Preferences and plans are on my mind. Last spring I had a book proposal accepted and I began to ramp up my training and my teaching, taking on a chair yoga class and more yin. The studio I work in changed hands and new avenues and possibilities arose. I began to tell myself stories about the direction life was taking and how this decade of my life, my 60's, was gearing up rather than down as our society traditionally expects.
Autumn and the forward momentum of such plans was barely underway when life detoured. My husband calls it a speed bump...and the faster you hit one of these, the greater the impact. We're in this together, he and I, so it doesn't seem to be only his diagnosis. We've chosen life patterns to support our preferences and plans. And now conditions are changing.
There's always an odd lag when such things happen. Retirees who find themselves at a loss when the first Monday with no work schedule rolls around. Stay-at-home parents waving the youngest off for the first day of school. What will things look like now? What's possible? What's not?
I'm watching small self, the ego that wants what it wants. My teacher said when he learned of this diagnosis that my husband was not the only one being tested. In the avalanche of emotion we were swimming in then, I could only focus on the obvious and what was most obvious was fear. But time has stretched in the slow motion but inevitable way it does and I'm seeing the fuller dimensions of this testing: the patterns, the plans, the preferences and choices that support my lifestyle and my practice. Letting go continues.
I've canceled some scheduled training and a planned retreat, taken a hiatus from teaching and slowed down the final phases of preparing my blog book for publication. Together, we're taking stock.
On this practice path, when we begin to be mindful of our thoughts, we begin to notice particular threads in the stream of chatter that runs nearly nonstop in the mind. One of these threads might be labeled the Department of Me Management, in charge of “Who I Am”. It's important to direct attention here when life brings unexpected change. This department tallies the important stuff we've accomplished, keeps records of achievements and formulates plans. After awhile these records and power-point presentations begin to have a feeling of reality. We believe them even when they may not be relevant to what is needed in the life we're living. That is, conditions change but we cling to the plan and feel threatened by suggestions of change. We forget that we made the plan in the first place and it has no substance beyond our belief in it. Anything is possible any time. How freeing is that?
As I pay attention right now, I'm being reminded of the waking up power that discomfort can have. As the ground shifts, autopilot, plans and preferences are abandoned. It's time to come back to the open possibility of the living present. I am flowing water again without the shape of roles and plans to define me and this is disconcerting but good. The containers and definitions were mistakes the ego makes. Outside of these, it's sometimes uncomfortable, yet, paradoxically, also easier to breathe.
It's difficult to maintain fear. Teachers speak of the great effort we make to maintain illusions that cause us pain. I've seen this personally in flights of fancy I'm capable of when some dire possibility arises in my thoughts. If I do not re-visit and re-furbish that fear, it will simply lose momentum. The same is so of anger or greed or other negative emotions. Yet instinctively this is what human beings do. We weave a Mobius strip from our fears (or whatever negative emotion has arisen) and run it through nervous fingers in an endless loop.
It's been more than two months since the diagnosis that rocked my family. We've been through difficult treatments and transitions together...my husband often describing himself as the “helpless passenger” and me scrambling to reinvent my role as helpmate and caregiver as circumstances change. In this daily pattern, I sometimes drop my fears. I just stop pursuing them. Yes, we sit a lot in various waiting rooms waiting for him to be called. But we also sit drinking tea together and talking about our day and the children. We sit across the room from one another in our temporary apartment immersed in books just as we do at home. We bundle up to walk in the deep cold. We laugh and enjoy trying on our city selves. And in this immersion in the moment, the mental fingers that so often follow the pattern of the fabric that makes up my fear, are stilled.
Perhaps others would describe this as denial. This comfortable “forgetting” of the new circumstances we find ourselves in. But I see it as the work of practice. We are all dying. Since birth this has been so. The truth is that while we are making every effort to stop the progress of his cancer, a fire or accident could claim us both, a different threat we don't know of yet could be at work. All that has changed is a new thing we are aware of.
