The Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once said: “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” I think about this line a lot. One of its implications is that problems in life aren’t only a consequence of how things are, but of how you feel they ought to be. If you didn’t need things to be different, there would be no problem. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of obsessive perfectionism: if you are the type who will only deem Christmas acceptable if everything goes exactly to plan – no family arguments, children thrilled with every gift, the crust on the roast potatoes precisely crunchy enough – you are sure to be disappointed. And the real cause of your disappointment won’t be how reality unfolded, but the impossible standard to which you were holding it. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with soggy roast potatoes, after all. You add the wrongness, just as you add the gravy.
The great insight of Zen, and several other traditions, is that all suffering might arise this way, from the inner insistence that reality not be how it is. At least in principle, there are always two ways to address any problem: you can change the way things are, or change the fact that you wish they weren’t that way. And, as a practical matter, you often can’t change how things are. So the beginning of psychological freedom, to quote the Zen writer John Tarrant, lies in asking the question: “Wait a minute, what if this is it?”
The glib way to interpret this insight is that it might somehow be possible to deal with any setback – the deepest grief, the most grinding poverty – simply by deciding not to care about it. The non-glib interpretation is that, in the midst of any problem, of any gravity, it’s always useful if you can remember to ask yourself whether, in some subtle way, you are resisting the experience of how things are, or staking your happiness on them being very different in the future. In one of the books I’ve been most grateful to discover this year, Already Free, the psychotherapist Bruce Tift suggests asking yourself what it might be like to continue living with your biggest problems until the end of your life. What if you are always single or never find fulfilling work, or never stop being driven up the wall by that thing your spouse does?
Tift says that he never experiences any problems in his marriage – but only because he no longer considers it a problem to experience emotional disturbance within it, which he does every day.
Even people who take an admirable degree of responsibility for their “issues” often harbour the secret hope that, given enough time and effort, they will be free of them, once and for all. But what if you never change? How much of any problem is the problem, and how much is just the fact that it’s still there when, goddammit, you were supposed to be rid of it by your age?
Once you accept that family bickering might always be a feature of Christmas, there’s even a kind of sweetness to it. (Except when there isn’t, and that’s fine, too.) The delightful thing about reality being an incurable condition is that you needn’t fret about curing it.
Listen to this
In an episode of the podcast Insights at the Edge, psychotherapist Bruce Tift asks what it might mean to abandon the notion that “a good life is one without pain, anxiety or disturbance”