People in mindfulness circles love to quote Portia Nelson’s “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.” It’s a little work of wisdom about the patterns we habitually bring to the challenges in our lives.
We’re all familiar with helplessness, victimhood, and denial of the unpleasant. One of these may be our fallback. That’s why I appreciate this parable — it exposes our own habits and shows how certain ways of coping with the world can be self-defeating. It also points to some better strategies for difficult times. Mindfulness is a big one for me.
My teacher at the New York Insight Meditation Center tells us that there’s at least one more chapter missing from the poem. Can you guess what it is? (*see below)
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
“Chapter One of My Life. I walk down the street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in.
I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It still takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter Two. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place! But it isn’t my fault. And it still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter Three. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I still fall in. It’s a habit! My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
Chapter Four. I walk down the same street. There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter Five. I walk down a different street.”
* Chapter Six, according to my teacher: “Walking down the new street, there’s a deep hole in this sidewalk too. I fall in.”
It is so true that real self-change can take a long time. Lately I’m finding that solutions appear more quickly when I’m taking time to bring mindfulness into my everyday life. Sometimes that looks like saying to myself, “Am I being mindful right now?” over and over throughout the day. These practices, too, have their own challenges (like remembering to do them, for starters). But they pale in comparison to getting stuck in one of life’s big holes, many of them of my own making.
Here’s my biggest hope. Maybe, maybe someday I will come to embrace the holes that I’ve fallen into — with a sense of humor and kindness to myself and all fellow clumsy beings.