Written by Shai Tubali and Tim Ward
If life on earth were an amusement park ride, it would probably come with a sign that reads
“Warning: not for the faint of heart!”
In his book Anti-fragile, Nassim Taleb asserts that humans in the 21st Century have created for themselves a life resembling that of a tourist on a carefully organized tour. In this artificial form of life, people try to completely remove any type of discomfort and even the slightest uncertainty, fluctuation, or pressure.
The irony, claims Taleb, is that all this effort to turn the world into a predictable and comfortable place makes us more fragile, more sensitive to the turbulences of life. We see this in the doctor who rushes to prescribe a patient unnecessary medication that overrides the body’s natural healing abilities, and in the over-protective parents who drive their children to play dates and music lessons and never let them go anywhere unescorted. As a species, writes Taleb, we actually weaken our health, politics, economics and education by suppressing randomness and instability. His solution: to upend this tendency and stop trying to impose order on reality.
This is the great confusion we’re all caught in: we’re convinced that more control over reality makes us more powerful. But we merely create a false stability that actually weakens us, because we are losing our natural resilience. Just as a child’s immune system becomes stronger when challenged by the normal dust and dirt of a home, and weaker when the child is kept in a too-sterile environment, so too does the psyche weaken when not exposed to intense pressures from time to time. Such a person becomes so weak that almost any disturbance can shake and break them.
Sometimes to get more stability and confidence people turn to spiritual practices, like meditation. But from my (Shai) experience as a teacher of inner transformation, these practices are often self-defeating: they seem to remove the practitioners’ vital defenses and filters. People become more “relaxed” and “accepting,” but this state works best in the protected environment of the workshop or retreat. In the real world, these people usually discover that their vital protections have been severely damaged and so they cannot truly function and get fully involved. They have become too soft and delicate to live in the world.
I (Tim) saw a vivid example of this during the months I lived in a Buddhist monastery for Westerners in the jungles of eastern Thailand. The monks seldom went into the nearby town, and when they had to go (for example, to acquire needed supplies) they would often come back overwhelmed and exhausted from the sensory overstimulation. “All that samsara!” I would hear them complain. What, I wondered, was the value of a spiritual practice that made it too hard for a person to go shopping?
What practices can we adopt to reverse the “softening” process? The core of my (Shai’s) teaching and therapeutic processes for several years has been helping people recognize that we live in a world of power plays and power struggles. In such a world you need power. Power is vital to your mental and emotional health and to your sense of self-wholeness. You also need will, a solid will, to fully participate in life. Only by developing your own inner power and solid will can you take part in the power plays of life without needing to retire to some dark and safe corner of your interior world.
What is the starting point for creating true inner power? You must accept life’s contract. This is the contract you unconsciously signed immediately after your birth. You wrote “yes!” in response to the question: “Would you agree to take an active part in the world of power?” In other words, you agreed to live. Perhaps you didn’t imagine back then what this world of power would actually look like. That’s why you need to sign the contract again, consciously this time, as an adult.
Acceptance of this contract will mark the end of your self-image as a fragile creature. When you experience yourself as fragile, what you really mean to say is: “I’m not as powerful as I’d like to be.” When you exclaim in moments of desperation, “I hate this world!” what you really feel is: “I’m frustrated by the power plays; I feel so unbearably weak and I’m not willing to face my defeat.” What you really hate when you hate the world is this danger of your weakening, the state of being unable to fulfill your power.
By hating the world you might attempt to evade the contract, perhaps by making your inner world a “home” and a shelter. Some harbor the longing to “return to the womb,” “go to heaven,” or enter some state of mind and body that seems to resemble it. Others long for someone, a romantic partner or a guru, who will accept them unconditionally and make them feel they have one spot in which they’re not expected to fight for their place. The quest for these types of havens is only a by-product of the difficulties one faces on the way to achieving power in the world.
If life on earth were an amusement park ride, it would probably come with a sign that reads “Warning: not for the faint of heart!” But even if you’re escaping in your mind, you’re still here.
Face it: this is a tough place, yet there’s no other place. Let go of your inner sanctuary and step in. After all, you are an inseparable part of this world, made of exactly the same substance as every other bit of it. This substance is hard, forged by billions of years of violent natural evolution: in space, the stars, and here on earth. You’re much tougher than you’re willing to admit. Deep down, beneath the “good person” of your self-image, you’re just like anyone else. You seek your own power and you are fascinated by this game of power – this game that is nothing but energy coursing through the universe and through your veins.
