The bit and the radiance
I’ve been working with some meditation teachers on the topic of knowing or intuitive guidance. It has struck me that I have been living my life with one part of myself running the show. I’ll call this part the competitor.
The competitor believes in success and failure. He believes that you can win at life. That if you achieve X (e.g. grades, money, job, children, house), you are a winner and if not, you are a shameful loser. This part came online after getting bullied a bunch in my school years. If I was a loser according to my school’s social pecking order, then I could at least win at academic games, the competitor reasoned. I’ll show them!
And so, I would stay up until 4am on some high school nights, studying, pushing myself. I wanted acceptance, love, and this was the best way I knew how to get it. By memorizing AP biology facts.
In this process of memorizing stuff, I forgot something much more important: how to listen to my deepest self.
My therapist once asked, “Where do you live?” She meant this not in the physical sense of my home address, but in a psychological one. In what kind of mental/subjective spaces do I reside?
I think, for much of my life, I have been living in the bit.
By this, I mean: a hyper-rational, goal-oriented part of my brain. A part good for making lists and paying bills, but less good in making decisions that don’t have “right” answers: How should I live my life? How should I spend my time? Where and with whom?
The bit likes to convince me that I will only be OK if I succeed at the goal du jour. The bit is in a constant chasing project: learn this skill, run this distance, clean the house, have a family! When the bit is steering the ship, life is not alive.
When I was small, my grandpa Shulim and I would go on long walks around Buffalo. We would talk, explore. The world seemed safe and open. Full of wonder. All I had to do was be. This was a time pre-bit.
The bit has other names: conditioning, adaptive strategies, parts. Thought and emotional patterns that were helpful for survival at one point, that are driving the boat a bit too much these days.
In college, I read the book “The selfish gene,” and somehow, my competitor bit got the idea that success at life meant distribute my genes as widely as possible. A new objective came up.
It came from a place of fearing death. Another part of my brain, another bit, has been arguing, lately, with this as a worthy goal. If I think carefully, I can see that this objective is actually already accomplished: my genes are already diffusely distributed among all people. If I did have lots of ancestors, this would be the effective result, just generations later.
The above analysis was two cognitive bits working against another. Two bits competing. This isn’t a bad thing: it’s a useful skill to be able to challenge distorted thinking. One big cognitive distortion that’s been useful for me to get over has been the denial of death: that there is some accomplishment out there that can make me immortal, respected, powerful forever.
But getting cognitive ducks in a row only gets you so far. It doesn’t take you to joy, to living in radiance.
Radiance is always available, and it can be used to make decisions. I am practicing the simple skill of attuning with radiance now. The main distinction between the bit and the radiance is how they feel in the body. The bit feels tight, in my throat, head and shoulders. The radiance feels relaxed, diffuse, surrendered, in my heart, shoulders, throat. Radiance is having, and acting from, good intentions. Radiance is heaven on earth, available right here and now.
This year, I met a patient who was the embodiment of dying well. She hadn’t become famous, powerful, or immortal, but she felt ripe, content with how she had spent her life. She’d lived, a good amount of her time it seems, in her radiance.
We are both cosmically insignificant and cosmically significant. My patient was significant to the people she met, including me. She motivates me to continue the work of living in radiance, not letting the bits unconsciously run the show. Yes, I still might be jealously looking over my neighbor’s fence quite often, but I don’t have to stay there, I can catch myself.
I pray that you live in your radiance as much as possible, in this life.