Lost Car Keys, Emotional Ladders and Being Ram Dass’s Illegitimate Child

Learning to climb our emotional ladders.

Did you ever have one of those morning meditations that was absolutely perfect?  Maybe you get up out of bed, light a candle on your altar, close your eyes, and the love and peace just FLOW into you as you sit there.  You feel compassion for all living beings and you feel oneness with the entire cosmos.  You feel that if you aren’t totally Buddha-like, you must at least be the illegitimate child that Ram Dass never acknowledged.  You are just SO high, SO spiritual, SO totally in the flow!

The feeling may continue as you take your shower, allowing the warm water to wash all the negativity from your aura.  And then again, as you eat your oatmeal, reminding yourself that you honor all living beings by not eating the flesh of animals.  You know you’ll have a perfect day at work.

And then . . . and then . . . you can’t find your car keys.  You go through the pockets of the clothes you wore the day before.  Check your night stand.  Look under the bed.  Scour your sock drawer.  Crawl around on the floor in case you dropped them.  Within the span of a few moments you’ve been transformed from Pema Chodron into a snarling, wild eyed beast.

“Where are you, you goddamned little jingly bastards?  Where in the fuck ARE you?”

Ironically, at the very height of your fury and hysteria, you locate the keys.  On your altar.

Sigh.  Another failed leap into enlightenment.

In their book, “Ask and It Is Given,”  Esther and Jerry Hicks make the point that sometimes it’s perfectly okay to feel angry.  In fact, sometimes getting really pissed off can be a sign that our mental health is improving.

It’s kind of a breath of fresh air in the New Age/New Thought movement.  We are constantly being told that we must stay positive and that, because of the Law of Attraction, being angry will do nothing but attract angry people and unpleasant events into our lives.  We find ourselves trying to censor our emotions, consistently trying to not feel what we’re feeling –  if what we’re feeling is anger –  and then feeling guilty when we can’t do it.

The Hicks look at it from a slightly different vantage point, which is that angry emotion is better than no emotion.  The basic premise is that our emotions are what motivate us, what keep us moving in life, what draw us toward love and make us run away from hatred.  Without emotions, we’re just stuck, dead in the water.

They say we live on a sort of a ladder of emotions, with apathy and depression at the bottom rungs of the ladder and love and joy at the top. In between joy and depression there are our other emotional states like irritation, feeling overwhelmed, pessimism, hopefulness, and so on.  As we climb the ladder and become more fully emotionally engaged with joy, we become more fully alive. When we descend the ladder into depression and apathy, we’re not really living, we’re just existing.  The ladder would look a lot like this:

JOY

POSITIVE EXPECTATION

OPTIMISM

HOPEFULNESS

PESSIMISM

IRRITATION

OVERWHELM

BLAME

ANGER

REVENGE 

RAGE

DEPRESSION

APATHY

I really like that idea of an emotional ladder because it allows me to be the mess that I frequently am and be honest with myself about where I’m at.  As the Hicks said in another book, it’s easy to program a GPS to take you from Phoenix to L.A. but first you have to know that you’re in Phoenix.  If we’re on the second to the top rung of the ladder – positive expectation – then it’s relatively easy to take that next step up to joy.  On the other hand, if we’re stuck WAY down the ladder in anger and we try to jump straight  up into joy, we’re probably going to fall off of the ladder and land on our asses.  It’s important to be honest with ourselves about where we really are on our emotional journey.  It saves us from broken asses.

And that leads into another neat concept which the Hicks came up with: the, “emotional set point.”  Basically, that’s just the rung of the emotional ladder that we live on most of the time.  We humans tend to be creatures of habit and so we pretty much maintain a consistent emotional state.  If we’re happy most of the time, we’ll stay happy most of the time.  If we’re sad most of the time, we’ll stay sad most of the time.  We may occasionally climb up and down a few rungs on the emotional ladder as life brings us good or bad events, but we tend to return to what feels like our, “natural,” state of being.

And there is a certain natural, genetic component involved in that.  According to The Harvard Health Blog, about half of the reason we may be happy or sad is based on the disposition we were born with.  So that person you know who’s always chirpy and perky and bright and annoyingly happy?  Yeah, that’s probably real.  They were likely just born that way.  And the friend who always seems a little sad may have just inherited it from his parents.  It’s their natural emotional set points.

