allowing for the possibility that there may be others)? Well, the answer is millions of things. Some of them wonderful, illuminating, and useful. Some sad, horrible, painful, and dispiriting. Today I am only thinking about one of those things. The One Big Thing that stands out from the rest, that surprised me the most, that I find the deepest, truest, most ridiculous, ironic, and exhausting thing that I never knew and would never have believed when I was younger:
THERE IS NO ENDPOINT. EVER. TO ANYTHING.
We learn early in life that a story has structure -- a beginning, middle, and end. Action rises and falls, and the central conflict is resolved by the conclusion. We enjoy stories because life -- and most everything in it -- does not follow the clear rules of story structure. It may seem to meander aimlessly, but at my age, I now see the circularity of it, the winding around and around and around. I never thought, when I was younger, that the same lessons would have to come back to be experienced and learned repeatedly, that the same battles would have to be fought over and over again. I don't know if it's a universal characteristic of youth, or Western culture, or the times in which I have lived, but linear thinking is pervasive, as we imagine that one thing will lead to another, and steady progress is inevitable. We see ourselves as on some kind of ladder or staircase, each experience, each accomplishment, each year, one more step upward, bringing us ever closer to some undetermined endpoint of perfection.
We are wrong.
I suppose it's just easier for us to believe this linear explanation of everything than to understand humanity, nations, the world, and the universe as infinite energy. This energy is constantly moving around, not so much as an endless loop, but as an endless road -- sometimes clear and smooth, sometimes rocky and dangerous, sometimes dark, sometimes bright, but never, ever ending. It twists and turns and spirals back and around, rises to steep heights, and plummets to fearsome depths. This may all seem to contradict another major lesson I've learned, which is "This too shall pass." But it actually doesn't. These concepts are two sides of the same coin. There are no endings and beginnings, and there are nothing but endings and beginnings. Nothing lasts forever and everything is never-ending.
"This too shall pass" can help us endure difficult or painful experiences, but we will always circle around to rocky, uphill portions of our path again. Life keeps on giving us the same lessons -- disguised in an infinite variety of circumstances, problems, and experiences -- until we finally learn them. Yet even many of these lessons are repeated later on, because learning does not preclude forgetting, and some of the lessons we face are the same ones we once learned. This is true for us individually as well as collectively, as generations often need to learn for themselves what their ancestors knew. Before it can be said that the mountain of a lesson is truly scaled, we must grasp it intellectually, understand it emotionally, and then effect the permanent change in our actions that it calls for.
Life lessons are only one item on a long list of things that are endless. I recently discovered that Sharon Salzberg first learned to meditate in the same year (1971) as I did. In the nearly 50 years since, she has become one of the preeminent American teachers and authors on meditation. I am someone who meditates. Mostly. Often. Sometimes. There have been periods of time when I did not meditate at all and those when I meditated several times every day or for long stretches of time. Now, I meditate daily, usually two or three times. Sometimes more often, sometimes for only a few minutes. I do not sit zazen for hours on end, I have not become a perfectly peaceful person, and I do not consider myself "enlightened." I do know more about meditation than people who have never meditated, and I have practiced enough different types of meditation (TM, Zen, visualization techniques, counting breath, etc.) to know which ones feel best for me. The main lesson in meditation is that practicing it never ends. You don't learn it, get better at it, and then do it perfectly ever after. Every single meditation session -- whether you've been meditating for five minutes or 50 years -- is about coming back, and coming back, and coming back again, to the present moment, to your focus of concentration. Your mind will wander, because that's what human minds do. It's the coming back again and again that is the practice of meditation. You learn to observe your mind wandering and guide it back gently, as many times as it takes, without impatience or frustration. You learn to sit with aches and pains -- although you can minimize these with a meditation cushion (called a zabuton) and pillow (zafu) -- and discover that you don't have to scratch every itch that you feel.
Some people never get into meditation because they want to learn how and then be able to feel (and say) that they've mastered it. They want completion. No one wants to stay in the ninth grade forever, and sometimes that's what meditation can feel like. We like to believe that we are making progress, moving forward, and achieving closure. But there is no closure in meditation, and that's one reason it's a great teacher for us. Because there is no real closure to anything. Everything comes back because it was always there and is always there. A lot of human frustration comes from feeling that we should never have to do, think about, or practice something ever again, but we always do. When we learn this one thing, we can begin to let the frustration go.
