I think of myself as an introvert. Someone who goes inward, goes solitary, to re-energize. This does not mean I do not seek out, need in my life, appreciate and love people. Nor that I do not like to be in crowds or groups, though I admit to an habitual preference for one on one and small groups, or to an arrangement where solitude within the crowd is unremarkable...a retreat, a lecture, a quiet gallery or library, as opposed to a party, a dance, a concert or a reunion. But at the same time, no label fits exactly. Introverts are no more all of a kind than are all horses or all apples or all days. These are only words for ideas, after all.
In practice, for most of us, the support of others, whether in person or from afar, is essential. It is also true that everyone is responsible for his/her own practice, which may seem contradictory. Still, in too much isolation, it is so very easy to see oneself as special: the only being in the world who struggles, who faces adversity, who feels things deeply, who makes mistakes, who gets confused, who loses heart, who has to begin again and again. It's easy to make these mistakes because of the nature of experience. The way it is easy to think of the sun going down and coming up, rather than the world turning towards and away. That's the way it feels in our experience, after all. Collected data, a sharing of experience, gives us a wider lens.
Mindfulness and the process of being present in the moment is an individual activity. But reading about it, talking about it, sharing the experiences of others, allows individuals to see where there is commonality in experience. Yours is not the only mind that wanders, not the only mind that resists ongoing efforts to bring it here, not the only mind with strange and even embarrassing or frightening thoughts over which you feel you have no control, and which you certainly don't remember choosing. Your mind is a human mind, and it shares characteristics with other human minds. When you engage in practices that interrupt its undisciplined flow, it responds in ways that are similar to the way other human minds respond under these circumstances.
This is one good reason to cultivate community with others on this journey. Another is that, introverts included, we are members of a social species. Company on the journey is uplifting and motivating.
By all means, keep private journals if that feels appropriate. Sit in quiet and solitude. Read and listen on your own to teachers, to guided meditations, to techniques and suggestions and stories of those on spiritual journeys. But share your ongoing journey too. Into my third decade of practice now, I can confirm that the meditation group that gathers weekly here, the bookclub that meets monthly, the various online groups of practitioners I belong to and the others who gather at the retreats I attend, all provide me with a framework and a source of energy in my own practice. I encourage each person as you seek to shape a way of living that is mindful, kind, harmless, peaceful and happy, to stay alert to the role others play in your own journey. All day long in our lives in the world, we are bombarded with other messages and priorities. Pulling away from those may feel uncomfortable. Balance can be found in a circle of companions who share your world view. Listening to your own inner wisdom is essential, yes. But notice where you hear that wisdom echoed in the world. Move closer. As you find support in sharing your practice, others will draw support from you. Imagine one leaning pole and you see something precarious, but if you picture a circle of such poles leaning toward one another, you have the basis of a shelter: a home, stable and strong.
A reader comments that my book is meditative and funny. I am stopped for a breath, wondering, how long has it been since I had humor in my approach to the Dhamma? It has been a rough year. A year since the few weeks of confusion and struggle and worry before my spouse would agree to go to the doctor...a shuffle of tests and trips and waiting rooms and then the diagnosis and the surgery and a deep dive into the world of cancer.
In the kitchen beyond my office door, as I write, my husband listens in a repeating cycle to a talk by my teacher, Ajahn Sona. Having been some 35 years in the robes, Ajahn has come to a place where the new title of Luang Por applies. It is taking his students awhile to become familiar with this, as it has taken us awhile, my husband and myself, to become familiar with a new mode of living. Reverting to “what was” happens over and over until “what is” replaces it, even as a shadow over memory.
