Standing in water

Everyone has their own story of themselves. If yours is anything like mine, it’s mildly heroic—in an appropriately humble way, I hope. I like to think about myself in a positive way, if possible, so I suppose I’ve consciously (and subconsciously) fashioned a fairly favourable version of my own personal history. One that’s full of challenges, disappointments and properly scaled victories; that has ups and downs and a happy ending—like a good movie.

My story of myself is undoubtedly different than the story you have of me, and vice versa. It’s even likely that your story of me may be more favourable than the one I’ve been working on for myself (we often are our own harshest critics), or it may possibly be less favourable. But one thing is certain: I’ve been working much harder on my story than on yours. It seems that I have a lot at stake in the carefully crafted picture of myself that I’ve created.

“Everyone chooses a suffering that will change him or her to a well-baked loaf.”

Rumi

It never really occurred to me that the areas where I was not entirely honest in my self-account were exactly the same areas where I seemed to experience the most pain. It was as if I had handcrafted some protective finish to conceal a deep wound or blemish in the smoothed-out story of who I am—often, apparently unconsciously, leaving the difficult parts out. Imagine that. So something had to happen to open my eyes to the uncomfortable truths I’d hidden in my story. This is where the stuff we usually avoid becomes just the stuff we really need.

Eventually, like a fraudulent carnival performer showing off his bullwhip tricks, I experienced severe and sobering self-induced pain. A snapping shock to my pride that could have easily been foreseen. Then I had to walk around with my nasty injury exposed. Whether others noticed it or not, I certainly did. I couldn’t not notice it—it hurt. And it hurt because 1) It’s supposed to hurt, in order to capture my attention; and 2) Because I was afraid everybody else would see the truth I’d been concealing; that something embarrassing was kicking up again, and I couldn’t smooth it over, or ignore it anymore.

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

Pema Chodron

That pain and fear made me realize that there was something (or somebody) at work in here. It seemed I had an anonymous, invisible editor, obscuring my uncomfortable truths in a very duplicitous and effective way. Me, and my shadow, strollin’ down the avenue. My “shadow” editor—my ego—tells me that I have to cover up my hurt; that if I don’t, I’ll lose something that I can’t afford to lose, or fail to get something that I “need to have.”

At this point, I’m sure it’s easy to see that my shadow editor can always be relied upon to make trouble, but maybe he’s doing something beneficial too. All that effort obscuring the truth and securing my delusion is happening around something. And I know from countless cop shows that the perpetrator will always lead us back to the scene of the crime.

So, while it may seem a little crazy to focus on instances of fear and pain—on causes and conditions of discomfort—in order to reveal the blemished reality of your self, it maybe more crazy not to. It may be even a little pathological, as it were. But since pathology isn’t really a choice, but more like inner geography, then it isn’t something to avoid, but something to explore.

“Yeshua said:  If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Logion 70, The Gospel of Thomas

Fear and pain are inevitable in Life, so what if they’re really showing me something about myself that if I looked into, I may reveal that pathology, and possibly become much happier. Something like a red flag, specific to my ongoing story. An old bit of subconscious editing, inserted to self-enhance, or hide a hurt I’d caused. What if my sly lies of omission point to what’s missing in me, perhaps to some needlessly exiled part of myself, cowering in a dark corner?

“Start digging wherever you stumble, because that’s where you’ll find your treasure.”

Joseph Campbell

When I can step outside of that picture of myself with some objectivity, I may finally start to escape the self-centred importance of my story, and begin to think more about everyone else in my life, and in the world. Maybe I can help them write a more successful story of themselves. Maybe my fear and pain can free me to help ease someone else’s fear and pain, and help them realize that we can all be one, that we all are one—unified by our shared experience. Now the story really starts getting better for everyone.

In Buddhism, this is called bodhicitta, and your hardcore Buddhist monks can almost go a little overboard on this idea, this path to self-realization and transcendence. Listen to this:

“Adverse conditions are spiritual friends. Devils and demons are emanations of the victorious ones. Illness is the broom for evil and obscurations. Suffering is the dance of what is.”

Lord Serlingpa

That’s probably why I’ll never be a hardcore Buddhist monk. But it is kind of an amazing, selfless approach, isn’t it? A radical way to defuse and redefine our typical view of fear and pain. A kind of revolutionary attitude that reveals the beautiful underlying purpose behind and beneath all of the stuff that I usually try to avoid. “Suffering is the dance of what is.” I mean, I hate to suffer, but since I do love to dance, perhaps being injured can help me to hear God’s music.

So I suppose I’ll put the bullwhip down, for now. The best trick I ever learned with it was accidentally snapping my own butt, after all. Anyways, no one ever called me a bullwhip artist.  

“There is only one thing I dread – not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

Dostoevsky

 Robert Kopecky is an Emmy nominated art director and author of How to Survive Life (and Death): A Guide for Happiness in This World and Beyond. He designed the credits for Showtime’s Weeds, art directed WordWorld for PBS Kids, and has illustrated for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and many other publications. He contributes to Evolver.net, NewBuddhist.comTheMindfulWord.org, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Sue Pike, the Animal Talker (SuePikeEnergy.com). Visit him at http://RobertKopecky.blogspot.com.