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February 1997, Volume 4 Nr 6, Issue 42

The Small Stuff

The Arabic name for the island of Ceylon is Sarandib. Alternately written Serendib or Serendip, this island's name is the foundation for the English word serendipity which was invented by the author Horace Walpole. Walpole was inspired by fairy tales from Persia and in particular the tale The Three Princes of Serendip in which the main characters made discoveries without any apparent reason or cause.

Three topics clamored for my attention this month. Not knowing which one I should write about, I let go of all of them, choosing instead to let the topic step forward. In the spirit of Serendib one of them did.

While driving home from teaching, I was listening to National Public Radio where I heard an interview with the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, George Foreman. Typically, a story about boxing or a boxer would not hold my interest for long. This one did in spite of my view that boxing is an inhumane "sport" whose intent is to inflict pain and harm another human being.

Foreman, whose professional boxing record is 69-3, 65 KO's had an interesting story to tell. He has given up boxing as he knew it and become a minister. This man, who boasted, bragged and lived a life around the belief that he was the strongest, best, and meanest fighter in the world, revealed how serendipity changed all that. Foreman fortuitously let go the small stuff, that which he thought for so many years to be so important. Suddenly, being the toughest man who could beat all other boxers in the world did not seem so important.

George Foreman lost his title in 1974. In 1977, he was defeated again. After the second defeat, Foreman found himself on the floor of his dressing room, where he underwent what many might call a religious or mystical experience. While unconscious, Foreman claims God called to him asking that he give his life to the Lord. According to Foreman, hospital tests showed no reason for his collapse. Ten years later he returned to the ring and has had only one loss. This was, however, a transformed George Foreman.

George Foreman realized in that moment that he was not prepared to die. From then on, instead of seeing his opponent as an object to annihilate in the boxing ring, Foreman claims to have added compassion to his boxing. He discovered that the big stuff - his title, his boxing career, his image of himself as the toughest "man" in the world did not matter that much. All of a sudden, it became more important to go home and be with his family.

If big stuff in a person's life such as George Foreman's can so quickly become little stuff, then why do we, who may not have dramatic life-turning experiences such as his, hang on so dearly to little stuff that annoy us? Why do we turn day-to-day inconveniences, setbacks and disappointments into sources of so much unhappiness and discontent, as if we were in the boxing ring fighting for our title?

Some Small Stuff

While browsing the World Wide Web doing research on the small stuff, I came across an article from the Associated Press written by Mike Robinson and dated February 8, 1997. The article, entitled "Russian Leader Sees America's Heartland and Angry Americans", describes how hundreds of Chicago Auto Show attendees booed Vice President Al Gore, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for delaying entry to the auto enthusiasts while the dignitaries toured the show. They had arrived behind schedule.

"Waves of booing erupted periodically from the auto enthusiasts as they waited, and sustained booing met Gore and Chernomyrdin when they emerged from the show floor at the McCormick Place exposition center to make remarks."

Attempting to apologize, the three politicians spent less than three minutes at the podium. Why were the people's responses so much big stuff, even after they knew the circumstances and principal players involved?

I compiled a list of small stuff that could easily be elevated into big stuff. The list includes: fender benders, the car not starting, people missing appointments or deadlines, being late, spilling coffee, a misbehaving computer, waiting in line, having a cold, breaking a glass, losing a wallet, burning dinner, etc. The point is that the list can go on and on and on. Almost any event can become a small stuff annoyance as easily as the small stuff can become big stuff annoyance. The event, however, does not change in the transition. It is our changing emphasis on the event that alters its character.

That being said, why do we elevate our attention of an event from mere notice to obsession? In the book, A Course in Miracles, we find the writing, "You are never upset for the reason you think." The big stuff could actually be the small stuff elevated to a new, refined importance for the purpose of covering over the real reason for the upset that in a particular moment we are unable to accept, face or deal with.

An example comes to mind. Recently, I was helping a person with a mathematics problem. The concepts in the problem were not clear. They seemed not to make sense. Within very short order, what started out as two people studying mathematics became the same two people accusing each other of not communicating. A stranger listening might conclude that either one person was incapable of explaining the solution or the other was unable to hear the explanation correctly. While both rationales for what occurred could be true at the same time, it is more than likely that one individual or the other or both was upset for a entirely different reason.

Consider for a moment that the learner might be responding to an internal fear that they might never understand the concept. A perceived sense of inadequacy, whether correct or not, may then become, "It is your fault that I do not understand!" This same at-the-moment acting-out may come from events that occurred previously during the day. If the instructor then responds from an internal fear as well, that is, for example, with a sense of inadequacy in instructing or communicating, whether correct or not, then both parties have made the small stuff become bigger stuff. Communication further suffers when egos have engaged, ready to escalate the ante further.