The first factor of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold path is Right View. I remember a sit long ago now when I suddenly realized that Right View, including the realization of no permanent self, didn't mean the loss of anything. It was simply changing seats in a theatre. What was playing out on the stage was the same. I just looked at it differently, from a different place. This made acceptance seem so easy. Yes, everything is impermanent. Yes, I do not exist as a solid, enduring “thing”. Yes, clinging is the root cause of suffering. It is only that from some seats in the theatre I can't see this. I am fooled by my angle of vision, by tricks of perspective, into a belief in certainty, and endurance and control.
Problem is, we're restless beings who keep moving around and when events rock us we may collapse into the nearest and familiar seat and so into the pain of believing illusions. When this happens to me right now, I strive to rouse myself and explore the theatre a little. Leaving my woven Mobius strip of fear lying unattended, I seek that place with the clear, long view. Here, peace is possible.
We're living for a awhile in a one bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street in a central district in the city, only a short walk away from a trendy street of shops, bistros and pubs. A far cry from our country home outside a small town.
Most of our “stuff” got left behind. Some clothes came along, a few books, a favorite pillow, our new cell phones that stand in for the computers we each spend long hours at back home. There are no pets to feed. There is no terrier to do yoga with me or come on walks. It took us half an hour to settle and I had to wonder at all we accumulate and what we'd chosen as necessary.
Conditions forced this temporary relocation...being available for my husband's daily medical treatments for awhile. But, it's an interesting situation to be in, practice wise, this stepping out of who I think I am. A re-shaping of the self I create moment to moment. And here's the surprise: it's all fairly easy so far. The bumps are small...gravel not boulders...a little grinding and slip and slide under the wheels, no barricades, no dangerous drops.
I've been watching my mind. The program that runs and adjusts itself as I wake. Not country, but city. Not stars and moon out the window but streetlights. Who am I?
In “normal” life, a litany follows this question. The gathering of all those experiences and memories that make my life, that shape ego, my conception of who I am. In practice, I word it differently...breathing and holding the question: who is this? Often, on the cushion, I'm met by silence, by space, a blank in a quiz with nothing filling it in. These days I feel the congruence of these two experiences.
Who is this? A body. A mind. Who am I? A flow of breath and space like an elongated ellipsis. I am not this and not that. I am not a small town resident, a country woman. Not a dog owner. A yin teacher. Someone who loves to cook or who spends long hours writing and reading. Not any set of descriptors I could set down here. I am a space that holds whatever experience is passing through. The ease of this transition right now, comes from seeing this.
Before we left home, I had a day of mourning. I thought of how I'd miss the stars, my favorite chair, our dog, preparing our traditional Christmas. The pain of that mourning grew not from what was happening but from holding tight to these ideas of what my life is and who I am.
Right now, I'm taking the cues of long practice; I slip into a moment at a time: A tiny kitchen, red floors, footsteps overhead, rush hour traffic driving to appointments, writing in longhand again, tea from pure white cups, walking to places to eat.
Nothing to mourn. Nothing that made “me” there. Nothing that makes “me” here.
Sitting these days returns me to the basics. I remember that the Buddha did breath meditation even after his enlightenment, right to the end of his life, and, with this remembering, I give myself permission to be at peace with this, not seeking anything special. The breath, a thought, making space around that thought, releasing it, returning to the breath. Over and over again. There is a metaphor (source forgotten) that equates the action of anxious mind with painting tigers on the wall and then crouching in fear. These days I see two hands painting.
One hand is led with deliberation. I imagine a future where this illness my husband is suffering from simply dissolves. Spontaneous remission. It happens. Why not? I imagine a return to what we thought of as normal...days of his music and my writing/yoga/practice. Days we treasured but allowed to pass. More of those, please, is the thought behind this, the wish that stirs discontent with the present. And when I paint these “positive” pictures, I am no less anxious than when the shadow hand grasps the brush and paints my fears. They will fill a mural.
