Life isn’t fair.
Most of us struggle with this basic tenet of life. We don’t always understand why some people get the good end of the stick of life and reap all the benefits, while the rest of us are stuck watching. We expect the good to be rewarded, the talented to be promoted and the kind-hearted to receive more of the same. But, it doesn’t (always) work that way.
In his book, Make Your Bed, Admiral William H. McRaven provides life lessons based on his Navy SEAL experience and in one chapter he describes how Navy SEALs are sometimes ordered to run, fully clothed, into the surf zone and then, from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of their body is covered with sand. McRaven says this is the “Sugar Cookie Effect” and that the SEAL was to stay in uniform – cold, wet and sandy – for the entire day. The most startling part about The Sugar Cookie Effect was that it wasn’t punishment. In fact, it could happen to any recruit, at any time, for no good reason at all. The purpose of the exercise was to teach students that sometimes they weren’t going to succeed. Sometimes they wouldn’t have the perfect uniform or made-up bed. Sometimes no matter how well prepared they were or how well they performed, they would still end up a Sugar Cookie.
It’s just the way life is sometimes.
As McRaven described the Sugar Cookie process I found myself wincing. I couldn’t imagine being covered in sand for an entire day. It took me back to my college track days and the sand that would stay with you long after the meet was over.
But it also made me wonder…
What about the things in life, like the sand, that get stuck to us?
On some level, in one way or another, we’re all dealing with the Sugar Cookie Effect: The unfair health issues we didn’t sign up for. The broken or abusive relationships that we’ve done everything to mend. The unfulfilling, dead-end job that we can’t seem to get out of. The list goes on, but the point is, we all have “stuff” in our life that we didn’t ask for. We all have stuff that we didn’t do anything to “deserve” and it seems like no matter what we do, we can’t shake off the sand. We all have experienced life’s unfairness and would give anything to just rinse it off in the here and now.
How do you handle it when life covers you in unwanted sand?
…and how many times when you are covered in the sand, not by your own doing, do you further the Sugar Cookie Effect by complaining about the unfairness of the situation?
As much as I look on the bright side of life, I can’t help but feel that certain aspects of my life have been really unfair over the past 12 months. A few conversations last week stirred up some old hurt feelings and had me realize that spiritually speaking, I’m still waving my fist in the air, crying, “It’s not fair!” That underneath all the work I’m doing – meditating, yoga, coaching – my inner brat is like, “WTF Karma!? No, seriously. Help a sister out.”
On the surface, I’m doing all the work, but it’s the quiet, inward (and sometimes, self-righteous) complaining at the Universe that this or that wasn’t fair that has me suffering. No, it wasn’t fair that my head and heart was fucked with last December in a very misleading and misguided way. It wasn’t fair that I got screwed over for roles that I am more than qualified for or that the integrity of the reward system is broken. And, it’s not fair that the individuals who were the culprits of conscious, malicious acts weren’t reprimanded – worse, they were rewarded with new relationships, promotions, growth and freedom.
It’s not fair.
And it won’t always be fair.
But it wasn’t the unfairness of the toxic relationship or the abusive work environment that was at the root of my suffering. My suffering was the result of obsessing over who was getting the better end of the stick of life. I was suffering because I was holding onto this deep-seated sense that things ought to be fair, justice should be had and karma should get up off its ass and put right where things were wrong.
Sometimes in life we experience the Sugar Cookie Effect, but the reality of the situation is too hard to accept. We’re hurt, angry and frustrated because we didn’t do anything to “deserve” the circumstances we’re in and so we take it personally. We complain about being in the sand and as a result, we continue to roll around in the very thing we want out of.
We don’t always get a say in the sand that covers us, however we do get a say in whether or not we get up and continue our day wet, cold and sandy or if we continue to roll around in the mess. Only when we are fully willing to accept what is in the moment, no matter how difficult or challenging it may be, can we allow ourselves to move forward.
