Driving in Circles
Pema Chödrön is famous for her quote, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” I wonder how this wisdom informs our relationship to experiences that seem to follow us wherever we go? Is there a paradoxical way of exiting the egoic wrestling hold our past experiences of hurt have over our lives? How might we experience the inner transformation needed so that painful repetitions are no longer seen as evidence of the universe being in breach of contract nor as damning evidence that we are—like Humpty Dumpty—beyond repair? In my own life, I see familiar road signs that—although the scenery has changed—still leave the impression of being on a circular track. From our position on the track we can see another road, full of curves but headed toward some unknown horizon, that stretches just beyond our line of sight. We just can't quite figure out how to get there from here.
First of all, many—if not most—of us are so attached to the need to protect our ego that we uncritically develop a narrative of the problem that is located externally. In order to avoid a feeling of dis-integration, I externalize an inner problem and seem to find a wealth of issues that others need to fix, or a dynamic that places me in a position of powerlessness vis-à-vis a faceless and unjust system, or finding that the thing I fear most keeps happening to me. These inflations serve to allow us to speed past the invitational pit stops necessary for self-reflection, healthy humiliation, and self-correction and learning. Others are quick to identify with the problem or the pattern, taking responsibility in ways that fail to acknowledge the interesectionality of systems, relationships, and interactions that form the basis for shared blame and shared success. I experience yet another difficult interaction with a colleague and berate myself internally about not being able to alter the awkward dynamic. I experience a community's trepidation about my capacity to handle a difficult project, and I begin to tell the story that someone else is better suited for the task. I suffer the loss of an important relationship and create a future fantasy that ends in loneliness as a result of a fundamental flaw of mine. These deflations cause us to take our foot off the peddle as we slow to a crawl, paralyzed by a lack of trust in something bigger than ourselves and by a tremendous lack of self-compassion that leads to a solipsistic despair.
We have been on this track for much longer than we like to admit. Probably for most of our lives if we're honest. We have learned the way the wheel feels in our hands, the steering force needed to keep the vehicle headed around the next bend, the way the tires perform in different weather, how to downshift around curves and how to open it up in the straightaway, how the air feels with the windows down, and the precise pressure needed to apply the brake when obstacles arise. We are all learners, and growing up places each of us on our unique track, one that we come to master over time. It is all that we know. In mastering this track, we begin to think that we have arrived. Before too long, however, we notice that others have learned just as well as we have how to navigate the unique turns of their own track. We look at how they're driving and think, "What the hell are they doing? They're going to end up hurting someone if they keep driving like that." At the same time, they're thinking the same thing about us. "I can't believe they don't just shift from first to third. Second gear is worthless." These inner dialogues have been shaped through years of driving practice. It is no wonder we experience conflict. We grew up driving on different tracks, learned from different teachers, and developed our own unique ways of adapting and adopting a driving style all our own.
The problem is that our work—whether as persons, partners, parents, or professionals—is inherently relational and requires that we become different kinds of drivers who are capable and willing to see that as helpful as it was to learn our particular track, the strengths we developed in that never ending left turn created unbeknownst growing edges that only become visible when we are invited to try another relational racecourse. In this new space, the familiar orbital approach reveals gaps in our learning, exposes assumptions we've carried for years, and introduces an experience bordering on chaos when our tried and true machinations don't transfer as well to this new circuit. We are faced with some difficult choices in light of this experience. We can decry the course itself, tell ourselves, "This track sucks!" and head back to our own. We can slam our helmet against the steering wheel and tell ourselves that we just aren't cut out for driving after all. Or we can, with some good natured crow eating, look around and take note of our new setting as we observe the slick spots, the different elevation of the curves, and begin to learn this new track.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to operate with this kind of existentially improvisational attitude. If you find yourself facing familiar frustrations, now is as good a time as ever to admit, "I can't be certain, but it feels like I've been here before." Somewhere between the the failure to accept any responsibility and the similarly arrogant tendency to take full responsibility is a third way that invites us to take the counterintuitive risk of driving right through the wall toward that other road, full of curves but headed toward some unknown horizon, that stretches just beyond our line of sight. Only by embracing this new thing will we begin to know a freedom beyond our tendency to drive in circles.