The great difficulty with seeing clearly is that we are embedded, permeated, marinated in our conditioning and our habits. When life runs along as it mostly has always done, we don't have occasion to see where our prickly points are, where we've laid claim and built walls. The changing conditions of life, however, might reveal where these boundaries have been drawn.
At various times in my life, something has happened that shone a bright light into these corners. Recently there was one more. The way I organize things, the day's schedule, were both upset and altered by an influx of visitors. Welcome and much loved visitors. Visitors helping in all kinds of ways for which I was and am extremely grateful. However, side by side with these positive emotions came a whole rabble of negative ones. It was instructive to notice what I'd claimed as “mine” without being even aware of it. I wasn't aware of it, of course, because nothing upset my routines and expectations...until something did. It's a bit like seeing everything fuzzily until you get new glasses. You aren't aware of the sharp outlines of things until the new condition, the new lenses, are in place. Then you know what you've missed. So it was that sharing my home space and home duties and daily activities with these others, made me aware of how “I” have spread out to become all of this.
And there's the core of it. My kitchen, my cupboards, my rooms, my home. We all feel this. And so long as we can move along handling things as we like, there's no problem. But when someone rearranges, or takes over, the self makes a problem. It's not a big problem. I don't mean to say that I felt invaded or angry or resentful. But there were prickly edges of irritation that took me by surprise. My mental space became a bit uncomfortable.
Right mindfulness means not only noticing this, but noticing how this reflexive response triggered suffering. How it took the edge off pleasant moments. How it opened the flood gates to secondary negative feelings like guilt and shame. How this cascade of aversive emotions could arise like a wave from a cup placed in the wrong cupboard. Wow!
I've been thinking about a world in which so many have trouble getting along. Members of families, neighbors, provinces side by side, countries with shared borders, people who feel they have equal claim to something whether it's physical or ideological. In my recent mundane and ordinary experience, even with the intention to be mindful, even successfully observing the little prickles, “the psychic irritants” as my teacher calls them, I was aware that effort was required to move the mind to a more positive place. To shift the thought stream from irritation, to gratitude. From shame and guilt, to self-forgiveness and compassion. And in the world, most of us are not making this consistent effort. We are not aware of how our conditioning and our unconscious claiming colors our responses. We see only that what is “ours” is threatened: our livelihood, our peace and quiet, our way of life. Generally, the rising up of this kind of protectionism and self-righteous anger is even considered justified.
My visitors have gone home. The space and pace I claim as mine have settled into whatever I want them to be again, and so discomfort no longer arises to provoke a careful examination. It's easy to think I don't make claims, except that I remember.
Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness, is sometimes translated as remembering. Remembering to look and to investigate, remembering also what experience has taught us. Unusual circumstances are a blessing because they may bring unusual mental responses. What is sleeping but present is revealed. And the work of deliberately changing responses, deliberately responding in a way other than that which is reflexive, begins. Practice continues.
The weather has been moody lately. A few days back, blazing sun and buzzing mosquitoes greeted me on outdoor excursions, now it's a sky layered in clouds, with brooding purple on the horizon and a chill wind making the tree branches dance. That's in the outside world.
The weather inside has been equally temperamental. I've been paying attention to what kind of weather greets me as consciousness returns in the morning. There is sometimes a brief moment of lazy pleasure. Light already filtering in even in the early hours when I'm accustomed to arising. I stretch the time it takes to decide to begin the day because just lying here it feels as if I'm living in a welcome pause. Other times, while still inside my dreams, I swear I feel myself hunkering down, making an effort to stay there where the world is more friendly, where scary things disappear when I open my eyes. I can't blink fearful things away in the waking world. I have to face them.
As the day progresses this wavering between lassitude and immobility will arise and pass away several times. It's something relatively new. So I've been investigating.
Both, I think, are versions of fear. In one, for the moment, I've happily disregarded certain truths for the desire is to make that moment last, to cling to my delusion. In the other, I know what's out there and I've taken to hiding, freezing like a small mammal in the woods when a predator is nearby. Surely my immobility will make me less visible, less vulnerable.