The talk my husband listens to is about cancer. Passing through the kitchen a number of times today, I feel the words in my ears, on my skin, each time. I am not swimming in the flow of the talk but only passing through the mist of some particular phrase. Yet, it permeates my consciousness, droplets on sand, until a few moments ago I felt something shift. Almost tangible. Like what happens when you have a pill stuck in your throat, powdery, chalky, lumpy and uncomfortable and then with a wash of water it clears. Leaving a shadow sensation in your throat, but no more obstruction. We are living with this. Both of us. Not dying of this. We are living with an idea. The idea that his death is imminent. And like the pill in your throat, it is uncomfortable and even frightening. But Ajahn's words are like the water that washes away the obstruction the idea has become, his words are like the droplets on the sand. “It is not your cancer”, he says. “It is not your body.” Neither is something you own or control. Instead, cancer has arisen. It's like the snow that manifests from certain climatic conditions. The indigestion that arises after too much Thanksgiving dinner. The dark that manifests as the earth turns away from the sun. Given particular conditions, a baby is born, an accident happens, an illness manifests, a relationship begins, a job is attained. It is all an unfolding of processes.
So my throat clears, a shift happens and I realize that a good deal of my suffering for months has been somehow closing this diagnosis around me, around us, as a cloak. Calling this our life. But our life is not only this diagnosis. It is also a flow of patterns arising in the calendar year, the coming and going of the days and all they hold.
I think of the new shower stool in the bathroom, the walker folded by the front door. Implements that come into our life, but do not define us. Like our big oak table, our little jeep, the new laptop and a long- handled shoe horn hanging near the boot trays. These items are tools that have further significance only in so far as I give it to them.
Suddenly I am able to imagine us tossing the walker into the jeep beside our dog in his crate and going off to walk some snowy path, and the imagining is not laced with a sense of loss. We're living a new way, not just entangled in dying. Not that death won't come. His or mine. Both are inevitable. But certain causes and conditions have come together today: a reminder that practice also contains laughter and lightness; the gentle tapping of the voice of my teacher until a crack in an armor of stoicism appears, revealing not just light but Micky Mouse underwear maybe. Something silly and surprising and inessential. Life holds this too.
Literary tragedies are often laced with comedic elements. And life, even in dark days, contains laughter. Just last week our kitchen rang with more laughter than it it has held in months, as five of us gathered around the table playing a foolish and inconsequential game. For a time, whether healthy or ill, young or old, tired or energized, we were just family, just living ordinary moments. Even as we do in the doctor's waiting room, or reviewing wills and personal directives and crying together. All of these moments are ordinary. I'd like to say I found my smile again today, but that's too dramatic. It was just a moment when a truth was strongly felt: this diagnosis, this disabling illness, is only a piece of the life we live, no less or more defining than any other.
It's chilly and windy most days right now and easy to use the excuse of the piles of books and files and the scrolling lists on my desk to avoid venturing outdoors. Some days I nearly give in to that. After all, I do my yin practice every morning. And included invariably in my day are a variety of physical tasks like vacuuming or scrubbing a tub or hauling laundry up and down the hallway. Several times a week I teach classes that involve movement. All this is enough, isn't it? The short answer is no. How do I know this? Because of how my body responds when I take it on a walk...cold wind or not, mud or not, sun or not. Just moving through the non-filtered, un-recycled air, pulling it into my body and breathing it out, just feeling the uneven and varying surface of the earth beneath my feet, watching the fluctuating movement of light and shadow, listening to the voices of crows, magpies, leaves and distant traffic...all of this loosens my body. And loosening my body loosens my mind.
I know the impact of sitting meditation on mind and body, the difference between sitting alone and sitting with others, both worth cultivating. I've discovered the impact of slow and mindful yin practice, and of carrying out household tasks mindfully, and the value of many techniques that trigger pauses in my day. I had to learn all of these over time by making an effort and paying attention to results in both my body and mind. But taking a walk outdoors is something I've done pretty regularly since childhood.
I lived the first ten years of my life in a sprawly part of Calgary that had once been an independent town and was slowly being ingested. The small town feel and the mood of the 50's and early 60's meant children were mostly allowed a lot of freedom to roam neighborhood streets and playgrounds. When we moved, it was to the country, where there were miles of gravel roads and acres of grassy fields to wander in. Wander, I did. It was a way of finding space and privacy, and room for what wasn't always productive thinking.
