It seems to me that person by person, humanity is just beginning to wake up to something great. Every day I see evidence of more and more people taking a step back from the well-worn grooves of tradition, and finding a way to live that makes sense for themselves.
More people are quitting the corporate race to work for on their own. Fewer parents are deciding what their children’s careers will be. More people are living unconventional lifestyles, choosing jobs, diets, parenting styles, clothes, music and creative pursuits that speak to them more deeply than the traditional prescriptions. The old-fashioned vice of conformity appears to be losing out to the human spirit.
What this means is that fewer people are being funneled into lifestyles that don’t fulfill them, religions that don’t make sense to them, and careers they dread. This leaves many more individuals who are free to listen to a deeper voice within them, the inner advisor that tells them what’s right for them if they remain still enough to hear it.
Whether we can detect it or not, this voice is always there. It speaks calmly and clearly, but it won’t raise its tone to compete with all the noise in your life. The incessant chatter of our needlessly busy minds combined with the rude clamor of society’s demands on us conspire to drown it out, sometimes for stretches of years, even lifetimes.
Different people interpret it different ways, and call it different things: wisdom, intuition, spirit, God. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not just intelligence. Intelligence can lead us into trouble just as easily as it can lead us away from it. Intelligence is just as likely to help people build bigger weapons or exploit more people as it is to help someone learn to be happy. What I’m talking about is a superior form of understanding that seems to point unfailingly to better ways to live.
We have all at least tasted it, in moments of peculiar clarity when the mind shuts up and something else speaks. Some people are certainly more in tune with it than others, and those most in tune are astonishingly effective and centered people.
As I alluded to in Raptitude’s debut article, Why Happiness is Such a Struggle, I think humans are slowly growing out of the animalistic traits of reactivity, fear and domination, and tuning in to a deeper and more potent part of our psyche. In my own life, and in what I’ve witnessed in others, it’s traits like patience, non-reaction, non-judgment, forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love that do a much better job at creating quality of life for a person.
Worry, neediness, fear, self-importance, disdain and other reactive qualities lend very little to quality of life, in my experience. In very threatening circumstances they may keep us alive, but as members of modern society we can get by easily enough without treating life like it’s always so dire.
To be in tune with this higher intelligence (or whatever phrase you choose — all these names are troublesome) means that you can see clearly which thoughts and actions support quality of life, and which don’t. When we completely lose sight of it, we get lost in reactivity and have little or no perspective, and so we suffer. Click here for an excellent example of someone who’s lost touch with it completely.
As civilization envelops the globe, most human beings have reached a place where we can safely shift our focus away from the trappings of being wild animals, and begin to cultivate the higher qualities of being human. When a person can learn to wield the super-powerful skills of patience, acceptance, and unconditional love — as some have very well — they can achieve anything.
Most notably, with these skills one can effect a personal experience in which nothing is lacking. Names have been given to this too: Nirvana, enlightenment, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some individuals have already reached tremendous levels of skill in this regard, and they are the some of the most famous and influential people in history. Jesus. Buddha. Gandhi. Confucius. Lao-Tsu. All of them masters of the greatest human skillset: those that allow us to live and love without creating suffering.
The Highest of Arts
To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
~Henry David Thoreau
Today at work, everything exploded. With my boss and another employee away, I’ve been saddled with three people’s workloads this week, plus a considerable backlog of my own work.
We had just finished a load of unexpected field work for a client, when they showed up and wanted to change everything. It just didn’t look like they expected, and they wanted it all redone. This unforeseen turn of events represents days of additional work for me, open scrutiny of my design work from the client and the contractor, and a difficult conversation with my boss, who is currently on vacation. And I don’t have any extra time to do it. Construction had already begun, and they didn’t want any delays.
From the very moment I saw the look in their eyes — the ‘we have a problem here’ look — I knew things were going to blow up, and I decided right then not to let it ruin my day. Whatever was to happen, I would take it in stride, and not slip into a bad mood. There was no easy resolution here, no obvious course of action, nobody to call for an answer, and eyes were on me.
