The Substitute Life

The Substitute Life

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s, Living Beautifully, and one of the ideas hit me hard. She explains that “The habit of exiting, of escaping into thoughts and day dreams, is a common occurrence. In fact, fantasy is where we spend most of our time. The Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck called these flights of fancy, “the substitute life.”

It’s hard for me to accept this idea fully because for me, it isn’t a flight of fancy, but a transatlantic trip. I’m aware that most of my life, I’ve been living a “substitute life,” escaping into thoughts, mentally going to better or worse places depending on the storyline running through my head. The habit is so strong, I find that there are beautiful moments that I cannot remain present. The habit to exit is so strong, so unconscious, that even in intensely beautiful experiences, it is my habit to exit.

My substitute life is one of shoulds and shouldn’ts. Preferences for bettering what exists are constant. My mind can imagine any situation as “better” if only…The opposite is also true, maybe even more persistent. The desire to avoid the feelings I can’t tolerate is so strong, that the exit is not a door, but more like a secret slide. As the painful feeling enters, my mind propels me into my substitute life, where I distract myself until I can decide to construct a life where that feeling will never occur again.

I know it doesn’t make sense. But it works. In fact, we live in a culture that continually encourages the substitute life: Facebook, Pinterest, etc. A friend said recently that her sister didn’t come to a family event because she was “pinteresting” that night. It made me think that if I could insert myself into family pictures maybe the need to actually show up for the events will no longer be required. But really, we are trying to construct the fantasy, spending our life energy trying to concretize a fantasy. And when the fantasy falls short, the escape into another fantasy is immediate. We construct our bodies, children, pets, homes, yards, and cars. Have you noticed that people are “remodeling” their cars? And even though all these efforts continually falls short the pursuit is on. Until…

Does there come a time where I realized I missed my life? A time where I then escape back into the idea of how awesome my life used to be? A time where the fantasy life, is the life that I actually had but couldn’t remain present to? A time where I could have connected to people I love, but now they are gone?

I hope not. But the pull of the substitute life is strong—It is the pull of better in all forms, born of the feeling that what I am or have or feel is not good enough and never will be. Connecting with the now, connecting with what it is, letting the feeling exist, this is my practice now. But it is hard to close the door marked exit.

  • Julia

    Love this post! So interesting and very true. Sometimes I say to myself “at least you’re asking the question, ‘am I missing my life?'” But there must be follow through besides just asking the question. Being in the now, yes. The power of now.