Watching the brush pass hand to hand, I know only that both are contributing to my suffering. Replacing negative thoughts/fears with what seem to be positive thoughts/wishes, is not skillful. The place I need to rest in is here. Wisdom gathered from experience teaches me that this place of balance in the swing of the pendulum, this resting with “not knowing”, is the actual positive, the skillful, the door to peace.
A good friend and Zen teacher says “Aging is terminal”, and aging begins when we are born. The way we use the word “aging” deceives us into thinking that it is somewhere off in the future...something we'll encounter when we reach senior citizen status, or maybe even later in a culture that makes claims like “60 is the new 40”. It's true that at least in the first world we have access to marvelous medical advancements, to clean water and sufficient food, at least for now, at least for those of us not deeply impoverished. But for everyone, an ending to this life is inevitable. For everyone, change is inevitable. For everyone, loss is inevitable.
Fear paints murals that cause us to tremble, but our substitution of wishes only means anxiety. This is a bit like buying a lottery ticket with your last dollar rather than seeds to plant a garden. A win, if it comes, may indeed save us for the moment but we will live exhausted by anxiety anticipating a future that is desirable but unlikely.
So I make space around each thought. Those painted by the shadow hand and those painted with a subversive deliberation that teases me toward wishes. And in the space I find the breath. And with the breath this moment now, pure and clean and clear. In fixing my attention here, I feel the body soften, the heart ease, the mind spin toward stillness. Perhaps for only the space of one breath or two, perhaps a few more. When one hand or the other picks up the brush again, I notice and make space again.
Does “making space” sound mysterious and vague? It feels like a physical thing. To imagine the thought and then a circle of space softly expanding around it...like the ripples in a pond when you drop in a pebble.
This is where I am both on the cushion and off these days. Not so different from the “ordinary” mindfulness I've practiced for years. What is different is the content of the paintings and their repetitive nature. This persistence makes them seem more solid, but I know they are sand, water, air. They are illusions. This place still and clear is real. This is where I live, carried forward breath by breath.
A transitional retreat with its own flavor. I usually try to arrive at Providence early with time to settle before the schedule begins. This wintery day I met with snow and construction both and had a later departure so that I arrived with only minutes to spare. Then at the door I learn that rooms aren't ready yet and we stash our stuff in a corner until things are settled later. Interesting challenges to my expectations and my habitual patterns of care and control. So, practice comes vividly into play long before the first sit.
Surprise is that none of this worried me or preoccupied me with anxiety. The familiarity of the place, the heart readiness for a space of focused practice, a prior pace at home that was not too busy. All is well and comfortable.
Though some body parts complain at the end of the first day, stillness of body is easy to achieve and mind fairly compliant. On this retreat I make the decision to fore-go the optional suppers and no hunger is asserting itself.
Study in the quiet times of solo practice...delving into reading on samadhi (concentration/absorption). Looking for that tricky balance between right effort and desire without craving a particular experience. The evening Dhamma talk is apropos: on the topic of expectations and being at ease with “what is”. This is a group of experienced meditators and Bhante alludes to the kind of ennui that can develop when we do not feel “progress” in our practice. He reminds us that skillful effort will always have good results and to note that all things are dependent on causes and conditions. Both Bhante's talk and the book I'm studying remind me that the Buddha shaped his teaching to various temperaments and styles and with the years I learn more of what I work with best. Still mind, for me, need not focus on the breath though I begin and return there. I find a sense of “opening” more useful. It is difficult to describe but recognizable in my experience when I touch it.
Bhante also spoke of contemplation: holding an idea, perhaps one encountered in a sutta, and contemplating not by analysis or thought but leaning towards it in silence. This seems very much like the openness I feel in stillness of mind.
When disheartened on the path, he tells us to reflect on the motivations that caused one to begin. This stirs faith and confidence and so energy to continue. These underpin mindfulness which develops concentration and leads to wisdom. My motivation: To live a better life. To find/seek the truth. To achieve wisdom and to be kind and good in my dealings with all living things. We all ask, Bhante says, where we are on the journey, how we're doing, but only the mirror of the Dhamma can tell us. There is no prescription for number of hours to sit or that sort of measure. Be guided by wise intention for balance in the life we lead. It is foolish to make goals that lead to anxiety. Practice is molded and led by the changes that come and play into the changes themselves.