The good news behind that, though, is that we can change our emotional set points.  Just because it feels, “natural,” to be in a certain emotional state doesn’t mean that we have to stay in that emotional state.

Suppose, for instance, that I’m a perfectionist.  I would want everything to go exactly according to plan and turn out just the way I’d envisioned it. 

What would flow out of that state of being would be a great deal of impatience with my co-workers and/or family members because they weren’t living up to the high standards that I set.  I might be constantly criticizing them, sniping at them, belittling their efforts and generally acting like an insufferable prick.

The cure for that could be to do loving-kindness meditations.  Starting to actively envision what other people are going through and building in empathy for the fact that they’re struggling with life the same way that I am.  As I continued to do that, my perfectionist expectations would drop away and I’d begin to see the people around me as fully dimensional human beings who deserve caring and patience.  I’m changing my emotional set point.

Or perhaps, like so many of us, we grew up in physically or emotionally abusive families.  Our, “go to,” response to stress in life might then be emotional flatness.  We learned very early in life that it’s easier to just turn off our emotions rather than feel the pain of the abuse.  

What flows out of that is becoming emotionally absent with our partners or children whenever there’s a problem.  Even worse, we abandon ourselves emotionally and fail to experience joy and deep love because we’re so shut down.

The cure for that could be to start doing, “happiness meditations.”  Just sit down once or twice a day and meditate on something that makes us happy, even if it’s a distant childhood memory of a beloved dog.  Start learning to live in that emotion again.  Stopping several times during the day and asking ourselves, “Am I happy right now?”  And, if we’re not, pull up that memory again until happiness becomes a habit.

The point is that it’s a practice, the same way that yoga or meditation are practices.  We don’t get where we want to go all at once.  If we come home and find our life partner shtupping our best friend, it’s okay to be angry.  In fact, it’s a hell of a lot better to be angry than it is to be depressed.  Anger can empower us but depression takes our power away.

As long as we’re feeling something, we’re still okay.  We’re still moving.  We’re still growing.  And, as the Hicks said, we can reach up for that next best emotion on the ladder. We can change our emotional set point.  It’s better to feel irritation than to feel overwhelmed.  It’s better to feel pessimism than to feel irritation.  It’s better to feel hopefulness than to feel irritation.  We can steadily, consciously move our emotional set point upward toward joy as long as we’re honest about what we’re feeling and we don’t shut ourselves down.

If we don’t feel it, we don’t heal it.  If we don’t heal it, we don’t grow.  And growing toward happiness is even better than knowing where your car keys are hiding.

Happiness, Meaningfulness, and the Four of Pentacles

The importance and differences between happiness and meaningfulness in our live.

In her wonderful book,The Power of Misfits: How to Find Your Place in a World You Don’t Fit In, Anna LeMind references a study by Roy F. Baumeister on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness.  In some cases, the two experiences may overlap, but they aren’t always synonymous.

It turns out that human beings crave both happiness and meaningfulness.  The Buddha tells us that all sentient creatures want to feel happiness and avoid pain, and we share that drive with the birds and the bees, the turtles and the spiders.  Bring on the happiness, baby, and take away that pain.  That’s an old blues song, I think.

Where we differ from most of the animal world (we believe) is that we also need to have a sense of meaning in our lives.  Having a lot of orgasms may make us extremely happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring any meaningfulness into our existence.  If we’re lying on our death beds reviewing our lives, we’re not likely to say, “Man, I had 20,000 orgasms.  Now that’s a life well lived.  My life really meant something.”

According to this study, it’s actually pretty easy to define what makes us happy.  Being happy involves three major components:

  1. – having our needs satisfied.  That’s a pretty simple one.  If we’re hungry, it makes us happy to eat.  If we’re cold, it makes us happy to get warmed up.  If we’re horny, it makes us happy to have sex.
  2. – having the sense that we can obtain what we need and want.  In other words, not just eating when we’re hungry but knowing that we have the powers and abilities to get out there and get that food all on our own.
  3. – feeling good most of the time.  That’s kind of a no-brainer, but it’s true.  People who mostly feel good are mostly happy and people who feel lousy are mostly unhappy.

None of those three factors necessarily make us feel that our lives are meaningful, though.  Feeling good, for instance, is very strongly associated with being happy, but not necessarily with feeling meaningful.  People who are very healthy tend to be happier than people who are sick, but both healthy and sick people have an equal shot at leading a meaningful life.

