By Fleet Maull. PhD One of the main responsibilities of any teacher or guide, on any path in life, is to help others see where they might be stuck. This is not as simple as it might sound. It takes someone who has had the bravery to face and thoroughly work with their shadow or “stuff.”
The shadow refers to the disowned part of ourselves, the unconscious baggage of repressed human emotions and impulses that needs to be illuminated, so we can stop repeating toxic patterns and harmful habits and begin a process of healing and growth.
Having done this challenging shadow work allows someone to be a more authentic person and deepens one’s insight and skill as a teacher. It also leads one to hold a larger view than those who are constantly seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and getting lost in ignorance.
In the context of my own work with the shadow, I discovered a very deep, yet simple, life distinction. These so-called “life distinctions” are the kinds of moments forcing us to suddenly wake up to the reality of our situation. There are countless examples of such events, which have the capacity to completely pull the rug under our feet: your wife having an affair with the neighbor, a bankruptcy, a serious disease…And small things too… like walking into your apartment and realizing your cat puked all over the floor --- again. All these life moments present us with an opportunity to wake up and see reality as it really is: Neutral.
It happened to me when I managed to get myself slapped with a 30-year, no-parole sentence.
With this long incarceration and the reality of my son now having to grow up without a father, I had a significant “circumstance” to reckon with. Unapologetically, life hit me hard (as it often does when we are not listening). I had talked, walked and even danced my way out of a lot of what would have been “undesirable circumstances” in the past, but there was no getting out of this one.
I had two choices: face my crime (and all the pain that led me down this path and that I had caused for others close to me) or keep pointing that finger and blame all those who helped me create this “circumstance.”
It was time for me to own up to what I created. It was time to see what choices I still had available to me. It would have been all too easy to just simply give up and resign myself to “being a convict”, but I knew I wanted to do more. Thankfully, I knew that I still had a choice.
So what was that “Life Distinction” for me you wonder? What was that simple phrase that had such a huge impact on my life and that I have since used as my guiding light in the many trainings I have led all over the world (including places like Auschwitz and Rwanda)?
That life distinction is: “Circumstances are Neutral.”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not really in the thing itself but in your own estimate of it. And this, you have control over.” -- Marcus Aurelius
If my story isn’t convincing enough, think about Viktor Frankl--a man facing his own death in a torture and death camp, the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau), after witnessing his entire family murdered by the Nazis during WWII. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he says that “we always have a choice about the attitude we bring or the approach we take to our given situation.” Even as Viktor Frankl was starving to death, emaciated, desperate, and hopeless, he could see that he had a choice. Even when facing death, there was still a choice.
Next time we get a parking ticket, let’s remember…there is still choice. This isn’t to say we won’t be devastated when horrific things happen (and even spend some time grieving and processing the pain) but at some point, we have to make a choice about how we are going to live with whatever happened. We can decide to either embrace the situation or be victimized by it. It is up to us whether we let it take us down and become embittered by it or, instead, find the most creative way we can respond to the circumstance, the response that will lead to the best result for ourselves and others.
Sometimes our only choice may be the attitude we bring to a situation, but that is nonetheless a choice, and a powerful choice that can change everything about our experience. That's what we are talking about with “Circumstances are Neutral.” We are talking about the power of choice and the power of taking ownership of both our ability to choose and the outcomes of our choices.
“Many times we think it’s the circumstances that are bringing us down, but it’s not really the circumstances. . . It is our response to those circumstances, which are controlling our destiny.” -- Fleet Maull