I am sitting in my apartment in Athens, having just traveled for a week and a half in Israel visiting family and being tourists. It’s a quiet day for us. Everyone is a bit burnt out from the go-go-go situation of vacation, where you try to do all of the things in the limited time that you have. I’m sipping my cup of tea, worrying about where to get a covid test before our cruise embarks in a few days, and strategizing where to eat for dinner before I take a nap. All very important business.
A few days ago we went on a private walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem. We saw holy sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. My oldest asked why we were going to do this, seeing as how we are Buddhists.
I had a friend once who said, “I believe in everything good.” He was an atheist Christian Palestinian who married a nonreligious Jew. I thought it was kind of a cheater answer at the time (20+ years ago), but as I’ve gotten older and explored what I believe in with more maturity, this is what I think:
Goodness comes in different packages. Our expression of it is a form of our human creativity, but at its core, goodness is our common language. Often, it is something we feel before we know what it is. Also, it’s a verb, never a noun.
So, why are we visiting the sites? Maybe to find commonality in the goodness people believe in and build empathy. Maybe for historical interest. Maybe to be well-educated in worldly matters. Maybe all of the above.
When I go to Israel, I feel so grateful. While it is great to reconnect with one’s roots (my mom was born there), it’s not an easy life compared to the privilege we enjoy in the U.S. I have a driveway and a garage. We have space between us and our neighbors. If we thought driving was stressful in Southern California, it’s nothing compared to other places. My grandparents left their home country to pursue a new life in the states. Lots of mistakes were made in the process. Yet, here I am, with the privilege to give my children a better life than previous generations, and I am grateful. Thank you for my driveway, Teta and Grandpa. I am eternally grateful. In two days, my children get to go on a Mediterranean cruise with their grandparents. I was talking to my kids about zooming out. If we zoom in, we can find a lot of things we don’t like about our family history and life experiences. When we zoom out, we’re sitting in Athens right now. What the heck. Perspective is important.
In the spirit of being in Athens right now, I was thinking about Plato’s chariot allegory. He said our soul is like a chariot pulled by two winged horses. One horse is good and noble, representing our rational side guided by a moral compass. The other horse is the opposite: irrational, impulsive, greedy. The charioteer– the human– must drive with these two horses pulling the chariot in opposite directions. The charioteer represents intellect and reason, the person in charge of the decision-making, the one who must reconcile the opposing forces and find a middle path.
In Buddhism, there are three human poisons to avoid: ignorance, greed, and anger. All of these are commonly found in us humans. Also in Buddhism there is a theme of finding the middle way.
The trick is to control our lizard brains. To balance the opposing forces. The lizard has a brain that is reactive. Human brains have evolved beyond our prehistoric survival needs. We have brains that can improve emotions and memory, have strong emotional bonds to other people, make complex decisions, and go beyond mere survival, to what we call in pop culture “thrive.” Yet, the lizard brain is still in there, and it can rear its ugly head.
During our travels, the kids are prone to bicker about the dumbest things. They’ll fight over a bottle of Fanta, for example. Recently I heard them squabbling over one, and I reminded them that this is not the movie Ice Age, where we’re squirrels trying to grab the last acorn on earth. There are plenty of acorns! I don’t like them drinking soda, but on vacation, they haven’t gone a single day without ordering the drink that they want. I will buy more. There are acorns for everyone. There are always more acorns. Why are we fighting over acorns?
When they started bickering over chocolate the next day, all I had to say was, “There are more acorns,” and they settled down. I know they will need a lot more guidance to control their lizard brains.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote, “Greed never allows you to think you have enough; it always destroys you by making you strive ever harder for more.”
This is not just a child problem.
I’ve tried really hard to rein in the threads of my desires. I remember listening to an Anne Lamott lecture where she warned people not to think that publishing their work will solve all of their existential problems. Too often we fall into the trap of, “If I just had ____, then I’ll be happy,” We get that thing, and soon we move on to the next one we really need. There have been numerous times when I had so many great things going on in my life, but I’d zoom in on the one thing that was not in equilibrium to my liking, and I let that be the mood destroyer.
Days before I was set to leave on this grand vacation to Israel and Europe, I wrote about a breakup. My husband died 6 years ago, and it’s been a long journey on my own. Just when I thought I had found a good person, it was back to square one. (For reference, I never leave square one without a ton of deliberation and introspection, so it was disappointing, to say the least.) However, I’ve been determined to not let it ruin my trip. The only thing worse than breaking up would be spending money on a wonderful trip, just to waste it on rumination. Not going to happen. This is the best part of being 40. Perspective.
I’ve done a lot of journaling and list-making. I have a “glow list” in the making. This is a list of self-improvement and/or things I want to do when I get home.
I’ve done a lot of writing for various projects.
I’ve put away everything to just be a tourist and also spend time with the kiddos. Even not looking at my bullet journal/to do list, which is a massive endeavor for my Type A personality.
