Friday, November 27, 2009

Fish Story
There was a basin of stone carved in the bedrock of the blue ridge mountains. A small tub made by water and gravel swirling around in the same spot for years and years. This little basin was no bigger than a kettle and no deeper than your hand. It was at the side of the Tuckasegee River. At the time I was observing it, the water level was such that the basin was full. There was a little waterfall filling it, maybe the height of your index finger. At the back of the basin was a shallow spillway where the water got back into the main current. What caught my eye at the time was a small fish, no longer than my pinky that was caught in the basin and was trying to jump back up the waterfall. It had, apparently, come in that way and was trying, with everything it had, to get back out . The fish’s best jump was just shy of success. Perhaps tantalizingly close, but there was no way this fish was getting over. I sat on a flat rock overlooking this scene in the shade of a laurel tree and watched the drama unfold.
The fish would jump frantically over and over again until it had exhausted itself. It would swim around in the basin searching the edges, and then go at the falls again. I don’t know how long the fish had been trapped but I saw it finally give up. After one last rather pitiful attempt to jump, the fish stopped trying. It looked dead. It floated in the basin peacefully tapping up against the side, and then over to the other side and then it just floated out over the spill way, plopped into the current, and swam away.
This fish knew the basin was a death trap. It knew it had to get back to the current of the river if it was going to survive. It apparently knew how it had got into the basin. It knew enough to jump for it’s life and it showed an impressive determination. When the fish had exhausted itself completely, it seemed to know that it’s live was over. It just gave up. You see this same release on safari videos where the lions are chasing the gazelles. The gazelle runs and ducks and dodges with everything it has, but when the loin has it in it’s jaws, the gazelle gives up. You think there would be more writhing and struggle, but the animal just lays there and gets killed.
What this fish did not have was the perspective I enjoyed from my rock. I could see the way out was just a little hop over the spill way. For me this was obvious, but the fish couldn’t see it. It knew the way it had come in. If it was aware of the spill way in the back, it showed no interest in trying that option at all. It seemed, in fact prepared to die rather than test the unknown. This fish had no ability to reason out it’s situation. Nor did it possess a capacity for a leap of faith. Its capacity, as a little fish, was, after all, pretty basic. The thing that surprised me (and perhaps the fish) was the fact that all it had to do to survive was float. A simple surrender. Unfortunately, before discovering this elegant solution, the fish had to practically kill itself jumping against the waterfall, and completely exhaust all it’s energy. The only thing the fish did not have to go through was being snapped up into the beak of a bird, or a slow starvation.

How much does a simple creature actually experience? Who knows. Perhaps I project too much, We, being the advanced life forms we are, certainly have a response to our circumstances. We would have gone through all the emotions and the stress and terror. We would have fought to make that jump and gone through all the scenarios of what could happen to us. We would have felt the loneliness and isolation and fear. We would have gone painfully and acutely through the processes of denial and then, perhaps, acceptance of our defeat, and the dejection and disbelief and the ultimate painful resignation to our catastrophic end.

It is compelling for me to think that if we were that fish, but had our human wits about us, we would have figured out the situation, reasoned our way through it, and done what was obviously necessary. We tend to think of ourselves as smart enough to get out of simple traps. The only problem is that we often don’t. We get in traps like this all the time, and when we are in them, we exercise about as much creativity, or common sense, or reason, as that fish did. We will avoid the unknown and keep jumping at the way we came in until we knock ourselves out
We think of a little fish as functioning automatically. They do what they do because it is programmed in, and the events and circumstances of their lives are pretty much a matter of running that program. We don’t ascribe consciousness in the way we know it, or self-will, or self-reflection, or an ability to discriminate and make choices. We think of these capacities as strictly human. Yet, for all our higher capacities, we do a lot automatically. We run our programs also, and some of the programmed behaviors we run are not very effective, reasonable, or intelligent. Some, in fact, are clearly self-defeating and self-destructive, and some are disastrous for others.
Lets talk about programming for a moment. When we think of simple creatures being programmed, we think in terms of DNA programming and instinct. Neither of which requires much conscious awareness, or choice. But what about little children. How consciously aware are they when they are programmed by circumstance to respond in certain ways. We learn things as children before we are conscious that we are learning. Some of these things we learn become core beliefs and core response mechanisms. Many of these pre-conscious notions are incorrect. Or if they were correct under one circumstance, they may be completely incorrect in our current situation. This is why we can find ourselves trying to jump back into a waterfall, or jump back into a bottle, or jump back into an abusive relationship, or back into a dead end job.
Among the differences between us and little fish is that we have a capacity for self reflection, and insight. Such insight can open a window of hope. A vision that maybe that spillway goes back to the main current. What seemed hopeless can become hopeful, and what seemed impossible becomes possible. A capacity to have insight into our own sub-conscious programming is a remarkable thing. I tend to think it is something that comes by grace, or something that comes at a time that it is most likely to be received. It may be something we resist because we are dependent in some way, or addicted, to our behaviors and beliefs. We may mistake the presence of a life helping insight for a threat, or simply, like our little fish, fear the unknown more than our misery.
Surrender is about letting go when you have beat your head against a brick wall long enough to figure out it isn’t going to give way. Surrender is about realizing the problem you are trying to solve, or the situation you are trying to control is bigger than you and beyond your power. Surrender is not about allowing bad things to happen to you. It’s not about accepting your lousy lot in life and schlepping through it. Surrender, in the sense I am talking about, is about letting go as an act of faith and hope. It is an active process in that it is a conscious decision to try something different. Even if that something different is to stop doing what you are doing. The active part of letting go is being receptive to insight and new direction about what to replace the old program with.

