Starting Gate (written 2018)
It's a complicated world. Even with the wish to simplify, it can seem impossible not to be faced with many “necessary” obligations, and confronted by multiple “unnecessary” hurdles. The simultaneous arrival of reminders to renew vehicle registration, replacement cards to be verified, some item that requires organizing repairs, and running out of milk half way through a batch of pancake batter can just seem like too much. The items in the list may vary, but from time to time there is a sudden onslaught of overwhelm. And the first reaction of this mind is to resist: close the doors, run away, scream and push back. Fortunately, after having watched this little sequence for so many years, I know this reaction is interruptable, like a false start in a race. Energies have been marshaled, and the course may seem determined, but the gate hasn't opened yet. Fortunately, in that brief space is the place to see what I'm doing, to reset the footing and begin again.
A breath and the understanding that this sense of panic is something I'm doing is the key. Time slows a bit and if I investigate I see that each thread entangling me is spooling out from my own hands. It's a bit of a magician's trick, really, what the mind pulls. The sense of entanglement seems to come from the world, but the threads are my own, the ones I use to tie knots of obligation and urgency. There are things to do, yes. But they aren't threatening me. The suffocation and the struggle are of my own mind's making. Follow them back and I find that the tangle of thread in the middle is all there is. No me at all.
This isn't something new or unique to me. These are human emotions. Responses of overwhelm or sorrow or anger or fear are just that. Feelings that arise and dissipate. Whether they linger or even grow has to do with how I view them, what I do with them.
When my children were small and sometimes it felt as if everything and everyone were making demands of me, I used to imagine a rocket ship in my closet that could just carry me away. It was exactly the same impulse that my kids had when things weren't going their way. I might think they were being unreasonable dissolving in tantrums or tears, but I couldn't see so easily that my own reactions were the same as theirs. There was some growing up to do for all of us.
Ice cream cones get dropped in the dirt, other kids get chosen for the team, the homework assignment means working through the weekend, the gift you waited for all year for your birthday is broken when you open the box and you have to return it and wait again. From our perspective as adults we see that none of these things are as tragic or as big as they seem for the child at the time. And none of them should be a surprise. Things are lost or broken all the time. What we yearn for can't always be reached and even when it's in our hands, it may not be what we had hoped for. The things we're asked to do are not what we want to do.
And yet, in our own adult lives we have difficulty with these same principles. For the same reasons. We refuse to believe what observation and experience reveal as true: Despite our best efforts, life continues to be uncertain, and all too often, unsatisfactory.
My most recent episode of overwhelm came on a night when I was too tired, the day had had a number of detours from my “plan” for it, including long periods on hold on the phone with various government offices and service companies, and then the dog decided he wouldn't come in at bedtime. Not a tragic set of circumstances, but each brought my victim self out whimpering, so that throughout the day I reset in the starting gate time and again.
The antidote to this kind of suffering is to remember: The world I live in might be complicated, but a skillful response is really pretty simple. Breathe. Re-set. Begin again.