As a doer, a problem-solver by nature with an inquisitive mind and a compulsion to be in near-constant action, I’ve spent much of my life reacting to my feelings as though they were problems that needed to be solved; imperfections that must be altered in some way or disposed of as quickly as possible. Any negative emotion is met with “What do I need to do? How do I get rid of this, this part of me that is wrong,” and their positive counterparts with “How do I make this even better, how do I make it last forever or increase the intensity?” Rarely have I been able to simply experience a feeling and let it flow on its own timetable and of its own accord.
What I am finding as I continue to learn and grow through my spiritual journey is that a much greater challenge lies in the art of stillness. Developing non-reactivity as a conditioned response is a tremendous task.
Much of the information available to us in modern society serves to reinforce this idea that every thought, every feeling or impulse, requires a response. There is no emphasis placed on living in the moment, because in this moment your life is imperfect for lack of the next thing: the new toy, the bigger house, the better life. We must be more alert, get more results, run faster, train harder, lose more weight, be more attractive, drive more luxurious cars, wear nicer clothes, smile whiter, be better, bigger, more, more, more. And we must do it immediately.
Most of the emotional pain, the discomfort or dis-ease, that I have known stems from or is compounded by the reactive nature of perception. I experience an event, and then I begin the process of translating it through the lens of my subjective response. The primary experience is captured in an instant, but by the time any true perceptual cognition takes place the moment has passed. I am always living, in effect, in the past. Trapped in time, the emotive mechanism races to catch up but is forever trailing, scrambling like a kid who’s late for the bus: arms flailing, hair askew, backpack jerking wildly at the straps with each bound toward the impossible accordion door.
In this mode I am hardly capable of living in harmony with my emotional condition. I am never truly present, standing captive in a state of spiritual latency.
And all the while it is as if there is a part of me that knows it. The urgent claustrophobia, the fantasy of cinematic rectification, the compulsion to spring into action and affect immediate change: all symptoms of this dysphoric delusion of the possibility of control. I convince myself that I, the great and mythical “I”, must be the one to resolve the melody. I must work harder, make greater attempts, exert more willful pressure and ultimately conquer this unjust disparity.
Time moves onward and I am evolved of my ideas by way of experience. Evolution, however, is not a strictly linear process. The immediacy of offending defects may prompt a course of action resulting in the subversion of acute symptomatic manifestation, but in the meantime there are subtle layers of viral adaptation occurring beneath the surface. New and resilient strains of manipulative reactivity are conceived, bubbling to the surface in the forms of subtle self-deception, insatiability, tendencies toward distraction, apathy and procrastination, and all manner of fear-based self-obsession. The very idea that force of will could diffuse the delusion is a redundancy in and of itself.
And we come, ultimately, full circle. Perhaps that is the true nature of personal spiritual evolution. Not a direct progression from one state to the next, but a series of concentric circles. A venn diagram wherein progress is defined not in the abolition of one mode in favor of another, but in the clarification of relationships between behaviors, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. Discovering the intersections where they occur and paying as much specific attention to these as to the areas of exclusion.
In spirit and character, as in art, negative space holds equal power to positive. We learn of ourselves by what we see, and what we do not.