Lets say you’ve lost your car keys. You’ve looked everywhere you can think of. You’ve wracked your brain, and still no keys. There is a point were you have to give up. Resign yourself to the fact that you can’t find them. It is remarkable how often your keys will appear shortly after this point is reached. This isn’t magic. You had gone into a mode. A program for finding your keys. You ran that program but it wasn’t a sufficient program for finding the keys under the current circumstances. They were not in a place the program went. In this respect the program for finding the keys was actually preventing you from finding them. It was too ridged or limited. Once you let that program go, you became more accessible to have an insight.
Once I was on a motorcycle ride in the mountains. I was coming back to a cabin where I was staying and my motorcycle stopped running. I went through everything I could think of to get it started and nothing was working. I checked the fuel, the filter, the battery leads, the spark plugs, everything. I was stuck. I was also in the middle of nowhere in the mountains on an isolated dirt road. I didn’t want to leave my motorcycle there. I could have walked back to the cabin, but I was afraid the motorcycle would be too easy to steal or vandalize. I decided, since it was a warm night, to stay there with my motorcycle and deal with it in the morning when it was light. I put the bike on the center stand and laid back on the seat with my legs out over the handlebars. That was when I realized how brilliant the stars were and what an amazing place I was in. The sounds of the woods were rich and mysterious and amplified by the darkness. As I laid there I began to think about my motorcycle again. I started to imagine, just as a mental exercise, the sequence of events that occurred from the time the key turned to the firing of the engine. The key turn releases a charge from the battery that goes to the starter that turns the fly wheel and moves the pistons to the top of the cylinders. The valves have opened to let in a little puff of gas and air and this pressured mix explodes with a spark from the plug and the motor fires up. During this process I thought of the compressor, a little electronic part in the sequence of events.. I hadn’t thought of it before, I got down and took my pliers and tapped on the compressor, and fiddled with the electric leads connecting it. The bike fired up and I rode it back to the cabin. The answer that night came with inspiration. It wasn’t an answer my program of trouble shooting contained and it didn’t come to me until I had stopped trying to fix the problem.

Lost keys and stalled motorcycles are little things. Life hold far more significant challenges. Our traps get complicated and the consequences can be devastating. We can dig ourselves into some impressive holes. But the basic principle of surrender applies to the big stuff as well as the little things. What’s more, the better we get at realizing when we are defeated, the less bashing our heads against walls we have to endure. It is not as if the letting go initiates the insight process. The two are not necessarily linked. Inspiration can’t be controlled. Sometimes the answers to our problems don’t come when we let go. We have to note, however, that even if the solution isn’t made manifest, at least we have stopped repeatedly doing the same ineffective things.
Once I saw a photograph in a magazine of two bulls in the middle of a long straight desert highway. They had their heads butted together and their horns locked. They were standing on either side of the yellow lines as if protecting the territory the line and the road divided. They were in a high desert area with no fences along the road. The were surrounded by a vast territory of open range and beyond that, mountains rose up behind them. It was a beautiful place and an wonderful image. The photo struck me as the perfect metaphor for a conflict where the engagement of both sides was completely essential, and without one party’s participation, there simply wasn’t a conflict. These bulls were free to range, no fenced penned them and no cowboys harassed them. Just miles and miles of open space to graze. If one of these bulls simply surrendered, the conflict is over and they are both free to move about the country. Of course, the bulls had a program to run that required this behavior of them.