So fear is what I have to work with. The important distinction in Dhamma terms, is that I work with “this is fear” and not “I am afraid”. For in the first rendering, I am taken into the sensations in my body and I'm able to identify what is going on. In the second, I make this all about the stories in my head: I want to find the reasons, the causes, I want to rationalize and explain. These justify fear and it grows. Each time I just remind myself, “this is fear”, it is a relief. Fear is one of the faces of aversion I've had lots of practice with. It's strong and persistent, but even fear is dissolved when I simply say its name and make space.
It's a kind of game of hide and seek. A game where I take away the power of fear by not trying to hide, whether within an alternate version of reality or by closing my eyes and pretending I'm safe. Hide and seek, a game of anticipatory trembling and adrenalin rushes, cannot be played if I follow different rules. An instruction teachers often give is to disengage from the negative emotion. Not by pretending it isn't there but by not owning it. Knowing “this is fear” moves me to the role of observer; what I feel is the knowing, rather than the fear.
These experiences are difficult to describe, but have a felt quality to them that is immediate. If I make an effort each time I am tempted to ignore what life holds or to hide from it, and instead deliberately look at it directly and know it's nature, my body responds differently. I see the fear for what it is, an emotion that arises and passes away, not a trap or a villain that threatens me. The place of knowing has a different kind of stillness to it. Not the temporary lazy stillness of my bed nor the uncomfortable tension of the frozen moment in the dream. This stillness is peaceful.
I don't speak a second language. Often wish now that I did but my parents were uni-lingual and English was the language of my home and culture. Could have learned at school, where I took French in my junior high years and Latin in highschool, but like a hot house flower, the smattering of these exotic languages I absorbed in those artificial environments did not survive in the outside world where I had no opportunity to practice them. Why am I thinking about this?
Because, the study of Dhamma is also something that strengthens with immersion. With this “language”, I've been much more successful. Rather than cramming and memorizing for an exam and then forgetting everything, I listen to and read Dhamma daily. I reflect on the words. I work with the suggestions. And the result is the not surprising way in which this “language” permeates my experience.
Pouring batter from a heavy glass bowl into a pan one morning, my arm trembled and burned with weariness. In this act alone came a multitude of teaching reflections. All related to the direct experience in this moment of the three characteristics or qualities of experience, a central teaching.
Impermanence: This body is aging. A simple act that I took for granted for so many years has become a bit more challenging. I have some chronic joint issues that don't like this sort of activity. My strength is not what it was.
Suffering: I don't like to think of myself as getting old. And the aversion I feel to such physical reminders compounds the misery. Not just my trembling arm and aching joints then, but my stubborn and cranky and saddened mind. I remembered too, because of the weight of an ordinary mixing bowl, the reminder that the lightest weight held over time becomes heavy. This does not apply just to physical experience, but to the mental one I was having. A fleeting thought of “aging” is just that. A thought that arises and passes. But if I grip onto it with the claws of aversion, I am unable to let the thought pass. And its weight continues to drag at my mind.
Not-self: When I claim this body as mine, when I see aging as my personal loss, when I feel the pain in my arm as mine, I create a me who is hard done by. The classic “Woe is me” character, head in hands, alone under a dark cloud of misery. Contrarily, if the experience is just the experience, lifting, pouring, aching, holding, setting down, then it passes as any moment does. Nothing lost. This is just action in progress...both in terms of the pouring, a short term action, and in terms of the weakening, a more gradual process happening to the body itself.
Again and again throughout my day, simple acts are transformed by this translation into Dhamma. This happens because of immersion. A Buddha is someone who is awake, but more importantly, someone who reaches realization on his/her own. Most of us are ordinary beings, relying on instruction, absorbing the teaching, learning in this way.
