Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Forward Or Sideways?
Dog Or Cat?
Here’s a joke: There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who think there are two kinds of people in this world and those who don’t. Now I certainly don’t believe there are two kinds of people in this world, not in any literal sense. But I do think it is useful sometimes to make certain general divisions among people. For instance, I have this idea that there are forward oriented people and sideways oriented people.
If you are a forward oriented person, it’s in your nature to move forward, to innovate, to achieve, to push things ahead. Your attention is generally on what’s next, what’s over that hill, where you are going and what you are going to change.
If you are a sideways oriented person, it’s in your nature to move sideways, to appreciate, to savor, to integrate, to smell the roses. Your attention is generally on what’s happening now, what’s right in front of you, what’s nearby and what is.
A person can be forward oriented in one area of their life and sideways oriented in another, but generally I find that people are usually mostly one way or the other. Some are extremely forward oriented and never rest, never let their consciousness expand sideways. Others are extremely sideways oriented and never let their consciousness focus forward.
Who am I, or anyone else to say which is better or more spiritual or more enlightened? To forward oriented people, sideways oriented people just seem lazy. They look like slackers and losers, always in the way. To sideways oriented people, forward oriented people seem hyper-active. They look like driven, workaholic maniacs who are afraid to stop and breathe.
What I did when this idea first came to me was ask myself which kind of person I was. I saw that I was and have always been a sideways oriented person. Pleasure and contemplation have always been very appealing to me. I never had the fire to achieve, to leave my mark, to be the best at anything. I wanted to enjoy myself. And I often did this by noticing things, particularly things in the natural world of forests, ponds, lakes, oceans and parks.
I have some forward orientation in me though and when it was needed I did find the willingness to go forward and work hard. The thing was, though, I could only do it when it felt good or felt necessary. I didn’t have the fire to do it no matter how I felt.
If I am interested in living the unforced life, I must accept what kind of person I am. What my temperament is, my natural inclinations, my talents. And I am primarily a sideways person who has learned to be a bit forward oriented in order to be at least semi-functional in this forward oriented world. Even though I can write and record songs, learn and teach T’ai-Chi, pay my rent and show up to things on time (more or less), I’m still basically oriented toward the sideways desire enjoy myself as much as I can.
As I see it, problems happen when a person decides that the way he is is bad and needs to be changed. There is no way as far as I can tell to turn against your nature and live a joyful unforced life. But then I’m a sideways oriented person. Maybe if I was a forward oriented person, I’d think otherwise.
If you are temperamentally a sideways person and grow up in a very forward oriented culture and/or family, you may feel guilty indulging your nature. You may force yourself to be a forward oriented person, achieving, building and innovating without the joy of being in alignment with your basic nature. There will be a longing to slow down, go to the beach, or listen to music, which will be met with a stern internal injunction to toughen up, stop whining and get back to work.
If you are temperamentally a forward oriented person and grow up in a very sideways oriented culture and/or family, you too may feel guilty indulging your nature. You may forcefully cool your jets and make yourself smell the roses, lay in the sun and appreciate the world you live in as it is. But my guess is that you would not do so with joy in your heart and you would not feel deeply “you.” There will be a longing to build something, to leave your mark on the world, to right some wrongs or achieve something of lasting meaning. But this urge too would be met with a stern internal injunction to settle down, relax and take it easy.
To me the key to the unforced life is to first accept your basic nature, in the case of this example, whether you are a forward or sideways oriented person. Accept that this is the way you are and that it probably won’t change. Then, go with and enjoy your nature. Build, achieve, correct, innovate and push the world forward if that’s in your heart. Relax, appreciate, accept and integrate if that’s your natural way.
Once you accept your basic nature, then you can see if you can develop the “other” side of yourself. Not in service of some idea of “balance” or because your nature is somehow inadequate. Develop your other side so your natural side will be even more effective and enjoyable. To put it simply: if you never rest, your work will suffer; if you never work, your rest will be weak. Learn to work and show up on time so you’ll have the money necessary to enjoy the things you love. Learn to relax a bit and notice the world around you so you’ll be more energized and focused when you go back to saving the world.
Don’t counter your nature or your calling. Make it stronger by accepting it, and developing your other side enough to help you do what you do naturally.
I say: If you’re a forward oriented person; take a day off now and then and do nothing. If you’re a sideways oriented person; find work that lets you breathe a little but demands a little forward focus.