I like to think that practice has allowed me to retain the best of this habit and modify the negative. I love to walk outdoors, alone or with others. But mostly I like to walk with a spacious and pretty empty mind...allowing all the senses to open without the intervention of judgment, proliferation and labeling. When I am able to achieve this, the boundaries between me and the world dissolve...and I know this body to be nature within nature. And the creations of this human mind to be ephemeral. It's a calming and rejuvenating experience.
I'm thinking about this today because on my walks lately I've noticed those I normally see out and about in the summer months are less often present. We don't have snow to make the going rough yet. And while I agree the temperatures are less inviting than they could be, they are nowhere near what we likely have ahead of us in the months to come. And it just seems a shame to let our opinionated minds convince us to hunker down indoors. Don't get me wrong. I love a place by the fire or a cozy cup of tea on the warm side of a window, as much as anyone, but I'm convinced that spending time out in the open is essential to healthy heart and mind, not just healthy body, not because of programs like Participaction or get fit advertising, but because I feel the difference. In the presence of air and earth, sun and rain or snow, the kindred elements of my own body respond, mind softens. When I return to my books and files and lists, whether it's after 20 minutes or an hour or more, I'm less likely to take the weight of them into my mental space, more likely to find the joy in what I do.
“Everything is teaching us” are words famously attributed to Ajahn Chah. This came home the night I shared a shower with a skunked dog. He had his encounter about an hour short of midnight, when I was longing for bed, after a rare and lovely night out and a long and lazy winding down. The discomfort of the spray led him to run his face across the pasture like a small hairy snowplow, gathering the seeds and burrs of the season in heavy mats in his silky hair. We got a little lucky here in that he'd been groomed only four days earlier and his beard was shorter than it had been, but he still looked quite a mess. The discomfort of my discovery of his plight led me to grumble and moan, run a hand through my own hair and climb into the trough of misery with him.
First thing in the door of the house, though I quickly grabbed his collar, he shook, spraying snow and eau de skunk around the entrance way. I scooted him back outside while I prepared for the ordeal to come and managed to head off a second shake when I let him in for the short, quick jaunt to the shower. His enthusiasm for the bathing lasted only as long as the initial rinse which he figured was good enough. That was longer than my enthusiasm already, for this is the beginning of a series of baths using every concoction we can imagine over the next several weeks. We've been this route before. De-skunking shampoo, deodorizing shampoo, tomato juice, peroxide and baking soda solution and probably at least one trip to the professional groomer are ahead of us before he smells like a dog again. How long till the house smells less skunky is another matter altogether.
What I kept coming back to through the shampooing and rinsing and shampooing and rinsing, combing the burrs out of his beard and shampooing and rinsing again, was that I didn't want to be doing this any more than he did. We were tangled together in a knot of aversion in a tiny plastic shower stall and it was not a happy place to be. Eventually when he'd stepped on my feet a dozen times and I'd growled at him an equal number, I had to smile. That's when Ajahn ChChah's words became a chant that filled my mental space a lot like the skunky smell was filling the shower stall and a good deal of the house.
What was I learning? Well, something about causes and conditions. As I said, we've been this route before. I know there are skunks in the neighborhood. And a couple of years back we had a similar late night situation at the end of a very long day. Skunks are nocturnal. My dog is curious and territorial. And I was too tired to think of the consequences of letting him out the door alone at that time of night. There was a leash within reach. The situation was avoidable had I not been tired and distracted.
I was also learning that although a late night shower shared with a stinky dog was not on my list of things I wanted to do, in itself it was not a terrible thing. It was my wishing it not to be happening that was making me cranky and the dog's wish it not be happening that was making him uncooperative. Well, I'm not in charge of his wishes, but I could do something about my own.
And ultimately I was learning about impermanence as well as the four worldly winds. A little earlier in the evening life had seemed pretty warm and fine. Now it was less so. And in a little longer it would be something else. Conditions change, moods and thoughts change, and my misery was pretty much self-induced aversion to this nonnegotiable fact.