This week all over the world, Buddhists celebrate Vesak, also called Buddha's birthday. It is a marker of the Buddha's birth, his enlightenment and his death. For me, as a practitioner, it has importance as a reminder of the first candle lit, leading to the flame that burns in my own heart today. Dependent on the teachings in my own journey, I am grateful for the Buddha's decision to teach and the momentum of that through 2600 years, making my own immersion in the Dhamma possible today in rural Alberta, Canada. For me, Dhamma is the language of transformation that translates my life into a meaningful and intentional undertaking.
In a Dhamma talk I listened to a few days ago, my teacher referred to equanimity as “unreasonable” happiness, a happiness not dependent on reasons, that is, external causes. I've been pondering this more or less relentlessly since. While we will accept strange flights of mood in ourselves, feeling despondent or euphoric without being able to point to a reason, mostly we see these states as fleeting and strange. A steady happiness, on the other hand, we believe should be founded on reasons. When we see photos of “happy” people living in awful circumstances (slum children playing joyously along a littered pipeline outside their cardboard homes) we are shaken. What “reasons” could they have to be happy? We probably put it down to the innocence and lack of experience of children and we are affirmed in this if we find any adults in the background looking grim or dull.
So what does equanimity as unreasonable happiness look like? I'm working to cultivate this. If I accept the world vision the media offers me, I will be one of those grim and dull faced adults, despite the fact that I live in an affluent first world country, in a small home by North American standards, but with running water, reliable indoor plumbing and electricity, and clean, open green spaces around me. Because I will be looking for reasons out there in the world, and the information I'm inundated with will convince me that things are looking bleak.
If I look at the circumstances of my own life, I will see aging and illness and loss ongoing. The outside reasons for happiness mostly seem to be twinkling stars in a clouded sky...only now and then apparent and then often briefly.
So unreasonable happiness must find its foundation somewhere else. In the heart. And in the investigation of the heart-mind. In noticing how my mind works to select from what life offers...and how it is possible for me to guide that selection in a more skillful way.
The slum children may indeed be too young yet to know their circumstances. The gift of childhood is that they select readily for joy. But the conditioning of their lives will lead them to continue to select outwardly as they grow up, and to become the grim faced adults in the background of future pictures. Their joy comes from the cool water of the broken pipe, the adrenalin of the chasing games, the warmth of a friend's hug or smile, curiosity about some treasure they've discovered on the streets. They are still plugged into the sensory world. This is fine. We all do this, and most of us retain this orientation as we age. In my world this might mean a wonderful piece of violin music, the scent of lilacs, the taste of a mango, the warmth of the summer sun, the view from the top a high hill after a vigorous climb. But this outward orientation is a whimsical and unreliable source of reasonable happiness.
Watching my mind, I learn about this natural inclination. But I also see that this inclination means I will taste the bitterness of medicine, see the devastation of forests, hear the cries of those in pain, smell garbage on the streets, feel the sharp stone that I step on. The senses let it all in. Mindfulness allows me to place my attention skillfully. It doesn't mean I don't know about the devastation of the forest or feel the pain of the stone, but that I can choose to be happy anyway. I can incline my mind toward peace. Step more carefully, do what I can to protect the environment, and not dwell on the pain nor suffer with worry.
It's a step by step, moment by moment process for this unenlightened being. Tears clog my throat when unskillful responses arise, but mindfulness means they do not gain momentum. I step toward them, taste them, understand that dwelling here means suffering. And I move onto what leads to more positive resultants...caring for someone, growing compassion, permitting myself rest when needed, remembering the truth of being human and not lamenting...for that way leads to a greater loss.
It's Mother's Day in Canada as I sit down to write this. Next month we will celebrate Father's Day. These official days to mark our regard for parents are often marked on national calendars in different lands, though the dates may vary. As usual I find that on this day, missing my own mother, being blessed with so many who “mother” me, and having the blessing also of being a mother, the role of family and attached love in human life is much on my mind.
The Buddha made much of a mother's love. In the Metta Sutta, a mother's love is the model he presents for the kind of unconditional love we should cultivate for all beings. “Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child, so should one with a boundless heart, cherish all living beings....” In this way, the natural and instinctive love that a mother feels, the love that does not depend on particular conditions being met, is offered as a measure of the kind of love we work to cultivate for all. Seems a huge task, perhaps. But learning from the inside as a mother, and the child of a mother who loved in this way, allows me to understand the quality of love that I aim to cultivate.
