In our culture of “get more, have more, be more,” is there any place for “thanks, I’m good”? Bestselling author and acclaimed teacher Roger Housden says yes in this alternative to nonstop striving and self-criticism. Whether about our relationships, careers, or spirituality, many of us judge ourselves as not measuring up when we would certainly experience more fulfillment if we stopped struggling with ourselves. Housden came to some of these realizations in an extraordinarily challenging situation: being questioned by authorities while researching a book in Iran. In the midst of confinement, he knew, beyond all logic or reason, that he was actually free. Most of us will never find ourselves in such an extreme set of circumstances, but we may feel trapped by our behavior and experiences. Housden’s words affirm that we can find peace and contentment, no matter what.
|Publisher:||New World Library|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Roger Housden is the author of twenty-two books, including the bestselling Ten Poems series. His writing has been featured in many publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and O: The Oprah Magazine. A native of England, he lives in Marin County, California, and teaches around the world.
Read an Excerpt
Dropping the Struggle
Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have
By Roger Housden
New World LibraryCopyright © 2016 Roger Housden
All rights reserved.
DROPPING THE STRUGGLE TO BE SPECIAL
Does it matter who I am?
To have a Definition
to make me stand out
or blend in
to have a set Life Plan.
Walking in the storm
sky breaking overhead
it is easier if "I" am simply here
on the pavement walking
in the company of leaves
It is easier if I am not Someone
fighting against the wind
talking to myself about how
soaked my new boots are getting
kicking myself for not bringing
If I don't have to be Someone
I don't have anything to cling to
This used to scare me
I can't be nothing!
I can't be no one!
Give me Nobody
After the storm
the leaves will settle,
fall where they will,
their curled browned
bodies will greet us
in the morning
drops of grace on
our way to school and work.
A colleague asks me,
Hey, what's new?
and I reply,
— TAMMY HANNA
Tammy Hanna is a schoolteacher living in London. Her poem, which she submitted in one of my online writing classes, reminds me that deep insight can be attained anywhere, at any time, and by anyone. You don't have to be a Rumi or a spiritual teacher or an adventurer in the Arctic to drop the struggle with life and fall into the freedom that is always present. Tammy found it on a London street while walking home from school. Neither do you have to be interrogated by the Iranian Intelligence Service.
In 2009 I was in Iran to research a book on the culture and people. After two months there I was on my way out of the country, when I was stopped by members of the Iranian Intelligence Service at the airport. They took me back to Tehran and interrogated me for two days under suspicion of being a spy. For a while it looked as if I would never see home again.
As an educated English white male, I had gone through life with a certain degree of entitlement, unconsciously exuding an air that seemed to imply I had a special pass. This is partly personal, but it is also part of my collective inheritance. English men have strutted the globe for centuries feeling special, and even though any justification for such a posture has long since disintegrated — even though it was never justified in the first place — the feeling lingers on through the generations. It's a core cultural belief, and those change only slowly. So I can be as full of myself as anyone.
I admit it didn't look good, that afternoon in Tehran. I had met all the wrong people — dissident artists, reformist politicians, and Sufi sheikhs in Kurdistan, where tourists were not meant to go. My interrogators knew everything because they had hacked into my email account and listened to every phone call I had made. They knew I was not a tourist and that I was writing a book. Somehow, entirely by serendipity — being passed from one friendly pair of Iranian hands to another — I had been invited to Christmas dinner with the English ambassador at the embassy, and the chargé d'affaires at the Swiss Embassy, who was responsible for American affairs in Iran, had thrown a party for me the night before I left for the airport, in a diplomatic car that she insisted I take — for my own protection, she said.
Throughout my time in Iran, it had felt as if the gods were smiling on me. Until the moment I was stopped by the agents, my life had always been marked by a certain naïveté that allowed me to glide through situations and countries without being harmed. It was a kind of grace that I had never really been conscious of until it seemed about to be taken away.
After two days of being asked the same questions again and again — Who sent you here, Who are you working for, Why did you come to the airport in a diplomatic car, What were you doing in Kurdistan? — my interrogators, two burly men in baggy black suits, finally stopped talking. One of them began cracking his knuckles. The other held up my English passport and said, "You see this? This is worthless! Do you realize you could disappear today and no one would ever know?"
That was becoming all too evident. He threw my passport into the wastebasket. So much for my English special pass.
"Have you ever heard of Evin Prison?"
I had heard of Evin, and I did not like what I heard. The man who threw my passport away glared at me.