Having the powers and abilities to get what we need and want is another one that may make us happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring meaningfulness along with it.  In our society, having the power to get what we need and want usually means having money.  If you really, really, really need and want that new computer, you have to have the dough-ray-me to pay for it, right?

But even money has a very strange relationship with meaningfulness.  In the Tarot, the suit of pentacles represents material possessions and money.  In the Four of Pentacles, we see a guy who’s really having a love affair with money.  He’s got his feet resting on money, he’s got his arms wrapped around money, and he’s got money sitting on his head.  What a happy guy!

Probably.

Maybe.

Could be.

The study found that people who have plenty of money tend to be happier people, BUT they don’t necessarily report living a life that’s more meaningful.  On the other hand, NOT having enough money makes people less happy and their lives feel less meaningful.  So it’s not really the money that counts, it’s the lack of it.

Here’s another interesting little snippet of information that’s about life being easy versus life being hard.  We’ve all known people who appeared to be unbelievably lucky.  It’s like anything they want just seems to fall into their laps with little or no effort on their parts.

And we’ve also known people who seem to be unbelievably unlucky.  No matter how hard they work, no matter how much they struggle and strive, life consistently turns into a shit sandwich for them and their desires and goals slip away like vapors in the wind.

Unsurprisingly, having an easy life makes people very happy.  And having a hard life makes people unhappy.  But neither one of those is linked in ANY way to a sense of meaningfulness.  You can have the easiest life in the world and still feel like it doesn’t mean anything.

There’s another fascinating element with meaningfulness and happiness, which is TIME.

We know how the mindfulness meditation people are constantly hammering at us about, “Stay in the present moment!  There’s no unhappiness in the present moment.”

It turns out they’re right!  Happiness is very highly correlated with living in the NOW, in the present moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

But, unfortunately, it’s also inversely correlated with having a sense of meaning.  The more you live in the present moment, the happier you’ll be, but you also sacrifice a sense of your life having any overall meaning.

Why?  Because meaningfulness is a function of time.  The greater the span of time in your life that you’re contemplating, the greater a sense of meaningfulness you’ll have.  If you think about what yesterday and today meant, the odds are that they didn’t mean very much, unless something extraordinary happened.  On the other hand, if you think about what the last ten or twenty years of your life meant, you’re much more likely to see patterns and meaning.

And the same thing applies to the future.  The future gives the present moment meaning because it involves us in taking purposeful actions meant to create that future.  What we’re doing today is meaningful because it has a purpose – making the future.

So we have this odd conundrum.  The more we stay in the present moment, the happier we’ll be, but the less meaning we’ll derive from our lives.  The more we dwell on the future and the past, the less happy we’ll be, but the more our lives will feel meaningful.

The study also found an oddity in our perceptions of happiness and meaningfulness.  People tend to view happiness as being relatively fleeting, something we feel momentarily and then it gets away from us.  And they feel that meaningfulness is more permanent, something that will last long after happiness has disappeared.  Which is just not true.  Both meaningfulness and happiness tend to be fairly stable and long lasting.  We probably just feel that happiness passes quickly because it’s so intimately related to the present moment, which is always appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing, shazam!

Which brings us to the probable reason for why meaningfulness is so important to human beings.  The author concluded that MEANINGFULNESS IS AN ATTEMPT TO IMPOSE ORDER ON FLUX.  Life is chaotic, man.  Life is constantly changing, constantly transforming, constantly shazamming from one thing into another and then another and then another.

And it drives us nuts.  We need a sense of stability, of orderly progression, of the past moving logically into the present which will then move logically into the future.  We need to be able to connect the past, present and future of our lives in a MEANINGFUL way.  Otherwise it feels like life is something that just happened to us, rather than something we lived.

If all of this sounds very complex, it’s because IT IS.  We are very complex.  To seek happiness is to be alive.  Every single animal on the earth seeks happiness.  But to seek meaning is distinctively human.  It’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  Meaningfulness is not necessarily the same thing as happiness, but it’s just as important.

Happiness, Capitalists, Yellow Rocks, and Radical Meditators

Most people who are on a Spiritual Path eventually come to hold beliefs which conservatives consider, “politically radical.”  It’s ironic, because most people who are on a Spiritual Path have very little interest in politics, except to casually observe it as another form of human insanity.

