In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki
By nature, I am happiest when I am running, hiking or dancing around my kitchen. My children were dragged onto trails and ski hills from a very early age, I must admit, not so much so they would learn, but so I could get back to what I dearly missed. I’m also in love with learning and then sharing what I have picked up along the way. And I adore my family and friends and my favorite cup of tea and the quiet around our house and…there’s a lot to which I am very attached.
Threaten the above list and I get jumpy. Really threaten to remove my favorites, and I find myself in thrown into tough times. At the most dramatic level of loss, “If I don’t have what I love, what makes life worth living?” can become a scary question looming within us.
From a brain perspective, our limbic system, located in the center of our heads, controls our attachments. As authors Lewis, Amini and Lannon describe in A General Theory of Love, when we bond with someone or something, the limbic system emits a pleasing blend of chemicals. We like those chemicals and want to keep them coming. Think of the Labrador retriever outside the grocery store howling for her milk-buying human. If she could translate her brain signals into English, she might be heard to say “I miss my oxytocin, give me baaaaaack my oxytocin!
I like oxytocin, which courses through my cerebral region when I hug my children or cuddle up next to my husband. As I have also admitted above, I’m also a big fan of the endorphins that I emit when exercising. The more I learn more about my brain, I must make peace with what might appear as a fairly healthy lifestyle, is actually another “better living through chemicals” advertisement.
So, when I asked my aunt-in-law, who at 81 remains vibrant and fully engaged in life how she does it, her answer resonated deeply. Seven years ago she lost her husband. At an early age her father and mother passed away. Her brother died of a heart attack in his early forties and there have been other major disappointments along her path. Yet, I can talk with her about anything. She travels all over the world and is always up for a wild new experience. Despite all the loss, she also really, really loves me.
Her answer to my question was simple. “I don’t know really why I am in such good shape,” she told me, “but I have noticed that I have had to learn to love in different ways.”
In these words, I first find the cross-cultural tenet of approaching every situation with an open attitude. The martial artists name meeting every challenge with an “I don’t know” as shoshin or fostering a Beginner’s Mind. Around the world it is posited that only in not knowing can we ever learn.
I was reminded of this snippet of wisdom as I taught the “Thriving Through Tough Times” course in January. One of the grandmothers clearly emitted my aunt’s joy-filled demeanor and was deeply admired professionally and personally by her long-term friends in the group. As we talked about surviving tough times, her friends urged her, “Tell Deidre The One Assumption,” “Yes, tell her, tell her.” She smiled and threw up her hands with a bit of a giggle and responded, “OK, the one assumption I always try to make is…that I don’t know anything.” As I made her acquaintance over the weekend, it was clear that she knew a whole lot more than I did, and in that lay the poetry.
My aunt in her response didn’t tell me not to love. She wasn’t saying to love less so it would hurt less when inevitable change occurs. Her subtle advice urged me to continue to love deeply, let those feelings and chemicals flow, but also to keep learning how to adjust to change. Keep learning how to love to dance, even if you find yourself with one leg, as Reynaldo Ojeda models in the attached video clip.
Find different ways to adore your loved ones even after they have departed your home or left this earth. Keep practicing new forms of love as those that we love change form. I think that is one of the lessons, but I shouldn’t really “know” now, should I?