Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
What can you count on?
Love what’s real.
Because this practice could seem so abstract or so obvious that it’s not worth doing, I am going to take longer than usual to explain why it’s so important.
As I grew up, my family and schools felt like very shaky ground. I didn’t understand why my parents and many kids reacted the ways they did, with anger or plain weirdness that was unrelated to what was actually happening. It felt shaky inside me, too, and I sure didn’t understand my own feelings and reactions. Outside and inside both felt twirly, up in the air, unnerving.
So I looked for solid ground. I tried to see and understand what was really true. The orange groves and hills around our home were natural and comforting, and I spent a lot of time there. I started reading science fiction and loved an orderly universe in which you could figure out why the spaceship was falling and save it.
I also tried to figure out what was real inside other people, and myself. Why is my mom so cranky? Oh, she’s mad at my dad. Why is this bully picking on me? Oh, he’s trying to look big in front of his friends. Why does that girl look so hurt? Oh, it’s because I did something mean. Why do I feel shy in groups? Oh, I’m afraid they’ll make fun of what I say.
Years later, the real is my primary touchstone, guiding star, refuge, delight – you name it. Sure, mysteries remain, no one can know everything that’s real, our descriptions are not what’s real itself, descriptions are shaped by culture, post-modernist analysis, etc. This said, meanwhile, there is a LOT that we can know – at all scales, from details about microbes in your gut and quick passing feelings in your mind to a ripple in the fabric of space-time produced by two black holes crashing together.
Not just knowing what’s real: we can love it as well, gobsmacked by its sheer existence, reassured by seeing clearly rather than being tricked or deluded. We don’t have to like what’s real to love its realness.
It’s striking: What’s the one thing that healthy couples, families, organizations, and governments have in common? They are grounded in what is real. They seek the truth, tell the truth, and deal realistically with the truth.
Flip it around: What’s the one thing that unhealthy couples, families, organizations, and governments have in common? They’re not grounded in reality. For example, “family secrets” are classic signs of trouble, in which good stories – Oh, mom doesn’t drink that much . . . Oh, Uncle Bob isn’t creepy, he’s just affectionate – hide bad facts. Companies become less effective when the flow of accurate information is blocked; religious organizations (as I’ve seen personally) become corrupted when truths about their leaders are suppressed. Governments that attack a free press while spreading fake news and propaganda are clearly not seeking the common good; lying in order to hold on to political authority de-legitimizes it.
In every unhealthy case, power is used to hide what is real, promote lies, and punish people for pursuing the truth and naming it it. Worst of all, deliberate efforts are made to undermine people’s confidence in their own capacity to trust what they see or to find out what is real – which could be the most evil thing anyone will ever do.
Which suggests that seeking and honoring what is real could be just about the kindest and wisest thing a person can do.
Sometimes it is not safe to say what is true. But you can always say it to yourself inside the sanctuary of your own mind. And find others you can share it with, if that’s possible.
I start with physical objects: a stone in my hand, water being swallowed, the sound of a train in the distance. Let your eyes move from object to object, seen or heard or touched or imagined: one after another, all real . . . extending to the hand holding the rock or the brain constructing the experience of sound: it is all real! If you relax and open into this, a kind of wild ecstasy can bubble up, and gratitude, and awe.
Loving what’s real is a fundamental thankfulness that you exist and that anything exists at all. There is an accepting, a humility, a respect. Many things that are real are also painful, even horrible. We would not wish them upon others, and don’t want them for ourselves – yet we can still love the real everything that includes these things.
Loving what’s real makes it easier to see what you may tend to turn away from, such as facts about your health, finances, or relationships, or what is happening down in the basement of your own mind. I write here at the beginning of a new year, a good time to take stock of the slowly accumulating consequences of one’s own actions, for better or worse. You might consider, as I am lately, the real effects adding up of personal health practices, compassion or anger toward others, and choices about how best to use the remaining years and days of this life.
One way to love what’s real is to listen or look for it coming to you from others. How are your friends or family really doing inside? What do they need? Where does it hurt? How could you help? And how, perhaps, could your own real needs be better met in these relationships?
Last, what’s real, what’s true in your country, and world? The basics are usually pretty easy to see. Who’s getting richer and who’s getting poorer? Is the ice cap melting at the North Pole? There’s a widespread idea these days that we can’t really know what’s happening with really big things like national governments, or even if we could know it doesn’t much matter. I think that’s crazy. Truth is truth at any scale, and if truth matters at the scale of whether a child is actually learning to read or a plane is actually safe to fly, then it matters at the scale of what happens when humans dump 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each day or whether a foreign government hacked and manipulated a U.S. presidential election. We are intimately affected by real events in the halls of power both here at home and on the other side of the world. When someone tells you, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to know the truth, you don’t need to worry about that” . . . you usually do. Same with politics: any person, party, or government that says facts don’t matter, or makes it harder to find them, or floods the commons with fake facts to crowd out real ones is pursuing selfish gains by undermining the foundations of a stable, just, and democratic society for everyone else. Sometimes you can’t stop them from doing this – but they can never stop you from knowing what is real, and what matters.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 120,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.