"You are very fortunate," he said. "My colleague is the boss and he is going to give you a choice. You can either spend a minimum of five years in Evin Prison, or you can work for us as an informant on the activities of foreign NGOs in Iran."
I said I would work for them. I was told to stand by the boss and shake his hand with a smile while the other man took our photograph.
"We will cause trouble for you with this if you do not follow through," he said. The two men rose as if on cue and left the room, saying they would be back in five minutes.
I went to the balcony and looked down at the lights of the city below. I was on the fourteenth floor. It was the middle of the night. My life was at a turning point. There was no way out of this. I had grown up in a liberal democracy, in which fairness and justice were considered fundamental values. I had always assumed that no harm could come, which is probably why I so blithely got on a plane to Iran in the first place, to the country that both England and America, the countries that had issued my two passports, were calling part of the Axis of Evil.
But there in Iran it was plain that I was no different from anyone else: from the journalists who were already in Evin Prison, from the Berkeley students who had been caught straying over the Iraqi-Iranian border around the same time, from the thousands of people all over the world who had lost their freedom for no apparent reason. I realized that everything could be taken away from me at any moment. Whatever feeling of specialness I had carried around with me fell away in that room high over Tehran.
I was helpless. I felt a gravitas, an emerging humility that I had not known before. Something in me gave up. Gave up worrying, gave up thinking about possible outcomes, gave up everything. I waited. Ten minutes passed. Half an hour. I peered out of the window at the lights of the city below. For all I knew, I could be somewhere in this city for years. Maybe this was it for my life. Maybe it would end here. An hour passed, and in that hour I came to know three things, and not with my thinking mind.
First, I knew that even as I was part of a web of loving relationships that I cherished, I was at the same time utterly alone. Existentially, essentially alone, as one dies. As one may be upon hearing a cancer diagnosis or upon surviving a car crash. No one was sharing this turn of events in Tehran with me. No one even knew where I was.
The second thing I knew beyond all doubt was that the narrative I had assumed to be my identity was a fabrication spun out of my neurons. Roger the traveler, the writer, the lover of poetry — all this was a provisional reality. My memories, too, were shifting and subject to change. In that room in Tehran, all my usual reference points had drifted away. The familiar story of my life meant nothing in my present circumstances.
And yet, and yet, the very absence of my well-worn identity felt like a sudden breath of freedom, like taking off a tight suit I had not even realized I was wearing. Part of the stitching holding the suit together was the unconscious feeling that I was somehow exempt from the usual restrictions. It was a defense, of course, and ludicrous if I cared to look at it. The Iranians had seen through my game. Now I understood that line of Rumi's, from his poem "Time to Go Home," in which he says that we can walk around without clothes on:
Let's leave grazing to cows and go
Where we know what everyone really intends,
Where we can walk around without clothes on.
(TRANSLATED BY COLEMAN BARKS)
Even terms like alone and not alone, free and unfree, English and American didn't make sense without my usual identity. Yet in this nakedness, not knowing anything about my life from here on out, something essential continued to palpitate, to throb beneath my skin. I am! Whatever happens, I realized then, I am; I am nothing to speak of, no one special at all, just the silence of clear air. Feeling this in that room in Tehran was the greatest freedom I had known. This was my true home, a home without walls.
Whether I live or die, whatever happens, I am — I saw and felt this as clear as day. None of it was a thought; it was a felt sensation, a knowing beyond words. I felt intensely alive, not with excitement, but with a deep and solid and sober peace. My curiosity reemerged. I wondered what the next chapter in the story would be. There would always be a story until there wasn't, even though I knew now with a visceral certainty that however the story turned out, it wouldn't define who I was in essence, which was ungraspable.
It's not that I didn't have preferences. Of course I wanted my freedom. Really wanted it. But I could also feel a calm and sober detachment about whatever might happen next. The story that unfolded might not be the story I thought I was going to live. And in some inexplicable way, even that would be alright. I would continue to be, whatever happened.
Then the door opened, and the two men in baggy suits walked in. We are going to the airport, they said. You will be on the next flight to Dubai. And I was. And for the record, I do not work for the Iranian Intelligence Service.
Even telling this story could be a way for me to feel good about myself, to feel that an unusual experience validates my feeling of being somebody special. The ego can twist itself into any shape it likes and believe it is being authentic. We can even turn being nobody special into a spiritual costume that the ego slips into when no one is looking.
