The Ability to Choose

You get to choose, every day. It’s depressing when it feels like the world is choosing something for you, like you have no control over your life. But you do. You decide what has been, what is, what will be. Human life is startlingly short if we’re worried about whether we can retire on a million dollars, which is a stupid question. Right now is all we really have. How many times do we have to hear this before it sinks in and we make art? We get to tell ourselves what every “now” means. Why aren’t we telling ourselves more often that we’re amazing?

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Do Your Best

I have a neighbor who looks like the separated-at-birth twin of Slavoj Žižek.  Rain or shine, Monday morning or Friday evening, he looks utterly dismayed at the stupidity of existence.  Perhaps there is some value in that perspective.  But, to me, he just seems consistently miserable.  I passed him this morning on my way to the market and would have said hello if he’d looked up.  He didn’t.  There were dark and gloomy things to entertain on this bright Saturday morning in Southern England.


Ah, I thought, maybe next time.  Maybe, at some vague juncture in the future when things are somehow better than they are right now (and it is possible for him to accurately determine this), he will smile. 

He’s a pretty good neighbor because I never see him.  But, when I do, I’m reminded of that (overused) line from Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”  He’s a university professor, lives in a very nice house, has a vivacious young French wife and two bright and healthy daughters.  And still: mordred in the black pit of despair every time I see him.  Well, maybe that’s just his style.

Sometimes, I wonder if his face is merely fixed that way, not unlike Grumpy, everyone’s favorite obsolete meme-cat.

This is actually Grumpy Cat smiling.  And I think we all know people like this.  They’re never happy unless they’re miserable, at least on the outside.  Many such people have a melancholy disposition even in the best of times.  These are the most difficult people to help.  They turn to magic as a solution when everything else has failed because they don’t really believe, deep down, that anything can make them satisfied or happy.   So why not something totally unreal and fake like magic?  It makes no sense when you think about it.  Of course, extremely depressed people are not expected to make sense.

As I walked to the market, my encounter with Clone Žižek got me thinking about conjure and about how aggrieved certain clients are when they contact me, how convinced they are that nothing will be able to fix their complex and insurmountable problems.  They want to believe in a spiritual solution.  But, really, they think they’re doomed.

Therefore, the first step when they contact me is to explore the possibility that other outcomes exist.  I do a short tarot reading, write up my insights and recommendations, then we talk about it.  Usually, that gets to the heart of the problem (which may be entirely different than what the client thinks he or she needs at first).  And if the cards show that work is indicated, I’ll lay out a range of possible solutions, send the client an invoice, set up a timeline and, as soon as payment is received, we’ll get moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I usually give out a lot of free folk magic advice on things the client can do to help him- or herself in little ways.  Folk magic can be immensely useful psychologically (decreasing lust of result, attaining necessary inner calm) and practically (putting yourself, your magical intentions, and the natural world in dynamic harmony). 

But there’s an even deeper piece of advice that I can give you right here.  It comes from one of my 7 Practices, common sense ideas I like on how to lead a tranquil satisfied life: “Acceptance.  I take everything life offers and use it to become smarter, stronger, and more joyful.  This may at times be difficult but, when it is possible, it is the best course of action.”

Ah-so,  you may be thinking, wisdom of the ancients!  A Hare Krishna gave me a free pamphlet on the street corner last week that said the same thing.  And I will agree with you that this principle is neither surprising nor original.  But it’s perhaps more immediately useful than 100 spell books on how to get paid and laid.  If used properly, it is a more powerful formula than any work of operative magic because it constitutes life-changing initiatory magic—as in, you are initiating (beginning) yourself in a new way.  You’re experiencing a new beginning.  And there is no separation between that magical intention and the target (you).  All it takes is desire and mindfulness.  

People think acceptance means making the best of things as they are.  Wrong.  How do you feel when someone says, “Just make the best of it.”  Do you feel good?  I’m willing to bet that you feel worse and probably a bit angry.  Being put in a position where you have to make the best of a bad situation or a problem feels like being trapped, admitting there is nothing to be done, and the problem is never going to change.  It is inherently defeatist and puts you back in Clone Žižek Land where the sky is always falling and everything is always horrible.

Instead, you initiate a new course of action-experience-being by “doing your best.”  Do you see the subtle difference?  “Making the best of what is” is not the same thing as “doing your best”—which has less to do with “what is” and more to do with “what you want it to be.”  “Doing your best” says that maybe you won’t be able to fix the whole thing.  Then again, maybe you will.  You have agency in the situation.  You are not being controlled by all-powerful forces taking away your options.

It goes without saying that you want to do your best in every problematic situation because every situation is problematic, at least in some small way.  Nothing is perfect and if we look hard enough through our grumpy glasses, we’ll see the inevitable defects.  Conversely, even in the worst situations, there are positive transformative elements.  I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, where he describes his school of psychotherapy (logotherapy) as a method that “focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.  According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

With this in mind, the “acceptance” I’m talking about here is dynamic rather than static.  It’s doing rather than making the best of it.  It’s an active search for something that means more.  And if practiced sincerely and mindfully in daily life, it is a profound form of Greater Initiatory Magic—magic that leads to powerful self-realization and happiness.

The best way I know to practice “doing your best” comes from the modern Stoic philosopher, Dr. William B. Irvine, in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joywhere he talks about setting internal rather than external goals:

I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself.  In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals.  Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control).  By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best.  His tranquility will not be disrupted

. . . . . 

Although they value tranquility, [Stoics] feel duty-bound to be active participants in the society in which they live.  But such participation clearly puts their tranquility in jeopardy.  One suspects, for example, that Cato would have enjoyed a far more tranquil life if he did not feel compelled to fight the rise to power of Julius Caesar— if he instead had spent his days, say, in a library, reading the Stoics.  I would like to suggest, though, that Cato and the other Stoics found a way to retain their tranquility despite their involvement with the world around them: They internalized their goals.  Their goal was not to change the world, but to do their best to bring about certain changes.  Even if their efforts proved to be ineffectual, they could nevertheless rest easy knowing that they had accomplished their goal: They had done what they could do.

In other words, by looking inwards and focusing on internal goals, which is to say, personally meaningful things, one does one’s best.  This is the way to initiate a new way of life.  It’s a reset button for bad situations.  And it works.  It’s not simply trying to use a New Age affirmation to convince oneself of something that isn’t the case in reality.  It’s not just “the power of positive thinking.”  It’s more like creating a new reality for yourself, in yourself, through an active search for meaning.

Just remember: don’t make the best of it.  Do your best.  And you will avoid the fate of Grumpy Cat.

Ajahn Brahm talks about depression.

Ajahn (“teacher”) Brahm is a very smart man.  He’s a Thai Buddhist monk of English-Australian origins.  Don’t be put off by his down-to-earth manner and sense of humor.  He does not take himself too seriously and yet the things he has to say are incredibly useful.  Although I do not identify as a Buddhist, I think Buddhism has great insights into the human mind and what it means to find tranquility in life.  I recommend this video in particular, especially his famous “2 Bad Bricks in the Wall” story.