If this had happened two or three years ago, I would have spent the rest of the long, hot workday cursing under my breath at various parties (including myself), playing out imaginary confrontations in my mind, hating where I was and what I had to do. I would have thrown an afternoon-long tantrum, mostly internally, and the day would drag all that much more. The sun would become my enemy. My life itself would become my enemy.
It was a beautiful day. Warm and clear with a slight breeze. As we worked thanklessly into the afternoon, with the fate of the project still up in the air, I stayed calm. I joked, I smiled. With a list of problems as long as my arm, I stood on a road embankment in a picturesque field of canola, basking in the prairie air, quite happy to be there.
What Raptitude is Really About
As of the time of this writing, the whole situation is still up in the air. I’ve got an overloaded plate for tomorrow, and I certainly don’t have it all figured out. Surely there will be more complications and difficulties before this is all over. But I’m fine. I know that there is no use in allowing this uncertain and difficult situation to spoil large swaths of my time on earth. If I let myself I could fret about it all night, as a less experienced David surely would have.
What makes the difference is that I have skills and insights that I didn’t always have. I have a better understanding of how my moods work, I know how to halt dangerous trains of thought before they get going, and I know that it doesn’t really matter if I look foolish unless I decide I cannot tolerate looking foolish. When I don’t slip into reactivity (and of course I still do sometimes), the voice inside me is still audible. And life is so much better when it is.
It’s been about six years since I discovered that a person can actually do that: learn to affect the quality of the day. Before that, the quality of my day was a slave to circumstances. If the situation was good, I was good. If things went wrong, I went wrong. Whether I experienced happiness or misery didn’t depend on me, it depended on everything but me!
Of course, I would invest huge amounts of energy trying to force the circumstances to become ideal for me. This approach creates an enormous amount of stress and suffering for a person, because ultimately we have very little real control over what happens around us.
This is the old way: to apply force to circumstances so that they hopefully become ideal. When they are ideal, one can be happy. The more undesirable circumstances become, the more force must be applied, and the side effects can quickly become devastating. The force that people apply for this purpose takes many forms and occurs on every scale: anger, manipulation, obsession, war, theft, lying, eating disorders, rudeness, drug abuse, overspending, pollution, all violent acts great and small. The majority of people operate almost exclusively this way in some form, applying force to circumstances in an effort to make the outside world make them happy.
The new way is to learn to affect the quality of one’s own day, through one’s own personal skills and insights. I’ve gotten a lot better at this new art, and I like to think this reflects the trend in humanity as a whole. Early outliers like Buddha and Jesus have lain outstanding groundwork in the form of brilliant teachings, if only they can escape the horrific side effects of dogma, as less conscious people abuse them in an attempt to force circumstances that make them comfortable.
What we’re really talking about here is evolution. Humans are continuing to adapt to their world, but at this stage of the game, mere biological changes are not going to cut it. They happen too slowly to save humanity from the looming spectres of overpopulation and pollution. What is required now is a revolution of personal wisdom.
You can learn a lot from other people’s wisdom, as I have and try to pass along, but it doesn’t do a thing if it doesn’t resonate on the deeper level of that quiet, steady voice inside you. I’ll relate everything I’ve discovered about the highest of arts, and open my eyes and ears to what others can share with me, and hope that it rings true for as many of us as possible. That’s what Raptitude is really about.
What characterizes this kind of wisdom is that it cannot be applied by force. It cannot be indoctrinated into people, it cannot be spread — as has been tried — en masse with missionaries or crusades, with improved public policy or celebrated new presidents. The highest of arts is always going to be a personal matter.
This responsibility cannot be left to other people, or to the tides of circumstance. Each person must come to their own personal transformation, so that they can hear that voice in themselves, and not just take someone else’s word for it. Our future depends on it.