The unusual beginning and the time that opens before me leave me with a sense of beginning again. Not a bad place to be at the start of retreat.
Hospital Dhamma. I've been in the midst of it for a week. In the plastic chairs of two emergency rooms, where lives spill over into each other. People pacing with phones. Sometimes I was one of them. Looking for quiet corners. Later, finding places to perch near the stretcher in a cubicle, marked as private by skimpy curtains. Long periods of waiting for news, for action, for movement forward. Drawing a chair up later to the side of a ward bed in a temporary “home”, making a kind of nest of possessions, marking a place to be ours for awhile.
In the halls more action in an hour than I'm used to in a week. A bustle of activity. An orchestra of sound, instruments and voices unfamiliar. Bodies stretched on couches in any lounge area. Too many cafeteria meals.
We've stepped for awhile outside of what we take to be normal, into a parallel universe. Surreal at first, it becomes a new normal in a short time. Keeping my sense doors open and my mind in my body, I am surprised by the shivering sense of connection with all those around me caught in this painful and undesirable limbo. I am here now and so, for me, this is happening only now. But when I moved day to day somewhere else before this and when I move back to somewhere else, it goes on. Life contains this too.
All this is happening all the time. The parents, the siblings, the friends, the wives and the husbands. Helpless and afraid as they hand over a loved one into the care of others. The uncertainty written large, tattooed on my heart.
Sometimes I recite mantras silently in my head during the waiting. Again and again coming back to the 5 Reflections and the one that has always spoken to me most strongly: “All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” When I've recited this mantra before I have allowed my mind to scroll through the list of loved ones, of loved places, of loved activities. And here, in the hospital, waiting for news, it is my husband that is foremost in my mind as I begin.
But there are new nuances here. Our home. Our routines. Our plans. Our expectations. The way it will be. All that is mine. Who I am wound all around with him and our life together. I am learning deeply. Pushed off a cliff into the ocean, swim or sink. “I” is whatever I grab hold of and hold close. “Mine” is whatever I take for granted without even knowing I've made a claim. I am learning to float without looking for something to hold to, to breathe underwater perhaps. And that learning is assisted in the clear recognition that “I” am not what this is about, what or who this is happening to. Conditions are unfolding. Life holds this too. Both of us, my husband and me, we're part of this life, not exempt.
Anything can happen at any time, my teacher has said. Yes. Hospital Dhamma repeats the lesson. This is not a bleak lesson, but one that calms. It's the whisper of the universe that echoes what mothers say holding their wee ones close as they cry: “It's alright.” No injustice here. No personal attack. Life unfolding. Nestled there in the arms of life and listening to that whisper, the hurt is more bearable. Peace is possible whatever life brings.
Today, as I do each time I begin a blog, I try to choose what to share that will be of benefit to readers, to those struggling, to those in need of encouragement, to those trying to understand, to those just passing through in a moment of curiosity, perhaps even seeking distraction, the very source in so many ways of the fundamental problem of dissatisfaction. This morning I make a list of ideas that come to mind reflecting on my own practice of late: metta, bad days, fear, unskillful actions. In contemplating this list, what arises is the realization that we so often think of practice in pieces like this, as techniques for control of the weather of the mind. This frustratingly elusive goal is totally different from seeking refuge, a stable place within the weather of the mind, a place to watch the beauty and the strength of the storm without becoming its victim. So while we're fiddling with simple or even sophisticated techniques, we're like the scientist on the roof setting up a weather vane in the midst of a hurricane while patient observation from a safe and still place might tell us more. We risk our well-being in rushing defiantly into the storm, while a wiser course of action might be to observe and learn its patterns which are our own patterns after all.
