Growing through Up and Down

One day in Tai Chi class, my instructor said something that surprised me. When you’re experiencing a lot of Yang energy and everything is going strong, he said, expect Yin to come along. In other words, when you’ve been flying high for some time, expect to come down. When life is easy, expect it to grow hard. Now, if you’ve ever heard of Yin and Yang, you’re probably wondering why this surprised me. I’m a healer and philosopher; don’t I know this? Life goes up and down. The pendulum swings right and left. How else could there be movement, a flow, without the interplay of opposites?

What surprised me about his remark was its honest portrayal of what spiritual practice – working on yourself – really looks like. We live in a society where everything gets packaged and sold, even spiritual life. Because of market pressures, and the way our society is structured generally, there is a very strong tendency to craft victorious, ultimate narratives: “I learned this new technique, and my life was forever blissful,” or, “I reached this new insight, and nothing ever bothered me again.” My teacher was saying something different. He was saying, expect to be challenged; always expect life to continue nudging you to grow.

Sometimes I like to think of this growth as an energetic picture. I imagine each of us as a point in an infinite universe. Each of us is a metric, interrelated and interconnected, in a space extending far beyond what we can fathom. Yet we can explore this space; we are part of it, and it is part of us. I see this relationship as a flow of light passing through us. As we learn and grow, we conduct more and more light. We expand outward, so that light shines brighter and brighter through us to the rest of the world. And we expand inward, so that more and more of our pathways become clear conduits of light. The two directions of growth complement and relate to each other. The better we know ourselves, the more we can reach out to the world. Yet both directions of growth are endless.

Sometimes the inward work is described as peeling the layers of an onion. One layer comes off, only for us to find a fresh new one underneath. Sometimes I think of the outward work as traveling from the Earth to the Moon, the Planets, and the Stars. There is an ever-expanding frontier. Sometimes I think of the journey numerically. Whether we try to count all of the real numbers from one out to infinity, or simply from one down to zero, the path is endless. The more we reach out to the world, the more we find uncharted territory. The more we look into ourselves, the more we find dark pieces not yet opened and explored.

We cannot tell the story of ever-growing light without unending darkness. This is the natural process of growth. The problem with the victorious narratives that we find in popular culture is not just that they are inaccurate. It is not just that they ignore the darkness that is always part of light. The deeper problem is that they keep us from seeing the progress we are making in our own lives. Even worse, they discourage us from continuing to try. When we encounter new problems, we start to think that all of our progress is a sham. We compare ourselves to those victorious narratives, and we think that our own work is not successful, real, or effective enough.

Because life is always an interplay of light and darkness, we have a choice about how to tell our own stories. We can see the darkness, notice that it always creeps into the picture, and tell a story of failure – or worse, a story that runs from the very idea of working on ourselves because we are so afraid of failure. Or, we can see darkness as simply the shadow of ever-expanding light. The choice is not arbitrary. Deciding to tell a story of growth instead of a story of failure is not a matter of self-trickery. Nor are the options equivalent. I know when I look honestly at my life that I am growing because the old problems are not hard. The tools in my kit handle them well. It is my edge, my places of growth, where I find the most darkness. I believe that if you look at your own life carefully, and consider the problems you have worked hardest to overcome, you will find the same to be true.

So, the next time you are up, expect to come down – not because life is a meaningless ping-ponging back and forth, not because you will fail to reach the ultimate heights of the spiritual greats, and not because it all feels too good to be true; but because you will expand. Expect yourself to learn and grow your way to the next challenge. Let yourself ride this wave to a new horizon.

And in case that sounds daunting, or even a little exhausting, take heart. Look to the ground you’ve already covered for inspiration and support. Take in the abundant light from the spaces you’ve already cleared. Enjoy the tools you have earned in the places where they work best. Let those lessons learned be an anchor for you and for others. Take a moment to rejoice, to reach out to those around you. And journey on.

Asking the Big Questions

The other day a reader on Facebook contacted me. He wanted to get a professional philosopher’s take on a question. “What do you think…,” he asked, “of the meaning of existence?”

“Well, that’s a big question,” I could hear my own advisor answering in my head.  In academic philosophy, we are trained to be very careful and precise in our thinking. It’s a great skill, but sometimes it gets in the way of really engaging with life. When I told my advisor the last unit of the philosophy course I designed was on the meaning of life, he had nothing more to say. Well, that’s a big question…I was glad this reader on Facebook had reached out to me, and not to a professor whose prudence might have discouraged him. I believe in big questions.

Over the millennia, philosophers have come up with all sorts of responses to big questions. We couldn’t even begin to catalog their answers here. But the 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell captures very clearly what is perhaps the most relevant point. Russell writes that the value of philosophy does not come from finding answers. If you want answers, he says, look to science; it’s pretty good at generating them. In fact, every time philosophy stumbles on a bunch of answers, they break off from the discipline to form a new science. That’s how physics and psychology, for instance, developed. It’s no accident that science itself was once called, “natural philosophy.” As new answers coalesce, branching off to form new disciplines, the ancient practice of philosophy is left with a core of unanswerable questions. “What is the meaning of existence?” “Who am I?” “How should I live?” Russell’s point is that the real value of philosophy comes not from definitively answering these questions, but from simply opening ourselves to them – looking at them from different angles, dialoging with others about them, thinking about how they impact us. In philosophy, the questions matter even more than the answers. They ask us to take a step back from our everyday lives, to look more carefully at the world, to get to know ourselves better, to fathom the greatness of a world that includes us yet extends so far beyond us.

In philosophy, questions are what lift us up.  They are the real grist for our purpose and understanding. Yet most of us do have our favorite ways of looking for answers. I lean toward the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who offers nothing like an absolute theory of meaning. Instead, he argues that meaning is what me make. Life constantly presents us with choices. We do not control all of life, but our choices impact a great part of it. When we choose to act, we define ourselves and the world that we live in. Even not making a choice, Sartre claims, is itself a choice, but of the worst kind. When we decide not to choose, we fail to claim our lives as our own. We fail to exercise the free, creative capacity that is so special to being human.

As a healer, I often think of meaning as the process of growth. We are pieces of the universe in relation with each other – constantly discovering and becoming. When we fail to ask big questions, we stall that growth. We let ourselves be simply dragged along. On a planet teetering at the very edge of equilibrium, this is a particularly dangerous practice. In a society run by massive, mindless systems, the only way to make conscious change is for each of us to wake up and begin to notice the world around us. Today more than ever, we need to remember to take a step back and reflect.

But we must also realize that reflection alone is not enough. It is just as bad only to ask questions as it is never to ask them. We must let the two activities – reflection and action – feed each other. We must let our actions be the subject of our reflections, and our reflections be the guidance of our actions. So, go ahead and think. Write out your grand theories and share your ideas with your friends. Don’t be afraid of being wrong or not making sense. Get others engaged in conversation. That is how we learn and grow. And that is where our commitment to building a better world begins.