Later the damp dog and I shared a space by the gas fire for awhile before a very late bedtime. We'd forgiven each other and gotten accustomed to his temporary new scent. Sleep would come for both of us and then a new day with new things teaching us.
Sharing gathas for tough times written over the years...they still speak to me and I hope some may speak to you if/when you are caught in some difficulty in your life.
When bad news comes thick and nasty as thistles
I breathe and remember
Not to raise shields of indifference
But to wade in with an open heart.
When the anger of others chills my heart
I am still and remember
To breathe and nourish the flame of compassion
Melting aversion, resentment and fear.
When weary, ill or distracted,
I allow reflex reactions their head
I breathe and remember
To whistle them back with awareness
And lead them with the gentle hand of the breath.
When fear of an unknowable future
Shrouds today's sun
I breathe and remember
To be still in this shadow, breathing
Till awareness burns through to just this.
Struggling to “figure it out”
knot after knot of why and how
I breathe and remember
To relax and let the string fall
into the simple strand of what is.
When the hands of imagination
Weave some sunnier, better time
I breathe and remember
To smile and choose this ragged day
With its ever-changing weather.
When waves of despair undermine contentment
And the sand shifts and melts beneath my feet
I breathe and remember
To raise my gaze to the vast beauty of life's ocean
And float easily in its embrace.
Today I am thinking about how my sense of who I am is preventing me from finding space in my life. I am not ready to carve out that space yet, but for a couple of weeks I have understood where the emotional waves are coming from. I don't like making these choices. I don't like letting go of what I think comforts and defines me.
This isn't something unique to me although the way it manifests may be. There are whole books and seminars and such dedicated to teaching people to say “no”, to set limits. The problem is that it's not just learning the words or assessing the hours in the day, or taking a hard look at your timetable and the family's schedule and making a choice. It's not even about being asked to do things...sit on boards, do a favor, take a turn. It's about the way ideas lead to action, starting projects, seeking out groups and positions. Mostly it's about honestly turning to look at what it is that leads to “yes”.
Identity isn't the bad guy here. It's not that we shouldn't have preferences, have hobbies and pastimes, give back to our communities. But we are not often good at noticing the internal consequences of the choices and actions we make. When suffering arises, we are often confused as we look for the thread that leads to the solution. We tend to face outwards instead of in as we assess the situation.
In my case, retirement has meant an interesting and fulfilling weaving of practice, my working life both paid and volunteer, and my social life. Technology means I can work for a monastery in another province; with a publisher in Eastern Canada; with a Buddhist women's organization on a board that has members from coast to coast, and even some south of the border; and for a writers' association in a city a couple hours away. This also means I can do almost all of this from my home and some of it when I'm out and about, from the phone in my hand. The bits you plug into the list will be different for you looking at your own life, but I'm betting each of you could paint a similar picture. All of these roles become pixels in the big picture of “who I am”, and while I seldom take a picture of myself with my camera that I like, I'm pretty fond of this ego picture that dominates my time and choices.
While I build and polish this picture, life around me is changing. Due to my husband's illness we have multiple appointments in every week. Also due to his illness, he no longer drives and much of his independence has been undermined. Historically one meaning of spouse has been helpmate, and this is an aspect of my role that is growing in scope.
If instead of preparing myself for the day, I also help as needed with my spouse's preparations, the process takes longer. If his appointments are also my appointments, the day has more stuff in it. And if I continue to do all the things I did before the changes, I'm trying to stretch the boundaries of the hours. Daylight saving time only gives us one extra hour once a year, and it takes it back later. That's not the solution.
What is? Well paring down seems obvious. But that's also the problem. Each time I imagine giving up some aspect of “who I am” there's a flaw, a hole in the picture. Ever seen a TV screen with this problem? It might be small, but one pixel missing keeps drawing your eye. It's uncomfortable. So I've given up that approach...the one where I make lists and try to rationally figure out the choices. Because another aspect of this pain is believing I have to do something to make it stop now, holding on tight to the idea that “I” am in control here, and the right choice will make everything OK.