As I contemplate my list, I come to see again that the pieces are not independent. Working with metta is not something different from dealing with fear. Noticing that I feel in the midst of a “bad day” is not different from noticing my own unskillful actions. The metaphor of a tool belt and techniques or practices that are useful for particular difficulties misleads me sometimes. Whatever tool or method or “trick” I am using, what I am seeking is the door into that place of clear seeing, the place with the unobstructed view, a place that is OK even when it is not comfortable, where I am at ease with the vagaries of the mind's weather, not permitting it to be destructive of my well-being.
Learning to find that centre and to understand that it is available to me in the changing circumstances of my life, in the sunshine and the rain and even the hurricanes my mind stirs up, is key. Whatever the tools are that I draw on: time in nature, listening to music, yoga, running, coming to the breath, chanting mantras, these are only roadsigns that allow me to find that center again.
The problem with many of the things we turn to is that they stir up new winds rather than pointing to the center. Even after practicing so long, I'm aware of the temptation to just zone out for awhile. This is not a way into calm. It's ignoring the storm, rather than watching it. I want to be more like that scientist I mentioned but in his observing role, studying and learning what is the case right now. I want to be able to see not just the circumstances around me, this moment outside, but also this moment within me, this moment inside. From there I come to understand what the mind is doing. It is creating fear over the fires threatening in California, fear and anxiety over the depression of a loved one, procrastination in the face of unwelcome tasks, blame when someone acts in a way that adds difficulties to my day. Zoning out usually means distraction, the ostrich head in the sand trick. What I don't see, doesn't exist. For me this might mean I take a nap, read a novel, play Scrabble. You'll be able to make your own list here. Any distraction moves away from seeing what is happening, away from the possibility of seeing clearly and acting skillfully.
When I make choices, it is important that they are real choices. Wise choices. Not just automatic actions and habits. Choosing to read a novel because it is a pleasure to have some down time, not so I won't think about some fear or some worry. The alternative, of course, is not just to think about the fear or the worry, either, which is just stirring the winds. Instead I need to know them and then to choose wisely what will carry the mind and heart into a better place again. The observing and the feeling come first.
Don't know what brought you here today, but if you were looking for distraction, I'm hoping instead you found a little nudge to turn toward whatever you're turning away from right now. We're all doing this work no matter how long we've been practicing. Maybe it helps to know that.
I used to be a chronic insomniac and it also returned for me for awhile during menopause. Now and then it will make me a visit and we get reacquainted. It's never comfortable. Familiar maybe, but not comfortable. The worry about not getting enough sleep, paradoxically can interfere with all your efforts to sleep. So the mind needs to release that worry...even the quiet whisper that fatigue in the day to come is probable and to be avoided. This is a kind of leaning out of this moment into what might/will be. It creates a clinging and aversion cycle.
The most effective strategy I've found is displacement of these worry-thoughts. In his list of methods for dealing with negative thoughts, one metaphor the Buddha uses is one from ancient carpentry, when wooden pegs were used instead of nails. We replace the old and ineffective peg with a new robust one, putting it in place and pushing or hammering it in until the old one pops out the other side. This is effort but not force, not fierce pounding but a gentle persistence. There is no one strategy that will work in all cases for all people. Scan through your mental menu and choose what seems appropriate and then work with it, with patience and continuity.
Move your attention to the breath. Try extending your exhales and then extending the pause at the bottom of the breath. Doing this requires more presence than regular breathing and so might help to quiet the mind and hush the background anxiety. This also impacts the nervous system giving the brain signals to relax. You might also lie on your back and place your hands on your belly, adding this tactile contact with the breath, further anchoring you in the body so that the mind slows its spin.
Work with metta. Loving kindness meditation has a natural inclination to relax and bring peace. Work with this in whatever way you like...phrases or images. You might recall a few you've been led in or have used before. One common instruction is to begin with a kitten or puppy or some other animal you love. The animal does not have to be specific individual, but stands in for a category for which you feel a natural fondness. As you imagine being in the presence of this being, imagine a two way flow of love and trust and acceptance. Let it fill you. You could visualize light pulsing between you, if you like to make this more visceral. Or you can begin with light. I often move to a pulsing light and then let faces begin to emerge...first of those I love, sending them love and kindness and feeling the return of their care for me. Add soothing and comforting phrases if you like, mentally repeating them as you would with a child who woke from a bad dream in the night.