When I use the term, “radical,” I mean it in its original use from the latin word, “radix,” or root, as in, “the root of a plant.”  To get radical is to get at the very root of something, to get to the place that it all grows out of, so to speak.

Let’s take the example of the Six of Pentacles.  It shows a richly dressed man, scattering coins to beggars, and holding a scale so that he can measure exactly what he’s giving away.

You couldn’t ask for a better representation of the, “scarcity,” view of life that’s at the root of our society.  There simply isn’t enough wealth to go around and some people have it and some people don’t.  Those who DO have it, should share it with those who don’t have it, but they need to be very, very careful about not giving too much away, because there’s never really enough.

In real time, we see that happening with the gazillionaires who live in penthouses, fly around in private jets, take vacations on yachts, and are DESPERATELY WORRIED that poor people might be getting too many food stamps.  Having enough to eat without working for it at minimum wage jobs is bad for their character, doncha know?  Makes them lazy and dependent.  Pass the champagne, darling . . .

As we move into a deeper level of spirituality, though, we begin to understand that there’s another model for looking at life, which is the, “abundance,” view.  The Universe and Mother Earth seem to be richly, almost insanely, abundant.  There are enough seeds in one tomato to plant an entire farm.  There are enough sperm cells in one tablespoon of semen to repopulate the world.  Women’s bodies produce far more eggs than they could ever bear as babies.  And, yes, we could produce enough food to feed every hungry person in the world.

And we begin to realize that the problem isn’t that there isn’t enough, the problem is that some people are spiritually sick and want far more than their share of the abundance.  Even worse, they want to be sure that other people have less than THEIR share, because they believe in their hearts that wealth is scarce and if they have more wealth, they’re better than other people.

Eckhart Tolle talks about this quite a bit in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)  In a nutshell, the Ego always wants more STUFF, because the Ego believes that the more STUFF it has, the more important it is.  And, as a part of that contrast, if you’ve got less stuff than I have, then I’m just that much more important!  If I drive a BMW and you drive a Honda, I’m better than you.  If you have a two hundred dollar computer and mine cost five thousand, then I’m better than you.  If I live in a McMansion and you live in a trailer, then I’m better than you.

And so we get hypnotized into this weird dance of thinking that our STUFF makes us, “better people.”  But, as Tolle points out, it’s just a sugar rush, not real nutrition.  Yes, the new computer (or car or house or jewelry) makes us happy for a while, but then it doesn’t anymore.  So we have to buy more and more and more stuff to keep getting that rush, but somehow happiness keeps slipping away from us every time.  

If we keep walking down the Spiritual Path we realize that the STUFF doesn’t really make us happy, not for long.  As we continue to evolve, we start to get a glimpse of happiness WITHOUT the stuff.  Maybe that revelation comes to us in our meditations or our dreams or journals, but we begin to get just a glimmer that the material stuff really has very little to do with happiness.  We can actually BE HAPPY anytime that we want to and we don’t need a new computer to get there.

And that, my friends, is a RADICAL idea!  That goes right to the root of our whole economic system and way of life.  It short circuits the entire capitalist system which is based on consumers being convinced that they need to keep consuming STUFF in order to be happy.  If we quit buying all of that crap that doesn’t really make us happy, then the gazillionaires who are selling us all of that crap that doesn’t really make us happy are going to lose a lot of money.  

Dangerous, dangerous thinking!  LOL – it really is.  It’s why they killed Jesus.  “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.”  WHAT????  Kill that guy!  Quickly!

The point is that as we explore and grow spiritually, our values change and we become less and less in synch with society as whole.  We realize that, ultimately, what all of us want is love and happiness.  And we realize that love and happiness flow out of our hearts, not our possessions.  Possessions and materialism itself start to feel like a form of insanity, which it can easily become.

Consider the example of the genocide committed against Native Tribes in the United States.  We killed hundreds of thousands of Tribal Peoples in the Dakotas and Northern California because they were sitting on land that contained gold.

From their point of view, we were totally out of our minds because NO ONE HAD TOLD THEM THAT GOLD ISN’T JUST A ROCK.  Why kill someone over a rock?  Which, by the way, it IS just a rock.  You can’t eat it.  You can’t fertilize your fields with it.  You can’t make clothing out of it. Other than being pretty, gold is totally useless.