When I reflect on the love that has been shown me in this life by those who are not in the role of “my mother”, I see how this unconditionality is fostered. Teachers, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends, who have given love and protection and support because it was needed, not asking whether it was deserved. The Buddhist concept of rebirth offers the reflection that all beings were once “my mother”. The material of this body has been in the cosmos since its beginning, the energy of this consciousness cycles too through birth after birth. In millenia of living, what relationships may have been possible between me and each other being I encounter? Sharing this deep history, what kindness and compassion is warranted? It gives me pause.
The Buddha also spoke of the gratitude we owe our parents. It is true that many may have had difficult relationships with their parents, or even have been victims of abuse and neglect. But our parents or others fulfilling that role cared for us when we were unable to do so ourselves. And our parents gave us the gift of this precious human birth, where we have the capacity for insight and understanding that comes from reflection and mindful awareness.
I love the practice that Thich Nhat Hanh suggests: When we notice the behaviors of our parents in ourselves, good or bad, we bow to them and acknowledge their presence in our lives, even if they are no longer with us. On Mother's Day, and other special days, this comes to mind for me as a kind of memory ritual.
As well, reflecting on my own role as mother, I note that this deep love I have for my children is shared by other mothers, other parents, for their children. And each person is the child, the special child, of someone. This has been a practice that helps me find compassion for those who bring harm to others with their actions and words. They too were children, they too are influenced for good and for bad by others, they too are loved. They are not foreign and other than I am, despite actions and words I may not condone. My compassion should not ask whether they are deserving.
Mother's Day often means flowers and breakfasts cooked inexpertly by small loving hands. Father's Day may mean BBQ's and fishing trips. But these are facets that are so common they seem cliché and so we may not consider deeply. What days like this can mean within the path of practice is an opportunity for a certain kind of reflection. Gratitude for the unconditional love we give and receive from others. Reflection on how we might cultivate a more universal love and compassion for others. Any day that celebrates love springs from an intention of non-harming and goodwill. Given loving attention, there is material there to grow that further.
“Alert to the needs of the journey, those on the path of awareness, like swans glide on, leaving behind their former resting places.” Dhammapada verse 91
So much to reflect on here. It may be that time is a human creation, the dates on the calendar, the numbers on the clock, but it is created as a way of measuring change, which is inevitable. The seasons, the days, the hours, and so much that is contained within them. What I hear in the words of this verse is a reminder to be aware of the forward momentum of life and time, such that moment by moment we “glide on”. But the verse also sets a task along the way: for each of us to “be alert to the needs of the journey”. What a lot is contained here. What do we leave behind and what do we take with us? What is needed in each moment?
Life requires that we move on sometimes in a physical and external sense, leaving behind former homes, places we've “rested” and been comfortable, whether they be towns or jobs or relationships or other commitments. But for me this verse points to an inner journey, the sense in which we are always moving on internally. We are continually abandoning that which has been comfortable and known, the person we think ourselves to be, and making new discoveries, taking new initiatives and risks, reaching beyond what we have known. If we are alert to the needs of the journey.
Sometimes we're not. Sometimes we are asleep. Moving through moment by moment, day by day of our lives, doing what we have always done, rocked gently in the cradle of habit, neither seeing nor choosing those moments of freedom between habitual reaction and answering response. This is the message I read here.
Being alert to the needs of the journey, we learn to ask important focusing questions over and over: How are things for me right now? What is happening for me right now? What would be a skillful response to what life is offering in this moment? Where is this current path taking me? If I follow this thought into action, what will the consequence be? Am I moving in the direction of harmony, happiness, non-harm? Swans are beautiful and regal creatures. They move in the water gracefully, with ease They glide. And in this image, they do not linger in former resting places that do not meet the needs of the journey.