Soothing imagery of many kinds can be helpful. If it's possible and simple, so that you don't have to get up and move around too much, stirring energy, this might be helped by audio input of ocean waves or birdsong or something gentle. Let yourself imagine a safe and peaceful place. Create it by building sensory detail. What's the texture under you (sand, grass, blanket, water)? What's in the space around you? What are the sounds and the smells? Do not worry about poetic wording or precise concepts. You aren't writing a letter but instead are inducing a feeling of ease.
Progressive relaxation, self-talk that moves through your body as a body scan, is another possible method. Here you are noticing what is...any tension or gripping, and then adding mental permission for each part of your body to relax and switch off, sleep and recharge.
Combining any of these is fine, but guard against overthinking and jumping around too much, adding to the mind's turbulence. If you come to a period in your life where a waking pattern is developing, don't leave these strategies until anxiety arises. Practice a bit with one or more of these during the day when you have a few moments to yourself. This provides a habit of mind that is available without too much thought. You won't spend so much time when you wake in the night searching for the fresh peg to begin your work.
When bedtime comes, set yourself up for sleep rather than falling into patterns of anticipation of waking later. When you go to bed at night, work out a mantra phrase or two. "I am safe and at ease. My body is ready for sleep. I will sleep peacefully and wake to my alarm rested and restored." This is skillful effort to reprogram expectation and defuse anxiety. You may wish to combine this bedtime mantra with the breath or with a visualization of light or your safe place. Then, if you do wake in the night, find your breath and return to the method you've chosen to bring relaxation back to the body.
Sleep restores the body. But even if you remain wakeful, rather than “fighting” throughout the night, these more skillful strategies will have eased the tension and fear and anger that leave their unpleasant residue in the day that follows.
I don't go to movies often but sometime ago when we did make our way to the local theater, we noticed that the “free” industry magazine formerly available in the lobby is no more. While others sat in the theater prior to previews, thumbing their cell phones, we chatted quietly, no paper magazine to thumb through as we were accustomed to doing. One bit I missed, oddly, was a page based on the theory of seven degrees of separation. It would begin with some actor and set out a web of mostly romantic relationships, showing the connections with so many well-known celeb names. It was always kind of fun to trace this. I'm interested in connections that make the world.
Lately I heard Keith Urban make a dedication in which he referred to country music (fans and performers) as a community: everyone who listens or makes country songs becomes connected in this shared endeavor. How many such communities of the heart are each of us part of?
I used to teach high school English for a number of years in Calgary. Students more than colleagues have remained evident in my life. Three are even part of my immediate and extended family at this point. In a novel, I recently read the name of another, famous in his chosen field now, and I laughed at this trivial and yet wondrous reminder of how my connections from times past trace out into worlds very different from the one I live in these days. Then today an e-mail from traveling family who find themselves on a Middle East tour led by another former student of mine, who was once a classmate both to the now “famous” one and my own husband. Gets tangled.
My point is a simple one. A teaching of the Buddha that I often refer to reminds us to look into our own experience to test the truth of teachings. These specific experiences that are my own web of connection remind me of how closely I am bound to all living beings. We may think our paths cross with some “stranger”, only to find him/her to be the partner or cousin of a dear friend. We might skim over a name in a news article not realizing a blood tie with a member of distant family. We might, the Buddha even suggests, pass by someone on the street not knowing he was once our mother. Why not? The connections are so real and traceable in this very life. What might be possible if we accept the idea of other lives before and after this one? A dance with everyone, a rearrangement of the shapes in an elaborate quadrille.
Human beings find it easiest to love what is identified as mine. There may be a mistake there on a number of levels. One, of course, is to imagine I have ownership. Another is to imagine I am something enduring in myself. And another might be not to see that I belong to it all as it all belongs to me. All of us connected in some infinite web that can't be drawn on a magazine page.
