Just an hour ago I had an epiphany. My human development group was having an exceptionally mature discussion, and we were all giddy with our expressions of understanding. Each of us was expressing highly personal revelations we had discovered about being more fully human. When these are written out they will seem like obvious things, and in a way they are obvious, but actually doing these things in the ways we were expressing them would obviously have profound effects on our personality and growth. We all want to be better people, and that’s why we come to these meetings, but how to actually do that is a conundrum. What does it mean to be mature, and how do we do it? Where do we get the awareness and energy to actually do the deeds at the proper time and place in a way that will be effective?
Let me present these ideas in the order that they developed in the hope of better explaining how the flow created my personal moment. As our conversation took off it became apparent that people are commonly caught up in their own life story, and that the painful parts of the story warped our relationship with our world and our people. The question becomes, how do we break out of our personal routines that don’t work very well, and find better ones?
I brought up the contract I have with a friend, outside of this group, to always tell positive stories about our fathers. It’s a reprogramming of our own memories and habits with the intent of overwriting the destructive experiences with positive ones. The idea is that after several repetitions of this overwriting it will become habitual to think in ways that are less painful and less fearful, and we can respond to our experiences with habitual responses that will generate better outcomes. This was an example of rewriting difficult-to-control internal habits with more consciously available external actions. We change our external behavior consciously so our internal habits will be unconsciously treating the external world better at the next encounter with similar ideas. The secondary effect of this training of our habits is to then treat ourselves better, and thus we become kinder to ourselves, as well as other people. Now when we talk about our fathers they become much more reasonable and friendly people, and so do we.
Then it became apparent that it is the very moment that we are about to have some unkind thought about some other person, or do some unkind act toward them, that we can instead bring forth a kind thought or act. Those are key moments in one’s life! It is in those instants in time that we can develop the habits of treating others better, and that we can learn to treat ourselves better too. It is then that we are relating to the world with our big-self coming from conscious awareness of love, instead of from the shriveled-self of unconscious non-awareness of fear.
It was suggested that we could do some of this in our imagination, by closing our eyes and thinking through various life situations in as realistic way as possible and think through the thoughts and actions necessary to achieve the new habits. I immediately closed my eyes and for half a minute attempted to do just that, even though others were still talking. It appears to be possible, but it probably also requires substantial real-world practice for a new habit to become consistently spontaneous. So, we should choose to intentionally think of a potentially difficult situation, and then mentally practice how we would cope in a better way with our response. Come to think of it, that is exactly what Epictetus recommends when approaching a swim in a public swimming pool. But, to make these new habits actually work, we need to occasionally go to the “swimming pool.”
Much more was happening in the meeting, but my epiphany came when we were talking about what the prophet said 2000 years ago, “When receiving a slap in the face, turn the other cheek.” I said I always had an unpleasant feeling about that suggestion, and the other one too, “If asked for your coat give your shirt too.” What nonsense! Then it became apparent to me, that giving your shirt is a voluntary act, whereas the giving of the coat to a Roman soldier apparently wasn’t voluntary at that ancient time. However, the giving of the shirt is an act of personal control that cultivates your habit of kindness, and the kindness feeds back onto yourself. You give the shirt one time, but that difficult act is given back to you countless times sprinkled through the rest of your life. The slap in the face, converted into a voluntary intentional act of turning the other cheek has the same effect, of being able to give back an acceptance for a painful action, and that ability, as an intentionally cultivated habit, will help you through many difficult times in your future.
The ability to accept reality, no matter what form it takes, is the greatest habit there can be.