If you work with mindfulness even a little, you soon learn about the struggle. Moving on should not be mere movement from restlessness, but movement chosen in a direction that is wholesome and skillful. Staying in place, maintaining a habitual response, should be a settling where there is value, not stagnating from fear of the unknown. It isn't always easy to tell the difference.
Outside forces may suggest or provoke change, but often the nature of that change in terms of the inner journey is up to us and the work we do, the skillful effort we put in. I may be forced by circumstances to move on from homes, relationships, jobs, places. It happens to all of us. Maintaining balance of mind and heart is primary so I keep my eyes open and alert, gliding on.
So far 2018, now a third behind us, has been a year without much in the way of tradition to give it a familiar rhythm. And recently I found myself following an odd line of thought that stemmed from the simple fact that this year I did not write my usual round of cards and letters at Christmas. I didn't clear the slate before the new year began. Didn't send off those messages that define me and mine for aging aunts and uncles, cousins at a distance, friends we seldom see who live far away. This thought led to the next about how this “defining” has become a tradition, and one I share with many others who sum up the year in the messages they send to us as well. Years go quickly these days. The measure of a year is much different in my 60's than it was in my 20's and even then, much different than it was when I was a child. The big events that marked the end of long periods, a single pendant on a chain of days, now crowd together like pearls on a string, bumping against each other. Taking time for reflection and choosing what makes our story as the year ends, has been one of my ways of grabbing hold of and taking note of this swift passing.
But, this is also a way of pinning myself down, which is an exercise in futility and misleading. If I collected all those cards and letters, would I even recognize the self I was at various junctures, ten or twenty or more years ago?
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness that the Buddha taught begin with body and with feelings, but move on to mind and to Dhamma. The last of these can yield surprising results, though it is also the one that is most difficult to hold steady. When I look through the lens of Dhamma at the thoughts that arise, I find something new and deeper and more true.
Dhamma offers many templates, but a couple seem useful in examining these thoughts about Christmas letters. One teaching list of the Buddha's is to notice the Three Characteristics of Existence in all that arises: impermanence, suffering, non-self. Although I am not anything solid and permanent, each year I strive to define a self that is, to present a tidy package that summarizes “who I am” and even who my husband and sons are. And, traditionally, these letters skirt those things that are most the source of suffering, the things we cannot control, the things we think of as anomalies and tragedies and blemishes on our “real” life.
I found myself mentally composing one day the not-a-Christmas-letter that I might write to explain the silence that marked the transition from last year to this one. What began as a mind doing...choosing phrases and telling a different story...the explanation for the silence, a suggestion that perhaps I was ready to leave this tradition behind, quickly resolved itself into a swelling and warming of the heart and a great wave of loving-kindness for all of those I had in mind as I did this composing. And by natural expansion to all human beings. For aren't we all caught in so many ways? By the need to be understood and valued, by the need for connection, by our wish for happiness, by our wish for love. And further, by the expectations of others which we feel compelled to meet. Abandoning this tradition will bring its own pain for awhile, but also, I think, a freedom from a habit that reinforced certain misunderstandings about myself in the world. I am not those “events” I choose, nor even the ones I leave out of the year's story. I am not what others perceive me to be. I am not.
Perhaps a gentle and natural letting go is happening here...of meeting expectations, of a need to “be someone/sum-body”, of a desire not to let people slip out of my life, although that's what happens anyway. I've dropped the mental composing and when, now, my mind begins to call up those people I imagine wondering why my usual closing-of-the-year letter didn't arrive, I move into metta instead. May all these people be well. May all beings be well. And may we find a way to accept the changes and inevitable passing of time and all that swims within it.
First entry in a new journal, a gift from my sister. Each pretty page includes a quote from A Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, published in 1955. At that time I was perhaps just beginning to learn to walk! Here's the quote on this page: “Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” When I'm near the sea I might almost hear this whispering in the waves. And here, on the prairie, in the dry autumn grass. Patience itself, when practiced, is its own gift. Here again at Providence, I remember that the practice of patience will be the foundation of a fruitful retreat.
