Something like 56 million sensory impressions come into our body at any given moment. We walk around or drive around listening to music, talking to people, reading billboards, thinking/planning/evaluating and, in midst of all that, someone or something interrupts us and takes our attention in a different direction.
Our life could be seen easily as a series of interruptions, one after another. The real question, though, is what are we being interrupted from? Isn’t it often the case that what we are being interrupted from is an earlier interruption from something else?
How far back does this chain of interruptions go? And what was the starting point?
We have appointments, starting and ending times for events, dates to meet people, vacations that we put in our schedule, and the endlessly revolving cycle of recurring events, holy days, holidays, birthdays. All these interrupt our usual daily activities. But don’t we go ahead and interrupt them with our daily activities—at least those that we feel we must adhere to—no matter the significance of a given day? More interrupting of our interruptions.
In the midst of all this it is very difficult to keep track of what we are really up to in our life. Can we, in fact, be up to anything when we are tossed around in the way I’m describing (which is, I know, on the mild side of the description— many of us live much more tempestuous lives)? What is our through line? What is the genuine ground we’re standing on?
Oh, I know we all have our explanations. We can readily answer the question “what are you up to?” with a long, sometimes compelling list of our commitments, projects and relationships. Some of us have mission statements. Do these explanations, though, account for how we actually spend our time?
Is our life’s reality the explanation we give to it or is it what we spend our time doing? And does it count as “doing” when it’s not in our plan, when it’s something that we somehow bounced into from being interrupted from what was interrupting us?
Meanwhile, our time on earth is like a flash of lightning in the sky or like the morning dew on the grass: very soon gone.
Will we be like Tolstoy’s tragic protagonist Ivan Ilyich (the central character in his important short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich) and catch on to our life when it’s too late?
The last question is the one that is probably at the origination point for Integral Coaching.
What can minimize our spinning off into random activity and return us most quickly to what is essentially important? If we don’t have good answers to that question, I think we do stand a good chance of ending up like Ivan Ilyich. So here are some of my answers.
The most important thing for us to remember is to keep coming back to our self. By our “self,” though, I don’t mean what is often spoken about as the “self” in our culture. I’m not referring to the collection of preferences, desires, fears, habits, socialized views, momentum of ego and so on that we protect with so much vigor and vehemence.
Rather I’m pointing to something much more mysterious that arises in each moment and connects us to what is happening and what has happened—in a sense, a frontier of potential unique responsiveness. The culmination of all biological/social wisdom that can possibly show up just now, just this way. A phenomenon to be studied in awe and reverence rather than to be owned or controlled or identified with. Something/someone never quite done but always in process, always unfolding, always developing—sometimes quite slowly, sometimes quite quickly and dramatically. Different each time we look and made different by our looking.
I’m saying that our most important task as a human being is to keep returning to this sense, this feeling that isn’t exactly an experience, that has much more precise content and boundaries, but that gives rise to all possible experiences. It’s returning again and again to the one who is present, here. The one who is aware. The task is as Jesus said to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane (a wonderful evocative reference to our everyday life where so much is at stake and where we feel a huge pull to go to sleep): stay awake and keep watch. It’s what Buddha asked us to do when he said be a lamp unto yourself. It’s what all the prophets spoke about as they implored us to keep returning to the central sacred core of our being and our personal connection to something larger than our usual identity.
More than anything else it’s important for us to build in practices, rituals, reminders that return us again and again to our self. This self-remembering is the practice of breaking the trance of activity and habit that we so easily fall into and that makes us into automatons.
I think it’s our only chance to be alive.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the Distinctions newsletter.
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