Instead, I'm sitting with the suffering that I'm causing myself through my desire to have the picture not only of myself but of the context of my life appear a certain way. I'm feeling it in my body. I'm hearing the voices in my mind. And I'm listening to good teachers. One recently offered the reminder that when you hear yourself saying 'I just can't stand this another minute' you're holding tight to the pain. Maybe I can just stop that. Not an act of will but a softening and accepting: not believing I've failed when I forget or can't meet a deadline or just don't get it all done. Trees don't resist the change autumn brings, they let leaves fall. So what is no longer appropriate to this season of my life may just float out of hands that don't grip so tightly.
Ordinary, everyday mindfulness requires diligence. At a retreat I attended a number of years ago a teacher gave advice that has proven extremely helpful for me. She said to attend to only what is relevant to the task at hand. Since that time, I've passed this advice on to others and worked to apply it in my own life. I've also had many conversations with people about what this looks like when you try it on.
Driving was the example the teacher gave at the time. I can't recall her whole explanation, but it included a number of “common sense” guidelines: Not attending to the radio. Not attending to your makeup, arranging your hair, or reaching for a cup of coffee. Not attending to the chatter of a friend as you approach a busy intersection, or the colorful billboards by the road side. Not getting caught up in memories and plans. But attending to the traffic, the indicator lights and dials on your vehicle, the conditions of weather and road, the traffic signs and lights. The focus of your attention moves, choosing from the scope of what is available, but the movement is deliberate. Your mind is not jerked around on its leash by whatever is loudest or brightest or most demanding. In fact, the kids arguing in the backseat may win on several of those counts, yet that argument is not relevant to the task of driving.
Train the mind to hurry slowly. There is hurrying in a panic, as when you notice you need to be in the other lane and swerve suddenly. Or there is hurrying slowly. Checking whether the lane is safe, making a decision which perhaps involves staying where you are and planning another route. Hmm...sounds a lot like undistracted driving.
Driving is a complex and dangerous activity and the importance of mindfulness in this task seems so obvious. Yet, this example is also a template for other tasks in our lives, where the danger may simply be in the suffering we trigger with scattered mind.
What is relevant to my task of cooking dinner may be the heat of the burner, the amount of oil in the pan, the changing texture of the veggies I'm stirring, the label on the spice bottle I pick up, but it also may mean attending to the dog under my feet when I turn to another counter, which way I orient the handle of the frying pan when I step away, and whether I have necessary tools within reach.
Even the simplest tasks undertaken in this way become richer and more alluring to the curious and energetic mind, so that it's more likely to stay here. What is relevant to folding a towel just taken from the dryer? The grip of hands before the snap required to shake out the wrinkles, the degree of dampness/dryness the fingertips sense, the final shape required for the place it will be stored.
Some of the most common tasks in our contemporary world do not require a task specific tool...like a car for driving or a stove for cooking. Instead, the phone in our hands or the computer on our lap or on the desk are used for many tasks. Each time we undertake a task, applying this guideline of attending to what is relevant allows us to filter out other possibilities. Answering an e-mail may mean that checking our calendar or the weather forecast is relevant, or using the calculator, or researching something on the web, but it also may mean that checking Facebook, doing some banking, responding to a text or playing a game is not relevant. If we seriously and consistently apply this guideline, keeping the mind “here” is easier.
Mindfulness in any context should be applied with patience and kindness for ourselves. We may trip over the dog, get involved in a conversation with the passenger in our car and exceed the speed limit, or put a too-wet towel in the closet and end up with mold. External consequences to such inattentiveness vary. Internally, the response that is helpful is the same: notice the mistake, re-center and, without judgment, begin again.
Only you know if you do this too. My mom used to talk to herself. I remember laughing when I'd come across her in the kitchen muttering to herself about something she'd misplaced. I've discovered, as I age, that this habit of hers, just like so many others I found amusing way back when, has become one of my own.
At first I viewed it as something I could excuse and explain. I wasn't talking to myself, I was talking to the computer, or the uncooperative jar lid, or the jammed kitchen drawer, or the driver of the car that had just turned left without signaling. Sure, I was the only human in hearing range at the time, and the complaint was unnoticed by anyone else but I'd had the same thing happen at service desks and phone-in complaint lines after all. Only lately did I begin to pay attention to this habit in a different way.
