Bars on a Forest Prison or “Happy Little Trees”
Inside, we find a mirror to all worlds of which we can conceive.
Our experience of everything, internal or external, is a reflection of ourselves. Which begs the question: is there such a thing as “internal” or “external?”
In a metaphysical sense, the answer is clearly no. And, from a logical and psychological perspective, the answer is also no. We cannot experience anything outside of ourselves free from the influence of what is inside. (According to modern physicists, this operates both ways. We can also not experience anything without our internal observation affecting it).
When we start to worry about things external to us, anxiety penetrates our inner state. Everything we perceive about the outer world is then colored by strokes of anxiety. “Happy little trees” can quickly become ‘bars on a forest prison.’
Under these conditions, the only logical thing to concentrate on is our own, internal wellbeing. To try and control the outer world, ensuring it produces no unpleasurable or dangerous experiences is a fool’s errand. I am not advocating inaction but, instead, intentional action from a place of calm – in contrast to perpetual reaction.
Many people reference Gandhi, who supposedly said something to the effect of: “I have a lot to do today. I’ll have to mediate three hours instead of one.” The quote lives on these many decades later because it is shocking. It’s extraordinary in our socio-cultural context to do a counter-intuitive thing, like take more time for ourselves when the outside world demands more of us.
And yet, Gandhi helped free a billion people from imperial rule and inspired civil rights movements across the World for decades after. The more stressful his situation was, the more he needed to ensure peace within himself. Otherwise, all he had worked for might fall apart. It could be said that Gandhi’s positive worldly impact was in proportion to his ability to maintain inner mastery.
Gandhi’s specific position makes him an excellent illustration of the correlation between inner calm and outer results. Breaking his inner peace would likely have led to a breaking of peace throughout India – riot, revolution, death, suffering. In the end, the political result may have been the same, but it would have been a much more painful path toward freedom.
The same paradigms operate in our lives and communities – though on a smaller and often less visible scale than in Gandhi’s case. The more balanced and joyful we are, the more positively we can impact the world around us. The more outside pressure we experience, the more we need to tend to what is inside first.
It's actually quite a sensible way to operate, despite its counterintuitive nature.
Where does the time go?
Here we lay in a sea of nothingness, from which we extrapolate everything. Can we brandish enough of our soul’s internal strength to survive this constant process of creation, let alone thrive in it?
It may be that the extent to which we can access the well of our soul from within our physical form is directly correlated to our level of fulfillment and joy in life. Our ability to draw from this “well” is determined, in part, by how much of that physical form we allow to dictate our experience. When the external strains of our physical existence become oppressive, it creates a barrier to accessing the soul’s power and wisdom.
Without a strong voice emanating from our soul, life becomes much more challenging. If we are easily shaken by every unpleasant experience, it is very difficult to create meaningful changes in our external realities. It is hard to trust the quiet, inner wisdom of our being when our insides are reverberating with the loud screams of painful life events.
Thus, again, tending to the inner state first, allows us to better shape, process, and engage with whatever the outer state brings our way. Instead of simply surviving, as the world bombards us with one difficulty after another, there is an opportunity to become an active participant. We can create experiences we actually want to have. But this can only be accomplished through a vibrant and healthy internal landscape.
What does it look like in practice to arrive at such a place?
The first step is to release all that we’ve stored up over a lifetime of traumas, big and small. To my knowledge, this is best achieved by moving stuck energy – dance, emotional release, shaking, sobbing, and screaming are good methods. Next, we begin the practice of allowing the external to flow through us, rather than taking it on as an opponent to be defeated or ignoring and storing it, which will begin rebuilding walls within us. It is a path that starts with cultivating mindfulness – i.e., through meditation, yoga, breathwork, prayer.
Particularly challenging times may require more discipline and effort, which brings us back to Gandhi.
“Attacking” anything, a situation, problem, person, etc., creates resistance. It keeps us perpetually fighting. We become like a reactive parent, screaming at their child to stop crying. Gandhi perhaps understood this better than anyone. In contrast, tending to the quality of our internal state invites the external to change, almost of its own accord. This is, at least at first, harder to do the more stressful our external lives appear to be. But, from a state of inner calm, we can guide any situation toward a more favorable one – like a gentle parent heading off a tantrum by lovingly offering an alternative.
Eventually, maintaining inner peace looks a lot more like play than work. Play accepts that your engagement with whatever you are playing at is impermanent and not to be carried around once the game is done. Play also most often involves some form of physical movement or expression that keeps us “up to date,” so to speak, with the emotional baggage we may pick up in the course of “the game.” In the end, approaching life as play keeps us from taking any circumstance or experience so seriously that more ‘baggage’ starts to pile up, walling off our access to the soul’s power.
Once we arrive at life as play, we can let go of our preference for one experience over another. Changing external circumstances comes to have little bearing on our inner joy or peace. We can still affect our external world, but only if we choose to, and not because we need to control it to stay sane. Any impact we have from a place of inner peace will naturally be a meaningful and loving one. Our actions always reproduce more of whatever the internal energy behind them is.
The dance of play and discipline, challenges and release, does not end so long as we have physical bodies to maintain. But the perpetuity of ups and downs along our path ought not be discouraging. In fact, it is an invitation to relax. Release the pressure valve of expectation to arrive somewhere or on the “other side of things.” There’s no place we are getting to, despite a societal and religious emphasis on things like “Enlightenment” or “heaven.”
Go play, dance, or be with friends this week. If you can do all three at once, you get a gold star… “scratch and sniff stickers all around!”
P.S. on the New Year
As we enter the New Year, many people make “Resolutions.” But, too often such goals tend to be focused on outward action – go to the gym more, eat better food, spend more time with loved ones, get a promotion at work, start a business. I am even tempted to make my resolution be: publish a book. But the more impactful (and lasting) resolutions are those that dedicate us to improving the quality of our internal state. Actions, like those suggested above – to dance and sing and play – could be good resolutions. But they should be in service to internal wellbeing, as opposed to external reward. Remember that the energy behind our actions will determine their results, not our desires alone. If we eat better and go to the gym because we hate our bodies, we might drip a few pounds and have more energy, but it will be short-lived and discontent with ourselves will likely manifest in other ways. Instead, we might resolve to start loving ourselves more. From a place of love, the inclination toward more healthy habits unfolds on its own. My 11-year-old niece has it about right. She’s resolved to live in more joy during the coming year. Ah, the wisdom from the mouths of babes!