HWW Life Practice #5: Love
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.”
For many years the notion of my own spirituality eluded me. The day after my bar mitzvah at age 13 I became a lapsed Jew, but even prior to that I was only ever at best a half-hearted Jew. A member of the tribe by birth and rite but never a true believer. To me the old stories were interesting historical artifacts; nuggets of wisdom for sure, but not a doctrine I could use to guide my life.
Religious faith, then, has not been a feature of my life for more than 40 years. I instead leaned hard into philosophy and science and reason. I waged an intellectual war on all religions and all religious doctrine, especially those dogmas that tribalize and divide humans by belief systems (that is, all religions). There was no room in my intellectually rigorous life for the divisive fantasies of religious dogma.
And yet I knew so many people whose religious faith brought meaning and community to their lives. So-called spiritual people. Could I ever experience the kind of calm groundedness they seemed to derive from their faith without a faith of my own? Or would there always be a veil separating me from these people, and my experience from theirs? I worried that my lack of faith was a deal-breaker, cutting me off, forever, from a spiritual life, from a life blessed with wonder and meaning.
And then I witnessed the birth of my first child, Eliza Grace.
Suddenly there was another being in the world that was more important than me, whose importance dwarfed my own, obliterated it. My life up until this point, I now realized, was merely a warm-up act for the real thing. I literally knew nothing about life, which was only now getting started. I would forevermore be in service to this new being, and to the other beings (her brother and sister) that would join her in the coming years.
I’ve often told prospective parents (unbidden, typically) that being a father brought me to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Emotional depths that I was never aware of were now commonplace, sometimes occurring on a daily basis. I was surprised by these dramatic emotional swings; I found it scary to feel so deeply. I desperately craved what had always been an elusive equanimity, and this feeling was the opposite. Emotional peaks and valleys made me feel out of control; being out of control made me feel vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable has always been scary to me.
I despised vulnerability. I hated seeing it in other people – it made me feel intensely uncomfortable and I judged people harshly for it – and I did everything I could to hide my vulnerability from others. I knew if anyone found out about it the gig would be up. My many weaknesses would be exposed and I would lose all the love and respect and admiration I’d worked so hard for.
What I didn’t realize was that in closing myself off from my vulnerability I was condemning myself to an emotional prison. The more I denied my vulnerability, the more I buried it under layers of personality and affect, the further away I was traveling from my true nature and from really connecting with other people.
My prostate cancer diagnosis (read my story here) was a vulnerability I couldn’t avoid or ignore. Or hide.
My first thought: this is my fault. This is either the result of something I’d done that I shouldn’t have or something I didn’t do that I should have been doing. I felt a deep shame; I didn’t tell my family or close friends for months.
I was surprised at how quickly I turned on myself, how desperately I needed to assign blame and how ready I was to accept it. And the more I learned about the connection between prostate cancer and lifestyle the guiltier I felt and the more I blamed myself. That was my default mode: judge, condemn, keep score.
What I really needed to do, in those very early days, was to forgive myself and forgive my body. Only then could I embrace this terrifying obstacle, invite it in for a chat, stare into its eyes and learn what I had to learn from it.
Because there’s always something to learn. In every situation, no matter how difficult, that which blocks our path has the potential to reveal hidden dimensions to us. A door closing can be the end of one path, but it can also reveal other paths which we never even knew were there.
This is what it means to me to be heart-centered, to practice Love. To lead with my heart (feelings) and not my brain (thoughts, reason) is unnatural, so I practice every day. I train myself for optimism. I like the way it makes me feel and I want to get better at it. I want to maintain a radical openness, an embrace of what is, not what “should be” or what “could be.” The vulnerability is still there but it no longer controls my emotions. I have consciously cultivated patience and equanimity, empathy and gratitude.
Because I have so much to be grateful for. I’m healthy and most everyone I care about is healthy (until they’re not, which is an unavoidable part of living). We might not have everything we want but we have everything we need, and then some. And I want to feel more grateful for that, more often. So I continue to practice.
Ryan Holiday, in The Obstacle is the Way, talks about the Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of each one of us that no external adversity can breach. From the vantage point of this impenetrable fortress we can accept things that are outside of our control, we can manage expectations (of ourselves and of others), and we can learn to love our fate and whatever happens to us.
Resolve to build your Inner Citadel, brick by brick. Find a daily gratitude practice. Find a “loving kindness meditation” and send loving thoughts out to your family, friends, co-workers, nemeses and the rest of humanity.
Do something nice for someone else, for no other reason than you want to bring joy to that person’s life, to spread joy throughout the world.
Be present and open in the company of everyone you meet, listening for what you can learn or how you can help.
Stop blaming people for your troubles. Resist the urge to judge or condemn.
Don’t recoil from vulnerability, others or your own.
Take responsibility for your own emotional state.
Simple, but not easy.
Get busy with your own rescue. Start today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not as part of your next New Year’s resolutions. Today. There’s no time to waste.
The good news is you’re not alone. We’re here to help. Let us show you the Health Warrior Way.
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