About midsummer in Buddhist communities there is a time when practitioners are invited to take on a particular practice for three months. The practice taken on is up to the individual. It's a way of focusing mindfulness with a precise object, giving it a sharper intention. A few years back I took on the practice of giving up dark chocolate, a presumably harmless addiction that had led to some less than upstanding behavior on my part. I knew I needed to make it clear to this “self” that dark chocolate was not essential to my well-being, and that a craving did not justify helping myself to a stash in the house that wasn't my own, no matter what story I told myself about how long it had been there and how it wasn't even wanted or remembered.
This summer, I spent some time in contemplation, and decided it would serve me well to pay attention to other “habits” that might be fodder for negative mind states. At the time I thought just watching for habits of mind would sharpen my awareness. Turns out the habit of mind that caught my attention was actually a habit of speech. I've discovered the obvious: when something provokes me to talk to myself, it is a major mind irritant, a stone in the shoe of the self. This “self” doesn't like things that waste its time, causing it delays or detours on the way to whatever it was in pursuit of.
For example: Slow internet connections, or computer programs that require a steep learning curve, slow down “my” work. The stuck jar lid means “I” have to wait for the pickles. The jammed kitchen drawer could mean not only a delay in the dinner “I” am preparing, but a new task on “my” do-list for the evening. And the car that didn't signal means “I” miss an opportunity to cross the highway safely and “I” am in for another spell of waiting. The self bypasses thought and goes straight to speech with entreaties (Come on), questions (What?), sarcasm (You've gotta be kidding), irony (Just take your time), and self pity (why not?).
It's embarrassing to admit this. After all, talking to yourself means, except in the case when someone walks in on you like I did with my mom, that you are alone. So who's gonna know? However, this blog is intended to share the journey, both what goes well and what is tricky. I've been a practitioner of mindfulness for a very long time yet this created self finds short cuts from the felt sense of a grievance, without passing through reflective thought, to speech. Private speech, it's true. Speech I often hear, smile and backtrack from after a breath and a pause. But it's speech, nonetheless, and it reinforces a sense of self as separate and star of the show.
I'm not even half way through the three month commitment. While giving up chocolate meant watching the mind's uncomfortable reactions pretty much daily, I knew when the time ended I'd allow myself the treat again, having grown more circumspect about the craving. This year I'm hoping to put a stop to a certain kind of self-talk. I've discovered the passage from grievance to private speech to be more like a drop chute than a pathway. I'm making an effort to seal the door, keeping speech, even private speech, on the path that leads through reflection.
“In the psychology of human behavior, denialism is a person's choice to deny reality, as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth.” (Wikipedia)
An interview I heard recently listed, as examples of denialism, deniers of historical events or scientific discoveries such as Flat Earth cults and Holocaust deniers. Looking at these, it might seem an extreme and foolish view.
But, as a student of the Buddha, I had to smile at Wiki's definition, for surely it incorporates (nearly?) all human beings. The reality of our mortality, of aging, illness and eventual inevitable death, of separation from all we love, is something we steadfastly deny most of the time. And we do so because we find contemplation of such truths uncomfortable.
The Buddha proposed an interesting antidote to this discomfort. Open your eyes, look with the intention to see clearly, and in the looking, make this information, this uncomfortable truth, ordinary. Don't give it the painful power of surprise. Here's the thing: Taking on these truths as daily contemplation is a bit like looking directly at the sun. When you look away again, turning to something mundane, like eating your lunch or walking the dog, there is only the negative afterimage on your retina. Instead of that bright and undeniable light, there's only a lingering shadow, something we can blink away. We have to work at keeping our eyes on the truth.
I've been doing this, this working at it, for a couple of decades. And life's lessons have been ordinary and brutal enough to have an impact. Chronic illness, failing eyesight, age spots and wrinkles, departures, disappointments, losses, the same curriculum life lays out for each of us, but with some self-study units customized by my own life choices.
