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Surfing the Joys and Sorrows of Life with Ira Israel

January 2017

A new year naturally signals a fresh start for many of us, with a desire to leave behind those habits and behaviors that no longer serve us. Licensed psychotherapist, yoga practitioner, and frequent Esalen teacher Ira Israel is writing a new book, How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult: A Path to Authenticity and Awakening, that captures how we can choose a different way of being. His workshop, Cultivating Meaning and Happiness through Mindfulness and Yoga, explores this topic as well. We recently spoke with Ira on cultivating equanimity and his own personal path to a more authentic life.

eNews: It’s easy to fall back on bad habits like judgment and negative self-talk, especially when we’re under stress. You describe these as blunt tools. What can we do to be more mindful of our way of being?

Ira: It’s such an honor to teach on the same grounds where Abraham Maslow taught. Most people are familiar with his quote, “When the only tool you have is a hammer every problem resembles a nail.” I see our “ways of being” as tools that we developed during our childhoods to try to get our emotional and psychological needs met. And if we’re still alive, and not too scarred, then in some capacity those tools were probably somewhat successful.

But consider the possibility that whatever tools we learned to survive our childhoods NOW might be hindering us from showing up authentically and getting the love that we really crave as adults. For example, I was the sarcastic guy in high school and if I recall correctly I was fairly popular. And then in my 20s and early 30s I realized that having to show up as that guy all the time was starting to get really boring. So I traveled and took classes at places like Esalen and became a psychotherapist and yoga teacher and little by little I developed new tools like compassion, empathy, authenticity, and acceptance. I kept enlarging my toolbox, throwing out blunt tools such as sarcasm and trying new tools such as meditation, mindfulness, and non-reactivity. It turns out that Maslow was right – the more tools we have, the easier it is to traverse life’s challenges.

eNews: Jack Kornfield recently shared that equanimity should not be confused with indifference. Indifference is based on fear; true equanimity is not a withdrawal but a balanced engagement with life. How do you define equanimity?

Ira: I agree with Jack that indifference is a cop-out. If you live alone in a cave high on a mountain then it is easy to mistake indifference for awakening. For me, equanimity relates to congruence: having who we know we should be match who we are in the world. It’s about proactively surfing obvious paradoxes such as “I know that politics today is bullshit, but I still have to do everything in my power to make a difference.”

I love Marshall McLuhan’s quote, “I don’t know who discovered water but I doubt it was a fish.” A part of developing equanimity is understanding that our society and the situations that we were born into is the water we swim in. All of us need to learn how to take ourselves off of autopilot, take ourselves off of the hedonic treadmills that our minds place us on, and decide for ourselves what will really make us happy and allow us to lead meaningful lives. There’s no chance for equanimity if we allow other people to decide who we should be. We need to figure it out for ourselves. As Proust wrote, “We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”

Maybe for you Tai Chi and hiking will give you insights into who you authentically are and what attributes you should keep or shed; for me it was yoga and meditation and cultivating my sense of wonder. This meant for me traveling, reading biographies of great artists and philosophers, going to a museum once a month, one movie a week, and symphony and jazz concerts whenever possible.

eNews: Your teachings often focus on how we can own our lives — and that we cannot until we embrace every aspect of our lives, even those that are traumatic. Would you mind sharing your own personal story of a serious car accident and how that experience impacted you?

On January 6, 1985, I was the passenger in a car that skidded on a wet pavement on the Post Road in Connecticut into the end of a guardrail at high speed. The guardrail pushed the engine of the Audi 5000 through my seat and out through the back window. The car was severed by the guardrail and set aflame. My face was smashed off of my head and the top of my left femur was shattered into hundreds of pieces. If you saw a photo of what remained of the car then you would realize that it is inexplicable that I survived.

At the hospital, they were going to amputate my leg but the doctor who was called in had read an article about something called a Zickle Nail Apparatus and decided to try something new. Seven years later I was living in a 7-floor walk-up in Paris and I realized how difficult it would be to get up and down those stairs with one leg. So on January 6, 1991, I wrote a letter to the doctor, Doctor Rodda, telling him all of the things I did that day with two legs and thanking him for taking the road less traveled. Every January 6th for the past 26 years I sit down at the end of the day and write a note to Doctor Rodda telling him what I did that day. I often tell my students, “If you want to know what it feels like to meet your maker, go have breakfast with the person who DIDN’T amputate your leg.” The secret of being happy is really quite very simple: if you want to be happy, be grateful.

eNews: Yet we live in a society that teaches us to avoid pain, not to even think about it.

Ira: The second noble truth of Buddhism is that the root of all suffering is desire. Desire manifests positively as clinging and negatively as aversion. Our mind attempts to cling to and prolong joyous feelings, and avert and squash painful feelings. For me, being authentic in this context relates to being present. The past is gone and the future does not yet exist but our minds seem to ping-pong between these two non-existent poles.

So pain does not cause suffering; pain is just information — information about something that needs immediate attention. But trying to avert pain, being intolerant to receiving that information about something that needs immediate attention, causes suffering. Life is full of joys and sorrows, each particular feeling is ephemeral, so clinging to joys that will wane and trying to avert unavoidable pains causes us suffering, frustration, and disappointment.

eNews: What advice/words of encouragement would you give for those of us who are coming into this new year with some anxiety and/or fear. How do we change our perceptions or focus?

I think we are all warranted in being fearful about the states of our planet and nation. The ground beneath our feet is shifting. On the one hand we must all remain calm, but we should expect the unexpected in terms of natural disasters, terrorism, diseases, financial instability. Again, indifference is a cop-out. I love Gandhi’s quote: “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” I often say that I don’t think it’s possible to teach anyone past the age of 10 or 12 years old very much, but we can inspire them — we can inspire them to want to go down rabbit holes and research subjects and try on new perspectives.

That’s what my workshops are about — opening up horizons, shifting paradigms, seeing previously unimagined possibilities, and giving people tools to surf the joys and sorrows of life.

eNews: Can you give us a preview of your new book?

Ira: How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult: A Path to Authenticity and Awakening is about being able to be present and learning how to shed fears and prejudices that our minds put in place after past traumas to try to stave off potential future traumas. It’s about having personal integrity and making commitments to healthy practices, such as meditation and yoga. It’s also about being congruent, having our outer lives match our inner lives, or more specifically deciding who we want to be and the lives we want to live and having the tools and discipline to do both!

Learn more about Ira’s work at www.IraIsrael.com.

Ira's workshop Cultivating Meaning and Happiness through Mindfulness and Yoga is also offered in November 2017.

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