The Three Secrets to Understanding Life
A lot of people ask me what the tattoo on my right foot means. I’m proud to say that I designed this myself after several months of considering what would be important enough to put permanently on my body, for the purpose of reminding me about my “Northstar” whenever I forget.
As you can see from the graphic of the design, there are three similar-sounding words surrounding a tree with a separate phrase at the base of the tree supporting it all.
At first, I think it’s important to tell you that I did not invent this wisdom. And as my teacher Vinny says, “All wisdom is plagiarized- only your ignorance is original.” I also want to mention that it makes absolutely no difference what spiritual tradition, you resonate with, or, if you resonate with one at all, I believe that these words, are just true no matter what background you come from.
In the Buddhist tradition, there are a lot of lists since it was an aural tradition and lists made it easy for people to remember and pass things on. One of the lists is translated as the “three marks of existence” …or, in other words, the three things that are indisputably experienced by every human being. I have never really resonated with the common translation of these three things; “suffering, impermanence, and not Self.” To me, these particular translations feel quite dark and confusing. On a meditation retreat last year led by Vinny Ferraro, he proposed a different translation of the three truths of being human – which are that life is
Imperfect, Impermanent and Impersonal.
Why is this important? To me, it’s because deeply understanding these three truths sets us free from the endless hamster wheel of wishing things were different than they are and denying reality- which is an exhausting and fruitless process that most of us spend the majority of our energy on.
First, the understanding that life is inherently imperfect and comes with an unavoidable amount of suffering or discomfort might initially sound negative or pessimistic … but only if you have been conditioned to believe that life should be some other way. It’s undeniable that life brings various levels of discomfort or suffering- whether it be something as simple as traffic or as complicated as sickness, old age, and death. I spent most of my life thinking that if things weren’t going exactly right, then I was doing something wrong. Someone had to be blamed because life was supposed to be perfect. And if you did everything the right way, then problems could be eliminated. Deeply understanding that this is just not true brought me a great deal of peace. This absolutely does not mean laying down like a doormat and accepting all the suffering that comes your way, but rather dropping the idea that the world should be any certain way. And particularly dropping the idea that the universe cares one way or the other about the way I think things should be. Whenever I hear myself using the word “should” it reminds me to come back to this idea and challenge my own thinking.
The second truth of life is impermanence, and we all know on some level or other that nothing in the world lasts forever and that every single thing is in a constant state of change. Yet we still fight against that knowledge by attempting to construct a future that denies impermanence. We have trouble accepting that we’re getting old, we deny when we’re sick, we can’t believe when relationships end and seem surprised when elderly people die or when our children grow up. A deep insight into the reality of impermanence doesn’t eliminate grief or sadness when things change, but it loosens the attachment to the unrealistic idea that we can keep anything at all from changing. We can’t.
A recent example in my life that brought this to my attention was when several doctors from our group decided to leave and start their own practice. I realized that I held the strong belief that no one from our group would ever leave and that everybody would want to work here for the rest of their lives or until they retired or died. I heard myself saying to myself “it’s not supposed to be this way! Why did this happen? I must have done something must wrong.” What actually happened is what always happens- which is that businesses change and relationships change and people’s agendas start to deviate… and there’s nothing wrong or unexpected about any of this. So quickly bringing myself back to that knowledge changed a situation that could have been devastating into something that was certainly sad and disappointing but also in its own way a beautiful new beginning.
The trickiest one for me to understand is the reality that nothing in life is personal. It’s pretty easy to come up with an argument that a lot of things are personal …but wisdom comes from the knowledge that we truly are not separate and self-reliant beings and that we are deeply and inherently interconnected and depend on each other for every element of our lives. There really is no “self” that is fixed and not changing. We too are in a constant process of change. But most of us act as if we are special and separate and the world revolves around this “me.” Another way this comes up for me is that when people judge me or have a negative opinion of me, or even when the opposite is true, this has very little to do with me and almost everything to do with the other person. I know when I judge another person that I am most likely to be judging some things that I have rejected in myself. And the people whom I admire the most generally have qualities that I wish that I had more of. So my opinions about other people have very little to do with them and almost everything to do with me. It’s not personal when somebody flips me off on the freeway and it’s not personal when one of my children does something that I am personally ashamed of, or proud of. Another way of putting this is that the world is not happening to me. The world is just happening and I am taking in the information that is available to me through my senses and creating meaning out of it. The meaning I create is completely different than the meaning that another person standing right next to me would create. Understanding that life is impersonal doesn’t disempower me, rather it has the opposite effect because it moves me from the victim position to a position of co-creativity with the universe where I can feel connected with others and take responsibility for myself. I don’t have to dwell in the stress that everyone is out to get me or that I need to impress others.
Recently at a leadership meeting we were asked to go around the room (before we even got to know each other), and based on first impressions were asked to pick out the one person in the room that we would like to kill. To my surprise somebody picked me, and I immediately felt like I had been personally kicked in the chest and picked out as the worst person in the room. Later when we got to know each other, my colleague who had picked me as the one he wanted to kill explained that was based simply on the fact that I reminded him of a situation that he was angry about. Similarly the person that I picked to kill sat in a certain way that I perceived as being arrogant. I really hate it when I am perceived as being arrogant. It had nothing to do with the person over there – it was all about my projections.
Coming back to the tattoo, the tree in the middle is a common graphic sometimes described as the tree of life or the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened (in Buddhist mythology.) To me, it represents a combination of these two, and the leaves shaped like hearts represent the springing up of love and new life that occurs when these words are fully understood.
At the base of the tree, I added the words “let it be,” which to me feels like the prescription for all of this reality checking. Once I understand that life is imperfect, impermanent, and impersonal- then the prescription is just to let things be and not to circulate negative thoughts, judgments and stories but just to leave them alone. In the past, I used the term “let it go,” but I found out that many things that I had “let go” of we’re still hanging around and they hadn’t gone anywhere. So “let it be” feels more in line with my truth which is that stuff doesn’t always go away, but I can choose whether or not I interact with it in my mind and I can make a conscious decision to drop certain lines of thought that are harmful, stressful or delusional and pick up a different train of thought that is more likely to lead to peace and harmony.
I’ll end this description of my tattoo by telling you that one of my favorite definitions of happiness is not wanting anything to be different. It’s those little breaks in wanting that feel like peace and contentment to me, and so getting my mind aligned with reality and dropping the constant need to make things different than they are just allows me to be happy. Happiness is not about doing anything, it’s about just being.
I invite you to try this on and see how it works for you, and connect with me to share your experiences! And you’re welcome to use this graphic and get your own tattoo. I would love to see women throughout the world celebrating life with this image on their body!