Whenever I start to complain about my condition, my son and daughter often reply, “It is what it is.” That may seem obvious. Things are what they are. But people like myself are often filled with regret or anger or hope that things might be different. Such emotions, although understandable, are not the way to peace. In this Provision, this saying and an excerpt from the writings of a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, point in the direction of that way. I invite you to look and to go there.
It is very hard to accept my condition and its frequent manifestations. To have seizures, of varying intensity, on an almost daily basis is quite discouraging and hard on the brain. Every seizure shakes things up and my brain has to sort them all out in order to proceed with memory and purpose. Epilepsy changes a person in profound ways, even when the seizures go away. It introduces deep and unusual misgivings.
Given that seizures are no fun and at times rather difficult, it is understandable that one might wish things to be different. The same is true for every terrible thing in life. We wish they had never happened and we wish they would go away. When those terrible things happen as a result of cruelty, conflict, or injustice they are made all the more terrible since they could have been avoided if people had just taken the time to look around, to see their common ground, and to move past self-interest.
But when terrible things “just happen”, as in the case of my illness, there’s no one to get mad at other than, perhaps, oneself and/or the Great Spirit of life. But neither lashing in nor lashing out brings peace or healing. In fact, it keeps things all riled up as the mind fights against its very own condition and way of being. That’s when my son, Evan, and my daughter, Bryn, are quick to point out that there’s no reason to get all upset because, they note, “It is what it is.”
In his own way, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, brings that same countenance, spirit, and orientation to the world through his writings and work. Born in 1926, Nhat Hanh lived through and objected to not only the Vietnam war, which was part of my young adulthood, Nhat Hanh objected to all violent expressions of human arrogance and disagreement. He is a strong practitioner, advocate, and spokesperson for the cause of nonviolence. During the war he worked with others in Vietnam to establish schools, build healthcare clinics, and help re-build villages.
The man is really quite amazing. He speaks and writes in six different languages. He has published more than 100 books, including 40 in English, and has become a spokesperson not only for nonviolence but also for mindful living. One noteworthy accomplishment is that he was a strong influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s decision to declare his opposition to the war in Vietnam, even though others argued that doing so would diminish King’s standing and distract him from the civil-rights moment in the USA. For Nhat Hanh and Dr. King, however, injustice anywhere was injustice everywhere. And the Vietnam war was especially unjust.
By titling this Provision “It Is What It Is” I do not mean to advocate for adopting an “anything goes”, nonchalant, or uncaring way of life. On the contrary, I mean to see more opportunities for caring and compassion because it enables us to see more deeply into the sorrows and struggles of others. It also leads to less whining and complaining, as though the gift of life – regardless of its trials and tribulations – should be something different than it is. The question is not, “How did we get here?” The question, to quote the title of one of Dr. King’s famous books, is “Where do we go from here?” And there’s no way to know where we are going, let alone how to get there, unless we know where we are.
Nhat Hanh makes that same point in this short essay, “Looking Deeply”, which I am reprinting from his short book, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.
“We have to look deeply in order to see. When a swimmer enjoys the clear water of the river, he or she should also be able to be the river. One day, during one of my first visits to the United States, I was having lunch at Boston University with some friends, and I looked down at the Charles River. I had been away from home for quite a long time, and seeing the river, I found it very beautiful.
So I left my friends and went to wash my face and dip my feet in the water, as we used to do in our country. When I returned, a professor said, “That’s very dangerous thing to do. Did you rinse your mouth in the river?” When I told him yes, he said, “You should see a doctor and get a shot.”
I was shocked. I hadn’t known that the rivers here were so polluted. Some of them are called “dead rivers”. In our country the rivers get very dirty sometimes, but not that kind of dirty. Someone told me that the Rhine River in Germany contains so many chemical that it is possible to develop photographs in it.
If we want to continue to enjoy our rivers—to swim in them, walk beside them, even drink their water—we have to adopt the non-dual perspective. We have to meditate on being the river so that we can experience within ourselves the fears and hopes of the river. If we cannot feel the rivers, the mountains, the air, the animals, and other people from within their own perspective, the rivers will die and we will lose our chance for peace.
If you are a mountain climber or someone who enjoys the countryside, or the green forest, you know that the forests are our lungs outside of our bodies, just as the sun is our heart outside of our bodies. Yet we have been acting in a way that has allowed two million square miles of forest land to be destroyed by acid rain, and we have destroyed parts of the ozone layer that regulate how much direct sunlight we receive.
We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of the comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self. We should be able to be our true self. That means we should be able to be the river, we should be able to be the forest, the sun, and the ozone layer. We must do this to understand and to have hope for the future.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has a dynamic sense of what it means to be alive. I like the notion of “Looking Deeply” in order to see into, embrace, and express the fullness of lfie. If we stay on the surface, we will only see what is apparent to the five senses. But if we look deeply we will see the gifts that are being offered, the care that is being called for, and the wisdom that is being invited into our lives. That is what I want to see, now more than ever before, and that is what I hope you want to see as well.
“It Is What It Is” represents that offering, care, and wisdom. It is neither an expression of resignation nor a consignment to defeat. It is, rather, a challenge to accept what comes as an opportunity to be the best we can possibly be under the circumstances. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did that. Thich Nhat Hanh did that. And we should all aspire to do that with our lives. After all, “It Is What It Is”!
Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your outlook on and approach to life? Are you filled with resignation and resentment or are you filled with fortitude and appreciation? Regardless of where you are, what and who could help you to shift into even more positive ways of being? Why not incorporate those things and reach out to those people today?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Provision #844, Time to Look Around, was wonderful, Bob! Thanks so much for mentioning my book! The story of Alexis D’Luna, the boy born with CHARGE syndrome, is truly inspirational. Thanks for sharing it with your readers.
Very often I feel my English is a little bit bad or, for instance, too slow to understand at all … but this time, for your last Provision, I tried a little bit longer with reading and particularly to understand what you want to let us know … It reminds me to a very short saying: “If you want to get to know someone do not look at what goals he reached in his business (or how much money he “made” with it) but what his dreams are like …” From here in Germany, best wishes to you and Megan and your family and to the “rest of your 30.000 best friends” ;-))
I loved your recent provision, Time to Stand Still. I’d share that standing still takes courage and discipline: courage because most other people who witness such a moment will not understand or empathize, and discipline because standing still is addictive! It’s important, but there’s a niggling sense that it’s a slippery slope as it needs to be balanced with action. I’m glad to hear your recovery is going well and to learn more about what that has been like.
Your last Provision, Time to Stand Still, was really lovely. Thanks.
Standing still sounds like one of the most challenging practices for you Tschannen-Moran’s. I’ve always known both you and Megan to be go-go-go kind of people. Balance is tricky. Then again, everyone in the family seems to come to our house for some respite and calm. So maybe we offer the balance of standing still that you write about and maybe it’s time you come for a visit. Toddler snuggles are an added bonus!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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