My parents were hard workers. Day after day they rose early, turned on the radio and made coffee in the silver percolator (my father), set out my breakfast and my bagged lunch (my mother), and went their separate ways to their jobs: my mother to an underwear factory, my father, for most of his life, to the Military Ocean Terminal where he was a civil servant. Children of Polish immigrants, responsible for five children (four, when we lost my brother), they took the American work ethic very seriously.
My father liked a good motto, and when he got hold of one he milked it for all it was worth, repeating it like a mantra with slight changes in inflection. “If you work hard, you’ll get where you wanna go,” he counselled my sisters and me inumerable times at the kitchen table. “Yup. If you put your mind to it and keep going, you’ll succeed. That’s the thing. You gotta work hard, and you’ll make it.”
Ray and Mary didn’t rely on luck, but they didn’t deny its existence, either. On the contrary, they wooed it like a resistant paramour, tapping it on the shoulder hoping to get its full attention. My father had an elaborate system for predicting winning lottery combinations, which involved long columns of numbers scribbled in pencil on sheets of scrap paper he brought home from work. My mother went the more mystical route, consulting a special book that assigned specific numbers to the subjects of her dreams. You dreamed of an elephant? 436. A raincoat? 998. She noticed numbers on license plates and grocery store receipts, saw promising patterns in birthdates and phone numbers. When they’d made their picks, my father would put the leash on our dog Alfie and go across Broadway to Al’s candy store to place the bets. Occasionally they went further, to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and had a field day with the slot machines. From time to time they had a winning number or a cascade of coins, enough to give them a thrill and the incentive to keep playing. But more often than not, when they opened the newspaper or watched the numbered Lotto ping-pong balls being sucked up the little tube and read out by a toothy television hostess, the refrain at the kitchen table was: “I got nothin’.”
And nothin’s plenty for me
So far, the period of my life when I felt the luckiest was when I practiced Zen Buddhism. I was an ordained nun and had very little in the way of material possessions or income. My basic needs were met, but even those were sometimes left for “the universe” to provide. I didn’t want much, and I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of serendipity. Once, when I was on the lookout for empty boxes for a move, I kicked a carton on the street and was startled when it didn’t budge. It was a full case of wine. I looked around, asked in the nearest stores, and waited 20 minutes or so for someone to come and claim it. In the end, I hauled it up the five flights to my one-room apartment under the eaves. On closer inspection, the wine was actually a kind of strong liqueur. I couldn’t drink it, but my French friends were crazy for it, so I gave the bottles away as gifts, and felt very lucky to have literally stumbled upon it.
I still wanted things, though. My ambition – my desire to express myself, to teach, to clarify, to perfect, to create – ran deep. When Zen was my life, those desires could not help but flow into my practice and the community, spilling into the only space available to them, where, Zen being the religion of detachment, they didn’t really belong. It seems to me now that part of the reason I stopped practicing was because I wanted to want again: to want openly, unabashedly, to freely feel the highs and lows of desire and disappointment, of love and loss.
These days, I want more. But I don’t feel as lucky. Child of Ray and Mary, I plow the field of my desires, yoked and persistent, yet lacking my parents’ willingness to believe that something good might happen above and beyond my efforts. I turn my back on luck as though it were a kid on the playground who won’t play with me. I am ghosting luck.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately because something very good is happening in my life. It’s not official yet, so I don’t want to jinx it by being specific. Let’s just say that for the first time in a long time, I’m remembering what it feels like to feel lucky.
Just to be clear: I’m grateful for the good fortune of having been born at all; of never wanting for the basic necessities, and then some; of having the love of family, friends, and one good, special person; of having a profession I enjoy; and on. By “luck” I mean something that falls into your lap, a gift out of the blue, the universe throwing you a freebie.
Do you remember the last time you felt lucky? Can you describe what it felt like, physically? For me, it’s as if my cells do a little dance, my blood moves a little faster. I feel lighter, bolder, more capable, and also loved – loved by a mysterious source hiding in plain sight. There’s a feeling of expansion, in my head, my chest, my eyes and ears.
Now if you can identify what luck feels like, why not reverse-engineer it – examine the lucky state in order to reproduce it? What if luck was an ability you could develop, not something that happened to you?
I’m not the first to ask this question. Experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor, conducted a 10-year study of people who self-identified as lucky and unlucky. Based on his findings, he identified four phenomena that repeatedly appear in the lives of the lucky:
1. They make the most of chance opportunities in their lives.
2. They make successful decisions by using their intuition and gut feelings.
3. They expect good fortune.
4. They are able to turn bad luck into good.
I recommend Wiseman’s book if you want specific strategies on how to go about it. As a somatic therapist, I’m most interested in how the body is involved with luck, and I believe it boils down to this: it’s very difficult to be lucky if you are physically or emotionally unable to clearly perceive your environment. If some part of you is in survival mode, you’re closing yourself off to the world and its possibilities. Anxiety, chronic tension, exhaustion – these and other states will literally, physically limit you. That’s when it’s useful to be attentive to your muscles, posture, breathing, and thought patterns, and to be able to choose what you do with them. In my case, it’s learning to balance out my nose-to-the-grindstone determination. To give my body the chance to expand into that open feeling. To tap luck on the shoulder and ask if it wants to play.
Photo: the author and her mother, Las Vegas airport, ca. 1973
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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