I became excited about Marc Lesser’s latest book, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform Your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life when I realized how close to the heart of my “Grace in the Gray Areas” exploration his writing came. We both talk about living in life’s paradoxes.
As I put it, living with faith, with intention and with compassion for ourselves and others, in the uncertainties, the paradoxes, the impermanence, the unknown—that’s Grace in the Gray Areas.
Lesser frames his exploration thusly: “Humans are inescapable storytellers, and we can hold many stories at the same time. The elasticity of the human mind not only is capable of this but seems to welcome the chance. This book seeks to help you name and embrace your life’s contradictory truths, its authentic paradoxes, as essential to creating an inspired, effective life.”
My fascination is with the gray areas of our lives—paradoxes where seeming opposites come into play, decisions we must make where there is no black and white (or where there is but we have to integrate the two), expectations of one way life will be when it turns out to be another, all of these things. I think when we are very young we believe in polar opposites and very clear delineations of black and white. Only with age and wisdom do we start to see the many shades of gray we must navigate throughout our personal lives, our work, our relationships.
Lesser has brought the multitude of paradoxes down to what he calls the five core truths:
1. Know yourself, forget yourself (which develops your attention)
2. Be confident, question everything (which broadens your outlook)
3. Fight for change, accept what is (which fosters more skillful action)
4. Embrace emotion, embody equanimity (which increases your resilience)
5. Benefit others, benefit yourself (which increases your effectiveness)
I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of Buddhist concepts encapsulated in that list? Not surprising considering that Lesser—now head of the nonprofit Search Inside Yourself Institute--lived in the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years, and was director of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Later in the book, Lesser notes, “[M]any spiritual traditions, including Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Desert Christian Fathers, have utilized paradox as a method for helping people to wake up, to be more alive, open, honest, creative. They use paradox to solve one of our most essential problems: as a bridge from the mundane activities…to the world of the sacred. Birth and death, self and no-self, here and not here, pain and loss—all are basic paradoxes of being alive, being human. We must walk a tightrope between them.”
One of the reasons it is imperative to learn to live in life’s gray areas is, as Lesser writes, “[W]hen we insist on order and clarity in the midst of complexity, the result is sometimes limited thinking and faulty conclusions about ourselves and the world. It’s a negative example of how real clarity and confidence are often actually reached through embracing paradox, which can sometimes be more accurate and more clear than what we ordinarily think of as clarity.” He cites a brilliant quote from Daniel Kahneman from a 2011 New York Times story:
We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives.
“And to suppress alternatives…” because people don’t want to believe that life isn’t really black and white and that it’s all about the grays.
“[E]mbracing life’s paradoxes is a powerful skill; it is a path to increasing effectiveness, awakening joy, and discovering our true purpose, in this and each new moment,” says Lesser. He captures beautifully the essence of the “grace” piece of living with Grace in the Gray Areas when he adds, “Our minds are the most engaged and vibrant when we honor complexity, learn stillness in turmoil, face doubt with confidence, and seek to know ourselves so that we may better serve others.”