Directed Exploration

"Adult with Journal" by Pexels
“Adult with Journal” by Pexels

This is another article coming from the rich dialogue I’ve had with MitchK, who is a frequent commenter here on the Wild Man Project Blog… and a man who refuses to let me BS my way through an idea. Whenever Mitch comments, I find myself writing a practically (and sometimes literally) a second article in response.

So here is the comment that he posted about a month ago that has kept my gears churning for the last few weeks:

I’m always slightly unhappy with “it is what it is, and it is not what it isn’t” definitions. They might be true, but they are unhelpful, but a means to form your own what it is/is not is a much more useful thing.

I like the “directed exploration” idea, simply because experience has taught me that all exploration isn’t equal.

With that in mind, a question comes to mind. Who directs? On what basis?

You don’t always get to pick your challenges. Life doesn’t always give a damn what you want to learn, and sometimes those challenges are the life-altering ones. If you’re lucky, or smart (the difference can be subtle) you can grow as a result, but sometimes the challenge forces you to adapt in a way that permits you to get through it but at a very high cost.

Does doing something off the bucket list overcome the impact of divorce, bereavement, loss of health, a serious addiction etc? Is it possible to cherry-pick the experiences/actions that support a positive view and ignore the rest?

The biggest, most challenging question here can be amplified like this:

Not every exploration we make in our lives is equal; and often a directed and purposeful investigation will help us learn more than mere reflection… but the problem is, who can we trust to direct us?

The best short answer is ourselves. In fact, it is the only possible answer.

One of my favourite writers about human consciousness was Terence McKenna, and I have shared a recording of one of his lectures here several times, but it bears re-quoting here:

“Nobody is smarter than you. And so what if they are? What good is their insight doing you?”

By which he meant very simply: your mind is the only one you can know. It is the only one that can serve your own survival or success. Every other human mind is shut off to you, available only through the imperfect media of Art and Language.

Even if another person gives you the perfect road map to reach a place, you still have to read it, interpret it, and follow it.  And once you are there, it is still your job to experience the place, see the sights, and meet the people. Nobody do that for you.

In the end only you can direct your exploration, because no one can think or experience on your behalf.

That isn’t to say, however, that another person’s map can’t be of incredible benefit to you. A good writer, a great Artist, or the powerful texts and rituals can offer you incredible maps for reaching better self-knowledge and insight. A mentor who has good intentions and no agenda can not only give you a good map, but also help you develop better skills for reading and following them in the future.

This is the core of what it is to be an ethical life coach: your job is to serve as a mentor without any agenda other than helping a client meet a goal and along the way develop better self-knowledge. The best coaches are always planning on putting themselves out of a job: they want not just to help a client explore in a directed manner now, but to know how to do it well in the future. In the end, clients should come out of coaching knowing how to coach themselves.

This idea is the central focus of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: that the Gods, Demons, Daikinis, and Bodhisattvas (representing different kinds of understanding) aren’t out there in the world: they are inside you. The monks, teachers, and religious community outside of you might help you along the way, but none of them are your true teacher; they are only getting you ready to meet your true Master. That true Master is a divinity that lives within you and will appear to you when you learn how to explore in a humble and honest manner. “When the Student is ready, the Master shall appear,” is a maxim of The Book that refers to being ready to learn by yourself but directed by a wise inner voice.

This all can make the idea of directed exploration seem very subjective, but the truth is that there is a right way to go about directed exploration. There are particular tools and a particular mindset that ensures that you will get the most out of any reflection. They include:

  • Strict honesty.
  • Outcome independence.
  • Letting go of the need to be Right or the Good guy.
  • Humility.
  • Curiosity.
  • Compassion for Oneself.
  • Logic.
  • Creativity.
  • Judgement.

A good mentor can model these things, and demand them from you, although ultimately only you can make the choice to actually be these things.

And so we arrive at the second question:

We gain the most from exploration and self-reflection when we are directed. But what should we explore? And what is the ultimate end?

My tendency when people ask me this one is to turn to the most practical answer, which as it happens, is the most central question in Western Philosophy (I call it The Question) :

How can we live well in the world?

In other words, how can we first reduce suffering, and second find joy and meaning?

Because we are thinking creatures, it is through our minds that we must accomplish both of those things. It is incumbent on us to build the keenest, best disciplined and most healthy mind that we can. And to direct it regularly to answering the The Question.

And answering The Question is an ongoing process, because, as Mitch points out, we don’t always get to choose the experiences that life throws at us. We are constantly confronted with new problems for which our old conclusions and beliefs have not yet equipped us. When we are faced with new information, we have to take time and energy to reexamine our beliefs, goals, and assumptions.

