For several years, my wife and I lived in our house and did little work on it aside from cleaning and basic maintenance. It seemed to go on almost by itself, keeping us warm and comfortable. Then, something major went wrong. We needed a new heating system and to fix the roof.
My wife started watching HGTV, the home building channel, and I joined her. We saw houses changed from rat traps to beautiful mansions in a few months and at relatively affordable prices. Once we watched such programs, everything in our house seemed in need of improvement.
We didn’t realize at first that these programs were basically long commercials created to make viewers dissatisfied with their homes, so they’d invest in new ones or renovations. All of a sudden, we were noticing things that “needed” to be fixed or updated. The ceiling was cracking, the kitchen didn’t have enough counter space, the deck was moldy, the living room was too dark, and the bathroom too small.
Before watching HGTV, the idea of an out-of-date kitchen or bathroom had never occurred to us. One minute, we thought of the house we lived in as a home, complete and satisfying. The next, it was deficient and lacking. Once we began to look through the lens of some image of perfection and think of our home or the world as needing to be fixed⎼ or we expected things to remain as they once were, new looking, young-looking⎼ everything began to look old.
Then we actually undertook the needed major renovations, and we realized the prices on tv were shockingly low and timelines unbelievably short. The images of perfection were deceptive.
This experience pointed out that I could do the same thing with my life as a whole, or with myself, that we did with the house. Suddenly, I felt out of date. If I started thinking of my life in terms of characters in movies or tv, or myself in terms of how others appeared to live, I could get lost or feel lacking in some way. If at the gym I compared how many lifts I did to some of the bigger, younger men, or how long I did aerobics in comparison to other people, I would lose a sense of what my body was able to do and needed to do in that moment.
The thoughts and images we have in our minds can be so helpful. They can help us create and test scenarios or examine the possible consequences of our actions, but they can be misused. They can be so alluring that we forget they are only objects we use to better understand reality but are not the reality. They can delude us into thinking that one moment can be the same as another, or that an idea was as complex as physical reality.
We feel unhappy or we feel lacking in some way when we pull away from a moment. We reject the present by looking to the future⎼ or we look for something better before we even fully perceive where we are now. We thus hollow ourselves out and replace a real presence in the moments of our lives and a physical relationship with the world with a simulacrum. The unhappiness is our sensing of this hollowing out, this sense of something lacking or wrong in our deepest self.
Keeping aware of how I felt inside was what I needed to be happy with my own workout⎼ or life. A sense of satisfaction or happiness was sometimes due to what someone said to me or when I achieved a goal of my own. But it was not granted to me by others. It was due to my own efforts and how deeply I was moment by moment aware of and committed to what I was doing and how I was relating to the world around me.
The trainers and others around me at the gym could show me exercises I never knew before or give me examples of how to work hard at a goal. What exercises I did⎼ and how⎼ had to be directed not only by what I learned from others about how the machines worked and what might be helpful to me, but by an honest and deep awareness of my own experience. I had to be able to sense when my heart was beating fast, or my arm muscles straining too much or just right, or I was making excuses for myself. I had to be present to myself. And by being present to myself, I could also be more relaxed with others, friendly, and perceive them more clearly and spontaneously.
So, we need to be careful about grasping at expectations or images of what others do or examples from movies or tv or social media. The images we see and the conclusions we draw about others can be totally different from the reality of their experience. And feeling good is not a movie directed by others. It arises in our lives when we leave behind thoughts and distractions and feel a deep sense of openness or presence in a moment of our life. (And feel a deep love for our new and improved bathroom).