The interviewer in the radio spot I heard wondered aloud how people could continue to hold beliefs that are consistently debunked. The question felt disingenuous to me. We human beings do this all the time. In fact, it sometimes seems to me, when I come up against some stubborn yearning of my heart, that this should be part of the definition of what it is to be a human being. To look at the facts and still insist on a contrary conclusion. Belief feels to me like an emotion and not a deduction at all.
The predominance of emotion in this human life also tells me that I prefer to feel good. To feel happy, safe and well. Denialism, while it may appear to keep me in that state by protecting me from the glare of truth, is at the same time a flimsy shield. A cheap pair of sunglasses. I'm better protected by the immunization that comes with practice. Consciously remembering: I will age. I will experience illness. I will die. And all that I love will be separated from me. This isn't so for me alone, but for every being.
The Buddha is sometimes called the Great Physician, for he diagnosed and proposed treatment for the suffering of life. I continue to follow the prescription he recommended as best I can. Immunization, I'm learning, doesn't always mean escaping the disease, the grief of surprise, but it does make for a gentler impact.
I've had a “real” cell phone, as opposed to the flip phone my hubby and I shared for more than a decade, for less than a year. To my surprise, I like it. I like the texting and the easy portable searches, especially for directions and maps. And I like the camera. But I haven't mastered the selfie. This comes to mind today because of hearing from a friend across time and space after a fairly lengthy silence at both ends of the conversation. This happens from time to time. And each time I realize that the pictures publicly posted on my FB page and website, where friends find me, are a few years old. I'm frozen in time there.
Here comes the metaphor. Sorry, but I have a mind that naturally works that way. Some people think in pictures, some in music; I have a mind that inclines to metaphor. In traditional Buddhist teaching the notion of anatta, no solid self, is central. An easy “idea” to get hold of on the level of superficial language, but a difficult one to understand, to feel the reality of in heart and mind. We take internal “selfies” at pivotal moments and hang on to them as if they define us. We ignore the inevitable flow. Not deliberately, but because we just don't see it. We see ourselves in a static way that isn't necessarily reflective of the way things are now, and then now, and then now.
The results of this are many fold. We become emotionally invested in these snapshots. Not only of ourselves but of others in our life. And so it is painful when change grabs our attention because it is too big or too sudden to miss. Or we find ourselves working hard to hold on to what we believe defines us, even when the time has come to let it go. That might be a job, a relationship, a hobby, the place we live, a point of view. All of these not just subject to change but characterized by change.
Everything is flow, wise teachers say. Sometimes we know this. Watching the sky and the weather, sitting by the ocean or a river, planting and harvesting our garden. Other times we want to deny it. Holding our small child in our arms. Hugging a friend goodbye and waving to the moving van.
Harder still is to know that I am flow, change. It's a folk truth that the years go faster as you age. I think, instead, the truth is that they have always moved fast. As we age, we begin to notice. It's as if we move from the center of the spinning wheel where the motion is barely detectable and handstands and soap boxes are easier to stabilize, to the outside rim where the wind is in our faces and our grip tight on the rail and while we still might do handstands or hold forth on our views, we have a sense of the shaky foundations of both.
I'm at a place in my life where I'm sorting at some subliminal level. I'm looking for what might be solid when I know nothing is and it can stir a bit of vertigo. There have been roles I've put stock in. I let some of these “selfies” go willingly or reluctantly long ago and others fluttered from my fingers without much fanfare along the way. Some I've pasted in my mind's album where they keep coming up for view whether they hold truth any longer or not. And some, well, the wind is rustling the corners out here on the rim.
This is a good thing to pay attention to because it is real. Uncomfortable and sometimes beyond that to painful, but refreshing and full of possibility too. Flow, by definition, can't be pinned down. You dip your hand into the river, but can't hold it.
I'll eventually practice enough with selfies to have new ones to post but I'm also practicing with unselfing in my life, really seeing and experiencing the flow of change. Because it is inevitable whether I accept it or not.