I’ve done some reading. I read a great article called, “The Two Choices That Keep a Midlife Crisis at Bay” by Arthur C. Brooks. In it, he suggests two life approaches, which include focusing on what age gives you (rather than what it has taken away), and “choose subtraction, not addition.” This means scaling back and honing in on your priorities. In other places, I’ve heard this concept explained as “curating” your life, which means to carefully choose and thoughtfully organize. It is being intentional. I really liked this advice and thought about how it would apply in my own life, so I made more lists. I also love a good brainstorming web.
I’ve been reading books, and one interesting one was Attached, which explores the science of adult attachment. I am determined to do better in everything that I do, and a lot of that includes understanding how our brains work and learning to outsmart primitive emotions. My preferred method of dealing with disappointment is through action, so I’m preparing steps to take in order to get better. I know it won’t happen just sitting here.
But something happened in Jerusalem that was particularly grounding for me in these last few weeks of self-inquiry and self-exploration. On our first night there– a city I hadn’t visited in 23 years– we were having a great evening. We ate at a cute Indian place with sidewalk seating, nice ambiance, and perfect 75 degree weather. We were about to go find ice cream and enjoy an evening stroll when suddenly we noticed a light rail coming toward us. We went to move out of the way, but speeding toward us was a man on an electric bike who must have panicked. He was going way too fast. It was a pedestrian area. Ethan was not able to fully jump out of the way and got hit. The cyclist stopped, asked in Hebrew if Ethan was okay before proceeding to tell us to stay out of the street (pedestrian walkway?!), and he then took off.
Ethan had a gash on his leg with blood starting to trickle down. I was so mad at myself. I panicked when I saw the bike hit my child and watched Ethan tumble to the ground like a deer in headlights. Everything flashes through your mind in the moment. Did he break something? Will he be okay? I didn’t know how to call the police, or exchange information in a foreign country. Back at our apartment, I fretted over whether to take him in to get stitches. It was now dark. I didn’t know the city. Parking is a nightmare. Did he really need stitches? The kids were tired; it was a long drive into the city, and a long day for all of us. I became literally sick to my stomach. I’m prone to fainting. I kept thinking, why am I traveling with the kids if I can’t even hold my stomach together in medically stressful situations? That night, I slept fitfully, worried that I should have taken him in. What if it got infected? What if I made the wrong decision?
And I thought: if Ethan is okay, that is the only thing I want in the world. I would promise to be the most present, grateful person in the universe and not want anything else if we just have our health. Nothing else would matter.
Of course, I know as his leg heals and time marches on, I will forget this vow and soon go back to my expanding list of wants. But I’m curious to figure out how I can channel that level of gratitude for something so simple–health– even when I’m not facing loss, in the most mundane, boring times. This, I think, would be the ideal depth of gratitude. To know with certainty that the basics are absolutely all that you need, nothing more.
Not being a stranger to loss, I also know that while we can feel deeply grateful for something (i.e. the dead husband and all that he contributed to my life), you can also be left with a feeling that there is nothing left for you (i.e. finding another partner). And just like the kids with their Fanta, there is also a propensity to view the world through a scarcity lens. How do we remind ourselves that there is more, without falling into the pit of greed?
This requires an abundance mindset. My husband was a huge fan of Tony Robbins, and he describes an abundance mindset as, “There are enough resources in the world for everyone – and of being grateful for whatever the universe provides.” He recommends examining our “limiting beliefs.”
It’s a lot. Be grateful. Remember what age has given you, Subtract from your life. Get rid of limiting beliefs. Work on our adult attachment. Cultivate an abundance mindset. Also, drink enough water, contribute to your 401K, get 8 hours of sleep, and, and, and, and.
Exhausting trying to be a good human.
Apparently humans have evolved to be very sensitive to what they need, because historically their survival depended on it.
As our physical survival became less precarious, it seems now we are in an era where we have the luxury to fine-tune our survival. Do we want to survive, or do we want to thrive? To thrive, we must reconnect with that innate sensitivity and listen to what it tells us. Then, I think we work from there.
Maybe not everything at the same time, but one foot in front of the other. Tiny steps.
Traveling is a weird thing. It is an absolute privilege, but it’s also stressful. For every wonderful moment, there is something stressful to counteract it. You really learn to lean into the moments, become flexible with your expectations and plans, and work on the discomfort of everything being new and unfamiliar. Your brain has to process a lot of new things.
My youngest, Peter, commented during our Judean desert jeep safari expedition, “This is scary and fun.” He was throwing his head back, belly laughing into the wind, while also keeping a death grip on the rails.
I thought that was a good summary for life. “Scary and fun.” Stressful and rewarding. Ups and downs. Good and bad. Worth it.
If you remember who the charioteer is, I think you find your way to a meaningful joy, a place of thriving instead of surviving, and a deep gratitude for the life we get to live.