It's chilly and breezy but more springlike now in the fall than it was during a late spring snow on my last retreat here six months ago. At home I've been studying an intense book on the Four Noble Truths. The impact of too much thinking about that book lingered, producing too much forceful effort in my first sit, too much pent up desire for the very peace I was seeking. Then, thankfully, an evening talk from Bhante that reminds us of the breath and the practice of patience, beginning again and again. The knots loosened a little inside. Nothing to be. Nowhere to go. In the next sit I begin by reminding myself of why I'm here: To live by what I value. To move in the direction of peace, harmony, harmlessness, happiness and joy. To behave more skillfully. Taking care of this little life, one moment at a time, trusting to the natural flow of the results outward into the world.
It's a cycle. Cultivating a happy mind leads to more concentration, more serenity. And out of that serenity grows more patience and more joy. I read a comment by an abbot somewhere who said “An unhappy monk thinks.” Or could it be, I wonder, that a thinking monk is unhappy? There's a tangle I won't think about. The abbot's words were spoken about monastics but descriptive of lay practitioners as well. So much of my own unhappiness is the result of getting caught in whirlpools of thinking. A difficult habit pattern to break. Yet, experience shows me that happiness leads to less thinking; less thinking leads to more happiness. Seems counter-intuitive to those of us trained to think, persuaded of the value of analysis and conceptualization. A slightly disturbing surprise to notice the link between a quiet mind and peace.
I wonder if the grand accomplishment of practice for me in this lifetime is cultivating physical stillness, for this has become a place I slide into with ease very often. The breath an anchor as I fall into deep stretches of calm, clear mind. But inevitably even within this still body, the mind strays to its old patterns from time to time. I laughed at myself to find that a contemplation of death today led to elaborate planning of the kind of memorial I'd like. A still body is a good place to begin though, giving mind a model, and choosing to respond with patience to its play.
I believe that the fruits of practice are contagious, and that it is not only me who benefits from my practice. “Leaving for another dimension”, I said to my husband as I left the house this morning. We both laughed, yet what I practice here in this gift of space and time and silence is what I wish to carry with me back to the ordinary plane where I live.
There are many versions of a cartoon where a meditator sits with closed eyes, cross legged on a cushion, a serene expression on her face, while in the blank space around her are thought bubbles containing individual thoughts: “follow the breath”, “ I hate my hair”, “I wonder what time it is”, “Om”, “these pants are too tight”. As the cartoon indicates, the ordinary mind is a busy place, often referred to as monkey mind, and if you're a meditator, new or experienced, the cartoon brings both a smile and a grimace. Yes, it's like that.
The mistake a beginning meditator may make is in thinking that this is not the way it's supposed to be; I'm doing something wrong. Or even: obviously my mind is not a mind that can settle on a single meditation object. But at least twice in the cartoon bubbles described above, the meditator has managed, if only for a nano second, to come to a meditation object...the breath or a mantra. The mistake we can continue to make as we garner experience is believing that the mind should immediately settle on the object and never waver. Well, it might. But what it might do is fling itself from branch to branch for some time. It may revisit thoughts, and the breath is one of those places it may land from time to time, perhaps even resting there awhile. This would likely be the case, even were we to leave it free and unguided.
But in meditation the mind is not playing on its own; we are watching over the mind as we would watch over a small child learning to walk in a place full of potential hazards. We sometimes just block the path to the edge of the pool, for instance, and the child may change course happily enough. Other times we might take his hand and lead him along awhile, through the litter of bright things on beach towels that belong to other people and shouldn't be touched, despite their allure. Or we may point and squeal and express delight about the plastic duck we want him to be interested in. These are the same techniques we use as we sit. We follow the monkey. And we watch out for where it's headed. We block the thoughts that draw us away from the meditation object. We lead skillfully perhaps by counting breaths or silently chanting mantras. We cultivate curiosity about the breath or the mantra or whatever we are using as meditation object.