Here are some other examples of things we have to do over and over and over again:
Housework, decluttering, Feng Shui.
Fighting the Good Fight (deciding what's worth fighting for and what isn't).
Figuring out who we are.
Letting go (of other people being who they are, for instance).
Choosing what we want to do, have, and be.
Choosing where we want to be.
Determining right from wrong in every situation.
Self-care (diet, exercise, rest, recovery, etc.).
Healing (inner and outer).
Gearing up (energy, activity, vitality).
Working on our relationships with other people.
Balancing intellect and emotion, action and inaction, darkness and light.
Basically, we have to work on everything, fight for everything, care about everything, let go of everything, and balance everything. Endlessly.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki
When we recognize our default linear thinking, we can instead approach each new experience, each new day, each new moment with what Zen Buddhists call beginner's mind. Rather than seeing everything as a step toward an end point, we can open our eyes to the experience of every present moment and every lesson, both new and old. We can ask ourselves "What can I learn from this?" instead of "When will this end?" or "Why me?" We can stop thinking that there is a final goal, a point at which we will have no pain, no worries, no insecurity, no uncertainty, no drudgery. There may be an end to today's housework or this year's political climate, but we will have to face these things again and again. Maybe the lesson is to just wake up to the reality that none of it ever really ends and we need to stop imagining that it will. When we remember that we have never accomplished it all, learned it all, or finished it all, we can relax into the endlessness of it all, and maybe even get a little better at it.
When I was a young woman, my grandfather enjoyed discussing politics with me and my husband. We didn't always agree, but we were all able to express our views respectfully and openly. My elderly grandfather -- who had immigrated from Italy as a young man, learned English and a trade, and became an American citizen -- would shrug and say, "Well, it's your turn now. We had our turn. Now you have to make the world whatever you're going to make it." He understood and accepted that his retirement or even the end of his life did not signal the end of humanity's accomplishments or learning. He knew that he had learned his lessons and that we had to learn ours, and even if they were the same lessons, they would have to be learned over and over, forever. My husband and I have never forgotten his words, and at least partly because of them, we understand that the universe is made up of energy, moving all around, taking various forms, and never, ever ending. Our bodies may die, but energy never dies and never finishes. So every day, we keep on doing our work, fighting for what we believe in, caring deeply, letting go with love, and balancing the give and take, the light and darkness, the effort and acceptance.
I have found that continually applying Feng Shui principles to my home environment is endless, but it is not an endless chore. It's fun discovering and rediscovering ways to keep the energy moving freely, giving each area a jolt of activation, and nipping clutter accumulation in the bud. We can find the good in everything that is endless, if we just stop wishing it would end.
Think about the endlessness of everything.
See everything as energy, which is everywhere and never ends.
• As you go through one whole day, notice all the little things you have done before and will have to do again. Simple repetitive tasks -- like making coffee, brushing your teeth, and locking the door -- are usually done without even thinking about them. Today, think about them. Think about how having to do them over and over again doesn't bother you. You accept these things as part of your daily routine. You know they will have to be done over and over and you're okay with that.
• The next day, notice the things that happen over and over that DO irritate you. What is different about these things? Notice if you think you shouldn't have to do them over and over, that you have done them already and you don't want to do them again. Start to be aware of the kinds of things that frustrate you in this way. See if you can let go of the irritation by recognizing and accepting that the endlessness is a reality that is not going to change. Forget about wishing you didn't have to do it and just do it all with love.
• After you clean, clear, declutter, and Feng Shui your living space, you will have to do it over and over and over again. You may have displaced or accumulated things just as you had before, and you may have some different issues this time. The point is that the process is endless, and that's okay. Think of it as constant maintenance -- like taking care of your body, your car, your finances, your relationships, etc. -- that will make your life better.
• Forgiving someone who has harmed you or someone you love in some way is always hard. Even if you feel you have reached that place in your mind and heart, you may find that the pain or anger resurfaces from time to time and you have to forgive all over again.
• I grew up with a genuine distaste for fighting. Yet, I have learned that there are things that are worth fighting for and that must be fought for, over and over again. Sort through the things you truly believe to be worth fighting for and let go of the rest. Accept that fighting for those things worth fighting for (justice, truth, fairness, equality, etc.) will have to be fought for forever. Decide how you will contribute to the fight in a positive, constructive way.