Stuff happens. Things don’t always go our way. Do most of our troubles result from overwhelming external circumstances beyond our control? Or are problems self-created?
A popular viewpoint in some spiritual and New Age communities is that we're responsible for everything that happens to us. When something goes awry, we’re told to ask ourselves, “How did I create that?”
But are we really that powerful?
When the sun explodes in a supernova 5 billion years from now, frying all life on earth, no one will be around to claim that we created that. And sorry to remind you, but before that fateful day, we will perish...of something. It seems rather harsh to look fervently toward ourselves for every foul thing that befalls us.
Sure, there are situations where it’s difficult to argue that we had no role in what happens to us. The law of karma—action and reaction—is often operative. If our lifestyle habits have been less than stellar, such as smoking, not exercising, or eating poorly, then we might regret some of our choices when we become ill.
But even that viewpoint might be excessively harsh. If we uncover the secret history that leads to destructive behaviors, we might adopt a more compassionate attitude. Poor early attachment or trauma can lead to dysregulation of our nervous system, which might lead to addictive habits that distract us from unbearable suffering, even though such choices lead to further suffering.
Rather than ask, "How did I create that?” a more helpful question is, “How can I relate to what happens to me in the most skillful and compassionate way?" and "How can I heal old wounds that keep me stuck and unhappy? What needs to happen to take a small step forward in my life?”
Stuff happens. We exist in a fragile, interconnected universe. Life is not firmly under our control. At the heart of all the great spiritual traditions is the humble recognition that forces exist in the universe that are more powerful than ourselves.
Meeting What Happens to Us
Philosophers and psychotherapists have pointed out that while we have little control over what happens to us, we do have the power to respond to what befalls us. The kernel of wisdom in the New Age belief that we create our reality is that we’re not condemned to be a perpetual victim of life circumstances. It doesn't serve us to blame others for our misery. We can meet what happens to us with a growing sense of grace, wisdom, and patience. We can make room for our feelings, hear whatever wisdom they may hold for us, and move forward in our lives. Approaches such as Focusing can help find a pathway toward being with our feelings and hearing what they might be trying to tell us.
We become stronger as we welcome and engage with our feelings rather than avoid them—or get lost in our heads trying to figure out how we created everything. We can reach out for support when we need it so that we might gain some perspective and not feel so alone. We can cultivate inner resources to meet adversity, which helps us develop resilience—the essence of inner strength.
Our attitude toward life affects how we experience it. If we expect bad things to happen, they probably will. For example, if we brace ourselves for rejection or criticism, we may become overly cautious and defended in a way that keeps us distant. If we have a suspicious attitude that tests people’s loyalty, we might try their patience and push them away. Sadly, we create the reality we fear due to unresolved past wounds around trust and a persistent fear of rejection.
Are our problems self-created? It depends on which lens we’re looking through. As dependent children, we didn’t have much power over what happened to us. As adults, we can come to understand how we developed patterns that no longer serve us—and which might be creating misery for ourselves. For some people, a step forward might be to recognize that positive possibilities exist for us; we don't have to remain victims of our past. We can heal old wounds and participate in creating a better life for ourselves.
But healing and growth aren’t simply a matter of changing our beliefs to more positive ones, although this might be a good start. More fundamentally, we need to engage with our feelings in a positive way, by directing a loving mindfulness toward our experience just as it is.
When we’re hurting, the last thing we need is for someone to ask how we created that, which may shame us for having made such poor choices. What we need is emotional support in the form of positive mirroring of our feelings, which we may have missed as children. We need compassion, not a recitation of someone's belief system. Kindness and acceptance help us become more kind, accepting, and loving toward ourselves, which helps us feel more whole.
© John Amodeo