Victimless Circumstances

"Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature; from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return."

Marcus Aurelius

How often are you a victim of circumstances? Is your day spoiled when the weather turns bad? Do you get upset when traffic isn’t moving? If other people don’t perform as expected, do your emotions turn sour? Will you let your life be spoiled by conditions beyond your control?

How is it that one person can be paralyzed from the neck down in an accident and remain positive and continue to contribute, while another will completely crumble when they lose a romantic relationship?

It is not circumstances that determine your mood, it is your thinking about your circumstances. Life inevitably includes sunny days and stormy days. It inevitably includes pain and it includes loss. It doesn’t help to pretend it isn’t so. Some people get the impression that their lives are blessed and they should not have to face adversity. Sooner or later, though, they are going to have to face the pain that life dishes out.

Wouldn’t life be better if we could accept each moment for what it is without testing it against our expectations? It doesn’t take great powers of observation to see that the world is pretty loused up, but who are we to say how it should be? If the rain spoils our picnic, but saves a farmer’s crop, who are we to say it shouldn’t rain? If we can step out of our petty concerns and accept conditions as they are, our life experience can be beautiful. A story attributed to Buddha illustrates this:

"A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him."

"Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!"
(From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps)

Each of us is hanging over the edge of a cliff facing certain death. Once we enter the field of life, there is no retreat. Aging and death start chasing us with our first breath. No matter how tightly we grasp at that which sustains us, the passage of time will weaken our lifeline and we will come to our end. How lucky we are to have many sweet and succulent moments available to us as we await the inevitable. How lucky are those who pay attention to those moments.

Tales have been told of mountain climbers who lost their grip and fell, apparently to certain death, except that they landed on a snow bank and lived. After the initial terror of falling, they experienced resignation at their pending demise and were filled with peace and even joy. Relaxing into the inevitable they felt that all was right with the world, even though they expected soon not be in it.

Spiritual climbers find the same sort of experience. The world can be a pain filled mess, but by fully accepting the true nature of things, and giving up preconceptions of how it should be, the seeker may discover a different way of being at home in the world. They find peace and they find joy. They don’t cease to see or experience pain or stop trying to ease the lives of fellow beings, but they become more attuned to their circumstances and less at the mercy of events.


Notice your moods. When your mood is going bad, try to pinpoint what stimulated the change. Notice if your emotions are being spoiled by clinging to desires or preconceptions of how things ought to be.

Loosen your grip on preconceptions of how things ought to be and focus your energy instead on understanding how they are.

When you find yourself upset by circumstances, step outside yourself and look at what it is about the circumstances that bothers you, and what it is about you that lets you be bothered. Are there people who wouldn’t be upset in those circumstances? What kind of person would that be?

When in an unpleasant situation, calm yourself and look for some aspect of the situation that might be pleasant, humorous or interesting. Switch your focus to that. Sometimes when life can’t be pleasant, at least it can be interesting.

Determine if there is something you can change about the aversive circumstances. If you have a rock in your shoe, take it out.

If there is nothing you can do about the circumstances, practice going with the flow. See if you can release your judgments and take the wild ride.

Let other people be who they are. Offer kindness, support and guidance and understand that their choice to do things differently than you would does not diminish you. You don’t own anybody, and they have their own lessons to learn.

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© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett