Here’s the script for the talk I hoped to deliver at TEDxNoosa. I did the talk but not exactly as is written here. No one would have known though. It was almost the same. Perfection doesn’t exist in nature I am told
I think we all know what a toddler is. A small version of a human usually found wearing a nappy. Have you ever seen what toddlers do when life bumps up against them unexpectedly? They might have just fallen over on their padded bottoms or experienced some other small event that didn’t entirely delight them? They haven’t hurt themselves, they’ve just been given a bit of a surprise.
What happens next is very interesting – and every parent, grandparent, aunty or uncle, or anyone who’s had anything to do with toddlers will recognise this – they don’t do anything. Just for a second they pause. It’s as if their minds are doing a little damage report – “What just happened? Am I hurt? Is it bad? Should I cry? Should I scream the house down?”
And what we do next can make all the difference. If we react, run to them, start fussing over them then you can guarantee that yes, they will start crying and yes they will probably scream the house down. But if we don’t react, if we stay calm, if we go on with whatever we’re doing they will almost always pick themselves up, keep wobbling along and within moments be exploring and laughing again.
We can learn a lot from toddlers. What happens when life bumps up against us? Something we want hasn’t happened. Something we didn’t want has happened. A friend lets us down. Our boss berates us. Someone we don’t even know is rude to us. We get cut off in traffic. We have to wait way too long in a queue. We don’t win the prize, the girl, the accolades, the contract. What do we do?
We react. We defend, justify, complain. We go on the attack. We try to make the other person feel as bad as we do. We plot our revenge. Or we pretend to shrug it off. “Nothing to see hear folks,” while inside we’re seething in anger and resentment.
And so here we are. Something bad has happened. We’ve reacted. And now we feel even worse. We are that toddler screaming and crying. We are not having fun. We are not free to explore. We’ve turned that little bump into a major catastrophe.
So what’s the alternative. We can pause – like that toddler. There is a small space between experiencing something in our lives and reacting to it. For most of us that space hardly exists. Something happens to us and we instantly go into reaction. Once there we are left with no choice. But if we pause, if we give ourselves that space, we have choice and that is a powerful thing.
I will make one exception to the “taking a pause” thing- and that is if the attack is physical. Many years ago I signed up for a self-defence class. I thought I would become a kung fu master. Instead the first thing they taught us was “If they want your money – give it to them.” And the next thing they taught was – whenever possible the best thing to do is run away. If in physical danger, don’t pause, don’t stop and think about your next word or action, just run. Good advice.
But in all other circumstances….when we pause, when we leave that space, we give ourselves options, we have choice. We don’t have to react. We don’t have to paint ourselves into a corner. We don’t have to be left shaking our heads thinking “Why did I do that – again?!” Instead we can choose how we respond and what we do – if anything. We have the choice.
How do we learn to do this? How do we give ourselves that pause, that space? How do we even become aware of that space? And how do we learn to expand that space?
By doing nothing. Yes, by doing nothing. And just by practising doing nothing.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time I was head hunted to start up a new radio station. The program director of the network advised me, as he advised all the staff he was recruiting, to read Thick Face Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu – an expert in business psyche and success tactics. I dutifully bought a copy but never got around to reading it.
Almost a year later, completely overwhelmed by the workload, I was at breaking point. After each frantic and exhausting day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t coping was because I hadn’t read the book. Could Thick Face Black Heart be the key to managing the sixteen hour days I was regularly putting in? I had a mentor who would often say to me, “You can only do what you can do.” His voice was soothing but his advice was not helpful. I told him that I was finally going to read Thick Face Black Heart.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “Read her next book instead, The Secrets of the Rainmaker. I think you’ll find it more beneficial.”
I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read.
The Secrets of the Rainmaker is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything, brought in many experts but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it. The villagers are a bit non-plussed. They were expecting some chanting, a dance, some shaking of a rain stick, something. But no. After a couple of days they start to get worried. Is he a charlatan? Have they been idiots to bring him all the way to their village for this? All he does is sit in his tent all day. After four days The Rainmaker still hasn’t emerged from his tent and it still isn’t raining. The villagers are considering burning down his tent with him in it. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything.
He didn’t do anything. When he’d arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with nature, with the Divine, with God, with whatever you want to call it. He spent four days inside his tent bringing himself in harmony with nature, the Divine, with God, with whatever you want to call it. Then the rain came.
Chin-Ning Chiu’s book wasn’t what I was expecting – which was an instruction manual on getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead it talked about trading what you have for what you want, being willing not to survive, and how to respond rather than react through surrender, ease and meditation.
I was already getting up at 4 am but I set my alarm forty minutes earlier to sit in front of a candle on a small table draped in purple silk and meditate. My desperate thoughts would make meditation all but impossible yet I persisted. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest. I did nothing.
The months passed, the workload remained unmanageable, but I kept meditating. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was slowing down enough to allow, as Chin-Ning Chiu says, the angel of good fortune catch up.
And catch up it did. I landed my dream job and moved to the stunningly beautiful Sunshine Coast. Good fortune indeed. But within a year….my dream job turned into a nightmare Now I’d spent a lot of time in Twelve Step programs in the past, recovering from a gaggle of addictions. There I had learnt, thanks to the Serenity Prayer, that I was powerless over other people, places and things. So I knew I couldn’t change my boss or the company I worked for. If I was to keep the job I loved there was only one thing I could change. Myself. I took some annual leave and instead of having a relaxing holiday I went to a ten day silent meditation retreat where I meditated for 12 hours a day often in excruciating pain.
It was at this meditation retreat that I learnt something that toddlers already know – sitting on their padded bottoms, running through those damage reports. And that is everything we experience, we experience as a sensation. Every sight, taste, smell, sound, touch, every emotion, every thought creates a sensation on or in the body. Some we label as good – beauty, love, chocolate. Others we label as bad – anger, weeds, chocolate.
But all sensations have a common denominator. They’re ephemeral. They don’t last. They will pass, some slower than others, but they will change and they will end. So why cause a fuss? Why make things worse? Why scream the house down? In those hours of meditation I leant to observe those sensations and realise I didn’t have to react to them. And there’s that space. That space of choice. That space of freedom. I also learnt to expand that space, to slow down that process enough to allow the angel of fortune catch up.
An angel needs two wings to fly. The two wings of meditation are awareness and equanimity. Thoughts happen, emotions arise. Our job is to be aware of them, use that space to observe them and not to react to them. The power of choice. It’s liberating – and it can be annoying. Sometimes, I must admit, I pause in that space of awareness and choose to be miserable, choose to wallow. Sometimes having a darned good wallow can be fun – the trick is to aware of it, not to take it seriously, and not annoy anyone else if you decide to scream the house down.
So meditation. Sitting and breathing and observing the thoughts, the emotions, the sensations. Through meditation we learn that we don’t have to be driven by automatic reactions. We come out of the habit pattern of our minds, the endless treadmill of cause and effect, and get enough space to look around and go “What do I really want to choose here?” Meditation works because it gives us more space, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath. Space to be and space to choose. Just like that toddler, with a world of infinite possibilities to explore and enjoy.
My hope for you is that you become more like a toddler. Not in all respects of course. Being toilet trained and the ability to cook are two great attributes. But in taking that pause. In being in that space that is yours and yours alone. That small pause gives you power. The power to be anything and to be anyway you choose. And may you slow down enough, even if it’s just the length of an intake of breath, to allow the angel of good fortune to catch up.