“Fine,” you might say, “Perhaps I might step in. But this contract sounds too vague. I want to know exactly what it contains before I sign!”
Below, we’ve boiled down the details into just eight clauses:
- I agree to want. Everyone wants at least to some degree, but very few want powerfully and confidently. Most of us want with great hesitation and caution. This is because you already know very well the pain involved in a possible defeat. You educate yourself not to want too strongly to avoid this pain. With this strategy you refrain from many of your passions, narrow down your possibilities in life and only end up weaker.
- I agree to experience weakness. Accepting your moments of weakness as part of the game actually empowers you. As long as you’re terrified of loss and failure, you’re not truly alive: you become timid. Power can only be achieved when one accepts the risk of weakening and the possibility of suffering. When you agree to accept the risk, you don’t need to waste extra energy in fighting it. In fact if you’re unafraid of such moments, you see them as a price you are willing to pay for participating. Unexpectedly, this makes you much stronger, capable of creatively responding to any loss and quickly moving on.
- I agree to experience harsh and tough conditions. If you want to develop and grow, you’ll need some degree of friction with reality. Difficult situations, harsh environments, pressure, deprivations, all these things make you tougher. So make friends with your problems. They make you strong and they force you to be present in order to deal with them. Even bad news, negative messages, unfair criticisms, betrayals and major disappointments can empower you to learn, regroup, and develop resilience.
- I agree to get my hands dirty. Many people feel they can’t remain good and uncorrupted and at the same time engage in life’s power plays. But is it realistic to stop everything and withdraw into a state of intense contemplation until perfection is reached? No. To get off the sidelines and into the game you have to be prepared to deal with your own impure motives. Of course while it’s good to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s even better to keep acting while you gradually learn to purify your motives. This allows you to keep the flow of creative activity in your life.
- I agree to be less powerful than many others. Imagine the world of power as a pyramid: its narrow, sharp top can accommodate very few, while its base is generous and accommodates most of us. So comparing your powers with others’ powers will not make you happy. Genuine self-acceptance is accepting the degree of power with which you came into the world, and using what you’ve got to reach your maximum potential: the best possible version of yourself.
- I agree to be humble: To be humble means to be a realist. It means to realize you are not the center of the universe and you won’t get everything you want in life. This may not come easily to those of us who grew up pampered and self-indulgent in our culture of comfort and convenience. To agree to be a realist means ceasing your violent emotional struggle with reality when it does not immediately give you what you think you deserve: to always be accepted for who you really are, to be heard all the time, to be forced to compromise. Drop the expectation that life owes you anything. Instead, agree to work hard to earn your place as one of eight billion people on the planet.
- I agree to see the beauty of the game. You might be tempted to think that the struggles of life are always harsh and ugly. Nothing could be further from the truth. The power plays of nature and of humanity have produced great beauty. Through evolution, competition between and within species gives rise to an astounding diversity of forms: the peacock’s tail, the dolphin’s grace, the petals of a rose. Generation after generation, each living thing, including us, is continuously shaped into something new and wondrous. Even the suffering and struggle of an individual has the potential to spur his or her mental and spiritual evolution. So embrace life’s struggle as the foundation of life’s beauty.
- I agree to have this world as my home. Many people seek to retreat from life in order to attain some kind of enduring, restful peace of mind. Some work diligently to finance their retirement at some idyllic resort. Others merely fantasize about “getting away from it all.” Those with a spiritual or religious bent are more likely to yearn for heaven or nirvana. But if you are longing to be someplace else, then you’re only partly here. As a mental exercise, think about the idea of reincarnation: to be reborn forever and ever on earth without the possibility of escape. Could you embrace such an existence? Could you say: “Yes, I agree to reincarnate and face the difficulties and harshness of this world. I will never seek to escape, not even in my mind. I agree to live my life just as it is, forever and ever”? Now, can you live just this one present lifetime with this same commitment? This way of thinking will give you a completely different kind of peace of mind.
These are the eight conscious principles of your contract with life. Don’t rush to accept this contract too swiftly. Give the terms time to sink in. If and when you agree, simply sign the contract below, and place it somewhere where you can see it every day – to remind yourself of the life you have agreed to live.
My Conscious Contract with Life
- I agree to want.
- I agree to experience weakness.
- I agree to experience harsh and tough conditions.
- I agree to get my hands dirty.
- I agree to be less powerful than many others.
- I agree to be humble.
- I agree to see the beauty of the game.
- I agree to have this world as my home.