In my philosophy class, I asked my students what they really needed as compared to what they wanted. Most of them answered that they required the basic necessities to sustain life and love. In the 1970's, Abraham Maslow shook up psychiatry by exploring not the mind that heretofore was considered "broken", but rather the mind of people such as Abraham Lincoln, etc. That is, Maslow studied healthy minds.

Maslow called those people who pursued the limits of their capabilities, those individuals who were creative and in search of wisdom as self-actualizing persons. Maslow's best known contribution to psychiatry was the human hierarchy of needs. This is a theory which states that human needs exist in order of priority. Once the lower needs are met, then the individual can move on to the next higher need until the ultimate need is satisfied which is self-actualization. George Norwood, in Updating Your Religious Vision, his homepage on the Internet describing the Baha'i faith, describes the hierarchy::

Physiological Needs. These needs are biological and consists of the needs for oxygen, food, water, and a relatively constant body temperature. These needs are the strongest because if deprived, the person would die.

Safety Needs. Except in times of emergency or periods of disorganization in the social structure (such as widespread rioting) adults do not experience their security needs. Children, however often display signs of insecurity and their need to be safe.

Love, Affection and Belongingness Needs. People have needs to escape feelings of loneliness and alienation and give (and receive) love, affection and the sense of belonging.

Esteem Needs. People need a stable, firmly based, high level of self-respect, and respect from others in order to feel satisfied, self confident and valuable. If these needs are not met, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless.

Self-actualization Needs. Maslow describes self-actualization as a person's need to be and do that which the person was born to do. It is his "calling". "A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write." If these needs are not met, the person feels restlessness, on edge, tense, and lacking something. Lower needs may also produce a restless feeling, but here is it much easier to find the cause. If a person is hungry, unsafe, not loved or accepted, or lacking self-esteem the cause is apparent. It is not always clear what a person wants when there is a need for self-actualization.

While all the students chose physiological needs and the need for love out of Maslow's list (without having been told about it), few of them mentioned the last two: esteem needs and self-actualization. Yet, is the esteem need which causes so much turmoil. I believe unmet esteem needs directly affect the relativity of events. That is, the greater the unmet need for esteem, the higher the probability that the small stuff becomes the big stuff.

Consciousness Hierarchy

Ken Keyes, Jr. In his book, Handbook to Higher Consciousness, The Science of Happiness, parallels Maslow's pyramid of needs with an ascending hierarchy of consciousness centers. Called The Living Love System, "These Centers act as filters that generate your particular private experience of here and now in your life." There are seven centers of conscious which Keyes breaks down into the lower three and upper four. The seven centers of consciousness are:

The Security Center: Preoccupation with food and shelter; the continuous attempt of getting personally secure.

The Sensation Center: After we feel we have enough to feel secure, our concern turns to obtaining pleasure for ourselves. These pleasures may include the taste of food rather than food as sustenance, music, whatever feels good.

The Power Center: This is where we manipulate or dominate other people and events for the purpose of pacing ourselves in an advantageous position of wealth, status or other dominant over position.

The Love Center: Keyes describes this Center as one where we transcend the "...subject-object relationships and are learning to see the world with the feelings and harmonies of flowing acceptance." In this center we begin to understand and practice unconditional love, even to ourselves.

The Cornucopia Center: We begin to recognize that the world has always provided us with everything that we need. The universe is bountiful, perfect and we are always living and partaking in it. The here and now is perfect just the way that it is and the hear and now is ever present.

The Conscious-Awareness Center: From this Center we see ourselves as actors on a stage playing "the social roles and life games from a place that is free from fear and vulnerability."

The Cosmic Consciousness Center: At this level, we are one with everything. We become love, peace, etc.

While Maslow's highest level - self-actualization - is attainable by doing "what a person was born to do", Keyes Cosmic Consciousness is not so easily attainable. Very few people reach this center of consciousness in their lifetime. One such person, for example, might be His Holiness, The fourteenth Dalai Lama, the spiritual head and political ruler in exile of Tibet where "serving 'others' is the only thing in life to do." One becomes luminous rather than omniscient. We become god-like. Achieving Cosmic Consciousness becomes achieving the ultimate in self-actualization, that is, becoming pure love, that which we according to A Course in Miracles and many other mystical and spiritual writings is what we are made of.

Very few of us will ever reach the Cosmic Consciousness Center. Keyes surmises metaphorically for the purpose of illustrating the elusive but attainable ideal, that only one-hundred people on planet Earth reach the cosmic-consciousness center at any one time. We can at least go beyond the lower three levels of consciousness to see the world through accepting eyes where we practice unconditional love and are content knowing that we have all we need.