When we accept that life isn’t always fair, we instantly feel a sense of relief, like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. The sooner we accept that life isn’t always fair, the quicker we can get back to living our life instead of complaining about life.
When we release our obsession over who gets or deserves what – when we stop trying to control the fairness of life – we can get back into the flow of life. We open ourselves up to new possibilities and new perspectives. Think about the times something “bad” has happened, but it was that very thing that opened up the door for something bigger and better. This is the hindsight of 20/20, or the retroactive perspective, something we only receive once our lot in life has changed. Acceptance that life isn’t fair reminds us that life is unfair…but only for a little while as nothing stays the same forever. Acceptance of what is in the moment (because it’s only what is in this moment) provides us with an open perspective to get curious and wonder, What’s on the other side of this?
Acceptance is a softening, a special kind of alchemy that stops the cycle of anger, frustration and resentment. It’s the door out. And it’s only through your heart that you get there.
This week, I’m diving back into my meditation practice to cultivate equanimity and I invite you to join me in setting aside 10 – 20 minutes each day (or 5 if that’s all you can start with – any bit helps!) to sit and be with just your breath.
There’s a lot of meditations out there, some guided, some with music, some taking you through the chakras or planes of existence – and there’s value to giving yourself the time to meditate, no matter how you do it. But, the reason I am such a huge proponent of Vipassana meditation, a practice that uses the breath as a focal point as you observe the physical or mental phenomena that arises, is because our breath is the single greatest tool we have at any moment – no matter if we’re miles away from our computer, guru or practicing studio – to change our state.
Check in with your natural breathing right now, without changing a thing. Is your breath irregular? Is it short and staccato? Full and deep? Then, notice how you feel. Our breath cues us into what else is going on. When we’re upset our breath acts as our mirror, those tiny gasps of air through sobs show us our pain. When we’re relaxed without a care in the world, our inhales and exhales are longer and fuller. Try it right now: take a huge, slow inhale…hold it for a moment at the top of the inhalation, then sigh and let it go. Notice anything different? The change might not be earth-shattering, but realizing the power of your breath – and that it is something you can always control – is powerful.
Breathing into “What Is”
Find a comfortable place to sit. If you need a block, bolster or wall so that you can reduce agitation and movement, feel free to grab it. Avoid laying down as the goal is to truly understand who you are and how you show up in challenges and moments of mental, emotional and physical agitation. The goal isn’t to become so comfortable that we fall asleep or lose sight of observing what is. Instead, we seek to come into the observance of our natural breath so that we can use our breath to navigate life’s edges.
Once you find a comfortable place to sit, allow yourself to sit up tall and invite your eyes to close. Begin to bring the awareness of your breath to the small space between your nose and upper lip. You might not notice your breath at first. Keep redirecting your attention there anyway and know that it takes a heightened focus to zoom in on this small space. When your mind wanders, kindly redirect it back to your breath and that small space between your nose and upper lip. When your body wants to move, simply breathe first. Notice the urge and see if you can breathe beyond the agitation and craving. It’s not to say you can’t move. Rather, allow yourself to become more aware of your natural tendencies in moments of discomfort and to use your breath to assess what it is you truly need in the moment: do you really need to scratch the itch? Is it necessary in the moment to shift how you are sitting? What would happen if you breathe through it and notice what is? Did the feeling or sensation dissipate?
Vipassana mediation is really a process of retraining the mind. The mind is easily distracted, which is why this form of meditation is equally challenging. When we get quiet, it is that much easier to hear everything else that arises. But, that’s also the goal of Vipassana meditation. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are acutely aware of everything that is happening in your reality, in the way it is happening, without any interpretation of what is. And it’s something that takes an incredible practice. So, we start small. We become aware of one breath, one unit of time, one single inhalation. And it is there that the power of one grows and opens us up to a whole new experience of life, once which allows us to grow with what is and to become unaffected by the unfairness and afflictions of life.