“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”
Working With Your Life
Once, a few decades ago, a meditation teacher I knew talked of the importance of ‘working with your life’. He said it casually, off-handedly, in the way that he said most everything. This from a guy who had been thrown out of the Navy for being gay, later becoming a junkie and a performing drag queen before doing a 180 into full spiritual practice. He knew about working with one's life, like his own.
I heard it then, registered it as compelling but somehow didn’t make a lot of it at the time. As happened with a lot of that teacher’s comments, they resonated with me years later. What does working with your life mean? This line or another of his will rise up for me now, for no particular reason. I guess I’m listening now.
The operative word here seems to be with. It suggests that we can work with the raw materials of what we’ve got and also that it's work; it's not about to happen by itself. There’s effort involved. We all have life material surfacing all the time from momentary stimuli, from worries, memories, relationship stuff, the swirl of emotions, conundrums. There’s always material manifesting and always movement. That’s as it should be; it shows we’re alive. And here’s where it gets interesting: what do we work with it if we do it at all?
Working with your life as you find it probably doesn’t mean setting the bull’s eye on ‘he/she/fill-in-the-blank’ as the cause of your distress (though the heartless bastards involved probably have a hand in it.....there, I said it) but looking with intent, quietly and with attention to what’s foreground - now. That tendency to project our problems and dilemmas outward onto others is a natural tendency, though one that’s good to catch ourselves in the act of.
As with projection, stepping back from full-on identification with life as a set of problems to be dealt with is a place to start. Giving words to experience helps; that’s what psychotherapy is all about. When we talk, we’re symbolizing bits of experience into the form of words and putting them out into the world. This process of symbolization means that energy inside us is shaped and moved. Maybe transformed. Having a witness in another person’s presence be that therapist, friend, partner opens up resonance channels in the 2 brains involved. When we feel heard, we feel connected.
To work with your life, internal space is needed, enough to feel the textures and grit and finely worked habits we have taken for granted, for bonafide reality. And patience - another kind of space - to sense what’s present now. For many it means giving meaning to experience, understanding and putting into context something of our own history but for others it’s more of a staying with what’s real and present now and doesn’t involve much thinking at all. It can be a right sizing; allowing feelings to be felt, thoughts long sequestered coming forward, linking behaviors and their emotional drivers. It might be knowing what’s ours, what’s not but that knowing of what is ours, that’s important. The intimacy of staying with our unfolding experience can for many truly feel like work. For others, it’s home.
This working with your life may come about by necessity, say, when alcohol or drug use gets out of control, when relationships hit the rocks or dissolve, when others tell us we have a problem and the confrontation lands. Working with your life may be a spread sheet - hopefully a long one - of gains and loss. Our life transit always includes elements of loss and saying good-bye; taking that in, feeling it, is necessary so we can move on and re-connect with life again. Working with what’s here for us now, room can be found for our joys, unanswered questions, sorrows. Working with, engaging, with our lives makes room for setbacks (with a sting), triumphs (probably easier), that whoosh of time passing.
Peter Goetz has been working as a therapist for over 25 years often working with people with overlapping psychiatric issues (e.g. PTSD, bipolar, major mood, attention deficit, dissociative disorders), medical problems (e.g., cancer, HIV, chronic pain), drug or alcohol mis-use or behaviors and traits. You can learn more about Peter at petergoetzmft.com.
Labels: Acceptance, Andy Worhol, Mindfulness, Peter Goetz