When life takes a sudden turn, we have to take time when it is sensible to do so to ask some very powerful questions:

  • Is this causing me harm or am I committing any self-sabotage?
  • Do I have to rethink some of my assumptions about life before things make sense?
  • Have I been honest with myself when thinking about this situation up to this point?
  • Have I seen evidence that some of my ideas have held me back or made this situation harder than it needed to be?
  • Am I seeing where I stand to grow or gain from this situation?
  • Am I in integrity with my morals in dealing with this situation?
  • Do I have to reassess my goals?
  • Do I need more information?
  • How can I turn this into a test of my ideas and beliefs?
  • Am I approaching this from a place of curiosity or am I being dogmatic?
  • What is the best outcome I could create? What is an acceptable one?

The more often we do this, the easier and more effective we become at it. Getting into the habit of keeping a daily or weekly journal, meditating on a daily or weekly basis, or having regular sessions where you can talk this out with a good listener can make a huge difference in your perspective.

It is by developing a habit of confronting The Question through regular self-exploration that we can keep refining our mind, reduce the suffering in our lives, and live happier and healthier ones in general.

If you don’t find time to do this kind of careful and structured investigation, you can, as Mitch points out, end up cluttering our mind with resentment, bad assumptions, self-destructive habits, lame excuses, toxic relationships, and poisonous emotions.  And most of us don’t learn to reflect and explore in a meaningful way until we are older and have come to a point here the unconscious lives we have been leading aren’t working for us anymore.

And that takes us to the third question posed by Mitch:

What do we do with painful experiences and unhelpful learning?

I would say that the majority human beings are pretty messed up by the time they hit twenty five. They are carrying around a lot of self-destructive habits, unhelpful ideas, and needless hurt. If you don’t have a few emotional battle scars from the everyday struggles of being human by twenty five, you are either incredibly sheltered or the Buddha yourself.

And it is perfectly possible to go through life as the walking wounded, too. for some people, their unconscious life never becomes so painful or unhappy that it just doesn’t get to the point where it isn’t working. People can keep going through an awful lot.

In many ways the first steps towards useful self-knowledge is the process of unlearning and healing. You have to pull a lot of weeds before anything will grow in the human mind. Often you have to go back over the most painful experiences of your life and learn how to find meaning and useful lessons from them.

And that is where the final questions from Mitch’s post come in. Mitch asks, in effect, if we can reach a good, healthy place by doing enough positive things,having enough life-affirming adventures, and building enough healthy friendships in our life to balance out those old hurts?  And can we forget enough of the pain and suffering in our life to eventually land in a good and upbeat place?

The answer to Mitch’s questions is “No” on both counts.

The human emotional leger can’t be balanced by adding enough pluses to exceed the minuses. We can’t simply run with the Bulls of Pamplona and erase the agony of a messy divorce. A whirlwind tour of the art galleries of Europe can’t ease the suffering of losing one’s religion.

But it a misleading answer to the wrong questions.

All those emotional burdens we carry around can be transformed into assets through the process of directed exploration.

We can take that messy divorce and, through careful exploration, transmute it into a long and difficult escape. We can choose, to see that the divorce was:

  • Necessary, because we would be even more miserable if we were still married.
  • A dodged bullet, because we only get so many heartbeats before we die, and we were misspending them on the wrong person.
  • An opportunity to forge a different relationship with our children on new terms and in a new context.
  • An exercise in fighting for our wants and needs like no other we have ever experienced.
  • A way to learn about the needs we didn’t even know we had from a relationship.
  • An way to learn about which of our emotional needs we must learn to fulfil for ourselves.
  • An honest critique of what we need to bring into future relationships that we couldn’t provide in the one that we lost.
  • A chance to decide which demands that were made of us in the past that we are unwilling to meet for others in the future,
  • A way to force us to learn how to enjoy our own company.
  • A chance to find another partner who has learned as much about what they need and bring to a relationship as we have.

If we can approach it from those terms… after a significant amount of cursing, raging, and crying… we can forgive the people who hurt us. And once we have done that, then we can also learn to be grateful for the lessons of the experience. Once we are grateful, the negative becomes another positive in our ledger.

In other words, we can’t balance the negatives with the positives and land on a positive attitude and experience. But we can turn the negatives into positives.

And this is where therapists and coaches do their best work.  Coaches can point out where you are holding on to hurts and letting them hold you back (I love the Japanese expression for this: Where you are “Dragging the Corpse.”) Good therapists have training in helping us find the lessons in our painful past, to forgive, and if we are lucky, to find that gratitude.