A word that really likes to mess with us is “When.” I imagine it as the Joker from Batman (actually, let’s be honest. The Riddler. Batman Forever was my favourite movie for like 3 years. How did it only get a 5.4 on IMDB?). I notice “When” swooping in and making clients feel like shit all the time, and I do nothing good for myself using it. Now, I’m not talking about using “when” like “When should I put the turkey in the oven so it’s not still frozen like last year?” I’m talking “Whenning” in 2 totally destructive ways. Read On:
1) The Present Pain-Inducing When
Riddle me this: What has to happen in your life for you to be happy? Have you ever said, “I’ll be happy when ______?” I’ll be happy when I get a new job/lose 10 pounds/get married/finish school/move/get over my ex/make $100k a year/have kids.
Clients do it; I catch myself doing it; even the Riddler probably does it.
Perfectionism has this tricky way of promising you happiness once you reach X, then when we actually reach X, Perfectionism says “JUST KIDDING!!! I actually meant you’ll finally be happy when you reach Y.” And for some reason we aren’t skeptical about its promises. We just keep doing as it says.
Now, I’m not saying X is not going to make you happier. It very well could, for the moment at least (Don’t cancel that plastic surgery just yet! Just kidding. Cancel it. Or not. I’m on the fence on that one.). But there’s always going to be a new “When.” A new “goal.” A new promise from Perfectionism, so be curious about it before you’re seduced by it. It’s not guaranteed to make you happier, and telling yourself that life won’t be good enough until (insert arbitrary checkpoint here) is doing nothing but take you out of the present and make you feel like your situation isn’t good enough. There will always be something that “needs to be fixed” or isn’t going right. Life will never feel totally perfect, and during periods when it does, loss is creeping around the corner (if your anxiety just skyrocketed after that sentence, read on).
So really, You’ll be happy when you stop thinking you’ll “happy when,” damnit!
Here: Pema says it much better than me:
“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms—withdrawal from always thinking that there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.”
2) The Worried “When”
The other “When” that’s totally screwing with you (and me) is the Worried When or the ‘When’s-shit-going-to-hit-the-fan’- When. Allow me to illustrate: Whenever everything seems like it’s going well in my life, I get anxious. Regression to the mean, I think to myself. Things can’t stay this good forever. When are things going to shift?
When’s something bad going to happen?
When are my parents going to get sick?
When am I going to get sick?
When’s depression gonna come back?
When’s my relationship going to fall apart?
When will I feel unfulfilled again?
When will anxiety return with a vengeance?
When is life going to take an inevitable turn for the worse?
When will I lose what I have?
Sometimes, we have an answer to the when, but focusing on it still takes us out of the present: When will my vacation end? When will my nephew have to go back to DC? Other times, we don’t know the answer to the “When,” but we do know it’s inevitable should we keep on keeping on: When will the days get short again? When will I get sick? When will I speckle with age spots? When will my partner meet someone else he’s attracted to? When will I meet someone else I’m attracted to? When will I go through menopause? When will I die? (OK, I’m getting a little extreme here, I know. Welcome to the neuroses of wo/mankind).
We live with a belief that we have control over a lot more things than we actually have control over. In actuality, we have some influence, but it’s minuscule in comparison to what’s out of our control.
Now of course, as cause-effect loving humans, the thought of being out of control is highly anxiety-provoking, so we do what we can to hold onto pleasure and push away pain (and worrying seems like the most helpful option). But the thing is, this worrying doesn’t really do much other than rob us of our current contentedness. Cliche as this comparison is, it’s like spending the sunny days we have in Vancouver fearing the rainy weather. It’s being anxious about when you’re going to get anxious again. Instead of worrying about the inevitable shift in weather that’s to come, take some time to actually bathe in the sunshine, or the lack of monsoon, or whatever it is that’s a reprieve from what you dread.
So aim to be present, to accept what comes into your life and what you lose, with compassion and without judgment. Don’t try to hold on to your current state; life is in constant flux. Both pleasure and pain are impermanent, as is life, so embrace all that comes.
What does it mean to embrace change? Do we have to love it? Do we have to be only have positive feelings about it? Hell no. Change is freaking scary, anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable. But change is also inevitable, as are the uncomfortable emotions that accompany it.
“Swim with the stream of change,” as Alan Watts says. “Nirvana is wherever you are, as long as you’re not fighting it.”
Finally, a note about Love:
When I first began reading Buddhist literature, I got not attaching to shoes, but I really struggled with the concept of non-attachment to relationships. How is love possible without attaching? We’re attaching beings. We need love. We survive because of love. But how I negotiate this is by interpreting that not attaching doesn’t mean not loving. Rather, it means not fusing yourself with another, believing you are not whole and your life is not complete without them. One of the most beautiful (in my opinion) experiences in life is connecting and attaching to others–not just romantically, but our friends, or family, our therapists (ha ha). But in that experience of love, we make ourselves vulnerable to another and hold great power over another’s emotions. It’s risky, and we’ll inevitably experience pain when we lose that relationship to death, a breakup, life changes, etc. But loss, grief, and pain–those are all universal parts of life, too. So don’t use non-attachment as a reason to avoid making yourself vulnerable in relationships. And don’t be afraid of the feelings you’ll experience if and when you might lose that attachment. Attach mindfully. Attach in the moment, appreciate, bathe, but don’t hold on with the belief that you require what you’re attaching to for contentedness in your life.