Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Fork In The Road

When watching television, our brains process many millions of images, and sequence them in a format that makes sense to us. It is hard for me to recall in vivid clarity most of these endless images that have passed through my consciousness, except perhaps one that has stayed with me over the years. Picture someone with a snorkel mask swimming laps for hours in a small pool, and making notes with an underwater pen and pad. I was watching a television documentary on a prolific Japanese inventor who happened to get his most profound ideas during this monotonous routine of swimming laps. Rather than get out of water and put his ideas on paper, he would write them down with his underwater pen on his waterproof writing pad. When asked about the secret of his creativity, he had a rather simple answer. He said that whenever he was faced with a choice of taking the easy way or the hard way, he always embraced the more difficult road. He felt that the experiences gained from choosing the harder way helped him turn his creative genius into practical reality. 

The path of life is full of forks in the road that force us to choose our next step. Whenever we we encounter the opportunity to make a choice, should we take the easier path or the one more difficult? Although the easy way out of a situation keeps things simple and more manageable in that moment, sometimes, choosing to follow that road may lead to major difficulties later. Conversely, taking the harder route initially may actually make things easier further down the path of life. For example, lifestyle diseases such as adult-onset diabetes, obesity, and heart disease can arise from continually taking the easy way out when it comes to food choices.  It’s obviously much easier to get drive through fast food for dinner, rather than going home and cooking a healthy meal after a long day of work. And, for most people, it’s way too easy to give in to a sweet tooth. However, these types of choices, often made in the moment without hesitation, can lead to much difficulty and suffering down the road.  

We all face troubles and difficuilties. Some are physical, others mental. We don’t always have the choice of taking an easy path in life. For example, when a disease sets in our physical frames, we don’t have the choice of just wishing it away. What gets us through life’s difficulties, such as enduring serious and sometimes chronic illnesses, is our survival instinct. Thanks to this instinct, we automatically take the “hard path” by battling through pain and sickness so that we may continue to live. Some people are born with diseases that affect them from birth, and don’t have the slightest bit of choice in the matter of the cards they’ve been dealt.  However, everyone has a mental choice in terms of how we deal with the difficult situations that life presents. In hard times, a fork shows up in the mental road that we all traverse. The easy way is to give in and manifest emotions such as anger, frustration, and guilt. This seems “easy” to do as it temporarily displaces the difficulties onto these emotions. A harder approach is to develop tolerance and a sense of indifference to pain and suffering. It is not easy to develop this skill, especially in the setting of an extremely challenging situation. However, the benefits of developing such a skill are numerous, and help us cope with the reality that sometimes we have no choice except to live in our current situations.

Every time you are faced with life’s little challenges that are inconsequential in the big picture except in the eyes of your personal ego, you are presented with an opportunity to develop your mind in a positive manner. This will help you later on when you are presented with difficult situations that don’t necessarily give you a fork in the road labeled the “easy” or the “hard” way.

As The Buddha said,

“Easy to do are things
that are bad and harmful to oneself.
But exceedingly difficult to do
are things that are good and beneficial.”

Let’s apply this to a generic situation such as when someone says something that hurts your ego. A common response to this situation involves anger as a means of expressing your displeasure. You also have the opportunity to develop restraint and not respond to whatever criticism that is being directed your way. It is easy to react negatively to criticism. This only harms you in the long run. With every negative emotion that you direct at another, you suffer the most harm since you are in closer proximity to the source of this emotion than anyone else. On the other hand, at least on the surface, it seems harder to react to situations like this is in a positive manner. Again since you are in closest proximity to this positive mental state, you benefit the most. The more you practice this, the easier it gets and soon enough, it gets easier to react positively and harder to react negatively to any situation. You get here only by choosing the “hard way” initially.