Surrender is kind of like humility. These words get a lot of bad press. They get mistaken for weakness. Smallness. The negative connotations miss the point. Surrender, or course, is most commonly associated with battle. It’s important to note, however, that to surrender, you have to still be in the battle. Surrender is just an acknowledgement of defeat. We tend to read more into it than that. We see ourselves as failures, or somehow inadequate. We internalize all the circumstances and take them on as if we could have been more, or done more. Possessing humility helps us to surrender to the circumstances of life, not in dejected shame, but with faith and gratitude and hope. With humility there is actually such a thing as a happy surrender. When we can see the folly of our struggle, and recognize when we are engaged in a self destructive, or self-squelching behavior, we can be happy to let that go.

So how do we know when we are doing the things that are self-defeating? If we knew, wouldn’t we stop doing it? You would think so. When we run through programs that don’t work over and over again, and keep having the same bad reactions, or bad results, there is probably something we are getting out of running the program that is important enough to us to keep us engaged. The “something we get out of it” is likely to be related to the way it worked for us at some formative point. I heard about a woman on the radio one day who had developed multiple personalities as a result of extreme abuse she went through as a child. She was an adult and married and none of the abusive circumstances were present in her life at the time she began to get help, yet, she maintained her psychological system of self-preservation despite it’s dysfunctional placement in her current life. This preservation of disfunction was maintained largely by fear that the original bad circumstance could always return. In this woman’s case, that was not a rational fear.

We expect people, and ourselves, to grow out of childish responses, but when we look around, the evidence suggests that many of us don’t change that much. In many cases, the behaviors are simply more discrete or sophisticated, but operate on the same formative level. Grown ups don’t throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way (except professional baseball coaches and little league parents) and they don’t run and hide under the bed when the neighbor is angry (although avoiding confrontations is a refined art form for some of us) and we don’t usually allow ourselves to me blatantly bullied (although a lot of subtle intimidation goes on).
When our self-defeating behaviors or beliefs have put us in a trap, or failed to work to solve our problems (despite exhaustingly repetitive attempts), it may be that the conflicts we are experiencing are the very opportunities we need to learn a new approach.

An insight into our formative beliefs and behaviors can give us an opportunity to see where it is flawed. We can begin to replace it with new responses and beliefs that are based on current circumstances and current information and get the benefit of our experience and wisdom. Imagine a child that doesn’t get all it’s needs met. Perhaps just because the parents couldn’t do everything they needed to do. Imaging the child, as a response, internalizes this to mean that it, and it’s needs, are unimportant. The child perceives itself as inherently unimportant and unworthy. A subconscious belief is formed that becomes formative and can effect every aspect of that Childs life. What if you could step in at some point and simply correct the child’s errant thinking? If you could tell the child that it was mistaken. That the child is important and worthy and it’s needs are important even if they can’t be met. What would be the cumulative effect of this kind of switching of formative beliefs on the child’s self-concept and interaction with the world?

Of course it is not as easy as this. People hear things when they are ready and not before. And for many, these kinds of lessons can’t be taught by others- no matter how hard we try, or how good our intensions are. But what if we are that child? What if we are exhausting ourselves trying to leap back up a waterfall that is just too tall? What if we are in yet another disastrous financial situation, or yet another fight with our spouse, or parents, or siblings, or boss? What if we have drank too much, or said too much, or worked too much, or tried to control too much yet again? What if we are still underachieving, or self-squelching, or working at a job we still hate?
Our little fish was defeated by his obstacle. When it gave up, as we know, the problem resolved itself. He was swept over a spill way and plopped right back into the stream of life. He carried on and that obstacle was gone. This is too simplistic for our complicated affairs. I know. But consider for a moment the actual substance of an errant belief. To barrow from the vernacular of politics “there’s no there there.” The effects are consequences of what amounts to a puff of soak, a fault of wiring, a programming glitch. Addicts call it “stink’n think‘n“. People who survive a suicide attempt report knowing immediately (the moment they jumped) what a wrong headed trace they were in. Perhaps an obstacle can vanish. When it no longer has the purpose of obstructing us. Or perhaps the thing remains but our connection to it vanishes. Our obligation to it is removed. And we find that the only significant consequence to this disengagement is that we are freer than we were.


John Franks IV said...

Very Well Stated Sir!

It seems that we are all "programmed" in one fashion or another.

You are correct change does not ever truly happen only our wisdom allows us to handle it differently.

A bit wordy but very well said sir I applaud you!


Anonymous said...

Excellent Read my friend! I wish the Huff Post would pick this up!

Linda Pendleton said...


That is some excellent insight into the journey of life. It is often fear of varying degrees that hold us back, or freeze us, and stop us from having courage to move beyond.

Very well said. Thanks for sharing.

Randy said...

Hey Linda. I think so. Thanks for stopping by.

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