If we relax our vigilance, it's possible the little child we're watching over will be alright on his own. It's also possible he'll lean too far and fall into the pool, or pick up someone's sunglasses and totter off with them. He might become interested in a burning cigarette or a broken bottle instead of in the toy duck. Our job is to keep watch. Our backs might get tired from stooping. Our shift as baby sitter may seem overly long. But we know the safety of the child is in our hands. We can do this.
We can do this too when we're on the cushion. We can bring the mind's attention back from the tired back to the gentle touch of the breath. We can turn away from thought baubles about dinner or the weekend and return to the dependable breath. We can draw back from a fantasy or elaborate planning story and find the moment we're living, right now. Just this. But it isn't easy. It requires vigilance, ongoing effort and skillful choices, moment by moment. Most of all it requires an understanding that this is valuable. Keeping the child safe is worthwhile. Schooling the mind is important.
It seems obvious when you're shadowing the uncertain footsteps of a toddler that what you're doing is for the good. With loving guidance, we do what we can so that the child will eventually learn to walk alone with skill, to stay away from danger and to choose wisely in the world. Even when he walks with confidence, we keep an eye out, we attempt to nudge in positive directions. This is also so with our own monkey mind. With vigilance and persistence and effort we shape its behavior. In time it needs less nudging and the benefits of peace and insight grow.
Out of love for the child we do what's needed; out of love for ourselves and our well-being we do what's needed. We benefit and the world benefits from this good work.
Sometimes, lately, I feel the heavy tiredness I remember clearly from the years my children were small. It's not just being physically tired. My doctor at that time said, “You're in your 40's, have a chronic illness and are raising two young sons, of course you're tired.” Well, it was nice to have his blessing, so-to-speak, his reassurance that what I was feeling was normal or at least not an aberration. Yet, I don't think it was all physical even then. It wasn't just about not enough sleep.
I had a sheepskin coat when I was a young adult. The kind that has the thick wool turned inside and tanned skin out. Panels and panels draping to mid-calf. It pressed me to the ground and anchored me in winds, both a protection and a burden of weight on my not-exactly-brawny shoulders. The tiredness I felt when I went to the doctor a couple of decades back was like that. I was weighed down with worries. I didn't think I had a choice.
On a trip to West Edmonton Mall when my second child was an infant, I discovered in practical terms what it meant to not be able to physically restrain or focus solely upon a nearly-five-year-old with incredible curiosity. A little one could slip away in the time it took for me to stoop to lift the babe from his stroller.
How could I keep all of us safe?
This is a refrain in a heart-song mothers know well, but it's not just ours. It belongs to everyone who loves: family, friends, country, the world we share.
The problem is not the sentiment...the wish for the safety of what we love. It's putting on that heavy coat. That one that feels like it's all on our shoulders and that enduring safety is a possibility if we just do the right things.
I can keep us all safe if....
I no longer have the material coat, but the metaphorical one, apparently, was still hanging at the back of the closet, since I've unearthed it again. It's dusty and uncomfortable and not only do I not want to wear it, these days I know it's not necessary that I do. But that doesn't stop me from slipping an arm into a familiar sleeve from time to time.
How do I keep everyone safe?
Reading the words of a wise teacher recently, I came to a phrase that spoke to me. Things don't always go the way you want them to, he observed, “But, it's not your fault.” People sometimes say “What did I do to deserve this?” referring both to joyful and tragic turns in their lives. We look for a direct tie between cause and effect, but we don't look beyond the slender, linear thread that runs from our own fingers.
Cause and effect are complicated. Living things, ecosystems, and economies are fragile. The lone thread in my hands, or in yours, won't pull them back from danger. I know this. Practice has revealed that I handle the thread I hold, the bit I can do, much more skillfully without the heavy coat. When I take a wider view of what is so in the world, I recognize that the burden of safety, of everyone's well-being, is not my responsibility alone. That something going wrong is not my fault and not mine alone to fix. I'm learning an important truth again: I more skillfully play out what I can do when I am light and at ease, flexible and aware, not stooped and weighted by ineffective worry.