Situation Normal: All Fucked Up

Anything can become normal – if we live with it long enough. Violence can become normal; addiction can become normal; living surrounded by a constant mess can become normal; apathy and despair can become normal; aggression can become normal; vapid, mindless voyeurism and consumerism can become normal. Or, joyful empowerment and engagement in life can become normal; caring for the people around you, for yourself, your environment, home and community can become normal; peace and contentment can become normal; compassionate kindness can become normal; self-honesty and a preference for truth over lies and illusions can become normal; healthy eating, exercise, a positive frame of mind and enthusiastic vitality can become normal. Normal is simply what we have grown accustomed to. It can be all fucked up, as the military expression SNAFU (situation normal – all fucked up) describes so well, or it can be sublimely beautiful. It is a matter, ultimately, at least to a very high degree, of habit. What have we become habituated to? What do we accept as normal, and do we really want to continue to accept this as “normal?”

Habit is the driving force, more than 90% of the time. And yet, as we all know, but forget routinely, nothing is permanent, everything is subject to change, and everything can therefore be transformed. If we do not like our present “normal” we are free to change it. What this requires is a) a recognition of impermanence – that all things are impermanent, all things are subject to change; b) that while we are never in control – for linear, unilateral causality does not exist and all things are mutually interdependent – for the same reason that we are never fully in control, we are also never truly powerless. If we can recognize these two inter-related points, which are a matter of the nature of existence, then we will realize immediately that we can in fact transform the patterns in our lives which have become normal to us. The same holds true for the macrocosm of society as it does for the microcosm of the individual, household or community, though a greater effort and patience is required to transform patterns in the macrocosm, for the simple fact that there are more actors involved in the play at that scale.

The microcosm is like a small boat: since it has less inertia than a large ship, it can change direction more rapidly. The macrocosm of society is like a large ship, and therefore has more inertia than a single individual, and thus requires more effort and patience to alter its direction. In either case, however, there is no permanence to things, and all phenomena are in their true nature fully transmutable. Change is not only possible, but inevitable. The question is, what kind of change do we wish to set in motion?

Whether it be our personal lives or the society we live in, since all phenomena in existence are impermanent, having no fixed intrinsic or independent existence, but depending at all times upon changable and changing causes and conditions, therefore we can see that control is an illusion, just as powerless is an illusion, and therefore we can realize that we are truly empowered, as soon as we recognize this fact, to engage actively in the moment by moment and daily choices of our lives and the collective life of our society, that we can and do have an influence, and that we can work to transform any existing pattern, no matter how normal it has come to seem.

This is at once at tremendous responsibility, and also a tremendous source of joy and freedom. If we engage in life with a sense of the impermanence, and also the precious of life, with a sense of empowered involvement or responsiveness – aliveness – then we can see that not only is there a light at the end of the tunnel, but that our whole world brightens. It is a matter of what view of life we take, to a great extent: what attitude we take. There patterns which are slow to change, and others which require only modest effort. If we approach things with energy and an empowered attitude, an attitude that expresses the recognition that nothing is permanent and that all things are interdependent – which entails that we are both actors as well as acted upon – then the world lightens, opportunities are seen where none appeared to exist, and an inner dynamism and enthusiasm arises which is one of the greatest powers in existence: the power of the human spirit it has been called, but the terms are unimportant here.

It is a matter of balancing patience with energetic engagement in life. One side that we can fall toward is aggression, with its obvious troubles associated, including constant tension, stress, strain and frustration. The other side we can fall toward is apathy or despair.

Aggression and apathy are two sides of the same coin. In Eastern terms, one is too yang, while the other is to yin: one is too much pushing; the other, too much foot-dragging or collapse. One side we can err on is the illusion of control, or the attempt to forcefully control, which produces aggression. The other side is the illusion of powerlessness, and the result is collapse, apathy, defeatism, despair, cynicism, or simply a drifting passivity and complacency (all the rage these days with many people). One error requires a loosening up, a softening up, a relaxation – it is too tight. The other error requires a greater vigour, a greater initiative, a greater energy – we have become too sloppy, or simply to meek, too timid, too pleasing of others or too apathetic toward our circumstances or the circumstances of our world.

Whatever the error in the present moment – too tight or too loose, too much push or too much holding back, we can observe how we are engaging with life, and add the necessary correction through an inner change, a change in tack. Of course, at first we may over-correct, as someone new to sailing or piloting a ship will tend to over-correct, and end up zig-zaging excessively through simple lack of skill. We end up then, as most people do routinely and with little awareness, oscillating between too tense and too sloppy, too forceful and too lackadaisical. But as our perception of the subtleties of our inner states and their outer expressions becomes more clear, and our practice at correcting the subtle errors in tack or approach becomes more refined, it becomes increasingly easy, simple and natural to automatically give the right inner correction so that we bring ourselves again back into a more skillful approach to piloting our little ship and navigating the vast expanse of life.

What is needed is a mindfulness, a presence of mind, that is here for the long run, and not just an occasional reflection or a one time decision to make a change. We need on-going mindful awareness of what our situation is, and how we are engaged with it, so that we can practice the subtle – or sometimes large – corrections which are needed to bring a greater harmony, happiness, well-being and empowerment for ourselves and others – which ultimately, is the only goal worth pursuing, and one that is not only both path and destination, but also within our reach.

Clearly, some patterns are daunting and difficult – even to face, let alone address and transform. But we err generally on the side of drastically underestimating our power. Should we begin to realize impermanence and interdependence, we will begin to realize that we are far from powerless. Some patterns, such as social and ecological crises in particular, require collective effort, clearly, but that does not change the facts of impermanence and the openness of phenomena or patterns of life to change. A greater awareness of our personal and collective power is, however, urgently needed. Certainly panic, despair and complacent denial are equally useless. Aggression is likewise short-sighted and unskillful. Where then does that leave us?

It is a matter primarily of attitude. What kind of normal do we want to create? Let us start first with a recognition of impermanence and also of our own power, and we can create anything we like.


September 25, 2008

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