I once spent four days and nights on the side of a remote mountain in southern Chile, on one tiny spot of earth my body could barely lie down upon, with no shelter, no food or water (that’s right, no water for four days), and a scorching throat-infection that stabbed at my neck each time my death valley mouth reflexively swallowed phantom saliva. I would awaken throughout each night to peel sticky slugs off my neck and fling them off into the thick, black distance. Apparently I survived because I’m writing this … unless I’m Bruce Willis in that movie Sixth Sense…hmmmmmm…
The real crazy part? I did all that on purpose. I believed such extreme deprivation would yield the spiritual insights I so desperately craved.
Another time, I damn near steam-cooked myself alive inside a small domed structure covered with six-inch thick layers of tree saplings, leather skins, and heavy blankets. It was my first Sweat Lodge, and it was a Miami summer. The lodge leader kept bringing in these breadloaf-size hot river stones glowing sparkly red from cooking in a nearby camp fire. Stone after stone, he drenched each with water which hissed and seethed as it burst into thick, choking steam that wrapped tight around my body like a ghostly python. My skin was literally cooking.
Round after excruciating round, I stayed inside the dome, believing I had to make it through this purification ritual to … to … to … geez, I don’t even remember “to” what. To feel better about my life? To see the Wizard? To attract my soul mate? To be at peace with George Bush in the White House?
I tortured myself intentionally, thinking this ritual purification would give me the peace of mind I deeply wanted. I will say, I’ve never felt such ecstatic gratitude as I did immediately afterwards when I emerged from that easy-bake human oven and collapsed upon fresh grass, gazing stupefied up at a vast blue sky while someone drizzled cool hose water across my steaming, loin-clothed body. But that peace of mind faded a day later; all I was left with was a crazy tale of near self-immolation, and really great skin.
I could go on … and on … and on.
Always desperate for liberation from, well, who knows what … I’ve been playing life as if the Uni-verse is that wicked crazy guy in those gory Saw movies and he’s hidden the best truths deep inside my gut. I just have to stab my car keys through my belly button and sort through 30-feet of my own intestines to find it.
Wanna know one of my favorite lessons? … Ok, I’ll tell ya!
After going back over and over to a consistently heavy relationship experience, I finally learned the ironic lesson that I don’t ever – and I mean never! – have to stay in a consistently heavy relationship experience!
I love something Eckhart Tolle said: “If you chain me to the bar in a nightclub, I’ll find the experience of ‘now’. But as soon as you unchain me, I’m outta there.”
Look, I’m not advocating for bailing when times get tough. I’m not suggesting we renegotiate on commitments or walk away from situations when things bog down or get difficult. Heck no!
Navigating tricky, treacherous waters is the only way to make truly wise sailors of us all.
I’m also a big fan of pushing ourselves to new horizons. Our evolution – not to mention humanity’s evolution – depends on it. Pushing ourselves in pursuit of a new skill or state of being, like getting a Masters Degree or improving health by eating less sugar and doing more yoga, is sometimes difficult.
But there’s an enormous difference between pushing myself to limits in the pursuit of sound mind and body and willingly throwing myself into dangerous waters because I think there’s some profound lesson to be learned in the grip of a shark’s mouth. (Sure, there’s a lesson: stop throwing yourself into dangerous water, Bryan!)
The difference is joy. There’s almost no perceptible thread of joy in throwing myself into treacherous water, knowing I’m going to get bashed against jagged rocks and ripped apart by sharks. There’s just agony and torment.
When I’m pushing myself in healthy ways, taking action that truly serves my mind and body, there’s an underlying, satisfied awareness that ultimately has the cells of my body smiling, even as my face might be grimacing.
Finally, after years of intentionally inflicting harm on myself or denying myself joy for the sake of some lesson or a better life, I’ve discovered that if there’s no joy in it, there’s no point to it.
Sure, life might sometimes throw me into harm’s way, but then it’s on me to find a little current of joy and let it carry me away from the clear danger.
Otherwise, I’m totally free to say “no thanks!” to that meditation that requires me to sit in one spot for ten days straight, in silence, literally without moving or lying down for ten hours each day. With no judgment, no fear, no arrogance or contempt, I simply recognize that it doesn’t sound even remotely enjoyable. Not long ago, I was hungry for that meditation: can you imagine what insights I’ll surely gain from destroying my comfort zone with extreme stillness?
Naaaah. No thanks.
Some of the greatest things I’ve ever learned, I learned with far more pleasure than pain. Learning French in Bordeaux, France. How to take in a spectacular sunset and how to cook; how to be vulnerable, make love to a woman, appreciate silence, truly accept my father (it was my resistance to him that was painful; genuine acceptance is exhilarating).
It seems to me if the joy is truly in the journey, then it’s up to me to ensure my journey is as joyful as possible. Every lesson always seems to point back towards discovering deeper, more lasting experiences of joy, anyway.
Might as well skip the self-torture and go straight for the joy.
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