There is an old Jewish story of two rabbis walking through the synagogue, when they spot the cleaner mumbling to himself. They could just catch his words: "Adonai, have mercy, for I am no one, not even a speck in your eye." One rabbi leaned into the other and in a tone of disdain, said in his ear, "Look who thinks he is nobody."
The rabbis felt superior to the cleaner. After all, they were rabbis. What could the cleaner know about the spiritual virtue of humility? Or at a deeper level, beyond the virtue of humility, how could a mere cleaner see through his ego's story to the luminous silence that is everywhere? Because this is what being nobody really means: living without a central operating system with your name tag on it.
True humility can be a gateway to such a way of living. Seeing ourselves in proportion, as one among many, softens our boundaries and makes us more susceptible to a deeper knowing. Most of us try to feel superior at times by comparing ourselves with someone who, either in character, profession, or knowledge, we judge to be less than us. Comparison is one of the ways the ego solidifies itself — either by making us feel special or small, which are two sides of the same coin. Thomas Jefferson captured this in one succinct sentence:
Remember that no one is better than you, but that you are better than no one.
Of course, any healthy ego enjoys being valued, praised, given unsolicited special treatment, looked up to in some way. We don't have to be narcissists to enjoy feeling special. The trouble comes when we identify with the praise, with our eminent position or knowledge — when we begin to believe that the shiny image is who we are and that we deserve special regard or treatment because of it. Then the warm feeling of being appreciated becomes grandiosity.
There's something entirely beautiful and appropriate about polishing a talent or skill. There's something truly gratifying about doing anything well. Civilization owes a great debt to all those who have been willing to dedicate their lives to a talent or cause that has raised the bar of what it means to be human. Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Yo Yo Ma, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, Marie Curie — the list of exceptional individuals is endless. People like this are indeed special.
They were given a gift from the gods and it would be easy, forgivable, even, for it to go to their heads, but there are some who possess great skill without taking it personally. They have worked and given their lives to a talent or a cause, but they know that the creative or spiritual power for which they have served as a conduit is not theirs to claim. Many of these individuals know what most of us do not: that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know; the more you give yourself to a discipline, the more you realize how little of the road you have traveled.
In 1913, just six years before the end of his long life, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great French Impressionist painter, said, "I am just learning to paint."
Yet you can't try to experience humility, because humility is an authentic quality of being that cannot be imitated by the ego. You can't try to live as if you know you are no more or less than anyone else. Most of us have to be humbled, brought to our knees by the trials of life. The struggles call us to surrender our positions, our ideas of who we are and how life was meant to be. Humility emerges when life returns us to our proportionate place in the scheme of things; when we are willing and able to witness ourselves without blame or judgment as we really are, warts and all; or because by grace we are grounded in a dimension of our humanity that is already below the surface of our story.
It's not easy to know humility as long as we believe our own story. If we are only our story, our image, we need to feel special in order to feel substantial; because deep down we know we have no ground. Something in us knows that the identity we create to move through the world is always and only ever provisional, not just because we die but also because we can intuit that it has no solid foundation throughout our lifetime. For all its valuable executive powers, the ego identity is only more or less useful in helping us make our way in the world. Of course it has value: we all need a story to live in this world. We all need to be someone to fill out a job application.
But if we are lucky, the time will come when life will turn us upside down and all our precious coins will fall out of our pockets. If you practice Zen, the same might happen if you sit in front of a white wall for a day or for ten years, when your whole house of cards suddenly falls to the ground and you recognize the shimmering silence that you are and always were. Or you look in the mirror one day while you are brushing your teeth and suddenly see through all your joy and sorrow to the one who is looking, the stillness in the midst of the big wind of your life. In the hero's journey, the time must come when the hero encounters so great a pressure, inside or out, that something has to give. He or she is the one who has to give — give up the very notion of being a hero on a journey, and fall facedown onto the earth. There is never any guarantee of a happy ending, and because this is so, a door might swing open that we never even knew was there.
Excerpted from Dropping the Struggle by Roger Housden. Copyright © 2016 Roger Housden. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Note on the Use of Poetry as a Wisdom Language 13
Dropping the Struggle to Be Special 15
Dropping the Struggle for a Perfect Life 33
Dropping the Struggle for Meaning and Purpose 49
Dropping the Struggle for Love 67
Dropping the Struggle with Time 87
Dropping the Struggle with Change 105
Dropping the Struggle to Know 121
Permissions Acknowledgments 139
About the Author 141
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Shallow and incoherent.