“Sheng, why is it that you focus so much on positivity? What makes you so positive all the time?” My little cousin Alice whispered as I scrubbed a small bowl in the sink with a soapy sponge. It was her turn to clean the dishes after dinner, but seeing how much she detested washing dishes, I took over her duty.
“What makes you think that I am positive all the time?” I musingly replied to her. “I am just like everyone else. I go through series of emotions from high to low. I, too, wallow in my own despair at times, and sometimes they last for months.” I smiled at my cousin while looking at her astonished face.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Her eyes narrowed on her forehead. “Then, why is it that you are able to be positive despite being sad at the same time?”
I paused for a moment while feeling my left hand cupping a bowl on the bottom while my right hand rubs the inside of it in a circular fashion. “The answer is really simple. I just don’t take things too personally and I accept things for what they are.”
“What do you mean?” Alice confusingly asked.
“How do you feel when someone tells you to wash dishes?” I stared directly into Alice’s eyes.
“Angry. I feel like a slave because it’s always me who has to do it. My sister and brother don’t have to do it all the time. Mommy always tells me to do this and that. It is so unfair.” Alice complained about her situation in detail.
“How do you feel when you are actually washing the dishes?” I inquired Alice while facing her.
“I feel the same as before. Angry. When I wash the dishes, I kept thinking about how unfair it is that I have to do it.” Alice whined again, while I laughed softly at her display of frustration.
“You know I used to hate washing dishes too. Anytime it was my turn to wash dishes or when someone forces that role onto me, I would resist it and hate it. I did the same thing as you. I whined and cried about it.” I shared my story trying to sympathize with my little cousin.
“Then what changed? Why do you love washing dishes now?” Alice responded with a curious look on her face, wanting to know the solution to her current problem.
“I don’t love washing dishes. I just don’t make it a big deal.” I smiled and quickly added. “Think about these questions for a bit. Is the task of washing dishes incredibly hard? Do you have to perform some astronomical sacrifices? Does it require a limb or two? Is scrubbing soap onto plates hard or is this about something else?”
Alice quietly stared at me as I continued my story.
“Washing dishes is really simple. You just stand there and move your hands around a bit. If you focus deeply on what you are doing, you can feel so many things. You can feel the softness of the soap foam, the rushing flow of the hot water cascading onto the plates, and the heat surging and moving up your hands. This simple act, if you pay attention to it, is relaxing much like a spiritual practice. So no, it is not washing dishes that annoys or angers you. It is something else.”
“Oh, I know what it is. It is about being treated unfairly by Mommy!” Alice smiled as if she had it all figured out.
“Ehhh…Not quite.” I laughed softly while shaking my head. “It is your resistance to the current situation.”
“My resistance to the current situation? What does that mean?” Alice stared at me with a blank look in her eyes.
“Tell me what do you wish is different from now. What do you expect to happen instead of having to wash the dishes?” I inquired Alice again with another set of questions.
“I wish that I didn’t have to wash the dishes. I expect to be treated equally, so that my siblings and I would take turns washing dishes.” Alice replied back.
“Those are noble aspirations, but is that the case? Is that what you are experiencing right now at this very moment?” I asked Alice.
“No that is exactly why I am upset. Just thinking about it makes me angry.” Alice pouted.
Rinsing the soap foams off my hands, I turned and nudged Alice on her shoulders. “But can you change your current reality? Can you change what is? You can try to convince your mom about the dish washing duty or your siblings, but that is another event. You are still left with this current reality. There is nothing you can do to change it.”
Alice looked surprised and sad, but I continued my lesson. “So what are you doing instead? You are resisting the current moment. You want, expect, and hope that the current situation is different or favorable. You don’t want this moment to be what it is. But it already is what it is. It cannot be otherwise. Your mind thinks that the only logical thing to do now is to resist the current situation, but that is not an intelligent thing to do.”
“What is the intelligent thing to do then? To be positive? I don’t even think that is possible for me to do right now.” Alice retorted with a sense of defeat and denial.
“Nope, you don’t even need to do that. In fact, you don’t even need to take any actions. You just have to answer this simple yes-or-no question of mine. That’s all.” I replied while laughing softly.
“What is the question?” Alice asked curiously.
I took a deep breath and slowly said, “Can you accept this moment as it is?”
Alice shrugged as her eyebrows were raised. She remained quiet for a few seconds and contemplated her response.
“No.” She said silently, while shaking her head. “I cannot accept this moment as it is.”
“Ok, then prepare for suffering!” I yelled with enthusiasm and sarcasm in a high pitch voice.
“That’s not funny!” She whined. “You are so mean.”
“Maybe, but I am just being truthful.” I explained while gazing into her dark brown eyes. “Since you can’t accept the situation as it is, then answer this other question of mine.”
I raised my head and slowly let the words come out one by one. “Can you accept the fact that you cannot accept this moment as it is?”
“Huh?” Alice responded with confusion. “I don’t really understand what you mean.”
“I’m asking you if you can accept how you are feeling right now. I’m asking you if you can allow yourself to feel sad and crappy right now as it is.” I answered Alice.
“But I already told you that I cannot.” Alice retorted.
“Ok, that’s fine. Can you forgive yourself for not being able to accept things as it is? Can you accept being unable to accept how you feel?” I sighed and caringly caressed Alice’s shoulders. “Can’t you tell that your resistance about being unhappy is just another layer of unhappiness?”