Unconditional Love

The movie Gandhi credibly portrays the Mahatma, the great soul, as a person fully capable of unconditional love. Regardless of what others around him were doing, Gandhi preached and practiced unconditional love toward them. While drawing from Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, the Bible, and the Bhagavadgita, Gandhi refined the Hindu concept of satyagraha where one achieves a cosmic level of consciousness by seeking truth in a spirit of peace and love. Called satyagrahi, practitioners of satyagraha, such as Gandhi, Jesus, The Dalai Lama, etc. grasp a truth force, that they themselves become. Every once in a while throughout history there are people such as Gandhi, who become unconditional love.

Those capable of becoming unconditional love, reaching the cosmic consciousness center of awareness, these individuals do not sweat small stuff. Neither do they sweat big stuff. While I may never attain cosmic consciousness, I can with some effort (as stated earlier), learn "to see the world with the feelings and harmonies of flowing acceptance." Then, I can more clearly see the small stuff for what it is: the small stuff, and let it go.

Belief Teaching

We are teachers and students of one another and of ourselves. Even though we may end our formal schooling, education remains a lifelong endeavor. A Course in Miracles says that we teach best that which we need to learn the most. In Change Your Mind, Change Your Life, Gerald G. Jampolsky, MD and Diane V. Cirincione write, "Remember always that what you believe you will teach." Chapter Six is entitled, "Education - We teach what we want to learn." A more conscious person can choose what they want to learn.

The opportunities to teach and learn are never ending. Every moment our life is a classroom experience in the broader school of living. While the formal schools that we attend may expose us to science, mathematics, history, philosophy, etc., it is more than likely that our life school will expose us to the question, "What is the purpose of our life?"

Baba Ram Dass suggests that the purpose of life is serving others. Ram Dass and Mother Teresa are devoted to practicing this philosophy. Even though they have been serving others for most of their lives, if we asked Baba Ram Dass and Mother Theresa what they need to learn the most I believe both would respond by saying, "Learning how to serve others." Through learning we teach and through teaching we learn.

If we believe that small stuff is big stuff, we will teach that it is so by our actions, by our responses, by the way in which we interact with each other and by the way we function. When we change our mind, that is when become more conscious and come around to believing that we are, and always have been, safe. We will teach that we are safe by the way we behave. Neither small stuff nor big stuff takes up so much of our time and energy.

The Biggest Stuff

Most people would say that the biggest thing in their life is suffering and death. But, are they really the biggest? Or, are we once again taking small stuff and elevating it be ultimate big stuff? In Buddhist philosophy life is samsara. Life is suffering. While appearing to be negative, this view on life merely points out that suffering is just more of the same old small stuff. Seeing it as such allows us to become prepared for death so that when it happens it doesn’t become big stuff.

Death is an integral part of the cycle of life. Birth guarantees death. Something so common and so a part of life need not be feared. The lifetime that we have places in our way a steady stream of opportunity preparing us for the final opportunity. We can see our life as a series of small stuff events and one big stuff battle after another if we wish. Or, we can see it as offering the endless possibility of serving others. How we view our life and what we do with the moment-to-moment influences how we view and experience death.

Gerald J. Jampolsky, MD in his book, Teach only Love" writes, "Let us now have love, happiness and certainty of purpose. May the unimportant be unimportant forevermore. And may that ancient memory of who and where we are rise in our hearts until all this world’s pain be gone." As my tendency is to agree with the Buddhists in saying life is suffering, I interpret Jampolsky as meaning that the suffering becomes small stuff.

In a short while, none of our problems will much matter to us. We will not concern ourselves with either small nor big stuff. Death raises the proposition that in one-hundred years none of us will be here. Planet Earth will be inhabited completely by all new people! "And when kept in mind, this idea can fill us with needed perspective during times of perceived crisis or stress." In a hundred years, all of us would have experienced death. We can therefore, lighten up.


A few people have found life wonderful and full of purpose, but most people are lost in their poor melodrama. These people bring so much unhappiness to themselves and others -- acting out their life with no director.

George Norwood

In the long run we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.


...there are two entirely opposite attitudes possible in facing the problem's of one's life. One, to try and change the external world, the other, to try and change oneself.

Joanna Field

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Die when I may, I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow.

Abraham Lincoln

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

Mother Teresa

When a man's knowledge is deep, he speaks well of an enemy. Instead of seeking revenge, he extends unexpected generosity. He turns insult into humor, ... and astonishes his adversary who finds no reason not to trust him.

Baltasar of Gracian

1997 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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