Why am I living this way?

8 12 2019
horse eye

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

Sometimes when Jake comes to the farm he spends the first part of the session with his head under a blanket. His comments, delivered with precise comic timing, show us that he is participating. Often, there will come a point when Jake can’t resist joining in fully and he will lift the blanket, fix us with a piercing gaze, and share what is on his mind.

One time Jake wondered why his life had turned out that way it had. Genuinely perplexed, he asked why he had faced so much difficulty, pain and suffering when it wasn’t what he truly wanted.

It was a powerful moment when Jake, who has been institutionalised for most of his life, examined, possibly for the first time, the question that confronts most of us at some point in our lives: ‘why am I living this way?’

What promoted Jake’s existential question was a simple encounter with a Dartmoor pony named Rose. When Jake met Rose he saw himself from her perspective, and it shifted something in the way Jake saw himself. After the encounter he reflected:

‘When I went into the stable, I could see my face in her eyes…I looked at her big eyes and fell in love with her, I could have poured my heart out to her. My heart was with her. They’re beautiful, lovely creatures. I wondered how they feel inside, how they feel about people, so much unknown beauty.’

Jake’s experience was transcendental and put him in touch with something universal. For a brief moment, he forgot his suffering, his situation and his disappointment and he touched something deeper, something that felt like love. And the feeling of connection prompted him to wonder if his life could be different.

The question of why life is the way it is perplexes human beings so much because we have no choice but to ask the question from the point of view of the life we have. Blinkered as we all are by our circumstances, adopting a universal point of view does not come easily. Which is why when we have moments of profound insight, we see things as if we were a different person, a wiser, more elevated version of ourselves, perhaps the mature version we would like to be, but just can’t because we’re too caught up in being who we think we are. Or, who we’re supposed to be.

Every now and again, life takes us by surprise and reminds us of who we could be, and who we have perhaps always been, but have forgotten. This idea of waking up to who we are and remembering our true nature shines through Plato’s ideas and Buddhist teachings. These very ancient ideas have been examined through fresh eyes, and interesting connections have been made, and are still being made, for example in the growth of interest in mindfulness, in the fields of Western Psychology and Psychiatry.

More than twenty years ago a young American psychiatrist Howard C Cutler spent weeks shadowing the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour of Arizona and made frequent visits to the exiled Tibetan leader’s home in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas. Their intense and spirited conversations resulted in a book: The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living. Two decades on, the book remains illuminating because it is essentially a conversation between ancient ideas and contemporary Western science. Understandably, there are moments of incomprehension and incredulity on both sides, for example when Cutler discovers that there is no word for ‘guilt’ in Tibetan, and when the Dalai Lama has to patiently explain to the psychiatrist that sometimes there is no obvious reason why people act the way they do.

Reading the book again this week, I’m struck by the psychiatrist’s willingness to expose his own arrogance and shame and rationalist-driven agenda. I’m also struck by the clarity of the Dalai Lama’s thinking on deep philosophical questions, such as the true purpose of life, and his ideas on happiness which mirrors the thinking of Aristotle.

‘Now we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness and compassion bring happiness. I believe that every one of us has the basis to be happy, to access the warm and compassionate states of mind that bring happiness. In fact, it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying or human beings is gentleness.’

During another session with the horses, when Jake was playfully invited to choose an animal he related to, he chose to our amusement a crocodile. Like the blanket he chooses to sometimes hide under, he wore his crocodile skin for a while, but we were not convinced. We had seen that Jake’s true nature was much more gentle. Rose had simply reminded him of what he already knew.

Note: Names have been changed.


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