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Spirituality Essay:

What's the Payoff?    ( April 2011 )

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With "A Life of Dynamic Growth" as our first UU Quality of a Spiritual Life, most of us are proactively engaged in 'developing ourselves,' trying to create greater happiness and success in all the arenas of life in which we're participating: work, relationships, health, social life, spirituality, etc.

A large part of this inevitably becomes working through bad habits and dysfunctional behaviors that block our growth. We all have them ... no human is spared ... parts of ourselves (usually formed early in life) that we don't like, that we know trip us up, and that despite our very best efforts just won't go away! I'm thinking of those personal Achilles heels in our lives like chronically being late, fear of taking risks, procrastination, not keeping your money or personal affairs in good order, and making impulsive decisions. And ... always rushing, making insensitive jokes or remarks, being "too polite," overly worrying, "control-freak" tendencies, poor eating/exercising habits, all chemical and psychological addictions of course ... or any other behavior that keeps you from being your best self.

What would be on your list of things you do that you'd love to be rid of - that don't serve you but which you wind up doing anyway? If you've tried to correct them over the years, but they're still there, have you wondered why? You know your life would be better without them, you don't like them, you work to change them ... yet you keep doing them. What's going on here?

For years I've struggled with, among other things, why I don't, won't, can't meditate more regularly. Meditating is golden for me: when I'm in a meditating phase, my life is radically different, hugely better. I'll do it for a time ... but then drift away. All sorts of reasons and excuses that lead me to stop. I've lived with these cycles for years! How I struggle with it. Why won't - or can't actually - I stay with it? Something more fundamental is operating here.

I mentioned this dilemma to a friend-counselor once who responded with this knife-edged question: "So what's the payoff?" ... i.e., what benefit do I get from not meditating that, at some deeper level, is more important to me than meditating is? It's an axiom in psychology that we're all "programmed" for happiness. It's in our DNA ... "avoid pain, be content". It may not seem true until we think about it, but every decision we make is done to further our happiness ... at one level or another, in one form or another. (Have you ever done anything that you thought would make you more miserable?) He prodded me into looking at what my stopping-meditating behavior was actually accomplishing for me. Some deeper need (satisfying a different happiness) was calling the shots.

What was the payoff? ... what other more important benefit was I receiving from stopping meditating? It turned out asking that question opened some doors into my subconscious mind and revealed a whole set of interesting needs about not giving up control of my life to something else (doing what I "should" do), not deserving good things, and so on - stronger needs, actually, that trumped all the goodies I was getting from meditating. Earlier dysfunctional messages and needs still running the show ... and blocking healthier ways to happiness.

We might ask, "What would my life look like if I (fill in the blank: were always on time; didn't always need to be so busy; stopped trying to control everything, etc.)?" as another way to ferret out what's really driving our behaviors.

My friend said, "Fix this, and everything in your life will be different." I've come to see these persistent non-productive behaviors we get trapped in as much more than just our little foibles. They're deeply rooted and interconnected with everything in our lives. Starting to work through them opens us up to a veritable flood of new energy and dynamic growth ... and ultimately that greater happiness and fulfillment in life we want and deserve.

This is one in a series of essays on spirituality by Rick Childs, lay leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Mendocino Coast. You may want to:
Read more Spirituality Essays
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