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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

“So how do you know the difference between going with the flow and letting yourself drown?” writes author Eileen Flanagan in her new book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, Sept. 2009). “One answer is to see if what is flowing within you matches the direction of the current around you. You have to pay attention to the cards you are being dealt.”

There are so many good things in this book that I almost don’t know where to begin. But perhaps the best thing is the topic.

Last year, after about 25 years of researching self-change modalities, as both a seeker and a journalist, I wrote an article about the necessity of interrupting the embedded neuronal patterns behind our self-sabotaging behaviors and beliefs. In the introduction to the article, I referred to the power of the Zen master’s thwack, and the editor of the magazine that published the piece decided to use “Thwack” as the title, along with an illustration of a therapist about to throttle an unsuspecting man with a rolling pin. Although it made a snappy and commercial cover line, this title inadvertently portrayed as acceptable what I believe is most dangerous about the new confrontational methods of change and many of the groups that practice them. The trouble with thwacking is that if it’s done by anyone who is not a Zen master or an experienced healer, and if it is delivered without a sense of nuance, devoid of love and compassion, and if the thwack is dealt to a person who is not ready to receive it, it is brutality. And it can even re-traumatize a person rather than help.

It’s hard enough to know when to thwack ourselves, let alone another person. So Hip Hip Hooray to Eileen Flanagan for writing The Wisdom to Know the Difference. Using a combination of research, interviews, anecdotes, and all of the world’s wisdom traditions and religions, she actually makes clear the process of discerning when to accept and go with the flow, and when to challenge your own beliefs and behavior and make a change.

The title of the book is derived from the well-known Serenity Prayer. “While some suspect that the Serenity Prayer has ancient roots, others credit Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian known for his concern for social justice,” writes Flanagan. And she prefers his version:
God, give us grace
To accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

So how do you know when to accept and when to change? According to Flanagan it is a spiral process of steps. That is, they don’t necessarily happen neatly, in a sequence. But they are, first and foremost:

• Know yourself. Get clear on what you believe. And further, determine where your beliefs come from. Are they inherited from your parents or conditioned cultural or religious assumptions?
“People who think their behavior is ‘just normal’ may have an especially hard time acknowledging when their behavior isn’t working,” says Flanagan.

This line threw me into a day-long contemplation. I have an extreme work ethic, to put it mildly. And it’s not healthy. It makes me miserable to dry-rev when there is no work to do. I tracked this to cultural conditioning and suddenly there was enough space around it for me to see that I don’t even believe it. Wow!
• In a chapter called “Seeking Divine Wisdom,” Flanagan urges us to get in sync with the big flow.
She quotes David Watt, an associate professor of history and adjunct professor of religion: “… a lot of one’s job is just to stay in one’s own lane. It’s a football metaphor. There’s a kickoff. Everyone has a lane they need to stay in, and in order for the kickoff to be covered successfully, you don’t go running around wildly. You just stay in your lane. So that means not trying to be responsible for everything, but just trying to be responsible for the cards you’ve been dealt.” Flanagan continues, “One way to see if you’re in your lane is to pay attention to the opportunities you’ve been given and see if they correspond to what your inner guidance is telling you.”
• The chapter on “Shifting Your Perspective” is so rich, I hesitate to reduce it to a quote or a blurb. But my favorite tip was from a former corporate executive who dealt with her fear of something new that felt overwhelming by breaking it down into the smallest, do-able steps. Since none of the steps were scary, what seemed impossible became manageable.
And the last three chapters are:
• Practicing Loving Acceptance
• Letting Go of Outcomes
• Finding Wisdom in Community
The Wisdom to Know the Difference is a book to contemplate. Like the process of discernment, it is not neat and cookie-cutter predictable. It is a book about getting along with other people as well as with ourselves. It’s a roadmap to dealing with uncertain times when jobs suddenly evaporate and the future may feel precarious. It is a very wise book about hearing our own wisdom in a messy and frequently deafening world. This book is the opposite of a “thwack.” It is a finely nuanced, gentle guidebook to clarity.
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