Arthur Schopenhauer famously said:
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
I totally agree with that statement because we are unable to control what has already shaped us, we can only deal with it. Here’s what I’ve come to believe lately: Man can do what he wants but he can’t have what he wants. This is spooking in my head for the last few hours. Do you see the beauty in that statement? It’s basically a shift in mindset for what can be expected from life and what can’t.
There’s a story from Paulo Coelho I like to tell. It is about a young man who has a spoon filled with oil in his hand and has the one-time opportunity to see the palace of the king. He has to bridle his excitement as to not spill the oil but also keep his attention on the surroundings as to not miss the beautiful sight. The story is about the inner conflict of a double bind and how to be truly happy. We want something but we also want its opposite. In Bring Me The Rhinoceros John Tarrant recites an old zen koan, which has the following lines in it:
Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
“Should I turn toward it or not?”
“If you turn toward it you turn away from it.”
That’s the story of our life’s, isn’t it? I hope I haven’t lost you here. The truth is this: In life we can’t have only one, we can only have both. Imagine this: How would the world look like if everybody accepted pain as a natural part of joy? Buddha would smile in his grave (he probably does anyway) because that was what he was trying to communicate to his followers. As Steven Covey said:
“When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other.”
It’s the same old story. There is no coin with only one side. So, how does that translate to our daily lives? We always want just parts of something that is actually an undividable whole. We want a relationship but not the arguing, we want the cake but not to get fat, we want to be happy but not becoming lazy. Everything has two sides, even the good stuff. We want to exercise and go to our limits but not be too tired to enjoy life afterwards. Everything is a trade-off.
Now, back to the statement in the beginning: We can’t have but we can do. This is not about having more positive than negative. Life is symmetric, it just ain’t possible. That was the Buddha’s big epiphany. This is about dealing with wanting the thing, that is a zero sum game. This is about dealing with the motor of life. We are so many people on this planet because we like sex. Period. That’s the motor. But we don’t necessarily like what comes with it. The convenient thing was that for a very long time we had no clue why exactly women got pregnant, it was a gift from the gods. To be fair, we probably had some idea about it in the sense that men are involved. Now we know exactly how. And that knowing can stop us from acting or at least be very careful with it. Yin and yang, the thing we want contains something we don’t want and vice versa.
That’s what the old Buddhist saying means:
“Before […], I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”
When we discover, like the Buddha did 2500 years ago, that everything is its opposite in disguise, we can go beyond that and the world settles down. We cannot ignore the world but we can learn to navigate it. We cannot ignore sex, good food or a nice view without structuring our life around that very thing. As Neale Donald Walsch writes:
“What you resist persists, what you look at disappears”
So, once again back to the beginning. We can’t have but we can do. What we want is a life with lots of good stuff (money, relationship, free time, pleasure, fun, family, connection, …) and little bad stuff (death, loss, failure, disease, fear, hate, …). It ain’t possible. It’s gonna be 50/50. That’s where the epiphany lies: It’s gonna be just as bad as it will be good but if we are prepared for the worst we will always enjoy the best. You can relax. You can go into it having fun because you know that it’s a zero-sum game and the only reason to step up to the podium is your inner drive. That’s it. Nothing external. What makes you shout into the forest is not what might come back but the urge to do so in the first place. If nothing comes back you can grin about it. If something comes back you can break out in laughter. You are in this world but not craving it. That’s what the Buddha realised. Until then, all the best.