Here’s another artificial delineation: cat people and dog people. I don’t mean people who like cats versus people who like dogs. I mean people who are like cats as opposed to people who are like dogs.
Consider how these animals relate to a mud puddle. A dog will just jump or walk right into one. He might drink some of it, roll around in it, splash around and generally immerse himself in it until he’s tired of it. A cat will survey the puddle from its window sill. Hmmm, she might be thinking, that looks wet and cold… I think I’ll just stay here and watch.
So, in my arbitrary system of dividing people, dog people learn by immersion with their subject. If they want to learn French, they tend to go to France. If they think something looks dangerous but exciting, they’ll tend to give it a try and find out for themselves. They might think, “That looks like a brick wall. I better drive my car into it to make sure.”
By contrast, cat people learn by observation, deduction, and hypothetical mental exploration. They think things like, “That looks dangerous. What do I have to gain from doing this? Maybe I can figure out what I need to learn by imagining what it would be like..” If they want to learn French, they take a class and watch French movies. If something looks dangerous to a cat person, they’ll usually assume it is and avoid it. If that brick wall looks like a brick wall, it probably is…
I’m generalizing of course, but people are generally mostly one way or the other. My wife is a dog person. She has a very hard time learning anything from a distance or by logical deduction. She needs to experience it in the marrow of her bones before she really knows it. She needs immersion, full contact in order to learn about anything. If we go for a walk after a rainstorm, she will be wearing rubber boots and will walk through almost every puddle she comes across. If she is attracted to something or someone, if there is a compelling lesson there, she’ll need to get as close as she can in order to soak up that lesson in her cells.
I, on the other hand, am a cat person. If I’m interested in something, I tend to look way down the path it’s on and see if that’s somewhere I’d like to be. I take the long view, the big view, the cautious view. I don’t like to get wet or dirty or messed up. On those walks, I’m usually jumping out of the way while Samarra tromps through yet another puddle. I tend towards voyeurism, towards observation rather than immersion.
Think about yourself for a moment. Which type do you tend towards? If you are a cat person like me, chances are you think this is really the best and most rational way to be. You see things coming a mile away and avoid all kinds of drama and trouble by not getting involved with situations that invite those sort of things. This is because you are seeking a different result than a dog person.
If you are a dog person, cat people probably seem kind of dead to you, hopelessly out of touch. You can’t understand how anyone can “know” anything without having gone totally into it. In fact, cat people probably seem like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, or like human computers. This too is because you are actually seeking a different result than a dog person.
Dog people want deep intimate contact in order to know deeply what life is. Cat people want a sense of what is going on out there in order to chose the path of least pain and difficulty. Dog people don’t care as much about pain and difficulty: they are after direct knowledge at almost any cost. Cat people don’t care about immersion; they are after insight.
On the positive side, each type has its own goals and methods and learns best in their own way. On the negative side each type has its weaknesses as well. Dog people can needlessly get themselves into real trouble and even descend into a kind of mindless, masochistic quest for more and more painful “direct” experiences. Cat people can think they know about things they’ve only just imagined. They can also think they “see” why a path is not right, when actually they are just scared of the unfamiliar. They can become isolated and live in their heads, prisoners of a virtual reality.
Again, in listening for the unforced life, I have found it very helpful to first identify what my nature is. In this case to say, “I am a cat person.” And secondly to see that while this is my nature and not something I can change without force, I can broaden my perspective a bit. So, I do my best to immerse myself now and then in something I think I already “know,” just to be sure. I jump in a puddle, I get messed up, try something dumb or bang my head against a dead end every now and again. I find it’s helpful. It balances me out a bit and even changes my outlook sometimes. I know I can’t make myself different. I accept the way I am but include the “dog” way as a possible option, should life demand it.
I’ve also encouraged my wife to sit back and watch sometimes, to mentally drive down that dead end street every now and then instead of revving up her engines, to hop over the occasional puddle and to take the longer view sometimes. Not to try and change her nature, mind you, but to help make it more inclusive, more adaptable.
No matter what your nature is, life will sometimes demand that you do something that challenges it. So while the Tao Te Tching says: Know the Yang but keep to the Yin. I say: If you are a dog person, know the cat way but keep to the dog way. If you are a cat person, know the dog way but keep to the cat way. If you are a forward person, know the sideways way keep to the forward way. If you are a sideways person, know the forward way but keep to the sideways way. Don’t fight your nature, but don’t limit yourself to its borders.