Alice was quiet, but she listened intently on what I was saying. “All things and situations in life point towards acceptance. Accepting the fact that you cannot accept certain things is still acceptance. At the end it is one and the same. If you understand this and is aware of it, another dimension of understanding opens up within you.”
Alice was lost in her own thoughts, but regardless I continued my lesson.
“Alice you really like psychology right? Do you know anything about Viktor Frankl?” I asked her trying to relate using a topic that she is interested in.
“I have no idea who he is,” Alice responded in a soft tone.
“Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist. Most of his family members perished in the Nazi concentration camps, but he survived. Despite going through a series of suffering and tragedy, he accepted his suffering and kept helping others. He was an inspiration to other survivors and even to his imprisoners. From his own suffering, he discovered the dimension of inner space.” I lectured Alice about a famous psychiatrist that I was familiar with.
“He left behind a famous quote that I often look at for moments of inspiration. It says: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. I don’t know if you are aware of this dimension of space, but it is something that all conscious human beings are aware of. Everyone has it. You have it. I have it.” I said in awe of this amazing fact.
“If I have it, then how come I am not aware of it?” Alice asked.
“To be aware of inner space, you have to be here and now. But how can you be here and now when your mind is elsewhere in thoughts? When you are so occupied by mental distractions and noises? To some people the sounds in their head are so loud that they become their thoughts, or unaware. We know that we are not our thoughts. The fact that we can think about our thoughts makes us separate from them. To be aware of this space requires consistent attention to the present moment and meditation. It is a state of no thoughts, but awareness of everything around you and within you.” I explained to Alice.
“Just take a look at some of your regular activities. You read a lot, so your mind is always thinking. You are on your phone a lot, so your mind is always thinking. Every time when you are alone or have nothing to do, you said that you are bored. This tells me that you are so absorbed in thinking that you hardly know how to turn your thoughts off.” I turned to look at Alice once again.
“How do you even turn your thoughts off?” Alice cried. “That is not possible.”
“Actually that is highly possible.” I said, while trying to explain what I meant. “There are two possibilities. One is to be unconscious. This meant sleep, zoning out, black out, watching television, etc. When we watch television, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are unconscious, or not thinking. It just means that our mind is filled with thoughts from the television. The television and whatever the networks are broadcasting become our thoughts. The second choice is to rise above the realm of thought, being conscious. This means to be one with the present moment.”
“What does it mean to be one with the present moment?” Alice questioned me with a clueless look on her face.
“Being one with the present moment is to pay attention to what is happening now. It means to not let your mind think about the past or the future. It means to be still and alert.” I answered Alice. “Don’t try to understand this. You shouldn’t be able to understand it. If you do, then it is something you understand on the level of thought which is just another thought.”
“You can think of being conscious as being one with the stillness and the silence. An example I can give you is nature. Have you ever walked outside into the woods and stood there alone? If you did as I have, you could see with your own eyes the chaotic arrangement of the various kinds of plants and life forms. Yet at the same time they stood there in harmony with one another. You could also see the dance of the trees and their leaves in the wind. You could breathe in the morning dew or the aroma of the surrounding plants. You could feel the heat of the sun gently caressing you with its warmth. You take immense pleasure in the simple things of life at the moment because it is only at this moment that you exist.” I explained with enthusiasm to Alice.
“When you are alone or have nothing to do, you get bored easily because you are unaware of this space. You take this state as undesirable because you only see the empty space around you, and you want to occupy that space with things. These things can be objects or thoughts. But the space around you is how it always is and how it always will be. There will always be space, no-things, no matter how you try to cover it up with things.” I exhaled deeply as I paused for a short moment before hearing my little cousin’s voice.
“All this philosophical talk is making my brain hurt.” My cousin Alice whined as she wanted to end this conversation. “No-things, space, stillness, and all that. I just don’t understand what you are talking about.”
“Yeah you are right,” I laughed while listening to my cousin’s complaint. Spiritual teachings cannot be forced. They can only be found when you look for them.
“Ok then I won’t go into too much about space, and all that.” I replied to Alice. “Just answer this last question before we are done here.”
“What do you think is a better way to live your life? To be positive or negative?” I asked.
Without a second thought, Alice quickly responded, “Positive, of course. Do you even need to ask?”
“Since you said that, then you already know. Being positive is much more helpful than being negative.” I quickly added. “There is nothing wrong with being negative. There are important lessons you can only learn from being negative. You can learn so much just by observing your reactions to other people’s reactions and see how your negativity can affect them and yourself. I already learned those lessons, and chose to live with a positive mindset.”
“This is why I am positive despite being depressed or negative. If positivity is my choice, then I have to honor it by living my life in that vision no matter what life throws in my direction. Because I firmly believe that positivity and peacefulness is my natural state. In fact, it is everyone’s natural state. It is also your natural state.” I declared to Alice.
“And if I can’t be positive about something. Then the least I can do is to accept the situations as they are. As I have said earlier, all things in life point towards acceptance. There is no use resisting unfavorable situations or problems. If I resist them, then I will create even more problems. I will also make others around me miserable. Clearly that is not what I want to do.” I finished my lecture and turned to look at Alice.
“What if I still couldn’t help myself from acting out time and time again? What if I forget about everything you said?” Alice said worryingly.
“Oh don’t worry about that.” I sneered with a wide smile on my face before giving an analogy. “There is a teacher known as Life. He is the most effective teacher you will ever meet. He will teach you all the lessons you will ever need. If you don’t learn the lessons, he will punish you again and again and again until you get it. But be warned, his punishments aren’t light either…”