Except that somewhere, thousands of years ago, some asshole said, “I have this pretty yellow rock and you don’t, so I’m better than you.”  Since that original asshole, wars have been fought, untold numbers of people have been tortured and killed, and whole civilizations have been decimated, all because some people wanted to have ALL of the pretty, yellow rocks. 

 It really is monumentally nuts, when you think about it.

It’s my fervent hope that, as we move out of the ego-based scarcity model and into the new spiritual paradigm, we’ll see materialism begin to wither on the vine.  Contrary to their paranoia, that doesn’t mean we need to have a revolution and take all of the rich people’s stuff away from them. There’s plenty to go around and if their yellow rocks make them feel better, so be it.  

That’s abundance.

That’s radical.

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The World Card, Rebirth, and Designing Your Next Body


The World seems to be the only Tarot card that deals with birth, which is odd because you couldn’t find a more archetypal, universal experience than birth.  As I noted in my book, “Just the Tarot,” the wreath in The World card strongly resembles the shape of the birth canal and suggests a totally new beginning.

We all associate birth with that initial entry into the world, that first thrust through the placenta and into a whole new universe.  In reality, though, we’re being reborn constantly. It’s fairly well known that ALL of the cells in our bodies are completely replaced by new cells about every seven to ten years but many cells are constantly dying and being regenerated.  Red blood cells are replenished about every four months. White blood cells every few days. Fat cells, of course, last the longest. Wouldn’t you know it?

And here’s an interesting slant on all of that.  While the molecules in your body are busy whizzing around and making sure everything that’s supposed to stay inside doesn’t fall out and everything that’s supposed to come out doesn’t stay in, they’re also making these amazing substances called neuropeptides.

I don’t know about you but I totally suck at science and math and just a word like neuropeptides makes my brain freeze with anxiety.  Nonetheless, it’s important to know about them and here’s why.

Neuropeptides are the physical correspondents of our emotions.  They come and go together. Adrenaline is one of them. If you get a big spurt of adrenaline it totally triggers your fight or flight reaction.  Your heart races, your fists clench, your eyes dilate – you’re ready to kick some ass or run like a rabbit. Adrenaline doesn’t CAUSE the fight or flight reaction, they just always occur together.

Same deal with another neuropeptide, serotonin.  If you have a lot of serotonin in your system, you’re happy.  If you don’t have enough, you’re sad. Serotonin = happiness and happiness = serotonin.

The kicker is that our bodies manufacture neuropeptides to MATCH the emotions we’re feeling.  So, if you’re a very happy, positive person, then you’ll have a lot of serotonin being pumped out.  If you go through a sustained period of stress and unhappiness, then your serotonin levels drop like a rock in water and your adrenaline levels go up.

Kicker number two:  we have receptors for these neuropeptides in cells ALL OVER OUR BODIES, not just in our brains.  So if you’re pumping out massive amounts of serotonin, it’s attaching to molecules throughout your entire system and your body is basically happy.  Massive amounts of adrenaline and your body is basically stressed and unhappy.

Where it gets really interesting is when we consider that our emotions are actually dictating what types of molecules are going to make up our bodies AND we’re constantly replacing and replenishing those molecules.  We’re literally remaking our bodies all the time based on our emotional states. We are – right now – designing the types of bodies we’ll have in a couple of months when all of those cells get replaced with cells that match our current emotional state.

To put it another way, if you’re chronically negative and unhappy, your body is going to manufacture molecules that are negative and unhappy.  Serotonin = happiness and low serotonin = unhappiness. It can turn into an endless cycle of misery. Crappy emotional states CAUSE crappy body and brain chemistry which CAUSE more crappy emotional states and on and on.  

That’s where visualizations and affirmations come in.  When we do them, we’re interrupting that repetitive cycle.  When we do affirmations we’re rewiring the Deep Mind and telling it that we’re happy and successful people and – guess what – happy and successful people have oodles of serotonin.  When we visualize being happy and successful, we FEEL happy and successful and happy emotions MAKE serotonin appear.

It’s a very odd phenomenon.  We are literally giving birth to . . . ourselves . . . all the time.  And we have a choice as to what kind of a body and person we’re creating.  Happy thoughts = happy cells = happy thoughts. We choose our World every single day.

* If you’re interested in learning more about this, look up Dr. Candace Pert, who pioneered the research.