The point of tracing some of your own surprising connections in the world and extrapolating beyond this to imagine a larger and more intricate web is that we can make use of this natural inclination to protect and to be kind to our own. If this homeless being is a cousin to my well-liked neighbor, if this irritating CEO was formerly our mother's piano student, if that woman in handcuffs is the granddaughter of the elderly woman our sister taxis to doctor's appointments, then we see a bit more dimension, we acknowledge a bit more of the complexity of a human life. Rather than doorway shadows, talking heads, or blurred news footage, we see them as people. And we know the confusion of our own human hearts. Maybe in seeing others within the circle of what is related to me, we'll be less hasty in judgment, more generous in impulse. Maybe we'll see swinging doors instead of walls between our lives and the lives of others.
Sometimes the world seems to be a pretty bad place. The other morning, I emerged from meditation and went to the kitchen to make my breakfast. The radio was on. The morning news cast began. Three in a row. The shootings in Las Vegas. A car running through a crowd in Edmonton. An armed robbery here in this very town. This news dropped into the moment I was living.
Outside the window, there was a palate of amazing color. A skiff of snow on the grass, yellow leaves whirling in the wind. The dark green of spruce as a backdrop. Inside the house, the air was warm and comfortable. The kettle had begun to steam. I was enveloped in the scent of the sweet fruit I was slicing into a bowl. My mind and heart were open and soft and vulnerable. Yet, for a moment, all I knew was pain.
The world I live in is the world my mind believes in. And for that moment, I believed the world was a bad place. This is the beginning of the work. As I poured the water into my mug, I watched the steam. Air element, water element. I let this bring me to my own breath. And then I set down the kettle and closed my eyes for only a tiny moment. That moment allowed me to bring awareness inward. What is this? This is pain. This is anger. This is sorrow. This is fear. As the emotions washed through me, I noticed my own aversion to what was happening. The impulse to turn away. The deep desire not to feel this. Instead, I gently urged my attention to move from this labeling into what was going on in my body. The involuntary hunching of my shoulders. The burning that was beginning behind my eyes. The tightness of chest. The clenching of belly and bowels. The sudden lack of appetite and the closing of my throat.
These are the sensations that trigger a mental reactivity. A mind that wants to run with the pain, the anger, the sorrow and the fear. The mind that wants to tell stories about the need to escape or to punish, or to curl up in apathy and despair. The mind that uses words like “never” and “always” and is caught in a world where these horrors are all that is and all that will be for all time.
The Buddha teaches that it is here that we can choose differently. Here in our own heart-mind. Feeling the negative emotions that sweep through, recognizing the story-making apparatus gearing up, I can redirect or stop the process. If I am aware and alert. If I make the effort. One of the very helpful and simple questions I use is to ask “Where is this leading?” This story of evil people, or villains, of a dark and dystopian world. It is leading me to more of the same. To deeper pain. To greater suffering.
In the time it takes for my tea to steep and my toast to pop, I am working to change the content of my mind. Turning from the negative to a place of light. Love and compassion for myself, suffering here in my own bright and comfortable kitchen on this pretty day, as if I were trapped in a cold underground cell. Love and compassion for the people harmed and the confused people who do the harming. What causes and conditions led to these actions? In a world where we plant hate and anger and pain, where this is what we learn to see as normal and inevitable, such actions result. In a world where we plant love and forgiveness and joy, good actions result. In this huge world, both of these are unfolding. Here, I choose to contribute to the second.
So far as is possible, I will work to recognize the negative emotions that arise, to feel them and not suppress them, and to know the kinship between pain and fear, and blame and hate. To know I too am vulnerable. To accept the universality of this but not the inevitability. Attention and intention allow me to steer my heart in a different direction, to lay down what conditions I can in my own life for more love and forgiveness and joy to grow. If those who harm others had lived in such a world, their choices, I believe, would be different.