Embracing the Opposites

Fall is here, the days ever shorter. Nature seems to be closing up shop for the winter, cooperating with — not fighting, as we are wont to do, at times — the ancient rhythms of light and dark, birth and death, industriousness and rest, wild profusion and stark sparseness.

Many thoughts cross my mind at this change of seasons, particularly as the annual holiday season begins. I cringe at the annual upsurge in crass commercialism. I long for simplicity. Yet as I write that word, I realize it is mine to choose whether or not I participate in this feeding frenzy of profligate consumerism. It’s not possible to be totally removed from this phenomenon — advertising surrounds us — but we can turn down the volume, and we can keep our own simple rituals of thankfulness and connection.

That’s the easy part, relatively speaking. The harder part is the bittersweet mélange of thoughts about past holiday seasons, of loved ones no longer with me, of little pleasures now out of reach. How ephemeral our lives are, whisking by so rapidly. I grasp for a spiritual understanding that transcends the familiar platitudes. I know this is the way life is supposed to be — like nature, an ebb and flow of ups and downs, happiness and sorrow, (how else would we recognize happiness, without experiencing its opposite?) plenty and scarcity. And yet.

All I come up with is the need for faith, a willingness to accept that if impermanence is the way of things, it must be the best way. Perhaps the answer is to need less answers. What would happen if we came to each day with the eyes of a child, curious, non-judgmental and observant, instead of analyzing things to death? What if we became opportunists, exploring, as children seem to do, how we can use what’s right in front of us to make the most of today? Looking for the inherent joy to be had in this very moment, which will never be ours to experience again?

Applying this frame of mind, it might just be possible to tip the balance scales and be more grateful for what is and less rueful about what was but no longer is. That does not mean trying to blot out those troublesome darker thoughts, because a thought repressed is a thought magnified. Rather, we need to welcome whatever comes to mind as a potential guide.

This reminds me of Rumi’s poem, The Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi ~

(The Essential Rumi, versions by Coleman Barks)

    Since there is no use fighting thoughts we’d rather not be thinking, we can ask them, instead, what they would teach us. Then we can apply the default mindset of children, that combination of unbounded curiosity, tenacious willingness to experiment, and an inherent if inarticulate faith in the rightness of things. The lesson is to embrace the whole spectrum of experience, including those aspects we label “negative” as well as the more welcome ones that we put in our “positive” column. It is the whole that makes us human, and that includes the difficult as well as the easy, the sorrows as well as the joys, and the pains as well as the pleasures.

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